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Ron Radosh

Monthly Archives: May 2009

Germany ’68 and the Stasi

May 28th, 2009 - 5:36 pm

story appeared recently in The New York Times, and the revelation shook Germans to the core. It tells of an incident that took place in 1967, when an unarmed left-wing student demonstrator,  one  Benno Ohnesorg, was shot and killed by a West German police officer, Karl-Heinz Kurras.  It had a lot to do with the German Left’s turn to violence, and to the formation of  the ultra-radical Red Army Faction, also known as the Beider-Meinhoff gang. Arguing that the democratic West German state had become a “pre-fascist state,” the murder was used to rationalize the turn to terror as a tactic. The violent New Left in Germany was akin to our own Weather Underground on steroids. 

It turns out that German researchers, examining the Stasi files- the Stasi  was the Stalinist East German regime’s secret police- found out that Kurras, the policeman, was in reality a member of the East German Communist Party and even more importantly, a secret member of the Stasi who had infiltrated the West German police.  

As the Times story makes clear, “it was as if the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard had been committed by an undercover K.G.B. officer.” The shooting, after all, was the excuse for the movement’s turn to violence, since to them it proved that West Germany was not a democracy, but an unjust fascist state that permitted no dissent. Later, when the terror became extreme and regular, and the West German government passed laws to protect itself, the Left in America vigorously protested their measures as unnecessary and argued, like their left-wing German counterparts, that the West German government had become authoritarian and anti-democratic.

Yet, the supposed  fascist cop was in fact a committed Marxist and Communist, ideologically aligned to the politics of the young man he killed. It raises the possibility that the killing of young  Ohensorg was in fact an act meant by the Stasi to destabilize the West German government, and to provoke precisely the outcome that took place. Was he an agent-provocateur,  who shot and killed on the order given by Erich Mielke, the  head of the Stasi?

As for Kurras, now in his 80′s, he is unrepentant and unashamed. He readily admits to being  both a Communist and  Stasi agent, but claims that the shooting- he shot him in the back of his head- was accidental. And the young dead man became West Germany’s first post-war martyr—and a symbol of a fight of the young for more  freedom.

At the same time, the German New Left went on a virtual rampage-of kidnappings, murders and bombings- all in the name of justice, Revolution and anti-fascism. Their allies included Palestinian terrorists, and they aligned themselves with the newly formed Palestine Liberation Organization, and even supported the skyjacking of an El Al  flight by Idi Amin, who was prepared to execute all Jewish passengers.

Until we find out the intentions of the Stasi, if the material can indeed be found in its files, we will not know whether the shooting was assigned by the organization, or indeed was carried out at the moment by Kurras acting on his own. For now,  it is enough that we have learned that the supposed fascist policeman was in fact an ally of the extreme leftists in West Germany, and that the murder he committed that galvanized the radical extremists was carried out by one of their own comrades.

The Leveretts’ Myopic Advice to Obama

May 25th, 2009 - 12:46 pm

In Sunday’s New York Times, a remarkable and thoroughly wrongheaded op-ed by Flynn Everett and Hillary Mann Leverett takes up three-quarters of a page, and reveals not only the authors’ myopia, but the dangerous advice they and other “realists” have for the Obama administration.

The issue is Iran, and what to do about their dangerous march towards attainment of a nuclear bomb. The authors begin with a judgment call: Obama’s policy towards Iran has already failed.  The regime has not stopped its move towards enrichment of uranium; the antagonism between the US and Iran has not diminished; indeed, it has arguably become worse. What should Obama do about this?

To the Leveretts, the ball is totally in America’s court. Iran is not the power that has to stop working day and night to attain the bomb; it is the United States that must show its willingness to “assuage Iranian skepticism about America’s willingness to end efforts to topple the regime and pursue comprehensive diplomacy.”

The Leveretts recommend that the Obama administration end any covert programs now in effect to destabilize what they persistently call “the Islamic Republic.”  All of Iran’s hostility to the United States is not due to the extremist ideology of the mullahs, but rather to a “fundamentally defensive reaction to the American government campaign to bring about regime change.”

While many conservative commentators worry that the Obama administration is already showing it is willing to live with a nuclear Iran and is on the road to appeasement, the Leveretts believe that the Obama administration is carrying out George W. Bush’s policies to the letter. Obama’s rhetoric, such as his March greeting to Iran is simply rhetoric, they argue, but the policies he is  following are simply Bush continued.

