Sunday, November 30, 2014

On the Name of the Washington Pro Football Team

Northern Arizona, 2006

I was in a conversation with a colleague the other day, and he asked me in the course of our discussion if I thought that the Washington, DC pro football team should change its name.

Of course it should, I replied.  It's amazing that the racist term has lasted this long into the 21st Century.

My colleague smiled as he thought that I had just stepped into the trap he had cleverly set for me.  By my logic, he concluded, "then the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians should have to change their names, too," and the smile on his face implied "game over."

Not at all.  "Braves" and "Indians" are not racist, derogatory terms. although there are some historical inaccuracies in the term "Indians," as Columbus had mistakenly believed he had sailed all the way to India, and the indigenous people he had encountered were Indians, not native North Americans.  But that aside, if Italian-Americans aren't offended by naming a team after the error of one of their own, I have no objection to it, either.

But the term "redskins" is irreducibly racial, as it refers to the color (red) of a person's skin.  There's no way of avoiding that it's a direct reference to race, and it's use in history has not been kind but was most often used to categorize an enemy presumed to be savage, hostile, and uncivilized.  It's interesting to note, as Robert Pirsig points out in his book Lila, that the very same things the colonists said about the natives - that they were ill-mannered and uncouth and couldn't hold their liquor, but were surprisingly brave and tenacious in battle - were the exact same things that the Europeans said about the colonists.  The colonists were either transferring the insult onto those they felt superior to, or else they had assumed the characteristics of those whose land they were taking.

In any event, the term "redskins" is a derogatory, racist term rooted in the unpardonable genocide that marked the Europeans' colonization of North America.  It's not a suitable term for a pro football team, which is not to say that any term referring to some aspect or another of the native Americans is inappropriate.

Let me put it this way:  it's acceptable that Notre Dame calls its sports teams the Fighting Irish, and that Boston has chosen the term Celtics for its basketball team.  But it would be inappropriate to call a team "The Micks," or, in a closer analogy to the name of the Washington football team, "The Pasty-Faced Alcoholic Potato Eaters."     

It's fine to call a team The Reds because the term does not refer to a skin color or a political affiliation any more than The Browns refers to skin tone. 

It's acceptable to call a team or biker gang or other organization The Mayans or The Aztecs in reference to historical Mexican cultures, but it's inappropriate to use the slur "The Wetbacks" for anything.

The only reason that "redskins" sounds acceptable to us today is that we're so used to hearing it, having grown up in NFL culture.  I can remember first realizing the implications of the name back in the 80s, and being mildly surprised that people were getting away with it, and like most people I concluded that it must be somehow alright.

But times have changed, and among those changes are greater racial and cultural sensitivity.  What people called a team in the 20th Century may no longer be appropriate, tradition or not.  Atlanta once had a minor-league baseball team back in the era before integration called "the Crackers," a derogatory term for caucasians.   While it's mildly amusing that an all-white team chose to call themselves by an anti-white slur, sort of like black people using the notorious n-word, the term "Cracker" is also offensive to African Americans as one of its origins is supposedly the crackers of whips, e.g., slave owners.  The baseball team has long since been disbanded and no one is calling for the name to be restored, but those who want to maintain the name of the Washington football team are practicing the same outdated insensitivity as would be the case for reviving the Crackers' team name,

So it's time for a new name for the Washington gridiron team, and I'm glad to offer a suggestion. Given the team's location (Washington DC), its host city's role as the seat of government, and the current political climate, the team from Washington should consider calling itself "The Washington Gridlock."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Pace of History

"History is moving very rapidly in this country where we had 20 years of timelessness," said playwright Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia's new Civic Forum.

Journalist Mike Leary, writing for the Knight-Ridder agency on November 29, 1989, reported that as recently as May of that year, Havel had been languishing in prison and the small band of opposition figures described themselves as a "ship of fools."  Only 12 days earlier, the Civic Forum did not exist and riot police were violently assaulting student demonstrators in Wenceslas Square. 

