Portland – Required Reading

A lot is happening in Portland, and Big Media reports are often unreliable or outright false. Our very own Crip Dyke at Pervert Justice has been on the ground risking her health and well-being to report the reality of the situation to us. This morning her report, Still a step away from Pinkerton’s, but it’s badis especially gut-wrenching, and it should be required reading. Please, if you haven’t already, head on over and share your support.

For some perspective on the reference to Pinkerton’s, Marcus at Stderr shares a historical look at labour protests in the U.S. with an essay titled How to Riot. It’s an in-depth look at the history of how the American government has handled civil unrest, and it’s frightening.

To round out your reading, I recommend Iris Vander Pluym at Death to Squirrels, whose essay A.G.Barr: Crip Dyke is a “violent rioter and anarchist” hijacking the Portland Protests, brings some insight into why what Crip Dyke is doing is so vitally important. The American government is lying to the public, and it is the on-sight reports from citizen journalists that tell the real story.

I share my thanks to all of these voices for the clarity they bring to a complicated issue.

Crip Dyke, please stay safe.

 

Rediscovering the Words of Frederick Douglass

Library sciences have come a long way since the days of card catalogues and racks of periodicals. Most records are now kept digitally, and many historical records have been converted to digital files. It’s because of all those digital files that historian Scott Sandage was able to track down the full copy of Frederick Douglass’ words regarding a monument in Lincoln Park that should be removed.

The statue in Lincoln Park, known as the Emancipation Memorial, depicts the 16th president beside a Black man who, depending on how you see the piece, is either kneeling or rising. It’s supposed to commemorate the end of slavery—but in any interpretation, the Black man is physically lower than Lincoln himself, leading critics to see the statue as a paean to Lincoln’s generosity, and not a testament to Black Americans’ own roles in their liberation. “Statues teach history,” says Glenn Foster, an activist with the Freedom Neighborhood, who wants to see the statue removed. The Black man in this statue “is in a very submissive position,” he says, adding that that’s not “respectful to our community, or to anyone in general.

As The Wall Street Journal reported, two historians, Scott Sandage of Carnegie Mellon University and Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University, were recently debating what ought to be done with the statue, and they wanted to know whether the social reformer and statesman Douglass had, in fact, criticized it directly. Douglass died in 1895, but posthumous reports of his comments on the subject have been circulating since 1916, when a book stated that he had been critical of the statue at its unveiling. In his prepared speech for the event, Douglass challenged the nascent Lincoln mythology, calling him “preeminently the white man’s president …,” but it wasn’t clear whether, in an alleged aside, he also criticized the new statue itself. The two scholars disagreed over the account’s reliability, so Sandage set out to more firmly establish the abolitionist’s position.

It was Douglass’s ability to turn a phrase that helped the historian finally locate the relevant text. It had been reported that Douglas had referred to the black man on the memorial as “couchant.”

Using “couchant” as the keyword in his search—and experimenting with a few combinations of other words—Sandage identified three newspapers that ran the entirety of a letter Douglass wrote about the statue, a few days after speaking at its dedication. “Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park [sic],” writes Douglass, “it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth …” He credits Lincoln for following through on emancipation, but adds that “the negro was made a citizen” by “President U.S. Grant,” under whose administration the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified. (In theory, the Amendment enfranchised Black men with the right to vote. Of course, enforcement of that right has been a long-standing issue.) He concludes by suggesting that “[t]here is room in Lincoln park for another monument,” and that that space ought to be filled out with works that could help complete the historical picture.

NEWSPAPERS.COM, COURTESY SCOTT SANDAGE / PUBLIC DOMAIN

 

Sandage and White have proposed an “emancipation group” of statues to fill out the park and note that it would not affect the reputation of Lincoln one bit to remove the existing monument, as there is another more significant tribute to Lincoln nearby. There are other proposals for the park from leaders in the black community, and you can read the full story at Atlas Obscura.

Law and Order Are Not Intrinsically Good Things

Trump likes to refer to himself as the president of “Law And Order” these days and his sycophants in the Geezers Only  Party repeat those three words as a mantra. And their voters, presumably, lap it up as a chant worth following, as if those words represent something intrinsically good.

They do not.

Laws can be, and quite often are, impractical, counter-productive, or downright immoral and wrong. Lawful behavior is only as good as the laws that it follows, and unlawful behavior is only as bad as the laws it breaks are good. The order that ensues from enforcement of laws is in this regard completely value-neutral. It has no moral property in itself, it only reflects that of the legal system that has brought it into existence.

To anyone who yearns for Law and Order and not paying particular attention to what kind of Law and what kind of Order, I would like to put forth following points for consideration:

  • In the former USSR and indeed the whole Eastern Bloc order was rigorously enforced and kept by harsh punishments against anyone who disobeyed the law.  And if that is too far in the past for you, today’s China has plenty of laws too, and oh boy do the police keep order there. I could also Godwin it here and say Nazi Germany has had many laws about what can and cannot be done by whom and to whom and its orderliness was quite proverbial, with some quite fancy police departments enforcing said laws.
  • The people who cry for “Law and Order” in USA today are often those who bemoan the dangers of Communism and Socialism and whatnot.