 They point to Hillary Clinton’s skepticism that diplomacy will work, and most important of all, they are concerned that the President appointed Dennis Ross, a well known supporter of Israel and a hardliner on Iran, to be his point man on diplomacy with the Iranian regime. Ross supports “engagement with pressure,” and the Leveretts want the first carried out, and all pressure to be dropped. They claim that last summer Ross admitted to them that he was advocating a diplomatic course only so that in the future, the next President will have to order a military strike against Iran, and diplomacy needs to be undertaken first for the President “to claim any military action was legitimate.”

Its sounds nefarious, but Ross spoke to them during the campaign- not now in his official capacity- and what he was saying was simply expressing a well founded skepticism about the intention of the mullahs. Evidently the Leveretts think Ross is angling for a US offer that Iran cannot accept, which will lead to “international support for coercive action.”

So the Leveretts first suggest that we do not do what they seem to think only Israel favors: a deadline by which Iran has to show it is stopping nuclear enrichment. Drop the deadline, they say, as well as all other “American conditions for limiting its nuclear activities.” What they never address is the destabilizing effect an Iranian bomb will have on the entire Middle East, and the dangerous situation it would create throughout the entire world. In their eyes, giving the Iranians what they want now is the sole and only road to peace.

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Obama vs. Cheney: Jack Goldsmith is Right

May 22nd, 2009 - 11:26 am

Yesterday, the nation heard the two contrasting views of how to deal with the war against terrorism, first by President Barack Obama speaking at the National Archives, and second from former Vice-President Dick Cheney speaking before The American Enterprise Institute. Certainly, from first appearances, the views seem diametrically opposed.  President Obama said: ” I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.”  In contrast, Cheney said: “The interrogations were…legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Gerald F. Seib argues that there is no contest. Dick Cheney won hands down, because there is no middle ground.  Actually there is, and it comes from Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School who was an Assistant Attorney General in the Bush Administration, and who wrote The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration .

Writing in TNR.com on May 18, in an article called “The Cheney Fallacy,” Goldsmith  argued that Barack Obama is waging a more effective war on terror than George W. Bush. The reason is not because, as Cheney argues, Obama has torn apart the proven methods used by the previous administration,  but because of the new administration’s “packaging.” Bush’s policies actually had legitimacy and efficacy, he writes, but the Bush administration  showed a foolish indifference “to process and presentation.” The Bush administration, Goldsmith contends, tried to act unilaterally on military commissions, detention and surveillance, avoiding seeking political and legal support from Congress. It thus aroused deep concern about an unnecessary expansion of presidential power, one that was exacerbated by expansive rhetoric.

In contrast, Barack Obama began with credibility, speaking as a critic of Bush’s terrorism policies and as a champion of civil liberties. Yet, as scores of commentators have noted, he has continued rather than scuttled Bush’s terrorism policies. He has done this, as yesterday’s speech showed, while trying to appear still as a strict opponent of the old Bush-Cheney policies, thereby deflecting the clear evidence that he has in fact continued them. Aside from the left-wing which will now increase its criticism of Obama as a sell-out, most of the nation is responding to Obama with the understanding that he has changed to keep the old policies in tact because he has learned that there is a real terror threat—and hence he cannot keep to promises made during the campaign.

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Almost everyone has weighed in on what was accomplished in the White House meeting between  Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, so I guess I will too. 

Among friends of Israel, particularly conservatives, the comments have been unusually harsh and skeptical. The world has been negotiating continuously with Iran for years, Mona Charen notes, and it has all come to naught. Yet Iran has not budged, and has become more bellicose than at the start. “How long,” she asks, does the Obama administration “have to indulge that approach?” The bottom line: the negotiation track has accomplished nothing; it is time to put it to an end.

In the Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick chastises Leon Panetta for taking his secret trip to Israel, during which he purportedly warned the Israelis that they should not attack Iran without first getting Washington’s permission. Moreover, Glick argues that Washington “has made its peace with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” The Obama administration, Glick believes, is guilty of “engagement and appeasement.” These are, indeed, very harsh judgments.

At National Review, Meyrav Wurmser stresses that Washington and Israel are operating using two different scripts; Israel insisting that the main issue is Iran and its nuclear program; Washington that of obtaining an Israeli-Palestinian peace and two-state solution. Washington wants to continue the flawed “peace process,” while Israel sees it as a diversion from the main job of stopping Iran from getting the bomb. Wurmser’s  conclusion: “The Obama administration, which is energetically soliciting our enemies’ friendship, is at the same time putting the onus on Israel, our strongest regional ally, to prove its worthiness to us.”

