Queer Eye for the Straight Cathedral

Posted in General, On This Day on October 31st, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

October 31, 1517:   Professor Luther Defaces a Church Door

With all his Teutonic subtlety, Professor Martin Luther hammered on the doors of Wittenburg Cathedral his challenge to the Church.  His “95 Theses” was a list of questions on the issue of Indulgences.  The list could be summarized:   Is the Pope a complete moron or just a shameless thief? For some reason, the Church declined the debate.

Why was the Church selling Indulgences? It wanted the money, of course. You can’t have a Renaissance on a medieval budget. Michelangelo was not cheap, and Raphael could charge even more because he was likable. The Church was undergoing a major redecorating binge….

And now from the video archives: here is “This Old Basilica”:old st teeters finished c

Julius II: I think that this 1200 year-old church needs some work. I am asking the best artists of the Renaissance for their advice.

Leonardo: It is a camp pastiche. A little Byzantine here, a dab Gothic there, a soupcon Romanesque and mustn’t ignore the retro classic.

Bramante: It is also collapsing.

Julius: All right. Let’s build a new one.

Michelangelo: If you want any sculpting done, fine. Otherwise, I might beat you to death.

Julius: That is a fine way to talk to the Vicar of Christ, especially when I am dying of syphilis.

Leonardo: I think that the new cathedral should fly–a transfiguration motif. I will need at least six years to come up with the right shade for the blueprints.

Julius: Leonardo, the word genius doesn’t do you justice. I believe that the Greek words schizo and phrenia might be apt.

And now that we have torn down the old basilica, I have a little surprise: we can’t afford to build a new one! Maybe you should elect some rich idiot to succeed me….

Cardinal Giovanni de Medici: Hi, I was strolling by, trying to pick up altar boys, when I noticed a job posting for Pope. Let’s see the requirements: Catholics preferred and must be willing to bribe the College of Cardinals. I think that can be arranged. So now I am—

Pope Leo X: Bramante, love your plans. I still am not sure how we can afford it.

Bramante: You’re a de Medici. God borrows money from you.

Leo: Buying a Papal election is more expensive than you’d think. I guess that I could raise money by selling indulgences. No problem there. And I suppose that I could be polite to those pyromaniac lunatics in Spain–just in case they conquer any fabulously rich civilizations in the New World. On second thought, couldn’t you guys work in wood and wallpaper?

Turban Decay

Posted in General, On This Day on September 12th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

September 12th, 1683:  The Ottoman Empire Begins Its Retreat to Oblivion

Turks in Vienna finishedFirst, the official version: Vienna is besieged by the Ottomans but an army led by Poland’s King Jan Sobieski routes the Moslem horde and saves Western Civilization.

Once you have dispensed with the grateful tears and a few bars of Chopin (how else do you thank Poland), I will give you the actual history.

Yes, the Ottomans did besiege Vienna in 1683.  However, this was not the Ottoman Empire of 1483 or 1583, but the bloated parody of its martial glory. Uma Thurman had become Shelley Winters. This Ottoman army was no longer led by warrior kings; the Sultans–now cretins by birth or choice–rarely could find their way out of their harem. The army was now led by whichever courtier had bribed or connived the command.

The commanding pasha at Vienna was Kara Mustafa. He had an army of 140,000 men, but only a third of them were actual soldiers and their weapons were outdated. The other 90,000 men were basically support staff–and the pasha was enjoying the best coffee and cushions. Setting off from Constantinople in April, the Ottoman army lumbered upon Vienna in mid-July. Since an Ottoman horde was hard to ignore, Vienna had ample time to evacuated the civilian population. There was only a garrison of 18,000 left behind the walls of Vienna.

Even with their geriatric armaments, by sheer force the Ottomans could have taken the city. However, that would have been unprofitable for the Pasha. If Vienna were taken by storm, the Turkish soldiers would be entitled to whatever they could loot. On the other hand, if the city were besieged and starved into submission, then the Pasha would receive Vienna’s treasures. Guess which strategy Kara Mustafa preferred?