The rapid pace of progress was demonstrated by a timeline that ran in the previous day's Wall Street Journal:
February 1948  The Communist Party, part of the coalition that governed after World War II, seizes power. 
January 1968  Discontent over the pace of economic reform and cultural liberalization leads to the ouster of Antonin Novotny as party boss.  He is replaced by Alexander Dubcek, a reformer. 
April 1968  A series of reforms, later called the Prague Spring, is adopted, including measures that guarantee freedom of speech, religion, press, and travel. 
August 1968  The Soviet army invades, Dubcek is replaced by Gustav Husak, Czechoslovakia accepts the stationing of Soviet troops and agrees to curb almost all of the Dubcek reforms. 
December 1987  Milos Jakes succeeds Husak as leader of the Communists. 
Oct. 18, 1989 Erich Honecker is ousted in East Germany and replaced by Egon Krenz. 
Nov. 9  East Germany opens its borders. 
Nov. 12  Jakes says he won't tolerate street protests or relax control. 
Nov. 17  50,000 demonstrators march in Prague.  Riot police use tear gas and clubs on them.  
Nov. 20  More than 200,000 people demonstrate in Prague, demanding free elections and the resignations of hard-liners. 
Nov. 24 Jakes resigns and is succeeded by Karel Urbanek, Dubcek returns triumphantly to Prague and addresses a crowd of 250,000 in Wenceslas Square.
On the 25th of November, the crowds in Prague topped 350,000 and then 500,000 on the 26th, and on the 28th, millions of Czechs and Slovaks walked off their jobs and into the streets of Prague, initiating a powerful demonstration and a crippling general strike.

By the 29th of November, 25 years ago today, the Czech Prime Minister turned Prague's lavish Palace of Culture over to Civic Forum for use as its headquarters, and the Communist Party had to immediately move out.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

Other Voices

"Last week, a bust of (former Czech President Vaclav) Havel, who died in 2011, was unveiled at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, in Washington, exactly twenty-five years after Czechoslovakia, in concert with the rest of the Eastern and Central European countries under Moscow’s rule, became free. For decades, this had been beyond imagining. The rupture, seemingly so sudden, had many underlying reasons, not least Gorbachev’s realization that the imperial system was bankrupt, immoral, and without a future. But it was led and shaped by a singular politician—a playwright of the absurd who well understood the comic improbabilities of his life. Havel was a child of the Czech bourgeoisie, a lab assistant, a soldier, a stagehand, a dramatist, a moral philosopher, a dissident, a political prisoner for four years, and, finally, a President for fourteen.

Part of the reason that Havel is so celebrated today is that he radiated a homey brand of intellectual glamour—his passion for the Velvet Underground and for the Plastic People of the Universe, his decision to ride around the Castle on a scooter, his late, smoky nights in pubs and theatre basements. Although he trafficked in footlights and stage makeup, there was nothing false about him. His honesty was so extreme, so theatrically self-exposing, that his aides came to dread it. In April of 1990, less than a year after he became President, Havel visited Jerusalem and spoke at the Hebrew University, where he confessed a “long and intimate affinity” with his countryman Franz Kafka, and the near-certainty that his ascent to the Castle had been illusory and undeserved, and was sure to end in his being found out by the authorities:
I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry. . . . Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. . . . The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am, the stronger my suspicion that there has been some mistake."
- David Remnick, in The Talk of the Town, The New Yorker, December 1, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Other Voices

"Early in the presidency of George Bush, there came the most dramatic developments on the international scene since the end of World War II.  In the year 1989, with a dynamic new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the head of the Soviet Union, the long suppressed dissatisfaction with "dictatorships of the proletariat" which had turned out to be dictatorships over the proletariat erupted all through the Soviet bloc.

There were mass demonstrations in the Soviet Union and in the countries of Eastern Europe which had long been dominated by the Soviet Union.  East Germany agreed to unite with West Germany, and the wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin, long a symbol of the tight control of its citizens by East Germany, was dismantled in the presence of wildly exultant citizens of both Germanies.  In Czechoslovakia, a new non-Communist government came into being, headed by a playwright and former imprisoned dissident named Vaclav Havel.  In Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, a new leadership emerged, promising freedom and democracy.  And remarkably, all this took place without civil war, in response to overwhelming popular demand.

In the United States, the Republican party claimed that the hard-line policies of Reagan and the increase in military expenditures had brought down the Soviet Union.  But the change had begun much earlier, after the death of Stalin in 1953, and especially with the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev.  A remarkably open discussion had been initiated.

But the continued hard line of the United States became an obstacle to further liberalization, according to former ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, who wrote that "the general effect of the cold war extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union by the end of the 1980s."  While the press and politicians in the United States exhulted over the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kennan pointed out that, not only did American policies delay this collapse, but those cold war policies were carried out at a frightful cost to the American people:
We paid for forty years of enormous and otherwise unnecessary military expenditures, We paid through the cultivation of  nuclear weaponry to the point where the vast and useless nuclear arsenal had become (and remains today) a danger to the very environment of the planet . . ." 
- Howard Zinn, from A People's History of the United States 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November 25, 1989

A week after the Czech police kill a single protester, Martin Smid, 350,000 people are peacefully marching in Wenceslas Square, and bring down an entire system of government.  Say what you will, but non-violence works.