At PJM, P. David Hornick, argues with a bit more nuance that “there was, however, little in it to reassure Israelis realistically attuned to the prevailing situations and dangers in our region.” Both Hamas and the reality of Gaza were completely ignored, leaving the calls for a strong move to a two-state solution rather meaningless. He sees a vast disconnect between Obama’s attitudes and  reality.  Hornick fears that although Obama made some good statements in his recent Newsweek interview, that he does not understand “the full gravity of the situation.”

Before the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, one recalls that scores of commentators predicted a major break that could not be healed, and would become even wider, after the meeting was finished. But as Brett Stephens writes in the Wall Street Journal, it did not happen, and was the last thing either leader wished to occur.  Stephens believes that although the two-state solution is not the Holy Grail, Netanyahu would do better by accepting the terminology which would  actually challenge the Arab world “to accept Israel as a Jewish State,  the way it was conceived by the U.S. and the U.N. at its founding, and the very essence of the two-state idea — and then see who is really opposed to peace..”  If diplomacy with Iran doesn’t work, Israel’s serious intention to  bomb Iran would force the U.S. “either to ratchet up sanctions on Iran in some convincing way, ideally through an embargo on Iran’s gasoline imports, or else assist [Netanyhu], probably covertly, in seeing to it that the strikes succeed. That could mean anything from an air corridor over Iraq to the sale of highly sophisticated munitions.” It is his hope that if this becomes necessary- and if the appeals to Iran go nowhere-that is what will take place.

During the White House meeting, Netanyahu stressed the potential alliance of moderate Arab states with Israel, all of whom share a great fear of Iran’s growing strength. But the demonization of Israel has served and continues to serve many of these governments for the past 61 years. Will fear of Iran be enough to change course?  Will they have the courage to tell their people and the Palestinians that they will never have all of Palestine; that they must abandon the “right of return,” and finally, they must accept Israel as a Jewish State,  exactly as it was created in 1948? Will they decide finally to build a Palestinian state next to Israel, and openly accept its legitimacy? They rejected that after the UN voted for partition in 1947, and again in 1948, when five Arab nations invaded Israel. They have continued to reject acceptance of Israel ever since. If they continually refuse, then not much will change for the better.

If, however, these obstacles can be surmounted, perhaps these various Arab nations in the region can come together against Iran, so that if it comes to that, a military strike will get broad support.

But many of our European allies, some more concerned with trade deals with Iran than with stopping their nuclear march, need to also get behind new and much more server crippling sanctions. If these fail- as they did with Saddam Hassam before George W. Bush took military action- the U.S. needs to minimize any political damage that will result from bombing.  So Obama might indeed be correct when he argues that we have to exhaust the diplomatic track first. Diplomacy is a tactic, not an end in itself.

Yes, some will be skeptical that Obama understands this. But as he himself put it recently, “I don’t think it’s my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.” Let us hope that he means it.

With Friends Like These….

May 17th, 2009 - 12:18 pm

My wife Allis and I have just returned from the start of our book tour, which interfered with my ability to blog the past week.  We spoke at the YIVO Institute for Jewish History in New York City. Our talk will eventually be shown on C-Span’s Book TV. Waiting for us in the mail when we returned home was the news that The American Conservative will not fold, as their editor previously announced. Instead, it will become a monthly.

In the current issue is yet another contribution to their never-ending assault on Israel, once again by John J. Mearsheimer, co-author with Stephen Walt of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.  Mearsheimer’s new essay is particularly disingenuous, since it is couched in the language of supposed friendship, and is titled “Saving Israel from Itself.” As Mearsheimer sees it, Israel needs a two-state solution to survive. He assumes that Israel is in fact against such a solution, and only American pressure on Israel will lead to peace. He calls for an end to the “special relationship”  that exists between the two democracies, Israel and the United States. It  only exists, he argues, (as one would expect of him)  because of the overpowering effect of the “Israel lobby.”

Much of Mearsheimer’s critique is the usual repetition of the “realist” argument he and others have presented many times. But if one reads the piece carefully, it is easy to detect scores of falsehoods. Here are some of them.

 1. Mearsheimer repeats the already disproved argument that Charles Freeman lost his appointment as head of the National Intelligence Council and “was forced to withdraw” because he questioned Israeli policies. Ignored are all the reasons others cited, such as Freeman’s ties with the Chinese government, his position of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the opposition to his appointment by Nancy Pelosi, etc.  

