Quebec: A Night to Remember Rosa Luxemburg – 1919 Communist Party of Germany Founder – 2 Feb 2019

“Requiescat in pace et in amore”

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Soirée festive et militante en l’honneur de Rosa Luxembourg samedi, le 2 Fév 18h @ Association des Travailleurs Grecs de Montreal [5359 Ave du Parc]


German song honoring Luxemburg:


One hundred years since the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht

15 January 2019

Today marks the centenary of one of the most horrific and consequential crimes in world history. In Berlin on 15 January, 1919, Freikorps soldiers of the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen Division arrested Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD), which had been founded just two weeks earlier. Soldiers transported them to the Hotel Eden, where they were tortured before being taken away and murdered.

The 48-year-old Rosa Luxemburg was among the most outstanding Marxist revolutionaries of her epoch. She gained notoriety for her sharp polemics against Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism and the Social Democrats’ pro-war policies in the First World War, and was the undisputed theoretical leader of the SPD’s revolutionary wing and later of the Spartacus League.

Karl Liebknecht, who was the son of SPD founder Wilhelm Liebknecht and the same age as Luxemburg, embodied irreconcilable opposition to militarism and war. The bravery and determination with which he rebelled as an SPD parliamentary deputy against his own party, rejected war credits, and, despite persecution and suppression, fought and agitated against the war, won him the respect of millions of workers. In the November Revolution of 1918, he fought for the overthrow of capitalism. At a mass rally on 9 November he proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic of Germany.

The frail Rosa Luxemburg was struck down with the butt of a rifle in the Hotel Eden foyer and brought to a car where she was shot. Her body was thrown into the Landwehr canal, where it was recovered only months later. Karl Liebknecht was executed by three shots from close range in the Tiergarten. The press subsequently reported that Liebknecht was shot while trying to flee and that Luxemburg was lynched by an outraged mob.

The brutal murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht marked a new stage of counter-revolutionary violence. Prior to this, the bourgeois state had ruthlessly cracked down on socialist opponents, and, as in the aftermath of the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 in France, took bloody revenge against revolutionary workers with mass executions. But the murder of the leaders of a revolutionary party by state organs without a trial or court judgment was a new phenomenon and set a precedent followed by others. Even the autocratic Tsarist regime generally banished socialist opponents to Siberia.

The German ruling class thereby drew the lessons from the Russian Revolution, where the subjective factor, the role of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik party, was decisive in leading the proletarian revolution to victory. In the days prior to the murders, leaflets were distributed in Berlin with the slogan “Kill their leaders!” The murders proceeded with the approval of the highest levels of the state.

Gustav Noske, the minister responsible for the Reichswehr and a leading SPD member, had ordered the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen Division, which was notorious for its ruthless violence, to Berlin to be deployed against revolutionary workers. During the Bloody Christmas of 1918, they fired artillery at sailors in revolt who had occupied the Berlin castle and brutally suppressed the Spartacus uprising.

When a court martial acquitted those officers directly involved in Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s murder in May 1919, Noske personally signed the acquittal. Waldemar Pabst, who as head of the Garde-Kavallerie-Schützen Division issued the order to murder Luxemburg and Liebknecht, was never charged. He was able to continue his career under the Nazis and in the post-war Federal Republic and died a wealthy arms trader in 1970.

To this day, the SPD disputes its responsibility for Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s murder. But it is certain that Pabst spoke with Noske by telephone immediately prior to the killings. Pabst later confirmed on several occasions that he received the go-ahead from Noske. As he wrote in a 1969 letter which was found after his death, “It is obvious that there was no way I could have carried out the action without Noske’s support—with Ebert in the background—and that I had to protect my officers. But very few people have understood why I was never called to testify or charged with an offence. As a cavalier, I acknowledged the SPD’s behaviour at the time by keeping my mouth shut for fifty years about our cooperation.”

The ruling class had to kill Luxemburg and Liebknecht to prevent the revolution, which spread like wildfire throughout Germany during November, from overthrowing capitalism as it had done in Russia. The Hohenzollern regime, which capitulated in the first days of the revolution, could not be saved. But this only made its base of support—industrial and finance capital, the big landowners, the military caste, and the reactionary judiciary, police, and administrative apparatus—all the more determined to defend their social position.

To this end they called upon Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the SPD, to form a new government on 9 November, 1918. Over the preceding four years, the SPD had demonstrated its unconditional loyalty to bourgeois rule with its support for the First World War. Ebert immediately aligned himself with the general staff of the army to suppress the revolution.

Thus, the first revolutionary wave was bloodily suppressed, but this by no means resolved the question of which class would rule. Until October 1923, when the KPD missed an extraordinarily favourable revolutionary opportunity and called off a prepared uprising at the last minute, ever-changing class conflicts and revolutionary opportunities broke out.

