For years there was a name no westerner dared utter in polite Korean society. There was one man so hated by the Korean people, so scorned by the Korean media, so seemingly worthy of the weight of all of Korea’s sternest condemnation. That man? The dreaded Apolo Anton Ohno!
Merely alluding to his existence was enough to cloud the brightest sky and make the happiest children break into screaming fits. The visceral hatred of Apolo Ohno had the power to drive Marxists into the arms Capitalists, bring protesters together with CEOs, North Korea together with South. Korea was unified in its loathing of this man.
His coercive power and blatant duplicity was legend on the Peninsula. Of course he had bribed the Olympic judges, Koreans argued in unison. Of course, he abused the diplomatic and military power of the United States to steal the gold from Korea’s poor, innocent hands (it’s a well-known secret in Korea that the United States has a long tradition of putting all of its global and domestic power in the hands of the country’s best short-track skaters). To hear a Korean speak of him, one would assume Ohno snacked on grilled Korean children for breakfast, raped Korean women for entertainment, and wiped his ass with the shredded remains of King Sejong’s own Han-bok. That this monster dared to show his face in public was an affront to Koreans everywhere.
This all changed last night. There’s a new enemy in town.
In The Unmasterable Past, historian Charles Maier heuristically compares the historian's role to the adversarial method of a lawyer. In an American courtroom “no lawyer is responsible for truth but only for a stylized text or dialogue that places his or her client in the most favorable light.” Maier is quick to condemn this approach; he insists that few historians would be comfortable with such a comparison. He might be shocked to learn that in the passion-filled historiography of the Spanish Civil War the aversion to this method appears decidedly less pronounced. Hispanists have found in the origins of the war a unique opportunity to draw ideological lines in the sand and, therefore, contribute the failure of the Second Republic to either the zealously revolutionary character of the Left or the fascism of the Right. On both sides, tendentious historians use inflammatory language and wield clumsy counterfactuals to promote their chosen position. The inevitable consequence of this standoff is the academic equivalent of a sandbox quarrel, a veritable “they started it” style argument with no discernible end.
This polarized situation both parallels and originates with the Second Republic's short history of factious, uncompromising political behavior—itself a product of the many pronunciamients of the mid-nineteenth century. As the trials of the Second Republic bear out—the failed Sanjurjada of 1932, the Anarcho-syndicalist insurrection of 1933, the failed revolution of 1934—neither side was willing to accept the role of loyal opposition. For both Left and Right, the Republic was not a format for representing divergent ideas and interests, “but rather,” as Stanley Payne explains, merely “the institutional matrix for a series of far-reaching reforms.” Franco’s successful military dictatorship continued the tradition well into the 1970s. Not surprisingly, in the years since Franco, Spanish historians have railed against the old narrative. In dramatic contrast to the situation just a generation ago, it's now quite common for historians within Spain to emphasize the democratic pedigree of the Left to the detriment of the Right. Recently, however, a reaction to the reaction has emerged. History popularizers like Pío Moa along with venerable hispanists like Stanley Payne have increasingly vented their frustration with the now-accepted reductionist terminology that equates the Left with Republican democracy and the Right with dictatorship and democratic repression. They propose historians revisit the role the Left played in the demise of the Second Republic.
In The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, Stanley Payne sketches the tortuous history of the fragile Spanish democracy and condemns both sides for anti-democratic behavior. Payne demonstrates convincingly that neither side was interested in maintaining the democratic system for anything other than the implementation of partisan reforms. After the failed insurrection of 1934, itself anti-democratic, the “CEDA sought a counterreform, especially in religious, military, and socioeconomic policy.” From their position of power, they closed down hundred of jurados mixtos, established the legal category of huelga abusiva, and attempted to reverse the agricultural reforms instituted during the previous biennium. For its part, the Popular Front, after its victory in 1936, used the comisión de actas to further minimize the few successes of the opposition. As Payne explains, this “meant in effect that the victors in each election had the power to sit in judgment on the losers and determine if their parliamentary representation should be reduced still further.” In areas where the Popular Front had decisive wins, the irregularities were mostly ignored. However, in areas where the results favored the Right, places like Cuenca and Granada, complete annulments were declared.