2. Mearsheimer argues that peace has never taken place because of Israeli settlements, particularly those occurring during the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. He completely ignores what Greg Sheridan, in the article I cited last week, pointed out. Sheridan writes:

The assumption that Israel does not seek peace and a just solution for the Palestinians is flawed. Again,[Martin] Indyk is most instructive on this. He provides the crispest account so far of the 2000 Camp David peace conference and the offers that Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak, under Clinton’s influence, made to Yasser Arafat. It is clear that Clinton and Barak offered Arafat a Palestinian state on more than 95 per cent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, as well as a territory transfer from Israel proper to make up for the less than 5 per cent of the West Bank that would be taken in the main Jewish settlements. The Palestinian state was to embrace all the Palestinian suburbs of East Jerusalem and even have a form of sovereignty over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

It may be a long time before Israel feels enough confidence in a Palestinian interlocutor to make such an offer again, as such a settlement would involve grave risks to Israeli security.

Whatever the reasons for Arafat’s blanket rejection, the offer flatly rebuts the idea of Israel as determined never to make peace. Since 1977 Israel has given up territory equivalent to three times its size in exchange for peace with various neighbours. This was land acquired in defensive wars that made a contribution to Israeli security. Israel may be guilty of many things but a refusal to compromise is not one of them.

3. Mearsheimer argues that the US has “a serious terrorist problem in good part because of its unconditional support for Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories.” He even argues that Khalid Sheik Muhammed planned the 9/11 attacks because of his disagreement with U.S. policy towards Israel, and that Osama bin Laden also shared hostility to America because he has “been deeply concerned about the Palestinian situation since he was young.”  Instead of appeasing Israel, which he believes every President has done, the U.S. should instead appease the likes of bin Laden, thus proving to them that the United States does not welcome an alliance with the only democracy in the Middle East. Terrorism , he claims, will not end until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. Force Israel to give in to demands that will harm its security, and he evidently believes that all will be well. The U.S. will then have no more terrorist problem.

4. He argues that today, many American Jews, especially younger Jews, are willing to be more critical of Israel than their elders. He writes “Americans of all persuasions are becoming increasingly aware of what Israel did to the Palestinians in 1948….Israel no longer looks like the victim; it looks like the victimizer, and a ruthless one at that.”

Examine the above sentence. Mearsheimer is talking about 1948!  In 1948, he should know, the  people called Palestinians were the Jews living in Palestine. The other residents were then called Arabs, not Palestinians. And in 1947, when the UN voted on behalf of partition and the creation of two entities, a Jewish and Arab Palestine that would lead to the creation of two independent states, the Arab League and the Arab Higher Commission rejected the UN vote completely and the Arabs living in Palestine went to war against the Jews to prevent them from having their state. 

The only acceptable situation for them was for Palestine to be an Arab State where they would allow the Jews to live as a minority.  Harold Frangie, Foreign Minister of Lebanon, went further. He claimed that all the Jews who had come to Palestine since 1917 were illegal immigrants, and once an Arab state was created, 400,000 of them would have to be deported.  And as an Arab League publication of the time put it: “The whole Arab people is unalterably opposed to the attempt to impose Jewish immigration and settlement upon it, and ultimately to establish a Jewish State in Palestine.” The Arabs, the pamphlet said, would drench the Holy Land “with the last drop of our blood in the lawful defense of all and every inch of it.” Their slogan was “No partition, no further Jewish immigration and no Jewish State.”

This was the reality, and as we know, when the state of Israel was proclaimed in May of 1948, it was faced with an invading force of five Arab nations. And yet Mearsheimer can write about what “Israel did to the Palestinians in 1948.”  The Arab nations did not push the Jews into the sea and put an end to the fledgling Jewish State, but they did leave the Palestinians in disarray, without a State of their own, and dependent on foreign charity.

Finally,  Mearsheimer writes as if Israel has not been trying for years to have a two-state solution. The problem has been not Israel’s desire, but the Palestinian leadership’s desire to have anything but that. How can one have a two-state solution if the other side rejects any compromise, even ones as generous as offered the Palestinians by Ehud Barak in the Clinton years?

The real problem, as Daniel Pipes so ably writes, is that “the [two-state] plan rests on two assumptions: (a) that the Palestinians can construct a centralized, viable state and (b) that attaining this state means the abandonment of their dreams to eliminate Israel.” So far, neither has been the case. And Israel cannot and will not accept a Hamas created state whose leaders reiterate time and time again that their main goal, as expressed in their own charter, is to destroy Israel.  So Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to focus instead on the need for economic development in the Palestinian areas, institution-building and a better quality of life first makes perfect sense.  Then, and only then, can real movement towards a two-state solution that is a real possibility can take place.

