Donate to Reason to Support "Counter-Programming" to The New York Times' Coverage of Communism


I had a very pleasant private conversation this year with a certain famous libertarian person who told me that he wakes up in the morning, reads The New York Times on his Kindle, then fires up Reason on the device (subscribe to our Kindle version today!) for "counter-programming." While I don't necessarily view our humble mag/website/blog/video juggernaut in opposition to the Great Grey-Green, Greasy Lady, we have since 1968 been counter-programming against the dominant media tropes of our times, from the murderous to the trivial. Unsurprisingly, that has led to some interesting pushback over one of the 20th century's two most murderous isms. For the latest example, you need only read yesterday's paper, but only after DONATING TO REASON RIGHT THE HELL NOW.

On Nov. 17, the 20th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's stirring Velvet Revolution, The New York Times commemorated the event by…getting the story behind the revolution's name wrong, right there in the second paragraph:

Vaclav Havel, the dissident leader who spearheaded the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism in Czechoslovakia and kicked off twenty years ago on November 17, 1989, once declared that "truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred." Yet the revolution — its name a reference to the clenched fist in the velvet glove — was sparked by a false rumor that to this day remains a mystery.

Clenched fist in a velvet glove? What?

As in many events of 20 years ago this month (including the phony rumor of a murdered Czech student referenced above), the precise history of the VR's nomenclature is fuzzy; the pre-eminent 1989 historian Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote that "Despite extensive inquiries with leading Czech and Western historians of the velvet revolution, I have not [yet] been able to pin down the first use." Still, there are only two plausible explanations I've ever heard for the term sticking. These are, in order: 1) Even by the standards of 1989 anti-communist revolutions, Czechoslovakia's was uncommongly gentle and poetic, kind of like velvet (the "clenched fist" and "velvet glove" in this case are explanatory metaphors very sporadically used by foreign journalists, almost never by Czechs); and more amusingly, 2):

That's what remains of the Velvet Revival Band (featuring one of Prague's leading economics journalists there on guitar, BTW). These guys were formed in the early '80s by several members of the ballyhooed Plastic People of the Universe, the dirty, theatrical rock band whose arrest and show trial in 1976 prompted Vaclav Havel to launch Charter 77.

The Plastics (as they were referred to in Tom Stoppard's great play Rock & Roll) somehow got their grubby paws on The Velvet Underground & Nico during the brief cultural openness of 1968, and went nuts over the stuff, cribbing the VU's songs, style, and instrumentation (a good thing, too, since their other huge influence was Frank Zappa). By 1969, their music (all of it) was made criminal, and one of the only ways they were legally allowed to play was at weddings, under names created special for the one-time events, and so some of these underground shows became all-Underground shows, and a legend was born.

This VU-Plastics-Charter 77-Revolution process was such that when Havel eventually met Lou Reed in 1990, some of his first words were "Did you know that I am president because of you?" As The Observer's Ed Vulliamy put it last month, "This is the most extraordinary story that ever entwined politics and rock music." You can read all about it not in yesterday's New York Times, but in my 2003 Reason profile of Vaclav Havel.

As mistakes go, that borders on the trivial. Less so was the outright Fidel Castro propaganda churned out by The Times' Herbert Matthews, subject of a March 2007 cover story by Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin. As then-Reason caudillo Nick Gillespie wrote (before being ousted in a coup):

[I]t's shocking that many in the mainstream media adore the man and the tropical gulag he created….He's "Cuba's own Elvis," enthused former CBS anchor Dan Rather. Eleanor Clift of Newsweek argued that the orphaned Elian Gonzalez should have been returned to Cuba not simply to be reunited with his father but because that country offered him a brighter future than he had in the United States. ABC's Barbara Walters hosted a dinner party for the dictator where he joked with bigwigs from Time, NPR, The Washington Post, and other elite media outlets.

Garvin also contributed a great piece in 2004 about how the same journalists and thinkers that got soviet communism so terribly wrong never did get around to engaging in their own internal criticism:

In 1983 the Indiana University historian Robert F. Byrnes collected essays from 35 experts on the Soviet Union—the cream of American academia—in a book titled After Brezhnev. Their conclusion: Any U.S. thought of winning the Cold War was a pipe dream. "The Soviet Union is going to remain a stable state, with a very stable, conservative, immobile government," Byrnes said in an interview, summing up the book. "We don't see any collapse or weakening of the Soviet system."

Barely six years later, the Soviet empire began falling apart. By 1991 it had vanished from the face of the earth. Did Professor Byrnes call a press conference to offer an apology for the collective stupidity of his colleagues, or for his part in recording it? Did he edit a new work titled Gosh, We Didn't Know Our Ass From Our Elbow? Hardly. Being part of the American chattering class means never having to say you're sorry.

Why is this stuff important in 2009? I'll give you four reasons: 1) These people continue to frame much of the world we see today, whether writing about the politics of Pete Seeger, the "gorgeous, tropical decay" of untouristed Havana, or how Mikhail Gorbachev is a saint; 2) It is an insight that can't be stressed enough: The "vulgar" or even straight up Marxist American culture that western conservatives have historically loved to hate can and will be used by the subjects of authoritarian regimes to fight for their liberation; 3) The "lessons" of the Cold War are guaranteed to be misunderstood and misapplied whenever Washington seeks to be more interventionist abroad, and are therefore worth knowing well; and 4) In 2009, the virtue of free-market capitalism is under attack as it hasn't been in two decades, a fact that has been exacerbated by the media's ongoing yawn at the 20th anniversary of the most liberating month in human history. As I wrote in my November editor's note:

In 1988, according to the global liberty watchdog Freedom House, just 36 percent of the world's 167 independent countries were "free," 23 percent were "partly free," and 41 percent were "not free." By 2008, not only were there 26 additional countries (including such new "free" entities as Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia), but the ratios had reversed: 46 percent were "free," 32 percent were "partly free," and just 22 percent were "not free." There were only 69 electoral democracies in 1989; by 2008 their ranks had swelled to 119.  

At Reason we are equal opportunity in our contempt for authoritarianism, taking commies and Nazis seriously enough that we don't glibly use the terms to describe whatever American we don't like today, nor do we take lightly those who continue to be soft on totalitarianism. Roll videotape!

Remember, when you donate to Reason right the hell now, the color in that torch up there in the top right inches a little higher. And it ain't red, if you know what I mean.