Pearsall's Books

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Friday, April 15, 2005

Semi Hiatus

Sorry I've not been posting much this week. I've been studying for the Foreign Service exam, which is next week. I've got a couple of posts as drafts which will be up this weekend, though.

|| RPH || 3:35 AM || |

Monday, April 11, 2005

Where Do I Sign Up?

Via Charlemagne77 I learn of this article from Jon Carroll, calling for a Unitarian jihad:

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States! Too long has your attention been waylaid by the bright baubles of extremist thought. Too long have fundamentalist yahoos of all religions (except Buddhism -- 14-5 vote, no abstentions, fundamentalism subcommittee) made your head hurt. Too long have you been buffeted by angry people who think that God talks to them. You have a right to your moderation! You have the power to be calm! We will use the IED of truth to explode the SUV of dogmatic expression!

People of the United States, why is everyone yelling at you??? Whatever happened to ... you know, everything? Why is the news dominated by nutballs saying that the Ten Commandments have to be tattooed inside the eyelids of every American, or that Allah has told them to kill Americans in order to rid the world of Satan, or that Yahweh has instructed them to go live wherever they feel like, or that Shiva thinks bombing mosques is a great idea? Sister Immaculate Dagger of Peace notes for the record that we mean no disrespect to Jews, Muslims, Christians or Hindus. Referred back to the committee of the whole for further discussion.

Silly articles = FUN.

|| RPH || 3:20 PM || |

When Irish-American Movie Critics Attack

Joe Queenan If You're Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be In Trouble

Joe Queenan loves movies. He also hates movie stars. And he is prepared to put his career and his health (and, hell, even his life sometimes) on the line to bring his readers tales of his journeys into the dark heart of celluloid. A man who made his living writing about the most horrendous monstrosities that America's movie industry could throw at an unsuspecting world, this book is a collection of articles he wrote between 1987 and 1992 for a variety of magazines and function as a showcase for the self-described mean-spirited turnip's, well, dysfunctional relationship with the movie world and the celebrities housed within. In the course of writing the articles collected here Queenan engaged in such acts of journalistic derring-do as attempting to spend a day in the skin of Mickey Rourke, trying to find the definitive bad priest movie, interviewing Renny Harlin, sitting through a bunch of Part III's of movie series that he hadn't seen either of the first two films, and attempting to write an entire article about Susan Sarandon without mentioning her breasts.

Mostly his writing consists of insulting the people whom he is discussing. Consider the following excerpt, from "If You Can't Say Something Nice, Say It In Broken English":

One of the interesting things about bad accents is the serial-killer component: the certainty that actors and actresses who have resorted to bad accents in the past will use them again. That's what happened with all-purpose, ethnic mother-in-law Olympia Dukakis - we didn't elect Mikey, so we're stuck with her - who gives the performance of a lifetime in Steel Magnolias. Hands down winner of the 1990 Tony Franciosa Least Convincing Long Hot Summer Southern Accent Award, Dukakis, who looks out of place anywhere south of the garment district, literally blows away the competition, thoroughly upstaging Daryl Hannah (generic redneck), Julia Roberts (Dixie peach), and Shirley Maclaine (bayou ballbuster). This film, so strange that it seems to have been dubbed into English, has one truly memorable line, when Maclaine tells Dukakis, "You are a pig from hell." Correct.

You see what I mean?

This book is tremendous fun, overflowing with an almost embarrassing abundance of mean-spirited riches. Quite clearly the stand-out article is "Mickey Rourke for a Day", where our intrepid scribe, having not washed or shaved for two weeks in preparation, smokes 82 Marlboros on the streets of Manhattan while harassing women, passers-by, and inanimate objects. Throughout this he is spewing a constant stream of Rourkean invective, while also acting out scenes culled directly from the great man's oeuvre. A sample: "6:25 Emulating Mickey, who regularly induces servile intermediaries to do the talking for him in public, I ask a friend to go into a Pakistani deli and tell the clerk: "Mr. Queenan would like you to sell him a pack of Marlboros.""