One can only hope that Pipes is correct, that in the short term, there will be more continuity than change in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The last thing Israel or the United States needs is to heed the advice “friends” of Israel like Mearsheimer.

 

 

 

 

 

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On May 14, we’ll be celebrating the sixty-first anniversary of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to recognize the State of Israel, the first country to do so. The most complex and controversial issue of Truman’s presidency, the official recognition of Israel was a watershed moment in American foreign policy. His daughter Margaret claimed that Palestine was the most difficult dilemma her father encountered while in office. Indeed, Truman faced pressures from all corners of the globe to reach a decision that would have been a challenge to Solomon: the future of the Middle East, the Jews, and the demand to create a Jewish State in Palestine.

In A Safe Haven we seek to answer the persistent question, why did he do it? We follow Truman as he grappled with the pros and cons of supporting the creation of a Jewish state and making crucial decisions that would affect the outcome. Through a narrative history, we view Truman as he confronted the Holocaust, the situation of the Jews still lingering in European DP camps after the war, and the resolve of world Jewry to have a country of their own in Palestine. Supporting this goal were significant numbers of the American public and Congress, key White House advisors, influential opinion-leaders, and ultimately the United Nations.

Along the way, we tried to capture the remarkable cast of characters involved, among them Truman’s Secretaries of State James Byrnes and George C. Marshall, British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, Secretary-General of the newly formed Arab League, Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, White House Advisors Samuel Rosenman, David Niles, and Clark Clifford, Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, and Truman’s friend and former business partner Eddie Jacobson.

Strong opposition came from Truman’s own Defense and State Departments, the Arabs, and the British who held the Mandate over Palestine. No wonder Truman claimed the issue left him in a state of “political battle fatigue.” Our research uncovered the fierce fight waged by the State Department to prevent Truman from moving to recognize the new Jewish State. Their opposition began from the moment Truman became President, and increased in intensity as it appeared that he was leaning towards approval of the Zionists’ dream.

The claim made by the head of the Jewish Agency in New York City, Eliahu Epstein, that the State Department was undertaking a “vast conspiracy” against the President, was not far off the mark. Among other things, we pay attention to the major argument against recognition presented to Truman by George F. Kennan, the architect of “containment,” who it turns out was equally involved in attempting to reverse US approval of the UN Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, that separated Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.

It is our argument that had FDR lived and Truman not become President, Israel most likely would not exist today. It is a dramatic story about the many forces Truman had to deal with, especially his handling of the Arabs who insisted that the only acceptable outcome was for the Jews to live as a minority in an Arab state, the recalcitrant British who gave up their Mandate over Palestine and handed it over to the United Nations to come up with a solution, and his own. Department of State, whose Arabists sought to undermine him.

We hope that PJ Media readers will consider reading this story of how a great Democratic Party leader, President Harry S. Truman, came to undertake one of the great moral decisions of his presidency. You can order the book by looking on the right under “Books,” and clicking on the cover of A Safe Haven.

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Ronald Radosh is the distinguished historian and author of books including The Rosenberg File (with Joyce Milton), The Amerasia Spy Case, Spain Betrayed:The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War,  and, most recently, with Allis Radosh, Red Star Over Hollywood. The Radoshes’ new book, available online and at bookstores today, is A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and The Founding of Israel

Their  book has won prepublication plaudits from scholars and writers including Michael Oren and Princeton’s Professor Sean Wilentz. Oren is of course Israel’s newly appointed Ambassador to the United States and a distinguished historian in his own right. Oren writes: “Exhaustively researched, compellingly narrated and conceived, A Safe Haven is an outstanding achievement. The Radoshes succeed in debunking the many myths surrounding President Truman’s policies toward Palestine and Zionism, and answer the lingering questions concerning his decision-making on the crucial issue of Jewish statehood.”

Professor Wilentz adds: “Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh have written a thorough, powerful, and often surprising account of a fascinating political history, covering everything from diplomacy at the highest levels to the backroom machinations of left-wing Manhattan. It is one of the great stories in modern history, with a seemingly unlikely but steadfast hero in Truman — a book which will absorb anyone who cares about how the world we know came to be.”

Cokie Roberts, NPR Senior analyst and bestselling author of Ladies of Liberty, adds: “Even though I knew how the story would end, A Safe Haven still had me sitting on the edge of my seat, watching Harry S. Truman weight the arguments of his friends and advisers in the months, then weeks, ten days leading up to his recognition of Israel. This widely researched account…puts you inside the room as the new president made his often emotional decisions about a Jewish homeland, and then watched in dismay as the State Department went its own way.”

Israel and Iran: What Next?

