Browsing the blog archives for December, 2008.

Che Guevara, or when history becomes pop culture

Culture, History, International Politics, Politics
(Image by mikebaird used under CC license)

(Image by mikebaird used under CC license)

The holiday season is often used to reflect back on items that are not exactly current news, but worth a re-read over time. This selection is inspired by an off-hand blogger’s comment about Che, but any occasion would have been a good one to dig this one up from the archive.

On a forum,  a couple of years ago, I recommended an article by Alvaro Vargas Llosa that was published in TNR in 2005 with these words:

Everyone adores Che as a pop icon.

But the icon means ever less.

For me the following article was an absolute eye-opener.

First, it fillets the visible postmodern reduction of “Che” into what is, in effect, merely an extraordinarily successful market brand. A feel-good product for the young and rebellious. A pre-fab idealistic dream; an instant badge of revolutionary street cred. This part may make you laugh. In recognition; and at the surreality of it.

But then, having wrapped off the countercultural commerce of Che as icon, it also digs into the actual historical record. To recount the rather more sordid story of who “Che” really was. Because filmic sketches of the man’s soul are fine — but what did he mean to those who lived under his actions?

The filmic and biographic portraits of Che seem to almost portray him in a vacuum; an individual soul, a romantic one-man story. But Che held real power. The Cubans and others who had to suffer his idealism are strangely absent in the iconic version of Che. This author puts them back into the spotlight.

This article is very long, and doesnt always make for comfortable reading. But it should be an obligatory read for anyone ever caught wearing a “Che” t-shirt.


Don’t be mistaken about the ironic birds’ eye view of Che-the-icon in the beginning of the article. The rage of the author is real – and very well-informed. It is not that of just another reactionary, either – note the very last section. It is that of one who sees history and fashion reward bloody zealots, and forget those who fought tyrants without killing a fly, and actually achieved results. Because those gentle reformers are so much less glamorous than your failed, bloodthirsty revolutionary.

You can still love the myth if you will. But before you put on the shirt, know about the politics behind it.

The TNR archive is still lost in the site’s technological fail, but the article can be read in full here: The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand.

(Image by нσвσ used under CC license)

(Image by нσвσ used under CC license)

About Che as icon, by the way — did you know that the famous Che image now adorning the t-shirts of millions of rebellious teenagers came about through a little bit of what we’d now call Photoshopping? To get the “t-shirt Che”, just take the real Che’s photo and make him “slimmer and his face longer, by about one-sixth”.

That was noted in a New Statesman article from 2007, found via the opening post of an instructive thread about Che on the forum Able2Know, Che Guevara … Forty years on.

That thread also features this post on a more serious note: how has Cuba’s death toll under communism compared with that of the brutal Batista dictatorship that preceded it? Not well at all, according to the work of one statistician, R.J. Rummel, who recorded that the Batista regime “killed 1000 of its citizens from 1952 to 1959, for an average rate of 143 per year,” while the Castro regime “killed 73000 of its citizens from 1959 to 1987, for an average rate of 2607 per year”.

According to his data, then, the Castro regime killed at an 18 times faster rate than even the despicable Batista had done, or at a 12.6 times higher proportional rate if you take population growth into account. Admittedly Rummel appears to be a highly controversial figure, so I’d love to hear about alternative estimations, though I can’t imagine an alternative computation would suddenly reverse the roles.

1 Comment

Entertaining news stories of the day …

Culture, Funny, International Politics, US culture

.. of a slightly dark, and very odd sort:

Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan (via The Stump)

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

“Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills.

Fake money isn’t what it used to be (via Kevin Drum)

The Secret Service agent in Kansas City peered hard at a counterfeit $100 bill, ran a finger over it and grimaced in disgust.

It was bad, ugly work.

“Too slick, too,” said Charles Green, special agent in charge.

More counterfeiters are using today’s ink-jet printers, computers and copiers to make money that’s just good enough to pass, he said, even though their product is awful.

In the past, he said, the best American counterfeiters were skilled printers who used heavy offset presses to turn out decent 20s, 50s and 100s. Now that kind of work is rare and almost all comes from abroad.