Also, $0.40 for the day's newspaper.

Monday, November 24, 2014


What's the point of this 25-years-ago retrospective, other than historical curiosity?  Two things:
  1. Regimes, no matter how powerful, fall if they don't change with the times (impermanence), and
  2. People, even under the most repressive of conditions, can bring about non-violent change.
In an interview that ran 25 years ago today in The Boston Globe, Jan Bisztyga, then the official spokesman for Poland's Communist Party, said that as technology had accelerated, even then, at an unprecedented pace, the world simply passed communism by.

Communism's great weaknesses, he maintained, were its inability to perform economically, its inability to reform when changes were obviously needed, and its inability to "change old-fashioned views of society."  The world had become too pluralistic for the kind of black-and-white thinking that had kept the Eastern bloc in a straitjacket.  
In other words, the weaknesses that caused the fall of communism were the same shortcomings political conservatives in the United States suffer today.  Today's capitalist conservatives look at the events of 1989 as a condemnation of socialism, and Bisztyga freely admitted, "There is no future to the kind of bureaucratic socialism I am representing now." But the conservative assessment captures only 50% of what was wrong.  Bisztyga said that he was still optimistic about the future of socialism, "just not this kind of socialism."  The failure of bureaucratic socialism was not in the socialism, but in the inherent inertia of a bureaucracy that could not adapt to the changing times.

In contrast, Bisztyga noted, the West stood up to the tremendous speed of technological change with high flexibility and dynamism.  "You put all your energies into this, and you won."

But there is a price to pay, Bisztyga warned, and the bill will eventually come due in the West.  The United States had badly neglected education, concentrating on an elite instead of on a broad base of educated people that an advanced country needs.  If the United States were to maintain its position as a great country, Bisztyga said, it would have to take money away from right-wing causes, such as armaments, and give some back to education and the environment, just as the Eastern bloc had to dismantle central planning and install individual initiative and free markets.  Thus, the two sides might eventually meet somewhere toward the middle.

Instead, the U.S. has chosen to double down on military expenditures, abandoning even the pretense of equal educational opportunities for all, and has continued to neglect its infrastructure and the environment. As income inequality continues to grow rampant, this kind of inflexible thinking may bring this nation to the same crossroads that the Polish Communist Party found itself in 1989, and people in the West may have to rise up and bring about the same kind of non-violent change that rocked eastern Europe 25 years ago.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

25 Years Ago Today

Press clipping from 1989

Although a Warsaw Pact nation, Romania had pursued an independent foreign policy from Moscow since the 1960s, when it banned Soviet troops from its soil and refused to join the other Soviet bloc troops in the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia.  In the 1980s, Romania paid back all of its estimated $10 billion foreign debt, but at a substantial drop in the standard of living for the country's 23 million people.  Under the government's rationing policy, Romanians were each allowed only one pound of meat and 10 eggs a month.  

"Political independence, self-sufficiency in economy and increased exports should maintain (Ceausescu) in power now," one western diplomat who asked not to be identified told the UPI in 1989.  But, he said, when the European Union forms in 1992 and foreign investment in Romania tapers off, the nation will be facing tough economic problems.

But 25 years ago today, the Romanian Communist Party congress was continuing into its third day, and praising Nicolae Ceausescu as a visionary and a genius, while denying all of the hardships and troubles its people were suffering under his leadership.  As it will turn out, Ceausescu will not survive to see the 1992 formation of the EU, or even the first day of the 1990s. 

In Hungary, a book, Petty Tyrants, revealed the corruption prevalent in the military, claiming local army chiefs were free to requisition anything they needed from the local population, including clothes, textiles, and food .  The revelations led to resignations of some military chiefs, and Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth ordered former defense minister Gen. Lajos Czinege to vacate his "service apartment."  The apartment was in fact a luxurious, expensively furnished villa on Rose Hill, Budapest's most exclusive residential district.  

In East Germany, the Communist Party agreed to hold talks with rival political groups on free elections and other reforms, a major concession to the opposition, and the unrest and protests that hd continued to grow despite the opening of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of travel restrictions.  But despite the agreement, the reputation of Communist Party Chief Egon Krenz was still plagued by his long partnership with former Chief Erich Honecker, and other party officials suggested that he may have to be replaced as Party Chief if his popularity didn't improve.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014


Bookmark found in my Grandfather's encyclopedia. 1905: That's Teddy, baby!

