American Exceptionalism – Leftie Edition

I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, in a Warsaw Pact country. We were taught that this is the great alliance of socialist countries banding together to counterbalance the evil imperialist NATO. Lead by the great and both technically and socially advanced USS. And in my childhood naivety, I really believed that the USSR is The Land Where Tomorrow Already Means Yesterday (“Země kde zítra již znamená včera”, a bonmot that was bandied about very often). I believed in USSR exceptionalism.

We were taught a lot of things about how evil NATO is and how good the Warsaw Pact is, but we were not told that the Warsaw Pact is possibly the only ostensibly defensive alliance in history that has never defended anyone from anything but attacked its own members instead – the occupation of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. I do not remember ever learning about that at school, but admittedly the regime fell apart at about the same time when we were reaching recent history in our curriculum.

Later on, when I learned about it, it was a revelation. Not an exceptionally sudden one, it did not come to me as an epiphany one sunny morning, but one that evolved and matured over the years as I absorbed new and new information about what NATO did and what Warsaw Pact did, but a revelation nevertheless. And not a nice one – the world superpowers are not divided into good guys and bad guys, they are divided only into bad guys whose badness depends on your vantage point.

One can justifiably show to various parts of the world, mostly in the Global South and in the Middle East, where the USA and NATO have done a lot of harm. There were coups instigated, democratically elected governments overthrown, countries unjustly invaded, and war crimes committed. The end result was invariably political chaos and instability from which none of the afflicted countries has fully recovered.

However, in central and eastern Europe NATO was not the bad guy. Here the bad guy was the USSR. People in Eastern Europe in general and in Ukraine specifically do not, on average, need much encouragement to not like Russia and like NATO. And they do exactly that, in fact. Using their own thinking, deciding in their own interest. NATO never harmed them. The USSR (Russia) did. Czechia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – none of them needed to have their arms twisted to want to join NATO as security against Russia who never really ceased to be a threat and whose occupation forces have left just one generation ago – with scars from that occupation still being visible to those willing to look.

With the war in Ukraine, a lot of people in the comments at FtB are spending a lot of time bemoaning the evils of NATO and how it was NATO’s evil machinations that have caused the Ukrainian people to turn on their pro-russian president in 2014 and kick him out. But the EU, Russia, and the USA all have a political and financial stake in Ukraine, yet apparently only the USA and the EU have managed to persuade Ukrainians to want to ally with them. And why is that? It is not some unique evil capability that only CIA has that has persuaded the Ukrainian people to decide to want to join the EU and NATO. It is because Russia has harmed them. And now continues to harm them and tells, quite loudly, that it intends to continue to do so.

The right-wingers think the USA is exceptional, the Shining City on a Hill, unique, perfect in every way. That is daft. But to believe that every decision everywhere that aligns with the USA interests is always and only the result of some nefarious USA machinations is equally daft. It is American exceptionalism too, only turned inside out. If you consider yourself a leftist, really try to treat all people equally. Allow both pro- and against-USA-aligned actors to have their own agency.

There Used to Be a Railway Here…

We had a planned power outage today morning so I went for a long walk instead of working. I did not take my camera with me, but I did snap a few pictures with my phone. let’s start with a picture of “find teh sleeper”.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Did you find it? What looks like a strangely shaped valley in a forest is a former railway road. The signs are still there if one looks for them. Unnatural basalt gravel (we are on phyllite here, which, btw. is suitable for making natural whetstones). And sleepers buried in the moss and ferns. Look, there is another one, a few meters further.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

And the unnatural valley is suddenly cut short by an earth mound completely overgrown with half-century-old trees today. I forgot to take pictures of their roots. Next is a vestige of the reason why this railroad is now defunct and derelict.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.t

This metal pole was upright when I was a kid and a sign “Caution, state border ahead!” was on it. And although this particular border was with Eastern Germany, the sentiments under the communist rule were not conducive to cross-border travel, thus the railroad was blinded and nature was left to take over. If you were to follow the railroad on google maps, on the Czech side you can follow its former route completely to the border, but on the German side, there is no trace of it anymore. I can’t remember if it was ever finished on the German side and it is not information easily to be found on the internet – I would have to borrow the town chronicles again.

So where there used to be a railroad, there are now trees, bushes, and wildflowers.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

I was a bit surprised by the pale Aquilea, I do not remember seeing that one around here, ever.