Among American thieves, the 22-year veteran said sadly, “it’s a lost art.”


Yearning for a “none of the above” ballot option

European Politics, Politics
(Image used under CC license from Flickr user Neil101)

(Image used under CC license from Flickr user Neil101)

In Russia, until a few years ago when Putin’s acolytes decided the option was creating altogether too many headaches, voters had the option of foregoing all the available choices and instead checking a box on the ballot marked “none of the above”. The option had some actual teeth as well: in case more voters opted for “none of the above” than for any individual candidate, the elections had to be done over. (That’s what let the government to eventually shut down the option, after a couple of embarassing reruns in regional governor’s elections.)

Judging on some recent opinion polls, there’s plenty of Europeans who would love the option. Take Britain and Hungary.

Continue Reading »

No Comments

And you thought you had a voter registration fraud problem

European Politics, Politics

Talking with Americans about voting fraud – or more correctly: voter registration fraud – gets you roughly two kinds of answers, depending on whether you talk to a Republican or a Democrat.

Ferencvaros (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Peiboliche)

Ferencvaros, Budapest (Used under CC license from Flickr user Peiboliche)

It happens on a large scale, is a scandal, and surely indicates that there must be a problem with actual voting fraud as well. Or it’s a hype, stirred up by a losing party eager to avoid facing up to its failure; something that only occurs on a small scale and doesn’t affect the actual election results anyway.

Either way, the subject’s offered much fodder for controversy.

Well, here’s a reality check from Hungary. You thought you may have a problem?

Police probe fake candidate petition slips in Budapest local constituency

More than 2,200 fake candidate petition slips were discovered in Budapest’s ninth district, where parliamentary constituency elections are due to be held on January 11 [..].

Under Hungary’s electoral system, it is necessary to collect 750 slips showing support among the local public before standing a candidate. [..] The forgeries involved the conservative opposition Democratic Forum (MDF), non-parliamentary radical nationalist MIEP and the non-parliamentary radical nationalist Hungarian Social Green Party (MSZZP) [..].

The National Printing Office [..] has examined the slips received and found that 1,152 of those given for the MSZZP candidate had been forged while only 13 were genuine. There were 669 fakes out of 1,015 slips sent in for MDF’s candidate, and 415 fakes out of a total of 781 MIEP slips. [..]

Parties which had qualified to stand a candidate were the Humanist party, the Free Democrats, the Hungarian Communist Workers’ Party and Fidesz-KDNP.

13 out of 1,152 genuine! I mean, wow.

It actually gets a little more byzantine than that. Note these paras:

Continue Reading »


Taking a moment to realise how different it could have been

Economy, European Politics, Politics, US Economy, US Politics, World Economy

This is Josh Moulitsas-Soros, acting CEO of

Most readers know that the views expressed on this blog are…

OK, just joking.

Ezra Klein uses the progressive blogosphere’s shitstorm in a teacup of the day to reflect on the agenda of the Third Way think tank, and how events since 2004 have overtaken it and made it irrelevant. It’s a good way to consider just how different things could have gone – and while we’re at it, to consider the looming reversal of roles between US liberals and European lefties.

It’s just four years ago, when Third Way was announced on November 11th, 2004, that this seemed like a good idea:

This was a week after John Kerry lost the presidential election, and the young organization was sold as a DLC for the next-generation. “As Democrats continue to stagger from last week’s election losses, a group of veteran political and policy operatives has started an advocacy group aimed at using moderate Senate Democrats as the front line in a campaign to give the party a more centrist profile,” wrote The Washington Post.

In other words, Third Way was formed under the theory that the Democrats’ problem in 2004 was that they were too far to the left, and as such, had lost middle class voters. The organization focused on upper middle class voters and followed the Mark Penn strategy of machine gun bursts of small, bite-sized policies meant to attract professional whites and rural voters.

Ezra does a good job in briefly sketching how quickly the Third Way’s strategy became an anachronism:

This year, Barack Obama was, on domestic policy, the most moderate of the major Democrats, which put him substantially to the left of every major Democrat running for president in 2004. His health care plan was more universal than Gephardt’s, his Iraq plan was more aggressively focused on withdrawal than Dean’s, and he was a black liberal from an urban center. Clinton and Edwards ran on similar platforms. None of them bore any obvious resemblance to the office park bait Third Way advocated. [..]

