Monday, April 30, 2007

"The Radicalism of the American Revolution" and "The Frozen Republic"

By Gordon S. Wood and Daniel Lazare, respectively. Just added them to the sidebar. I know, I know, the thing is getting to be endless, but these are two really worth checking out. I was trying to find a quote by Thomas Paine where he essentially laughs at the concept of three equal branches of government by saying that there can be only one branch where power is located; if you have three branches trying to check each other than either no one's in charge, or the real power is obscured. I knew I got it from somewhere, but it's hard to find in his collected works. Aha! It's in Daniel Lazare's book "The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy". Paine's argument is really good, for the not too hard to see reason that the executive, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch serve completely different purposes: there's no equivalency between them, especially not between the Executive and Legislative, on the one hand, and the Judiciary on the other. Government is made up of making an executing laws, checking them by means of a constitutionality test is an adjunct process to real government. The executive is the body that governs, and that checks the legislative branch; the Supreme Court in practice checks the legislative branch; Congress can only really indirectly challenge the power of the executive---unless it wants to impeach every single appointee that messes up. Sure, they say that the legislative has power over the executive because they have to approve appointees, but that doesn't have anything to do with removing people who were already approved from office when they're found to have really fucked up or to have done something really malicious. Neither is the fact that they can obstruct the passage of legislation by the executive branch really a check either because it works both ways---the party of the President can obstruct the passage of bills hostile to it too.

In practice it comes down to power politics between the President and the Congress, not an orderly system of checks and balances, and in that situation the President has much more power to start with and any real radical power that Congress can have over the President has to be basically taken, with the hope that the Supreme Court won't overturn it later.

That's where "The Frozen Republic" comes in. In it, Lazare argues for a Parliamentary form of government for the U.S.A., outlining how that's different from what we have now, basing his proposal on the British system. Britain has no fixed constitution; it's all a series of interlocking precedents which can be changed by legislation. The equivalent of the Supreme Court doesn't have anywhere as much power as the American Supreme Court, and the executive branch is subordinated to the legislative branch. In other words, there's no system of checks and balances.

Yet Britian hasn't become some sort of lawless state where government either doesn't work or exercizes some sort of dictatorship over people, with the feared majority abusing the weak (yet wealthy) minority.

It's a really good read.

Lazare's main weakness is that he advocates a unitary state, like England, in other words proposing that the power of the States themselves to initiate independant legislation be reduced, making the Federal government and the Congress the main law making bodies for the entire U.S.

This isn't just unworkable but if it was ever realized it would create this continent wide monster federal government beyond the dreams of even the most paranoid conservative.

That's where "Radicalism of the American Revolution" by Gordon S. Wood comes in. Wood, who is a social historian focussing on how political ideology is conceptualized by regular people and how that evolves, focusses mainly on the initial period of the Revolutionary war and the articles of the Confederacy and describes the social and cultural changes that happened during that time. He gets to the Constitutional period late in the book and examines in detail the differences between the thought of the Revolutoinary period and immediately after and that of the Federalist point of view.

Buy it now! You'll never regret it! It'll change your life! It'll make you happy!

Christian Nationalist extravaganza in Virginia

"Pat Robertson's Christian Nationalist Extravaganza
By Frederick Clarkson

There is a Christian nationalist extravaganza going on this weekend in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It's a radical effort to capture American history in a way in which Christian rightists cast themselves as the protagonists of America's story. And people like you and me are but interlopers in God's grand scheme.

The occasion is the 400th anniversary of Capt. John Smith's landing at Jamestown. While the state of Virginia is hosting its own party, televangelist Pat Robertson will lead an alternative for those who, like its stage manager John Blanchard, say: "We want to reaffirm our Christian roots - we are a Christian country."

More at the title link. Really ironic because, like Clarkson notes, Jamestown was founded as a hopeful tobacco plantation. Didn't have much to do with god except what the article says: that as part of the deal in the 17th century plan for the colony was membership in the Anglican church.

Hmm...this doesn't bode well. No doubt there will be an undercurrent of introducing Christianity to the native american heathens there, or maybe that'll just be temporarily swept under the rug.

Even if it is, I wonder how this cottage industry of Christian revisionist history deals with the disposession and murder of the Native American tribes that survived the disease onslaught, and also how it tackles slavery.

"We are a Christian Country". Well, we're a country that didn't want an established official Church, at least. If we really were founded as a Christian country, like some South American countries were, our culture would be dripping in it, it would specifically refer to one denomination, and there wouldn't be the need for this new sort of historical awareness to fight to establish itself. The bad old liberal media wouldn't be able to censor the truth entirely. Instead, this is just an implosion of a flawed worldview that can't justify itself to the outside world. Many people don't even consider these folks Christian because of their odd literalist interpretation of the Bible.

About Elites

For Michael Berube.

You're an elite, Cockburn is an elite, Chomsky is definitely an elite, I am an elite. Mitigating circumstances don't change that.

I attended NYU for two semesters, at their liberal arts college.

Let me tell you about how most of the people who I grew up with are doing.

Some have drug habits, do petty crime, and work at the very low end of the service industry, and may not have graduated highschool.

Some went a little further than that and have a little higher paying job in the wonderful world of retail and service.

A few people went to community college.

Some people went on from community college to our local (relatively) low tier university, that's about 30 miles away from where I lived and have now graduated to a little higher place on the hierarchy of lower middle class jobs.

Virtually none of the people I grew up with went to something respected as even a low end school in the state system. The few that did got into Wayne State, which although not a terrible school not exactly the best school either. They mostly have regular jobs now.

Some people also joined the army as a way out. Yes, people I know actually signed up for military service because they had no other options for upward mobility.

The one person who might be an exception to all this is the friend of mine who now makes a steady living as a session musician, and has for years.

Then there's the rich kid who now is some sort of financial consultant in some sort of firm on the outskirts of Detroit.

Point is, compared to each and every single person, without exception that I'm aware of, that I grew up with, my life has been charmed. Knowing about NYU, knowing that it existed, not to mention getting in and actually living in New York City for two semesters, is beyond comprehension. I got into the University of Michigan too, the top state school in Michigan, which in itself is unheard of where I'm from. That I got into an even better school too, which I went to instead of U of M is beyond belief, like hitting the lottery or the jackpot in a slot machine.

There'd be no possible way that I could go back home, get a job and say to people "Hey! Remember me? I'm back. I'm going to live a life just like you." and be accepted. There's just no way. A permanent wall has now gone up between me and the community that I came from, which is both sweet because of the opportunity and bitter because of the loss.

Since NYU I've totally rejected the corporate system and haven't pursued a job or career that would put me on the fast track for financial success, but I'm still an elite because of my experiences and the access that I've had to elite culture.

Still have it wrong....what about Afghanistan?

Yeah, a scholarship kid to Columbia who now teaches at Penn State, you're not part of the elite at all. That PhD behind your name is just like an accounting degree.Do you think that someone who got a scholarship to Cambridge is still part of either the working class or the middle class, to push it a little further? At what part do you think people become part of the elite because of where they went to school and what they do? Is it when they get accepted at Oxford, or the Sorbonne? Point is, a vast majority of America will think you're part of the elite because of Columbia and being a professor whether or not you went there on scholarship.

As to Cockburn's class status, my understanding is that he makes his living off his books and his journalism. I may be wrong on this, and if he depends on family wealth that would be a major contradiction.

By the way, did you oppose the Taliban when Bill Clinton was advocating normalizing relations with them, or did you just oppose them when Al-Qaeda hit the U.S.? Where does your commitment to the rights of the Afghan people come from: from some deep concern or from a recycled and touched up version of the vengence and blood lust that was in the air after 9/11?

Do you advocate overthrowing Robert Mugabe? What about the current president of Turkmenistan? Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan? All these people who are tyrants who have abused their people. But, well, they didn't attack the U.S, so people overlook them.
Does your concern for rights include the people of Burma? Was supporting invading Afghanistan a sort of two-fer: wipe out Al-Qaida and overthrow an oppressive government at the same time?

The point isn't that the Taliban weren't a repressive government--they of course were--the point is whether going in and attacking a country and overthrowing its government because they're harboring terrorists is right or not. Using military force instead of diplomacy and other non-military ways of combatting the government is the point.

If Afghanistan was ok to overthrow then why not Saddam? Why not Iran? Why not North Korea? The fact that they weren't involved in 9/11 is beside the point because, like the Taliban, they were/are repressive and since removing the Taliban by force was a moral good in and of itself, beyond getting Al-Qaida people, why not them?

Why not go on a global crusade for liberty using military means? Regime change in any repressive government rather than using non-military means.

When you criticized Chomsky, the thing he was arguing was that the Afghan people didn't choose the Taliban, didn't choose to harbor Al-Qaida, and that waging war on Afghanistan would as a matter of course involve civillian casualties of people who had nothing to do with either the Taliban or Al-Qaida. This has happened. It wasn't for love of the Taliban.

But that Alexander Cockburn quote. When you boil it right down it says that Cockburn doesn't mind the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets. There is a contradiction there in that the Soviets used kind of the same sort of pretext that the U.S., and you, used in supporting the invasion of Afghanistan, namely that the Socialist government that they'd installed had come under the influence of a Pol-Potist clique and they had to invade to stop a massacre from happening.

It's really bad that he used the term rape.

Berube, you have it wrong

I didn't suggest that you disbelieved in the Vietnam war or opposed protesters but that your strategy in relation to Cockburn seemed similar to what people both in that era, as well as previous to it, and up to this day, use as a strategy to discredit people. If you actually read what Cockburn wrote about the militias, which I have, you see that he didn't support them because they were on the right but because they were a sort of populist anti-establishment movement, which went way beyond far right stuff into a criticism of society, yes through conspiracy theory. I can testify to this in that I grew up in rural Michigan. Doesn't make me a militia supporter, but things look different if you actually see them up close.

