Thursday, April 7, 2011

1999: The Great Birkby

My hate mail was never of quite the caliber that Markos Moulitsas Zuniga receives, as we do operate on different planes. But the Birkby letters were some of my all-time favorites. For quite some time after this exchange, printed in issue #69 of the Tucson Comic News, my friends and I would use the world "birkby" as a synonym for clueless. So Mr. Birkby, if you're still out there, you've achieved semi-immortality.

Dear Mr. Zep: I know from my own political research that most of the organizations in the "peace" calendar are pro-Communist (or are front groups). What is peaceful about Communism? More people have been killed under Communism than any other form of government in history. (Yes, this includes Hitler). Some of us know the truth, sir. Whether you realize it or not, you have blood on your hands by giving those groups publicity. And I'm guessing that when you finally realize it, you won't care. J.M. Birkby

Dear Mr. Birk:

Let me get this straight. Because I publish meeting times for groups like Tucson Organic Gardeners, the local food co-op and the Cosmic Peace Healing Circle, I'm responsible the the deaths of millions under Stalin?

Your letter reminded me of an old Russian joke: Under capitalism, man exploits man. But under communism, it's just the opposite.

Now I'm sure you weren't trying to save my soul by pointing out the collectivist tendencies of groups like Women for Sustainable Technologies, revealed by your tireless and infallible research. You're probably more concerned with folks like Jobs With Justice or the School of the Americas protesters. Obvious com-symps, if you folks still use the phrase.

But how about the Socialist Workers Party? I hate to break it to you, but this is not a front group. They're pretty honest about the fact that they advocate more socialism. But here's the hard part: every government on the planet is a mix of capitalism and socialism. When you pay taxes for things like police and fire protection, roadbuilding and schools, that's socialism, buddy!

It's only when the government has too much socialism or too much capitalism that you get into trouble. Too much capitalism would include things like letting the free market provide police, roads and schools, and too bad for you if you can't afford any. Now, some of us think this here country could use a little more socialism in things like medical care and higher education, but there's room for reasonable people to disagree on such matters.

By now you're probably congratulating yourself that the above confirms how little I care about the fruits of your vaunted research (but I do care! I do!). But if you had done enough research, you probably would have found somebody to tell you that, as the author of books like Take The Rich Off Welfare and The CIA's Greatest Hits, I may well be a Communist front group myself!

Please let me know if it turns out I am.

The point of the Russian joke above is that both capitalism and communism are massive scams perpetrated by a small group of power-addicted greedheads. Greedheads and ideologues will always be with us, and will pretty much screw up any society they get their hands on if you let them. The trick for the rest of us is to try and find some balance, some middle ground between every-man-for-himself and every-man-for-myself.

Here's something else about me that might have escaped you: I'm a capitalist myself. That is, I invested my own money in this business, purchase cartoons and newsprint from those that supply it, and work my butt off to try and sell advertising to other capitalists before my competitors do. Given that I've freely chosen this vocation, and God bless America for the opportunity to do so, I couldn't very well advocate the violent overthrow of the entrenched capitalist order and the forced collectivization of cartoonists into state-run 'toon communes.

No, what I advocate is that we work to save capitalism from itself, by moderating its excesses. Turns out that some things are better provided by the free market and other things are better provided by the government. Trick is to find out which is which, and guess what? Nobody has all the answers. It's gonna take some more trial-and-error. But my own political research has indicated to me that the free market can't really be bothered to care about social justice. That's our job.

Something else worth pointing out: capitalism and socialism are economic systems, while totalitarianism and democracy are political systems. Thus it's more than possible to have totalitarian capitalism (as in Singapore, or even with our trading partners in China), and just as possible to have democratic socialism (as in Sweden, or even in pre-Thatcherite Britain). I'm betting that if you bothered to research the groups in the Peace Calendar by actually talking to them, you'd find that most of them believe in the democratic form of socialism, or at least a kinder, gentler capitalism. Very few of them actually favor throwing tens of millions of people into gulags for re-education, torture and/or execution.

But I suppose in your worldview, that just makes them dupes, like, say, Dwight Eisenhower. So hey. I've shared some of my worldview with you; why don't you do the same? Share with me the fruits of your research. Name some names. Tell me which of the groups I'm publicizing are the sympathizers and which are the front groups, according to your sources. And don't forget to name those sources.

Then I'll look into it. Because I actually do care which groups are fronting for others, whether they're on the left or the right. In fact, my own political research tells me that there are plenty of groups out there that are actually fronts for the International Capitalist Conspiracy. Not only that, but it turns out that Uncle Sam has the blood of innocent millions on his hands, too. And thus, so do you, just by living here, but also by attacking well-intentioned people working for peace and justice. And I'm guessing that you would care if you could grasp this, but that you probably can't.

Respectfully, Mark Zepezauer

WBirkby wrote:

Dear Mr. Zep: David Horowitz, the former left-wing radical who actually knows
what he is talking about because he was there, is one of my sources. And
don't try to discredit him by calling him names. He knows.

Now, what makes you think I would call him names? Did I call you any names? But that doesn't really anwer my question. Just who are these Stalinists to whom I am giving aid and comfort? Could you be a little more specific?