Third Way [..] were built as the vessel for a particular argument about the path to a Democratic resurgence, and their side of that debate lost. [..] Democrats have won atop something like the opposite of their advice and very different from their predicted majority coalition, which may explain why they’re acting so defensive.

All of which provides a good Zen moment to consider, even amidst my kind of bellyaching about Obama’s appointees, the blessings there are to count. You could have ended up with the Third Way recipe. Instead, the Democratic Party’s has moved left even as it gained political dominance.

This doesn’t just hold up in comparison with what the future looked like in 2004, either. Take the 850 billion euro economic stimulus plan the Democrats are preparing. That’s 6% of America’s GDP, more or less. Now compare the €200-billion stimulus plan that EU leaders eventually agreed on last week that involves the member states pumping the equivalent of 1.5% of GDP into their economies.

Alternatively, consider the £20-billion British stimulus package that Gordon Brown is proposing. On the eve of the EU summit, it stirred the German finance minister into a frenzied tizzy in Newsweek about “tossing around billions,” a deplorable “breathtaking switch” to “crass Keynesianism,” and the “breathtaking and depressing … speed at which proposals are put together .. that don’t even pass an economic test” – and that’s a plan that involves, if I’m getting the numbers right, all of 1.6% of British GDP.

Basically, after years in which European lefties like me groaned about a Democratic Party so milquetoast it would be a right-wing party in our countries, we’re suddenly faced with American peers who are moving more boldly to tackle the economic crisis than any EU government seems able or willing to do. While Obama’s party appears to be prepping a rapid shift of perspective to rediscover the wisdom of Keynesianism, the European governments are shackled by the EU’s deficit rules. It might not be long before we actually cast a jealous eye on those American peers we disdained just a few years ago.

No Comments

Of two minds about the South

Politics, Presidential Elections, US Elections, US Politics

In TNR, Clay Risen revisited the question of voting patterns in the South in this year’s presidential elections, and responded to a point of criticism I raised here on his previous take. Being an incurable nitpicker, I’m still not altogether convinced.

In his previous take, Risen justifiably sounded critical notes about how the South was presented in some of the electoral analysis, which was all about how its “backward ways are increasingly irrelevant to the American scene”. He pointed out that hey, in much of the South Obama actually did better than Kerry had done, thank you very much. The “red splotches” on the electoral map that showed a shift to McCain only covered a specific band of counties stretching from Kentucky to Oklahoma, while “across the “Deep South” [..] the map is almost entirely blue.” Ergo, what the map showed was “not a waning South, but a fissured and rapidly changing one”, and “what is really surprising is not how stalwart the South is in its ways” but “that broad swaths of the region look just like the rest of the country.”

The former is certainly a good point. My own stab at electoral analysis here highlighted how the Gulf states and Atlantic states seem to be heading down different paths altogether. But the latter point has a problem or two.

Continue Reading »

1 Comment

What’s with the horsemen?

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

After I passed on John Judis’ take on the auto bailout here, we had a bit of a discussion in the comments section. So who could sketch my amazement to see, via TNR, that Bill Kristol – that Bill Kristol – gets it. Here he was, last Monday:

Last week, Senate Republicans picked a fight with the U.A.W. on union pay scales — despite the fact that it’s the legacy benefits for retirees, not pay for current workers, that’s really hurting Detroit, and despite the additional fact that, in any case, labor amounts to only about 10 percent of the cost of a car. But the Republicans were fighting Big Labor! They were standing firm against bailouts! Some of the same conservatives who (correctly, in my view) made the case for $700 billion for Wall Street pitched a fit over $14 billion in loans for the automakers.

There is, of course, plenty in his column to take issue with as well. But there don’t seem to be many nits to pick with this summary:

So Senate Republicans chose to threaten to filibuster the House-passed legislation embodying the George Bush-Nancy Pelosi deal. The bill would have allowed President Bush to name a car czar, who could have begun to force concessions from all sides. It also would have averted for now a collapse of the auto industry, and shifted difficult decisions to the Obama administration.

