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Michael Kelly   Washington Post   08-Apr-1998   Those Heartwarming Communists
"So Times reporter Sara Rimer went out to Los Angeles and found, in a place called Sunset Hall, a lovable bunch of senior citizens who are kept young at heart by their passion for ... communist totalitarianism.  Yes, communist totalitarianism.  Yes, Marx and Lenin and Mao.  Yes, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.  Yes, the greatest experiment in government through mass murder in history...." Michael Kelly
Oh, Those Heartwarming Communists

By Michael Kelly

Washington Post, April 8, 1998, p. A23

In the study of contemporary culture, nothing is more rewarding of attention than newspaper human interest stories.  This is because the point of such stories is to evoke a common emotional response, and so they rest on assumptions of shared values.  The writer takes it for granted that pretty much everyone will find it naturally good that the granny surprised the mugger with the Detective Special in her purse and that the kid from the projects won the city science fair.

Thus, to read the human interest stories in any community's newspaper is to know not only what that community thinks is news, but also what it thinks about what is admirable and what is amusing and what is moral and what is unarguably true.  The assumptions of human interest stories describe a community's values, its culture.

The community served by the New York Times is of particular interest in this regard, for it is the community of America's elites.  What the writers and editors of the Times assume their readers will find funny or heartwarming or uplifting or cute is a nearly pure reflection of the values of what New Yorker writer Richard Rovere called the Establishment.

These values, at least as reflected in the Times, increasingly seem disconnected not only from those of most other Americans, but even from reality.  On April 6, the Times ran a front-page human interest story of a standard sort, in the sub-genre of Those Wonderful Wacky Old Folks.  Every paper in America runs this sort of story: Harry and Bob and Joe and Mabel and Edith may be nearly fossilized, but there's life in the old coots yet, as witnessed by their passion for baseball/ballroom dancing/gardening/dabbling in the stock market.

So Times reporter Sara Rimer went out to Los Angeles and found, in a place called Sunset Hall, a lovable bunch of senior citizens who are kept young at heart by their passion for ... communist totalitarianism.

Yes, communist totalitarianism.  Yes, Marx and Lenin and Mao.  Yes, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.  Yes, the greatest experiment in government through mass murder in history: between 45 million and 72 million victims of the state in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2.3 million in Pol Pot's Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1 million in Eastern Europe, 1 million in Vietnam, 1.7 million in Africa, and so on.  As reckoned by the leftist French scholar Stephane Courtois in his recently published 'Black Book of Communism' the butcher's bill for Marx and Lenin's big idea adds up to somewhere between 85 million and 100 million dead on four continents.  Yes, for every blessed one of those necessarily broken eggs.

Yes, fascism, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the jailing and the torturing and the expelling of Jews and Christians and intellectuals and democrats.  Yes, the Moscow spy machine that ran the American Communist Party as an espionage center, that nearly destroyed the American labor movement and that corrupted and crippled American liberalism not once but twice.  Yes to all that, say the cute old folks in the Times.  And about all that, the Times speaks nary a word.

At Sunset Hall, writes Ms. Rimer, "the library has an extensive collection of books on Marxism, Trotsky, Mao and the Rosenberg trial, as well as the complete works of Shakespeare.  There is a framed certificate from the American Civil Liberties Union honoring Sunset Hall's 'tradition of activism' on one wall, a picture of Paul Robeson on another and, on a shelf, a bust of Lenin. At 101, Jacob Darnov, a rabbi's son from Russia, who was a messenger in the Bolshevik army, is unwavering in his admiration for Lenin. 'He's the greatest politician we ever had in this world,' said Mr. Darnov, whose other hero is Leo Tolstoy."  And then there is Glady Foreman, 90, who, writes Rimer, "proudly recalls how, at the age of 8, she was proclaimed 'a little Socialist' by her father"; and who predicts "Socialism, crushed to the earth, will rise again."

If a Times reporter found a brave little band of aging Nazis, who kept a bust of Hitler in the living room and who declared that fascism would rise again, and wrote this up cute well, this simply could never happen.  But a Times reporter writes Darnov and Foreman and company up cute and the editors say: That is cute.  Put it on A-1.

Why did they do this extraordinary thing?  They did it because to them it is not extraordinary.  They did it because they think it really is heartwarming that the Sunset Hall folks are sustained by their old faith, and they assume that it will be heartwarming to their readers as well.  And the awful thing is, they are probably right.


Michael Kelly is a senior writer for National Journal.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post | Wednesday, April 8, 1998; Page A23


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