While Payne is careful to condemn both sides for dismantling the republic, he heaps the vast majority of his criticism on the Left. As Payne sees it, the left's anti-democratic stance springs from their support for a socialist/communist revolution. Consistent with the Comintern line, the PCE and other like-minded groups sought to use “the façade of democratic legitimacy to strengthen its position.” The proposed estrategia del desgaste advocated the use of strikes, violence and the seizure of property to weaken the capitalist system and pave the way for revolution. Propaganda and violence constituted a large part of this strategy. Payne speaks of a “reign of terror” against landowners in the countryside. He quotes Calvo Sotelo as he condemns the “violence” and “revolutionary destruction” coming from the left; he condemns the leftist propaganda for inducing states of hysteria resulting in riots, church burnings, and killings; he blames Casares Quiroga for declaring the Right “enemies” of the Republic; he demonstrates how the Popular Front used terms like “fascist” and “enemies” to conflate “the Republic itself with the policies of the left.” And, he draws a connection between the rise of the Falange and the indiscriminate repression of the Right by the Left. In essence, Payne's position is that the extreme anti-democratic policies of the Left contributed heartedly to the equally extreme anti-democratic policies of the Right.
At times Payne's conclusions seem overly tendentious and extreme. In his zeal to break with the politically correct historical narrative, he often over-states his case. This seems especially obvious in his treatment of the CEDA. He absolves the group of any complicity in the rise of violence that precipitated the 1936 golpe. He ridicules the Left for being so naïve as to believe their own extreme rhetoric—specifically that the CEDA constitutes a “fascism as fierce and inhuman as that of the Nazis.” Yet he accepts without question the statements that declare the CEDA willing to “continue to cooperate with the government.” In his mind they are accountable only for being “ambiguous about [their] ultimate goals.”
Notwithstanding these criticisms, his indictment of the Left as hearty contributors in the escalation of rhetoric is an important contribution to the historiography of the civil war. The PCE, while still marginal, was particularly overt in its support for radical reforms. They advocated the confiscation of land, the cancellation of debt, the nationalization of industry, the suppression of the military, and an alliance with the Soviet Union. Francisco Largo Caballero, enthusiastically deemed the “Spanish Lenin,” declared unambiguously that the Republic was merely the means by which a “dictatorship of the proletariat” could be achieved. Indalecio Prieto, a leading organizer of the 1934 revolution, encouraged overturning the government even while attempting to temper the escalating violence—a violence he blamed on the repression that followed the October revolution. In light of all this, Chris Ealham's criticisms of Payne seem especially ridiculous. It's true, as he so states, that a politician's words are not always the best indicator of his intentions. And for this reason, Largo's and Prieto's words should be taken with a grain of salt. However, it's quite another thing to assume that the Right was overreacting by taking them at their word. Barring any access to a magical window into the future, to accept their threats as real seems entirely reasonable. This does not absolve the right of any wrongdoing. It does, however, complicate the popularly-held notions of a democratic Left being overturned by a fascist, anti-democratic Right.
Not surprisingly, few Spanish historians have been convinced by this argument. Helen Graham, as evidenced in The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction, continues to hold firmly to an interpretation of the war as the inevitable outcome of an anti-democratic Right's bid for power. Graham states unequivocally that the military coup was a shameless “rising against mass democracy [cloaked in] a traditional political veneer.” Thus, in one sentence Graham has conveniently succeeded in wiping away all relevant complexity. She divides the battle into two neat categories: “good guys” and “bad guys”, democrats and usurpers. She ignores entirely the anti-democratic revolutionary rhetoric spewing from the Left as well as the radical nature of their proposed reforms. The 1934 October Revolution is described as simply the culmination of “frustrations on the Left.” There is no mention of how this uprising might have influenced the behavior of the Right. Nor does she bother to describe it as inherently anti-democratic.
