Thursday, May 21, 2015

Europe's Boat People - and Asia's


On the heels of Europe’s Mediterranean refugee crisis, Rohingya’s from Burma and poor Bangladeshis are left to float for months on South Asian seas while neighboring countries refuse them landing rights. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority to which Burma has steadfastly refused citizenship, saying they are Bangladeshis, and their plight is compounded by the presence on the boats of actual economic migrants from Bangladesh, which creates two legal categories of refugees. http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/19/asia/rohingya-refugee-ships-explainer/
The population density for the countries of the South China Sea averages out to 213 per square kilometer, but in some places it is much higher. Although Australia and New Zealand have not been mentioned in the context of the drifting migrants, their population densities are less than 3 for Australia and 15 for New Zealand.  It strikes me as regrettable that while wanting to be considered part of the Pacific ‘neighborhood’ neither of these two countries has offered to resettle the boat people. The official/unofficial security group called The Five Eyes that includes the US, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand only confirms their tendency to see themselves as part of the Anglo-Saxon world rather than as part of Asia. 
Europe too likes to see itself as belonging to the world’s Caucasian ‘upper class’, illustrated by its participation in the Atlantic Alliance, otherwise known as NATO.  At the same time however, its history, going as far back as the Romans, is inextricably linked to Africa and the Middle East by way of its location on the great Eurasian landmass, which is separated from Africa by an almost closed body of water. (It is conceivable that one of the reasons why Great Britain does not share this identify is related to its centuries-long rule over India, and the dominant role it played in the Middle East before handing it off to the United States.)
With its population of 740 million, Europe faces a triangulation challenge between its recent ties to the United States and the realities inherent in its geographic location, which should allow it to be more in control of its foreign relations, not least with Africa, whose population is close to 1.2 billion. French president Francois Hollande, in a peevish tone hitherto unheard of in trans-Atlantic relations, complained at the start of the Mediterranean drama: “How is it that three years after our intervention in Libya that country is falling apart? Now we have to correct our past mistakes.” (The last sentence was quickly deleted from French television but is still replayed by RT.) 
As Europe’s young Representative for European Affairs, Federica Mogherini tries to get the countries of the 28 nation Union to share the burden of resettling refugees arriving from the Middle East and Africa, least willing are the countries of Eastern Europe, who not so long ago wished the West would welcome them. (The refusal of Britain’s re-elected Prime Minister not to participate in the show of solidarity is typical of the way that country has always related to ‘the continent’, and is mirrored by the indifference of its former Pacific former colonies toward its less fortunate neighbors.)
Now consider Russia, also a member of the world’s Caucasian minority, also with historical and geographic ties to brownish and yellow peoples, but consistently emphasizing the necessity of international cooperation, in contrast to the trigger-happy US that assumes the role of world commissar and brooks no dissent. Russia has a land area of 17 million square kilometers, with a population of 150 million, which works out to a population density of 8.4, while its neighbor China has an area of only 10 thousand square kilometers for a population of 1.3 billion, a density of 141. Some Chinese are already living in Russia’s far east, and it is difficult to imagine that among the plethora of ties the two countries are currently creating, the question of their respective population densities will not eventually be resolved in a cooperative manner.  

As politicians haggle over who is responsible for rescuing Muslim boat people, they appear to have disconnected them from their 2.2 billion co-religionaries, whose numbers are growing faster than those of any other faith. The immediate consequence of this R2P (responsibility to protect) failure, will be an increase in recruits to the armies of ISIS that have just taken over the major Iraqi city of Ramadi, less than a hundred miles from Bagdad.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Empire: Right Label, Wrong Description


As Bernie Sanders faces the cameras on the Sunday morning talk shows, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s America’s misuse of the word democracy that accounts for the terrible state the country is in.  All the other reasons analyzed ad nauseum, stem from that. Theoretically, ‘democracy’ refers to a system in which ‘the people’ are well-represented.  According to Wikipedia: 
<blockquote>The term originates from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) "rule of the people",[4] which was found from δῆμος (dêmos) "people" and κράτος (krátos) "power" or "rule", in the 5th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens; the term is an antonym to (or the opposite of) ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratía) "rule of an elite". </blockquote>
The problem is not that when we say we are ‘bringing democracy’ to a country we fail in our ‘nation-building’ efforts, successfully setting up "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” It’s that we have ingeniously perverted the system we’re trying to spread so that it serves the needs of the few as well as an old-fashioned monarchy or dictatorship - or better.
Gradually, a small percentage of people around the world are beginning to realize this, but because the myth continues to work so well for the majority, our protests are destined to remain ‘voices in the wilderness’.
I think we need to stop enumerating all the bad things our governments do and concentrate on the disconnect between the words ‘democracy’ and what they’re doing. We shouldn’t complain that our government ‘didn’t bring democracy to Libya’ (or any other place), because democracy as we define it, was not what Washington had in mind. It had in mind to dupe yet another people that as long as their system was labelled  a ‘democracy’, they would be ‘happy’. And if they were not so labelled, ‘we would teach them’. 
We would teach them that democracy doesn’t mean equality, but rather, equality of opportunity, that ‘the best’ (i.e., most powerful) man wins’, that having a government that tells you what to do is bad, that instead you should do what private enterprise tells you to do.  We would teach them to have a ‘free press’ that has no censorship other than the journalist’s paycheck, that ‘strike three you’re out’, populates someone’s private prison. That ‘welfare’ is only for corporations, because they ‘create jobs’ (out of thin air.…). And finally, that growth is indispensable. The Chinese realized years ago that overpopulation is not a good thing, but heck, science can do anything that needs doing, including feeding as many people as God chooses to put on this good earth.
An equally important message is that war is good for business: not only in terms of arms manufacturing and sales, but of what has been referred to as Joseph Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’.  Or, according to Wikipedia: 
<blockquote>In Marx’s early work, the idea of creative destruction or annihilation (German: Vernichtung) implies not only that capitalism destroys and reconfigures previous economic orders, but also that it must ceaselessly devalue existing wealth (whether through war, dereliction, or regular and periodic economic crises) in order to clear the ground for the creation of new wealth.</blockquote>
Somewhere along the line, capitalists read Marx and decided he’d given them tacit permission to do what makes them happy: destroy and rebuild.  Anybody who has watched a three year old with building blocks knows this is a human trait, and giving rise to the expression ‘adults in the room’ as well as to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The fact that so many foreign policy situations make no sense should alert us to the fact that they’re not supposed to: the masters of the planet aren’t intellectually challenged, they simply want to knock down and build up ad infinitum to keep their piggy banks full. 