On November 22, 1989, according to my collection of newspaper clippings from that date, more than 150,000 protesters filled Wenceslas Square in Prague to protest the former Czechoslovakian government and for the first time, opposition leaders were given access to the loudspeaker system in the square, In five days, since the Bloody Friday events that triggered the massive protests, the government had gone from beating the protesters to grudgingly handing them a microphone.  

Vaclav Havel, a playwright and leader of the Czech opposition, was joined on a spotlighted balcony overlooking the square by other opposition leaders and some of the country's most popular actors and singers, who helped read a declaration demanding the immediate resignation of the Czech leaders responsible for the 1968 Soviet invasion, as well as those who ordered the Bloody Friday crack-down,  They also called for the release of all political prisoners and for free access to the media.

In Russia, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev indicated strong backing to the rapid changes in Eastern Europe, including the new demands for reform in Czechoslovakia, saying, "I think the change is very important, and the importance of the change will be that it will create a better society, a more open society, a more democratic society."  In a related incident, Gorbachev also oversaw the dismissal of conservative Moscow Communist Party chief Lev Zaikov, nearly two years to the day after liberal chief Boris Yeltsin had been removed from the same post.

Meanwhile, a debate was brewing in East Germany over whether or not Communist Party chief Egon Krenz actually prevented a potential massacre by reversing Erich Honecker's orders to Leipzig police to shoot, if necessary, pro-democracy protesters.  While his supporters claim Krenz did reverse the order, his detractors say he did so only after being persuaded by local party officials and church leaders. At the same time, the press, although still under Communist control, had begun reporting to the impoverished East Germans some of the abuses of privilege enjoyed by the party leaders.  Krenz was rumored to be a connoisseur of fine wines and other luxuries, although he claimed to the press that he and his family lived in a small, modest apartment.  What he didn't admit was that he had only moved into the apartment the Sunday before, checking out of a spacious abode at the party's lush Lake Wandlitz compound on the outskirts of Berlin, a settlement blocked off from ordinary citizens by guarded private roads.    

Back in the U.S., the White House announced that refugee status for Poles and Hungarians would be sharply curtailed as political conditions in those countries had improved to the point where the residents "no longer have any reason to fear persecution in their homelands." 

In Romania, where people did still have reason to fear persecution, the ill-fated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu attempted to sir up nationalistic support for his dictatorship by claiming that the non-aggression pact of 1939, in which Stalin and Hitler divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, should be cancelled. "First of all," he said, "a clear, unequivocal stand of condemnation and cancellation must be taken on all the accords concluded with Hitler's Germany, practical conclusions being drawn to eliminate all the consequences of those accords and dictates."  The 1939 non-aggression pact ceded the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the Soviet Union, but Romanians understood that what Ceausescu was really talking about was Bessarabia, a contested sliver of land between Romania and the Ukraine that changed hands many times through history, but had been a Romanian possession from 1919 until 1940, when it was absorbed into Soviet Moldavia.   

A bit of deeper history regarding Bessarabia is necessary here, and my sources for this portion are not my newspaper clipping from 1989, but a 1942 encyclopedia and summary of "current events" inherited from my grandfather.  According to my sources, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, Romania fought alongside the Russian troops but at the Treaty of San Stefano after the war, Russia demanded the Bessarabian territory from Romania, even though it was largely inhabited by Romanians.  As compensation, Russia offered Romania the Dobjura, a region along the Black Sea. The Treaty held and was reinforced by the 1878 Congress of Berlin, such that Romania lost Bessarabia but gained the Dobjura, 

After World War I, Romania invaded Hungary in 1919 and occupied Budapest, retreating only when Romania had extorted territorial concessions, including the return of Bessarabia from Russia.  To protect the new acquisition, Romania felt the need for foreign security and became a member of the Little Entente, a treaty with Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, to protect her against Russia and possible attack from Hungary.  In April 1939, to further protect its rich oil fields and Bessarabia from Russian aggression, Romania received pledges for assistance from England and France. 

However, after the fall of France to Germany in 1940, Russia did not hesitate to move and delivered an ultimatum to Romania for the immediate return of Bessarabia, and two days later moved troops into the region, meeting "some little resistance."  On July 1, 1940, Romania announced the evacuation of Bessarabia and at the same time the abrogation of the mutual assistance pact with England.  The greater part of Bessarabia was made into the Moldavian Republic and admitted into the Soviet Union on August 2, and the remainder was added to the Ukrainian Republic.  On August 1, 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov boasted of the gains. which largely returned territories taken from Russia in World War I.      