In addition, with the founding of the KPD at the turn of the year 1918-19, a crucial step forward in overcoming the SPD’s betrayal and the Independent Social Democrats’ (USPD) centrist policies was taken. The USPD had been founded at the beginning of 1917 by deputies expelled by the SPD for their refusal to back war credits. Nonetheless, the USPD entered Ebert’s government in 1918 and served as a left fig leaf.

The KPD’s founding programme, authored by Rosa Luxemburg, made unmistakably clear that the KPD was not striving to replace the Hohenzollern regime with a bourgeois parliamentary democracy but to overthrow bourgeois rule.

On 9 November the Hohenzollern regime had been driven out of power and workers’ and soldiers’ councils had been elected, the programme stated. “But the Hohenzollerns were no more than the front men of the imperialist bourgeoisie and of the Junkers. The class rule of the bourgeoisie is the real criminal responsible for the World War, in Germany as in France, in Russia as in England, in Europe as in America. The capitalists of all nations are the real instigators of the mass murder. International capital is the insatiable god Baal, into whose bloody maw millions upon millions of steaming human sacrifices are thrown.”

The programme stressed that the alternatives were not reform or revolution, but socialism or barbarism. “The World War confronts society with the choice: either continuation of capitalism, new wars, and imminent decline into chaos and anarchy, or abolition of capitalist exploitation. … The words of the Communist Manifesto are the fiery writing on the wall above the crumbling bastions of capitalist society: Socialism or barbarism.”

Luxemburg’s warning was to be confirmed fourteen years later. The Weimar Republic was not the product of a victorious democratic revolution, but of counter-revolutionary violence. The murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht set into motion a development that ultimately led to the coming to power of the Nazis. They rested on the same social forces that the Ebert regime had rescued and strengthened. Hitler’s paramilitary SA emerged out of the Freikorps.

Part of the tragedy of Luxemburg and Liebknecht is that they underestimated the counter-revolutionary determination of their opponents. Otherwise they would have adopted better procedures and security measures to avoid falling into the hands of their captors.

The death of its two most important leaders was a disastrous blow to the KPD. It hindered the necessary process of clarification and consolidation within the young party, which grew rapidly into an organisation of a quarter of a million within two years. And it also weakened the party in critical revolutionary situations. There is much evidence to suggest, for example, that the KPD would have taken power in October 1923 had a Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Liebknecht stood at its head rather than the indecisive Heinrich Brandler.

Had Luxemburg and Liebknecht survived in 1919, not only German history, but also world history would have turned out differently. A victorious socialist revolution in Germany would have freed the Soviet Union from its isolation and thereby removed the most important factor for the growth of the bureaucracy and the rise of Stalin.

It is also inconceivable that the KPD, under the leadership of the uncompromising internationalist Rosa Luxemburg, would have bowed to Stalin’s nationalist course, or supported his policy of social fascism, which paved the way for Hitler to come to power in 1933. The refusal of Stalin, and his German proxy Thälmann, to fight for a united front with the “social fascist” SPD against the Nazis divided and paralysed the working class. Based on a correct policy by the KPD, which had hundreds of thousands of members and millions of voters, the working class could have prevented Hitler from coming to power.

One hundred years after her death, many political tendencies are trying to co-opt Rosa Luxemburg by portraying her as a left-wing reformist or feminist.

The leaders of the Left Party, whose politics are much closer to those of Noske and Ebert than to Luxemburg’s, made their pilgrimage once again this year to the tomb of the irreconcilable revolutionist to lay red carnations. The Berlin state senator for culture, the Left Party’s Klaus Lederer, told the magazine Zitty that Luxemburg “understood social change as a process of comprehensive democratisation and transformation, and sought to democratise all spheres of society, including business.” In a statement on the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the KPD, the Left Party’s historical commission asserted that with Luxemburg’s murder, the possibility was destroyed of developing the “KPD into a left-socialist party that did not follow the Bolshevik model.”

In reality, Luxemburg was a relentless opponent of the policies referred to by the Left Party as “left-socialist.” A large portion of her writings consists of polemics against Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky and other representatives of those policies, who inevitably end up on the bourgeois side of the barricades when the class struggle intensifies.

Here is an example of an article published in the newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) three weeks after the USPD joined the Ebert government:

“Independent social democracy is inherently a child of weakness, and compromise is the essence of its existence… It has always trotted behind events and developments; it never took the lead… Any dazzling ambiguity that led to confusion among the masses… all the phrases of bourgeois demagogy that spread the veils, that obscured the naked, craggy facts of the revolutionary alternative during the war, found their eager support…

“A party of such constitution, suddenly faced with the historical decisions of the revolution, had to fail miserably… In the hour that finally makes the socialist goals the practical task of the day, the sharpest, most inexorable divorce between the camp of the revolutionary proletariat and the open as well as disguised enemies of revolution and socialism the highest duty, the Independent Party hastened to enter into a political partnership with the most dangerous outposts of counterrevolution, to confuse the masses and to facilitate treachery.”

These words could also be used to describe the Left Party, which, however, stands far to the right of the USPD.