For some reason, I thought this dead aspen tree and this particular part of a rivulet were interesting to look at.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

You can see a mixture of natural, local rocks with pieces of brick and some grey pieces of imported basalt gravel in it. I will write some more about local geology when I am making whetstones.

In my childhood, the end of the railroad also served as a local garbage dump, As kids, we went occasionally there to scavenge some interesting things. There are many interesting things to be found in a garbage dump when one is a kid. This was pre-massive use of plastic bags and similar crap, so most of the things that were dumped there were ceramics, glass and metal. But I cannot even find the site of the dump anymore. It was covered with dirt and I think this is where it used to be.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Twenty years can mean big-ish trees. I really do not know the exact location of the garbage dump, it is completely overgrown and covered with trees today.

When approaching the still somewhat functioning railroad, I came by this stripped-down, derelict warehouse.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

I hate sights like this, I abhor waste in all its manifestations. When I was a kid, this warehouse was still functional, covered in corrugated sheets, and used to load and unload cargo wagons. Although not very much. The whole town went downhill after the deportation of Suddeten Germans after WW2. It was deliberate – the communist regime had no interest in maintaining a town so close to the Iron Curtain, thus the deported population of over 15.000 was filled in with barely over 2.000 people from all over Czechoslovakia, with some of them being sent here as a punishment for misbehaving. But there was still some industry here and thus some need to move cargo. And there were also personal trains coming by regularly. In fact, the train was the main means of transport for me when I was studying at the university twenty years ago. Oh, how the time flies.

Here you can see the nowadays official end of the railroad. In the growth to the left is hidden the decrepit depo from the previous picture.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

And last is the picture of the current train station. It is the westernmost train station in the Czech Republic. If more than five people were to wait for the train, they won’t be able to keep out of the rain unless they are comfortable being very, very close to each other.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

There used to be a big and beautiful building here, but it was demolished in 2014. The town wanted to renovate it into an apartment building, but the owner (Czech Railroads) declined to transfer the ownership of the building to the town and send in a demolition team instead. It even made the news, something that does not happen to our little town often. The reasons for the outright demolition were never explained, but since the building was carefully disassembled with the healthy wooden boards and timbers from the rafters and the good-quality old-time fired bricks being hauled away neatly packed on palettes, my personal suspicion is that someone rich somewhere greased some palms in order to get cheap building material. Although that might be just my paranoia speaking and the demolition was a simple act of incompetence and not of malice. Either way, it is definitively a legacy of our libertarian-leaning governments that ruled our country since the fall of the iron curtain. That has led to infrastructure being neglected and overemphasis on cars, like in the west.

The EU has stepped in a bit lately to fill the gap in financing rural communities’ infrastructure, but it was too late for the railroad.

Sigh.

Голодомо́р

Simon Whistler has made an excellent video essay about the Holodomor in Ukraine.

Content warning: graphic depictions of human suffering.

The Czech language has a similarily sounding word “hladomor” which means simply famine. I always understood it to be a combination of the words for hunger (“hlad”) and plague (“mor”). That might be a case of folk etymology though, the expert opinion one for the Czech word I could not find online. The Ukrainian term came according to Wikipedia from “морити голодом” i.e. torture by hunger. Whether the two words are false friends stemming from different roots or if they share common ancestry is however secondary to one fact that I have learned only recently – the Ukrainian language does sound a bit like in between Russian and Slovak/Czech, which should not be surprising, so I am in fact able to understand spoken Ukrainian a bit better than Russian (still not very well without subtitles though). One such similarity to Czech is that Г in Ukrainian is pronounced as “H” in Czech (in English like the H in  “have”) and not as Czech “G” like in Russian (in English like the g in “grave”).

A linguistic interlude aside, whilst I knew from school about a number of famines throughout history, The Holodomor was completely unknown to me until well after the fall of the Iron Curtain. During my education, the collectivization in the USSR in the 1930s and in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s was always taught as a quick and glowing success of the regime. The demonization of the Kulaks, as mentioned in the video, continued well right until the end of the regime. We were taught that some farmers refused to join колхо́з and were punished as the dastardly criminals they were, but the sheer scale was never mentioned, nor was the fact that this was done along national borders. And that there ever was a famine in the USSR was not denied just because it was never mentioned at all. Maybe it would be mentioned later on with some west-blaming if the regime did not fall, but I doubt it. I have checked the most comprehensive world history book from that era that I own, an official textbook for high-school curriculum and it portrays the era s as I have just described – blaming only the kulaks and mentioning it all as just some isolated setbacks by some rebels who received some non-specified punishment. No mention of famine at all. Only a very brief mention of Stalin’s cult of personality and his “heavy-handed” dealing with problems (an understatement if I ever saw one).