There are worse places to siege than Vienna in the summer. The Ottoman army enjoyed a pleasant two months of pillaging the Austrian countryside. However, their vacation ended rather abruptly–on this day in 1683–with the arrival of an allied army led by Jan Sobieski. The Pasha evidently had overlooked that possibility. Worse, although Sobieski’s force was half the size of the Pasha’s, the Christian army was composed of soldiers rather than servants. It turned out that the Turkish army was much faster when retreating than advancing. And, indeed, the Ottoman Empire now would be retreating for the next 250 years.

(Yes, in their haste, the Turks left behind sacks of coffee beans.  The Poles were entitled to the pick of the loot but were not interested in a sober beverage; so they gave the Turks’ caffeine to the Viennese who made it into an art.)

For his role in the debacle, Kara Mustafa did not receive the Medal of Freedom. He was strangled and then beheaded. So the Sultan was not a complete cretin.

And was Christendom saved? Well, it never was in danger. The Ottoman Empire had no plans for mosques in Moscow or Turkish baths in Bath. This was simply a turf war between Turkey and Austria, and the winner would get Hungary. Furthermore, if this had been a clash between Islam and Christendom, then Turkey had a very strange ally: the leading power of Western Civilization. You see, the Hapsburgs were fighting on two fronts: in the East against the Turks, and in the West against France. Yes, France and Turkey were allies of long-standing, with over a century of coordinated attacks against the Hapsburgs.

Indeed, while Austria was marshalling and mortgaging its resources against Turkey, there was little left to defend the west bank of the Rhine from Louis XIV. Perhaps the French victories offered some solace to the Turkish Sultan. He may have lost Vienna and then Hungary, but his French buddy now owned Alsace and Lorraine.

Fanny Get Your Gun

Posted in General, On This Day on August 30th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

August 30, 1918:  Fanny Kaplan Becomes One of History’s Greatest Footnotes

Fanny Kaplan is not the kind of name with any historical portent.  In my old neighborhood, I might have known six of them, all friends of my grandmother.  None of these elderly yentas would be thought of as Fanny the Great.  So, who is the Fanny Kaplan?   This one killed Vladimir Lenin.  That sounds more erotic than it actually was.  Comrade Kaplan actually shot Lenin.

She was a Socialist Revolutionary, a political party more radical than the Bolsheviks.  It advocated land distribution to the peasants and terrorism.  The Socialist Revolutionaries (let’s be informal and call them the SR) had been in the forefront of resistance to the Tsar–when the Bolsheviks were debating dialectic materialism and playing chess.  Furthermore, the SR were just as defiant of Bolshevik tyranny.  The SR certainly were more popular than Lenin’s gang.  Russia had an election for a constituent assembly in November 25, 1917.  With their agrarian platform in a land where 90 percent of the people were peasants, the SR won more than half the seats in the assembly.  By contrast, the Bolsheviks came in a distant second.  When the Assembly met in January 1918, the Bolsheviks simply disbanded it.  The SR had the votes but the Bolsheviks had the guns.

Actually, the SR had guns, too.  They attempted an uprising in July 1918.  The Bolsheviks crushed it, but the SR still had recourse to political assassination.  On August 30, 1918 in Moscow, Lenin was shot twice by Fanny Kaplan.  One bullet did no worse than hitting his  shoulder, but the other lodged in the neck.  He did not die; by contrast, Kaplan’s execution was an immediate success.

However, the Russians were afraid to remove the bullet in Lenin’s neck.  At first, ignoring the bullet seemed an effective therapy.  Lenin seemed just as effective a tyrant as ever, leading the Reds to victory in a Civil War and initiating an agrarian policy of land distribution which he shamelessly stole from the SRs.  (From their ability, to his needs…)  Nor had Lenin lost his sense of fun; he sometimes ordered a Politiburo meeting to be conducted in English, German or French.  Speaking Russian just wasn’t enough of an intellectual challenge.

But then Lenin began suffering from headaches and insomnia.  He was physically deteriorating; the bullet in his neck clearly was threatening his life.  So Lenin finally agreed to an operation. No doctor in the Soviet Union had the skill or the nerve; a German specialist performed the surgery in April 1922.  The bullet was successfully extracted, and Lenin no longer had headaches and insomnia.  However, there may have been one side effect; he had a stroke in May.  He seemed to recover from it, but then a second stroke in December left him partially paralyzed.  In March 1923, a third stroke left him mute and bedridden.  He died in January 1924.