Many commentators have been compelled to admit that Luxemburg would have been contemptuous of the feminism and other forms of identity politics that are now in vogue in petty-bourgeois circles. As Elke Schmitter wrote in Der Spiegel, “The present insistence on disadvantage, whether due to birth or gender, status or religion, would have bored her.” For Luxemburg, the overcoming of all forms of oppression was inseparably bound up with the overthrow of the capitalist system.

One hundred years after Luxemburg’s death, all of the contradictions of the capitalist system that made the period 1914-45 the most violent in human history are erupting once again. Nationalism, trade war and war dominate international relations. Far-right and fascist forces are on the offensive in many countries, with the explicit or concealed support of the state. In Germany, refugee policy is being dictated by the far-right AfD, in whose ranks Waldemar Pabst would feel at home. In the army, the police and intelligence agencies, right-wing extremist networks are active and are being supported and trivialised by the highest echelons of the state.

This gives to the legacy of Liebknecht and Luxemburg a burning actuality. As Luxemburg formulated it in 1918, society once again confronts “either continuation of capitalism, new wars, and imminent decline into chaos and anarchy, or abolition of capitalist exploitation.” More than ever before, humanity’s future depends upon the construction of a socialist and internationalist party in the working class based on the legacy of Marxism.


Berlin: 15,000 Rally to Remember the 100th Anniversary of the Assassination Of Communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – 13 Jan 2019

rosa luxemburg

Red, black, neon yellow
100 years later: Commemoration of murdered revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht with current references in Berlin
By Claudia Wangerin

(Google Translate)

One century after the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, thousands of people marched from the Frankfurt Gate to the Socialist Memorial on Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery on Sunday in Berlin.

Between red flags with logos of communist groups and the party of  The Left – /Die Linke were also seen at this year’s Luxembourg Liebknecht demonstration also numerous Neongelbe West.  Leaflets and speeches linked the current political struggles with the memory and program of the two revolutionary founders of the Communist Party of Germany, who had been murdered on 15 January 1919 by officers of the old imperial German army, after the ‘moderate’ Social Democrat SPD leadership gave the assassins a free hand to suppress leftist workers organizations and leaders.

On the front panel of the “LL-Demo”, besides Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was also mentioned: “Nobody is forgotten – standing up and opposing.”

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Some wore the “yellow vests” with communist hammer and sickle symbols printed on them in reference to the French “gillet jaune” protest movement with their bright safety vests.

“Strike! Soviet power! Women’s fight! « said on another banner. In many cases, the logo of the anti-fascist action with red and black flag used by several groups was also on display. An anti-fascist-internationalist block referred in slogans and speeches mainly to the council models in the Syrian-Kurdish self-governing area Rojava and in the Mexican Chiapas. Inspired by this, the Berlin “Kiezkommune” campaigned for self-organization in the district.

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“Rosa, Karl, Vladimir – we’re fighting for our future,” a street rock band sang just before the finish at the end of the demonstration. The Socialist Memorial formed queues of people who had come to lay flowers, especially red carnations.


On Tuesday, the actual anniversary of the death of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, they will be remembered at 18 o’clock at the Olof-Palme-Platz in Berlin-Tiergarten.

France’s Yellow Vests Plan Bank Run to ‘Scare State Without Violence’ – By William Suberg – 9 Jan 2019

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Dubbed the “Collectors’ Referendum,” the latest demonstration by the movement calls on supporters to withdraw all their savings and other deposited cash from financial institutions on Saturday.

Speaking in a video uploaded to Facebook, an activist known only as Tahz San said the gesture aimed to “scare this (French) state completely legally and without any violence, yet more effectively than ever expected” throughout the history of the Gilet Jaunes movement.

“It’s our elected officials’ worst nightmare,” he added.

As local magazine Capital notes, the potential disruptive element of the Referendum could technically be considerable. The eventual turnout, however, is likely to be low enough so as to not spark a crisis, it adds.

Nonetheless, those in Bitcoin circles will be drawing parallels between the Referendum and last week’s Proof of Keys event organized by a sole investor, entrepreneur Trace Mayer.

Timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Bitcoin genesis block, Proof of Keys aimed to galvanize Bitcoin users to remove all coins stored with trusted third parties and take back control of their private keys.

Fiat bank runs have in turn contributed to the appeal of Bitcoin — at least psychologically — before, with Cyprus’ financial crisis in 2013 appearing to boost the price of the cryptocurrency.

Putin’s Passport Found at US State Department Burglary Site – by Carol Morello (Washington Post) 11 Jan 2019

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The State Department was hit in two separate locations last week by a thief who got away with dozens of cellphones and electronic equipment.

The department acknowledged that one individual is suspected of slipping into two of its buildings — one in Washington and one in Arlington. A suspect was arrested after he allegedly tried to sell the equipment at a restaurant in Virginia, and almost all the stolen devices were retrieved.