Although this is the high point, there are lots of other gems, like "The Dark Side of the Moon," which is about Melanie Griffith and her butt, "Sacred Cow" which eviscerates Barbara Streisand (an "intoxicatingly plain-looking, self-regarding Tartar"), and "In the Realm of the Senseless", an attempt to find the stupidest film of all time, in which Queenan sits through 25 cinematic atrocities like Ishtar, Joe versus the Volcano, and Hudson Hawk (among others) on his way to choosing Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (the film that killed United Artists) as his all-time turkey. Amongst other explorations of cinema and the human condition.

|| RPH || 2:00 AM || |

Friday, April 08, 2005

Could You Make Florida Up If You Tried?

Ah, Florida, home of such spectacles of recent years as the Terry Schiavo case, the 2000 election shambles, the Elian Gonzalez stand-off, and a succession of luridly bizarre events that have kept Carl Hiassen in employment. Now, Florida's legislature has approved a bill that allows people to open fire IN PUBLIC when they perceive a threat.

Perhaps it is just me, but surely that is absolutely, utterly, English lacking appropriate adjectivesly fucking crazy? Have none of these people ever heard of crossfire?

|| RPH || 1:41 AM || |

Chain Gang

Robert has passed on the chain/baton/whatever to me, so here we go. Having read some of the other selections I feel hopelessly badly read (at least in fiction terms).

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451; which book do you want to be?

If you are living in a totalitarian state, quite clearly you need to know how to 'ave it. So, Simon Reynolds Generation Ecstasy.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Not a crush as such, but Stephanie Plum from Janet Evanovich's series of novels would be cool to have a drink with. A big-haired, big-butted Jersey girl? Yeah, man.

What? Not an intellectual enough choice? Well, I don't really read much fiction, in fact crime novels are the only type of fiction I've read since leaving school. Not one for serious literature, really.

What are you currently reading?

Hugh Roberts The Battlefield: Algeria 1988-2002, Studies in a Broken Polity - An in-depth look into the disintegration of Algeria.

Peter Balakian The Burning Tigris : The Armenian Genocide and America's Response - I've been periodically reading this since Thanksgiving. I can only read little bits of it, as I tend to get wildly depressed and end up pacing around the kitchen.

Robert Strayer Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?: Understanding Historical Change - The title is pretty self-explanatory.

The last book you bought is:

I got a $50 Amazon gift certificate from my aunt and uncle for Christmas, so with that I got the Roberts book on Algeria, Sue Fischkopf The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, Paul Berman Terror and Liberalism, Michela Wrong In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo (which reminds me that I really need to finish that book review), and Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple. Not bought anything since, as I've got such a backlog of books to read.

The last book you read is:

Tom Bissell Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia - I really enjoyed this. Fantastically well written, laugh out loud funny at times, and with a wealth of detail about the people and life of Uzbekistan. Check out the hilarious feuding on the comments at Amazon (clearly Bissell seriously rattled someone's chain).

Five books you would take to a desert island:

Quite clearly for life on a desert island you need at least one survivalist tract by an unsmiling (and hopefully moustachioed) bunker-living white dude. Then, you need a bit of variation. Then, well, hrm. *Wanders over to book shelf to ponder* You need stuff that is both fun and something you'd be willing to read over and over again. A lot of 'worthy' stuff would just be horrendously depressing after a while. On sports, I'd bring Alex Bellos Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, which is absolutely fantastic and something that I've already read four times (check my review here). On music, quite clearly it would have to be The Dirt by Motley Crue, which is hilarious, eye-popping, tragic, and many, many, many other things all at once. The Hitch's Love, Poverty, and War, which has an enormous amount of stuff to dip into. Then, finally, the King James Bible.

Who are you going to pass this stick to, and why?

Randy McDonald, Abiola Lapite, Razib Khan, and the mysterious Praktike. Why? Well, I think that they are all excellent bloggers whose diverse interests should make for some pretty interesting answers.

|| RPH || 1:15 AM || |

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Failure of Socialism in Ghana

Occassionally I reprint old essays of mine. Here is another one. The bibliography can be found in the comments.