And thus a genocidal act of a paranoid power-hungry maniac fell from history books for three generations. Not the first one, not the last one either.

 

Brown vs. White Refugees and Poland

This article might be misunderstood as an apologia for racism or a misdirection, so I must start it with a statement:

Please do not mistake an explanation for an excuse.

There is a lot of racism towards non-white people in all of Europe. It is strong in the Slavic nations and it is indeed very strong in Poland, which is currently ruled by a racist covert clerical-fascist party (which luckily does not have overwhelming majority support yet I might add). This does no doubt play a significant role in Poland’s willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees readily, whilst it was refusing Syrians staunchly for the last few years. A policy that I find abhorrent and which should never be in place. Czechia is guilty of the same thing and I oppose that too. I criticize my own government for this and I shall continue to do so.

However, that is most definitively not the sole reason and it might not even be the main reason in this particular case. In my opinion, the main reason here is not that Ukrainian refugees are white, but that the aggressor they are fleeing is Russia and the refugees are Slavs.

There is a lot of panslavic sentiment still floating around (I have written about it before). Slavic people do have a shared identity and they do feel some connection with each other. One of the reasons for that apart from some intelligibility of our languages is that most Slavic nations were oppressed minorities pretty much everywhere for several hundred years, many gaining independence from an oppressive regime only very recently.

But wait, you might say, aren’t Russians Slavs? Yes, they are.

And they are probably the single exception to the rule since they were mostly the oppressors, certainly for the last few hundred years. Poles do not like Russians specifically that much. Russia played for example no insignificant role in destabilizing and partitioning the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a way that eerily resembles current events in Ukraine. And they did not rule their part of Poland exactly kindly afterward either.

Poles and Ukrainians thus share not only a generic common Slavic identity but also a relatively recent common history. They were both compatriots and allies as well as enemies and rivals in that history, but not very recently and those differences pale with one thing they have common very recently indeed –  a ruthless oppressor, Russia. Ukrainians did not forget the Holodomor, Poles did not forget the Katyn massacre and both definitively remember the forty-something years of being dictated what to even think from Moscow afterward.

It is all of course much more complicated than I can ever hope to describe in a short blog post even if I knew everything there is to know about it. And motivations on an individual level always vary wildly. It definitively is not as simple as “Poles think brown people bad, white people good”, although a lot of (not only) Poles are no doubt like that.

Russian Empire

I got very confused and indeed even angry with a comment written on Pharyngula. Not with the commenter, who I do not think has any malicious intent, but with the contents of the comment which make no sense to me and sound downright typically American ignorant.

For what I gather from Nina Khruscheva’s explanation, Biden’s idea that Putin wants to resurrect the USSR is incorrect. He also doesn’t want to resurrect the the Russian Empire. Putin doesn’t like revolutions apparently.

What he wants, it seems, is similar to the united Arab state Baathists like Hussein and Assad want in the Middle East. In Putin’s case, he wants a pan-Slavic state that he rules with an iron fist.

I know that most readers and commenters on FtB are Americans and thus are writing mostly from an American perspective and reading sources that were either written from an American perspective or were filtered through it on the way. I try occasionally to insert some different perspective, with questionable results.

But even when I try to read this comment through my American glasses, it does not make any sense whatsoever. Maybe my American glasses are not strong enough or maybe I interpret it wrongly but…

I mean, what the fuck is the difference between Russian Empire, USSR, and a pan-Slavic state that Putin rules with an iron fist?

The Russian Empire was a multi-national country in which Russians with Tzar at the throne wielded nearly absolute power and ruled over all of East-Slavs and some non-Slavic nations with an iron fist. Some West and Southern Slavs had the “fortune” of being ruled over by Austrians and Ottomans.

The USSR was a multi-national country in which Russians with the Communist Party wielded nearly absolute power and ruled over all of East and West-Slavs and some non-Slavic nations with an iron fist. Some Southern Slavs had the “fortune” of being ruled over by a separate Communist totalitarian regime of their own.

So saying that Putin does not want to revive USSR or the Russian Empire is true in about the same sense as saying that Nazis don’t exist no more, ya know, since the term refers to members of a political party that only existed in Germany in the 1930-40s. Technically the comment is accurate, practically it is meaningless. And such quibbling over distinctions without a difference at a time like this pisses me off.