The suspect was identified by Arlington police as Joel Enriquez-Bueno, 42, with no known fixed address. He was charged with grand larceny, grand larceny with intent to sell, breaking and entering, and giving a false identity to police. It was not clear whether he had retained an attorney. He was being held without bond in the Arlington County Detention Facility.

It is unclear why someone apparently targeted two different State Department facilities across the river from each other on the same day, suggesting they were not chosen at random. It also is unclear whether it is just a coincidence that the thefts happened during the government shutdown that has furloughed 4 in 10 State Department employees, or whether the thief failed to realize that Diplomatic Security, which is responsible for protecting property as well as lives, is fully staffed despite the shutdown.

A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the mysterious incident, said, “We continue to meet security staffing requirements” but declined to discuss the details. The official said a thief had entered two State Department annexes on Jan. 3. The official did not say whether the person succeeded in getting past security to reach interior offices at the Washington building.

More is known about the incident in Rosslyn. According to the Arlington County Police Department, officers were dispatched around 11 a.m. to a building in the 1800 block of North Lynn Street. A high-rise building on that block houses the State Department’s Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, where security clearances for all State Department employees are checked and processed.

Police said a man had “piggybacked” into the secure building at 9:35 a.m., slipping in behind someone else, made his way to an upper-floor suite and allegedly stole 53 electronic devices, including 44 cellphones that were a combination of private and government-owned phones. It is unclear why so many phones were in one place, but government employees often check their phones before entering secure areas. Police declined to specify what other electronic devices were taken.

Police determined the thief went to a restaurant less than half a mile away on Fort Myer Drive and attempted to sell them. While canvassing the area, they located a man they said matched the thief’s description and took him into custody. Police recovered all the stolen equipment except for one set of headphones, said police spokeswoman Ashley Savage. The State Department said it does not believe the purloined phones contained any classified material.

The Campaign Against the Oscar-Worthy Movie ‘Green Book’ – Politically Incorrect – by Roger Friedman (Showbiz411) 11 Jan 2019

The Systematic Attack on the Jim Crow era drama ‘Green Book’ for

In the last 48 hours, “Green Book”– which wasn’t a legit front runner until Sunday’s Golden Globes– has been trashed over and over.

First there was a ridiculous whisper campaign that the movie was somehow racist. Or racist in an old fashioned way. Again, ludicrous.  Then actor Viggo Mortensen used the “N” word to describe the use of the “N” word– not to call anyone the “N” word– and his misspeaking was turned against him like a flame thrower.

Since Sunday, someone poured through the screenwriter’s ancient messages to find something they could call anti-Muslim. Then the director was accused of taking his penis out when he directed comedies.

On top of that, someone dug up the distant relatives of Don Shirley, who suddenly think the film is inaccurate. Could it be they’re angry they weren’t consulted or paid for the film? Someone ginned them up.

All of this is orchestrated very carefully. Do you really think it appears by accident? No, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to try and kill off “Green Book.”

The same thing happened last summer to “First Man.” A front runner when it opened to rapturous reviews in Venice, Damien Chazelle’s film was suddenly shouted down for not being patriotic. Whoever came up with that item about the American flag scene not being re-enacted was an evil genius. They destroyed a wonderful film.

It was too late to really hurt “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but an effort rose up right after it won the Golden Globe. Even though Bryan Singer was forced out of the production soon after it started, a suggestion was made on Monday that the movie should be punished for his past indiscretions. But “BR” has already made $750 million, and a lot of people love it. Singer’s problems are of course irrelevant.

I’m surprised no one’s come after the portrayal of Queen Anne in “The Favourite,” or found fault with the treatment of alcoholism in “A Star is Born.” Maybe the paella was made wrong in “Roma.”

Once Oscar nominations come out on January 22nd, watch for more “revelations” and reprisals against the front runners. Maybe Glenn Close really killed that bunny in “Fatal Attraction.” Or better yet– Wakanda isn’t even a real place!

As for “Green Book”: it deserves all accolades.


Green Book

Based on a true story, Green Book is a heartfelt movie set in the early 1960s, about a virtuoso African-American pianist and his white working class chauffeur, who embark on a concert tour in the deep South.

Directed by Peter Farrelly, the movie features Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. The screenplay was written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, in collaboration with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie.

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Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book

The film’s title comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, published by New York City postman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966 as a guide for black travelers looking for safe havens in the Southern states that enforced Jim Crow segregation.

The movie opens in 1962 in New York City. Tony, a good-natured, semi-literate Bronx resident with a wife and two children, is on layoff from his job as a bouncer at the Copacabana night club. He interviews for a position as a driver and “muscle” with Don, an internationally renowned pianist, who lives in a sumptuous apartment above the prestigious Carnegie Hall.

Imperious and magnificent, Don has surrounded himself with gorgeous art and artifacts from around the world. The economic and cultural gap between the two is great, particularly given the fact that Tony has never before had to challenge his own racial prejudices.

