Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

H.L. Mencken in Tahir Square: Democracy or Destruction?

Friday, February 25th, 2011

As I said in my last post, a lot has happened over the past six months, and I’ve been sorely remiss in blogging about it.  The developments in the Middle East are particularly fascinating.  They bring to mind the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, et al might become Arabic versions of post-Communist Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.  They could just as easily turn into killing fields like Bosnia and Kosovo, or decadent, weak Weimar Republics, teetering on the edge of oblivion.

Watching the videos of the vast, truculent crowds, I wondered what H.L. Menckenwould’ve made of it.  When imaging what HLM might’ve felt about something, it’s essential to remember his cynicism and misanthropy.  Yes, he wrote “I know of no other man who believes in liberty more than I do,” but he maintained that freedom was something that only a select few could endure.  He loathed the common man and democracy. 

Mencken would wonder, as I do, whether there’d be uprisings if countries like Egypt were well-run and prosperous.  Notice that I didn’t say democratic.  Most people would happily live under authoritarian regimes if there was plenty of work, cheap food, and public services.  I’m not casting judgment.  Freedom doesn’t count for much when you can’t afford coffee and a donut.  “All the revolutions in history have been started by hungry city mobs,” Mencken observes in Notes on Democracy.  “When the city mob fights it is not for liberty, but for ham and cabbage.”  Although I don’t think the crowds in Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli have a taste for the former.

My thoughts became a lot clearer after reading of CBS correspondent Lara Logan’s sexual assault.  As most of you already know, while covering the February 11 celebrations over Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Logan was separated from her crew by a mob of more than 200.  According to a statement four days later by her network, Logan “was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.”
Disgusting stuff, but also quite a story.  You’ve got to wonder why CBS sat on it for so long.  Gawker pointed out that the multiple typos in the original release (since corrected) suggest the news was about to break.  The Jewish Week and have their own thoughts why the story was held.  Although it’s very intriguing to contemplate, that question isn’t my focus.

Richard Cohen of The Washington Post wrote

As I’m sure even Logan would admit, the sexual assault of woman by a mob in the middle of a public square is a story. It is particularly a story because the crowd in Tahir Square was almost invariably characterized as friendly and out for nothing but democracy. In fact, some of the television correspondents acted as if they were reporting from Times Square on New Year’s Eve, stopping only at putting on a party hat. In those circumstances, a mass the sexual assault in what amounted to the nighttime version of broad daylight is certainly worth reporting.

We’d like to believe the Middle Eastern crowds are driven by the noblest impulses.  But are they?  Probably not.  From from the Coliseum to the Reign of Terror, from the Deep South lynchings to the L.A. Riots, the mob is idiotic and sadistic.  As Mencken explains in Notes

What does the mob think?  It thinks, obviously, what its individual members think.  And what is that?  It is, in brief, what somewhat sharp-nosed and unpleasant children think.  The mob, being composed, in the overwhelming main, of men and women who have not got beyond the ideas and emotions of childhood, hovers, in the mental age, around the time of puberty, and chiefly below it.

And what is the crux of those “ideas and emotions”?  Fear.  Fear of the unknown, of strange people, of new ideas.  “The process of education is largely a process of getting rid of such fears,” Mencken writes.  But sadly, the fact is “that the vast majority of men are congenitally incapable of any such intellectual progress.  They cannot take in new ideas, and they cannot get rid of old fears.  They lack the logical sense; they are unable to reason from a set of facts before them, free from emotional distraction.”

The men who assaulted Logan didn’t have liberte, egalite, fraternite on their minds.  They were driven by hatred, a hatred born of fear; hatred of Logan as a Westerner, an infidel, a woman, and—in their imagination—a Jew.

According to the New York Post, her assailants chanted “Jew, Jew” as they beat her.  (For the record, Logan is not Jewish.)  The attack may have been fueled by Egyptian state media reports of Israeli spies disguised as overseas news teams.  Or it could’ve been driven just by the will for destruction.

Mencken would’ve read of Logan’s attack and shook his head.  “There’s ‘your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,'” he’d mutter.

No, I’m not saying that everyone in the crowd that night was a hateful moron.  But I dare say there were a lot more troglodytes than one might care to imagine, and that there are a lot more troglodytes wordwide than we dare to dream.  They’re not just among the poor and downtrodden, although don’t kid yourself with the Christian/Marxist myth that “poverty” is a synonym for “enlightenment.”  As Mencken explained,

Thus the plutocracy, in a democratic state, tends to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even to be mistaken for it.  It is, of course, something quite different.  It lacks all the essential characters of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, honour, courage—above all courage. . .  Its most puissant dignitaries of to-day came out of the mob only yesterday—and from the mob they bring all its peculiar ignobilities.

I’ll come out and say it: Most people—black, white, rich, poor, powerful, weak—are stupid, and quite dangerous if given the opportunity.