Basically, out of the thousands of articles Cockburn has written, on things from the Iraq war to inequality in America, to current events, a small minority line up with the right. I take this as an indication of Cockburn's independence from orthodoxy in political matters. It is wrong to judge him on this small minority of posts, considering that this isn't his main focus, not by a long shot. That's why I say that it's a pretty unfair game. For example, you know those militia articles? They're over ten years old. He hasn't to my knowledge published anything about the militias since they pretty much disbanded in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. So you're bringing up very old stuff that's not representative of his main work in order to discredit him.

What does Cockburn's belief that global warming is hoax as you put in italics have to do with criticizing American foreign policy? I don't believe that it's a hoax, and I have actually read the article in question, which says that the accumulation of carbon dioxide is actually caused by natural processes and may even be the wrong thing to look at, and while I don't agree with it the article itself isn't an exercize in ideology but actually presents an interesting argument. But, again, what does this have to do with the main points of his writing?

This is the exact type of response I was writing against.

By the way, I think that pretty much anyone outside of the upper middle class would consider academia to be part of the "upper class establishment". Your bio also said you graduated from Columbia. I have a hard time believing that you haven't met the upper class establishment.

About the Cockburn Afghanistan post, you know, that's unfortunate but it's also 27 years old.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Michael Berube, Alexander Cockburn

Here we see one of the last refuges of scoundrels: the old criticizing someone who criticized you for a totally unrelated matter in order to make you look better and them look worse.

The title link leads to a post by Michael Berube, the scholar of "Cultural Studies" who doesn't actually study any culture in particular but instead has just read a bunch of books on post-structuralist literary theory, where in passing he mentions Alexander Cockburn's essay where Cockburn dismissed human created global warming. That's kind of bad, but it's more of an extension of Cockburn's mistrust of mainstream liberals than anything else, at least in my reading (which is also probably why he wrote an essay advocating broader gun ownership after the Virginia Tech incident). But Berube isn't mentioning it randomly, no. In fact Cockburn has criticized Berube for being gung-ho about invading Afghanistan and making outrageous criticisms of Noam Chomsky for opposing the Afghan invasion and war, criticisms to the effect of "Chomsky doesn't understand that things have changed, and by the way he's irrelevant", which is something that person after person of the newly converted pro-war liberal trend expressed. It wasn't unique. It was predictable.

So...Alexander Cockburn publishes something skeptical of global warming, therefore Berube's support of Afghanistan and his criticism of Chomsky must be right. Funny how that works? Cockburn is obviously an irrational nut whose writing can't be trusted. Just like all those protesters who didn't agree with the Vietnam war.

Criticizing Cockburn implicitly as an irrational nut is the same old establishment way of discrediting dissent. They say something unpopular, surely you can't take them seriously? Surely you believe, based on my generally more kept appearance and my ability to make my way around a cocktail party, that I'm surely more in touch with reality than this guy.

Berube, you aren't a radical, you're the same old upper class establishment working your best to keep the rabble outside and you inside. With tenure.

* in response to the comment below: So I take it that you're in agreement with Cockburn's statement from 1980? After all it was a pro-Afghan war statement, as terrible as it was, and you're for the war in Afghanistan and against people like Noam Chomsky who oppose it. The issue isn't what a person wrote twenty seven years ago but what you're writing and supporting right now, which is the war on Afghanistan. Even if Cockburn was wrong in the article, he's right and Noam Chomsky is right, right now, and you are wrong. And yes, you did in fact use Cockburn's skepticism on global warming to try to bolster your own case against the left.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Wow "Michelle Malkin" on "The Defeatocrats Cheer"

Well, if you don't know, Michelle Malkin is the pro-Japanese internment author who runs a sort of video blog on hotair.com. She would be denounced as a vicious racist if she wasn't Fillipino, which she exploits very conveniently to shut down criticism of her endorsement of rounding up Asians by race and putting them in concentration camps.

Anyways, when I see Malkin talking about Democrats, labelling them "Defeatocrats" and calling them Losers, I remember one of the reasons why the Communists are so appealing to me: when they take over a country you can call them many things and criticize them on many things, but being 'weak willed' is not one of them.

Friday, April 27, 2007

'self exploitation' Nelly, Tip Drill

In the interest of not being a total fraud, instead of commenting on what somebody said about a post somebody wrote vaguely connected to someone who actually saw the video "Tip Drill", the one of the fabled credit card down the butt cheeks, I decided to track it down on Youtube and actually see it myself.

There's been a lot of discussion about the 'self exploitation' of the women who acted in the video, because the concept of 'self exploitation' is the only thing that'll square women acting in a video that they don't like. Sure, the video is sexist, but no more than a lot of others....

But back to the self exploitation. You can find the thing on Youtube yourself and judge but, when I saw it, the dancer who was part of the credit card incident, who had been acting through the whole video, seemed to be having an awful good time. It wasn't like she was chained to a sewing machine making clothes in Malaysia ten hours a day for pennies an hour.

But I guess she's been programmed to think that she was having a good time....

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Statist wisdom from the Ruhhnama

The book written by deceased Turkmenistan dictator Suparmyrat Niyazov, required reading in virtually all areas of life.

"The state is the essence of the national spirit. That is why the nation state is the realization of the moral and spiritual values that belong to the nation and a symbol of the combination of unity with political will"
****
"The nation-state is the historical method of realizing the essence of the national outlook. By means of a nation-state the values belonging to a nation are integrated. Such integration regulates national life historically and gives it direction. Establishing a nation-state is the expression of a nation's respect for its history and its trust in the future."

(goes on to say how the nation-state cannot be imported)

****

"In no part of Turkmenistan today, is there any disagreement with or belittling of one another. There is political stability in Turkmenistan. All the ethnic groups live with a single view or understanding, that is, in friendship and brotherhood.

There are no political prisoners or restrictions in Turkmenistan.

We, in our independent and impartial Turkmenistan, have established our own national military forces to maintain national security, to protect and patrol our borders".

***

Now let's see what the human rights community has to say about Turkmenistan:

from Amnesty International

Ethnic minorities such as Uzbeks, Russians and Kazakhs are discriminated against including through dismissal from their workplaces and through denial of access to higher education. President Niyazov stated in a speech broadcast in December 2002 that in "order to weaken the Turkmen, the blood of the Turkmen was diluted in the past. When the righteous blood of our ancestors was diluted by other blood our national spirit was low… Every person has to have a clean origin. Because of that it is necessary to check the origin up to the third generation." Over the last few years scores of senior officials belonging to ethnic minorities have been removed from their positions. Reportedly, people applying to institutions of higher education are checked to ensure that for the last three generations of their family there has been no non-ethnic Turkmen relative. It is practically impossible for anyone with a non-Turkmen relative in their family to be admitted to university.
...

The widespread violations of civil and political rights are not limited to those exercising or wishing to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion, and their families. According to information available to Amnesty International, torture and ill-treatment are widespread, in particular in pre-trial detention, and those targeted include detainees accused of ordinary crimes. Reportedly, no one has ever been brought to justice in Turkmenistan for carrying out torture or ill-treatment. According to available information, prison conditions fall far short of international standards. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are said to be common and to provide a fertile ground for the spreading of diseases.

....

The authorities have taken a series of measures to curb access to independent sources of information about Turkmenistan within the country and to prevent critical information from coming to the attention of the international community. All media is state-controlled. Turkmen journalists affiliated with foreign media outlets that are perceived by the authorities as critical of the regime, risk being subjected to harassment, arbitrary detention, beatings and being forced to emigrate. Foreign journalists have in many cases been denied visas to visit the country. Turkmenistan remains closed to independent human rights monitors, and in the past the Turkmen authorities deported several human rights monitors.(3) In addition, the authorities have targeted relatives of exiled dissidents in an attempt to stop those in exile from criticizing government policies and speaking out about human rights abuses in Turkmenistan"

At UW in Seattle, aka White City plus Might magazine

In the University District. There's white and then there's White. I think that we all know what that means. It's the difference between WASPS and everyone else. The UW really reflects this.

Anyways, I was going to talk about Might, the '90s zine that came out with a book. The book itself I had hi hopes for after learning of its existence. But when I actually found a copy and looked at it, well, let's see: first of all the thing covers from about '96 on and what it covers really isn't unique but could have been written by anyone who had their eyes open back then. The thing isn't underground enough. What else? It's White. It reads like the product of upper middle class WASP kids, Ted Rall not withstanding.

Interesting that these people claim to be coming out of the 'zine tradition. David Eggers, for instance, devotes an essay to how the use of the word "Fuck" to refer to sex is not good. I wonder what he would have thought of the 'zine entitled "Fucktooth", that preceded Might in fact. Yes, objections to "Fuck", and stuff about how moving around is cool. Please.

The West, or, Conversion by the Sword by Christianity smells just as sweet

There's a myth out there that Islam converted people by the sword and that the conversions to Christianity in Europe were done voluntarily and peacefully. This isn't exactly the case. The confusion partly comes from the fact that Arabs who were Muslim politically took over the Middle East and became a Muslim ruling class, although they didn't use their position to "convert by the sword" in the conventional sense. People assume that a military conquest is followed up by a forced conversion, but this wasn't the case. Instead, the citizens who were Christian or Jewish, and the area of conquest being the former Roman Empire this included a substantial number of citizens, were allowed to keep their faith as long as they paid a tax. They were prohibited from holding political office, but that was the only disability. This is specified in Islam itself. Gradually over time the people who were once Christians decided to convert to Islam because being Muslim offered greater prestige in a predominately Muslim society, a sociological pressure not something coerced.