Nonetheless, Tony is hired to make sure Don and his two musicians (the other members of the Don Shirley Trio) arrive safely at their contracted destinations throughout the South. Tony soon comes under the sway of Don’s personality and talents. At times, he has to forcefully defend the black pianist from both ruffians and more genteel racists, along with club-wielding cops.

In some of the poshest venues, Don is not allowed to use the bathroom or eat in the dining room. While Tony is provided reasonable sleeping arrangements, Don has to contend with fleabag motels, not permitted to venture into the streets, whether they are in “sundown” towns or not.

Mahershala Ali in Green Book


It soon comes to light that Don is also gay. At one point, the pianist cries out in anguish that he is “not black enough, not white enough, not man enough,” demanding to know, “What am I?” To drown out the pain and confusion, he consumes a bottle of Cutty Sark every night.

In the car, Tony listens to Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, popular black singers unfamiliar to Don. “These are your people!” shouts Tony in disbelief. He, of course, has never had any exposure to “high-brow” classical and jazz music. In Birmingham, Alabama—where singer Nat King Cole had been attacked on stage in 1956—Don is barred from eating with the same guests who he will later be entertaining. Repulsed, Don and Tony flee the stodgy ballroom, ending up in a lively black club, where Don’s performance—a spectacular combination of classical and jazz—brings down the house.

During their journey, Tony—and Don—are shocked by the sight of oppressed black sharecroppers working in the fields.

Meanwhile, the pianist helps Tony, in Cyrano-style, formulate letters to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini). When Tony signs the letters, Don good-humoredly quips that it’s “like putting a cowbell at the end of Shostakovich.” As the relationship between employer and employee matures, a tender friendship is cemented.

Green Book is a decent, intelligent film, graced by the performances of its outstanding leads. It appears that Farrelly, the creator of juvenile comedies like Dumb and Dumber, The Three Stooges and Dumb and Dumber To, has become more thoughtful.

More should be said about the remarkable Don Shirley (1927-2013) a classical and jazz pianist and composer. Born in Florida to parents of Jamaican descent, Don, a prodigy, started to learn piano at the age of two. At nine, he was invited to study at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music.

In the course of his career, he performed with the Boston Pops, the London Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony, also working with the Chicago Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra. He wrote symphonies for the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. At Milan’s La Scala, only he, Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter have performed as soloists.

Shirley composed organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin and a symphonic tone poem based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Obtaining a doctorate of Music, Psychology and Liturgical Arts, Don spoke eight languages fluently and was a talented painter.

Linda Cardellini and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book


For its humanistic, anti-racialist message—the elementary notion that white and black people can get along—Green Book has been well received by audiences. Predictably, for the same reason, it has also aroused hostility from those who live and breathe identity politics. Typical headlines originating from that crowd read: “Green Book Is a Poorly Titled White Savior Film,” “Green Book is Another Unneeded White People’s Guide to Racism” and “Is Green Book ‘Woke’ Enough?”

Richard Brody in the New Yorker opines: “The essential subject of Green Book isn’t the honoring of cultures, identities, and differences but their effacement in the interest of an ostensibly color-blind neutrality, a bland common ground of an accepted mainstream (in pop and high culture alike) of cuisine, entertainment, friends, family, and personal gratification…

“This grotesquely ahistorical and impersonal view honors a mode of racial enlightenment—a ‘both-sides’ enlightenment—that’s as regressive as it is universally salable.”

A. O. Scott in the New York Times writes: “Every suspicion you might entertain—that this will be a sentimental tale of prejudices overcome and common humanity affirmed; that its politics will be as gently middle-of-the-road as its humor; that it will invite a measure of self-congratulation about how far we, as a nation, have come—will be confirmed.”

This is reactionary nonsense. Green Book has its limitations, but it’s a fascinating, consequential episode. It’s shameful that these upper middle class critics cannot see beyond their racialist noses.

How We’ll Forget John Lennon – Our culture has two types of forgetting – by Kevin Berger (Nautilus) 10 Jan 2019

A few years ago a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab. Hidalgo was listening to music and asked the student if she recognized the song. She wasn’t sure. “Is it Coldplay?” she asked. It was “Imagine” by John Lennon. Hidalgo took it in stride that his student didn’t recognize the song. As he explains in our interview below, he realized the song wasn’t from her generation. What struck Hidalgo, though, was the incident echoed a question that had long intrigued him, which was how music and movies and all the other things that once shone in popular culture faded like evening from public memory.

Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. It’s a highly addictive platform that allows you to search people, places, and occupations with a variety of parameters. Most famous tennis player of all time? That’s right, Frenchman Rene Lacoste, born in 1904. (Roger Federer places 20th.) Rankings are drawn from, essentially, Wikipedia biographies, notably ones in more than 25 different languages, and Wikipedia page views.