You have not convinced me that most far-left people do not want totalitarianism (as long as it is their brand of it). No doubt I will never convince you, at least not by email, since it's much easier and more comforting to believe that people who honestly disagree with you are evil. Again, why don't you try asking them what it is they want? Or is that type of "research" outside of your purview? Ah, never mind, they'd only lie to you anyway.

You mention Socialists. Ed Asner is one of these, he says. He supported the
Sandinistas even though they were killing Miskito Indians and taking away
 even small parcels of farmland. I guess one brand of killing is O.K. but
others are not.

And no doubt you supported the contras even while they were killing teachers and doctors. So I guess that brand of killing was OK for you but not the other. But where did you ever get the idea that I think any kind of killing is okay, just because I think people should get health care whether they can pay for it or not?

Why are the left-wingers demanding Pinochet's head but ignoring Castro's
killing of several thousand people earlier in his dictatorship?!

And why are right-wingers demanding Castro's head but ignoring Pinochet's crimes? Could it be because politics is more fun when you can demonize your opposition and wrap yourself in a cloak of purity?

You and other "peace" people sound great, but when you dig a little deeper,
the fact remains that to accomplish your goals (equality at any cost, an
impossible dream),

If you read even a fraction of what I've written, you'd know that I don't advocate equality at any cost. What I advocate is a balance between societies like ours where a tiny minority has fabulous wealth and millions live in poverty, and societies where everyone has the same income so motivation and innovation are stifled. And in this country, we drift back and forth in sixty-year cycles between the two poles without ever quite reaching either one. Because neither one is sustainable, as proven by the Crash of '29 and the dissolution of the USSR.

all people in America must lose many of their rights (property rights especially).

Guess what! You don't have the right to dump toxic poisons on your property and ruin the water downstream for the rest of us! So there are limits to property rights, and I don't think either you or I want to live in a country without such limits. So let's all calm down and have a civilized argument about what those limits should be.

You may think that, because I defend those rights, I am rich. No fucking way!
I think I took in 7000 dollars last year. I don't even own a vehicle. No shit.

Well hey, if you made 7 grand last year, you're doing better than I am publishing lefty cartoons and writing books. And I don't own a vehicle either, unless you count my bicycle.

Re-examine your beliefs, Mr. Zep.(Yes, I have examined mine repeatedly, and
I'm sticking with them, regardless of their few flaws.

Mr. Birk, I re-eximine my beliefs twice a week, whether I need to or not. But unlike you, if I find those those beliefs are flawed, I go out and find new ones.

J.M. Birkby
(No, not WBirkby)

Respectfully, Mark Zepezauer
(No, not Zep)

Dear Mr. Birkby: Don't ask me why I'm willing to spend this much time on you, but I have a couple of additional points.

You mention Sandinistas. You bet, it's true that they killed some Miskito Indians early on. But they stopped doing that pretty soon, whereas the contras kept on killing doctors and teachers and priests for ten years. The thing about the Sandidnistas is that, unlike many of us, they were willing to learn from their mistakes. Not only did they stop killing Miskitos, but they gave them substantial autonomy and brought them into the government. But the main thing about the Sandinistas is this: they held regular elections to insure they had popular support. And when they lost one of those elections, even though a foreign power had funnelled billions of dollars to their opponents, they voluntarily relinquished power. Now what the hell kind of totalitarians are those?

By the way, you still haven't convinced me that most far-right people do not want totalitarianism (as long as it is their brand of it). :^)

Now, about all those dead bodies. The highest estimates I've heard for Stalin's death totals are 30 million. And that's a lot of dead people, no doubt, and Uncle Joe was a ruthless bastard and no kind of leftist I'd want to associate with. Got that? But these are just estimates, and we can't really know for sure eaxctly how many were killed. but if you're relying on the historian Robert Conquest, who is the source of that high figure, I'm here to tell you that those numbers were inflated to score ideological points in the Cold War.

And maybe that shouldn't be that big a deal, since that's the kind of thing people do in wars, Cold or not, and besides, whether it's 30 million or 3 million it's still totally wrong and we devious peace people ain't in favor of it either way. But the point is that the reason that Conquest did that is so that he and folks like you could point to that stack of bodies and say it's bigger than our stack of bodies so therefore our economic system makes more sense. In fact, our economic system does make more sense than Uncle Joe's, but it's not because our stack of dead bodies don't reach as high.

But of course some folks will take it a step further and say that if you don't like our system, regardless of its few flaws, then you must be in favor of Uncle Joe's system and besides that, in favor of his big tall stack of dead bodies which is even bigger than ours so there. Now Mr. B, this is what you're trying to do and don't think I don't notice it and I'm not calling you any names but I say that dog don't hunt.

But hey. Suppose all of us just accept Professor Conquest's numbers as gospel, just like you do. So Stalin killed 30 million exactly. And old Adolf, who was just fine with plenty of far-right people until he invaded Poland, only killed 6 million Jews. It's an interesting number, 6 million, since it's roughly equal to the number of Africans killed by our slave system. And roughly equal to the number of innocents killed due to the CIA since 1947.