The other component of the confusion comes from the fact that in the spread of Christianity in the West there wasn't a Christian state, with the exception of the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic, that came in and conquered the ethnic groups. Groups adopted Christianity on a people by people basis, but that doesn't mean on an individual basis. Instead what happened was that rulers of the different peoples converted to Christianity because of the benefits of being associated with either the Holy Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire and then imposed their beliefs on their peoples. Information is scarce on how this came about but it seems to be that they sponsored Christianity while letting pagan beliefs exist side by side in a kind of synthesis, with the people's gradually converting to Christianity. Since there were so many groups there may have been forced conversions of peoples to Christianity, only they aren't recorded as forced conversions because it was the kings themselves that were doing it. In the history books forced conversions are only recorded if it was an outside force doing it, for example Charlemagne with the Saxons or the Teutonic Knights with the Prussians and Baltic tribes, as well as the Reconquista.
If they let people have their own beliefs and gradually assimilate to Christianity this would be similar to the conversion process from Christian to Muslim in Muslim ruled lands. If they forced it, well, these would be forced conversions too even though no outside force imposed them, i.e. they were 'self imposed' from the upper classes down.

The Roman Empire had its own history of conversion by the sword (from Wiki):

"After Rome was declared a Christian Empire by Theodosius in 389, laws were passed against pagan practices over the course of the following years. Those who continued to recognize pagan gods were often imprisoned, tortured, and put to death. Many of the ancient pagan temples were subsequently defiled, sacked, and destroyed, or converted into Christian sites. As such, the Christianization attributed to Constantine eventually became a very violent process under Theodosius."

Below are some quotes from good old Wiki dealing with conversion in different countries in Europe, including in Spain. Notice that France, which was part of the Roman Empire itself, has a different history, because the people conquered by the Franks were already Christian:


Germany:

Unlike the history of Christianity in the Roman Empire, conversion of the Germanic tribes took place "top to bottom", in the sense that missionaries aimed at converting Germanic nobility first, which would then impose their new faith on the general population. This is connected with the sacral position of the king in Germanic paganism: the king is charged with interacting with the divine on behalf of his people, so that the general population saw nothing wrong with their kings choosing their preferred mode of worship.

Poland:

The Polish state was born in 966 with the baptism of Mieszko I, duke of the Slavic tribe of Polans and founder of the Piast dynasty. His conversion from paganism to Christianity was Poland's first recorded historical event. By 990, when Mieszko officially submitted to the authority of the Holy See, he had transformed his country into one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe. Mieszko's son Bolesław the Brave built on his father's achievements, for the first time uniting all the provinces that subsequently came to comprise the traditional territory of Poland. In 1025 he became the first king of Poland.

France:

In 486,Clovis I, leader of the Salian Franks, defeated Syagrius at Soissons and subsequently united most of northern and central Gaul under his rule. Clovis then recorded a succession of victories against other Germanic tribes such as the Alamanni at Tolbiac. In 496, he adopted the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. This gave him greater legitimacy and power over his Christian subjects and granted him clerical support against the Visigoths

In 486,Clovis I, leader of the Salian Franks, defeated Syagrius at Soissons and subsequently united most of northern and central Gaul under his rule. Clovis then recorded a succession of victories against other Germanic tribes such as the Alamanni at Tolbiac. In 496, he adopted the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. This gave him greater legitimacy and power over his Christian subjects and granted him clerical support against the Visigoths.

England:

The first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine took office in 597. In 601, he baptised the first Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelbert of Kent. The last pagan Anglo-Saxon king, Penda of Mercia, died in 655. The Anglo-Saxon mission on the continent took off in the 8th century, assisting the Christianisation of practically all of the Frankish Empire by AD 800.

Spain:

Most Muslims and Jews were forced to either convert to Christianity or leave Spain and Portugal and have their assets seized. Many Muslims and Jews moved to North Africa rather than submit to forced conversion. During the Islamic administration, Christians and Jews were allowed to convert or retain their religions with many reduced rights and a token tax, which if not paid the penalty was death, although during the time of the Almoravids and especially the Almohads they were also treated badly, in contrast to the policies of the earlier Umayyad rulers.

The new Christian hierarchy, on the other hand, demanded heavy taxes and gave them nominal rights, but only in heavily Islamic regions, such as Granada, until their own power was sufficient, and the influence of the Inquisition strong enough, to make further expulsion both possible and economically feasible. In 1496, under Archbishop Hernando de Talavera, even the Muslim population of Granada was forced to accept Christianity. In 1502, the Catholic Kings declared submission to Catholicism officially compulsory in Castilian domains. Emperor Charles V did the same for the Kingdom of Aragon in 1526.

Most Muslims and Jews were forced to either convert to Christianity or leave Spain and Portugal and have their assets seized. Many Muslims and Jews moved to North Africa rather than submit to forced conversion. During the Islamic administration, Christians and Jews were allowed to convert or retain their religions with many reduced rights and a token tax, which if not paid the penalty was death, although during the time of the Almoravids and especially the Almohads they were also treated badly, in contrast to the policies of the earlier Umayyad rulers."


..........

Wahabi Islam, which is what bin Laden and the Taliban adhere to, is unique in actually advocating conversion by the sword. However, they are a distinct minority in Islam and their beliefs should not be conflated with either those of most Muslims today or those of Muslims in most of the history of Islam, since Wahabbi Islam only arose at the end of the 18th century.

There are other controversial features of Islamic history. For instance, the status of Zoroastrianism and Paganism under Muslim states. Islam only protects Christianity and Judaism. Another controversy is the "boy tax" levied under several Muslim dynasties, including the Fatimid and Ottoman, which essentially forced Christian communties to give up a certain number of young boys who were then raised by the state to either be military commanders or to be part of the bureaucracy.

Update: it appears that Muslim rulers did forceably convert pagans. However, although this is significant, it should be remembered that at the time that Islam started most of the territories that would become Muslim had already been forced to become Christian by virtue of being part of the Roman Empire. This includes Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya. The Wiki article on the concept of Dhimmi is very good at chronicling the ins and outs of religious restrictions and incidences of forced conversion under Islam, which is surprising considering the political climate.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Truth about writing today and the Expectant Generation

Looking through the books and essays at a local store it hit home that people around my age are now coming out with novels and contributing short stories to anthologies. It's a very strange feeling, to have people who are your exact contemporaries out there expressing a kind of world view and take on society and life. Especially for this generation. Generation might be too strong of a word to describe it, but there really aren't any terms that get at something smaller than a generation. What I'm talking about are people born after Generation X as it's defined by just about anyone who doesn't have an interest in stretching the term farther than it really applies, but who aren't really part of this other generation, Generation Y, which itself is a really broad category. I'm thinking people basically born in the late seventies up until maybe the first years of the eighties. Call it the bratty little brother (or sister) of Generation X.

These people, myself included, have been the beneficiaries of the biggest thrust in progressive childhood education ever in the United States. Resources and resources were devoted to their development into compassionate human beings who could be anything that they wanted to be, followed by a collective pause as they grew up waiting for what exactly they would do. I refer to them as the Expectant Generation, not the generation of Expectations or the generation that Expects things but the generation that's supposed to be expectant in the sense of in the fullness of time bringing something forward, advancing the world in some way beyond what might have been possible for people before them, at least in the eyes of their parents.

The collective pause of expectation is letting up now and people are finding themselves not as individuals preparing for this glorious future but as people now expected to bring home the bacon as it were, to transform potential value into actual value, or potential value into cash value. I found myself becoming an adult by accident, although chronologically it should already have happened, by virtue of all the preparation that could possibly be done being exhausted. Which is why reading the writing of people my age is so interesting.

The truth of what they're coming out with, at least at this stage, is a little bit unexpected.
People who haven't lived in the world suddenly coming out with pseudo-profound stories about people leading big boys and girls lives that bear almost no relation to reality but instead recycle common themes popular with people of their social class and understanding, not really adding anything, just shifting the components around to make something that they think is in fact new and exciting but which really is just the same old same old, and not even that: the same old same old as uncreatively reexpressed by people trying to imitate it.

I hate McSweeny's. I think it prints bad fiction masquerading as hip fiction (although I like Neal Pollack). Combine that with the persistant whine of David Eggers and you have a perfect combination of talentlessness and self indulgence. Talentlessness might not be exactly the right term: these people have basic talent or else they wouldn't be able to put together short stories. But using that talent to rise above cliches? They really don't get it. You have to have a basic quantity of experience to draw on before you can right convincingly about anything, which is why people who haven't had that fall back on the good old saw of writing about their experience as highschoolers or college aged kids, and why people who don't have it fake it.

That's the sad truth about writing today. I expected a revolution, a kind of blossoming of a hundred flowers, in a non-ironic way, a great profusion of different types, creative insights, and points of view. Instead, it's just the same reprocessed writing. No doubt exacerbated by the rise of the MFA program and the creative writing programs at the undergraduate level. Other people have written about them so I'll keep it brief: how are you supposed to write if you've studied writing or English in college, then have transferred to a graduate program but have never really even lived outside of an institutional context? It's great to think about writing and practice it but how exactly does that translate into being able to describe the world around you in anything but a sort of hackneyed way if you haven't actually done anything? This isn't a kind of neo-beat plea to get back to the vitality of life in writing, but instead to suggest that people at least need to write things that at least have life of some kind beyond regurgitated stereotypes. It's called creativity.

I hope that this Expectant Generation will follow through and that we won't just be facing the remainders of what some professor taught these people for the next thirty or so years. Because that would truly suck. And besides, in that time these people may actually have had some life experiences which will prompt them to get beyond the hackneyed and into the real.

Money and Evergreen

Bitching about costs is a favorite past time for students of The Evergreen State College, of which I'm a proud alumnus, but costs are one of those funny things that can never be cheap enough. If you're a resident of Washington State for tuition purposes, something that you can be denied even if you have a drivers' license, pay taxes, and work, the tuition for a year at Evergreen is roughly that of a semester at the lowest priced public colleges in the state I come from, Michigan. Think about that. This means half of the price of very small regional schools. There is no school in the Michigan university system that is as cheap as Evergreen, and although some schools have somewhat liberal/experimental programs, nothing compares in experimental-ness to Evergreen. The closest thing is the U of M Residential College, with U of M being the most expensive college in the Michigan state system. If you want to go to the U of M Residential College a years tuition at Evergreen will halfway cover one semester. That's in state tuition.

Similarly, one year of out of state tuition to Evergreen costs less than one year in state tuition to Michigan State, which is between U of M and places like Wayne State in terms of cost. Wayne State actually is a real deal for your money...but it's still twice the amount of Evergreen in state tuition.

