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What the reverend is up to these days

Now this is funny: race-hustler Al Sharpton gets accused of religious bigotry by Mitt Romney! Sharpton's comment: "As for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyways. So, don't worry about that, that's a temporary situation."

The only thing I'm really sure that Al Sharpton believes in is Al Sharpton. A close second place might be making Al Sharpton look like a clown as much as possible.

"Political realism"?

From 1940 until 1942 the United States government officially recognized the Vichy regime and had full diplomatic relations with it. The policy of recognizing a fascist, collaborationist regime set up at gunpoint was much criticized then, against the weak objections that it allowed the Allies to keep tabs on the fascists and to prepare for the counteroffensive against them, all the while helping maintain the spirits of the French citizenry. In her article Hindsight on Vichy (1946), Ellen Hammer skewered these claims. She questioned the value of the information gathered this way, but even more, showed that what was needed to free France was not moral ambivalence but frankness.

The choicest samples:

The existence of Vichy, supported by the United States, obscured what might have been a clear alternative between the cause of French nationalism and the Allies, on the one hand, and that of the Axis, on the other. It put off a choice that many would otherwise have been forced to make.


What is important is that, in 1940, France was confused, divided, even apathetic, and our relations with Pétain perpetuated that demoralization.

Let's be wary of "political realism" in the future.

The real story of Kent State

Over at CounterPunch, Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserma have two disturbing stories:

The 1970 killings by National Guardsmen of four students during a peaceful anti-war demonstration at Kent State University have now been shown to be cold-blooded, premeditated official murder. But the definitive proof of this monumental historic reality is not, apparently, worthy of significant analysis or comment in today's mainstream media.

The rest of the article is pretty chilling. Here's some more:

For 37 years the official cover story has been that a mysterious shot rang out and the young Guardsmen panicked, firing directly into the "mob" of students.

This week, that cover story was definitively proven to be a lie.

Prior to the shooting, a student named Terry Strubbe put a microphone at the window of his dorm, which overlooked the rally. According to the Associated Press, the 20-second tape is filled with "screaming anti-war protectors followed by the sound of gunfire."

But in an amplified version of the tape, a Guard officer is also heard shouting "Right here! Get Set! Point! Fire!"

A search on Google News turns up almost nothing related to this revelation. This is the second scary story.

Good thing God is a yankee

Today is the National Day of Prayer. Because I'm a fairly big-tent libertarian I won't give my own personal spiel about religion. But something a co-worker told me today bothered me extra.

Another co-worker is about to get shipped to Iraq, so co-worker #1 asked for a picture of him. She explained that her church keeps a wall full of pictures of soldiers to pray for. On her own terms, this is nice enough. The soldier is a genuinely nice guy, and I wouldn't like to see him come to harm.

But what about praying for the Iraqis? According to Iraq Body Count, between 62,770 and 68,796 Iraqi civilians have been killed by military intervention in Iraq at the time of this writing, and I'm sure the indirect number is vastly higher.

I don't think her prayers will influence any events in Iraq. But I'd like to see her extend moral consideration to the people over there. Just because she knows this particular American guy doesn't make him any more special.

The Cheka

Tsarist Russia had secret police before, but Tsarist Russia was to be swept away to make room for the workers' paradise. However, setting up the most powerful, all-consuming state in history required unprecedented police action. On December 20, 1917, after seizing power in Russia, Vladimir Lenin created the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage—the Cheka, the Soviet Union’s secret police. The organization's name would change throughout the lifetime of the Soviet Union, but the terror inspired by the name “Cheka” would not.

The world rightly shudders to the think of the Nazi SS and its concentration camp terror, cruel medical experiments, and arbitrary imprisonments and executions. But this phenomenon had direct historical precedent in the Cheka. The Cheka was directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of executions, and indirectly responsible for millions of other deaths.

Its mission was “to punish and liquidate all attempts or actions connected with counter-revolution or sabotage, whatever their source, throughout Russia; to hand over for trial by a revolutionary tribunal all saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries, and to elaborate measures to combat them; and to carry out a preliminary investigation only in so far as was necessary for preventive purposes.”(1) The Council of People’s Commissars named Felix Dzerzhinsky as its chief.

Dzerzhinsky did not attempt to hide the essence of his group. In a newspaper interview he stated, “we represent organized terror—this must be said openly—a terror which is absolutely essential in the revolutionary period we are passing through.”(2)

This revolutionary period quickly saw the Cheka expand its already-terrifying powers. Where the law was vague, and it usually was, the Cheka stepped in with firm determination to implement the revolution at all costs and with Lenin’s full support. Though the new government outlawed capital punishment, a hated Tsarist tradition, the reality of the Cheka’s mission led the government to brush this ban aside.