Putin most emphatically DOES want a Russian Empire with him as the ruler. It does not matter what anyone says, his actions speak louder than anyone’s words. Minutiae of differences between the former Russian Empire, the former USSR, and Putin’s recent goals are irrelevant and pale when the similarities are considered.

Women Educators on YouTube – Classicist – Lady of the Library

I haven’t watched more of her videos than this one, they do not seem to be exactly what would interest me. But this one did interest me and it was informative. Until recently, I did not know there are conspiracists who deny the existence of well-documented and researched history (apart from Nazi Holocaust deniers that is, I knew about those). Apparently historians – just like climate scientists, physicians, physicists and biologists – are engaging in yuuge conspiracies all the time.

It makes me despair, really. The world seems to have no shortage of proud, loud, outspoken, and self-confident ignoramuses.

TNET 46: In a Highlander’s Shoes

I do not know why the algorithm recommended the Fandabidozis channel to me, but it did. I think (although I am not sure) that it first recommended one of the videos in which he shows the crafting of some of his historically accurate-ish equipment.

I have enjoyed his videos in which he explores 17th-century equipment of the Scottish highlanders and this one is probably his biggest and best video project.

Open thread, you can talk whatever you want, just do not be an a-hole.

Previous thread -click-.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 38- Vietnam War

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.


This one will be very short because the regime ended shortly before the Vietnam war was covered in the school curriculum, so we were not told a lot. History lessons in that last year were a bit scattershot, as is expected during a year in which revolution happens. And what little we were told I mostly forgot, except very few things.

Those few things could be summarized thus: The USA tactics and behavior in Vietnam were shown as essentially the same as German tactics and behavior in eastern Europe (edit: in WW2). Scorched earth, civilians massacred, war crimes committed left and right. We were shown short films about how the US forces were the baddies and how their defeat was a victory of good over evil.

It got embedded in my subconscious, but I was also aware that the USA has helped to defeat the Nazis in Europe, including in my hometown. I was unable to shake off this comparison with Nazis and I felt like it should not hold water on closer scrutiny. But it did not get better when I sought information about the conflict on my own, which was still difficult in the following decade with nonexistent internet and the history books being only slowly updated.

It would be a shock if it came quickly, but it was not because the realization came slowly over the years – whether you call it education or indoctrination, what communists said was accurate. The tactics the USA used in Vietnam were those of Nazis, no matter how you try to slice it. The USA probably could not present itself in worse light if they tried and they gave communists an excellent propaganda tool – the best propaganda might not always be one that is solidly backed by facts, it must address emotions first, but it does help if the facts are on your side too.

When I was visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2000, it felt quite strange. There were people there, looking up their long-dead relatives and acquaintances. As with all war memorials, It felt quite somber and I have remained quiet and respectful as one should. But I could not shake the feeling that this is a memorial to victims of an unjust war and whilst most of the fallen soldiers being remembered were innocent draftees, there were very likely quite a few nasty war criminals with the blood of innocents on their hands among them too. To this day I did not quite figure out what to think about it.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 37- 1st of May

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give 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.


One of the central dogmas of the regime was the notion that everything is for the common workers, the laborers, and peasants. Those were deemed not only essential for the proper running of society (not wrong), sometimes to ignoring that intellectuals actually have useful functions too.

The International Worker’s Day was a state holiday, and we were taught at school a bit about the history behind it. Not much, as far as I remember, but the actual reasons behind the holiday were discussed and even in hindsight, most of them were valid then and are valid now.

However, as it is with authoritarian regimes, the good came with the sidedish of the bad and sometimes downright ugly.

1st of May was an official day off of work and school, so officially people were free to spend that day as they choose. In every town and moderately sized village, there was a procession and a speech by some party representative, but attending was not compulsory. In the sense “it is voluntary, but you have to go”.

I did not like the processions that much, because I do not like crowds and loud noises. But I did attend. I do not remember much, only two experiences come to mind at least somewhat vividly.

The first experience was an extremely strong feeling of embarrassment when our local firefighter truck was driving along the procession, shouting propaganda and encouragements for cheering from loudspeakers. I did not like it and even to my socially stunted mind, it was clear that nobody else liked it either. If the day is so glorious, if our country is so great and the party so beloved, why on earth do the people need to be egged on to cheer and shout slogans by an obnoxious a-hole with a megaphone? I did not put it in those words exactly, but those were my feelings.