Instead, Bush will now probably have to use the financial rescue funds to save G.M. [..]. And Senate Republicans now run the risk of being portrayed as Marie Antoinettes with Southern accents.

No Comments

Sarko’s Angels No More?

European Politics, Politics

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy personally shepherded three non-white women of immigrant background into his government in May 2007, it was a bold move; no government before, left or right, had been as inclusive. (To appreciate just how groundbreaking it was, read my previous post.) Not to mention that Fadela Amara is a Socialist.

Fadela Amara (Image under CC license from Flickr user h de c)

Fadela Amara (Image under CC license from Flickr user h de c)

In a government bureaucracy as status conscious as France’s, it was all the bolder because all three come from truly modest backgrounds. Fadela Amara, the long-time fighter for women’s rights in the impoverished suburbs, grew up as one of 11 brothers and sisters in what she describes as a shanty-town. Rachida Dati, the tenacious networker who shone as spokeswoman for Sarkozy’s 2006 presidential campaign, was one of 12 children of a Moroccan bricklayer. Rama Yade, just 30 when she was appointed, was the daughter of two influential Senegalese professors, but after their divorce her mother raised her in the towerblocks of Hauts-de-Seine. (Bonus trivia: as teenager, she only got to go on holidays thanks to the summer holiday camps which the communist French People’s Aid ran for the underprivileged).

It was a “fairytale”, as Guardian journalist Angelique Chrisafis called Dati’s story last month. But is it, now, as she put it, a fairytale that “has started to go spectacularly wrong”? “The rise and fall of Rachida Dati,” her article was called. This month sees a new article headlined “The rise and fall of Rama Yade“. So what happened?

Continue Reading »


Rod Blagojevich: Still Crazy After All These Years

Politics, US Politics

With news of the scandal surrounding Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich grabbing the nation’s attention, it’s worth remembering that out of the last seven men who previously held that office, three ended up in jail. Illinois, in fact, is the only state where the governor has two official portraits: one full face and one profile. Blagojevich, in other words, is simply following in the footsteps of some of his less illustrious predecessors. Why then has this sordid affair attracted so much extra attention?

He is Blago! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!

"He is Blago! You are like the buzzing of flies to him!"

Well, for one thing, the scandal has touched upon president-elect Barack Obama. In announcing the filing of the criminal complaint and Blagojevich’s arrest, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald emphasized that Obama was not involved. “I should make clear, the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever,” said Fitzgerald. Despite the perfervid efforts of the right-wing dittorati to link Obama with Blagojevich, the two have never been close political allies or social friends, and Obama surely must have been aware of Blagojevich’s longstanding legal problems and his rapidly slipping popularity. It was hardly an accident, for instance, that the governor was not invited to speak at the Democratic Convention in Denver and did not make an appearance at Obama’s Nov. 4 victory rally at Chicago’s Grant Park.

Apart from the potential taint to the nascent Obama administration, this scandal is most noteworthy for the truly epic imbecility of the chief culprit. After the indictment and conviction of the governor’s friend, fundraiser, and all-around political fixer Antoin “Tony” Rezko earlier this year, Blagojevich must have known that he was the next target of federal prosecutors. Yet he apparently spoke freely in his office and on his private phone about blackmailing the Chicago Tribune, shaking down a prominent Chicago pediatric hospital, and auctioning Obama’s senate seat like a prize heifer at the Illinois state fair. Even after the Tribune, on Dec. 5, published a front-page story stating that the feds had obtained secret recordings capturing Blago’s conversations, he was still making those incriminating statements, some of which ended up in the affidavit appended to the criminal complaint.

Continue Reading »


Obama’s victory confronts France with its own troubled status quo

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, Politics

During the US presidential election campaign, Doug Saunders noted in the Canadian Globe & Mail last month, “the big question in Europe had been whether Mr. Obama’s liberalism connected to the values of the social democrats and socially moderate conservatives who tend to govern Europe. Was he good enough to be a European?” It was, in at least one major aspect, the wrong question. When it comes to race, Saunders pointed out, the question is rather the other way around. Would European voters have been able to do what American voters did? Would they measure up to the way Americans overcame racial prejudice in electing Obama?