This need is not unrelated to the fact that real ‘progress’ lies not in ‘things’ but in attitudes. Today’s real fault-line cuts across both religions and political systems. Unlikely as this will seem to many, it puts Pope Frances and Vladimir Putin pretty much on the same wavelength, that of a worldwide trend away from 'stuff' and toward 'meaning' which characterizes both primitive societies and the socialist ethos.  We are witnessing simultaneously a race to the bottom and a race to the top: toward fascism on the one hand, and ‘a harmonious society’ on the other, in which the drumbeat of ‘democracy’ calls loudly for destruction.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Skinny on Europe-Russia Relations

This past week, RT showed a few shots of the meeting in Moscow between John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin, the first American encounter with the Russian president in months, due to the situation in Ukraine.  I was struck by the Russian President’s gentle smile as he greeted Kerry, reminded of George Bush’s comment after his meeting with the then new Russian President, something like, ‘I looked into his eyes and saw his soul.  I can work with this man.”  
Recently there has been much speculation - at least in the alternative press - about Europe’s uncomfortable position between a rock and a hard place: as Kerry himself admitted, the the US has pressured the EU to enact sanctions against its important trading partner, Russia, and this, coupled with recent revelations about French and German spooks spying on each other for the benefit of the CIA appears to have had a greater detrimental effect on the Atlantic Alliance since it came into being in 1949 than all the wars in which the US has involved its reluctant partners.  
Anyone interested in digging deeper into the state of US-Europe/Europe-Russia relations would do well to listen to the half-hour long conversation between RT’s most sophisticated journalist, Oxana Boyko, and a veteran German diplomat, who currently chairs the Munich Secrutiy Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger.  It can be found on RT’s website at: http://rt.com/shows/worlds-apart-oksana-boyko/258453-ceasefire-ukraine-minsk-conflicts/

