National Review / Digital           July 6, 2009

Undies, Comrade?
The problem of products bearing Communist symbols


BY JAY NORDLINGER

Couple of weeks ago, I got a letter from a reader in Santa Monica who wanted to complain about Leninade. This is a drink — a lemonade soda — whose bottle is dressed up Soviet-style: hammer and sickle, red star, etc. Why was this lady sounding off to me? She knew that I write rather a lot about Communist kitsch, and the use of Communist symbols. I have had a particular sideline in Che Guevara — the T-shirts and the other paraphernalia. In fact, our reader, at the end of her note, lamented that “there are quite a few apartment buildings here,” in southern California, “with the portrait of Che Guevara plastered on the façade.”

I wrote about this lady and Leninade in a column. And I asked readers not to be too hard on her — not to condemn her as some sort of crabapple or stiff: She was born in Russia. She felt the hammer (and sickle) of Communism. And some people just don’t find the humor in such products as Leninade.

I quickly heard from the father of Leninade, an effervescent man named Danny Ginsburg. In fact, he signs himself “Yours effervescently,” and no salutation ever better suited a signer. He is “The Soda Sommelier,” the owner of Real Soda In Real Bottles, Ltd., in Greater L.A. He definitely means Leninade as a spoof, a joke — a sticking-it-in-the-eye of the old Bolshevik bastard. Ginsburg’s grandparents fled Russia in the 1920s. He himself spent some time in the Soviet Union. He is under no illusion about that system — but he’s in favor of having some fun with it. You know what he sells a case of Leninade for? $19.17.

Ginsburg says that most people from the former Soviet bloc appreciate what he does — laugh along with him. Others, like my reader in Santa Monica, recoil.

You may be unaware of it, but there’s a flood of “Communist” products on the market. You can get just about anything with the hammer and sickle, or “USSR,” or “CCCP” on it. How’re you fixed for underwear? Go to HammerSickleStuff.com: and “treat yourself to our classy and novel panties, undies, thongs and bras with the soviet hammer and sickle logo.” The sellers further say, “Be a good little neo-communist by wearing these stylish and comfortable underthings.” Whatever floats your boat.

How’re you doing for hats? Adidas has manufactured a line celebrating Communist states, and not just defunct ones: They have hats in honor of the “People’s Republic” of China and the Castros’ Cuba. About their hat honoring the Soviet Union, they say, “Show your love for the former USSR during training time.” Show your love. And bear in mind that the Soviet state killed about 20 million people, in addition to stifling and immiserating countless others. All told, Communist states have killed about 100 million — and the grinding continues (in North Korea and elsewhere).

Every once in a while, the topic of Communist symbols in free countries comes up. Conservatives like me will grouse. In 2006, a man named Tim Vincent, of television’s Access Hollywood, went on the air sporting a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt. A few years before that, London Fashion Week saw an outbreak of Communist chic (if you can imagine). The headline in the Daily Telegraph was, “Soviet style comes in from the cold.”

But we can relax now, right? Nothing to grouse about. We have triumphed over Communism (leaving aside North Korea and a few other states). We have made commercial products out of their most cherished symbols. Hurrah! Yes, but we have triumphed over Nazism too, long ago. But where are the undies and hats bearing swastikas, and where are the T-shirts showing Hitler, Himmler, and the rest of the boys? Huh?

In 2005, Prince Harry, Charles and Diana’s second child, wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party. That uniform included an armband — and all hell came down on the young prince. Moreover, a move was made in the European Parliament to ban Nazi symbols across the EU. (They have long been banned in Germany and Austria, and they are banned in some other countries as well.) A companion move was also made: to ban Communist symbols, along with the Nazi. This proposal came from parliamentarians representing Eastern Europe. And they were eloquent, as they made their case.

József Szájer, a Hungarian, said that his country had experienced both Nazism and Communism — and, really, there was nothing to choose between them. Both were “evil totalitarian” systems of the 20th century, and if Europe is to anathematize the one, it should anathematize the other. Jan Zahradil, a Czech, decried a “double standard” in Western Europe, whereby Nazism is rightly and roundly condemned while Communism is often excused, or even defended. This tends to burn those who know Communism.

