Saturday, April 23, 2011

WORLD MATTERS: A royalist dream – Harry, King of Saxony

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Pardon this outburst from an unreconstructed German monarchist: Scanning the Internet for news about the impending royal wedding has rendered me envious, morose and frustrated. Never mind the uncomprehending sniggers by Bill O’Reilly about this display of allegedly antiquated glamour. O’Reilly might have many merits but he does not grasp the need for glamour in this era of vulgarity and triviality every one of his T.V. shows so aptly portrays night after night.

Being German, I am keenly aware of the dearth of glamour that has marked my country for almost a century. In church we have surly preachers in black robes opining from the pulpit about separating garbage instead of chanting the rich Lutheran liturgy and joyfully proclaiming the Gospel. In academia, colorful commencement proceedings have been abolished; graduates are told to pick up their diplomas in the Admin Building, room 312/A, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. In affairs of state, we are represented not by Kaisers or kings with spiked helmets but grey-clad presidents; some of these have been impressive, I admit, but glamorous they were not. Recently, one of our heads of state just walked off the job like a peeved bookkeeper; compare that with the iron self discipline of Queen Elizabeth II who has just turned 85 and never missed a single workday in the 58 years of her reign.

What galls me most is that royal ceremonies in neighboring countries, in Britain, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Monaco or Spain, are all implicitly German affairs because the blue blood in the veins of at least one of the players is our blue blood – quality German blood. The German yellow press reports every minutiae of these events while missing the central point: A little more of this kind of style in our own country would insert a modicum of elegance into our political and societal discourse, which is even more annoying than its American equivalent because we tend to systematize everything, including imported bad taste.

At this point, though, I must report some good news blessing our bland republican reality with a ray of potential glitter. In my home state of Saxony a baron by the name of Hildebrand von Thumbshirn is waging a campaign to place Prince Harry on the throne of Dresden. I confess that I know little about Herr von Thumbshirn, other than that his family hails from Schloss Ponitz, a fine Renaissance castle in the duchy of Altenburg.

According Thumbshill, there is only one problem with his proposal. He lacks the €250,000 ($360,000) required to start a “Saxon Windsor Party.” There is another problem, too: why Windsor? Why this name that is as spurious as “liberty cabbage,” the American neologism cooked up in World War I to camouflage the German origin of sauerkraut; as specious as the British misnomer, Alsatian, for German Shepherd dogs, and as daft as the term “freedom fries” latter-day American know-nothings invented for French Fries ten years ago when France and Germany opposed the second Iraq war?

So I wonder: Is it not a little petty of the royal family to cling to the fake name it adopted after their own relative, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s first grandson, had become their adversary in Europe’s fratricidal World War I? Why not acknowledge what they are – a blend of German clans, the Hanoverians plus the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, whose name they bore until they traded it in for the name of a small town in the County of Surrey? Here you might interject: What about that Greek in the equation? Indeed there is one; Prince Philip of Greece married Elizabeth née Windsor and became the Duke of Edinburgh, but what, do you suppose, is the Greek royal family’s real name? Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.

You see, if you look carefully, you can’t escape us. Schleswig-Holstein is the northernmost of Germany’s 16 states. It has a discrete but still wealthy and influential ducal family by this very name; its branches reign in Denmark and Norway and once upon a time lorded over Greece; via its Greek line it is related by marriage to the royal families of Spain and Britain. In addition to Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg a second German dynasty with an Anglicized name contributed to the noble genealogy of the Queen’s consort. They call themselves Mountbatten but used to be known as Battenberg; Philip’s mother is one of those.

Germany’s top aristocracy has held thrones almost everywhere in Europe – in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium, Scandinavia and Luxembourg. They even left their mark across the Atlantic, in Brazil and Mexico, but also in Hollywood where Prince Frederic von Anhalt shares the glamour of his name with Zsa Zsa Gabor, although he acquired it by adoption; at birth he was called Hans Lichtenberg. Real Anhalt blood has survived in the Romanov family; Catherine the Great was a Princess of Anhalt before becoming a tsarina. And perhaps the noblest Anhalt was Joachim Ernst, the last reigning duke. He resisted the Nazis, was sent to Dachau concentration camp, then liberated by the Americans only to die 1947 at Communist hands in Buchenwald concentration camp.