An incredibly dense political dialogue can be seen/heard today on RT between Oxana Boyko, an unusually talented journalist, and the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, a former OSCE lead negotiator for Ukraine, Wolfgang Ischinger, who is an unusually gifted diplomat. The conversation was probably recorded some days ago, however its airing on the day after John Kerry’s visit to Moscow, during which both he and President Putin appeared to want to smooth over a relationship that has been increasingly fraught over the past year and a half, is noteworthy, given speculation over whether Europe is ready to declare independence from the US. Beyond Ischinger’s call for dialogue between the warring parties in Ukraine, Boyko’s adept ques-tioning allowed the German diplomat to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.
Calling for measures to foster a dialogue between all groups in Ukraine, Ischinger recognized that Russia doesn’t want to see its neighbor ‘carved up into two portions’, but affirmed that President Putin was not doing enough to avoid this happening.
When Boyko doubted the advisability of arming Kiev, even with defensive weapons, pointing out that the allies said the same thing about Syria, but weapons didn’t help restrain anyone, the German had to agree. But he added: “A defenseless Ukraine is also not a good idea, but a source of instability in Europe.  We have not reached a point where countries can get rid of their armies and live in eternal peace.” Then he asked a question that many listeners probably found astonishing, given the amount of money the US spends on defense and its almost one thousand  bases around the world: 
“Does your audience understand to what extent we in NATO, including the US, have disarmed in Europe? Germany used to have thousands of US tanks, thousands of nuclear-armed aircraft. We had several thousand heavy tanks, we are now down to 250.  Does Russia understand that we have practically totally dis-armed?”  
(Perhaps all the German arms have been sent to the Baltic countries….) Boyko countered that NATO has two parallel narratives. “There was supposed to be an agreement that no country would advance its claims at the expense of others. Russia would agree to that but what about Washington?”
Protesting that he is not an Obama spokesperson, the German diplomat claimed there was a widespread view that it was Russia that violated “what we thought were established principles of behavior, that you don’t change borders without the consent of…. ‘everybody’ (or,as Obama would put it, ‘the international community’). Ischinger, who negotiated with Lavrov for years over Kosovo, said he was “amazed, because Russia had consistently affirmed that we couldn’t change Kosovo’s borders, let be independent, because this would go against Belgrade, but now it’s only important what the people in Crimea say. To me that is extremely difficult to digest.”
Instead of pointing out that Kosovo was in fact allowed to become independent, with the consent of the international community, over Russia’s objections and over Belgrade’s head, Boyko admitted that there were inconsistencies: “But this has happened many times in the past. We can agree that right now there are no rules. You’ve said the West and Russia need to discuss what kind of system they want to live in. Putin has often talked about this, including at the Munich conference.” Then, with feigned innocence: “Wasn’t this the only way for Russia to persuade the West that things need to change, that we need to agree on rules that all will follow?”
Not to be deterred, Ischinger countered: “I find very difficult to understand what the problem really was from a Russian point of view.  I can’t believe Russia thought we intended to create any kind of threat to Russia. I have written hundreds of pages about how we want to create a partnership, a Euroatlantic community with Russia. It’s true we failed to create the kind of cooperative relationship we wanted in the nineties, however Germany was not part of Libya….” 
Here Ischinger asked Russia to differentiate between individual countries and NATO. Germany, he said, never came close to violating international accepted principles: “We only acted under UN mandate. Germans will not drop a pencil without an international mandate to act.”
But surely the elephant in the room was the Neo-con doctrine of ‘full spectrum dominance’, Brzezinski’s old plan to carve Russia up into smaller, manageable states, and the current plan to somehow provoke ‘regime change’ in Moscow, to force Russia to share its mineral wealth. (Medvedev, who has alternated with Putin as President and Prime Minister, is said to be part of the pro-Atlantic faction in Moscow, as opposed to Putin’s Eurasian faction.) But the main point is the fact that the European Union has never acted independently from Washington:
Boyko: “We already touched on the issue of trust, and you say it’s the most vital commodity in international relations.  Russia may be at fault in Ukraine, but has trust ever existed?
Ischinger: “Yes, there were big ideas, there was a vision of how we would create a win-win situation between Russia’s assets and ours.”
Boyko: “How did Moscow lose that trust?”
Ischinger: “On the Russian side, there was Kosovo, and I would agree that the results of the Libya operation were not satisfactory, they led to chaotic situations, they hadn’t thought through the steps to take after military action in order to create a more stable Libya. And Iraq was a big mistake. As the German ambassador to Washington I wrote an article saying this was wrong, it didn’t make many friends in the Bush administration. But the Russian reaction to what happened in Ukraine was an overreaction, which led to the last bit of trust disintegrating. Mistakes were made by both sides. How can we glue this thing together again?”
Boyko: “I know you are in favor of dialogue.  But NATO negotiates from a position of strength, telling us what it is going to do and doing it. Isn’t that approach also doomed to fail, isn’t it ultimately responsible for the present situation?”
There is no mention of the US-backed coup in Ukraine, nor of the presence of fascist militias without which the coup would have failed. Finding an astonishing rationale for the recent NATO maneuvers in the Baltic States, right on Russia’s border, Ischinger says:
 “There is no hope for meaningful dialogue with Russia if some countries live in real or imagined fear of Russia, so we have to try to offer some degree of reassurance to these nations who fear Russia, so we create programs of reassurance in the Baltic states and Poland. (Military maneuvers equal ‘programs of reassurance’!) But Russia should never regard this as against Russia.” (We are not the ones who fear you, it’s just those silly Balts and Poles….)
Boyko had a ready response: “Putin acquiesced to the Baltic states joining NATO but afterward they became even more fearful.  So are Russia’s fears of NATO not legitimate?”
Ischinger (inverting the issues): “I’m sure there are legitimate concerns.  But what has created the most concern on the Western side is the idea that Russia has some God given right to protect Russian citizens outside of Russia, it’s what we call the Putin doctrine.  We need to respect borders. If not, all hell breaks lose.”
As Boyko sought to protest, Ischinger reminded her that in the crisis over Ukraine, the Russian Parliament had authorized the use of force wherever necessary, to which Boyko pointed out that Russia’s desire to defend Russian speaking people in neighboring countries is a smaller ambition than that of a country that wants to defend people who defend freedom all over the world. 
Ischinger: “Syria will continue to be a problem for some time, a horrible human rights catastrophe and I’m sorry to say, (referring to R2P, or Right to Protect) we in West we are wringing our hands over intervention, so we sit back and let people kill each other.”
Never missing a beat, Boyko points out: “The US is providing weapons from across the border with Turkey.”
Here the conversation arrives at the crucial point to which it was leading up. Ischinger says that Russia and the US rely on force, but Russia has a different sort of chemistry with Berlin, allowing Boyko to ask:  “What is the role of your country in this crisis and how is it different from the US role?”
And now we know where Europe’s leader stands: “Germans and Russians have our own history, a terrible history. Germans are absolutely aware that millions of Russians lost their homes and were killed in WW II. Guilt, shame, it is a history which divides us but also brings us together; also geographic proximity, and economic relations. This is a totally different relationship from that of Russia with the big power across the Atlantic. (And he could have said the same about Germany…) For decades we have been pursuing how to build a cooperative relationship with our big neighbor to the East.  THERE CAN BE NO CONSTRUCTIVE ORDER OR PEACE IN EUROPE AGAINST RUSSIA. It has to be organized with Russia. But this requires trust.  It’s not useful to discuss past mistakes, we have to just accept them and return to the drawing board to rebuild trust. This takes time. Where can we start? Economically? Can we agree that we will not do dangerous things?”
Boyko: “Training the military is dangerous…”
Ischinger: “Not observing the Russia/Ukraine border, letting arms and men flow across border is also dangerous. 
Boyko: “The US has been doing this openly.” 
But now she poses the crucial question: “Can we discuss things between Russia and Europe without the US? Can we work things out between the two of us?”
The German’s answer is the point toward which this entire dialogue has been striving: “One strong reason why that’s not going to happen is Russia’s behavior. We in Europe are weak, we don’t spend money on our military, without the US we are weak, so Russia’s actions in and around Ukraine have made the Euro-Atlantic link stronger. I’m sure that wasn’t Russia’s intention.” Pregnant pause, followed by the diplomat’s final master stroke:
 “The Normandy group is trying to solve Ukraine in the absence of the US, but I’m not so sure that is a good idea because at the end of the day, Russia wants a relationship with the other big power, not with France or Germany, but with Washington.  So it is in Russia’s interest to have the US involved.”
*

The takeaway from this dialogue? Germany and Russia agree that Europeans should manage their own affairs.  But until the Russo-China tandem can make the UN and its cooperative principles the bedrock of international affairs, the US will play a major role, however detrimental both find it.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Europe's Future Is On The Line


Aa the US and Russia celebrate separately their joint defeat of Nazi Germany, and the British vote overwhelmingly for the party that wants to take them out of Europe, in the above article Paul Craig Roberts accurately describes Washington’s efforts to persuade Europe that its protection is needed against Russia. Noting that the Council of Foreign Relations now believes both Russia and China threaten US world hegemony, Roberts believes America’s war plans against its two rivals can only be prevented by Europe’s defection from the Atlantic Alliance, where it has been kept prisoner since the end of World War II.