In 1989, with the neighboring countries engulfed in revolutionary protests, Ceausescu appeared to be trying to maintain control and popularity by asserting nationalistic claims to Bessarabia.  Romania's official press published accounts of unrest in Moldova, where 60% to 75% of the people were ethnic Romanians and much of the unrest was due to nationalistic sentiments, and Scinteia, the Communist Party daily, described a crackdown on ethnic Romanina demonstrators in the Moldavian city of Chișinău several days earlier.  Throughout Ceausescu's five-hour speech, delegates reportedly jumped out, shouted slogans, applauded, and sat back down in unison.  There were reports that Ceausescu even urged the Warsaw Pact to consider invading Poland, but those reports were not confirmed.    

"Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it," George Santayana warned us. Ceausescu's appeals to old territorial claims and his concern about the plight of ethnic brothers and sisters in neighboring lands is eerily reminiscent of Putin's more recent comments and actions in the Ukraine.  It seems that Putin is merely following Ceausescu's old playbook, which in turn has been used by dictators throughout history.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Those Who Cannot Remember The Past Are Doomed To Repeat It

Following the dramatic events of 1989 in Germany, protests erupted in the former Czechoslovakia in the greatest threat in decades to the rigid, hard-line communist government, leading 25 years ago today to the largest demonstration in the country since the Soviet-led crack-down on the Prague Spring reform movement of 1968.

Before the massive November 21, 1989 protests, Slovak high school and university students organized a peaceful demonstration in the center of Bratislava on Thursday, November 16.  But the next night, Friday, November 17, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 demonstrators who had been given permission to march if they avoided Wenceslas Square, a favorite site of past anti-government protests. were viciously attacked by police using tear gas and clubs.  The violence erupted when some of the demonstrators disobeyed the order and defiantly headed for the square, and police beat the demonstrators, forcing them to run a gauntlet down Narodni Street.  

Martin Smid, 20, a student at Charles University, was beaten to death during the crack-down by red-bereted paratroopers of the Czech military.  Smid's girlfriend reportedly told activist Petr Uhl that the paratroopers singled Smid out for unknown reasons and pushed the couple against a wall.  "Two or three (paratroopers) took him into a dark side street and beat him with batons, then kicked him while he was on the ground," Uhl said.  The government denied that Smid was beaten to death, and detained Uhl for spreading "false rumors." Nevertheless, the movement now had a martyr.

The next day, Saturday, November 18, about 2,000 people confronted riot police in Wenceslas Square.  The protesters, undaunted by the crackdown of the night before, were blocked from entering Narodni Street by scores of helmeted riot police, and witnesses said that at least three people were chased, beaten by troops, and taken away in vehicles.  The protesters chanted "Freedom, Freedom" and other slogans and then, before dispersing, called for additional demonstrations.  

The people responded on Sunday night, when tens of thousands of people filled Wenceslas Square to mourn Smid's death.  The protesters built makeshift shrines, lit candles and laid flowers on the Narodni Street site where Smid had been beaten.  They then moved en masse across a bridge spanning the Vltava River, heading toward the ancient Hradcany Castle where government offices were located.  The police, who had stood quietly by during the protest in the square, quickly blocked the marchers' path with police vans on the other side of the bridge.  The crowd, which included parents holding small children and people in wheelchairs, began to jeer the police saying, "You killed the student, will you kill again?"

Eventually, the police gave way, and the crowd, relishing their victory, began clapping as they headed back to the square.  The movement had reached a tipping point of popular acceptance, and the police stayed out of sight as the people continued the massive demonstration, ringing bells and jangling keys.  Someone placed a banner reading "Don't Kill Our Children" at the base of the statue of King Wenceslas.  

Then on Monday, November 21, 1989, exactly 25 years ago today, more than 200,000 people filled the streets of Prague, demanding free elections and the resignation of hard-line leader Milos Jakes. The protests were accompanied by the clanging of bells from sympathetic trolley car drivers and bystanders jangling their keys in solidarity, and in a sharp break with tradition, Czech television devoted extensive coverage to the demonstration.  Some of the protesters carried banners reading "Red Murderers to Court" in reference to  Martin Smid.   Students also began a sit-in strike at Prague universities to protest the police attacks, and television reporters told of strikes at some high schools.
The Velvet Revolution was underway in Czechoslovakia.  Meanwhile, in a direct challenge to the Kremlin, the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared that the republic was illegally annexed by military force in 1921 and reasserted its right to secede from the Soviet Union.  In Sofia, a crowd of about 2,000 people listened to fiery political speeches and signed petitions denouncing Bulgaria's communist regime.  In the U.S., a poll found Americans cautious about the changes sweeping Eastern Europe, and indicated that while most felt the changes were permanent, they were not yet dramatic enough to declare an end to the Cold War.       
At a major Communist Party congress in Bucharest, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu made it clear that as long as he was in charge, Romania would not follow other Eastern European countries along the paths toward democracy and capitalism.  By Christmas Day, a secret military trial will have found Ceausescu and his wife guilty of genocide and other grave crimes against Romania, and both will have been executed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Always Reliably Incorrect Dick Cheney

Budapest, 2004
Writing in a May 17, 1989 editorial in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Albert Schweitzer professor of the humanities at the City University of New York and a winner of Pulitzer Prizes in history and biography, lamented the "strange thought floated the other day by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney that he doesn't expect Gorbachev to last and, because 'somebody who will be far more hostile' may replace him, we should be in no hurry to deal with him."  