May 11th, 2009 - 3:40 pm

As Israel faces the possibility of increased pressure to make dangerous concessions, before the Palestinians show that they are indeed ready to accept a Jewish State alongside their own, it becomes even more important to provide information necessary for those who must continually act to defend Israel’s right to exist.

An exemplary and first rate article that touches all the bases appears in The Australian, and is written by Greg Sheridan. He ties everything together- left-wing anti-Semitism; the new radical Islamism, the new campaign to delegitimize Israel; continuing Arab anti-Semitism, and the argument that Israel does not seek peace, only expansion and new settlements.  Pass this article around. It deserves the widest reading possible.

On the issue of Iran and the bomb, a first rate interview may be found in Der Spiegel on line with my friend, the brilliant historian Jeffrey Herf. He gives the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, hoping that its desire to negotiate is based on letting Iran know it must move to stop its nuclear development in a short period of time. He then adds the caveat: “If however, the Obama administration thinks that smiles and a new tone will change Iranian behavior, it is pursuing a policy that is both naive and potentially dangerous.” Herf reminds his readers that it is in the interests of the United States and the West to let Iran know, via tough and severe economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, that it must retreat, and now.

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My Final Words on Pete Seeger: Part II

May 9th, 2009 - 12:15 pm

Last time I wrote about Pete Seeger, my friend Chris Gersten posted a comment, betting me 10 to 1 that although I called my blog “My Final Words on Seeger,” that they wouldn’t be.  You win, Chris!

The reason is the amazing blog on Huffington Post- yes the liberal Huffington Post- by writer Jesse Larner, a man of the Left, and a devoted fan of traditional folk music. Lo and behold, Larner is even tougher on old Pete than me! I better watch out or my reputation will dwindle. Larner confesses that although he is supposed to feel “mystically uplifted by the dean of activist folkies,”  he writes, “I never could stand Pete.” Boy, I can just see his hate mail arriving in the droves in his email box. The HuffPo will be overwhelmed, and his blog will endanger their server.

The reason he dislikes him is that he argues Seeger’s music- which he argues is not really folk music- “has done tremendous damage, and his politics” have done even more. He writes that the music the 50′s and early 60′s folk groups sang were not the real thing, but “denatured coffee-house comforts that have little do with the life that informed the originals.”

That argument goes back to something I wrote decades ago. In fact, it was my very first published article, appearing in Sing Out! way back in 1959! It was called “Commercialism and the Folk Music Revival,” and it too kicked up a storm among fans of The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, and all those ersatz groups. I argued therein that these so-called folk groups were nothing but “prostitutes with banjos and guitars,” (I was not too subtle back then) and the music they sang took all the power away from the original artists whom they were covering.

I did, however, exempt Seeger and The Weavers from my critique. Back then, I believed that they made the songs more accessible, and would lead people back to the originals. Now, it is Bruce Springsteen that serves that task, as I argued here.

But Larner deserves great credit for putting into words what is so special and exciting about the great traditional artists that we thankfully can still access on newly remastered CD’s, some from back in the 1920′s. He compares Doc Watson’s version of “Tom Dooley” favorably to the hit single of The Kingston Trio, which he rightfully says is full of “anguished artistry.” One might also listen to the original the Trio and Watson learned it from, the old recording “Tom Dula”  by Frank Warner, who collected the song on his travels. All of the copycats, he says, are guilty of “bowdlerization of the folk tradition.”

Larner also makes a good comparison between Pete and Bob Dylan, the latter who was once seen as the folk/protest successor to Woody Guthrie. Seeger, he claims, came from a distinguished family of musicians and academics, filled with CP style “class-consciousness.”  They believed that “art is a weapon,” a slogan Seeger adopted for himself in the 30′s and 40′s. Dylan, on the other hand, came to music without this old Left political agenda. When his Trotskyist friends at UM tried to proselytize him, it didn’t take, just as Dave Van Ronk failed when he did his best to convert and educate Dylan.  What Dylan did, Larner writes, was to “bend the tradition to his personal artistic purposes, while still being true to his essence and power.”  His songs made a point in a subtle fashion, and he steered clear, for the most part, of “over polemic.” It was Dylan who rudely told his friend Phil Ochs, “You’re not a singer-songwriter, Phil, you’re a journalist.”

Dylan, he writes, was “nobody’s spokesman, nobody’s pet ‘protest’ singer.” Quite true. Most people do not realize that Dylan never showed up for any anti-Vietnam war protest rally or event, despite many people assuming he was part of it. Turning to Dylan’s famous going electric at Newport 1965, Larner speculates that Seeger’s much repeated claim (including in Jim Brown’s recent movie) was only upset because the sound was so poor, and people couldn’t hear Dylan’s socialist message, is what Larner calls “a lie, or more charitably, an example of the malleability of self-interested memory.”