For President Kwame Nkrumah, the move to state socialism in the early 1960's was a pragmatic one, born of a desire to modernize Ghana as quickly as possible. This is not to deny any ideological motive, but simply to emphasise that pure ideology did not drive this change in policy. Nkrumah saw socialism as a better vehicle than liberal capitalism for the rapid modernization of Ghana. Socialism also held the advantage, he believed, that it could offer Ghana true independence, avoiding the possibility of becoming beholden to foreign business interests. On a more cynical note, Nkrumah was a bit wary that following the traditional methods of industrial capitalism could create an indigenous entrepneurial class that would act as a counterbalance to his personal power within Ghana.

The history of socialism in Ghana under Nkrumah is a complicated one, of great successes and disheartening setbacks. There was a huge expansion in the provision of public services, such as healthcare and education. At the same time the incomes of the average Ghanaian stagnated, even though the cost of living was rising rapidly. The old national inferiority complex, that Ghanaians could not survive on their own without the help of the old colonial masters, was laid to rest, yet the national desire for self-determination led to protracted economic problems arising from government overspending. Many of the difficulties faced by Ghana can be traced to their inheritance of an economy so dependant on a single product, cocoa. Above all else, looming like a malevolent shadow, was the spectre of corruption and political infighting. Due to the collapse of the Convention Peoples Party as a disciplined political force socialism was, by the middle of the decade, inextricably bound up with the personality of Nkrumah himself. As the party fell apart the president was left to attempt to micromanage Ghana's transformation. His increasing self-reliance meant that he became ever more isolated from the people, which in turn reduced his ability to flexibly respond to changing events. As his outlook became increasingly dogmatic, so the fate of socialism as a viable force for economic and social change in Ghana was sealed.

Under the British the Gold Coast was a classic example of colonial economics, being (1) a source of valuable raw materials, (2) a plentiful supply of cheap labour, and (3) a dumping ground for British manufactured goods. Education was a marginal concern for the British administration, and as a result the vast majority of the population had little formal education, if any at all. Cocoa exports made up around four fifths of export earnings, which was not a problem for the British, who had no need for economic diversification in the Gold Coast. The British left Nkrumah with an infrastructure based around extracting raw materials from the colony as efficiently as possible. Again, this made perfect sense for the British, who had no real stake in promoting internal trade, let alone fostering trade within west Africa, but it had serious repercussions for independant Ghana.

For Nkrumah, the move to socialism was a large gamble to make, but he felt it was worth it if socialism could deliver the growth that Ghana needed. This would be Nkrumah's way of repaying the masses who had supported him through the independence process, and who had become increasingly frustrated during the latter part of the 1950's by slow improvements in living standards, despite huge investments in improving Ghana's infrastructure. It was always going to be difficult to convert the momentum of independence into lasting economic prosperity. At independence the CPP was, out of necessity, a broad church, encompassing an enormous range of viewpoints. Large sections of the party were connected only by their desire for an end to colonial administration. In the period immediately following independence, Nkrumah and his inner circle placed great emphasis on maintaining this fragile coalition, as they were faced with several reasonably popular separatist movements in the eastern Volta region, in the northern plains, and in the Ashanti region. The consolidation of power was the main emphasis for the new government, with a move to economic self-sufficiency put on the back burner.

By the late 1950's this consolidation had been more or less achieved. With little real chance of taking power, the opposition collapsed, retreating to the sidelines to mount verbal attacks on the Nkrumah regime. Their political irrelevance meant that Nkrumah now had the power to institute his planned economic and social reforms. The CPP was also careful to neutralise the traditional leaders, bribing the chiefs or intimidating them into towing the party line, and "those who would not cooperate, and were not amenable to bribery, were simply banished into the political and economic wilderness." (Bretton, p.74) With this, Nkrumah, impressed by how the Soviet Union had pulled itself from backwardness to one of the world's foremost industrial nations within a generation, began to court the Soviets. For Nkrumah, this was a practical liason, as he was hoping to benefit from their technical expertise by bringing in Soviet technicians and lecturers. Despite the fears of the West, Nkrumah never had any serious intentions to turn Ghana into a Marxist-Leninist state, partly for ideological reasons, but also because he doubted that the Soviet Union was prepared to offer the same degree of economic and technological assistance that it had lavished on Cuba. By choosing neither side in the Cold War he felt that he could get help from both sides without having to sacrifice the political freedom that he, and his nation, had spent so long struggling for.