Though initially the Revolutionary Tribunals were supposed to oversee the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky and his henchmen quickly began holding their own trials and executions. Its extraordinary powers met some resistance from party officials and the official machinery of the Soviet justice system, but Lenin’s enthusiastic support always allowed the Cheka to overstep its bounds and consider the new territory its new bounds, over and over.

The haze of the revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War brought many new communist organizations into existence, which the Cheka swallowed piece by piece. It soon became the primary instrument in the worker’s paradise for strike-breaking, censorship of the press, interference in elections, surveillance of the general citizenry, disruption of the Russian Orthodox Church, and ideological enforcement in the Red Army.

In 1919 the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor camps was established under the Cheka. Commonly known as the Gulag, this string of concentration camps swelled under the influence of politically unreliable “criminals” as well as ordinary criminals who would usually have been sent to a local jail. The conditions in these camps were similar to those in more famous concentration camps: insufficient food, forced labor, torture, twisted medical experimentation, and rampant disease. Life expectancy in the Gulag was notoriously low.

Soviet law required peasants to sell all their excess grain to the state at prices determined by the state. These payments being practically worthless, many peasants chose to keep it themselves or sell their grain at better prices to black marketeers, who then distributed it elsewhere with market-like mechanisms. Given that “class enemies” were often denied rations entirely, illegal means of acquiring food through these middlemen were the only option for many people. Lenin fought these “speculators” by having his Cheka execute them ruthlessly. After even this failed to transfer the desired amounts of grain to official Soviet stocks, the Cheka was ordered to confiscate the excess grain itself.

Entire villages were destroyed and many peasants were executed during this campaign. As they were opponents of these agricultural policies, they officially became enemies of the Revolution and could be slaughtered mercilessly. This in the name of protecting their class from exploitation.

Exact numbers are unknown, but estimates of those killed by the Russian famine of 1921 that resulted from this campaign range from three to ten million.

At the end of the Civil War, the Soviet government disbanded the Cheka. However, to safeguard the now firmly-established Revolution, a new agency was created with powers and a mandate almost exactly like the Cheka’s, and was substantially manned by Chekists, including its head, “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky. This new organization, the State Political Directory, continued terrorizing the Russian people, as did its successors.

Having one organization that seeks out, arrests, and punishes criminals—in addition to deciding what criminality is in the first place—is a recipe for disaster. However, the loaded term “disaster” implies that the results, mass tyranny and death, are undesirable. For the Soviet government and its Cheka, mass tyranny and death were exactly the goal. No amount of blood was too much to be shed in the name of the Communist Revolution.

(1) John Keep, The Russian Revolution: A Study in Mass Mobilization.

(2) Raphael Abramovitch, The Soviet Revolution, 1917-1939.

Back to May Day 2007: A Day of Remembrance

Supreme Court to detainees: suckers!

Any libertarians pinning their hopes on the rationality of the Supreme Court to defend us from congressional and presidential tyranny should think again:

The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear the case of two Guantanamo Bay prisoners who want to challenge the legality of military commissions.

Here's the best part:

Lawyers for Hamdan and Khadr had been seeking to challenge the new system, saying it is identical in most respects to the old one the court rejected a year ago. Coerced testimony is allowed, lawyers for the two men said in a filing asking the court to take the case.

In its 2006 decision, the Supreme Court said Hamdan could invoke rights secured by the Geneva Conventions. Yet the new Military Commissions Act states that no one subject to such trials "may invoke Geneva Conventions as a source of rights," lawyers for Hamdan and Khadr noted in court papers

Thanks, Supreme Court, for staying on top of all this war on terror madness.


In the Golden Age, being a slob wasn't as easy

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen wonders why opera singing has declined. Two of his possible explanations are worthy of comment:

2. The best voices grow up watching TV, rather than reading Romain Rolland and Thomas Mann. The Zeitgeist makes them dull.

4. The best voices came from Germany and Italy and Austria, and World War II destroyed the musical and vocal training networks of those countries.

My only comment about 4 is that it's an interesting idea. I don't know enough about the history of opera to comment in a credible way beyond that. I'd be interested to learn.

Explanation 2 is one we've heard before in many different contexts. The modern age breeds mainly slobs. It's true that there's a lot of garbage in culture these days, but this is a function of technology and not of newly-created interest in crap. If there had been the technology to broadcast Friends back in the heyday of opera, opera would have started suffering immediately.

Back in the golden age of opera there were fewer entertainment options for people. Now there's television, movies, movies on television (DVDs), the internet, etc. It makes sense that with more options the former only option's share of the pie would decline.