Larner is more correct than he realizes. He obviously did not read the new edition of David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, published by Villard Books in 2008. Seeger gave Dunaway his actual diaries.  In them Seeger wrote: “Last week in Newport I ran to hide my eyes and ears because I could not bear either the screaming of the crowd nor some of the most destructive music this side of Hell. Who knows, but I am one of the fangs that sucked Bob dry? It is in the hope that I can learn that I write these words asking question I need help to answer; using language I never intended; hoping perhaps I’m wrong. But if I’m right, hoping that it won’t happen again.”

It was but a short trip to one of the left-wing protest singer types screaming out during Dylan’s British tour, “Judas,” as he got on stage with The Band. And Pete’s colleague and fellow Communist, the late Ewan MacColl, publicly condemned Dylan in the pages of Sing Out! for abandoning folk music and the Guthrie-Seeger oeuvre for his own personal stream of consciousness songwriting.

Turning to politics, Larner actually endorses my political critique of Seeger- a brave thing for a man of the Left to do. And he ridicules Seeger’s words explaining that it wasn’t simply Stalinism or Leninism that was wrong, but simply “the human faith in violence.” He points out something I did not know- that Pete recently received a medal of honor from Fidel Castro, that probably stands alongside the one he got from President Bill Clinton after the Kennedy Center awards.  Seeger’s so called idealism, Larner writes, “is disgusting.”

Getting an honor from Castro, Larner says, “is one of those clarifying events for those who may be trying to figure out how to think of Seeger.”In other words, it’s not just Pete’s past in the30′s and 40′s that we’re taking into account. It’s his politics today, in the world in which we now live. And to accept an award from the ruler of the Cuban gulag is both inexcusable and unconscionable.  

So Larner has it right: One must view Seeger’s music and politics as a whole—”as a kind of condescending sentimental reductionism that masked a fierce identification with power.” All that stuff by Seeger about “fighting for justice,” he writes, is something Seeger never really meant.

Here, I must disagree. The great irony is that Seeger did care, deeply, about the deprivation of civil rights by American blacks in the era of segregation. He stood with them and made their songs popular. He was right; he was part of a cause of those who sought to make American democracy a complete reality for all its citizens. His mistake was to never get past that point. When Al Sharpton led a fight on behalf of the phony Tawana Brawley, Seeger picketed with him and helped destroy the life of the brave prosecuting attorney who brought charges against her. He did not seem to realize that America had moved on.

So I understand Jesse Larner’s anger and disgust not only with Seeger, but with those who celebrate him. The recent tributes are both “embarrassing and humiliating.” And his review of Seeger’s recent CD simply demolishes it completely as “ridiculous, earnest, puerile nonsense. And having heard it, I would add very bad songs as well. You can be sure Dylan won’t play any of them on “Theme Time Radio With Bob Dylan.”

Pete, he concludes, wants tyrants dead, but only “the right kind of tyrants,” not those on the Left, whom he still reveres.

So Kudos to Jesse Larner and Huffington Post, for his decision to write this article and HoffPo’s willingness to write it. May it spread through the internet, and infuriate the true believers of the Left.

Roy Berkeley, R.I.P.

May 7th, 2009 - 5:23 pm

A short while ago, my old friend Roy Berkeley passed away, after a lengthy battle with cancer.  Some from the folk music world may have known him. He was a mainstay in the late 1950′s and early 1960′s of the New York City folk scene, along with people like Dave Van Ronk, The New Lost City Ramblers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others. Roy played flatpick country/folk guitar, and sounded like a cross between Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie. During these years, along with Van Ronk and others, he wrote a parody of the well known leftist songbook, The People’s Songbook, that he called The Bosses’ Songbook.

Roy was also a political activist—a man who moved from the Trotskyist movement (like Van Ronk, he was always an anti-Stalinist)  to social democracy and then to Republican Party conservatism. A member of the NRA, he was devoted to the safe use of guns, and eventually became deputy sheriff in his town of Shaftsbury, Vermont.

