Monday, May 01, 2006

Celebrate oppression

Whenever I spot someone in Communist garb, I figure them for an idiot. Or, at best, uninformed.

Since 1917, communist regimes have accounted for more than 100 million deaths, and in countries like North Korea, the slaughter continues. Historian R.J. Rummel estimates that the Soviet Union alone killed nearly 62 million people: "(N)early all were guilty of ... nothing."

when the London Sun published a picture of (Prince Harry) in his German desert uniform and swastika armband, it triggered widespread outrage and disgust. In scathing editorials, Harry was condemned as an ignorant and insensitive clod; months later, he was still apologizing for his tasteless costume. "It was a very stupid thing to do," he said in September. "I've learnt my lesson."

Yet, as Jeff Jacoby points out in the Boston Globe,
the glamorization of communism is widespread. On West 4th Street in Manhattan, the popular KGB Bar is known for its literary readings and Soviet propaganda posters. In Los Angeles, the La La Ling boutique sells baby clothing emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro's notorious henchman. At the House of Mao, a popular eatery in Singapore, waiters in Chinese army uniforms serve Long March Chicken, and a giant picture of Mao Zedong dominates one wall.

So who decides which totalitarian regime is hip and which is unacceptable, fashionably and otherwise?

Happy May Day!


  1. It's clothing as satire. By selling chicken or vodka in a Soviet-themed cafe, no one is actually hoping for a return to Communism (considering what KGB charges for a vodka gimlet, that much is obvious) but rather, making ironic commentary on the failed ideologies that used to matter so much not so long ago.

    The idea of a $15 Che Guevara baby onesie would have been so offensive, both to ardent communists and their fanatical opponents, that buying such a thing must be seen as an arch commentary on the dead sacred cows of the recent past. That we can take such a thing casually is proff of the irrevelant nature of communist ideas today.

    Nazism on the other hand represents a whole different set of anxieties. While Communism was to many minds the result of good impulses gone tragically wrong (thus the irony of Soviet kitsch) Nazism is tied up with ideas of racial identity, especially a particular racial identity. A Nazi uniform worn by a black man might qualify as ironic, and would be pretty funny ( I could just imagine Richard Pryor or Dave Chappell doing a bit about it) but a Nazi uniform worn by the German-descended Aryan heir of a European royal family takes on a decidedly different tone. Many Europeans see the remnants of royalty as one of the last withered vines of the old class and race system of Europe. Harry's Nazi uniform thus struck a chord, raising the anxieties that under the modern face of a culturally diverse Europe, the old tribal loyalties still tug.

    Harry's uniform was of a piece with, for example, the obsessive coverage the European press gives to fringe racial parties and politicians like the BNP and Jean-Marie Le Pen; it represents what many Europeans feel is a troubling behavior pattern that could easily resurface. Like a man who has given up the drink, Europeans watch carefully for signs of falling into the old ways of thinking, the old nationalisms and theories of "superior culture". They watch because they know the appeal.

    By contrast, communism as an ideology is dead, despite the continued existance of dottering old men like Castro and Kim, kept alive by their cults of personality. Racism, however, is not an ideology, but an impulse we all have within us, which could rekindle easily; one that is currently taking new shape in America in much of the hyperbole over immigration. You can romanticize the dead, or use them for ironic commentary. But the live evil that worries you is never funny.

  2. Good points, LCB, but I don't think motives make much difference when genocide is concerned.