The flipside to his involvement with the Soviet Union was his continued support for the Volta River Dam project. Originally it had been a British plan to dam the Volta River as a source of cheap hydroelectric power. It was still on the drawing board when independence came, and so the CPP took it on, seeing it as the launch pad for their grand plans for modernisation. In order to get it built they went to the United States and made an agreement with the enormous Kaiser Corporation, who agreed to help finance the construction of the dam. For Kaiser the opportunity was clear: for their money and their willingness to build a steel mill in Ghana they received guarantees of huge amounts of electricity at one of the lowest prices in the world. For Nkrumah, the decision to involve 'neo-imperialist' capitalist forces was a difficult one, but such was his belief in the crucial nature of the project that he felt he had no choice but to agree to Kaiser's conditions. To pay for the dam Nkrumah received a thirty million dollar loan from the World Bank, the largest loan they had ever given out to that point.

One of the main priorities of the new economic approach was to process raw materials, such as sugar and cocoa, in Ghana before exporting them. This would raise export revenues and help to pay for improvements in other sectors, such as the establishment of small industrial concerns producing items like shoes, textiles, and furniture. Nkrumah planned to fund modernisation mostly through internal resources, with international aid providing about a quarter of the budget for modernisation. Interestingly, unlike in more genuinely ideologically driven socialist societies, Nkrumah did not nationalise pre-existing private industrial concerns. He simply established new state-run companies to act as competition, on the premise that the superior funding and technology of state-run concerns would lead them to a dominant place in the market, and the private sector would simply wither away.

In addition to industrial expansion, there was also a concerted effort to improve collective consuption services, such as healthcare and education. In 1961 primary education was made universal, free, and compulsory. Heavy investment in education that had begun in the pre-independence period was beginning to pay off, as Ghana was beginning to produce its own engineers, scientists and technicians. This was crucial because "a truly independent country, unlike a colony or a 'neo-colony,' must be able to ensure its cultural and social progress from its own reserves of human energy and talent." (Davidson, p. 159) University education was expanded, and large numbers of new teacher training colleges were established. New hospitals were built, and old ones expanded. This flurry of activity served a dual purpose by providing a healthier, better educated population, as well as serving to soak up popular disenchantment at the lack of improvement in personal standards of living through the provision of better-quality public services.

The move to socialism came at a time when two very serious problems were beginning to impact on Ghana's push for modernisation. By the early 1960's the state coffers, which had been full to bursting at independence, were beginning to run dry. Attempts to pay for economic diversification through maximizing profits in the crucial gold and cocoa sectors had begun to go badly wrong. A glut of product on the international market saw steady price drops and, despite rising output, decreasing revenues. Increased productive intensity in these areas saw increasing industrial tensions, with strikes breaking out in the gold mines in reaction to management cutting corners on safety. For the workers this was a doubly difficult action, as strikes had been banned when the Trades Union Council was incorporated into the state apparatus in 1961 at the same time as the mines in the Tarkwa-Prestea-Dunkwa-Bibiani complex were nationalised. The strikes were sparked off by the government dipping directly into the pay packets of mine workers. "In the eyes of the workers, all governments were corrupt; all managements were corrupt; all supervisors were corrupt; union officials were especially corrupt." (Robotham, p.56)

This was just one facet of perhaps the most serious problem facing Nkrumah in his bid to create a socialist state: corruption. Apart from a few tribalist conspiracies (like the Ga Shifimo Kpee, who were dealt with via the introduction of Nehru-style preventive detention) there was little organised political opposition left in Ghana. And with the end of political accountability a culture of corruption began to grow in the CPP. Many of the people who had been loyal party members all through the independence struggle now felt it was time for them to get their rewards for their years of activism. Corruption became an accepted part of the process of government, a problem that was worsened by the incoherent legislation that was passed in an attempt to assist in the move to socialism. Legislative controls were introduced on imports, capital transfers, industrial licenses, minimum wages, unions, commodity prices, rents, and interest rates during the early 1960's, which meant that any businessman trying to operate honestly was faced with enormous delays in attempting to cut through the red tape. For many, it was simply easier to pay off the right official to obtain the necessary license. Thus, it became an understood part of doing business in Ghana that any foreign investor included a ten percent 'tax' that was paid directly to the CPP in any business dealings. The awarding of state contracts became largely a matter of knowing or paying the right person, and little to do with the actual merits of the proposal.

