In the past two weeks, I have been traveling along the Danube River, visiting various former Communist countries in Eastern Europe. My wife and I have visited Prague in the Czech Republic, Bratislava in Slovakia, and Budapest in Hungary (as well as Vienna in nonaligned Austria).
Travelling through these cities and speaking to some of the people, especially the guides, has been enormously interesting. These are people who lived through the communist period. Their views of communism are not (merely) based on abstract arguments about its problems. These people lived under the system and experienced what it was like.
After speaking to several of these people, I found their stories — while differing in details — to be consistent. The communism that they lived under was a brutal system that both deprived people of freedom and impoverished them. But it is the specific events of their lives — stories about their parents and relatives and friends — that give special power to the critique of communism.
Yesterday, GMU Law School celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—quite possibly, the only law school to commemorate the joyous occasion. The event was sponsored by the GMU Law & Economics Center and the Federalist Society. I was asked to deliver a few personal remarks. They appear below.
In Oliver Stone’s laughable Nixon (1996), the director’s penchant for inventive history is exampled by a drunken—and randy—Pat Nixon advising her husband to destroy the tapes. “They’re not about you,” she slurs, “they are you.”
This has been certainly seconded by Nixon’s critics. For 40 years, they have zeroed in on the potty mouth (the biggest surprise for my Republican parents), the anti-Semitism, the enemies list (the work of a “fascist,” according to William F. Buckley), the pay-offs, the disturbing plots against political enemies (for example, slipping LSD to hostile reporter Jack Anderson), to present the image of a paranoid, insecure totalitarian.
Saturday I went to The Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Old Vic in London. The production was very well staged and well acted, but the play itself is problematic. As many readers of our blog will know, the play loosely recreates the Salem Witch trials in which a variety of hysterical young women accused their elders of being witches. The result was that twenty blameless people, mostly women, were hanged after relatively summary trials.
The Crucible has some undoubted power, beginning with the baseless accusations and building toward a crescendo of condemnations of an ever wider group of innocents. The last scene focuses on whether John Proctor will confess to the crime of witchcraft in order to save himself from execution. He refuses to testify to a lie that will legitimize the trials, thereby redeeming a life that had been blemished by adultery with one of the accusers.
The principal aesthetic problem with the play is that it veers to unrelenting melodrama without the leavening humor that even the greatest tragedies in our language incorporate. Critics have compared it instead to a Greek tragedy, but Hegel correctly noted that the great Greek political tragedies feature “a clash of right with right.” There is no such clash here with all the martyrs except John Proctor portrayed as saints and the accusers and judges as either hysterics or villains.
Politically, the play is more troubling. As we know from his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller intended it to be an allegory for the “red scare,” where many communists and fellow travelers were summoned before Congress to name names. The difficulty with this analogy is clear. There were no witches. On the other hand there undoubtedly were communists.
Last week, our ruling Progressive class cheered New York Democratic mayor de Blasio’s disbanding of an NYPD intelligence unit that had been keeping watch over the city’s Muslim community. Republican President George W. Bush’s mantra that “Islam is a religion of peace,” in response to 9/11 and Muslim terrorism in general, had drawn similar plaudits from the same Progressives. But this protectiveness does not mean that Progressivism is Islamophilic. Nor are the words and actions from on high that minimize Islam’s relationship with the terror that has struck America in the last generation attributable to ignorance.
Una Noche captures a defining moment in the lives of three adolescents in today’s Cuba. It narrates the existential predicament of Raul and his best friend, Elio, seen from the point of view of the third adolescent, Lila, who is Elio‘s twin sister.
But as the director has pointed out in an interview, there is another main character in the movie: the city of Havana. Una Noche is filmed entirely in Cuba’s capital, and the city functions not only as a space for the story, but as part of it, contributing to the film’s powerful impact on an audience.
Cass Sunstein recently published two short essays-here and here-on the current political struggles between “tea-party” conservatives and progressives. In the first essay, Sunstein attempts to link our current political fracturing with the famous standoff between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. His second essay, which compares Whittaker Chambers and Ayn Rand’s divergent philosophies and then links their disagreements to various tendencies within present-day conservatism, is much better.
As Friedrich Hayek dedicated The Road to Serfdom (1944) to “the socialists of all parties,” we might use May 1 to declare a counter-revolution of Marxist materialist science. For this purpose Hayek’s works are an invaluable resource. But an even more fitting response to international socialism was given by a figure Marx actually admired and wrote about—Abraham Lincoln.
No tourist, I think, ever said ‘If it’s Tuesday, this must be North Korea;’ for whatever else might be said about that country, it is certainly distinctive. Whoever has been there, as I have, is unlikely ever to forget it; indeed he is also likely, from a combination of continued horror and fascination, to buy books about it whenever they appear. Fortunately this is not a great call on anyone’s income.
Recently in Paris I came across a volume entitled (in English, though the book was published in France) Kim Jong Il Looking at Things. It consists of a series of photographs, taken from the official North Korean news agency, of the late Dear Leader on his tours of inspection of his country, examining close-up its agricultural produce and its industrial products. The pictures come with lapidary captions, always in the form of ‘Kim Jong Il looking at x’ or ‘Kim Jong Il looking at y.’
The idea to put these photographs together was that of an art director of a Portuguese advertising company, João Rocha. He put them first on a website that is said in the book, in that inelegant but expressive phrase, to have ‘gone viral.’ It was a clever and original idea, and well worth consecration in book form.