“I call petroleum the devil’s excrement. It brings trouble…Look at this locura—waste, corruption, consumption, our public services falling apart. And debt, debt we shall have for years.” —JUAN PABLO PEREZ ALFONSO, a founder of OPEC, in 1975

Venezuela—owner of a very large pool of oil and, thus, the curse of an oil economy—is set to choose whether Hugo Chavez gets to be President for Life or not come December 2. Chavez, for those of you who don’t know, is El Presidente of Venezuela, petro-dollar fueled caudillo and current object of bootlicking by dipshit celebrity leftists like Sean Penn and Naomi Campbell, along with tepid support from the likes of Noam Chomsky (whom Chavez seems to think is dead).

“He who draws his sword against his prince should throw away the scabbard.” —ALESSANDRO FARNESE, Third Duke of Parma

TORANAGA: There is no mitigating factor for rebellion against your liege lord.
BLACKTHORNE: Unless you win.
TORANAGA: Very well, you may have named the one mitigating factor. —JAMES CLAVELL, Shogun

All this could have been avoided. Back in 1992, then Teniente Coronel (Lieutenant Colonel) Hugo Chavez led a failed “colonel’s” coup against the government of Venezuela. The government of Venezuela, led by then-President Carlos Andres Perez, didn’t listen to the corollary of the advice of the Duke of Parma. I’m sure that the good Duke would have thought it was so obvious it went without saying. Updated for modern times, the reward due to all who attempt a coup and fail is, in order:

  1. A night to make peace with the maker of your choice (optional);
  2. A nice meal (optional);
  3. A cigarette (optional);
  4. A blindfold (optional);
  5. Several high velocity rifle rounds to the chest (not optional, though a stout length of rope around the neck or a sharp blade are acceptable substitutions);
  6. A hollow point to the head (if needed).

Failure to follow this obvious advice is not a recipe for long-term survival of a government and, indeed, a profound sign of its weakness. Think, for instance, of the savings had Adolf Hitler received his justified reward for the Beer Hall Putsch rather than several months in jail, which he used to write Mein Kampf and catch up on his sleep for his soon-to-come European tour.

Given the nature of Venezuela as a petro-state, weakness is almost guaranteed, which is why Chavez has been able to win in slow motion since 1992. Post-World War II, Venezuela developed an odd system of planned party alternation known as puntofijismo, in which two political parties agreed, starting in 1958, to swap back and forth who got the presidency. Venezuela was beset by outsiders wanting to intervene, e.g., Cuban-backed revolutionaries and rightwingers financed by Dominican dictator Trujillo, and had recently come out of its own caudillo past. So at the time getting some political stability probably made sense, but as time went on, the system got more and more corrupt, creakier and creakier, until Chavez made his move in 1992, pushing himself up from nobody in the army to the center stage, kicking down the puntofijismo to allow in third parties. By that he meant, of course, his party.

While many like to think that petroleum (or any other expensive commodity) is a Godsend to a poor country, petro-states are widely known to have severe weaknesses, corruption, serious lack of broad-based economic development, and the accompanying political corrosion. They rarely do well over the long term, instead going through major boom-and-bust cycles as oil prices go up and down. Right now, oil is up. In the ’80s, oil was down, way down, which is why Chavez was able to stage his coup. It won’t be up forever, most likely being replaced as a diverse basket of bio-fuels, solar, etc. While Venezuela could be a participant in the development of modern energy (and hence a modern economy), rather than spending the money on future investments, Chavez is busy spending it on a giant planned city in currently uninhabited hills, oil subsidies to the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, petro-swaps to Cuba for doctors (rather than, oh, trying to grow some of your own), lots more guns to protect against a coming “Yanqui” invasion, six hour workdays, etc. And, of course, he buys off the legions of Venezuelan poor—those who don’t benefit from the oil bucks that are stolen by Bolivarian apparatchik cronies, competed away, or diverted into the coffers of international companies, just like in basically any other petro-state, but have to suffer through the boom-and-bust of a commodity economy. Chavez’ behavior, in short, reminds me of the kind of thing I’d expect of a lottery winner elevated up from the trailer park to the realm of multi-millionaire, only writ large. Sure, he’s putting his friends’ kids through college and paying mom’s medical bills, but he’s also supporting a deadbeat uncle with six kids and doesn’t realize his stash is, in fact, limited, and needs to be grown for the future.