So, Fanny Kaplan killed Lenin, even if it took five years for him to realize it.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Medici

Posted in General, On This Day on August 23rd, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 10 Comments

August 24, 1572

Catherine de Medici was having a bad week.    Catherine de MediciFirst, she had to organize the wedding of her daughter Margo to Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre.  Even with her connections, the Queen Mother couldn’t get a better date for Notre Dame Cathedral than August.  Who would want to be in Paris then?  (Be sure to triple the order on the Church incense.)   Then, there was a matter of finding a cleric willing to do mixed marriages.  Royal marriages required at least an archbishop, but none seemed to approve of a Protestant bridegroom.  Fortunately, someone in the groom’s family was still Catholic and he was a Cardinal.  Of course, there was always the challenge of seating.  The Guises hate the Montmorencys, and neither wanted to be near Huguenots.  Finally, at the last minute, she had to plan the massacre of the Protestant guests.

Catherine was almost as surprised by this development as the Protestants would be; and it was all the fault of that Henri de Guise, Duc de Lorraine.  Two days earlier, on August 22nd, a Guise employee had attempted to assassinate the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny.  Perhaps Guise had his reasons: he was the leader of the militant Catholics and his father had been assassinated by a Huguenot.  An Italian would never begrudge anyone a vendetta, but Catherine did not appreciate Guise’s sense of timing.  It rather disrupted the ecumenical mood of the wedding festivities.  At least Coligny had survived, and Catherine and her son–King Charles IX–had paid a visit to the invalid.  But that good will gesture did not satisfy the outraged Huguenots.

So Catherine and her royal councilors had to come to a decision.  (Charles rarely dared to have his own opinion.)  Of course, in theory, they should punish de Guise.  But De Guise commanded his own army, the Holy League; he was the most popular man in France and especially adored in Paris, and he was allied to Philip II.  Any action against de Guise could lead to widespread rebellion, war with Spain and even some excommunications from Rome.   So justice was out of the question.

As an alternative strategy the Crown could do nothing, as if the assassination attempt had never happened.  But that would infuriate the Protestants and start a civil war in France.  The whole point of the marriage between Margo and a Huguenot leader was to maintain peace among the antagonistic religions.  However, there was a third way, one that would avert such a war: massacre the Huguenot leaders before they had a chance to rebel.  Most of them happened to be in Paris for the wedding.  There would never be a more convenient time and place to kill them all.  And Catherine felt that she was only being fair.  If the Huguenots had been the majority in France, she would have organized a massacre of the Catholics.

So, on August 24, early in the morning, the Duc de Guise got a second chance to kill Gaspard de Coligny.  The Royal Guard had also been given a list of Huguenot victims.  Some of them were wedding guests at the Louvre; of course, it would have been rude and messy to slaughter them in their beds.  So they were dragged into the courtyards.  Catherine was quite willing to dispose of her new son-in-law Henri de Bourbon, but for once King Charles stood up to his mother.  The King felt that his brother-in-law should be offered the choice of conversion or death; as it turned out, Henri proved more pragmatist than Protestant.  At the first opportunity, however, Bourbon escaped Paris and reverted to Calvinism.  If the popular lore can be believed, Catherine would spend the rest of her life (another 16 years) trying to poison him.

Now, the massacre had been intended to be a society affair.  These were  “de” people  and worth killing; but the population of Paris hated to miss out on the carnage.  They began an unrestrained slaughter of every Huguenot: man, woman and child.  Thousands were killed in Paris, and as the news spread through France, it was viewed as an invitation.    Until early October, the massacres continued.  The number of victims can only be estimated, and the estimations might reflect a certain bias.  Whereas the Encyclopedia Britannica cites 50,000 dead, the Catholic Encyclopedia concedes maybe 1100 dead in Paris and perhaps 15,000 in all of France.  (The Catholic Encyclopedia also insists that the killings were the work of Machiavellians, not real Catholics.)