Draw from that any conclusions you want.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 35 – The Elusive Socialism

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give a perfect and objective evaluation of anything but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty-eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


At school we were constantly reminded that we are living in a socialist country that takes great care of its people, and where everything belongs to everybody. However, one of my schoolmates has once said “If you read the definition of socialism in a dictionary, you realize we are not actually living in socialism”. Which is a pretty deep insight for someone under thirteen. But was he right?

The blaring of propaganda was constant, overt as well as covert, and it all was poised to inform us about all the ills the societies to the west of us suffer (most of which were, even in hindsight, spot-on) and all the wondrous technological and social advancements that the USSR has made over its competitors (which were, in hindsight, grossly oversold). But the system never got rid of several things that it has criticized. Like private property and money-based economics. Which has left it with the pesky problem of ownership of the means of productions, which I have addressed partially in the past. I have seen this named “state-run capitalism” in comments on FtB, which is a term that I have always found a bit peculiar.

And this was the base of my schoolmate’s argument. The people do not own the means of production, the state does. The people do not have a say in how the fruits of their labor get distributed and used, the communist party does that. And thus the society is not truly socialist and equal, because there are still social strata, only not divided by the personal wealth, but by the status within the ruling party structure. After which this stratification got, of course, cemented by personal wealth too, since the party top brass were not too shy about accruing for themselves a bigger piece of the pie than the rest has got, as it always happens.

But did this make the country “not socialist”? I personally do not think so. It was still definitively a state whose policies were leftist and, at least on paper, aimed at the common good. But the peons were expected to shut up and work their asses off for their masters under the guise of working for the greater good, with the promise that the socialist paradise is just around the corner, if not for them, then for their children for sure. And its arrival was postponed for nearly two generations before the system finally collapsed. Any and all actual progress, both social and technological, was made only extremely slowly, because every criticism implying that the current course is perhaps not ideal, however mildly stated, could have dire consequences for the person making it.

The people have learned this lesson the hard way before I was even thought of, in spring 1968. That year the Czechoslovak communist party underwent a widely popular reform and started “Socialism with human face” politics, which has kept the socialist part of the party agenda but has intended to make away with authoritarianism. The USSR did not like it and invaded us. The top czechoslovak politicians were forced to sign a treaty literally at gunpoint and that was the end of any and all attempts at making their version of socialism viable in the long term. Because the “socialism” was not what was problematic with the regime’s politics, the “authoritarianism” was.

But since those two were (and arguably still are) inseparable in the minds of the communist parties of greatest socialist states in history, it is no wonder they are inseparable in many people’s minds both in the west and east to this very day too. Thus the leftist politics of the sixties has built an invisible iron curtain in our colective consciousness between socialism and freedom. And tearing that one down seems more difficult than the real one.

Tree Tuesday

In the small Palestinian village of Al Walaja, just outside Bethlehem,  lives an ancient olive tree, that may be one of the oldest trees in the world. It has been carbon-dated to an age range of 3,000 to 5,500 years old and it is the job of one man, Salah Abu Ali, to protect it.

Ali wakes every morning to tend to his family’s orchard. Entering through a neighbor’s yard, he trots down the grove’s narrow paths in a way that belies his age, occasionally reaching down to quickly toss aside trespassing stones; briskly descending verdant terraces, one after another until he comes to the edge of the orchard. It is at this edge where Ali spends most of his day, pumping water from the spring above or tending to the soil. It is where he sometimes sleeps at night, and where he hosts people that have made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But many come for the tree, an olive that some believe to be the oldest in the world.

The olive tree of Al Walaja, like all trees in the world, is under threat from climate change and is recovering from a recent drought.  It is also under the added threat of Israeli expansionism.

But the olive tree of Al Walaja has become something else to its residents. Now, it’s a symbol of resistance. The village is a shadow of its former self. Most of the village’s residents were forced to flee their homes amidst heavy fighting during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. “In 1948, we came here and slept under the trees,” Ali says, as Israeli military personnel chant during drills in the valley below. After the dust settled and the demarcation lines were drawn, Al Walaja had lost around 70 percent of its land.
The town was further eroded after Israel captured the West Bank during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel then expanded the Jerusalem Municipality, annexing around half of what was left of the village.

More recently, Israel’s separation wall threatened to once again cut the village in two, isolating the Al Badawi tree. But residents won a court battle which saw the chain-link wall diverted around the village. The wall now stands just below Ali’s family orchard, separating the new village from the site of the old, just across a narrow valley.

Despite the court victory, dozens of homes have been bulldozed to make way for the Jerusalem Municipality. Al Walaja still sits isolated, hemmed in on nearly all sides by Israel’s separation wall and no longer able to access uncultivated farmland or many of the village’s once-famed springs.