A significant crack in the hitherto impregnable alliance has emerged recently over the US’s use of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, to spy on both Germans and other Europeans, putting the hitherto invulnerable German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an embarrassing situation. TTIP, the trade agreement the US wants desperately to conclude with the EU, will probably squeak through, borne along by seventy-five years of  subordination.  But the arrow of time, which is irreversible, points in the direction of a European realignment. (Today, the Conservative Party won the British elections on the promise of a referendum to leave the European Union…)

A massive trade agreement known as TTIP is being negotiated between the US and the European Union.  It is the culmination of a process that began five years after the end of World War II with the introduction into France of coca cola, a drink that the wine and spirits industry recognized as a serious threat, and that touched off the first of many anti-American campaigns in that country. (A website called mashable has actually documented the French initiation to coke http://mashable.com/2015/03/31/coca-cola-france/, but it doesn’t say anything about the campaign against it.)

I recall that anti-American sentiment was rife in those days: American help had been decisive in liberating France from German occupation, but the French had no desire to exchange one hegemony for another. Before the war, the French socialist and communist parties had been strong, providing the bulk of resistance fighters. Now, the cola was easing a recalcitrant France into NATO, together with the other liberated nations of Western Europe.

Subordination continued to rankle until in 1966, De Gaulle withdrew the country from NATO’s integrated military command, forcing the organization to move its headquarters from France to Belgium and developing France’s independent nuclear strike force.  Surprisingly for someone who left and returned to France over long intervals, by the time France got its first postwar Socialist government, with the election of Francois Mitterrand in 1981, anti-Americanism had given way to a whole-hearted adoption of American lifestyles. And the massaging of left-leaning intellectuals through the State Department’s Fulbright program had made the campaign against coca cola as quaint as girdles. By 1996, center-right President Nicholas Sarkozy was able to return France to NATO, and now the current socialist president Francois Hollande is right up there with conservatives Angela Merkel and David Cameron as Washington’s closest European ally. (Never mind that each of them are spying on the other for the benefit of the CIA…..).

The post-war occupation of West Germany by the US, France and Great Britain formally ended in 1955, giving way to a string of NATO bases across the continent that would serve as back office to the alliance’s extra-European adventures. The Soviet Union continued to station troops in East Germany until 1989, when a recently elected President Gorbatchev relinquished control over all of Eastern Europe.  Soviet troops were soon replaced in those countries by those of NATO, in contravention of a verbal agreement between President Gorbatchev and the Reagan administration that this would not happen.  

When the Berlin Wall came down on November 9th, 1989, it was simply the next logical event in a series that had begun when a fifty-four year old replaced a series of aging Soviet leaders, with the goal of transforming Communism into something more like social democracy. Washington could have heaved a sigh of relief and welcomed what academics called convergence, aligning its social system with that of a prosperous Europe. Alas, under Reagan, the Neo-Cons were determined to propel the United States into a position of permanent, unassailable hegemony, known as ‘full spectrum dominance’.  Although Europe’s social democracies had been no threat to big business, the Neo-cons were as uninterested in the 99% then as they are today.

The American conquest of Europe - of which coke was the innocent-looking spearhead - is so complete that in 2015, after holding large exercises in the Baltic countries, NATO decided that instead of putting its hardware unobtrusively back on transport trains, it would parade them through the backroads of Europe to the base in Germany that it had operated since 1948 to show the man in the street that the US would keep him safe from Russian aggression. The announcement rang like a corrective to a phrase I once heard in the Carter State Department about Italy’s Eurocommunists:  “To think we used to run that place.”

If Europe wants at last to run itself, it will have to dot its i’s and cross its t’s before it’s too late. Its social system represents the highest level of civilization achieved by humans: what Americans disparagingly call ”The Welfare State” would probably not have been possible without  the gains made by labor before World War II under strengthened unions, such as two weeks paid vacations. Now at last the US is dismantling it with the help of the 2008 crash and the projected TTIP.  

But this is only a first step. With the decisive help of militias that worship a World War II Ukrainian Nazi leader, NATO fomented a coup against the legally elected president of Ukraine, hoping to bring its bases right up to Russia’s doorstep. When Putin honored a referendum of the mainly Russian population of Ukrainian Crimea to return it to the mother country (where it had been since Catherine the Great), he was accused of invading his neighbor, and moreover of planning to re-occupy the Baltic States as well as Moldova, a tiny strip south of Bulgaria. 

This sounds pretty bad to Westerners who have never been told that Eastern Europe and the Baltic states are the corridors through which Russia has repeatedly been attacked, and that Stalin’s insistence on making these areas Soviet satellites after World War II was all about protecting the homeland. Following centuries of skirmishes with Poles, Balts and Swedes, Russia was invaded by Napoleon, then by Germany in two world wars. As Russia gets ready to celebrate the 70th anniversary of V-E day, RT is documenting the main battles fought by the Soviet Union against the Germans, in particular the 2 1/2 year siege of Leningrad, and the two-year battle for Stalingrad, accompanied by testimonials of civilian and military survivors.  In a childish, unstatesmanlike  gesture, President Obama has declined to take part in memorializing the war in which Americans and Soviets fought the same enemy, underlining US support for Ukrainian Nazis.

As Roberts writes, Washington: 

continues to drive Europe toward one or the other of the two most likely outcomes of its orchestrated conflict with Russia. Either Europe or some European Union member government will break from Washington over the issue of Russian sanctions, thereby forcing the EU off the path of conflict with Russia, or Europe will be pushed into military conflict with Russia.