And that’s why Mencken wouldn’t have high hopes for the current Mideast upheaval.  It’s possible some good will come of it.  Even Niccolo Machiavelli, the godfather of amoral analysis, thought republics were preferable to principalities.  Under a republic people feel more invested in the fruits of their labors, and consequently have more reason to work hard and innovate.  But there’s no point in pretending that mobs are comprised of Pericleses, Joan of Arcs, and Patrick Henrys. 

Do you honestly think Average Joes and Janes concern themselves over ideas like fair representation, consensus, and the free exchange of ideas?  Do you really believe people behave more honorably and wisely in democracies than in other societies?  Hardly.  I’m reminded of Luis Bunuel’s classic film, Viridiana.  A novitiate takes in a group of beggars and dedicates herself to feeding and uplifting them.  They repay her kindness by breaking into her home, and later attempting to rape her.


Uploaded by tagnuevo. – Independent web videos.

Go to a bar, a football game, or a shopping mall and see what comprises the crowd.  Morlocks, as far as the eye can see.

Sometimes fairly articulate people make it unintentionally clear how they, and most others, dwell in an Egyptian Night.  “Spruce Panther of Kemet” offers a sterling example.

In a February 16 YouTube video entitled “Lara Logan Raped: But Was She?” she urges viewers to ask themselves

was she indeed raped.  I’m just now hearing about this story on the Internet now but apparently this happened almost a week ago.  And we need to put this in context: she is a white South African, therefore she is directly implicated in the oppression [and in the perpetration] of atrocities against the black population of South Africa.  Indeed, the white population used rape against black women as means of intimidation, violence, control, oppression to keep the black population in line.  So is this an act of karmic retribution?  These questions should be asked and analyzed.


At the bottom of the video in red lettering runs “The real rape is Kemet’s Black African cultural treasures being plundered right before our eyes by barbarians” and later “Lara Logan’s ‘rape’ a false flag attack?”
Spruce Panther is a capable speaker, but her worldview is on the level of a superstitious, illiterate peasant.  What she says is on a par with medieval blood-libel and witch-hunting.  She’d fit right in with the nice folks in Tahir Square.  And quite possibly so would you.

No More Veterans Days

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Here’s an idea: let’s drop Veterans Day.  And while we’re at it, let’s drop Memorial Day too.  I can think of a lot of other holidays we should cut, but let’s start with those two for now.

We’ll take the money saved from forgoing these days off (think of the regained productivity and tax revenue!) and put it toward better hospitals and programs for veterans.  Instead of wasting energy waving flags made in China, let’s see if we can actually help those to whom we supposedly feel so much gratitude.

And while we’re at it, let’s meditate on why we celebrated Veterans and Memorial Days in the first place.  Was it to honor soldiers who defended our freedom?  If that’s the case, think of most, perhaps all, of the wars this country has waged.  Did we need to slaughter over three million Vietnamese so you and I could vote, buy handguns, and download porn?  Which rights were defended when A-bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  How did Mexico, Spain, North Korea, Granada, ad nauseam threaten our liberty?   Could it be that “rights” is just a codeword for imperialism and hegemony?  Is the issue “freedom” or “free markets”?  (Many Americans don’t know the difference.)  And let’s not forget the how the military has been used against Americans themselves, particularly, but not exclusively, the First Americans.

Why are soldiers so esteemed?  Because they serve the State.  Through intimidation and violence, they do its dirty work.  To the State, the soldier is the perfect citizen.  He puts following orders above basic self-interest (i.e., self-preservation).  There’s a reason there’s no “Organizer Day,” “Heretic Holiday,” or “Scientist Appreciation Week.”

But the fighting man isn’t an automaton.  No matter how much his mind is fucked with, he’s still making decisions.  As Joel Stein wrote in his infamous “Warriors and wusses” editorial

[B]laming the president is a little too easy. The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not.  An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying. 

Remember what we said about “only following orders”?

Our soldiers, like all troops, were not, are not, and will never be angels.  The soldiers of yesterday, today, and tomorrow weren’t, aren’t, and will never be any more enlightened than the average schmuck.  Some soldiers are quite brave, and that’s admirable.  But bravery doesn’t equate to moral superiority.  Those who have fought and are fighting against American soldiers are also often very brave, regardless how you feel about their causes (or how you misunderstand them).  Frequently those who war against the U.S. are poorly equipped and trained.  It takes a lot of guts to go up against a military with nearly limitless resources.  And yes, that nod of respect extends to the Confederacy, the Axis forces, and al-Queda.

Bravery comes in many forms.  A worker organizing a union under the threat of the boss’ goons, a black woman sitting at a “Whites Only” lunch counter, or a writer defending a dangerously unpopular position can be just as lionhearted as an infantryman in combat.

