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Riddles, Lies and Lives—Castro, Muhammad Ali, Einstein and Barbie

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Posted on Aug 18, 2014

Photo by IISG (CC BY 2.0)

By Eduardo Galeano, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity, Mirrors (Nation Books).]

Stalin

He learned to write in the language of Georgia, his homeland, but in the seminary the monks made him speak Russian.

Years later in Moscow, his south Caucasus accent still gave him away.

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So he decided to become more Russian than the Russians. Was not Napoleon, who hailed from Corsica, more French than the French? And was not Catherine the Great, who was German, more Russian than the Russians?

The Georgian, Iosif Dzhugashvili, chose a Russian name. He called himself Stalin, which means “steel.”

The man of steel expected his son to be made of steel too: from childhood, Stalin’s son Yakov was tempered in fire and ice and shaped by hammer blows.

It did not work. He was his mother’s child. At the age of 19, Yakov wanted no more of it, could bear no more.

He pulled the trigger.

The gunshot did not kill him.

He awoke in the hospital. At the foot of the bed, his father commented:

“You can’t even get that right.”

The Ages of Josephine

At nine years old, she works cleaning houses in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi.

At 10, she starts dancing for coins in the street. At 13, she marries.

At 15, once again. Of the first husband she retains not even a bad memory. Of the second, his last name, because she likes how it sounds.

At 17, Josephine Baker dances the Charleston on Broadway. At 18, she crosses the Atlantic and conquers Paris. The “Bronze Venus” performs in the nude, with no more clothing than a belt of bananas.

At 21, her outlandish combination of clown and femme fatale makes her the most popular and highest-paid performer in Europe.

At 24, she is the most photographed woman on the planet. Pablo Picasso, on his knees, paints her. To look like her, the pallid young damsels of Paris rub themselves with walnut cream, which darkens the skin.

At 30, she has problems in some hotels because she travels with a chimpanzee, a snake, a goat, two parrots, several fish, three cats, seven dogs, a cheetah named Chiquita who wears a diamond-studded collar, and a little pig named Albert, whom she bathes in Je Reviens perfume by Worth.

At 40, she receives the Legion of Honor for service to the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation.

At 41 and on her fourth husband, she adopts 12 children of many colors and many origins, whom she calls “my rainbow tribe.”

At 45, she returns to the United States. She insists that everyone, whites and blacks, sit together at her shows. If not, she will not perform. At 57, she shares the stage with Martin Luther King and speaks against racial discrimination before an immense crowd at the March on Washington.

At 68, she recovers from a calamitous bankruptcy and at the Bobino Theater in Paris she celebrates a half-century on the stage.

And she departs.

Photograph: Saddest Eye in the World

Princeton, New Jersey, May 1947.

Photographer Philippe Halsman asks him: “Do you think there will be peace?”

And while the shutter clicks, Albert Einstein says, or rather mutters: “No.”

People believe that Einstein got the Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity, that he was the originator of the saying “Everything is relative,” and that he was the inventor of the atom bomb.

The truth is they did not give him a Nobel for his theory of relativity and he never uttered those words. Neither did he invent the bomb, although Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been possible if he had not discovered what he did.

He knew all too well that his findings, born of a celebration of life, had been used to annihilate it.

Father of the Computer

Alan Turing was sneered at for not being a tough guy, a he-man with hair on his chest.

He whined, croaked, stuttered. He used an old necktie for a belt. He rarely slept and went without shaving for days. And he raced from one end of the city to the other all the while concocting complicated mathematical formulas in his mind.

Working for British intelligence, he helped shorten the Second World War by inventing a machine that cracked the impenetrable military codes used by Germany’s high command.

At that point he had already dreamed up a prototype for an electronic computer and had laid out the theoretical foundations of today’s information systems. Later on, he led the team that built the first computer to operate with integrated programs. He played interminable chess games with it and asked it questions that drove it nuts. He insisted that it write him love letters. The machine responded by emitting messages that were rather incoherent.

But it was flesh-and-blood Manchester police who arrested him in 1952 for gross indecency.

At the trial, Turing pled guilty to being a homosexual.

To stay out of jail, he agreed to undergo medical treatment to cure him of the affliction. The bombardment of drugs left him impotent. He grew breasts. He stayed indoors, no longer went to the university. He heard whispers, felt stares drilling into his back.

He had the habit of eating an apple before going to bed.

One night, he injected the apple with cyanide.

Red Emperor

I was in China three years after the failure of the Great Leap Forward. No one talked about it. It was a state secret.

I saw Mao paying homage to Mao. In Tiananmen Square, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Mao presided over an immense parade led by an immense statue of Mao. The plaster Mao held his hand high, and the flesh-and-blood Mao answered the greeting. From an ocean of flowers and colored balloons, the crowd cheered both.

Mao was China and China was his shrine. Mao exhorted all to follow the example set by Lei Feng and Lei Feng exhorted all to follow the example set by Mao. Lei Feng, a young Communist apostle of dubious existence, spent his days consoling the sick, helping widows, and giving his food away to orphans. His nights he spent reading the complete works of Mao. When he slept, he dreamed of Mao, his guide for every step. Lei Feng had no girlfriend or boyfriend because he did not waste time on frivolities, and it never occurred to him that life could be contradictory or reality diverse.


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