On this point the journalist and dilettantish historian Pío Moa is particularly unmoved. The bold thesis of his Los Orígenes de la Guerra Civil Española is that the October Revolution of 1934 constituted the first battle of the Spanish Civil War; and that the Left actively pursued it. He stridently attacks the charge that the revolution was defensive in origin; this is central to his argument. Like Payne, he believes it's a foolish oversimplification of history to insist, as Graham has, that the Left was pro-democracy and the Right anti-. The civil war must be put in its appropriate historical context, he demands. The era following the First World War was a time of great change and disorder: Germany went to the Nazis, France went to the Left, Spain was wracked by Anarcho-syndicalism and cries for socialist revolution. In his opinion, the PSOE and the Esquerra chose to go to war because they felt the time was ripe to “overthrow the bourgeoisie and to fulfill the socialist revolution.” They showed little concern for democracy. And because the conflict set the tone of politics over the following 21 months before the outbreak of hostilities in 1936, it’s impossible to evaluate the origins of the civil war without considering it.
If these reasonable conclusions were all he insists on, his books would hardly be so controversial. Unfortunately for him, and by extention his arguments, his antipathy for the Left is so strong as to make him seem nostalgic for Franco. He lists a litany of abuses perpetrated on the general population by the Left during the 1934 revolution: stockpiling guns, burning churches, killing women, children and priests. Yet he minimizes and rationalizes the repression in its wake. Indeed, he even seeks to absolve the late dictator and the Right in general of much of their culpability for the civil war. He insists that it was widely believed, both inside and outside the country, that the Right would break with legality and institute a dictatorship. The fact that this didn't happen in 1934 is proof that the Right was interested in maintaining democracy. As he sees it, Franco, in his position as asesora, turned down three great opportunities to start a coup. By some fit of strange deductive reasoning, Pío Moa concludes from this that Franco valued democracy and only reluctantly rose up in 1936.
It doesn't take an historian to see how some in Spain might recoil in horror at some of Pío Moa's statements. And it's unfortunate that some of his more reasonable assumptions are discounted because of this. Yet the willful oversimplification of the factors leading up to the civil war by respected historians like Helen Graham should be equally disturbing. It appears obvious that neither the Left nor the Right were able to value democracy over their own partisan interests. It's possible that Spanish historians and the Spanish public may someday come to accept this. For now, any criticism of the Left as anti-democratic remains prohibitively Francoish for mainstream opinions. For this reason, the adversarial style of history might remain a part of the debate over the origins of the Spanish Civil War for some time to come.
When I was 15 I was a punkrocking fool—steel-toed boots splashed with paint, chains and bandanas around both ankles, worn out blue jeans, resin-stained fingers, and Bad Religion tunes, in perfect discord, playing in a tape deck I found in a dumpster and blaring from the open windows of my ’89 Sundance. Those were the days.
Throughout high school I was fascinated by everything punk. The thick, bold, in your face beat of the anti-hero; songs that jeered and mocked the throngs of blank faces being ground up in the powerful machinery of an unforgiving world; songs that stretched laws and broke rules; songs that got people out of their chairs long enough to wonder why they were sitting there in the first place; songs that whipped up a frenzy of contradictions—youthful immortality wrapped in a melancholic self depredation.
The anti-hero wasn’t simply the subject of punk rock; punk rock was his expression. The music was a loud, guttural celebration of mediocrity. The screaming cacophonous simplicity of a fast-paced snare and high-hat, the pitchless reverberation of an out-of-tune base, and a the grinding wail of a filed-down pickup on a guitar playing three simple chords in rapid succession was a veritable monsoon of wretched talentlessness. And it was sheer magic to me.