He's smarter than I am, so I'm sure he knows this.

Titan of government-industry partnership dies

Jack Valenti, movie industry lobbyist, is dead.

In keeping with the proverb about not saying something at all if you can't say something nice, I'll say that Valenti was a bright, talented, yet misguided guy. Let's hope his legacy of keeping regulation in line with 1980s technology fades.

I have seen the enemy, and the enemy is...

Boris Yeltsin is dead. Though his historical significance may be great, I'll leave the obituary to the Economist because post-Communist Russia is quite the mystery to me.

Thankfully that's not the only bit of interesting news today. Pat Tillman's brother Kevin and Jessica Lynch both testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this morning. Each explicitly said that the military and the administration lied about the stories in question.

Former Pvt. Jessica Lynch leveled similar criticism today at the hearing about the initial accounts given by the Army of her capture in Iraq. Ms. Lynch was rescued from an Iraqi hospital in dramatic fashion by American troops after she suffered serious injuries and was captured in an ambush of her truck convoy in March 2003.

In her testimony this morning, she said she did not understand why the Army put out a story that she went down firing at the enemy.

“I’m confused why they lied,” she said.


Mr. Tillman’s tone was more bitter than Ms. Lynch’s. He described the early accounts of his brother’s death as “deliberate and calculated lies” and “deliberate acts of deceit,” rather than the result of confusion or innocent error.

War is not only the health of the state, war is the essence of the state. Government is not benevolence, it is cruelty and deceit. Of course the military brass and the administration would lie: they benefit by having their actions concealed.

Beyond the Diamond Age

Earlier this year I tried reading Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. I say tried because it sucked royally. Stephenson forgot one of Gene Roddenberry's cardinal rules for writing good science fiction: sci-fi is about people, so write about people. Don't get caught up in "The Wonder of It All," whether that be nature or technology. (Producers of shows make up guides for potential writers to base their work on. Character sketches, basic ideas, dos-and-don'ts, etc. The guide for a show is referred to as its "Bible," and the Star Trek Bible is excellent for hardcore Trekkies. Just in case you were wondering.)

This was a big letdown because I'd heard so much praise for both the libertarian component of Stephenson's writing and its overall quality. This troubles me because we libertarians don't make our presence felt as much in literature and the arts as much as we should. But I am not much of a fiction reader, so perhaps we're already there and I just don't know about it. Anyone care to enlighten me?

Stephen Hawking escapes wheelchair

In other short but interesting news, Stephen Hawking flew on a zero-g plane yesterday. This great mind trapped in a weak body was able to float free of his wheelchair for four minutes.

About two hours after it took off yesterday, the ZGC's G Force returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida via one of the space shuttles runways. It had flown eight parabolas, giving Hawking a total of four minutes of weightlessness.

"It was amazing . . . I could have gone on and on," Hawking said after landing. "Space, here I come."

The smile recorded on the video and news cameras during his flight, however, said far more than words ever could.

Islamic banking sometimes looks a lot like ours

It seems that the liberated spirit of the West has universal roots after all: even as Islamic banking is on the rise, the spirit of the sharia laws is broken as a standard part of many of the transactions:

The chief loophole was murabaha. Let’s say that you, a small businessman, wish to go into business selling cars. A conventional bank would examine your credit history and, if all was acceptable, grant you a cash loan. You would incur an obligation to return the funds on a specific maturity date, paying interest each month along the way. When you signed the note and made the promise, you would use the proceeds to buy the cars—and meet your other expenses—yourself. But in a murabaha transaction, instead of just cutting you the check, the bank itself would buy the cars. You promise to buy them from the bank at a higher price on a future date—like a futures contract in the commodities market. The markup is justified by the fact that, for a period, the bank owns the property, thus assuming liability. At no point in the transaction is money treated as a commodity, as it is in a normal loan.

But here’s the catch: most Muslim scholars agree that there is no minimum time interval for the bank to own the property before selling it to you at the markup. According to Timur Kuran, the typical interval is “under a millisecond.” The bank transfers ownership of the asset to its client right away. The client still pays a fixed markup at a later date, a payment that is usually secured by some sort of collateral or by other forms of contractual coercion. Thus, in practice, murabaha is a normal loan.

Link via Arts & Letters Daily

Interview: Radicals for Capitalism Author Brian Doherty

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason, the author of This is Burning Man, and a really cool guy. Read more »

A nation of idiots, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the NEA

Why does it seem like more and more books keep coming out with long titles + subtitles? Specifically, why do publishers keep doing this? Example: “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before” mentioned in this article.

I. The average book-browser's attention span is shorter, and publishers need these gaudy titles to get the books looked at. Read more »