The second experience was the chastising of one of my classmates who was not a member of Pionýr and whose family did not attend the parade one year. In a small town, this did not go unnoticed and our class teacher did call him out publicly during class for this. There were no other repercussions other than the public shaming, but I did not enjoy seeing that at all.

In both of these instances, I have subconsciously sensed a deep disconnect between the messaging we get and the true state of affairs. That cognitive dissonance was not particularly strong, but it was there and it was nagging. When the regime finally fell, a lot of the things that did not make sense to me as a child started to make sense later.

Later in life, I was surprised that much of what I have been taught to see as “Capitalist countries” also celebrate the holiday, oftentimes including the parades and speeches, but without the voluntary compulsory nature. I am afraid that in my mind this holiday will always be tainted, as it is in the minds of many of my generation.

The Art of …

… history, by Benjamin West.

Today’s painting is interactive thanks to Jason Farago of the New York Times and his piece titled “The Myth of North America in one painting.” It’s a fascinating look at the history behind West’s 1770 painting The Death of General Wolfe, and why certain design choices were made. The battle the painting depicts on The Plains of Abraham is highly significant to Canada’s founding and is taught as part of our school curriculum. There were also implications for America’s founding, though, and I’m curious about how, or if, this battle is taught to American children.

Here is the link to the interactive painting at NYT, and below is the static image of the painting itself.

The Death of General Wolfe, 1770, Benjamin West. Static image from Wikipedia.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 36 – Revolutions

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.


We were taught at school that Marx got one thing in his philosophy wrong and that it had to be corrected by Lenin – the idea of gradual societal progress over time. A violent revolution, we were told, is necessary to defeat the evils of capitalism and institute socialism, just as it happened in Tzarist Russia after WWI and in our country after WWII. After that glorious revolution, we can go back to gradual societal progress over time and the glorious, completely fair, and egalitarian communism will come. Eventually.

When communism did not come any closer after nearly one generation, people became restless. It was not exactly an attempt at revolution, there was no violence, and no attempt at actually overthrowing the regime, only an attempt at reforming it and making it better. But this cry for humanizing the regime that was supposed to care about human welfare did not suit well the powers that be in Moscow and the attempt was quelled by force. The Czech Republic was invaded and tanks from USSR, Poland, Hungaria, and Bulgaria rolled through the streets. It worked, but not as planned – the plan was to put up a facade that people do not want any reforms and that soviet-style socialism is wanted, as demonstrated by people welcoming the invaders as liberators. But weeks-long protests against the invasion put this idea quickly to sleep and what remained was subduing the population by brute force.

A year later, a young philosophy student Jan Palach has set himself ablaze in protest of this. He did not want the ideas that led to the push for humane socialism to die, he wanted the occupants to leave the country and in lieu of other options, he decided for protest by self-harm. I cannot say I condone his approach, but his goal was undeniably noble. He died, he became a martyr, but nothing much changed.

Fast forward another generation.

I was just a school kid during the times of the Velvet Revolution in the fall of 1989, in my last year of elementary school. I knew nothing about the things that happened short of a decade before I was born. I had no idea who Jan Palach is, I had no idea that we were still occupied by Soviet Army, and because I have lived in the countryside with no connectin to big cities, I had no idea that civil unrest is brewing for almost a year already. But it was. The boil of social unrest was swelling, unseen by many but clearly visible by others until it burst.

For me, the whole thing was an incomprehensible mess. I did not understand what is happening. Suddenly I heard on the news that peacefully protesting students were beaten to a pulp by police – a thing that only evil capitalists do to protesters, surely! And then the whole thing happened really quickly – and before the school year was over, before the next summer holiday, we had suddenly a different political regime and I had to learn that a lot of what I knew about how the world functions was bullcrap.

And suddenly I learned about all the things that were kept from school curricula – the deaths and torture in the name of the greater good, the lies and deception, and the fact that it all did not lead to a better life anyway. Those were not easy times – and I was lucky to live in a country where the armed forces were not given orders to use violence and the revolution was allowed to happen without bloodshed. Hearing about armed conflicts in other countries, and for example seeing Ceaucescu being shot to death was not cathartic or satisfying, it was only terrifying.

I do not like revolutions much. They might be necessary from time to time, but they are not pretty, they are not glorious and they do not lead to instant improvements. Not even the milder ones.