“All great historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” —KARL MARX, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

In 1994, Chavez was let out of jail. In 1998 he ran for President, running as a “Bolivarian,” more or less meaning “socialist.” Over the last decade, he’s been gradually undermining the democratic state of Venezuela—flawed as it was—using the playbook of dictators such as Louis Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, etc., a playbook first written by the original “man on horseback”, Gaius Julius Caesar. These include:

  • Widespread use of rule by decree and emergency powers of highly dubious legal grounds.
  • Ignoring international bodies (in this case the OAS) when it suits his purposes.
  • Whipping up populist fury by constantly playing the nationalist and the xenophobic “they’re out to get us!” card, e.g., by conveniently cutting ties with Colombia right before an election.
  • Engaging in a my way or the highway foreign policy based on chumming up with lackwits like Mahmood Ahmadinijad.
  • Siccing jackbooted thugs on his Jewish countrymen (where have we heard that one before?)

Since being elected president in 1998, Chavez is busy actually doing a lot of the stuff that gives Dick Cheney major wood when he’s in his undisclosed location and not busy shooting hunting companions in the face. Add to that plenty of stuff that Cheney wouldn’t ever countenance, too. If Hugo wasn’t constantly giving Uncle Sam the middle finger and, let’s face it, they weren’t so f—ing stupid, Hollywood Leftists and my home boy Radical Jack would be slamming him for what he really is. Now, he’s completing the process of autogolpe, “self-coup,” or so he hopes. He may well have over-played his hand.

Why, may you ask, has the US done nothing? Well, first of all, the US does not have the power that the wildest dreams of Latin American conspiracy theorists believe it to have in general and certainly not in the case of Venezuela. Simply put, Chavez has us—mutually—by the cojones. The US obtains 15%+ of its oil from Venezuela. Remember all those refineries forced to shut down by Hurricane Katrina? They’re set up to refine the very tarry Venezuelan oil. Oil, you see, is only fungible up to a point, since it varies greatly in its characteristics. US refineries are set up to receive Venezuelan oil. Most other refineries aren’t. Refineries are not easy or quick to build. You do the math.

Unfortunately, Chavez is very, very good at playing the anti-American populist card. Also unfortunately, much of American foreign policy is designed for domestic consumption (or as bureaucratic grandstanding). Backroom channels, supporting the locals, letting the locals own initiatives, etc., don’t look sexy to the American voter and thus often lose out to more active policies that often breed long-term resentment. So it is with Chavez. Two examples spring to mind:

  • Pat Robertson’s loose lips calling for Chavez’ assassination. While most people in the US think Robertson is a lunatic (not enough, however, to keep him off the air entirely), abroad he’s perceived as a non-governmental figure who is close to the current administration.
  • In 2002 there was a coup attempt to overthrow Chavez, who by that time was a democratically-elected president. Whatever really happened, the US government was seen to be giving tacit support to the coup. While Chavez himself attempted a coup, he doesn’t much like the notion of it happening to him (duh) and, more importantly, is quite willing to use the event rhetorically forever.

Chavez’ idol Simon Bolivar ended his life as a dictator and was about to go into exile, but he died of consumption first. The people of Venezuela will, alas, probably not be so fortunate since I’m quite sure that Chavez has the best Cuban doctors his petro-dollars can buy…. Morphing from “leftist hero” to “right wing oppressor” is really not at all hard to manage. Mussolini started as a socialist “man of the people.” Juan Peron was similar. Indeed, we should not forget that the “socialism” in National Socialism was there for a reason.

Let’s hope the people of Venezuela on Sunday finally realize that giving ultimate power to one man is a road best not traveled… though, of course, it may be too late.