I always wonder when people complain about Evergreen being too expensive. Of course, if you bring this up you're accused of being some rich person who's out of touch with reality and therefore doesn't know the struggle of people who have to pay who work and, and, and...

No, that's not it at all. I just know the price of college in states other than Washington and while financing college is increasingly difficult, I haven't seen anything that's cheaper than Evergreen.

"The Royal Nonesuch" by Glasgow Phillips

"The Royal Nonesuch" by Glasgow Phillips, a memoir.

Th question, sometimes put as "what do you want to do with your life?", sometimes put more directly as "ok, so what do I do now?" is something that we all face at one time or another. Working class kids tend to face it sooner because life forces them to choose before people who go to college, but everyone experiences the kind of tension that happens when expectations run out and you're forced on your own to choose the kind of life that you want. Or, probably more accurately, find some sort of life that you can live with.

After college ends you find yourself confronting the big absence in your life of any sort of plan.

Glasgow Phillips wrote a book in the last year of his undergraduate studies, then went to the Stanford Writers workshop for an MFA, then dropped out, moved to Austin for a while, ostensably to write his next novel. But during his time in Austin he didn't get all that much writing done, and instead he became a lot closer to friends from high school who were working in the broad area of independant animation and films. He moves to L.A. and helps start up a company whose aim is to provide an outlet to independant film makers, with the goal of creating a cable channel featuring them, and get involved with one scheme after another. Hilarity ensues. Is involved with South Park through friends and merchandising. Helps put together an independant film festival at Sundance for three years. Makes an imitation snuff film that never airs.

The main strength, besides the interesting things that he does, is the fact that the voice and the point of view is something that people under 45 can identify with. Usually memoirs are either dry as dust or they refer to things that people who are less than middle age can't really get, not because of any weakness on their part but just because they haven't had the shared experiences that these people have had.

When I read "The Royal Nonesuch" I felt like here at last was someone that I could identify with, who was talking about things that were in my experience and who was coming to it from a point of view which was at least similar to my own. I had the same experience reading Gary Shteyngart's novel "The Russian Debutante's Handbook". If it comes down to reading another book about the glory days of the sixties and seventies and reading something like this I'd take this any day of the week.

Laibach--Yisra'el video, plus commentary

As is often the case, to really get the feel for what a Laibach song is about you have to see the stage show. By the way, the album it comes from is made up of takes on national anthems and nothing else. It's a take on the Israeli national anthem.



All this, that the video dispenses with many of the U.S. takes on the subject,and the fact that this was filmed in Italy, brings to mind something Norman Finkelstein wrote in "The Holocaust Industry". Finkelstein described the Holocaust in American life as being a kind of proxy tragedy whereby millions of people who lost nothing in relation to Nazi Germany, who never had a relative who suffered there, who aren't even Jewish, have taken up the pain of the Holocaust as their own. This relates to the video in that even though the video would be blasphemous to Americans, Europeans probably would take it in stride, in no small part because they really lost family members during World War II in a way that families in the U.S. who lost members who were soldiers can never really understand, and not only that but actually lived under fascist dictatorships preceding and during World War II. It's different if you die actually defending your home from invasion rather than going over seas to stop someone's home from being invaded.

People in Europe have their own tragedies, so they don't have to appropriate the Holocaust.

One of the reasons this comes to me now has to do with the appropriation of the 9/11 tragedy by people who have both never been to New York and who, if they were conservative, likely saw New York City as a place of corruption before the attacks.

Funny thing, I was watching Aqua Teen Hungerforce: the Movie, which really sucked by the way, and immediately after a scene where an evil scientist gets them to try to fly a 747 into a brick wall one of my fellow audience members got up and left. It couldn't have been coincidence. Why, after sitting through most of the movie, would this person decide to get up and go after a pseudo-9/11 part?

Wow, I though to myself, a cartoon that showed a plane going to smash into a wall got you so upset that you had to leave the theater. And you probably never visited New York, or if you did once you probably never lived there.

Yet 9/11 has become a deeply felt tragedy for people who if they lived in New York would hate it because it was too liberal and who New Yorkers would probably hate for being too conservative. I'm sure people in NYC love that Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter are appropriating their city and their event daily, on a national level, so that rednecks can wear their suffering on their sleeves and on their bumpers. I usually don't use that word, in part because in a former life when I was fresh off the boat from the country the sentiments behind it were sometimes directed at me, but I think that it's justified. The actual 9/11 almost doesn't figure into things any more; the fact that it was New Yorkers and not someone who lives out in the middle of no where who felt this tragedy the most is never mentioned any more. The idea that the people who people in more conservative areas of the country despise, artists, gays, New York Intellectuals, might not like it that they feel that they understand 9/11 better than liberals isn't mentioned.

Graphic--who runs the world, or, if only that were the case...

Found this graphic via Pandagon in a post discussing Bill O'Reilly's claim that George Soros is secretly the funder of the left:



If only that were the case...

You know, a world where witches and satanists were secretly controlling everything would be a fun place to live in.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Well, well, Ralph's in Olympia's new signage

Ralph's is the place that refused and refuses to sell Plan B out of moral concerns. Not surprisingly, they now face a boycott of their stores. Coming home I noticed that they have a special that they're advertizing on their sign: "Brawny paper towels, two for $5.00". How the mighty have fallen...To understand why this is so deliciously funny you have to know that Ralph's is the most high end grocery store in town. It's the place that advertizes celebrity chefs coming in order to give lessons; the place where wine tasting occurs; the place that sells every last little irrelevant thing that people don't actually use but which have a certain cultural cachet to them. Tools like graters to remove the zest of lemons, special tools for getting garlic to be crushed in a certain way.

Now, after trying different ways to get people into their store they're now reduced to talking about how they have discount paper towels. The worm has turned, eh Ralph's?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Rating the Bad Ass beers of Eastern Europe

Which is easy to do due to the weak condition of those countries' currencies versus the dollar. Sure, you can only buy one bottle at a time, but it's pretty darn cheap compared to domestic equivalents.

My system in choosing is to go to the beers by the ethnic grop that I perceive to be the most bad ass. The thinking is that if they're tough, their beer will be tough. Baltika for export, from Russia is badass, so are the Latvian beers. Latvia is tougher than Poland, although Poland no doubt has heavy beer drinkers, so my premise is that Polish beer will be less hardcore. I'm waiting for a Hungarian beer. That would be something. Right now I'm sampling a Ukrainian beer, Obolon. I wasn't sure where the Ukrainians stood on the scale of bad ass-ness compared to the Russians, but one sip of this told me what I needed to know: this beer could kick my ass if I ever ran into it in a darkened alley.

Interestingly, the Czech beers I've tried aren't so great compared to other countries'. I attribute this partially to the westernization of the Czechs, which has watered down their bad ass quality. Slovak beer...it's available but I think it would pale in comparison to Hungarian beer, which is a sentiment that would no doubt get the Slovaks fuming because of the history between Hungary and Slovakia..

The most bad ass groups from the former Eastern Bloc either don't drink beer because they're Muslim or they drink mostly wine, like I'm thinking the Georgians do. I'd love to try some Georgian beer.

Ok, the Polish beer is going next; let's see how it stacks up to the Ukrainian beer: not as hardcore. I'm drinking Okocim brand porter. The other beer, Obolon, was a porter too. The Ukrainian beer officially kicks the Polish beer's ass, therefore confirming the validity of the bad ass scale in predicting the quality of Eastern European beers once again.


****note...it seems that the Georgian beers available suck, according to the ratings on sites. Hungary seems to be classical wine country; beer production wasn't started there until the 19th century, so the jury is still out on Hungarian beers, although we have hope.******

Yeltsin dead at 76, "Cheeta" the Tarzan chimp alive at 75.

From the LA Times article:

"What can I say—I'm a star. That's why this guy's staring at me, right? I seem familiar, and not just because I did 50 movies, including those classic "Tarzan" flicks of the 1930s. Maybe he saw me on one of the morning shows. Maybe he read about me in Guinness World Records—oldest living chimpanzee. Or maybe he recognizes me in a way he can't quite put into words?

Whatever, I know why he's here. I just celebrated my 75th birthday, which is a flat-out miracle for a chimp. In the wild we rarely reach 40. In captivity 50 is a feat. So I'm like the Methuselah of Monkeys. The George Burns of Hollywood Apes."

Maybe cynicism isn't dead after all; just a man who sold out his country to U.S. Imperialism.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Death of Cynicisim, Generation X, Trey Parker, memoirs, etc...

The nexus of connections, mentioned in the "Conservatives Protest Whitehouse Correspondent's dinner" post, is working again: was going to write about the excellent memoir "The Royal Nonesuch" by Glasgow Phillips...then found a blog post on "Slowpoke", the site attached to the somewhat entertaining comic strip, dealing with what Trey Parker of South Park considers to be radical, more on this later, which is significant because both of the South Park writers figure into Phillips' book in that they're friends of his. Then, was going to link it to more general Generation X literature, when the eXile, an expatriate publication out of Moscow, publishes an article by Mark Ames, co-author of "The eXile book" with Matt Taibbi, about the protest movement in Russia that breaks with the pox on both houses mentality, and I found myself reading "Radar" Magazine today...marketed towards people who know who Winona Ryder is.

First, all of these things, while related, are separate in their own way: "Royal Nonesuch" continues to be good, Trey Parkers' comments are still stupid, etc..

Anyways, here's what Parker said about being radical today:

""That's the most punk-rock thing you can do in L.A.: say 'George Bush is fucking awesome' instead of talking about how lame it is that he's fighting for oil," says Parker. "The only way to be more hardcore than everyone else is to tell the people who think they're the most hardcore that they're pussies, to go up to a tattooed, pierced vegan and say, 'Whatever, you tattooed faggot, you're a pierced faggot and whatever.' '' He looks very pleased with himself. "That's hardcore.""

Yeah.