Medium Is the Message: “As a new medium takes over, the type of information being produced changes dramatically,” says Cesar Hidalgo. “Printing was not good for actors but good for playwrights. TV was not good for playwrights but very good for sports.” Courtesy of Cesar Hidalgo

Last month Hidalgo and colleagues published a Nature paper that put his crafty data-mining talents to work on another question: How do people and products drift out of the cultural picture? They traced the fade-out of songs, movies, sports stars, patents, and scientific publications. They drew on data from sources such as Billboard, Spotify, IMDB, Wikipedia, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the American Physical Society, which has gathered information on physics articles from 1896 to 2016. Hidalgo’s team then designed mathematical models to calculate the rate of decline of the songs, people, and scientific papers.

The report, “The universal decay of collective memory and attention,” concludes that people and things are kept alive through “oral communication” from about five to 30 years. They then pass into written and online records, where they experience a slower, longer decline. The paper argues that people and things that make the rounds at the water cooler have a higher probability of settling into physical records. “Changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio and television,” it says, affect our degree of attention, and all of our cultural products, from songs to scientific papers, “follow a universal decay function.”

Last week I caught up with Hidalgo to talk about his Nature paper. But I also wanted to push him to talk about what he saw between the mathematical lines, to wear the social scientist’s hat and reflect on the consequences of decay in collective memory.

How do you define “collective memory?”

The easiest definition would be those pieces of knowledge or information that are shared by a large number of people.

Why does collective memory decay matter?

If you think about it, culture and memory are the only things we have. We treasure cultural memory because we use that knowledge to build and produce everything we have around us. That knowledge is going to help us build the future and solve the problems we have yet to solve. If aliens come here and wave a magic wand and make everyone forget everything—our cars, buildings, bridges, airplanes, our power systems, and so forth, we would collapse as a society immediately.

The relative power of scientists has diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.

In your mind, what is a classic example of collective memory decay?

I thought everybody knew “Imagine” by John Lennon. I’m almost 40 and my student was probably 20. But I realized “Imagine” is not as popular in her generation as it was in mine, and it was probably less popular in my generation than in the generation before. People have a finite capacity to remember things. There’s great competition for the content out there, and the number of people who know or remember something decays over time. There’s another example, of Elvis Presley memorabilia. People had bought Elvis memorabilia for years and it was collecting huge prices. Then all of a sudden the prices started to collapse. What happened is the people who collected Elvis memorabilia started to die. Their families were stuck with all of this Elvis stuff and trying to sell it. But all of the people who were buyers were also dying.

You write collective memory also reflects changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio, and TV. How so?

Take print. Changing the world from an oral tradition to a written tradition provided a much better medium for data. A lot of people have linked the revolution in the sciences and astronomy to the rise of printing because astronomical tables, for instance, could be copied in a reliable way. Before printing, astronomical tables were hand-copied, which introduced errors that diminished the quality of the data. With printing, people had more reliable forms of data. We see very clearly from our data that with the rise of printing you get the rise of astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists. You also see a rise in composers because printing helps the transmission of sheet music. So when you look at people we remember most from the time when print first arose, you see ones from the arts and sciences.

What did the mediums that came next mean for science?

The new mediums of radio and TV were much more adaptive for entertainment than science, that’s for sure. The people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of the people who became famous, diminished enormously during the 20th century. The new mediums were not good for the nuances that science demands. For good reason, scientists need to qualify their statements narrowly and be careful when they talk about causality. They need to be specific about the methods they use and the data they collect. All of those extensive nuances are hard to communicate in mediums that are good for entertainment and good for performance. So the relative power of scientists, or their position in society, have diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.

At the same time, scientists and the general scientific community have not been great at adapting their ideas to new mediums. Scientists are the first ones to bring down another scientist who tries to popularize content in a way that would not be traditional. So scientists are their own worst enemies in this battle. They have lagged behind in their ability to learn how to use these mediums. Sometimes they focus too much on the content without paying attention on how to adapt it to the medium that will best help it get out.

What does your analysis tell us we didn’t know before about the decay of collective memory?

We began by looking at how popular something is today based on how long ago it became popular in the first place. The expectation is collective memory decays over time in a smooth pattern, that the more time goes by, the more things become forgotten. But what we found when we looked at cultural products—movies, songs, sports figures, patents, and science papers—was that decay is not smooth, but has two defined regimes. There’s the first regime in which the attention starts very high and the decay is really fast. Then there’s the second regime in which it has a much longer tail, when the decay is smoother, and the attention is less.

I’m surprised how the U.S., a country with people doing so many things, can become so monothematic on such a vast scale.

When we started to think about decay, we realized we could take two concepts from anthropology—“communicative memory” and “cultural memory.” Communicative memory arises from talking about things. Donald Trump is very much in our communicative memory now. You walk down the street and find people talking about Trump—Trump and tariffs, Trump and the trade war. But there’s going to be a point, 20 years in the future, in which he’s not going to be talked about everyday. He’s going to exit from communicative memory and be part of cultural memory. And that’s the memory we sustain through records. Although the average amount of years that something remains in communicative memory varies—athletes last longer than songs, movies, and science papers, sometimes for a couple decades—we found this same overall decay pattern in multiple cultural domains.