In addition to the sanctions, Europe is facing a threat that America cannot vanquish: a soft invasion of multi-colored people fleeing the damage NATO has done to their homelands in the southern hemisphere, while it was complacently perfecting its Welfare State. If the 2008 economic crash doesn’t finish Europe off as a major economic player, the flood of unskilled refugees fleeing lands decimated by NATO’s extra-European engagements will. Yesterday RT interviewed illegals sleeping in pup tents under the bridges of Paris and in new shantytowns near the railway stations, something that seems hard to believe for anyone who has lived in twenty-first century Paris. Until recently, immigrants hoping to reach Great Britain, where, thanks to draconian labor conditions, unemployment is half that of France, camped in Calais, hoping to hitch a ride on the Eurostar train under the Channel. The two governments’ arguments over responsibility for this unsightly situation has motivated recent arrivals to stay in Paris, boosting the anti-immigrant party of Marine Le Pen. In an extraordinary coincidence, the latest novel by one of France’s foremost writers, Michel Houellebecq, is called Submission, in reference to the Muslim obligation to submit to the will of God. Not only did it come out on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it describes the election of France’s first Muslim president as the only alternative to a victory by the anti-immigrant National Front.

What all of this adds up to is that while a subordinate Europe is still embroiled in yesterday’s geo-politics, the Russian bear no longer has to look West, but can take its mineral riches to China, seat of tomorrow’s largest economy

































































Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe, by Kristen Ghodsee

General Kostadin Lagadinov, age 91: “And now what?  Capitalism has defeated our socialism, but today we can see that this system is not fair.  I am certain that sooner or later people will come to realize that only through public ownership of the means of production will we have social justice.”

A student:  “We don’t want Communism back, we just want a normal country.”


Anyone who has spent six years in Eastern Europe when it was still located behind an Iron Curtain could not but be intrigued by an ad from an academic press for a book with the above title.  While most Westerners would find its subtitle difficult to believe, I had not been surprised when reading about a certain nostalgia for the Communist past among both Russians and Eastern Europeans, given that I had experienced first hand the social advantages that existed under communism. But here was a discussion of the phenomenon written not by a political analyst, but by an ethnographer.

A professor at Baudoin College who has won many awards Kristen Ghodsee has successfully melded her private and professional lives and moreover she has done what few academics dare, going beyond the confines of a narrow speciality. I suspect that her life story has played a part in this: her father was Persian, her mother Puerto Rican, Ghodsee grew up in San Diego, where at University, she met and married a Bulgarian law student, acquiring at once a research area and direct access to it.  

According to Wikipedia: 
Early work on the emergence of communist nostalgia focused on its consumer aspects and considered the phenomenon a necessary phase that post-socialist populations needed to pass through in order to fully break with their communist pasts.[15] In contrast, Ghodsee’s concept of "red nostalgia" considered how individual men and women experienced the loss of the real material benefits of the socialist past.[16][17] Rather than just a wistful glance back at a lost youth, red nostalgia formed the basis of an emerging critique of the political and economic upheavals that characterized the post-socialist era.

After reading The Left Side of History, I searched Amazon for Ghodsee’s other books and noticed one written with Rachel Connelly called Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia. Further evidence of Kristen Ghodsee’s personal approach to ethnography is suggested by the fact that one of her protagonists resulted from an encounter with a physicist. She had admired Freeman Dyson from afar until she found herself standing behind him in a lunch-line at Princeton. When Ghodsee told him she was doing field working Bulgaria, Dyson drew her into his office and asked her to find out what exactly had happened to a young Englishman he’d known during World War II, whose death among the Bulgarian partisans had never been completely elucidated. It just so happened that Ghodsee was researching the lives of Bulgarian resistance fighters, so the case of Frank Thompson, brother of the famous historian E.P. Thompson, became part of her remit when she returned to Bulgaria.

Thompson’s fate is the peg upon which Ghodsee hangs descriptions of the incredibly harsh conditions under which resistance fighters lived, which in turn are contrasted to the postwar — then post-communism — lives of several of its survivors. 

In just 200 pages, she conjures up the ordeals of men and women sabotaging the German occupation of Bulgaria and Greece, the mystery of what actually happened to one British soldier who joined them, and the reminiscences of several women resistance fighters who became leaders in postwar Bulgaria, ending with their appraisal of the country’s transition to liberal democracy.

Another of Ghodsee’s areas of inquiry has been the lives of women under communism, hence the lead figure in Left Side is Elena Lagadinova, who at fourteen was a courier for her partisan brothers, with whom Thompson fought. After the defeat of German fascism and the institution of a Communist-led government, Lagadinova pursued post-graduate studies in Moscow, becoming a wheat geneticist, then was asked to head the Bulgarian Women’s Movement, which involved frequent meetings with counterparts in other Eastern European countries as well as participation in major international women’s events.

Recently, I was discussing Greece’s economic problems with an acquaintance, who declared that you just couldn’t let people retire at forty-five. Although I do not know the official Greek retirement age,  I was certain that this was not the case because I was familiar with retirement criteria in Eastern Europe under communism: coal minors in Poland retired at fifty due to their harsh working conditions, but in the sixties across the Eastern bloc men retired at sixty, while women could retire at fifty-five.   

Even today, Americans know little about the efforts made by  Communist governments to improve the lives of women, and again I can vouch for Ghodsee’s accuracy from my experience in both Poland and Hungary. While Americans are only just beginning to realize how much more vacation time Europeans have enjoyed under the welfare state, they still ignore the systematic, concerted efforts the East European Communist regimes made, both because gender quality is part of Communist ideology, and because they needed all the workers they could get, to bring women into the work force under conditions that also promoted infant and child welfare. 

Talking about the 1946 Communist government  (when future American libbers were still in high school), Lagadinova told Ghodsee:


“It was clear that we needed to give women paid maternity leave, and to build more creches and kindergartens for the children……Women needed help. We developed a comprehensive plan.”
……Elena’s eyes filled with excitement as she explains that Lenin believed that housework needed to be socialized in order to free women from the domestic burdens of the home and fully incorporate them into society." (sic)

At first the men running the country didn’t want to spend the money on day-care, preferring to make abortions legal, but when Lagadinova pointed out that wives would avoid sex and that would lead to  broken families, they relented:

"When they rewrote the constitution in 1971 they elevated the right to maternity leave as a constitutional principle……We were well ahead of all of the other countries when we went to Mexico City in 1975 for the First World Conference on Women."