Ignoring the stereotype of the pierced vegan and the fact that he feels that calling a person a faggot is a radical act, there are limits, unfortunately, to cynicism.

While it might be nice to pretend we live in a world where people can say "A pox on both your houses" without ramifications, in the end the war in Iraq is wrong, inequality is wrong, and the US government is ruled by some very scary people at the moment. So, as Michael Parenti wrote, reality is partisan.

Which is why Russian Protests: The Deleted Scenes by Mark Ames is worth reading in its entirety.



"A story like this is tricky to navigate. On the one hand, a suspiciously uniform party line has developed in every Western media outlet, framing Russia's nascent protest movement in laughably simplistic terms. If you didn't know Russia, you'd think by reading their stories or watching Fox or CNN that the protest movement, and its leaders, are the heirs to a long line of black-and-white hero-versus-villain scenarios, with good pro-democracy "idealists" on one side (plug in the anti-Communist protests of the late 1980s, and the color revolutions recently), and the evil authoritarian anti-Westerners on the other side, with their paramilitary attack dogs.

That's the narrative being sold to Western consumers, a fable that pushes the bullshit detector needle so far into the red zone that it screams for a major eXile debunking. But then you realize...if you dedicate your energy to debunking the current protest movement, which is so fragile and endangered, then what the fuck do you stand for? What are you defending? Semi-authoritarianism? A regime whose best feature is that it is merely less destructive than the Yeltsin regime? Stasis, backroom corruption, the rule of bureaucrats and goons with grotesquely expensive tastes? At what point do your expectations for Russia move beyond endlessly comparing Putin to the horrors of Yeltsin and the West's complicity in that giant, unrecognized crime? At what point do you start expecting more from Russia's political culture beyond just grievance and persecution mania, something positive beyond just, "Putin's not as bad as..."? What can be positively said about the current regime and the direction it is taking Russian civilization? What does Putin's civilization offer to the world?"

....
"That was where I started to see a difference. In spite of the violence and menace, the crowd had a large percentage of young, middle-class student bohemian types. They were genuinely interested and involved, they were brave, and emotional and genuinely outraged at even the mildest moves by the police and OMONtsy.


I've been going to protests in Russia ever since the shelling of the White House in '93. The rebels fighting Yeltsin had huge numbers, but they didn't represent the future of the country - for the most part, they were old. They were mostly those who had been left behind. This is one key reason the '93 rebellion lacked momentum after Yeltsin's massacre. It lacked that sense of inevitability that protest movements which appeal to the young and the intelligentsia have."

.....


We, or at least I, will overlook "the eXile"'s sometime political columnist for the moment out of solidarity for bitterness, cynicism, and the breaking of such when it's appropriate...

Point is, the eXile, which is as hardcore as any of them, and Trey Parker's take represent two different interpretations of the same thing. On the one hand, cynicism to the point that you believe calling a kid a faggot because he has piercings is radical, on the other, cynicism that's aware of reality when it counts.

I'll write more about "The Royal Nonesuch" in another post.

Random Youtube goodness, to break up the boredom

Why? Because we like you...

"Just One Fix", by Ministry

By the way, I have no idea what the production company named in the first sequence is about, it's just a good music video.

Conservatives protest the Whitehouse Correspondents Dinner





(pictures at title link). Longtime readers of this blog know that while my brushes with the famous have been few and far between I milk them for everything they've got. So it goes that the FreeRepublic people, an online rightwing community, have evolved since the one and only time I saw them in person. Or maybe it's just a case of this object of protest being more popular than the one I saw.

Funny story; I'm in Washington D.C. for MoveOn's confab, which I pretty much just bought my way into, the "Take Back America" conference, and decide to find the mythic bookstore known to all people who read DC travel guidebooks widely available at stores near you, known as Politics & Prose. Get on the subway to the closest stop from downtown DC and this guy gets on with a sign. Can't read the sign but from the looks of him he isn't likely to be either a liberal or a leftist (ha!), and I have one of those feelings you get when you think that another person's karma is tied up to yours in a web of associations so deep and meaningful with purpose that the very force of the universe itself is being advanced by it. In otherwords, I think he might be going to the same place I'm going although I can't say for sure why he'd be going there.

The stop comes up, we both get off, go up the escalator, and I start the long walk to the bookstore. Being out of shape but in better shape than a large man in a flannel shirt and utility vest I get there before he does, to find that there's a little protest of FreeRepublic people outside the bookstore. I still don't know what it's about. Go inside, see some books, then decide to pay attention to the hundred or so people in the next room and what they may be there for.

Turns out that Sidney Blumenthal, Clinton's pseudo-profundis in extremis aide is giving a talk. And that's what the protest is about. He's written a book on his years in the Clinton White House, and seems to be talking about how the right did a smear campaign through Whitewater. Eh, probably, but even though they emphasized it Hillary probably was guilty of insider trading etc... However, this is about the shine of a presidency that once was, lead by a courageous man who cut welfare and was assailed by the right for a blowjob. Blumenthal basks in the world-historical significance of the fact that the people who took down Clinton are now in charge of the Whitehouse. Ah, you can picture Blumenthal under lights, with a fan causing his hair to shift in the breeze, telling the youngsters about those courageous years, adding "I AM GOD!" after the talk, just to make a rhetorical point about his humility.

Then, amazingly, when the questions open up, after the many people in the audience have literally almost shed a tear over how non-fucked up the Presidency used to be before Bush, some guy starts asking questions about Sidney Blumenthal and domestic assault. That came out of left field. Wikipedia has something on this:

"Blumenthal v. Drudge

In 1997 Blumenthal instigated a libel lawsuit against Internet journalist Matt Drudge stemming from a report in which Drudge said that Blumenthal beat his wife and was covering it up. Drudge retracted the story later, saying he was given bad information, and according to the opinion in Blumenthal v. Drudge, 992 F. Supp. 44 (D.D.C. 1998), he later publicly apologized to the Blumenthals. Blumenthal then filed a $30 million libel lawsuit against Drudge. After a long process, Blumenthal was forced to drop his lawsuit. In his book, The Clinton Wars he comments on how he was induced to settle because he could no longer financially afford the suit. He agreed to a settlement that required him to pay $2,500 to Drudge's attorneys to resolve the matter for "family and financial reasons"."

Notice that this was settled in '98. He was talking in 2003. Blumenthal answered, referencing court cases, and the guy switched tactics to something else, which I can't remember at the moment and probably wasn't as near as controversial as the above. Sometime in the exchange Vince Foster came into the picture.

After it became clear that the rest of the talk would just be between right wing hecklers and Blumenthal I left, to wander back to DC and, well, what the fuck did I do? At some point I ate. At another point...I slept. Then I woke up. I did some stuff. Then I drove back thirteen hours to Florida.

But I'll never forget the man who "The Big Dog" (as Clinton is sometimes referred to) sniffed asses with or the pathetic middle aged men who protested him.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Norman Finkelstein and "The Holocaust Industry"

Scholar Norman Finkelstein is currently the subject of a politically motivated drive to prevent him from getting tenure at DePaul University in Chicago, a place that he's taught at since 2001. Because of this I decided to track down a copy of his controversial book "The Holocaust Industry", which was published in 2000 and is about corruption on the part of organizations getting and distributing compensation to holocaust survivors. I'd meant to do it before but it was one of those things you just forget about.

Anyways, although the focus of the book is Chapter 3, which deals directly with the organizations, Chapter 2 is probably the one that got people the most mad, because in it Finkelstein talks about how the Holocaust has been framed in contemporary society, in a way that's not exactly truthful. The contention isn't about the Holocaust itself but about the analysis of what significance it has. Specifically, whether or not it was a unique incident in human history; whether or not its cause was anti-Semitism going back hundreds of years, whether or not there was something unique about Jews that caused it. And finally what is the significance of the Holocaust in relation to Israel.

I'm going to preface this by saying that the rhetoric surrounding the Holocaust is so overwrought at this point that any criticism of how it's presented is, at the start, possibly going to sound like Anti-Semitism, but I'd ask the reader to bear with me, because looks can be deceiving. If you look at the entire argument you'll see it has nothing to do with anti-semitism.

Ok, so the idea that the Holocaust happened because of something unique to Jews. This is not to say that jews weren't expressly picked out for the Holocaust but rather that, yes, there was some quality, identified as positive in the case of those who propose it, on the part of Jews that made them candidates for the Holocaust. They were smarter and more successful than the majority, for instance. This is tied up with jewish notions of specialness and the sense that the two thousand years previous to the holocaust had been an arching crescendo of anti-semitism that ended in those horrible events.

What's wrong with this is that, to be blunt, it confuses the result with the intent. The result of the Holocaust was millions murdered, but does that mean that the motivations of those who murdered them had anything to do with the reality of jewish life? And was the holocaust really the end point of a rising anti-semitism, over the centuries, or were the jews chosen because they had been a minority that had been discriminated against in the past, which resonated with people's need for a scapegoat?

My take is that if jews and gypsies hadn't occupied the place they did in the popular consciousness of Europe and that instead a totally different set of people's shared the same sort of status, that it would have been them that would have been sent to camps. The holocaust was against the jews but it didn't have anything to do with jews as jews any more than stereotypes of blacks as rapists in the pre-civil rights era actually had anything to do with blacks as blacks.

The holocaust was a unique event in the history of the jewish people but it wasn't a jewish event: it was the product of social forces that used jews as a convenient target. Other minority communities have suffered similar kinds of discrinimation, although not taken to the extremes of the holocaust, such as Asians in Africa or Chinese in Indonesia. Both groups were/are considered to be separate from the societies in which they live and because of their economic position to be suspect. If the holocaust happened in Africa it probably would have been South Asians that would have been the victims. See what I mean?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory Chapter 1: Introduction

(by Cali Ruchala)

Chapter One: Introduction



Somewhere on the outskirts, between Stalinville and Mao Valley, there is a special place in hell reserved for Enver Hoxha.