In your forthcoming paper, “How the medium shapes the message,” you refer to the late cultural critic Neil Postman who argued that the popular rise of TV led to a new reign of entertainment, which dumbed us down, because entertainment was best suited for TV. Is that what you found?

We found evidence in that favor, yes. Because the fraction of people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of all of the people that become famous, diminishes enormously during the 20th century. It would completely agree with that observation.

Do you agree with Postman that we’re all “amusing ourselves to death?”

I don’t think we’re amusing ourselves to death. I’m not like that much of a pessimist. I do think life is also about enjoying the ride, not just about doing important things. And new mediums like TikTok, a kind of Twitter for videos, are great for creative expression. People are doing amazing little performance skits on TikTok. The entertainment and artistic components of every new medium are not bad per se, but every medium can be hijacked by extreme people who know how to craft entertaining messages, especially when they want to advance a certain agenda.

What type of information is best suited for the Internet?

It’s hard to think of the Internet as a medium. It’s more of a platform in which Facebook, Twitter, email, and TikTok are different mediums. They each send their own type of message. A picture that does well on Instagram doesn’t necessarily shine on Twitter, where people are expecting something else. The behavior and the engagements are different. Twitter, for example, is about being controversial. You know, one way to get chewed up on Twitter is to try to be in the center! I use Twitter a little, but not that much. I find that it’s a little bit hostile. I’m a family type of guy, so I use Facebook. In Facebook, at least in my circle, you put more detail into comments and are a little bit more thoughtful.

Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. Young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.

Is collective memory decaying more rapidly because communication technologies are so much faster?

I would love to know that but I can’t. Some people would say collective memory decays based not on calendar time but the speed at which new content is being produced. We forget Elvis because the Beatles came up and we forget the Beatles because Led Zeppelin came and we forget Led Zeppelin because Metallica came up, and so forth. But things become very dear to a generation and people will not forget about them just because new content came in. So decay would be something characteristic of humans, not the volume of content. To separate those two things, we would need to look at content from very different time frames. At the moment, we don’t have the richness of data that we would need to answer that question.

Still, don’t you think the speed at which online information is tearing through our brains has got to be leaving some path of destruction in collective memory?

I don’t know. I grew up in Chile, which of course is small compared to the United States. I came to the U.S. for the first time in 1996. And one of the things that still surprises me is how monothematic American culture can be. In 1996 it was all about O.J. Simpson. Everybody talked about O.J. Simpson. He was everywhere on TV. Just like Trump today, he consumed the entire bandwidth. I’m surprised how a country with so many people, and with people doing so many different things, can nevertheless become so monothematic on such a vast scale. Today we have so much more content than in 1996 because of the rise of the Internet and the ability of people to create content. But look at the percentage of all conversations and online communications that are consumed by Trump. So in that context, I don’t think content is being replaced so easily. I don’t see that much of a rise in diversity.

That’s really interesting. Because one of the common criticisms of the current information glut is we have no shared cultural center. Everybody has their own narrow interest and we have no shared cultural bond, no John Lennon.

Is that a collective memory phenomena or is it because nowadays the guys in the middle of the culture are different guys? Different people come into the center of culture because of the type of mediums that are available. There have been musicians for thousands of years, and for most of that history, musicians have not been wealthy. It was only when there was a medium that allowed them to sell their music—vinyl, magnetic tapes, and discs—that they were able to make money. I think that generated a golden era of pop music in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And that’s associative to a communication technology that was dominant at that time. Radio and discs were a way to distribute those popular idols’ musical performances. When that technology was replaced by simple forms of copying, like the ability to copy files on the Internet, all that went away. Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. He’s not John Lennon. It’s a very different type of leadership, a different type of model for young people. But Musk’s first job was an online payment start-up. And I think a lot of young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.

Did you come away from your study with insights into what may or may not cause something to stick in collective memory?

I read a very good book recently called The Formula by Albert-Laszlo Barabas. He says you can equate quality and popularity in situations in which performance is clearly measurable. But in cases in which performance is not clearly measurable, you cannot equate popularity with quality. If you look at tennis players, you find tennis players who win tournaments and difficult games are more popular. So quality and fame are closely correlated in a field in which performance is measured as tightly as professional tennis players. As you move to things that are less quantifiable in terms of performance, like modern art, your networks are going to be more important in determining popularity.

How should we think about quality in media content?

Well, I would say that collective memory decay is an important way to measure and think about quality. If you publish some clickbait that is popular in the beginning, that gets a lot of views in the first couple of days, but a year later, nobody looks at it, you have a good metric. The same is true if publish a more thoughtful piece that might not be as popular in the beginning because it didn’t work as clickbait—it required more engagement from the readers—but keeps on building readers over time. So the differences in longevity are important metrics for quality.