Since Hitler pulled the trigger in that bunker in 1945, there has been some mockery of the Nazis, but not much: The outstanding instance is Mel Brooks’s The Producers (in movie and Broadway-musical forms). Chaplin satirized Hitler and the Nazis in The Great Dictator. But that was in 1940. And he later said that, if he had known the extent of their crimes, he never would have made light of them. There has simply been a rule: You don’t mess around with Nazism, and you don’t get cute with Nazi symbols.

Two years ago, a clothing chain in London inadvertently stocked a bag whose design included a couple of swastikas. Big, big outcry, and instant removal. In all probability, the bag came from India, where the swastika is an old and perfectly honorable symbol (perverted by the Nazis, in their characteristic style). Indeed, Hindus in Europe protested the proposed EU ban on Nazi symbols.

That ban never came about, by the way, and neither, of course, did the companion ban (on Communist symbols). There is always the factor of freedom of expression. And different nations have come up with their own laws. For example, Hungary bans both Nazi and Communist symbols. So does Lithuania (and the Russian government chafed at the implied equation).

Right now in Poland, there is a proposal to ban both classes of symbol — and that would include Che Guevara shirts. In April, the Telegraph’s Warsaw correspondent wrote, “The proposal . . . reflects a Polish view of communism far different from the rose-tinted and romantic images found in the West. After experiencing 40 hard years of communism, as well as the horrors of Nazi occupation, few Poles have qualms [about] equating under law the inequities of Nazism and communism.” Many other peoples are free of these qualms, too.

It is an old, sore question: the disparity between Western views of Nazism and Western views of Communism. Perhaps the top authority on this question is Paul Hollander, the Hungarian-born intellectual. He says that there are two main reasons for the disparity: First, “Communist atrocities are much less known than Nazi ones” — that is the nature of our education. And the second reason is related, I believe: “the old lingering idea that the Communists may have done bad things but had good intentions.”

Hollander was once given a T-shirt combining Lenin and McDonald’s — something about “McLenin’s” and a “taste of Communism.” He has not worn the shirt. But would he? He’s not sure. A lot of us have a similar ambivalence. But one thing he knows beyond doubt: He would never be given, and probably no one would ever make, a “McHitler’s” shirt.

Speaking of Lenin and Hitler, here is a story — originating with Kingsley Amis and told recently by Charles Moore, the British journalist. Amis “knew a man who was an interior decorator. One day, the man was commissioned to improve the house of a rich, left-wing woman in Hampstead. Above the main staircase was a huge portrait of Lenin. Kingsley’s friend decided on a tease. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked. . . . ‘Hang on, don’t tell me, don’t tell me . . . I know: Hitler!’”

When it comes to Communist symbols, we all probably go with our gut — judge by our stomach, or nose. The statue of Lenin in Seattle is nauseating, I think. And so are those Adidas hats. But Danny Ginsburg’s Leninade? A borderline case, at least for me.

The best judges, probably, are those who have lived under Communism. But they, of course, may disagree. About five years ago, I asked a Czech-born friend of mine to pick up some Communist kitsch for me while visiting Prague: red-star pins and the like. She did so — but said that she felt dirty and disgusted in carrying out this errand. I was sorry I’d asked. Danny Ginsburg knows people from the former Soviet bloc who just love the stuff — the kitsch. For them, it may emphasize liberation.

What should not be the case is that only people who have tasted Communism should care — but so it often seems. Earlier this year in Santa Ana, Calif., there was an art exhibition featuring Communist symbols. This drew protest from Vietnamese Americans — former refugees. And they shut the show down. A co-owner of the building told the Los Angeles Times, “They have factions in their community that go after anyone who in any way seems to put a positive light on Communism.” Yeah, weird that.

There are 8,000 more things to say, but let me conclude with a personal story — kind of a dilemma. As I mentioned before, I have written a lot about Che Guevara and “Che chic”; I am sort of associated with the subject. Indeed, the question I most often receive from readers is, “What should I read to know the truth about Guevara — to separate the man from the myth?” It was proposed, at National Review, that we have a T-shirt made up, bearing my lissome image in the Che pose. Just for fun — a novelty for readers. We decided against — a matter of gut, more than anything. Everyone and his brother has been done up in the Che pose. But the point of the man remains: He was a Latin American Beria. Americans forget lessons of Communism, if they ever learned them, and you should probably be as careful with hammers and sickles as you are with the symbol that dare not show its face on London handbags, or princely arms.