Actually, when you think about it, Schlesinger pointed out, Cheney advanced an argument for reaching agreements with the Soviet Union while Gorbachev is still around, not an argument against agreements with him.  "The prospect of hostile leadership should spur us on to institutionalize arms control agreements while there is still time," Schlesinger advised.

One has the impression that President George H.W. Bush, "a man of unimpeachable good will," according to Schlesinger, "is the prisoner of a bunch of foreign policy hacks whose idea is to meet every new problem with old cliches."

I've stated here before that conservatism is a neurological condition marked by an inability to form new mental maps and models in the face of new conditions.  Schlesinger's view of Bush's 1989 cabinet reinforces that view.    

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

History of the World, Part Two

Budapest, 2004
November 19 headlines from my notebook of press clippings documenting the Eastern European revolutions of 1989:

"Czechs brave riot cops"
"Bulgarians protest abuses of old leader"
"Latvians hold rally against Soviet rule"

More than 1.6 million East Germans went sightseeing and shopping in West Berlin that day, fueled by $54 per person in "welcome money" from the West German government.  West Berlin's shopping avenues were transformed into pedestrian malls, and people in West Germany reportedly greeted the tourists with free lodging, well-stocked store shelves, and just plain curiosity.  

Communist Party chief Egon Krenz, who had averted the bloodbath in Leipzig the month before, strongly indicated that a panel convened to investigate cases of corruption, personal enrichment, and abuse of power would investigate the activities of his predecessor and former mentor, Erich Honecker.

But probably the best quote in the 11/19/89 news was by the always reliably incorrect Dick Cheney, then George Bush's Secretary of Defense.  On CNN's Evans & Novak, Cheney "reiterated his long-held position that the odds are against Gorbachev being able to transform the Soviet Union into a modern society,"
"I remain of the opinion that the likelihood of that happening is still remote, that the obstacles he has to deal with are, in fact, enormous," said Cheney.  "I wish him the very best, but I don't think we could base our policies on the assumption that he will be successful."  
Ah, Dick Cheney - on the wrong side of history then, wrong on current events now.       

Monday, November 17, 2014

We constantly seek to disavow the self that is lost in delusion and identify with a self that we consider enlightened.

Until we realize that these two selves are both one and nothing at all, we're still clinging to the relative understanding of words, and missing the wisdom of the universe.

Friday, November 14, 2014


“It's difficult to believe in yourself because the idea of self is an artificial construction. You are, in fact, part of the glorious oneness of the universe. Everything beautiful in the world is within you. No one really feels self-confident deep down because it's an artificial idea. Really, people aren't that worried about what you're doing or what you're saying, so you can drift around the world relatively anonymously: you must not feel persecuted and examined. Liberate yourself from that idea that people are watching you.” 
― Russell Brand

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Our world and our identity, and the way we experience our world and our identity, are all the products of our own samskara, the mental maps, or schema, that we create based on our past experience to understand the perceptions of our consciousness.

That really explains a lot when you think about it. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sick Day

Pilgrim State Hospital, Long Island, 2009
Sick, working from home today, first illness since a devastating case of the flu 10 years ago.  Alternating shivers and sweats all last night, but feeling much better already.  Despite the sickness, still managed to get a report sent out, remotely directed a field environmental clean-up project, talked with a potential new client, and set up an appointment to meet with another new client tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the last doctor infected with Ebola in the United States has been cured and released from the hospital today.  The government has shown that it can, in fact, deal with a medical crisis like this, although I'm pretty sure that all of the politicians who stirred up fear about the disease and criticized the President for not being responsive enough won't be lining up to congratulate him any time soon. But remember, President Reagan ignored AIDS, wouldn't even mention the word, until over 20,849 Americans had died of the disease.  So tell me again how Obama's response to Ebola was insufficient? 

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Berlin Wall

Budapest, 2004
This is basically a slightly expanded version of something I posted about this time of year in 2009, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Now that the 25th anniversary is upon us, it's time for anther history lesson.