But we're talking about Adolf. And it's true that he did kill 6 million Jews, no matter what some right-wingers try to say. But he also killed another 6 million Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and Slavs. And so now we have 12 million, which is a prety impressive stack, but not even half of what Conquest scores for Uncle Joe. Except guess what? Adolf also killed 20 million Russians.

And one of the main reasons he killed that many Russians is that FDR and Churchill kept delaying the invasion of Europe for more than two years, hoping that Adolf and Uncle Joe would just wear each other out. And when it became clear that Uncle Joe would win, that's when we sent in the ground troops, to make sure we could claim more turf than he did.

But hey. By my reckoning, Adolf the rightie is up 2 million over Uncle Joe the leftie. And I'll see your Pol Pot and raise you a Suharto. So can we have universal health care now?

WBirkby wrote:

Dear Mr. Zepezauer: I will answer your questions. But first, several
important points:

You ask who are the "Stalinists" you are aiding. They may not actually love
(or like) Stalin 's crimes, but you must realize that, for all practical
purposes, Communism is Communism. You can call it Marxism, Stalinism,
Maoism, Castroism etc. But the end result is the same: murder, oppression, and misery for all.

Well, Mr. Birkby, thank you for addressing me by my full name. You say I "must" realize what you realize, but so far, it's not working. I was hoping that you "must" realize the difference between political and economic systems, but that hasn't seemed to take either. What you describe above are all totalitarian systems, some of them nastier than others but none of them anything I'd choose to live under. But there have been plenty of capitalist countries that have produced murder, oppression and misery, too. And even though I don't want to live under communism, Alexander Dubcek showed you can run it without murder, oppression and misery. The fact that he was crushed by a ruthless shit like Brezhnev doesn't negate that.

Yes, there is inequality in the U.S., but at least most do fairly well.

There is more inequality in the US than in any other advanced capitalist nation on Earth. Can anybody propose doing something about that without being redbaited by you?

Anyone who would trade places with a Cuban (or North Korean, etc.) is completely insane, by anyone's definition.

Well, see, by my definition, anybody who was living in a US-supported hellhole like Haiti, Guatemala or El Salvador during the 80s would have been showing a certain amount of sanity by getting away from the bloodbaths paid for by your tax dollars and moving to a country with universal health care and the highest literacy rate in the hemisphere (including ours). Like you say, Castro killed a couple thousand supporters of the old regime when he took power, but after that, while he may have tossed dissenters in jail, he wasn't gunning them down by the hundreds of thousands like our capitalist buddies in Guatemala. Now just because I think Fidel can do a decent job with schools and clinics doesn't mean I buy the whole package. But who's insane here?

You must read Jeff Jacoby's column in the Boston Globe, Dec. 7 , 1995. It is
called "To the Victims of Communism" and it is stunning. Anyone who still
supports any type of Communism after reading that is a complete idiot.

Now who's name-calling?

So that is it, in a nutshell. Communism is Communism.

And socialism is socialism and believe it or not, it ain't the same thing. Since, if you'll review, we have socialism in this country, too (though not much), and they have plenty of it in nice little places like Finland and Austria and they keep the murder, oppression and misery at pretty low levels, thank you very much.

As for which groups in
the "peace" calendar are com-symp, I would say the following: Jobs with
Justice, Salt of the Earth Labor College, A.F.S.C., Women's Int. League for
Peace and Freedom, Derechos Humanos, People's Congress for Social and
Economic Justice, and maybe more. Of course, they would angrily deny any
connection to Communism.

And guess what! I'd angrily deny any connection to communism myself! But apparently denying such connections only constitutes further proof. And guess what else! Just because "you would say" these folks are "com-symps" (such a quaint little phrase) doesn't make it so. I'm gonna need some better sourcing than that before I ban them from my publication to prevent a future holocaust of laissez-faire capitalists here in Tucson.

With all seriousness, the people in these groups are working to help the victims of capitalism and to prevent needless bloodshed. I don't expect you to get this, but that doesn't mean they want to install a Communist system here in the US or even to move to a so-called worker's paradise like North Korea. It would be nice if you could criticize them for their actual agendas rather than redbaiting them, but that would require some actual critical thinking. Apparently it's just much easier to paint them all with the same brush and stay secure in the knowledge that you've got it all figured out.

Mr. Birkby, if history teaches us anything, it's that people who have it all figured out, like Stalin and Hitler, are the most dangerous people in the world. This goes equally for muddle-headed leftists like Huey Newton and muddle-headed rightists like J. Edgar Hoover, each of whom showed himself capable of inflicting misery on a smaller scale because he had all the answers and thus the other side was pure evil.

The former Communist Boris Yeltsin said it very well: He wishes that
Communism had occurred in a smaller country so that they did not have to kill
and oppress so many people to prove that Utopia is impossible.

I'm struggling manfully here to resist the temptation to engage in a bit of name-calling based on the demonstrated intellectual abilities and personal habits of your chosen source. Let's just say that old Boris is a walking (well, staggering) poster boy for the notion that too much capitalism is as good an idea as too much vodka.

Respectfully, Mark Zepezauer

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