Some soldiers aren’t especially brave, nor does their work demand bravery.  To paraphrase Ward Churchill, sometimes it’s pushing buttons in air-conditioned, sterile rooms, no different than playing videogames.  Even when they’re in combat, American soldiers enjoy overwhelming force over their enemies.  How is dropping bombs on civilians courageous?

Some soldiers are craven sadists.  Some just do it because it’s a job.  Because they were unlucky enough to get drafted.  Because bullying, raping, and killing is fun.

The fact is, Zell Miller’s remarks at the 2004 Republican Convention were pure bullshit. 

For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag who gives that protester the freedom to abuse and burn that flag.




No one gave us these rights.  The idea of someone bestowing a right is medieval.  The Founding Fathers saw rights “as inalienable.”  These freedoms are defended everyday when citizens—reporters, poets, agitators, and protesters—use them, particularly when they use them in ways that displease the majority.

Some might say that our soldiers fought against against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan to keep us free.  Similarly, they’d claim we engaged in proxy wars with the Soviet Union to perserve our liberty.  Again, bullshit.  None of those countries had any more hope, much less plans, to invade Main Street than Vietnam or Cambodia.  Did some good come of fighting the forces of totalitarianism?  Certainly, although I wonder if the fascist and Marxist juggernauts would’ve eventually imploded and collapsed on their own, weighed down by paranoia, xenophobia, and the expense of vast arsenals.  (Sound familiar?)

And today’s struggles against the insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan are no different.  I want to retch whenever I hear someone say “we’re got to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”  No, the violence we sow there we reap here.

The military doesn’t defend freedom; it threatens it.  Have you ever heard of an army used to encourage debate and dissent?  When it’s time to organize a coup d’etat, they don’t call up milkmen, sports writers, or bookkeepers.

“Support the troops.”  That’s another way saying don’t criticize them.  Why?  Through my tax dollars I pay them. Imagine a company where the boss can only praise his employees.  I want that job.  You’ll hear that protest is bad for the troops’ morale.  Excellent!  With enough rallies and demonstrations perhaps they’ll get really sad and desert.  Then we won’t have to pay for their idiotic crusades anymore.  “Support the troops” is another way of saying “Don’t question the State.”

When did soliders become faultless, selfless superheroes?  Are we engaged in an adult discourse or a Marvel comic?

I’ve never fought in a war and I don’t plan to.  At this point, I’m far too old for it anyway, thank God.  But let’s hear from an actual veteran.  Here’s Howard Zinn, historian and author of A People’s History of the United States:

Let’s go back to the beginning of Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day, because at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end…  Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches…  Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism.  As a combat veteran myself, of a “good war,” against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.

Well, exactly…

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Will Durst, the political humorist, really got it right today with his “Poking the cobra” post:

[President Obama] is taking it straight to his perceived enemy, calling both Fox News and Rush Limbaugh radical and out of the mainstream, making the two crazier than a preacher at a whorehouse with a parishioner working the door. Because that is exactly what they say about him. [Emphasis mine.]  Methinks there may be a bad case of “can dish it out but not take it” going around.

Conservative commentators are retaliating by lobbing charges of extreme partisanship at the President. Claiming he totally ignored his campaign promise to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Oh wait, that wasn’t him. That was the other guy. Sorry. You remember the last guy. Now there was someone who reeked of non- partisanship. At least I think that’s what it was.

Look, let me me make something clear: this isn’t a case of worshipping Obama.  I don’t worship him, much less any mortal on this lugubrious ball.  I’m just applauding Durst’s, and yes, Obama’s too, common-sense.  The Bush administration and its apologists were opposed to the point of lunacy against any and all criticism.  Now Republicans are upset when a president speaks back to the press?  Would it kill them them to simply say, “Of course he says we’re wretched!  No surprise there.  We say the same thing about him.  That’s just good business.”  The haters of Obama are so full of loathing for the man I wonder if they’d say it was a Communist/Socialist/Islamofascist/feminist/gay liberation plot if he found a cure for AIDS.

This is why I find the U.S. news commentary for the most part so dull.   It takes predictability and stodginess to almost Soviet levels.  The right condemns the left.  The left condemns the right.  For the love of God, can’t you once, just once say something surprising?  Do you have to follow the party line like a rabbi adheres to kosher dietary laws?  Is it possible that an approach or initiative not within your ideological scope might have some validity?  Even if you don’t agree with it, can you perceive at least some charm?  And why does everything have to be “right/wrong,” “good/bad”?  Could it be that they are instances were neither side has an answer?  Where the situation is hopeless?

None of today’s pundits are fit to wear H. L. Mencken’s mantle.  They’re not intellectuals; they’re yelping, whining sports fans, fanatically devoted to their teams at the cost of all reason and critical thinking.