It's not exactly prime real estate, to be sure. He has a modest house there, perhaps a duplex. Down the block lives Todor Zhivkov. Around the corner are Nick and Elena Ceausescu. Janos Kadar and Ho Chi Mihn are frequent dinner guests; sometimes they get a little tipsy and swap wives. Together, they form a special club: inherently evil, they lacked the power, resources and sheer numbers of potential victims to commit murder on a truly genocidal scale. They are abandoned by scholars who flock to the statistical sexiness of Stalin and Mao.



Unable to top Auschwitz or the Gulag Archipelago, all that is left of them now is half-forgotten memories of the more bizarre aspects of their rule. Ceausescu forbade private ownership of typewriters, and held back colour television until the early 1980s for fear the little pictures would be too much distraction to the exhausted Romanian proles. Zhivkov is chiefly remembered for asking Leonid Brezhnev if Bulgaria could join the Soviet Union. Enver Hoxha banned bearded visitors, Americans and God.



This is the little hell made for little men, little dictators of tin-pot kingdoms. While Chairman Mao and Uncle Joe sip blood at the right hand of the beastmaster, Satan sees the residents of dreary Hoxhatown as boorish, uninvited houseguests. There's little he can learn from them, unless he has a taste for really kick-ass goulash.



Such is the fate of mass murderers with few morals but even fewer bodies. These dictators are like British cops: they snarl and sneer but everyone knows they don't carry guns. All they can do is go home at the end of the day and take out their frustrations on the wife, kids, and any small animals that get in their way.

Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory chapter 2: The Geek

(by Cali Ruchala)

Chapter Two: The Geek



The reign of Enver Hoxha over Albania is distinguished by only two things: its length and its oddities. He was, any way you cut it, a very strange man even by Communist standards, obsessed with invisible enemies, poison germs and the facial hair of mysterious visitors. He never had any impact outside of the Balkans, and even there it'd be stretching it to call him influential. Surrounded by larger powers, he could only turn inward, and take out his frustrations on his own people.



Enver's reign of weirdness lasted forty years - longer than any other comrade in Europe, and behind only to Kim Il-Sung of North Korea and Fidel Castro in the world. The next closest is Hoxha's next-door neighbour and former mentor, Tito of Yugoslavia, who held his title as the South Slavic Dapper Don for thirty-five years.



Albania under Enver Hoxha was a state based upon a rigorously-enforced ideology with brutal consequences for subversion. However, it doesn't pay to look at him as a Marxist ideologue, or even a dictator at all. If one pulls away the shielding cobwebs of his hardcore isolationism, his manner of statecraft seems closer to a game of treehouse. It's almost as if a simpering, lonely child were given a chance to make a reality out of his delusions of grandeur, take vengeance on his tormentors and put into place a schizophrenic plan to remake an entire nation in his own, pathetic image. His accomplishments - once given grudging respect by even Western commentators, and which have taken on a nearly mythic, though completely untrue, stature - are roughly that which one can expect from a five-year old sissyboy placed in charge of the Gestapo. Not one part of Albania escaped from this deranged "renewal" project - the people, the cities, even the physical shape of the land bore the paranoid and sterile stamp of Enver Hoxha. He made himself God in a godless land, demanding human sacrifice and taking away what would not be voluntarily surrendered.



Somehow, despite his brazen brutality and avarice, the destruction he wrought on his beloved subjects was either downplayed or buried beneath trivia about improved literacy rates and net electricity supplies by historians who really should know better. At least today they can see for themselves the true legacy of Enver Hoxha. After ninety days and ten thousand sorties flown by NATO jets, the average yearly wage of Serbian worker in Belgrade is still twice that of his Albanian counterpart in Tirane.







* * *



Enver Hoxha was born on October 16, 1908 in Gjirokaster, the pre-eminent city of the Albanian interior. His father was a cloth merchant and landowner, though it would later be a treasonable offense to insinuate that he was anything but a tough-as-nails working-class Hercules. The Gjirokaster Hoxhas already had a formidable reputation: Enver's uncle Hyen was a prominent politician, landowner and Gjirokaster's representative at the 1912 assembly that proclaimed Albania's independence from the Ottoman Turks.



Despite being such a righteously impoverished proletarian scrub, the elder Hoxha had the means to send his son to the French School in Korce. Albania at the time had no national educational system and zero universities. A few years later, his father sent him - and his doctrinaire biographers had a really hard time explaining this one - to the American School in the Albanian capital, Tirane. It would appear that his father was preparing him for service in the class-enemy royal government of the almost-as-strange-as-Enver monarch of Albania and namesake of that extraterrestrial supervillian from Krypton, King Zog.



For his post-secondary education, Hoxha took a national scholarship in Natural Sciences to continue his studies in France. At Montpellier, he was an uninspiring student and boring to the point of invisibility. Years later, when following some leads for a newspaper article on the New Stalinist on the Bloc, a French journalist named Jean-Louis Franchot was faced with a biographer's nightmare: none of Enver Hoxha's classmates could remember him. When pressed, they invoked a student who sat quietly, never spoke (possibly for fear of mockery of his rustic accent) and kept his nose buried in his books. We can be certain that, like the Unibomber, he remembered each and every one of his classmates. His student days, so filled with alienation and other attributes of a 1930s science geek, had no shortage of hatred either. It began to incubate in the black earth of his being, fertilized a few years later by a political philosophy that has so often become the very incarnation of hate.



After his year-long scholarship to Montpellier expired, Enver moved to Paris. Having discovered the universal truth that science nerds don't get chicks, he moved on to the Sorbonne where he studied philosophy. We can assume that this is the period in which he developed a fondness for a fashion sense later forced upon millions of Albanians called "Beatnik chic".



It was in Paris, though, that Hoxha met an otherwise useless rake named Valliant Couturier. The Frenchman was editor for a Communist journal with the ironic title of l'Humanité. He took young Enver under his wing. Never before and not again until Pol Pot bit into his first croissant would Western assistance be so malevolent. Couturier thoroughly indoctrinated Enver in the 69th variety of Marx's ideas, called Stalinism. The ideas of sweeping terror and the cult of the leader meshed well with Enver's personality. He soon began writing in the name of Stalinist Humanity under the unlikely pseudonym of "Loulou".



Like most children of the bourgeoisie who discover radical thinking, Loulou retained a certain ambition which caused him to keep to the old class habit of social climbing. After wasting a year reading Marx, Lenin and Stalin and smoking clove cigarettes, he boarded a train for Brussels, where he took a job as secretary to King Zog's ambassador to Belgium. One can imagine the sluggard of the Parisian brothels in that environment of discipline and protocol, making desultory comments about the Philistines around him and their bourgeois obsession with concepts like work and time. One day the Philistine in Chief found Enver's stack of forbidden Communist literature. Like a father who's happened across his son's stash of nudie pictures, the Consul General gave Enver a severe lecture on the dangers of proletarian revolution (especially for a country like Albania, which had no proletariat) and fired him.



For the first time in his life, Enver's wish of being a persecuted minority (geeks and bohemians don't count) had finally come true. Fortunately for the Consul General, Hoxha didn't yet command a clique of thugs in a Red Star ensemble behind him to act out his fantasies of revenge. Instead he sulked home, returning to Albania for the first time in six years. There he took a job as a teacher at his old school in Korce.

Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory chapter 3: King of the Stone-Eaters

(by Cali Ruchala)

Chapter Three: King of the Stone Eaters



The Albania that Hoxha returned to had been occupied by Fascist Italy. Though the Hoxhaists would later claim that their master had returned from Belgium to lead the political struggle against Italian rule, he did nothing of the sort. He lived a lackluster life in the provincial city (by scale and size, Korce was little more than a village), regaling bored youths with his tales of bohemian adventures. It was only when the newly formed Albanian Fascist Party demanded that teachers swear an oath of loyalty to Italian duce Benito Mussolini that Hoxha showed the first signs of developing a backbone. Enver refused and, again, was fired on the spot.



At the end of his second broken career, Enver moved to the capital of Tirane. Almost immediately after arriving, he opened "Flora", a retail tobacco shop. It is uncertain if he financed the store with his father's money or with funds from the Communist International. The former is more likely, as the Albanian Communist Party was then considered a lost cause by the internationalists of the Comintern. It was fractured into a dozen factions, none of them very large and most were more hostile to each other than to the Italians. It was not until 1941 that a genuine Albanian Communist Party came into being. Tito of Yugoslavia sent emissaries to Albania in order to coordinate the reorganization and consolidation of the party. He did so both for long term reasons (the eventual incorporation of Albania into either post-war Yugoslavia or an ambiguously defined Balkan Confederation), and to open another front in the guerrilla war against the Germans.



Albanians were ornery subjects to the Italians. The first uprising against Fascist rule in Europe took place in Albania on November 28, 1939, supported by a desperate strike of factory and transport workers in Tirane. They demanded the Italians leave the country and take Sefqet bej Verlaci, the Italians' puppet in Albania and the country's largest slumlord, with them. A year later, the southern and eastern countryside were in full revolt against extraordinary Italian requisitions of grain - food being the most precious resource in the mountainous Balkan state. The rebels were joined by cast-offs and deserters who had fought with the Italians in Greece and Yugoslavia.



Hoxha in his tobacco shop had little connection with these developments. Instead, he held secret Communist Party cell meetings behind the shuttered windows. Verlaci's bloodhounds sniffed out the secret behind the mild-mannered tobacconist and his shop. It was shut down in mid-1941. Hoxha's adventures through the bordellos and union halls of Paris enhanced his reputation as a revolutionary, and he soon become locked in a dispute for party leadership with Mehmet Shehu, a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War who returned to Albania at about the same time Hoxha was fired in Brussels. They formed an alliance, tenuous until after the war was over and the irrepressible Loulou showed him who was boss. For the time being, the Albanian Communist Party followed the ostentatious Yugoslav "advice" and put Enver Hoxha in charge in spite of his total lack of organizational experience. Shortly after his discovery by the police, Hoxha set out for the Albanian highlands to make a revolution.