Growing up as I did during the Cold War, I had assumed for the first 35 or so years of my life that, if other things didn't get me first, I would most likely burn to death in the seemingly inevitable thermonuclear war, along with most of the rest of humanity.  So I followed the events of 1989 with great interest, and when I saw a bunch of protesters on CNN taking sledge hammers to the Berlin Wall, I realized that we might not all be doomed to a nuclear death after all (although we're all still going to eventually die, to be sure).

Many have given credit to various world leaders, some citing Mikhail Gorbachev and others Ronald Reagan, but the real credit might go to a now-obscure East German party official, Egon Krenz, who almost single-handedly averted a violent crackdown and opened the way for a peaceful transition from Communism to democracy.  

According to reporting at the time in the New York Times (I've saved the press clippings), the turning point came on October 7, 1989, after the Communist Party leader, Erich Honecker, ordered security forces to be prepared to open fire on demonstrators in Leipzig - a "Chinese solution" to the rising tide of dissent in East Germany. But violence and killing were averted when Krenz, then Politburo member in charge of security, flew to Leipzig and canceled Honecker`s order, allowing the protesters to march unmolested.

What could have become a bloodbath as terrible as China`s Tienanmen Square crackdown instead became a peaceful revolution that changed the face of Europe.  Within 10 days, Honecker had resigned under pressure and the Communist Party was pledging profound changes.  Within a month, the Berlin Wall was demolished.

The frustration that erupted in  October had  been long in gathering.  Gorbachev had set loose yearnings for change throughout Eastern Europe, but in East Germany the old loyalists around Honecker sat entrenched in their isolated villas on Lake Wandlitz, refusing to see any reason to change.  

But a new threat was growing in the south: the rapid drives by Poland and Hungary toward Western models of democracy.  In May 1989, Hungary decided to dismantle the barbed wire from its border with Austria, essentially allowing free emigration out from behind the Iron Curtain.  At first, the exodus from West Germany was a trickle - a few citizens sneaking across the border, a few others seeking asylum at the West German Embassy in Budapest.   But soon East Germans were filling West German embassies in Prague, Warsaw, and East Berlin.  By late August, thousands of East German refugees were camped in Budapest, and the Hungarians declined to send them home by force.  The flow grew to a flood and finally into a frenzied exodus at the end of September, when Hungary threw open its borders.   But with Honecker stricken by a gall bladder ailment, the East German leadership seemed frozen, capable only of snarling at the East Germans.

In a decision  announced on September 10, 1989, Budapest said it would let the emigres go to the west in defiance of a 1967 agreement with East Berlin to prevent East Germans from doing so without written authorization from East Berlin.  Hungary's decision marked a momentous breach in Eastern European unity.  For the first time, a Communist government declared that international covenants on human rights were more important that treaties with Warsaw Pact nations.

Honecker was back at work by then, but his attention was fixed on the gala celebrations planned for October 7, the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, when Gorbachev was to lead a retinue of Communist leaders to East Berlin.  Desperate to clear the West German Embassy in Prague before his guest arrived, Honecker granted permission on October 1 for the refugees to leave the embassy.  That solution proved disastrous.  Even as the first group left, more East Germans flooded the embassy in Prague, forcing Honecher to authorize a second release and finally to shut down his southern border.

In East Germany, long-gathering discontent metastasized into open protest.   Trains full of emigres riding through Dresden drew thousands of East Germans desperate to join the exodus  On October 4, violent clashes erupted with the police, who tried to clear the Dresden station. 

Against that backdrop, Honecker went to Schoenefeld Airport on October 6 to greet Gorbachev, walking with a deliberate jauntiness to show that he was in good health.  

Gorbachev seemed intent, publicly at least, not to inflame the opposition, but it did not take much. It was enough that he made an off-hand remark that East Germany had to decide its own future to signal to many that Soviet troops would not interfere, and when he said those who did not change with the times would see life punishing them, the comment was seen as a direct rebuke to Honecker,

The Soviet leader was more direct when he met in private  with the East German Politburo. According to an East German diplomat, Gorbachev did not try to prescribe what the East Germans should do, but "He made it very clear that the spectacle of thousands of people running away from the country  and of violence being the only way to keep them in, was not helping him in his own difficult situation," the diplomat said.  According to several party leaders, Honecker was incapable of grasping the situation and reacted with stubborn insistence that he was on the right course.

On Saturday night, October 7, as Gorbachev was leaving for Moscow, there were clashes between protesters and the police in East Berlin, and hundreds were beaten and jailed.  Crowds took to the capital, chanting "Gorby! Gorby!"  The scene was replayed on Sunday night in the same area of East Berlin, as well as in Leipzig and Dresden, and by Monday, October 9, the suspense was tangible.