When I lived in Hungary in the late sixties, working women were entitled to three years’ paid maternity leave — perhaps as an alternative to building more day care facilities, or perhaps to encourage the birth rate. I do not remember what the main objective was, but I can vouch for the fact that the countries of the Eastern bloc were way ahead of the West when it came to working mothers. 

According to Ghodsee’s Wiki: 

“Contrary to the prevailing opinion of most feminist scholars in the 1990s who believed that women would be disproportionately harmed by the collapse of communism, Ghodsee argued that many East European women would actually fare better than men in newly competitive labor markets because of the cultural capital that they had acquired before 1989.” Alas, the testimonies in The Left Side of History contradict that expectation, for ‘democracy’ trashed much of what was accomplished under Communist rule.  As Lagadinova explains:

“A lot of people think communism was about equality.  But it was not about equality; it is impossible to have perfect equality. People are too different……It was about justice….It was about building a society that would work for the many rather than enriching the few.”

Elena waves her arm at the window:  “And now, you see what we have? So many people are without medicine; so many children are on the street. They are not going to school. Prostitutes make more money than doctors and judges.  People are poorer now than they were before the war, while the rich live in mansions with swimming pools.”

After 1989, Bulgaria became a ‘democratic’ country, but it also became a miserable one. After January 1, 2007, Bulgaria officially joined the European Union and earned the distinction of being its poorest member state. By 2011, the European Commission found that 44% of Bulgarians had experienced ‘severe material deprivation’….Communism was not the only political dream that had disappointed.

Ghodsee describes a meeting with a group of retired professional women to discuss the changes they had witnessed. A historian admitted: "I hated communism: not being able to get the books I wanted, or articles from the West.  Having to use Marxist theory.  But recently I’ve come to see that perhaps I did not understand it so well.  I saw it only from the university.  But for ordinary people I suppose it was different.  I think there were some good things about the system that I didn’t see because I was so angry about the books.”

Another historian is described by Ghodsee as disapproving of “the marketization of historical scholarship…… with (Bulgarian) scholars dispatched into the archives to find evidence for whatever thesis Western donors wanted to prove.”

When the women at the meeting ask her for a story about communism from the American point of view, Ghodsee tells them how as a child she practiced hiding under her school desk during nuclear bomb drills. But the memory suddenly provokes doubts about her work: “Would I become an apologist for totalitarianism if I tried to document the progress of women in Bulgaria between 1944 and 1989?”

Notwithstanding her misgivings, it is with real anger that she reports that members of the wartime government allied with Nazi Germany who had committed crimes against humanity, were posthumously declared ‘victims’ of Communism, complete with monuments erected by the ‘democratic’ government. Reading this in the spring of 2015, when signs of a fascist revival are all around us, is chilling.

Combining traditional ethnography with the stylistic conventions of creative nonfiction, Ghodsee’s book reads like a memoir. Inspired by the work of Clifford Geertz, this technique, known as “literary ethnography,” produces academic texts that are meant to be accessible to a wider audience, and Ghodsee’s succeeds masterfully at that task, and not only in The Left Side of History

After reading it, I was intrigued by the title of a short e-book listed on Amazon: A Million Unattributed Cucumbers crystalizes Ghodsee’s doubts about the validity of her professional trajectory. It is the best 99 cent read around, in which the line between ethnography and literature comes close to blurring. I know what she means when she reports typical US cocktail exchanges in which fellow academics are not sure whether Bulgaria is in Europe or South America, or that kids tease her daughter at school for spending summers with her grandparents in…..Sofia.

But the story is actually about spying. As Ghodsee tells us: 

"In the era before Internet snooping and mass electronic surveillance, governments gathered intelligence by sending trained agents into the field. In the world of international espionage, two kinds of spies collect state secrets: OCs and NOCs. Those with ‘official cover’ (the OCs) work in embassies. and consulates (and) enjoy the protection of diplomatic immunity if their true purpose in a country is revealed. At worst, the host nation declares the individual a persona non grata and she leaves with no repercussions. Those operating under non-official cover (NOCs) lacked the necessary affiliation with a diplomatic mission to qualify for immunity. NOCs operate at great risk. When caught they face severe penalties, often death, for their transgressions.

Bulgarians assumed that I was an NOC. In the immediate post-Cold War era, only this possibility explained my presence in and knowledge of their country. I spent over a decade denying this double identity until one day a jumpy druggie forced me to embrace the part."

Describing the humdrum life of a foreign researcher in the Bulgarian capital, one day Ghodsee comes across a collection of government files in a trash can, but is confronted with a young passer-by who challenges her right to take them. In the grip of the ethnographer’s passion for evidence, and thinking the files might serve a future research project, she pretends to be an NOC, speaking a few words of English and staring down her young challenger.

The files tell the life story of an agricultural specialist under Communism, a Mr. Andreev. Ghodsee wonders what happened to him after communism collapsed. “Had he lost his life savings, like so many other Bulgarians of his generation when the whole banking system imploded in 1996?  How had he survived the hyperinflation that destroyed the value of his pension?  After working and paying into the system for forty years, did he have to accept money from (his son) to afford the basic necessities?  The new Bulgarian government privatized the old state greenhouses to foreign investors who shut them down and then sold the valuable land beneath them. What did Mr. Andreev think when the new democrats broke up the collective farms, their tractors sold for scrap metal?  After years of being self-sufficient in food production, Bulgaria now imported shrink wrapped cucumbers from Turkey and Israel.