It is because of these threats that Ali guards the ancient olive tree, and he considers it his life work to protect it. Ali now receives a small sum from The Palestinian Authority to take care of the tree, due to reports of Israeli settlers and soldiers cutting down and burning ancient olive trees in other parts of the West Bank.

According to the United Nations, approximately 45 percent of agricultural land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip contain olive trees, providing income for some 100,000 families. “The Palestinians are attached to the olive tree,” Ali says. “The olive tree is a part of our resistance and a part of our religion. With the olive tree we live, and without it we don’t live.”

 

Story from Atlas Obscura

Behind the Iron Curtain part 34 – Prices

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give a perfect and objective evaluation of anything but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty-eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


There is a lot of sentiment now about that during the Communist Party’s reign everything was cheaper and thus living was by default better. But that is not something I wish to talk about since it is really difficult to evaluate. Statistics about income from that era are not particularly reliable and one cannot directly compare today’s prices with prices then.

What I want to briefly mention is how wares were actually priced – centrally. Every piece had its selling price printed on the packaging straight from the manufacturer, and it was given. There was no such thing as “a discount”, there was no haggling and no local fluctuation of prices. There was also no sales tax. What item X cost in the center of Prague, it did cost in the smallest mountain village as well, and what it said on the packaging was what you paid.

(One of the biggest cultural shocks during my visit to the USA was local sales taxes. You go to the store, you pick up an item for $ 4.99 as per label, and at the counter, you are asked to cough up 6.00 or some such, which I found, and still do, to be utterly idiotic.)

Not only wares were thus priced, but services and rent were tightly regulated too. I do think that such strict regulations d were a bit too inflexible, but on the other hand, what is happening now is the opposite extreme. For example in Prague near the main tourist routes, some ware can cost several times as much as it does just a few streets away. Predatory landlords are a thing now, thriving on the welfare state that is supposed to help their customers, etc.

I do not think we have found the proper balance yet.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 33 – McGyver in Every Household

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give a perfect and objective evaluation of anything but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty-eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


“Zlaté české ručičky” (Golden Czech Hands) – a self-flattering saying that Czechs like to say about themselves for fairly long time. I was not able to google-fu the origin of the phrase, but one of the speculations I believe the most is that it originated during the times of the Iron Curtain.

I have already mentioned the centrally planned economy and the many negatives it has lead to. But I did not mention one of the at least somewhat positive things – the widespread ability to get the most out of whatever little there was available.

For example one of my uncles wanted to have a gramophone, but those were hard to get by. So he scraped and scrounged parts from defunct gramophones and has built a functioning one out of them. He also has built two high-quality loudspeakers for it – and they worked and sounded good for a long time. Previously he also has built a simple radio. And a bicycle from parts.

This uncle, a Ph.D. mathematician, has emigrated to USA when I was only about six years old and he took this mindset with him. He married a Korean-American woman, whom I have met in 1999 during my only visit there. One of her complaints about her husband was that she rarely gets to buy new stuff, because whenever something breaks – be it TV, vacuum, microwave or a kitchen robot – he repairs it. And indeed all these items around the house were visibly repaired.

I have this mindset too. I wanted a nice sturdy knife to take with me on forest walks, but they were expensive and hard to get by, so I have made one. I am not as handy with electronic as my uncle is, but have repurposed parts from his old radio project and used the speakers for building myself high-quality horn-speakers. And many other things.

But around here, this was not exceptional. Every man had to be a handyman, knowing a bit about electronics, plumbing, carpentry, masonry and, if you were lucky, car repair and maintenance. Because when something broke in the household, buying replacement was often not an option and getting a professional to do the job for you was not easy or fast enough. Of course, some were better at somethings than others, and a thriving black market of skills has emerged. Indeed the only way to thrive was to have a network of skilled friends or you were screwed.

Towards the end of the regime, in 1987, there emerged a TV show dedicated to this kind of “DIY” thing, named “Receptář nejen na neděli” (Recipe book not only for Sundays), whose spinoffs and follow-ups run until today under different names. There was also a periodical of the same name as the TV show, another periodical “Udělej si sám” (Do It Yourself :-)) and even one of the periodicals for children that I have previously mentioned (ABC) had sections dedicated to small crafts.

Today there is a lot of moaning about how this aspect of our culture is slowly disappearing. The availability of cheap goods on demand did lead to a decreased need to be inventive and frugal. Some of the moaning is just that – the regular moaning about the corruption of youth and the good old times – but some of it is to my mind justified. Indeed when working in Germany, I was often able to come up with creative solutions to some problems with the things I found in a drawer, exactly because that is what I was used to doing, whilst some of my colleagues were content with listing through a catalog.

I think that being poor is not a virtue, but being frugal and inventive is. The only problem that remains is how to raise inventive and frugal people when being lazy and wasteful is easier.

The Art of Book Design: The Poetical works of John Keats

Today’s book was sent in by one of our readers, Vanessa. The book has a simple cover, but it’s beautiful inside and comes with a touching story that Vanessa is graciously sharing with all of us.

John Keats. The Poetical Works of John Keats. London, Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1917

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