The center of the punk rock world was at 315 Bowery, New York City: CBGB & OMFUG. Originally intended to feature, as the acronym suggests, Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers, it quickly became the center of the punk rock world and, arguably, the birthplace of American punk.
After years of imagining what it would be like, I decided to take advantage of my time here in New York and see it for myself this afternoon. I took a quick look at the map, decided I would head from the 9th ST. station through Union Square, and hopped on the PATH.
Union Square is about what I thought it would be—a paved and grassy assortment of benches, walkways, hippies, bums and storytellers. I took a spin around George Washington’s statue and headed down 6th toward CBGB. As I got closer I could see the beveled awning above the front door. And as I approached I noticed that it was black and not the white and red I remember; but this was hardly something to cry about.
Then, I saw it. “john varvatos!!??!!??” What the fuck is that??!! I strained to contain my exasperation. This wasn’t punk rock!! This was some kind of designer clothing store!!
I walked in wearing a beaming scowl. It certainly was CBGBs. They had preserved the stage, the flaking paint, graffiti, and the old flyer boards from out front. But, there were racks of sued jackets blocking the standing room, designer boots cluttering up the stage, and stacks of overpriced T-shirts lined up along the wall where the ball should have been. I walked to the back and asked one of the workers if the new owner had preserved anything else. Save the picture in the bathroom, he explained, there was nothing left.
The bathroom?? The bathroom??!! The birthplace of the Ramones and the New York Dolls, the light of my adolescence, the cultural firmament of my youth , . . . this was now a mere picture hanging in the bathroom waiting to be splashed with piss or gazed at through the strained, squinted eyes of somebody taking a big shit? To ask “what the fuck” was hardly sufficient. Screw these people! Next time I’ll leave the ideals of my youth right where they belong, in my head.
Last weekend—after the record snowfall postponed it for a week—I attended the first job interview I’ve had in some time. I won’t mention the organization by name because, well, I think I have a good chance of getting hired. But I’ll give you some idea of the type of organization this is. Like Teach for America and other programs, this group recruits talented individuals (that’s me) who have been spared the misfortune of earning a degree in education.
Let me be frank here. I don’t begrudge educators; hell, I’m an educator myself. I do, however, believe that more often than not those who pursue a degree in education tend to be poorly prepared to educate. There are several reasons for this. But to minimize my incessant rambling—for which I have quite a penchant—I’ll confine my opinions to what I think is the most important reason. Those who advocate for degrees in education make the horribly false assumption that an ability to wield content is a natural consequence of learning to teach. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Now, one might argue, and they’d be correct, that many teachers have learned content after being exposed to it over the course of teaching the class. This argument—that a good teacher can overcome both hurdles and unpreparedness—may be sound. But by what distorted logic do we deem it reasonable to assume that most or even many teachers are capable of this feat. Why do we countenance this ridiculous argument? Of course a teacher should know how to teach. A carpenter should know the dimensions of a 2x4 (and it’s not 2x4 if that’s what you’re thinking). But you wouldn’t have someone build your house if he could only tout his ability to competently measure lumber. So why the hell would anyone let that someone into a classroom if they didn’t know what they are to teach?
But let me tear you away from my long digression for a moment. The interview process, for which I was one of approximately fifteen present applicants, included three activities and a personal interview. The first activity required that we watch a short class simulation video, and then write up a formal evaluation. The next two activities were critical thinking group exercises. Divided up into groups of four and five, we were presented with several scenarios and problems for which we were tasked with working out solutions.
It’s with the last activity that I had and continue to have real problems with. Let me explain. After coming back from a short lunch we were all, all fifteen or so of us, brought into a room and made to stand in a circle. At this point a perky little twit who had earlier identified herself as a trained linguist, an ominous enough sign at the time, dumped a large box of construction paper, string, and other odds and ends on the floor amongst us. She then told us to take ten minutes to construct a something we thought could symbolize “intelligence.” Intelligence, I thought. How fucking appropriate!