He was a stellar example of German royals opposing Hitler, a phenomenon rarely acknowledged by Germans or their former adversaries, but this is a story for another day.

Before I proceed with my and Baron von Thumbshill’s monarchist reveries, I may be permitted a historical reminder. Preceding the invention of the automobile by Carl Benz 125 years ago, princes and princesses were Germany’s most precious export items. Our nation with its countless dukes, margraves and landgraves was an amazingly rich source of bluebloods. The British in particular couldn’t get enough of them. They loved King George III, even though the United Kingdom lost much of North America during his reign. They loved this Hanoverian eccentric, especially when he stepped into the sea at Weymouth stark naked, while a band hidden in a nearby bathing machine struck up “God Save the King;” bathing machines, an English invention, were large-wheeled carts that were rolled off the beaches into the water to afford bathers privacy; sometimes they had pianos and even sizable musical ensembles on board.

Or think how much leverage the British allowed George’s daughter-in-law, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, even though she often neglected to wash, wore dirty clothes, consequently emitted unpleasant smells, and then eventually absconded to Italy with her manservant, Bartolomeo Pergami, leaving her husband, the debauched George IV, in the arms of Maria Fitzherbert whom he had secretly married before even meeting Caroline. The British loathed him and loved her.

Far be it from me to try to wrestle away from our British cousins the scions of our finest families. By all means, hold onto them, you are welcome! But it would be nice if they sent us back just one of them and stopped the false labeling. Please, they are not Windsors but Saxe-Coburg-Gothas! Now I know from personal experience that hyphenated names can be cumbersome, and names with two hyphens must be especially awkward, which is why the Bulgarians quite sensibly called their royal family Sakskoburggotski, though the Belgians, who were twice invaded by the Germans in the 20th century, seem to have no problem to have a king sporting two German hyphens.

To get back to Baron Thumpshirn’s proposal, and to propose to the British a way out of their Windsor bagatelle, how about reverting to the elaborate family’s real name, which is Wettin. The Wettin dynasty has been around and much beloved by its subjects in assorted principalities of central Germany since the 10th century, 100 years before William the Conqueror invaded England. A Wettin prince-elector, Frederick the Wise, was Luther’s protector. Another Wettin, Augustus the Strong, built baroque Dresden and with one of his numerous mistresses, Countess Maria Aurora von Königsmarck, sired Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), who became one of France’s most celebrated field marshals; one of his grand children gained literary fame calling herself George Sand.

So let’s take up Thumbshirn’s suggestion and make Harry von Wettin King of Saxony. That he is a brave military officer with a great sense of humor won’t hurt. A wholesome display of manliness and humor from the throne will do us Saxons, actually all Germans, a lot of good.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Did Lincoln owe his victory to Germans?

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

One century ago, on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, historian Wilhelm Kaufmann concluded that without his 216,000 German-born soldiers, President Abraham Lincoln could not have won that conflict. More recently, Thomas Adam, professor of history at the University of Texas in Arlington, suggested that this might be an exaggeration, and German historian Wolfgang Helbich rated Kaufmann’s finding as an indication of “how filiopietism then and ethnic politics now can mangle straight facts;” the word, filiopietism, means immoderate reverence for forebears or tradition.

Kaufmann made his observation in his book, “Die Deutschen im amerikanischen Bürgerkriege” (the Germans in the American Civil War), the seminal work on this subject. He was not alone in his assessment. “Take the Dutch out of the Union army, and we could whip the Yankees easily,” said Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Confederate Forces, meaning “die Deutschen” (the Germans), not the Dutch, who hailed from the Netherlands.

In 1869, Benjamin Gould, a Union army physician, analyzed official reports about the Civil War. He found that 2,018,200 men served in the northern regiments. Of these, he concluded, German-born men were the most loyal Union supporters. German immigrants, Gould added, provided 50 percent more soldiers than they would have had to by law. According to Kaufmann, every tenth Union trooper was a German. “Germans fought almost exclusively on the side of the Union and outnumbered all other ethnic groups significantly;” only a few thousand served in the Confederate forces.

“Their unity placed [German immigrant soldiers] in a unique position,” Kaufmann wrote. While native Americans and members of all other immigrant groups split into two hostile military camps… Germans found [themselves] only on the side of the Union. Hardly anybody among them supported secession, and there were almost no German Slave owners.”