The rank-and-file of the Albanian Communist Party was made up largely of students and other city-dwellers, so the image of Hoxha roughing it with other Albanian partisans wasn't too incongruous. However, his transformation from biology nerd to simpering bohemian to Stalinist welterweight contender wasn't yet complete. Nako Spiru, a prominent Albanian Communist versed in, of all things, economics, painted this picture of the new party leader:



Enver Hoxha. Average intelligence. Average attainment both as a student abroad, and later as a teacher. In the period before the formation of the CPA [the Albanian Communist Party] he led a desultory life. He is sectarian within the party. He fancies himself. He has an inferiority complex. The people have no idea who he is, and those who know him do not think highly of him. The party has tried everything to make him popular. But the people are not convinced of his qualities.



This brief note, which Spiru sent to the Yugoslav Party's central committee, is as penetrating as the famed and much more voluminous "Mussolini Dossier" compiled by the Italian secret police before the duce seized power. Here, before any of his outward manifestations of paranoia, persecution, and alienation made themselves known, Spiru shapes a portrait of the future Supreme Comrade in few words but full colour. It shows that the bizarre personality and intense, almost hallucinatory paranoia which characterized Enver Hoxha's forty years of terror were already quite apparent to those around him. It is quite safe to assume that Nako Spiru was not exaggerating Hoxha's faults and judge his motivations above reproach. An ardent nationalist as well as a Communist, he frequently clashed with the fraternal Yugoslav "advisors" Hoxha welcomed, and committed suicide in 1947 when as minister in charge of Albania's economy, he found himself powerless to resist Yugoslav domination of his country.



Hoxha's flight to the highlands was probably the best thing that ever happened to him, which is the worst thing that ever happened to his country. That's even taking into account Albania's enormously sad history, in addition to recent events. Up in the mountains, he found a few hundred ardent Communists already encamped. Their ranks swelled following the entreaties of Dusan Mugosa, Tito's envoy, to unite all factions of the party against the Fascists. By the end of 1941, the Italian high command estimated that Hoxha had 3,000 troops behind him.



But factionalism dies hard in the Balkans, and in Albania in particular. Following Stalin's orders and Tito's example, the Albanian Communists formed a coalition with other groups fighting the Italians, gathered together under the banner of the LNC, or National Liberation Movement. The LNC was under Communist control but had a few non-Marxists placed in prominent positions as window dressing. Although officially a part of the LNC, groups such as the republican and anti-Communist force called Balli Kombetar continued to fight against their Leninist "allies". As in Yugoslavia, within days of agreeing to fight together, the two factions were at each other's throats. Balli Kombetar fought sometimes with the Communists against the foreigners, sometimes with the foreigners against the Communists. Their leader, Mithat Frasheri, even signed an agreement with the commander of Italian forces in Albania to coordinate their activities against Hoxha's LNC forces.



All of it, we can say today, had little effect. For all his conspiring, Frasheri only proved the obvious: that proletarians kick white bread ass. His troops fought disastrously, pining in vain for an American or British invasion to save them from their unenviable fate.







* * *



Like Pol Pot, whose sinful thoughts took on the concentrated power of Clorox Bleach when forced to subsist on lizards in the jungles of Cambodia - crawling around on his belly and eating boiled gravel for three years did horrible things to Enver Hoxha's already warped personality. The Germans replaced the Italians in Albania after Mussolini was deposed in 1943, but the gravel-eaters were becoming terrific guerrilla fighters. In fact, the Germans had to delay their deployment in Albania because Hoxha's troops had seized Tirane's main airfield, preventing their landing. An entire division of Italian troops defected to the Albanian side, forming the Antonio Gramsci Battalion, named after the imprisoned chief of the Italian Communist Party.



By 1944, after a failed attempt by the Nazis to crush the LNC in a vicious campaign through the countryside, the partisans expanded the territory under their control to almost 75% of the country. They worked closely with Both Tito's Yugoslav partisans as well as the Greek Popular Liberation Army (ELAS), coordinating their activities to smash the Aryan balls on the Balkan anvil. On November 29, 1944, the last Fascist soldier had withdrawn. The LNC marched into Tirane with Hoxha at their head.



Enver followed Stalin's advice and Tito's lead again when he legitimized his power with horrible farcical elections in December 1945. Former leaders from the Italian occupation, followers of King Zog -- even those who were believed to be potential rivals - were arrested and given a predictably fatal sentence in Stalinist show trials. In a personal touch to rub elbows with the People, the show trials were presided over not by a pedantic prosecutor but by the Interior Minister himself, the gleeful hangman Koci Xoxe. All parties outside of the Democratic Front (the successor to the LNC) were outlawed. In this environment, it's almost incredibly that 7% of the population didn't vote for the Communists. Loulou was congratulated by his inner-circle, and Albania was declared a People's Republic the very next day.



It was a glorious moment in the history of nerds, and a touchstone for every embittered beatnik languishing away in the obscurity of flophouses and getting roughed up in alleys behind working class taverns. With no training, little experience and a bourgeois past, Enver Hoxha had created a whole new identity for himself as Albania's very own Supreme Comrade.

Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory chapter 4: Soul Force

(by Cali Ruchala)

Chapter Four: Soul Force



Never the trusting sort, Enver took so many positions in the government for himself that the introductions at a state dinner - if he had any - would have required a naptime. His official name and title was now "Comrade-Chairman-Prime Minister-Foreign-Minister-Minister of War-Commander-in-Chief of the People's Army Enver Hoxha". Later he would add the word "Supreme" in front of "Comrade" and adopt atrocious epithets such as "Great Teacher" and the more mysterious handle of "Sole Force".



In those years after the war, almost forgotten today by new, more pressing tragedies (and never learned in America to begin with - World War II was about fighting Nazis, right?), East and West were balancing on a precipice above a landscape devastated by war. In Italy and Austria, Yugoslav Communists were fighting the kind of battle that men with brass on their chests define as a "low-level insurgency", taking on Allied troops and Italian partisans. The battle for the Italian city of Trieste, which Tito stubbornly refused to let go of, was especially ominous for a continent still smothered in ashes, though it was to be the amateur architecture in Berlin that got all the attention.



Sole Force wasted no time in making new enemies. The only "imperialists" in the Balkans at the time were the British who had been refused access to Albania. They settled instead on the Greek island of Corfu which lies just a few kilometers off Albania's southern coastline. Hoxha repeatedly warned against Allied incursions into Albanian territorial waters. He then mined the waters off the coast of Corfu and a British vessel was sunk.



After this international incident, the Brits and the Americans finally paid attention. Albania had scant importance to anyone during the war; about the only people who paid her any mind had been Tito and Mussolini, two leaders obsessed with prestige more than strategy, and both of these jackals merely wanted to annex it. At the Allied conferences in Tehran and Yalta, Albania was not even mentioned. Stalin himself - later to become Hoxha's greatest role model - advocated the country's outright disappearance by absorption into Yugoslavia. In 1946, Stalin asked a Yugoslav delegation in Moscow, "And what about Hoxha, what is he like in your opinion?" When they answered evasively, Koba winked. "He is a petty bourgeois, inclined towards nationalism? Yes, we think so too."



In 1946, with the Cold War "cooling up", the United States Senate passed a resolution recognizing Greek claims to southern Albania, including Hoxha's birthplace in Gjirokaster. Hoxha would eventually come to fear Greek claims on Albanian territory so much that he would make it illegal to name a child Christos, Nicholas or Alexander.



Later in the same year, the British for the first time met with the deposed King Zog and began training some of his supporters on the island of Cyprus. They were soon joined in their drills by refugees and broken Balli Kombetar fighters who forced a massive exodus below the folds of the descending Iron Curtain.



In 1947, a small group of these exiles, supported by American weaponry and intelligence, made their first incursion into Albania with the goal of sabotaging the Communist Party - and assassinating the multi-portfolio'ed Comrade, Enver Hoxha, if the opportunity presented itself.



In all, seven landings were made by Albanian anti-Communists. Each time, the party was immediately apprehended, tortured and executed. The infiltration programme had been compromised by a British double agent working in the Pentagon named Kim Philby. He passed on sensitive information about the landing sites, the composition of the parties and their ETAs to his Soviet paymasters, who in turn informed Loulou.



All this did nothing to assuage the persecution complex recognized by Nako Spiru in 1943. We cannot say what Hoxha would have been like without this agitation, but it certainly didn't help. Certifiably insane or at least blinding drunk on a cocktail of white-hot ideology and paranoia, he began to transform the country into a gigantic army bunker. The next few years were spent sealing the cracks.



In honour of his hero Uncle Joe, the state that Hoxha began to build had its inspiration in the Stalinized Soviet Union. As such Albania reaped a few of the benefits of Communism and centralized control. Hoxha undertook a massive literacy campaign and after forty years, Albania had a 90% literacy rate (identical to the United States). Life expectancy for males in 1939 was thirty-eight years old. Hoxha immediately banned the gjakmarrje or blood feud which would devour entire communities over the most trivial disagreements, and the life expectancy jumped to a high point of seventy-three years during the last years of Loulou's life. He also banned the medieval Canon of Lek, a code of unwritten laws which essentially relegated women to a status lower than that of a healthy steer and regulated the violence of feuding. In the new Albania, everyone would be healthy steer subject to regulated violence, man and women alike. That's called equality.



Of course, not even the indefatigable Comrade Loulou could hurl Albania into the 20th century in all respects. Nepotism and Communism go together like shit on a shoe. In the case of the Albanian Communist Party, it was very much a "family business", moreso than any other state, including Romania. The following description of the blood ties between members of the Party comes from Moscow, broadcast during a relatively poor time in the two countries' relations. While it is easily identifiable as propaganda, the sad part is that it was also true:



Half or more of the 53 members of the Central Committee of the Albanian Party of Labour [the Communist Party] are related. First, we have four couples: Enver Hoxha and his wife Nexhmije Hoxha; Mehmet Shehu and his wife Fiqrete Shehu; Hysni Kopo and his wife Vito Kopo; and Josif Pashko with his wife Eleni Terezi. The wives of Manush Myftiu, Politburo member, and of Pilo Peristeri, candidate-member of the Politburo, are sisters. Kadri Hasbiu, candidate-member of the Politburo and Interior Minister, is the husband of Mehmet Shehu's sister. The brother of Hysni Kopo's wife is Piro Kondi, also a member of the Central Committee.