Despite all that enthusiastic slaughter, there were still ample surviving Huguenots to plunge France into civil wars that lasted until 1598.  Catherine de Medici did not live to see its outcome; however, undeserving, she died of natural causes in 1589. King Charles died in 1574, perhaps accidentally poisoned by his mother.  The Duc de Guise was assassinated in 1589, but surprisingly not by a Protestant.  Only Henri de Bourbon was left–and he now was the King of France.  Of course, to attain the throne, he had to re-convert to Catholicism; but he did grant an edict of tolerance to his former fellow Huguenots.

So the massacre’s only lasting effect was its infamy.  According to the Church Calendar, August 24th is the feast day of Saint Bartholomew.  But since 1572, St. Bartholomew’s Day is not remembered for a feast.

Perhaps the Most Incompetent Man of All Time

Posted in General, On This Day on August 4th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Judging from his name, Helmuth von Moltke was not the type of person whom you would want to manage a hospice or be a party planner (especially bar mitzvahs). Surprisingly, you would not want him to manage your World War. You would expect a Junker to have unjustified arrogance but not unwarranted caution, yet Helmuth did. And as the Chief of the German General Staff in 1914, he inadvertently saved France.

The Franco-Prussian War had been a leisurely affair, six months of continually humiliating the French. But that was in 1870-71, when the Germans were engaged in an one-front war and were led by a genius. (Otto von Bismarck may have been the model for Lex Luthor.) In 1914, Germany had a two-front war and was led by a blustering dolt. (Wilhelm II may have been the model for George Bush, except Wilhelm spoke excellent English.)

France and Russia made an odd couple, the equivalent alliance of Wallace Shawn and King Kong, but they shared a hatred of Germany. Anticipating a two-front war, the German General Staff planned a strategy to defeat France before the lumbering Russian army could even reach the border. Named for its architect, the von Schlieffen Plan was a timetable of conquest. France now had to fall in six weeks; and to accomplish that, Germany had to outflank the French by attacking through Belgium. Von Schlieffen wanted every possible resource to be in the German force striking through Belgium: any available soldier, any ambulatory male, boy scouts, the heaviest sopranos from Bayreuth. “Strengthen the Right Wing” was Schlieffen’s dogma and probably his politics.

Von Schlieffen had been the chief of staff of the German Army until his retirement in 1906. His position and plan were left to von Moltke, who began fretting over a possible flaw in the strategy. While the German army was attacking from the North, what if the French charged to the east–overwhelming Alsace and reaching the Rhine. Yes, it was a distinct possibility that the French could take Muhlhouse, while the Germans took Paris. It would seem that the Germans would still be ahead in that trade, but Moltke did not want to take any chance. So he reassigned forces from the Northern strike force to the apparently imperiled Rhineland.

On this day in 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. Britain, honoring a treaty with the attacked country–and appreciating an excuse to fight–then declared war on Germany. The British navy was the greatest in world, but its dreadnoughts could not navigate the streams that led to Berlin or Munich. (Coastal Hamburg, however, could have been leveled.) As for the British army–less than a tenth the size of Germany’s, it was literally a joke. Otto von Bismarck once was asked how he would respond if the British army landed in Germany; he replied “I would have a policeman arrest it.”

Von Moltke shared that contempt for the British army. When asked if he should order the German fleet to the English Channel to block the British transport of its army to France, von Moltke dismissed the idea as if it were an insult to the German army. “Let the English come. The German army will defeat them, too.” So, the German navy did nothing, and the unimpeded British fleet transported 140.000 men to France. However, von Moltke had forgotten the strict nature of the von Schlieffen timetable; 140.000 British troops really had not been factored into the Teutonically-precise schedule. Worse, the Russians were not cooperating either. Their lumbering horde was two weeks ahead of German predictions. So von Moltke now was transferring army corps to the Russian Front. (The troops were sent from Belgium; von Moltke left untouched the well-rested forces in Alsace.) He really was entitled to the Croix de Guerre. Paris was saved, the Western Front held, and von Moltke finally noticed a problem. At least, he had the good manners to have a breakdown.

Von Moltke’s ineptitude cost Germany the war, at least a quick victory. But we shouldn’t be grateful to him. We might have been much better off if the von Schlieffen Plan had succeeded, and the world had been spared the ensuing horrors. The Hapsburg Empire actually was rather endearing, and wouldn’t we be happier if the Turks were still occupying Syria, Lebanon and Iraq? As for the Second Reich, just remember the alternative–and the German voters’ taste in chancellors.