Noting that for thirty years Mr. Andreev had kept Bulgarians in cucumbers while not a single vegetable ever bore his signature, Ghodsee fingers the refusal of intellectuals to accept limits on their freedom to think, versus the reliable provision of basic necessities and even comforts to the far larger cohort of ordinary citizens.  

Those who write about communism by definition see it through an intellectual lens, yet when people who do not read
intellectual publications discover life under really existing socialism, they are envious.

Among Mr. Andreev’s files were railway time tables for holidays on the Black Sear, and even weekly TV schedules.  Ghodsee notes that the evening news came on at 17:30, and the national ‘Good Night, Children” song was broadcast as usual at 19:50. “Andreev’s son would have been three in 1977, and like most Bulgarian children, he probably listened to that song each evening before bedtime: ‘I am Sandman, I’ve come from the woods to wish you kids ‘Good Night’.  It is dark outside.  It is time to sleep.” (A similar program sent my own children to bed in 1960s’ Hungary, where summer vacations would find us in a government funded guesthouse on Lake Balaton…..)

Noticing permission for foreign travel and participation in international conferences, Godsee wonders whether Mr. Andreev was ever accused of being a spy, then realizes that the papers that document her own career could enable some future Ph.D candidate to make the case that she too was a spy:

"Someday, a graduate student might use my old field notes and journals as raw data for her dissertation.  This aspiring Ph’d student will work her way through my files. Between some old teaching evaluations and notes for unwritten fellowship proposals, she will discover the folders from Mr. Andreev, a collection of communist era documents from an official Bulgarian Ministry. Maybe this will be the evidence she needs to prove that I really was a CIA NOC. Why else would I have these personal files from 1970s Bulgaria? These weren’t just crop reports; they were encrypted military secrets, perhaps coordinates for a clandestine underground nuclear weapons…..

The dissertating Ph.D. student will suggest that Mr. Andreev was not an agronomist. He was an undercover agent involved in agricultural espionage. When she convinces the Bulgarian government to release Mr. Andreev’s secret service dossier and they confirm his true employment, a web of mystery and suspicion will descend over my entire academic career. My books will be reread for information about my secret missions. The dissertation might become a bestselling e-book.

Because Mr. Andreev and I were Cold War spooks, readers will take an interest in our biographies. Expert cryptographers might scrutinize our half-finished crossword puzzles. My grocery lists will be scanned and digitally stored in the British Museum. Perhaps a novelist will be inspired to write a cloak and dagger  thriller about a young American woman who is initiated into an international society by a retired Bulgarian intelligence agent posing as a cucumber expert. The phallic symbolism is irresistible. Neo-Freudians will celebrate. They’ll make a movie. There’ll be a plastic actionbot of the actress who plays me. My grandchildren will brag in school…"

In the final ironic lines of this small e-book, Kristen Ghodsee distills the essence of America’s war syndrome: the temptation to see the worst in others, and especially, the conviction that our own way of life is superior to theirs.

















Friday, May 1, 2015

Tell me What you Watch and I’ll Tell you What you Know (written on April 9)