This is not to say that Ghana's corruption problems were somehow unique. Many developed nations have similar problems where bribery is used to bypass red-tape laden bureaucracy. What made Ghana's situation different from industrialised nations like Italy is that it it was a small nation, with a relatively fragile and underdeveloped economy. By taking out of circulation funds that could ill-afford to be wasted corrupt practices made it much more difficult for Ghana's economy to blossom. It slowed the economy at the wrong point, before it could diversify to the point that it was no longer so reliant on the earnings from gold and cocoa. Indeed, by the 1960's other nations such as Brazil, the Ivory Coast, and Malaysia, were beginning to produce cocoa in vast quantities, forcing a dramatic price crash.
When the price of cocoa started to freefall, the corruption got worse, as those involved with the state grabbed what they could while they could. Having said this, if the prices for cocoa and gold had remained at their mid-1950's levels and Ghana had achieved continued economic progress through the 1960's then corruption, while an undoubtedly negative factor in Ghanaian public life, would not have been an issue of such importance.

Favoritism also played a role in destroying the CPP as a capable political force. Many of the most capable and honest people in the party were frozen out of administrative positions for their lack of personal connections and for their unwillingness to condone bad practices, which meant that in all sectors of the state apparatus the incompetent and the corrupt became dominant. The problem was particularly bad at local level, where party discipline had totally failed. In the 1950's CPP local activists had been highly organised in spreading the party message within an enviable network that spanned the nation. This was gone by the 1960's. The CPP had by then become a career option, and little effort was made to involve the local population in party matters. Most local party officials were more concerned with lining their own pockets and rubber-stamping proposals than with issues of social justice. Increasingly the lines of communication broke down, to the point where party headquarters were dealing with all kinds of issues that would previously have been resolved at the local level. As the party collapsed around him, Nkrumah failed to act decisively, increasingly coming to see himself as the sole force pushing Ghana forward and manipulating the various factions as need determined. Unfortunately, he never took drastic steps to purge government of corrupt individuals, partly out of loyalty to his old comrades, and also partly out of fear that his personal reputation might be tainted by the fallout from corruption scandals being dragged into the public domain, despite his personal standards of fiscal rectitude being mostly unblemished. He made a few rousing speeches on the subject on the radio, but that was about the extent of it.

There was never the political will to effectively deal with corruption and, even when there was, it backfired. Andrew Yaw Djin, an honest man, the Minister for Trade in the early 1960's, tried to sort out one of the main focal points for corruption by canceling all import-export licenses to give his officials a chance to scrutinise them more closely. Even though the issuing of these licenses had become a major racket for the less ethical elements of the CPP, the cancellation of them set off an economic shockwave just at the point when the economy was already starting to slide into neutral. Suddenly, essential raw materials for industry were failing to make it into the country, and there were massive holdups in industrial production.

Despite these problems, there were many successes along the way for Ghana. In 1951 there were only 1,700 primary schools providing education for about 220,000 children in the Gold Coast. By 1965, this had risen to 11,000 schools serving around one and a hald million children. Ghana was producing its own scientists, engineers, and teachers in large numbers. By the mid-1960's it had the highest standard of living in Africa, as well as the highest literacy rate and the best public services. The government had established over sixty different state enterprises, with varying success, that provided employment for hundreds of thousands of people. By the middle of the 1960's Ghana's chief economist E.N. Omaboe was moved to declare that Ghana had achieved "levels of social and welfare services which are in advance of most under-developed countries, and in some urban centres not far behind those of some developed countries." (Davidson, p.164)

