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


Better alive than Red

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:

Wait, what?

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.

Look, times were hard

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):

Smile, asshole!

[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:

Sweet glasses, comrade

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.

Pretty cool pic, I thought

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.

NEXT: Attn, Readers: Get Ready For The Ultimate Live Chat—Welch and Gillespie, uncensored, unscripted, unintelligible.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hooray! Lobster Girl will survive! My song was effective propaganda.

  2. Hooray! Lobster Girl will survive! My song was effective propaganda.

    1. Where do you find these pictures, Lobster girl is a babe… and random.

  3. Awesome black and white pic of the Greatful Dead.

  4. if the NYT really loves Castro so much then it explains why they help supprot the Cuban Emargoe that the neo-cons so love…after all the embargo helps keep the commies in power….so why do the neo-cons support the embargo? easy, they don’t give a flying fuck about freedom or us.

    1. We got rid of the embargo on the communist Chinese and they are more seated in power then ever before. They not only have the political, police and military power they have the economic power from being able to get lots of money for renting out their sweatshop workers to Wal-Mart. So getting rid of the embargo against Cuba could produce the same results, a communist party in Cuba with the power and the money.

      Most of the world has no embargo against Cuba and the communists make much of their money from them and this has brought no freedom to Cuba, getting rid of the US embargo will probably just increase the communists money supply and bring no freedom.

  5. Hooray! Lobster Girl is saved! My song was effective propaganda.

  6. Hooray! Lobster Girl is saved! My song was effective propaganda.

  7. Hooray! Lobster Girl is saved! My song was effective propaganda.

  8. As mistakes go, that borders on the trivial.

    As a measure of the cultural isolation of the Times, it’s damn good. They can’t even catch a reference to the New Yorkest band ever.

    If it’s not in the press releases (from commies), it doesn’t exist.

  9. My earlier comments on this particular post have been rejected as spam. Is it just because they included an HTML hyperlink, or am I in trouble?

  10. Oh, don’t worry, Matt, I’m sure we’ll get this omelet made one day. What’s another 100 million eggs broken, after all?

    Zha, Obamina!

  11. Too bad those Czechs didn’t get a copy of White Light White Heat instead.

  12. the clenched fist in the velvet glove

    That’s dumb.

  13. Two questions:

    (1) What is the color in the flame tracking? How many bucks/contributions to fill it up?

    (2) What comes after the flame fills up? I for one would make an additional (modest) contribution to put a Rolex on Lady Liberty’s wrist.

  14. Lou Reed showed up in Prague this past weekend to perform — in odd tandem with soprano Ren?e Fleming — as part of the whiz-bang wing-ding shindig in honor of the 20th Anniversary. Video evidence of the resulting epic clash of musical sensibilities here.

    1. Nice.Two of my favorite singers performing together.
      Thanks for linking this.

  15. The citation of the Freedom House designations as support for the proposition that November, 1989 was the most liberating month in history does not represent the best of Matt’s expository writing skills.

  16. Donate to Reason so that they can continue giving you those cheesy trips down Memory Lane…

  17. Just as I suspected (or already knew), the Freedom House designations are worthless.

  18. What comes after the flame fills up?

    Yeah, what color will you use to fill in the arm, Welch? Allow me to preempt: “That is racism, straight up.”

  19. You know, I think Reason should get in touch with this Zuan photographer and get him to reveal the identity of the model in the lobster photo, so that the magazine can hire her as its official face. At least for the on-line version.

    We did some research on this (because Lobster Girl = Weibskobold–it’s a long, sordid story), and it appears that the photo was taken as part of a Miss Hawaiian Tropic competition in Colombia a few years back.

    You’d think professional journalists could figure all this out. Certainly, I imagine the Times is all over this and will probably claim her as their mascot: “Look, the Grey Lady. . .kissing a lobster!”

    1. We are trying to find him, thanks.

  20. I predict great things when you launch your new marketing campaign, with the catchphrase, “Free Minds, Free Markets, and Free SFW Lobster Porn.”

    I bet he’d be amazed at how popular that picture is here. Maybe you’ll luck out and find that he’s a libertarian. According to his site, he’s up for international advertising campaigns and celebrity photography.

    I can see it now: Nick kissing a lobster (in his jacket, not a bikini) on a beach in Colombia. Hmmmmm, maybe I’d better make another donation to help fund that.

  21. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it before, HnR Happy Hour in Bogota.

  22. So you’re against communism. That’s nice. But you couldn’t come out against the Iraq war — you were neutral on that. And you publicized relentlessly the New Republic’s smearing of Ron Paul.

    And now you want money from libertarians?

  23. You fucking libertarian fanatics are the most programmed true believers in the world. I’ll take the NY Times any day.

  24. Excuse me! But Islam and arab terrorism is the main threat today and the “Reason” readers and many time “Reason” itself — with the honorable exception of Michael Moynihan are in support of Islam and Arab terrorism.

    It is really sick. How can one support a magazine such as that, amusing as you clowns happen to be?

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

    The Jewish Defense League Marching song

    The Stars and Stripes Forever

    1. Bottoms Up!

  25. Since an image of the cover to Christopher Snowdon’s terrific book “Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of anti-smoking” was used without giving him a direct plug, I’ll go ahead.

  26. “…cribbing the VU’s songs, style, and instrumentation (a good thing, too, since their other huge influence was Frank Zappa).”

    Are you fucking crazy? That sentence should, of course, been the other way around. Don’t make me cancel my donation….

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