Rob Kall, the publisher of Opednews.com where I am a senior editor, disagrees with me on the value of foreign TV news, whether it be ‘Putin’s bullhorn’ or France 24, both available 24/7 in Philadelphia thanks to independent MIND TV, which also brings us NHK, the Japanese English channel that brings a far Eastern perspective on the news. I think the most misunderstood fact about ‘Putin’s Russia’ is the specific socialist tradition of pumping for peace.  It is well illustrated by a quote from The New Detente, a compendium of articles by government officials and academics from across Europe, who were inspired by German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s ‘Ostpolitik’ that was inaugurated in 1969.
Ostpolitik was a series of measures that aimed at transforming Western Europe’s standoff with the countries of Eastern Europe into cooperation.  Academics from across the Soviet sphere met regularly with counterparts in Western Europe - as well as some in the United States - to try to overcome the Cold War.  The book was put together by Richard Falk, former professor of international law at Princeton and UN rapporteur on Palestine, Mary Kaldor, a British peace activist and writer, and Gerard Holden, a member of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam.  Contributors to this tightly packed four hundred page work include Adam Michnik, advisor to Lech Walesa, and seventeen other academics and peace activists from across Eastern and Western Europe as well as the Soviet Union.
The contribution by the Czech writer Jaroslav Sabata, a founding member, together with Vaclav Havel among others, of Chart 77, expresses the essence of the European peace movement that constituted the Central European zeitgeist at that time. The reason why I am quoting from it is because this zeitgeist continues to be ignored by American foreign affairs analysts at a time when nuclear war is more likely to become a reality than it was during the Cold War. And it is probably because this worldview drives RT’s choice of programming that the channel is vilified by those in charge of American foreign policy.
My own book Une autre Europe, un autre Monde actually foresaw the reunification of Europe that the contributors to this book still thought a long way off when it too was published in 1989, but what interests me is the uninterrupted emphasis on cooperation as opposed to war that has characterized the socialist movement from its beginnings in nineteenth century Europe.
<blockquote> The  main protagonists which took part in the negotiations that determined the new post-war status quo in Europe all made decisions based exclusively on the superpower principle. The fact that they were at the same time irreconcilable adversaries only underlined the fatefulness of the events of that time.  It is irrelevant whether, for instance, President Roosevelt sincerely believed all he said and wrote.  In his view, post-war peace was to be neither an American peace nor a Russian peace, or any other national peace.  It should have been a universal peace based on the cooperation of all nations.  He probably fully believed all this, just as he had been undoubtedly fully convinced he was acting in the interest of peace when he told Czech president Benes in 1928 to do all he could to avert a conflict with Hitler and a war with Germany.…Roosevelt was unable to prevent the post-war peace from becoming a peace of the large nations - an American and Soviet peace - just as President Wilson in 1918, despite his diplomatic ideas, had been unable to prevent his concept of the League of Nations from becoming a trap for the sovereignty not only of Czechoslovakia but of other nations as well.
….People are becoming ever more aware of the serious threat to our civilization.  Ever more frequently people speak of the need to create a new, more sophisticated civilization…The Czech philosopher Radim Palous [refers to] a transition from one epoch to another, of the temporary situation which separates the Euro-age from the ‘World-age’.  The new World Age to come will pay due attention not only to Man but to the Natural world as well.</blockquote>
Having spent six years living behind the Iron Curtain, first in Poland then in Hungary, I can testify to the fact that contrary to what Western publics have systematically been led to believe, this aspirational approach to world affairs permeated that world, as opposed to the ever threatening stance that has typified the United States since the Cold War.
The Soviet Union has been condemned both for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, by which the new Bolshevik government withdrew a drained nation from the first World War against imperial Germany in 1918, and the Stalin/Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, which gave the country two years to prepare for Hitler’s invasion.  Reading Chris Hedges ‘Death of the Liberal Class’, I was struck by his description of the near-hysterical popular American attitude toward German-Americans during the first world war, and it occured to me that this hysteria morphed quite naturally into a similar attitude toward Communists after the Russian revolution. If Germans were bad because they were not democratic (and America entered the first World War in order, in Wilson’s memorable words ‘to make the world safe for democracy’), it followed that non-democratic Communists were even worse, because they came to power through revolution, a sort of double whammy.
Hitler spelled out his plans for conquest in a widely read book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), yet the descendants of the ‘democratic’ world’s diplomats who didn’t believe his threats of war, have systematically claimed they could not trust communists, whose rhetoric has consistently been about peace! (As World War I approached, Europe’s socialist parties affirmed that workers had no skin in the conflict between warring imperialists and that they should refuse to fight. Ultimately, they had to bow to their respective governments.)  Although it could be argued that the Soviet Union’s consistent pro-peace rhetoric serves the goal of overthrowing capitalism rather than a principled opposition to war, the consistent message of Marxist as well as other socialist currents has been that socialism is about enabling a supportive environment that allows every individual to live economic and culturally fulfilling lives. War is self-evidently contrary to this goal, unless it is thrust upon a nation by an aggressor.
From the first days of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the worldwide conflict has been about the many versus the few, and that conflict continues to this day. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dissolved into separate sovereign states, Russia, with the ‘help’ of the West, adopted a market economy and a presidential system of representative government.  Contrary to assertions in the American media, http://www.salon.com/2014/07/26/strange_bedfellows_putin_the_chomskyite_left_and_the_ghosts_of_the_cold_war/ it did not throw the socialist baby out with the bathwater: Russians still enjoy free medical care and university education, and government mandated pensions, like most of the developed world except for the United States.  And the developing world does its best to emulate this model.
As American oligarchs transformed hatred of imperial Germans into hatred of Russian and other socialists such as China or Cuba, they imposed the idea that socialism’s peace rhetoric could not be trusted because it was contradicted by calls for revolution.  The latest incarnation of this massive ploy is the claim - with no supporting evidence - that the Iranian revolutionary government cannot be trusted.  Although Iran has never invaded another country or initiated a war, its support for liberation movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah is equated with terrorism, and to boot, the West claims without supporting evidence that Iran has never kept its word.
Where does ‘Putin’s bullhorn come in, in all of this? Can it be ‘trusted’?  And what do other foreign government supported news channels bring to the news smorgasbord?
RT’s motto is ‘Question More’, and it seems to take a wicked pleasure in showing up America’s faults and failings. But that constitutes a small part of its offerings, and many Americans are on its roster.  Larry King has two programs, one in which he interviews media personalities, the other that features political interviews. Thom Hartmann is a progressive American icon, and his Big Picture features pushback discussions with conservative contributors as well as little known authors.  Abby Martin recently left RT after a three-year run of Breaking the Set, a hard-hitting rival to Democracy Now. Tuesday, Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor and 2012 Libertarian presidential candidate, was interviewed on the four o’clock news. The news anchors are mostly American or British, but most of the reporters are Russian. And two remarkable Russian women interview a wide range of cultural and political figures: Sophie Schevarnadze, who I believe is the granddaughter of Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, and Oksana Boyko whose questions are as complex as the answers they elicit. I don’t know of any tv personality who can hold a candle to her: she possesses in-depth and up-to-date political knowledge and holds her own with academics twice her age.  A recent guest on her program was Princeton’s Joseph Nye, and today’s guest, as news breaks that the deal could fall apart, is Dr Abbas Milani, the Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, to whom Oksana cedes no points. Finally, historian Peter Lavelle’s Crosstalk pits three knowledgable guests against each other in what are often acrimonious discussions of front-page news, and rounding out RT’s offering are documentaries on incredibly varied and newsworthy subjects from all over the world by international film makers, that you will not see on any American channel. 
I am not suggesting that Americans should get all their news from Putin’s bullhorn, but they are wrong to think they are broadening their news sources by watching the BBC: the British flagship channel is simply a more sophisticated rendition of Washington’s message.  Very differently, France 24 not only provides the French government’s take on national and international news. In addition to documentaries and reports, some of which are suggested by viewers around the world, it closely follows events in the twenty-eight—nation European Union. And as a former colonial power, France continues to be heavily involved in both Asia and Africa, and France 24’s coverage of Africa’s fifty odd countries is a must for anyone who wants to be informed about the wider world. Its debate programs involve both French and foreign participants, and although American journalists are frequent guests, ensuring that Washington’s message is heard, the debates can sometimes be quite hard-hitting.

Obviously, not everyone can spend their days channel hopping as I do, but the advantage of foreign television news is that it covers a broader spectrum than either the mainstream or the on-line press. And there is a distinct advantage to being able to balance out what our own government, under the guise of a so-called ‘free’ press, serves up, with what foreign governments want you to know about them. The cherry on the cake is that what individual foreign governments don’t want you to know about them is revealed by their respective adversaries.