Update: It looks like Venezuelans decided that Chavez for life was too much for them. Let’s see if Chavez actually has any democratic bones in his body and actually accepts the verdict of a loss, which is, in my view, the key test. Of course, just because Chavez himself won’t be in office doesn’t mean he won’t pull a Vladimir Putin, unarguably the most successful of the petro-state presidents. Lest we forget, the fall of the Soviet Union was, in no small part, due to the drop in the price of oil in the late ’80s, and chaos in Russia in the ’90s was also maintained by the drop in oil price. Next time the price goes down….

Update (02/12/08): Hugo’s regime seems to be unraveling. It seems that even large amounts of oil money can’t balance the unicycle.

The most complete human being of our age. —Jean-Paul Sartre, about Ernesto “Che” Guevara

“Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” —Argentine saying (“I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.”)

Fatherland, socialism or death!El Presidente Hugo Chavez’ rallying cry.

So I was reading Gmail the other day and saw one of those really Twilight Zone-esque ads that Google puts up above your inbox along with the news crawl, such as advertisements for golden-crusted Brussels sprouts, tips on caring for cocker spaniels, top-dollar custom-made guitar picks, or The Circumcision Center, a urology practice in Atlanta specializing in fly-in snip-snip to your willy. Don’t eat gas-inducing Brussels sprouts before your visit or attempt to pay in expensive boutique guitar picks while your manic cocker yips at the good doctor’s heels….

No, those are just ordinarily weird(?) but this ad was for Radical Jack’s T-shirts, which was downright ironic. Radical Jack, it seems, is an aging ’60s radical (ex-SDS, etc.) who has embraced capitalism to bring merch to the progressive masses… merch bearing the smiling likeness of Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Subcommandante Marcos, etc., anti-Bush merch, etc. This is the place you can get the acne-pocked face of Leftist dictator du jour Hugo Chavez along with a bunch of guys that are handy with red, blue and yellow face paint printed on a t-shirt of your very own. Note to Jet Set Leftists: Good old Hugo has been showing his true colors in the coming Dec. 2 capstone of his autogolpe, taking plays straight from the playbook of Stalin and Hitler: Shooting student protesters, widely intimidating voters, calling for the execution of former allies, etc. (Bolivár in the end ruled as a dictator, too.)

Well there is a place in Marxist thought to make use of the techniques of the enemy against him and I would be hard-pressed to think of a more crassly capitalist mushroom than a online merch store, well except maybe this. From the “about”:

Welcome to RadicalJack.com – A place for radical T-shirts, books, films and gear. Most progressives and revolutionary activists agree that putting messages on T-shirts is a very effective way of popularizing the movement’s message. At RadicalJack.com we are seeking to offer a broad selection of progressive t-shirts and other cultural items designed to get your message across and stimulate discussion. Please browse our site and let us know what you think! All of our proceeds go to support the progressive movement, so the money generated by your purchases will be used to support the struggles you believe in!

That’s right, folks, if your cause is, oh, mass death of tens of millions by famine induced by collectivization and crazy forced industrialization followed a decade later by a fit of pique which lead to a million and a half additional deaths, do we have a T-shirt for you! A notable asymmetry: While the classics of Lenin, Trotsky, and Chairman Mao (“Mao More Than Ever“), appear all over Radical Jack’s, Comrade Stalin, defender of Marxism from 1928 (or so, depending on how you count it) until he dropped dead in 1953, gets no love, no love At All…. =>:{( (That’s a sad Stalin smiley, in case you were wondering.) I didn’t see a shirt for Zimbabwe’s strongman Robert Mugabe, who’s managed to turn what was arguably an African success story into a hellhole in less than a decade, but I’m sure that’s just an oversight. Like Chavez, Mugabe had his foreign jet-set claque (not so much these days). He also had his Night of the Long Knives/Dirty War mashup in Ndebeleland. No love for Middle Eastern anti-American tyrants either, or either of the Kims, père or fils—I guess Kim Jong Il’s official biography and Elvis ‘do is just too weird even for Radical Jack’s. Challenge to readers: Post your favorite oversights in the comments!