To honor Roy, I wrote the following letter to him, to be read in early June at a memorial service to be held in the Vermont he loved so much:

Dear Roy,

            Boy, you and I go way back, all the way to those heady youthful times at Washington Square in the 1950′s. And you were always a step ahead of me. When someone first saw me talking to you, I think it was the Communist writer Mike Gold’s son Carl Granich, he warned me: “Don’t you know Roy’s a Trotskyite?” Somehow, I took his warning in vain, and became your friend anyway. Of course, back then I was a diehard unreconstructed Commie. Then, I eventually moved a bit and became a democratic socialist. Too late: you informed me you had become a dreaded Shachtmanite-a third camp socialist who saw the US and the USSR as the same. Then you moved along with your group to believing that freedom and democracy was alone supported by the United States, just as I was moving to the position that the US was not as bad as the Soviet Union and its satellites, just a little better.  Finally, in the past few years, I called myself a neo-conservative. You still beat me. You became both a deputy sheriff, a gun toting NRA member, and a rock-ribbed Republican.  Just proves I couldn’t keep up with you!

            Anyway, I was so saddened that you chose this month to leave us all. I think I have a sneaking suspicion of why you did this. You were seeking the perfect excuse to miss going to Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. I know what you were planning. You were going to bring a guitar, leap up onto the stage, and sing that wonderful song you penned for The Bosses’ Songbook, “The Ballad of a Party Folksinger,” which you originally titled “The Ballad of Pete Seeger,” but which I recall, your fellow editor Dave Van Ronk thought might be libelous. I could see security rushing the stage, as you belted out that verse:

He went for his orders at Party headquarters,
Saying Pete, you’re way behind time,
It’s not ’38 but ’2009′
and there’s been a change in the Party line
.

I guess you knew they wouldn’t allow you to do that,  and you avoided the stress that would have caused you.  Well, anyone who wants to can still buy your record of the old Almanac Singers anti-FDR songs, believe it or not, at the FDR Library in Hyde Park. At least you’re not censored down there. Better than the guy who made the documentary film on Seeger, and cut out of it every piece of footage he filmed of you. Unlike me, who said a few nice things about Pete (giving him credit for reviving interest in American roots music) you simply blasted him, leaving no way he could edit it as he did to me. You were just too tough!

So, old friend. I have wonderful memories of the time we spent at your beautiful home, where you tried to instruct me how to shoot a pistol at a target, as I failed each time. “You’ve got to be prepared for the Revolution,” you admonished me, “what are you going to do when the capitalists come at you with their guns?” Guess I’ll have to talk them down, Roy.

Anyway, when I eventually join you, I know where to find you. You’ll be part of that great band picking and singing with Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, and having a blast. Yeah, I know I could never really play well (you suck, Ron) you told me a couple of years ago, just let me sit in on one song, ok?  

We’ll then pick up where we left off. As Woody said, “take it easy, but take it.” Be seeing you, Roy. 

Your good friend,

Ron Radosh

After President Obama’s last press conference, there was much talk about his citation of Winston Churchill, whom the president quoted to justify his opposition to waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques.  Even during the brutal German bombardment of London, the President said, when the British held Nazi agents in an internment center,  Churchill’s view was that torture would not be permissible.

Now, joining in the chorus of praise for Churchill is none other than the former Brit, Christopher Hitchens. Writing in his Slate column,  Hitchens points to a little known book, written in 2000, on a facility known as Camp 020, or Latchmere House.  It was run by MI5 and administered by Col. Robin Stephens who made sure that the 400 Nazi operatives it housed were treated non-violently.  In this respect, Hitchens calls the prison “extraordinary.”  The truth, however, is that while Latchmere held 400, The London Cage, run by MI19, held  60 at a time, but had had a total of 3,573 prisoners who passed through it during its years of operation from 1940 to 1948!

And unlike Latchmere, the director of the Cage, more formally known as The Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, was Lt. Colonel Alexander Scotland, whose motto was “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,”  referring to five interrogation rooms. All of the details appeared in a major investigative report carried out by The Guardian in 2005, that made waves in Britain.

At best, the evidence suggests that under Churchill’s reign, the British military had two very different facilities that used very different methods of interrogation. Hitchens notes that spies were not protected by the Geneva Convention, and that the camps did not even have to be reported to the Red Cross for inspection. That is why Latchmere was so unique. As Hitchens writes, “the need for timely information and intelligence was then a matter of national survival, and the temptation to cut corners must have been intense.”

His point is that they avoided going to such extremes, and nevertheless were successful, because Stephens ruled that “violence is taboo.”  He acknowledges, however, that the death penalty hung over their head, and that alone could have been sufficient to get prisoners to talk.  But he concludes: “it is precisely because the situation was so urgent, so desperate, and so grave that no amateurish or stupid methods could be used to taint the source.” Stephens could break the Nazis without torture.

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