Von Moltke ruined it for everyone.vonmoltke sketch a


Posted in General on July 15th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

I just came across a list of “Television’s 25 Most Shocking Deaths.” Of course, the list was purely subjective. In some cases, the shock was that I had never heard of the particular shows. So I decided to create my own list of traumatic demises,,,

‘Television’s 25 Most Shocking Deaths”

20-25: Botched experiments on “Mr. Wizard.” However, the subsequent shows on dissection were always interesting.

6-19: Arthur Chu eating defeated contestants on Jeopardy!

5. Riding home from their wedding and the BBC, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy are killed by Andrew Jackson. That does even the score for burning Washington.

4. On the series finale of “Gunsmoke” Marshall Dillon’s realization that Miss Kitty was a transvestite. You’d think in the series’ twenty years he might have noticed sooner, but that was television in its PG days.

3. Bennett Cerf strangling John Daly on “What’s My Line?” Mr. Cerf was enraged that he had spent five minutes trying to guess the identity of Soupy Sales. The jury would rule it a justifiable homicide.

2. The TARDIS landing on Matthew Crawley. The Doctor did provide the late Matthew an alternate life as a malpractice attorney in 1349 London.

1. Barney killing the three civil rights workers on the Andy Griffith episode “Mayberry Burning.”

Torah and Tory

Posted in General on July 5th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 8 Comments

(I was asked to conduct the Sabbath service on July 4th.  I aware that the attendance would be theoretical, but how could I refuse?  Me and a pulpit…never underestimate my megalomania.  As for the topic of my sermon, the choice was obvious.)

Torah and Tory

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Independence Day!
Since this is not an Episcopalian Church, I would guess that most of our ancestors missed the actual event and didn’t even hear about it until we got past Ellis Island.
Yet, in 1776 there were Jews in the Thirteen Colonies: approximately twenty-five hundred. At the time, there were 2.5 million people in the colonies. So we were a meager one-in-a-thousand. I doubt that you could find a minyan in New Hampshire or old Virginia, but there were congregations in New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
What was it like to be a Jew in the Thirteen Colonies? In the words of either Maimonides or Larry David, it could have been worse. Our lives and property were protected by English law. An act of Parliament had guaranteed Jews the same legal status as Methodists. That was not quite an English compliment but–trust me–that was better than being a Roman Catholic. So, our situation was slightly snubbed but definitely not persecuted. The Cordozos of New York and the Gratzs of Philadelphia could lead prosperous, enjoyable lives, even if their kids weren’t welcome in the Ivy League.
Compare that to Jewish life elsewhere in North America. That is easy–there was no Jewish life there. Spain forbid Jews in its colonies; it forbid anyone of Jewish descent! If you had one Jewish great-grandparent, your presence was a capital offense. Ferdinand and Isabella could not have met that standard.
What about France’s colonies? In Canada, definitely NON. No matter how much you would have liked being the ancestor of William Shatner, the French government would not have permitted it. There were Jews in France–40,000 in the mid-18th century; but immigration to Canada was limited to Roman Catholics–and even they had to meet an exacting system of quotas. The aspiring emigrant had to fill a specific job awaiting him in Canada. If you were a baker, and Montreal did not need one…well, you could always lie and claim to be a trapper. It was easier getting into the Sorbonne than into Quebec. Louisiana was slightly more tolerant…or lazy. There were five Jewish families in New Orleans. Of course, their existence was against the law–but who ever enforces the law in New Orleans?
So, you can see the Jews of the British Empire enjoyed an unequalled degree of security and liberty. What more could a Jew expect or dare want? Why would they risk the Crown’s guarantees for the lofty promises of the Declaration of Independence? Because those promises addressed an unexpressed longing and age-old fears. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Here was a commitment to freedom, and not just the gift of tolerance.
The New World was no longer just a geographic term; it would be the fulfillment of our hopes. Our liberties were not the favor of a monarch or the concessions of a Parliament. Freedom was not even an English privilege. We all were entitled to those rights by birth, by our humanity. That idea was the American Revolution, and what we honor today.
Shabbat Shalom.