Their loyalty to the northern cause also paralleled the sentiment in their homeland. “In most German states public opinion was strongly pro-Union,” Adam wrote in his book, “Germany and the Americas.” He related how Frankfurt became a hub of pro-Union activities, in part due to the influence of U.S. consul general William Walton Murphy who “made sure that the press remained friendly,” wrote articles in the leading local newspapers and convinced Frankfurt banks to support large war bonds.

Not that their loyalty earned German Civil War soldiers much gratitude from their Anglo-American comrades-in-arms, who reviled them as “bloody Dutchmen” and blamed their alleged “cowardice” for the disasterous defeat of 76,000 Union forces by 43,000 Confederates during the battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863, a claim not supported by today’s military historians.

German commanders such as Col. Friedrich Franz Karl Hecker reported that their units were deprived of supplies and had to find their own provisions as a result of “know-nothing” prejudices against immigrants prevalent among American-born bigots, called responsible for logistics.

Tales of open anti-German bias by American anti-immigrant “nativists” two generations before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany mar the otherwise upbeat story about the powerful contribution by the largest ethnic group in the United States to the eradication of slavery.

German units were often mirror images of the Turnvereine, or gymnastics associations, that emerged during the German revolutions in the first half of the 19th century. At first, German was the command language of many of these regiments. Their soldiers wore uniforms resembling those of the armies of the different German principalities. The German-language press in the United States praised them for being better led, fighting better, keeping their camps better and their bodies in better condition than their English-speaking counterparts in the Union army.

So well regarded were some of the German units that the Jewish community in Chicago raised a company of volunteers on the condition that they be integrated into a regiment commanded by Col. Hecker, a lawyer and former leader of the failed revolution in the German Duchy of Baden.

On the other hand, throughout the Civil War German troops were the target of ridicule by the English-language press and derogatory pamphlets circulating among the military, though Lincoln strongly comdemned such tendencies, and Gen. William T. Sherman praised the bravery of his German soldiers. He also called on of their commanders, Col. Edward Siber, the “best trained officer in this army.”

It seems that the Germans’ insistence on the maintenance of their distinctive lifestyle, on cultivating their language, their music and educational system, and on drinking lots of beer, have caused this antagonism, which 50 years later, in World War I, has produced heinous forms of persecution, including lynching, out of all places in Missouri.

Yet it was in Missouri where 10 primarily German-speaking regiments saw to it that this state under the leadership of its pro-Confederate Governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson did not change sides. Their most famous commander was Col., later Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, a Baden revolutionary who was instrumental in turning “Turnvereine” into combat-ready forces.

It was in Missouri, too, where two German-language newspapers, “Anzeiger des Westens” and “Westliche Post”, were instrumental in upholding pro-Union sentiment among the German population; of the 170,000 inhabitants of St. Louis, 60,000 were Germans.

Among the editors of “Westliche Post” were men who played pivotal roles in the conflict: Carl Schurz, a general, later Senator from Missouri and then U.S. Secretary of the Interior; Emil Praetorious who organized German troops in the Civil War, but also Joseph P.Pulitzer, a German-speaking Hungarian who joined the paper after the War as a court reporter.

Considering that Missouri was on the verge of joining the Confederacy, and that the Union might not have prevailed in such a catastrophe, historian Wilhelm Kaufmann could well be right: Abraham Lincoln might have lost the Civil War; so perhaps owed his victory indeed to Germans.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

Friday, April 8, 2011

FAITH MATTERS: Hugo Chávez -- Bolivar's red reincarnation?

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

In the late 1970s, Princeton historian Bernard Lewis came across Ayatollah Khomeini’s short book, “Islamic Government,” which later became known as the Islamic cleric’s “Mein Kampf.” It detailed what Khomeini planned to do with his country once he came to power. “I tried to bring this to the attention of people here. The New York Times wouldn’t touch it,” Lewis told the The Wall Street Journal. Underestimating long-term strategies of sinister leaders seems endemic in the Western media. The quasi-religious fervor with which Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez pursues his plan to resurrect Simon Bolívar’s empire, Grand Colombia, is largely overlooked.