In a way it seems like Ghana was almost destined to fail in its attempts to drag itself into industrialisation through socialism. The fact that the British had left Ghana with such a simplistic economic structure was crucial. Unlike a product such as oil there is only a finite market for cocoa products, and so levels of supply do have an enormous effect on prices. By having their hopes pinned so tightly on cocoa maintaining a decent price for long enough to pay for the diversification needed to provide some economic breathing space it was almost inevitable that something would go wrong. The other problem was the level to which the CPP dominated the political landscape. While it provided Nkrumah with the sort of mandate that he needed to enact such enormous changes, the lack of a credible opposition meant that the interests of the CPP became synonymous with those of the state. Without the incentive to stay shipship for the sake of impressing the voters, the CPP descended into disorganisation and corruption. As said before, the corruption was not at a level that would distinguish Ghana from many other nations, and nor would it have been perceived to have been as much of a problem if Nkrumah could have kept the show on the road. The real problem was that, with its heavy reliance on cocoa and gold to bring in revenue, Ghana was walking an economic tightrope. Corruption and financial profligacy simply tripped it up and sent it crashing down.

|| RPH || 6:50 PM || |

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Best Papal Obituary I've Read Yet... by Billmon. Or, at least, it's probably the closest one to the way I feel, being a somewhat dispassionate Protestant observer.

On balance I think Christianity has been a net positive for the world, despite its frequent fits of ignorance and intolerance. I guess I would assign the Catholic Church alone a slighty lower score -- mainly for allowing itself to become such a cesspool during the late Middle Ages. But still, on balance, positive.

For John Paul, though, I'm tempted to close out the books even closer to break even -- more because of the opportunity costs of the things he failed to do as pope, rather than for losses suffered because of the things he did do.

But the truth is, I really don't have tenough moral computing power to net that one out. A little humility is called for here -- even for a judgmental old lefty like me. The pope is a big guy and the Catholic Church is a big organization, and it's been in business a long time. In fact, unless I've overlooked something in the historical catalog, the church can rightly claim to be the planet's oldest surviving institution -- if you define an institution as an organization with unitary leadership, a generally accepted system of succession, and a permanent bureacracy.

Two thousand years is a remarkable run for an entity run by creatures who, even under the best conditions, typically live only about 1/30th that long. Walking in the Lateran Basilica -- the ancient seat of the papacy in Rome, before it moved into that gaudy Renaissance pile across the Tiber -- you get an incredible sense of this antiquity. The Lateran is built more or less on the same plan as the ruined Basilica of Constantine down in the forum, and is filled with columns, mosaics, friezes and other fancy bits of stone scavenged from the palaces of the emperors. It symbolizes, in other words, the almost seamless transition from imperial to papal authority, pushing the roots of the church back to the dawn of Latin civilization itself.

As they say, read the whole thing.

|| RPH || 3:20 PM || |

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Shrinking Back From The Abyss

Robert has written a lengthy response to my brief comment on Terry Eagleton using Polish Catholic traditionalist anti-communism as a strike against Pope John Paul II. He takes my point (brief as it was) and then spins it off into a lengthy and interesting post that discusses the nature of a particular type of reactionary anti-Communism as well as a look at an article from the London Review of Books by Slavoj Zizek that dealt with the differences between Fascism and Communism.

The Zizek article is fairly interesting. Essentially, he draws the line between the two totalitarianisms as being between one that was a 'failed emancipatory project' that was 'part of the Enlightenment tradition' (Communism) and one that wasn't (Fascism). Thus, the Utopian goals of Communism as it was originally conceived mark it out from the parochial obsessions of Fascism. He sort of loses it at the end, saying, somewhat strangely, that a 'liberal' attempt to rationally compare the two will lead to Fascism being seen as a lesser evil, "an understandable reaction to the Communist threat". This is something of an odd statement, considering that at the beginning of his essay he was talking about the fact that Communist nostalgia (Ostalgie, Che posters, Maoist detritus, etc.) is seen, in the Capitalist world that virtually all of us now inhabit, as more acceptable and less menacing than Fascist nostalgia. Indeed, almost anyone in the Capitalist world will have heard (and even quite possibly uttered) the lament that "Communism was a beautiful idea, but...".