Which Empire Would You Be in 1914?

Posted in General on June 28th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

It is the centennial of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  I am surprised that there is no Buzzfeed Quiz for you to pick  “What Empire Were You in 1914?”

Which best describes your bloated, chauvinistic incompetence?

A. Should I try dragging the Empire into the 18th century or just stay in the harem?
B. Check out the Faberge catalog, go to the ballet and blame for the Jews for losing a war with Japan.
C. Remember to treat the Indians better than the Irish.
D. Build a major naval base in Munich and train my dachhunds to goosestep.
E. Do my epaulets make me look fat, Monsieur Renoir? Battles are won by the best-dressed.
F. Yes, the Balkans and Slavic nationalism should be addressed–but first try the Sacher Tortes.

The Price of Stability: Tiananmen Square

Posted in General, On This Day on June 4th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

June 4, 1989: Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is the cultural center of Beijing. It is on the itinerary of every tour of China’s capital. The government-approved guide would point out the monuments, museums and edifices that make Tiananmen the showcase of Communist China. Along this great public square is the National Museum, and the Great Hall of the People–where foreign dignities are honored at state dinners that seat 5000 people. Of course, there is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the founder of Communist China; the “Great Helmsman” himself envisioned Tiananmen as the glory of the People’s Republic. If entire neighborhoods were demolished in 1958 to create the world’s largest public square, Mao was not one to suffer details. History would justify the cost. That is the rationale of tyranny and, sadly, it often proves correct. When faced with the prospect of losing political power, the successors of Mao would show the same ruthless resolve in crushing the pro-democracy movement: the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

“Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” That may be the only principle of Mao’s that his successors still observe. The “Chairman” may have been a capable general and an intimidating tyrant but he was an absurd administrator. The mundane mechanics of government actually offended him. Instead he offered maxims, but inspiration does not grow crops or run industries. And too often his visions proved illusions. For example, he imagine that China could industrialize if every family had its own blast furnace: make your own steel in the backyard. The idea was ridiculous but no one dared ignore his command. Of course, this “Great Leap Forward” was a disaster, squandering manpower and resources. Worse, agriculture was neglected and resulted in a famine; thirty million people starved.

When Mao died in 1976, the governance of this schizophrenic China–a world power with a hand-to-mouth economy–was left to a committee of old veterans, men who had survived both war and the Chairman’s temper. Some remained true Communists, but a prevailing majority saw that China’s prosperity required pragmatism rather than dogma. In the words of China’s new leader, Deng Xiopeng, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

China was still primarily an agrarian society, so the first reforms were in agriculture. Allow private property, permit initiative and profit, and you could turn peasants into farmers. In a decade, the average rural income had tripled. To industrialize China required a more drastic deviation from Mao and Communism: foreign capital. The coastal provinces became “special economic zones” luring foreign business with the promise of western products at Chinese wages. In 1980, the minimum wage in the United States was $3.10 a hour; that would have been a week’s wage in China. But the undershirts made in China were indistinguishable from those woven in South Carolina. Its profits encouraged the Chinese government to permit further commercial initiative. The Chinese themselves now were permitted to go into business. The aspiring entrepreneur, craftsman or merchant had the opportunity to prove his worth in the marketplace. In effect, the Chinese people had economic freedom. So began the boom that continues to propel China.

Yet these new policies would raise issues and create divisions in the Chinese society. Within a decade of these economic reforms, the college students were wondering why there were no political reforms. Was freedom permitted only in economics? That seemed illogical and unjust. The Party leadership was aware of this growing dissension but was unsympathetic. Deng Xioping equated democracy with chaos. Within the leadership, there had been one supporter of democracy: the Party’s General Secretary Hu Yaobang. Deng fired him in 1977 and chose Zhao Ziyang as the new General Secretary. Zhao represented the second generation of Chinese leaders, not an old guard revolutionary but a pragmatic bureaucrat. Deng trusted him to pursue prosperity while preserving the political order.

So the economy boomed and the dissent grew. Ironically, this status quo ended with death of Hu Yaobang in April, 1989. The advocate of democratic reform remained a hero to college students. They held memorial services that also were political protests. On April 26th, the Communist Party’s official newspaper printed a front page denunciation of the students: “Their purpose was to sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos, and sabotage…stability and unity.”