When in 1999 Venezuelans elected left-winger Hugo Chávez as their new president, word spread among the wizards of the syncretistic Maria Lionza cult that the revered Bavarian warlock Klaus-Dieter Nassall had proclaimed him Simon Bolívar reincarnate who would do wondrous things for his nation.

Soon Chavez’s busts began adorning the altars of Maria Lionza temples in the barrios of Caracas and other major cities, alongside images of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the archangel Michael assorted Catholic saints, Viking warriors and other idols nobody else has ever heard of, such as some peculiar figures wearing top hats and post-Victorian attire.

The victory of this former lieutenant-colonel seemed to confirm a prophecy by Beatriz Veit-Tané, a self-proclaimed high priestess of Maria Lionza. She predicted in 1967 that in the year 2000 “a messenger of light will rise from the humble classes” to resurrect Gran Colombia, Bolivar’s short-lived creation. It consisted of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia, but collapsed shortly before Bolivar’s death in 1830. To restore Gran Colombia was also one of the political goals of the FARC, Colombia’s lethal, kidnapping, cocaine-trafficking Communist guerilla movement whose leaders proclaimed Chávez as the quintessential “Bolivarian officer.” It seems fitting that before he came to power, Chávez always kept an empty chair for Bolívar at board meetings of his Socialist Party.

In the last dozen years Chávez has craftily cobbled together a left-wing alliance of Latin American countries that might well became the base of a future, much larger Gran Colombia. It includes Bolivia, Argentina and Nicaragua, lending some credence to the sinister statement by Antonio Osuña, the “brujo” (medium) of a Spiritist temple in El Carpintero outside Carácas, “Today he’ll own Venezuela, tomorrow the entire world,” reminding me eerily of a Nazi slogan I had heard in my childhood: “Heute gehört uns Deutschland, morgen die ganze Welt” (today we own Germany, tomorrow the whole world).

Osuña later became “quite angry with Chávez,” according to Angelina Pollack-Eltz, an Austrian ethnologist and Maria Lionza authority who had lived in Carácas for decades; this month she returned to her native Vienna for good. Life in Venezuela was now “zu ungemütlich,” too uncomfortable, she explained. In the last four years it had become too dangerous for her to enter the barrios for research; “Maria Lionza is now a wholly evil cult.”

Yet a powerful cult it is. According to Rainer Mahlke, another German scholar, one-third of Venezuela’s 22 million citizens is at least “passively involved” with this religion, which is based on the teachings of the 19th-century French schoolteacher Léon Dénizarth-Hippolyte Rivail (1804-1869). Writing under the nom de plume of Allan Kardec, Rivail taught that souls, while in transit from one body to the next, could be appealed to for guidance.

Since the late 19th century, Rivail has had a significant influence on mystical circles in Europe, Australia and the Americas, where members of the bourgeoisie conducted séances in darkened rooms making spirits opine on contemporary affairs. If this superstition calmed down a trifle during World War II and its aftermath, it returned with a vengeance after the 1960s when New Age rescued Kardec from oblivion. Societies bearing his name sprang up in every western country where his standard work, The Spirits’ Book, can be downloaded from the Internet in many languages.

In Venezuela, Kardec-style spiritualism filtered down to the poor and crime-infested slums where it mixed with folk Catholicism and tribal religions. Hundreds of thousands are now actively engaged in this cult in whose temples the departed allegedly take possession of mediums puffing liturgical cigars and drinking astounding amounts of liquor, usually cheap rum but on rare occasions also fine cognac or sweet champagne.

Cognac must be fed to a medium by anyone hoping to be possessed by Bolivar himself. The faithful call upon him for advice on political and legal matters, though Mahlke informs us that when you try to invoke the “libertador” you can never know who might show up. It could be John F. Kennedy, or Hitler, or Stalin rather than Bolívar.

As for the sweet champagne, well, that’s the favorite tipple of Maria Lionza who gave the cult its name. As Venezuelan lore has it, she was the fair-skinned, green-eyed daughter of a Jirajara Indian chief centuries ago. At her birth, a shaman advised the chief to kill this child at once, lest she unleash calamity upon her people.

Instead, the chief ordered his best braves to raise his daughter away from the tribe near a lagoon guarded by an anaconda. Alas, the reptile fell in love with the girl and gobbled her up when she resisted its advances. As a result, the snake grew and grew, squeezing the water out of the lagoon. The water flooded the Indian settlement and drowned the tribe, fulfilling the shaman’s warning.