Naturally there is much Che to be had. Che was incredibly photogenic to be sure—he had a Brad Pitt boyish handsomeness about him—but not a nice guy, having been, among other things, commander of La Cabaña Prison in Cuba which made the likes of Abu Ghraib look like summer camp… we’re talking about a place where an unknown number of “enemies of the revolution” went in to receive a bullet to the back of the head. Che’s tenure there makes George W. Bush’s exercise of clemency, or, rather, lack thereof, in his years at Texas governor downright lenient. He also managed to run the relatively thriving Cuban economy into the ground during his brief tenure as Minister of Economy through the ever-popular collectivization (though I bet anyone likely in that position would have done the same). In other words, Che was Castro’s Lavrenti Beria or Heinrich Himmler and wearing a T-shirt of him should be seen to be roughly similar to wearing one of those fine gentlemen on your chest. Suffice it to say that Che—like famed Waffen SS member Otto Skorzeny or ringleader of the 911 hijackers Mohammed Atta—is proof-positive that courage is a tool; it matters to what end you put it. (Oddly enough, Skorzeny was, in fact, banging Eva Peron when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Che was supposed to have been interacting with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita. I should also note that, so far as we know, Skorzeney fired his guns at combatants, not helpless civilians.) Che is, as a recent stories indicate, so protean a figure that I hear tell even German neo-Nazis carry signs with him on it claiming he was “a nationalist,” which is patently ridiculous. (I can’t seem to find a reliable link, sorry.) You used to be able to buy Che stuff at Target and he is, of course, nearly ubiquitous coffee shop decor. And a lock of Che’s hair goes for big bucks these days. He’s even become Saint Ernesto in Bolivia. Sainthood, it seems, is pretty darn protean, too. I’m quite certain Radical Jack makes most of his money (“used to support the struggles you believe in!”) on Che (and anti-Bush stuff). Remember, Che urges you to Chenge the World… in a fetching powder blue scoopneck T. Even Marxists it seems are not immune to the lure of a stupid double ententre… a sure sign they’ve embraced their inner retailer.

Now, if I were getting a T-shirt, I’d want two:

  1. Two dead radicals, thereby giving Stalin his due.
  2. The Hoff in, unarguably, his finest moment:

I have to say, though, this one, this one, this one or this one—all available on Radical Jack’s—would do pretty damn well. (There are others.) Too bad they’re up with a bunch of megalomaniacs and murderous rogues….

Recently, Governor and Presidential Candidate Bill Richardson could not restrain himself from sharing his plan for resolving the terrible “Crisis in Iraq” (cue CNN theme music). Certain that his brilliance would be displayed for all to see, Gov. Richardson dazzled us with this bold and innovative plan to resolve this ongoing “problem of our time:”

http://www.richardsonforpresident.com/page/petition/iraq

Which boils down to (my gentle musings following in italics):

  1. Set a hard timetable to withdraw in 2007, and make sure all factions of Iraq know we’ll be leaving whatever happens.
    (Rise up in civil revolt? We’re leaving. Execute 10,000 Sunnis in a single a day? We’re leaving. Gas 100,000 Shias with Sarin during a festival? We’re leaving… After all, they’re only brown people. They don’t feel pain like we do, so the huge body counts won’t interfere with their rationally seeking a solution to the violence.)
  2. Remove all troops.
    (Including all those training the Iraqis. “Bye-bye, guys, and good luck—you’ll need it!”)
  3. Since Bush won’t do 1-2 for some reason, use the War Powers Act to force him. Which of course the Administration will take to the Supreme Court.
    (Perhaps that case will be resolved before 2008… In the meantime, since the only power Congress actually has is the purse, you can only “force” Bush by removing all funds for the troops, in the field, during a war. Good one, Bill, that’ll play well for you in 2008.)
  4. Have a nice conference to get the Iraqis to iron everything out.
    (I’m sure that will work. Especially because of #1! Tell me, Bill, just what incentives do the extremists and militias have to deal, given that the biggest barrier to more sectarian violence will be leaving by December? Oh, well, it’s only brown people!)
  5. Trust Syria and Iran to do the right thing. Really.
    (I’m sure we can trust them, because, well… Okay, I’m not really sure why Bill thinks that they will suddenly be overwhelmed with a desire not to meddle in Iraq. I mean, it’s not like Iran and Syria would be fighting over a hugely important country in a pivotal place in the region or anything. Oh, and perhaps the Turks will be happy to contribute to that peacekeeping force. Say, 500,000 “peacekeepers” for Iraqi Kurdistan. Of course they’ll have to forcibly disarm those pesky Kurds, but I’m sure dead Kurdish kids are a price he’s happy to pay for peace. I mean, heck, they’re only brown people…)
  6. Yes, let’s a have a fund raiser for Iraqi reconstruction.
    (Actually, this isn’t a bad idea. I’m sure lots of nations will promise billions, since they know they’ll never have to actually pay—since funds won’t be dispersed until Iraq stabilizes itself. So really, never, except perhaps a few billions to bury the 10 million dead when it’s all over.)
  7. Redeploy to, ah, somewhere. Kuwait is mentioned, because, you know, that isn’t right next to Iraq and kinda on the Arabian peninsula (depending upon which wackjob you ask).
    (I’m sure Al Qaeda, Iran, and Syria will be fine with a huge number of US troops permanently camped in Kuwait. You betcha! Also, Bill, what happened to “Bring the troops home. All of them.” Is it really a good idea to start breaking campaign promises at the start of the campaign?)