That goes back to a paper I did when I was an undergrad about the decay functions of attendance of movies. There were some movies that had a lot of box office revenue in the first week but then decayed really fast. And there were other movies that decayed more slowly. We created a model in which people would talk to each other and communicate information of the quality of the movie. And that model only had one parameter, which was how good was the movie was. So the quality of the movie would increase or decrease the probability that people would go watch it. We could then look at the curves and infer how good the movie was, based not on the total area it was shown, or on the total revenue, but on the shape of the curve. That was interesting because there were movies that were really bad like Tomb Raider, which at first was a box office success. But if you put it on our model, you would see that it was just hype, people watched it, hated the movie, and the curve decayed really fast.


‘Save The Earth?’ The Planet Can Take Care of Itself – George Carlin – 21 Oct 2007

Worried about everything! You got people like this around you? Country’s full of ’em now. People walkin’ around all day long every minute of the day, worried about everything. Worried about the air, worried about the water, worried about the soil. Worried about insecticides, pesticides, food additives, carcinogens, worried about radon gas, worried about asbestos, worried about saving endangered species.

Lemme tell ya bout endangered species, awright? Saving endangered species is just one more arrogant attempt by humans to control Nature. It’s arrogant meddling. It’s what got us in trouble in the first place. Doesn’t anybody understand that? Interfering with Nature. Over 90 percent, over, way over 90 percent, of the species that have ever lived on this planet, ever lived, are gone. Wooosh! They’re extinct. We didn’t kill them all. They just disappeared. That’s what nature does.

They disappear these days at the rate of 25 a day—and I mean regardless of our behavior. Irrespective of how we act on this planet, 25 species that were here today will be gone tomorrow. Let them go gracefully. Leave Nature alone. Haven’t we done enough? We’re so self-important, so self-important. Everybody’s gonna save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails. And the greatest arrogance of all, save the planet. What? Are these fucking people kidding me? Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven’t learned to care for one another—we’re gonna save the fuckin’ planet?

I’m gettin’ tired of that shit. Tired of that shit. Tired. I’m tired of fuckin’ Earth Day, I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white bourgeoise liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos.

Besides, environmentalist don’t give a shit about the planet, they don’t care about the planet, not in the abstract they don’t, not in the abstract they don’t. You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that someday in the future they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn’t impress me. Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet, nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The people are fucked. Difference. Difference. The planet is fine. Compared to the people, the planet is doin’ great! It’s been here four and a half billion years. Did you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years.

We’ve been here, what? A hundred thousand? Maybe two hundred thousand and we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over two hundred years. Two hundred years versus four and a half billion. And we have the conceit to think that somehow we’re a threat? That somehow we’re gonna put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that’s just a floatin’ around the sun?

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sunspots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids, and meteors, world-wide floods, tidal waves, world-wide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages, and we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are! We’re goin’ away. Pack your shit, Folks, we’re goin’ away. We won’t leave much of a trace either, thank god for that. Maybe a little styrofoam, maybe, little styrofoam. Planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake, an evolutionary cul de sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas, a surface nuisance. You wanna know how the planet’s doin’? Ask those people at Pompeii, who were frozen into position from volcanic ash. How the planet’s doin’.

Wanna know if the planet’s alright, ask those people in Mexico City or Armenia, or a hundred other places buried under thousands of tons of earthquake rubble if they feel like a threat to the planet this week. How about those people in Kilauea, Hawaii who built their homes right next to an active volcano and then wonder why they have lava in the living room. The planet will be here for a long, long, long time after we’re gone and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself ’cuz that’s what it does.

It’s a self-correcting system.

The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allows us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it, needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question,

“Why are we here?” “Plastic, assholes.”

So, so, the plastic is here, our job is done, we can be phased out now. And I think that’s really started already, don’t you? I mean, to be fair, the planet probably sees us as a mild threat, something to be dealt with, but I’m sure the planet will defend itself in the manner of a large organism like a bee hive or an ant colony can muster a defense.

I’m sure the planet will think of something. What would you do, if you were the planet trying to defend against this pesky, troublesome species? Let’s see, what might, viruses, viruses might be good, they seem vulnerable to viruses.

And, viruses are tricky, always mutating and forming new strains whenever a vaccine is developed. Perhaps this first virus could be one that compromises the immune system in these creatures. Perhaps a human immuno deficiency virus making them vulnerable to all sorts of other diseases and infections that might come along, and maybe it could be spread sexually, making them a little reluctant to engage in the act of reproduction. Well, that’s a poetic note. And it’s a start.

But I can dream, can’t I? I don’t worry about the little things, bees, trees, whales, snails. I think we’re part of a greater wisdom than we’ll ever understand, a higher order, call it what you want. You know what I call it? The Big Electron. The Big Electron. Woooohhhh, woooohhhh, woooohhhh. It doesn’t punish, it doesn’t reward, it doesn’t judge at all. It just is, and so are we, for a little while. Thanks for being here with me for a little while tonight.

Take care New York Take care of yourself and take care of someone else.

George Carlin