Then the anaconda burst. Out popped Maria Lionza. It seems that she looked just like – centuries later -- Spanish-born empress Eugenie of France, the wife of Napoleon III. At least this is how Venezuelan artists have been portraying her ever since Kardec's teachings became the rage of Venezuela's elite just about the time when Napoleon III and Eugenie were sent into exile after losing the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

To her worshipers, Maria Lionza, Eugenie's look-alike, is of course still in power as queen of all nature, of game and fish, forests and rivers, ranches, coffee and tobacco plantations. With a crown glistening in her luscious brown hair, she is the Madre Reina, the queen mother heading a trinity called “Las Tres Potencias,” or three powers.

Her partners are Guaicaipuro, the ferocious Indian chief who fought the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century, and Pedro Camejo, Bolívar’s faithful general also called Negro Primero. Each represents the principal races in Venezuela. Guaicaipuro is brown, Camejo black, and Maria Lionza, though allegedly the daughter of an Indian chief, has nevertheless the alabaster skin of a Spanish noblewoman – for that’s what Empress Eugénie was born as.

This is not to say that these three outrank Christianity’s triune God. Angelina Pollack-Eltz saw Maria Lionza rather as a “utilitarian cult” that does not presume to be an alternative to Catholicism but rather a supplement. The God of Christianity is the master of the universe to be worshiped in church, no question about that.

But the other trinity – Maria Lionza, her two colleagues and their entire pantheon – used to help in sickness, affairs of love, and matters of terrestrial power. It is before these ghosts that the faithful brought sinister desires they dared not bother to trouble God with, such as their lust for affluence on earth and even their dark wish to wreak misfortune on an adversary. “Now I understand that they are only approached with evil wishes.”

Maria Lionza appears seldom at séances, giving advice to the faithful through a medium intoxicated with sweet champagne. On one of these rare occasions she evidently counseled a shop apprentice by the name of Eugenio Mendoza, Klaus-Dieter Nassall related. “The Madre Reina’s counsel bore fruit. It made Mendoza an industrialist and one of Venezuela’s richest men – the nation’s ‘king of concrete.’” Not surprisingly, he remained a fervent Maria Lionza follower until his death in 1979.

Here of course ends the analogy with Hugo Chávez, who in a confusing spiritual role-swapping exercise sometimes appealed to Simon Bolivar’s guidance, and sometimes proclaimed that he was Bolívar incarnate himself, according to Maria Lionza students interviewed in Caracas a few years ago. Now, says Angelina Pollack-Eltz, it seems that this left-wing opponent of free enterprise has lost his passion for a cult that made people rich. Though his busts can still be found on Maria Lionza altars, a chair held empty for Simon Bolívar no longer seems a feature of the Chávez regime whose ideological models are Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara and whose international friends include Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

WORLD MATTERS: Germany’s next vice chancellor – an Asian

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Germany’s next vice chancellor will most likely be a young man who does not fit the stereotype of a German. Philipp Rösler, 38, looks Asian because he is a native Vietnamese, and he has a wonderful sense of humor utterly devoid of the political correctness that is currently stifling the country’s cultural climate. To the hilarity of a Bavarian audience he described the occasional tiffs between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her current deputy and foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, as “Zickenterror,” meaning a rapport of bickering bitches; Westerwelle is openly homosexual.

In May, the liberal Free Democrat Party (FDP), junior partner in Merkel’s coalition government, is expected to elect Rösler its new leader succeeding Westerwelle who has announced his intention to resign this position in the aftermath of the FDP’s crushing defeat in recent state elections. Rösler, an eye doctor, will also become vice chancellor while retaining his current position as health minister.

Westerwelle insists on remaining foreign minister, much to the dismay of prominent German commentators. Günther Nonnenmacher, publisher of the venerable Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, bluntly called Westerwelle’s foreign policy a failure and accused him of clinging to his position solely for reasons of prestige. Westerwelle is generally held responsible for Germany’s disgraceful abstention in the U.N. Security Council’s vote to enforce a no-flying zone over Libya militarily thus breaking rank with her NATO partners.