Comrade Loulou and the Fun Factory Chapter 5: The anti-Beardist revolution

(by Cali Ruchala)

Chapter Five: The Anti-Beardist Revolution



One of the first unusual laws enacted was a complete ban on automobiles. No one without a permit was allowed to own one, and only two permits were ever issued outside of the Party. Public transportation was existent, though hardly extensive. On the one hand, bizarre laws prohibiting common things kept people from longing for consumer goods that Hoxha and the Party couldn't possibly provide. On the other, the poor communications structure (and with no cars, there wasn't much use in keeping roads smooth and repaired) necessitated a mastodon of a police state to keep an eye on everyone. The Sigurimi thus came into being.



The Sigurimi is one of the most shadowy secret police organizations in Eastern European history. They had little presence outside of the country (except in the doomed land of Kosovo), but so thoroughly did they penetrate Albanian society, no one could be sure that even your kindly grandfather wasn't filing reports over your preference for Barbie over Kobi, Official Doll of the Albanian Revolution™. After 1993, the Sigurimi made the transition from secret police force to mafia faster than any other organization of its kind, including the prodigious boys of the KGB. They are still implicated in frequent contract killings, and those who tried to furiously stomp out the fires of the gjakmarrje are the greatest agents of its revival.



The Sigurimi were not long in waiting for an opportunity to strut their stuff. In 1948, the Tito-Stalin break occurred, and Yugoslavia was thrown out of the Eastern Bloc. Albania, which had previously been little more than a client state of Yugoslavia, fell into the Stalinist line. Hoxha's parakeet press cursed the plague of Titoism and the Sigurimi swept down on all suspected Yugoslav sympathizers. Koci Xoxe, who as Interior Minister had lived up to his epithet as the Butcher of the Bourgeoisie, was the first to fall. In 1949 he was tried for treason and executed. Former "nationalist Communists" who had been removed at Tito's insistence for their supposed anti-Yugoslav leanings, such as Hoxha's former rival and collaborator Mehmet Shehu, were rehabilitated. Nako Spiru, whose suicide in 1947 has already been described, was rehabilitated posthumously as a national martyr. His widow Liri Belishova, who had been expelled from the Party for no other reason than that her husband killed himself, was given a position in the Politburo. All the excesses and "errors" of the post-war period were dumped upon the shoulders of Koci Xoxe and his evil puppeteer, Tito.



The infamous scribes of the Tirane Marxist-Leninist Institute, headed by First Lady Nexhmije Hoxha (kind of a Red Hillary Clinton when you think about it. "I didn't vote for a co-dictatorship!") went overboard attempting to disassociate themselves from Tito. They were hard put to eliminate the fawning statements from Enver's pen, such as this ditty published just after the war:



I've never felt stronger in my life before, when I saw beside me a Yugoslav brother, a comrade, prepared to sacrifice his own life like a hero for the sake of my own people.



Two new Commandments in the Canon of Enver were born after the break with Yugoslavia. The first was the national myth mentioned earlier - the idealization of Hoxha as a romantic, fiercely independent leader willing to die before he ceded an inch of his country's sovereignty to a foreign aggressor.



The second (not unrelated) part of the Catechism of Loulou was the pattern which Hoxha would use to prolong his existence far beyond most speculations. He balanced one power off of another, and broke with one completely just in time to reap maximum benefit. He broke with Italy and Greece (Albania's natural partners) for the Yugoslavs; sacrificed the Yugoslavs for the Soviets; and denounced the Soviets in favour of the Chinese.



Though even his opponents would laud his accomplishments in preserving the borders from allegedly hostile, aggressive neighbours, not a single imperialist bent on crushing Albanian "independence" ever fell in this forty-year battle. The Sigurimi never shot an enemy soldier. They did shoot many, many Albanians, thousands more than could by any stretch of principles be considered "necessary" for the country's centralization and survival. Hoxha used these constant upheavals in his country's foreign policy to eliminate rivals, purge the Party (Liri Belishova and Mehmet Shehu had the notable distinction of being purged twice, the second time fatally) and consolidate power in the hands of the Hoxha Family. Except for the break with Tito, all of these foreign confrontations could have been avoided, as they had much more to do with peculiar Communist fetishes than any really threatening actions. The smoke from the secret incinerators in Sigurimi headquarters was black and thick with the fumes of dead bodies, billowing with a greater profusion with each radical realignment in foreign relations. Proportionately, the slaughter was enormous, though with only three million rather wretched subjects to harvest corpses from, the prisons in the mountains would never challenge Siberia or Auschwitz (or even Goli Otok, Tito's floating gulag on the Adriatic) as a metaphor for man's capacity for satanic crime.







* * *



An extreme, amusing yet tragic example of the value of the ordinary Albanian to Comrade Loulou was the saga of one Ali Raxhedi. Ali was born under a bad sign and suffered from an incurable malady: he was a dead ringer, physically, for Enver Hoxha. It was humourous to some, and Ali liked to play practical jokes by donning the Maoist cap worn by Hoxha and making surprise "inspections" at local facilities. It was mostly harmless fun, and he never reaped any benefit from his genealogical accident.



One day the Sigurimi abducted Ali and demanded that he answer for his crimes. He was guaranteed a better life if he simply confessed to aping the Supreme Comrade. He did, and the Sigurimi delivered on their promise: he was not thrown in jail or executed. Instead, he was taken to Tirane, given powerful anesthesia and wheeled into an operating room. He woke up to discover that his face had been surgically altered to make his resemblance to Enver Hoxha into an exact likeness. He spent the next ten years living like a troll in a dungeon of the presidential palace. Hoxha's plan was to keep Ali around in case of an invasion, whereby he would be sacrificed to enemy soldiers. Hoxha would then retreat to the mountains to relive his glory days of partisan warfare.



But it was during his alignment with China that Hoxha's true derangement bloomed in full flower. Following Mao's lead, Albania in 1967 - on the eve of the great uprisings of 1968 when Europe burned like a torch - began a great Cultural Revolution. The party ranks were purged for the umpteenth time. Young intellectuals were dragged from their beds and forced to undergo a humiliating public "self-criticism". Some were merely abducted by the young red mobs and denounced to the Sigurimi. Children who informed on their parents were championed in newspapers. Hoxha smiled contentedly as his "grandchildren" performed every act of crime and blasphemy. The whole programme, he said, had been put forth by students at a school he visited in the city of Durres. It was not his idea, but the grand plan of the Socialist Youth, untainted by their parents' capitalist history.



As a part of the Cultural Revolution, Hoxha made all foreign travel illegal. Albania from this point forward became an enormous penal colony. Huge iron gates with the double-headed eagle of Skanderbeg were lengthened until they stretched into the sky. Only with government permission, and only when guarded by several trench-coated agents of the Sigurimi, would people be allowed to leave the country.



But the proclamation of 1967 which earned Enver Hoxha his own miserable dacha in Hell was the decree with the seemingly banal title of "The Religion of Albania is Albanianism".



The Supreme Comrade was unable to sleep at night, plagued by the suspicion that even his most loyal subjects swore an oath to One even greater than himself. Said Supreme Comrade thus adopted the rather capitalistic strategy of eliminating the competition. He informed Albania and the world that the opiate of the masses, God Himself, was now illegal. While the Soviet Union had confiscated church property, shut down monasteries, harassed clerics and made a very prominent show of recording each and every person to enter a church, synagogue or mosque, no state in the world had gone so far as to ban a believe in a power higher than the infallible Supreme Comrade. High-ranking priests were attacked and tortured until they either renounced their belief in God or were broken. Mosques, cathedrals, and village churches (Albania, though predominantly Islamic, still has considerable Catholic and Orthodox Christian minorities) were sometimes demolished, but more often turned into barns or warehouses. Young proletarians armed with hammers and chisels disappeared inside ancient buildings and didn't emerge until all medieval frescoes on the church walls - in some respects the only evidence that Albanians lived here at all in those times - were blown away by the wind. It's shocking to think that at this very moment, Czechs were dying in Wenceslas Square, and young students elsewhere in Europe were rising against the politics of their fathers. In Albania, meanwhile, they were attempting to demolish the one facet of life that Enver Hoxha couldn't regiment: Hope.



The Albanian Cultural Revolution didn't wind down for several long years. In 1973, Albanians rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and awoke to a fractured landscape, bleak as anything that could be imagined. The whole country and everyone in it had become Ali Raxhedi. Every vestige of pre-Enver history had been erased. The void was filled with an intense Cult of Loulou, the likes of which one would have to go to North Korea to emulate.



A futuristic, ziggurat-like structure known as the Enver Hoxha Museum opened for business, and the media proclaimed it a landmark which rivaled the Sphinx among the glories of human civilization. Gigantic statues of Enver were everywhere, including a settlement called Stalin City. In an obvious though unintentional nod to Orwell, it was impossible to escape the disapproving gaze of Enver Hoxha. Where Albania's mountainous geography prevented his likeness from being erected, just his name was sufficient. From the city of Berat one looked out at a skyline of ENVER! crafted from stone and stretching across the peaks like a pep rally banner for a high school football team, or a crude parody of Hollywood.



The changes were not just aesthetic in nature. During the Cultural Revolution, Hoxha had become convinced that Albania would be the place where the battle between Good and Evil would be fought. To prepare his hunk of rock on the fringes of Europe for the final conflagration, he ordered the construction of a great multitude of enormous and ugly concrete bunkers built throughout the country. No one is sure exactly how many of these bunkers exist, but the estimate of about 300,000 is usually cited. Inside was room for about twenty soldiers, and the structure peeked above ground a few feet like a cement mushroom, with a slit for a carbine to slide through and mow down the imperialist enemies.