The vitriolic accusations only incited a rebellious reaction. On April 27th, thousands of students from Beijing University marched on Tiananmen Square and occupied it in the name of democracy. There, amidst the monuments to Chinese Communism, the student protestors set up their camp. They made no provisions for sanitation, so their shanty town soon became squalid. To the dismay of the Communist leadership, the heart of Beijing was both a democratic forum and an open sewer.

Deng was not in a conciliatory mood. “We do not fear spilling blood, and we do not fear international reaction.” Zhao, however, remained a pragmatist. He noted that the popular sentiment of Beijing sided with the students; perhaps the party should accept a more democratic system. If he could end the impasse, the party leadership would agree to some concessions. On May 12th, the front page of The People’s Daily printed Zhao’s proclamation of human rights and a promise of a democratic China. However, Zhao also urged the students to their Tiananmen demonstrations and return to classes.

But the students only increased their demands for democratic reforms. On May 13th, 3000 went on a hunger strike. Their militancy undermined Zhao; by May 17th, he has been stripped of power. But he made one last appeal to the protestors, visiting them on May 19th and pleading with them to leave. They ignored him and the following day’s declaration of martial law. The students had a blithe confidence in the righteousness of their cause and in the support of Beijing’s populace. How could the People’s Army fight against the People?

As a symbol of democracy and a tribute to its defenders, local artists had constructed a statue of foam and paper mache. It was transported in pieces to Tiananmen and assembled there on May 29th. The statue, 33 feet tall, of a woman defiantly bearing a torch was named “The Goddess of Democracy.” Five days later, the statue was crushed by a tank.

On June 3rd, there were 10,000 protestors encamped in Tiananmen Square. Late that night, in armored vehicles and on foot, some 15,000 soldiers converged on the square. They had hoped that the late hours would give them the element of surprise, but it was too large a force for stealth. An alarmed populace swarmed into the streets, trying to block the troops. But the soldiers had orders to take control by any means necessary. There was insufficient tear gas to disperse the crowds; there were enough bullets. The suppression continued throughout the following morning. Hundreds were killed, thousands wounded. The exact numbers may never be known; bonfires reportedly burned bodies. Although the events are known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, most of the bloodshed occurred in the streets leading there. In the Square itself, the encamped protestors were driven out at gunpoint but without casualties.

Tyranny had prevailed. Yet on June 5th, one gesture of defiance stirred the world. In Tiananmen, the crowds looked on as tanks patrolled the square. A single man, wearing a white shirt and carrying shopping bags, darted in front of a tank and stopped it. The tank attempted to move around him; he blocked it. One man against a tank; the impasse lasted several minutes. He could have been run over or gunned down, but the tank’s crew refrained. Perhaps they too respected courage. Two men eventually hustled him away. Were they his friends or the police? We don’t know his identity or his fate, just his heroism.

The world denounced the massacre and, in a month, it was business as usual. After all, in the words of the U.S. State Department, the executions and arrests were China’s “internal affairs.” The leaders of the student movement were put on a “Wanted” list of criminals. At least 1500 were arrested for their “counter-revolutionary” activities. Zhao Ziyang lived under house arrest for the rest of his life; he died in 2005.

Today, China has the second largest economy in the world; so history apparently has justified the cost of Tiananmen. But even now, the Chinese government forbids public discussion of the “turmoil.” Yet, the truth still has its advocates. In his “June Fourth Elegies” author Liu Xiaobo wrote:
“Beneath the forgetting and the terror/this day’s been buried…In memory and bravery/this day lives forever.”
(Translation by Jeffrey Yang)

Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. He is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Heroes of British Dentistry

Posted in General, On This Day on May 25th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde was convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons”.

Yes, when accused of being a Sodomite, Wilde sued for libel on the rationale that he really was more of a Gomorrahite. It is an interesting defense: two different cities and apparently two different positions. Given the British standards of dental hygiene, gomorrahy could even be justified as desperately needed flossing. Unfortunately, at his trial Wilde invoked every ancient Greek but Hippocrates. So he was imprisoned for Homer-sexuality.

And here is a tribute to a vilified Victorian who might have won a libel case…