My first reaction was one of pity. Clearly, this poor idiot was unable to conceptualize intelligence herself; so she hoped we might help her by building it for her. Luckily for us we were allowed to use craft materials. In her padded room back at the monkey house she likely has only her stale feces and menstrual blood available with which to communicate with her captors.
So I dove into the junk, and, while everyone around me began pasting, cutting and folding, I decided to take a different route. I took one single strip of yellow construction paper that I bent into a circle and closed with a clothes pin. Voila!! Here’s the perfect symbol of intelligence. It’s simple, because true intelligence can make the complex seem simple. It’s yellow, the color of light, because intelligence is and should be equated with enlightenment (a natural enough metaphor, I thought). It’s a circle, no end and no beginning, because intelligence means nothing in isolation; intelligence must be shared. And, most significant of all, it showed that an intelligent person can find symbolism in not just everything but anything.
I sat proudly with my golden ring as everyone else feverishly pasted, cut and tore through paper and popsicle sticks on the floor. But then it really got weird. It quickly became clear to me that, despite all the feverish pasting, cutting and gluing, most of these people hadn’t a thought in their head about how to demonstrate “intelligence” without words. What occurred in that room, the moronic dancing, spinning, shit-faced grins, and arm waving was enough to make a retard embarrassed. It was an uncomfortably long process of sheer foolishness followed by unearned applause and a speedy exit.
So what did we learn? What piece of profound enlightenment did we walk away with? Well, I’ll give you a hint; it ends with “ALL” and starts with “FUCK.”
After a couple years of tolerating the deplorable state of a Wikipedia article I have a particular interest and expertise in, I decided to revise the thing from top to bottom. With all the propriety I could muster, I made a point of announcing my plans in some detail on the discussion page. I told everyone concerned exactly what I planned to do, how I planned to do it, and why I thought it was necessary. At that point I had almost no experience with either Wikipedia or the poor bastards that guard the gates there. I was, however, quickly introduced.
After crafting a radical revision of the lead—turning what was before a series of clumsily-joined sentences and seemingly irrelevant facts into a cohesive argument-driven introduction—I was somewhat shocked to read a trite and testy condemnation of my work. “None of your goals were achieved in the edit,” it said; “it's wordy, unsourced [sic] opinion.”
Now, I’m well aware of the philosophy behind Wikipedia. Nobody owns an article; we are all supportive members of the collaborative process. Fine! Great! No problem! I’m not offended by criticism. Indeed, I rather welcome it. But I’m typically exposed to constructive criticism. This seemed like a tantrum in the form of a text message.
Undeterred, I responded to the criticism with a long, deliberate, subtly condescending (hence the pompous [sic]) defense of my work. I then proceeded to entirely redesign the historical background section. I changed the tone, injected some important details about how the event affected life beyond the English-speaking world, and corrected some foolish harping about the significance of this doctrine and that official.
About a week later, as I was working on the next few sections of the article, I notice that someone had made some slight corrections to a single sentence within a major edit. This person, at least, had the courtesy to post an explanation of his corrections. But his concerns were trivial and his edits left the sentence awkward and broken.
Needless to say, this continued to happen—a word change here, a clause deletion there, an occasional testy comment, and several random acts of vandalism that were quickly corrected. If I’ve lost you, I apologize. But what I’m trying to get at here is that the people running Wikipedia, the many editors and administrators with tens of thousands of edits to their credit, lines of awards on their talk pages, and clearly more time than they deserve all seem to have nothing of any real substance to add. Their criticism is often unnecessary at best, poorly rationalized vandalism at worst.
So, to any and all of you out there. . . . Thanks for being there to keep articles free from things like “Sam was here” and “America Rocks.” But, please, back off a bit and let the people who invest real time and have real experience work.