A weekly Monday peace service, held in the Nikolai Church in Leipzig, had become the launching point for broad protests, and after the weekend clashes, huge crowds were expected at the church. According to Manfred Gerlach, the leader of the small Liberal Democratic Party, and others, a huge force of soldiers, policemen, and secret police agents was assembled in Leipzig and issued live ammunition.  Their order was to shoot if necessary, and the order had reportedly been signed by Honecker himself.

But by then, many in the Politiboro had come to the decision that Honecker must go, and that the situation was explosive.  Finally, Krenz and Wolfgang Herger, the Central Committee department chief under him, flew to Leipzig  and talked with the local Communist officials to "see to it that these things were solved politically."  When tens of thousands took to the streets of Leipzig that night, the police did not interfere.  

The "revolution from below" was under way.  The day after Krenz prevented violence in Leipzig, the Politburo gathered for its regular Tuesday meeting.  Nobody knew how Honecker or his ideological allies would react to the uniateral order by Krenz barring the crackdown, and it was Erich Mielke, the tough 82-year-old security chief, who told Honecker: "Erich, we can't beat up hundreds of people."  But the 77-year-old Communist leader would not be swayed.

Then Kurt Hager, the 77-year-old chief ideologist, said that the young people were right and that the mood on the streets was more defiant than he had ever seen it.  Guenter Schabowski, the respected party secretary for East Berlin, concurred.

Only two members firmly took Honecker's side: Guenter Mittag, the 63-year-old secretary for the economy, who had dominated East German economic planning since the era of Walter Ulbricht, the first party chief, and Joachim Hermannl the 61-year-old secretary for propaganda.  Others wavered or kept silent.

With the Politburo deadlocked, the secretaries of East Germany's 15 districts were called for an unusual expanded meeting of the Party leadership.  The meeting went late into the night of October 10 and continued on October 11.  "The district leaders said that the grass roots wouldn't stand for things to continue the way they were," a Central Committee member said.  Over Honecker's objection, a statement was issued on October 11 declaring that the Politburo was ready "to discuss all basic questions of our society," and acknowledging that those who had fled may have had valid reasons.  

It was clear by now to most of the other Politburo members that Honecker no longer understood what was happening.  Willi Stoph, the 75-year-old premier, finally told Honecker that the time had come for him to resign, a Central Committee member said.

That was the decisive push.  On the next day, October 18, Honecker announced to the Central Committee that he was resigning for reasons of health, and the Politburo moved that Mittag and Hermann be ousted.  Krenz was named the new part chief, head of state, and chairman of the Defense Council.    

Within a month of the averted bloodbath, the Berlin Wall came down. In the following years, the U.S. and Russia began sincere negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Had Honecker succeeded with his plans for a bloody crackdown, there is no predicting how the world powers would have reacted and what the consequences might have been.

For his role in previous crimes of the East German regime, Krenz was sentenced to a six-and-a-half-year sentence for manslaughter after the German reunification. He served his time in the Berlin-Spandau Prison and was released in December 2003.  He has received no formal recognition for his role in averting the blood bath.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Defeat In Georgia

I guess flipping this red state was every bit as hard as it was believed, because it didn't happen.  Local pundits thought the Senate race between Michelle Nunn and David Purdue would at least go to a runoff, but Purdue won handily.  Jason Carter didn't even come close to replacing incumbent Governor Nathan Deal.  It probably came down to the turnout, and you have to wonder how much effect Georgia's voter suppression laws and how much a red-meat ballot initiative to forever bar the state income-tax rate from rising above its current level had to do with the turnout.

And yet life goes on.

Conservativism, I believe, is a neurological condition which does not allow its suffers to create new mental models and road maps when confronted with new situations.  But by that logic, it can also be argued that liberalism is the inability to retain proven mental models and road maps when confronted with new situations.

In other words, the situation's still the same.  All that changes is the rhetoric and imagination of those in charge.  

Monday, November 03, 2014

As hard as it is to believe, there's actually a chance that we could flip this red state tomorrow.

Sunday, November 02, 2014


Try explaining the end of Daylight Savings Time to my cats, and how the clocks were turned back one hour, so that their dinner might seem like it's an hour late, but it's really "on time."

Actually, the cats have made it apparent to me how arbitrary and unreal "clock time" actually is.

Eat when you're hungry, sleep when you're tired, move your bowels when nature calls.  Chase the occasional chipmunk when the opportunity presents itself.  That's cat wisdom.