Rösler, an orphan from in Soc Trang in southern Vietnam, was adopted by a German couple when he was nine months old. He grew up in Hamburg, did his military service in the German Army’s medical corps, studied medicine and specialized in ophthalmology. According to idea, a Protestant news service, he became a “committed Christian” 11 years ago while working in a catholic hospital where he was “confronted with suffering and death.”

When Rösler was baptized, his girlfriend Wiebke, who is also a physician, was his Godmother. The two later married and now have twin daughters. Rösler is now a member of the “Central Committee of German Catholics,” the umbrella organization of Catholic lay organizations.
A devout Catholic as leader of Germany’s pro-business liberal party is a novelty. The FDP used to have strong anti-clerical and antireligious currents. But this era is over, according to its general secretary Christian Lindner who announced that German liberalism should from now on be “post-secular.”

Rösler is the first Asian-born member of the federal government in Berlin. His stellar career from eye doctor to minister of economics in the northern state of Lower Saxony and then minister of health in Merkel’s cabinet is in line with the astounding success the 35,000 South Vietnamese immigrants who came for the former West Germany after the fall of Saigon to Communist forces in 1975, and have extraordinarily well in their host country’s professions, businesses and academia.

By contrast, the 70,000 North Vietnamese imported as “guest laborers” by the former East Germany have not done well because the Communist regime kept them largely segregated from the German population. To this day many eek out their living as black market cigarette vendors.

Rösler’s likely election to the presidency of his party is expected to herald a new era in Germany’s political style. Rösler is spearheading a growing movement among young politicians promoting “a softer discourse,” “more authentic warmth,” and “modesty,” according to the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. This marks a welcome contrast to the shrillness and self-centeredness, which, along with a dearth of humor, is still typical of much of their nation’s public discourse.

With Rösler around, this is changing. Last year he amused an audience by remarking that Germans can now buy a Barbie doll with the features of Chancellor Merkel for only 20 Euros ($28). But then he added in reference to Merkel’s preferred garment, “The problem is that each of these dolls comes with 40 trouser suits, and that makes them really expensive.”

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

Friday, April 1, 2011

WORLD MATTERS: Media award for the media’s foe

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

When a renowned university of a major nation honors a despot for restricting his people’s access to information the world should be alarmed, especially the United States. Earlier this week, the journalism school of Argentina’s National University in La Plata awarded Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez its coveted Rodolfo Walsh Prize thus “making the goat the gardener,” as Germany’s venerable Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper (FAZ) headlined its report about this astonishing event, which was barely mentioned in the mainstream U.S. media.

The paper reminded its readers that during his reign Chávez has closed down 38 radio stations, four of those during the last week. Moreover, he has a record of bringing criminal charges against reporters criticizing him, and of expelling foreign personalities from Venezuela if they make negative remarks about his policies in public.

Normally the Rodolfo Walsh Prize is given to personalities who have advanced freedom of the press in in their careers as journalists or in their academic pursuits. As this did not apply to Chávez or his ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, a previous Walsh laureate, what might have qualified them for this award? Well, explained journalism Dean Florencia Saintout, their contribution to “popular communication.” She said, “We have created a new category of the Rodolfo Walsh Prize for Latin American leaders committed to giving a voice to people who are the least heard from.”

In his acceptance speech Chávez presented himself as a champion of the freedom of opinion, praising revolutionary leaders Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara, the destroyers of this very freedom in Cuba. He also berated “hypocrites and cynics” in the “bourgeois press” of creating a “media dictatorship that must be vanquished” because it was turning ”truth into lies.”

Alas, such is the disdain for history in Western newsrooms and editorial departments that none of these terms seems to have triggered apprehension. The Nazis and the Bolsheviks had a habit of agitating against the “bourgeois press” and evoking “the people;” Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s ingeniously evil propaganda minister, called the Nazis’ newspaper “Völkischer Beobachter” (The People’s Observer), and truth became the slogan of Soviet propaganda, to wit the name of the Soviet Communist party’s central organ. It was called “Pravda,” truth.

There is a Greek word for turning things on their heads. It is “diaballein” and has given the devil his name. When in Argentina, now governed by Chavez’ ally Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, this enemy of freedom and of the truth and therefore ultimately the people is honored in the name of freedom and the truth, the American media must not sleep.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.