We risk being dazzled by the brilliance, of course, but Bill’s final summary deserves to be quoted verbatim:

We also must bring our National Guard home where they are needed for homeland security, and we must focus our energy and resources on real threats, such as nuclear proliferation, Al Qaeda, public health, and global warming.

If Bill had been running in 1952, I’m sure his platform would have been to get out of Korea, so that those nice Koreans could settle everything. We could relocate our troops to, oh, Japan, and concentrate on the real problems of the day. I’m sure that would have worked out really well, Bill!

I suppose Bill wanted to stake out the “unambiguous retreat in the face of hard struggle” position early. A good idea, really, given the general temperment of the Democrats these days. But not, I’m thinking, a sure-fire way to win the country in 2008. Somehow, I think this message will come off a bit inadequate in the face of a Giuliani or McCain. (I would have said “even in comparison to Her Dread Majesty”, but it looks like I would have been wrong about that.)

Tell me, Bill, whatever happened to “You broke it, you bought it” as the Dems liked to tell the Republicans after the 2003 invasion? Oh, yes, the Dems managed to get power in 2006 and no longer want a difficult war to worry about. Once again, I was thinking of the brown people as actually human and deserving decent lives. Stupid me.

Of course, persumably, Bill Richardson also believes that Iraqis shouldn’t be gunned down on the streets for taking the wrong position in a 1300 year old theological debate. Just not enough to think that they’re worth American lives. Or American time. Or American attention. Well, I’m sure that relying upon international consensus will work as well in Iraq as it has worked in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. Bye-bye Iraqi liberals, feminists, and democrats—sorry you actually put faith in your liberal American brothers! Maybe, one day you’ll learn that the American New Left has only one word for their foreign brothers in the struggle when the going gets hard:

Corpses.

The Chief debate at good old U of I is finally over and I can’t bring myself to much past a yawn, but I suppose I’ll rise to the occasion with yet another sarcastic essay about what I think the real issues are. While I do not speak for anyone but myself, I think this is a reasonably accurate representation of what many faculty do think, though they might not be brave/stupid enough to say so in public.

In short, the Chief was retired, not without acrimony. There is, no doubt, a hard core of loyalists who will be offended to the end and will doubtless declare firm intention to send their children to that great, unrequited rival, Michigan (where, despite what some people at Illinois desperately want to believe, they don’t actually give a rat’s solid waste orifice about Illinois, reserving the real hate juice for Ohio State). There are also many more people who weren’t exactly Chief boosters before who have suddenly discovered—for the time being, anyway—a certain romantic, I don’t know, je ne sais quoi? about the Chief. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” indeed. This is not unlike the losing side in an election, combined with the inherent and understandable dislike of having someone else be “The Decider.” The first few months afterwards are often a bit dark for the losers, but most people end up moving on after the initial sting abates. (Maybe fans who feel their favorite band “sold out” is a better analogy?) In the event the football team is actually good in the fall, all will be forgiven. Unfortunately vociferous partisans don’t move on. Heck, entire societies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) form their identity around decades- or centuries-old grievances.