In this context, Zizek's contention that any attempt to rationally compare the two will lead inevitably to Fascism being seen as a lesser evil is somewhat perverse. Certainly, some will, and have, come to just such a conclusion, yet it is clearly not the standard. In Western society, Fascism (especially Nazism) is usually presented as a greater force of evil than Communism. This is especially true in the post Cold War period, where the Nazis seem to loom as large as ever in the imagination (witness the recent American election, where partisans of both sides seemed to trip over each other in order to call their opponents 'Fascists'), while Communism, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and China's rebirth as a Capitalist dynamo, has sidled off the stage of the popular imagination. I can go into any bookstore here in New York City and find a great number of books on Germany, but virtually all of them will be about the Nazi period, whereas the available (and popular) literature on the Soviet Union is much sparser. Partly this is due to an information deficit, in that the sort of comprehensive info on the horrors of Hitler's regime that was available after the end of WWII was not, in the case of Stalinism, available until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet even the greater availability of information on the horrors of Communism seems not to have made that much of an impact on the tastes of the public either here or in Europe, whereas the demand for documentaries, books, films, and all other manner of parsings of Nazi Germany shows no sign of slacking.

Why is this? Well, here I think Zizek is correct in that the original ideals of Communism somewhat immunize it when people compare it to its totalitarian cousin. I also think that there is something else at work that explains the relative lack of interest in Communism's crimes when compared to those of Fascism. Essentially, when I look at the original ideals of the two movements, I whole-heartedly prefer the goals and ideals of Communism. Yet, when I compare the realities of what the two became, I find Communism (in it's actual, real world, non-theoretical form) infinitely more depressing. This is because, as Zizek says, Communism was a failed project of emancipation. Fascism was, in the real world, exactly what it said on the tin: hysterically emotional, insanely paranoid, obsessed with murder and martyrdom. Sifting through the remnants of Fascism isn't particularly difficult; considering Fascism lends itself to easy platitudes about the need for greater brotherhood and tolerance, and so on. Fascism was a mechanized version of the tribal manias that have periodically afflicted mankind since the earliest moments of civilization. Antecedents of Fascism's tastes for ethnic butchery and mass mobilization can be seen in the sack of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, in the horrendous massacres that the Mongols inflicted on Central Asia, and in a thousand other instances.

Yet turning your attention to the horrors of Communism is more difficult, because they seem to say something even nastier about human nature. This uneasiness that I feel stems from how this, in Zizek's term, "failed emancipatory project", turned out. Failure is clearly an inadequate term for what happened, time after time, with Communism. Failure is what happened to British Socialism in the late 1970's, with the country beset by enormous inflation, political paralysis, social chaos, labor strife, and 'the Winter of Discontent'. No, what happened (and is happening, still, in places) with Communism in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia, North Korea and (to a lesser extent) Cuba, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam was something far more horrific and monstrous than mere failure. In each of these cases, in these radically different cultures, the state, which was supposedly instituted to light the path to utopia, turned inwards and consumed the population.

The lessons of Auschwitz are not difficult to comprehend: guard against bigotry and work to protect the weakest people and groups. What are the lessons of Kolyma, though? This is why I find Communism as it actually exists infinitely more depressing than Fascism. Fascism began with terrible, monstrous intentions, and fulfilled them and in the process merely showed that people will commit horrible crimes for primitive tribal purposes. Communism set out with beautiful intentions, and transformed most places it took hold of into vast necropolises. If this is what happens when people try to build a new utopia, what does it say about us as humans if this, virtually without fail, seems to be the result of a revolutionary striving for change?

|| RPH || 9:26 PM || |

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Wrangling Over A Certain Former Polish Goalkeeper

With the Pope seemingly at death's door, Robert quotes extensively from a London Review of Books article by Terry Eagleton that attempts to pre-empt the coming beatification of the John Paul II. I'm not Catholic myself, so I view all this stuff a bit remotely, but I think there are many important points raised, particularly in terms of the Pope's disastrous stance on contraception in light of the African AIDS epidemic. One area where I think Eagleton is being a bit unfair is in dismissing the Polish Church from which John Paul II emerged as "one of the most conservative institutions on the planet, awash with maudlin Mariolatry and ferociously anti-Communist." Anti-communist? My God! The Pope's role as moral figurehead of anti-Communism and opponent to the cold hand of Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe was undoubtedly his finest achievement, and will undoubtedly play a huge role in all the obituaries to be written in the coming days.

In other news, I've done a review of an album by the Manchester crew Virus Syndicate which can be seen here.

|| RPH || 7:49 PM || |