There are some 5 million blacks in France and the UK alone; some 12 million across Europe. Arguably more marginalised still are the Muslims of Western Europe; the immigrants and children and grandchildren of immigrants from Northern Africa, Turkey and Pakistan. There are 7-10 million of those in France, Germany and the UK alone, with another 5 million spread elsewhere through Western Europe. So how about it? Could there be a European Obama?

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user philippe leroyer)

Rama Yade (Image used under CC license from Flickr user philippe leroyer)

No way, said France’s only black minister, Rama Yade in an interview with the Telegraph, at least not in France. Her country “will never elect its own Barack Obama under the current ageing, white political elite,” she said, calling the prospect a “pipe dream”. And this is not some cynical lefty talking; Yade is the secretary of state for human rights and foreign affairs in a conservative government, which she joined as something of a protege of President Sarkozy.

“I’m 51 and I’m sure I won’t see any Barack Obama in France in the next generation,” Saunders was told by Azouz Begag, who  served as Minister for Equal Opportunities under Jacques Chirac.

“Obama puts the political system in France on the hot seat,” Pap Ndiaye of the School for the Advanced Study of the Social Sciences in Paris told the Christian Science Monitor. His election “has a direct social effect in France, because the black youth think it is possible there but not here.”

Continue Reading »


Damn right

US Economy, US Politics

Read John Judis on how the Republicans torpedoed the auto bailout.


The Shinseki myth and the Obama administration

Politics, US Politics

When news broke, a few days ago, that Barack Obama would appoint retired army general Eric Shinseki as head of the Department of Veteran Affairs, the choice was widely praised. “General Shinseki is widely-respected, honest and experienced,” the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said, for example. “He is a man that has always put patriotism ahead of politics, and is held in high regard by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Shinseki is a nonpartisan man, and his choice means that Democrats whose names had also circulated as possible nominees, like former Sen. Max Cleland and Tammy Duckworth, were passed over. That’s a disappointment; who wouldn’t wish Cleland, a liberal favourite, a return to national politics after the way he was smeared in his re-election campaign? But reading the accounts reminding us how Shinseki “warned Donald Rumsfeld that a large force was needed to invade Iraq,” and was dissed by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz for it, it was easy to feel reassured. Here was a brave man who had spoken up for what was right.

Or was he? On the CNN site, Jamie McIntyre takes on what he calls “one of those Washington myths that are almost impossible to dispel”. Critics of the war, he writes, “have lauded Shinseki’s prescience and his willingness to speak truth to power,” but “the facts as we know them are not nearly so complimentary to the retired Army chief”.

You see, Shinseki never made any recommendation for more troops for Iraq. [..] According to senior military officers who were in the pre-war meetings, Shinseki never objected to the war plans, and he didn’t press for any changes.

When the joint chiefs were asked point-blank by then-Chairman Gen. Richard Meyers if they had any concerns about the plans before they went to the president, Shinseki kept silent.

[He] was a very private leader who did media briefings only when ordered to and rarely gave interviews. If he had concerns about the Iraq war plans, he kept them to himself. [..]

Knowing his opinions were not particularly welcome, Shinseki kept his mouth shut.

None of this, of course, means he will not be a good V.A. Secretary. It is not disputed that he is a very intelligent and experienced man, with a heart for the military. It also doesn’t mean that Shinseki didn’t, in fact, disagree strongly with Rumsfeld; he probably did. But a man who spoke truth to power, maybe not so much.

Which makes his appointment seem in line, in some ways, with those of people like Tim Geithner, Jim Jones and Robert Gates. Exceedingly smart inside players, who seem to have had a keen sense of what was going wrong even as they were themselves to some degree part of it; but who were indeed part of those ventures that went so wrong, whether it was financial deregulation or the Iraq war, and who were cautious, maybe overcautious, in approaching the matter.

No Comments
« Older Posts