The entire “debate”—I hardly feel this extended pathetic episode deserves the appellation, but I guess it will have to do—was started by a bunch of “new left” types playing the current national pastime, identity politics. (See also.) Identity politics used to be primarily a pastime of the new left, but has metastasized to other areas of the body politic, e.g., demands for ideological balance in the academy through affirmative action of… you guessed it, “certified conservative” professors. (Naturally such a demand could only come from a a former new leftie turned neocon who swapped one extreme for another.) Intellectually, I understand identity politics (perception being part of experienced reality, after all) but essentially loathe it on an emotional level. By no stretch of the imagination am I a Marxist, but I think the Marxist critique of identity politics, stripped of verbiage and boiled to the essence as “a waste of time,” is fundamentally correct. You always have to look at the opportunity cost. There is only so much room in the political sphere at any one point and only so much political capital to spend. You have to choose wisely. Here is a very nicely written piece by veteran civil rights leader Joe R. Hicks about exactly why constantly playing “the race card” doesn’t lead to productive outcomes.

The opportunity costs of the Chief debate were high. There are many things the administration and Board of Trustees (who certainly didn’t ask for the debate) could have done to make U of I better. Most important on my list is trying to deal with the constant pressure turning the University into essentially a private school due to chronic—and borderline unconstitutional—underfunding from the state that has left buildings on the Quad to rot, caused tuition to increase dramatically while cutting financial aid, which lead to the recent drop from 8 to 29 in Kiplinger’s rankings of best buys in public colleges, and so forth. The “upgrade” to the university-wide IT system which worked out spectacularly well—picking the pockets of many campus units in the process in mass quantities of lost staff time—is perhaps another. Instead they were forced into wasting a bunch of expensive time and effort on the Chief issue. It is a counterfactual to speculate whether either outcome could have been changed, but I sure as hell know that the many hours spent on the Chief issue weren’t going elsewhere.

Way to go, new leftist whiners, you win: You won a pointless symbolic victory and left the real problems behind, pretty much just like you always do. Let me give you a hearty “F— you very much” for it.

My guess is the administration decided to bite the bullet and get out of the whole sordid business while the getting was good. That’s because, like administrators everywhere, they’re first and foremost interested in peace, quiet and a steady cash flow, not justice (whatever that is—it’s so hard to decide, much like truth). Alumni donations are important but I’m not sure that canning the Chief is going to affect big donors the likes of Beckman, Grainger, Krannert, Siebel, etc., at all, or the big corporate money that gets their attention. And if these guys don’t want to pony up, UIUC can look to its most famous alum. I’m betting that even current students and recent grads will forget their resentments by the time they make enough money to start donating. Furthermore, new students—more and more of whom are from other states or are international and have no preexisting attachments to the University—won’t really know or care.

Given the correlation of forces (Marxist language, again? what is the world coming to?) in this debate, once the NCAA ruling came down, it is hard to say how else it would have gone. Lest we forget, the pro-Chief people—who weren’t exactly fantastic at playing their cards, unlike some other schools such as Florida State—managed to hold off the anti-Chief people for a long time, but once the University administration felt the wind blowing in the direction of “we’re not going to be able to partake in the big bucks of college sports fully anymore,” it was over. The NCAA is horridly inconsistent about application of their policies and I have a hard time discerning any rhyme or reason to what they do or fail to do but, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Big money college sports has become a scam corroding the mission of the academy many ways. Consider how distance learning has been abused to keep money sports players in uniform. The connection between alcohol sponsorship and college sports isn’t trivial, either, and don’t think for a minute that bucks coming from the likes of Anheuser-Busch doesn’t affect decisions made by school administrations. As we saw with the Don Imus dustup, advertisers like controversy, but only controversy they manufacture or, at least, can control.

Honestly, I’m just glad l’affaire Chief is over. It went the way it went and ultimately it won’t mean a hill of beans, but the institution’s lost a bunch of time forever to this ridiculous issue. I’m even happier that I’m departing the whole school spirit/athletic department gravy train environment, so, very soon, it’ll be NMP… not my problem.

(I fully anticipate the hate mail. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get some from both pro- and anti-Chief people!)