Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2014

Madison Washington and the Creole Rebellion

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

From Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom“:

During the fall of 1841, Madison Washington, a self-emancipated former slave from Virginia, knocked on the door of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia as he was on his way back south to assist his wife’s escape from bondage. Washington had certainly come to the right place. Purvis had been active for several years in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. He remembered, years later, “I was at that time in charge of the work of assisting fugitive slaves to escape.” Purvis already knew Washington because he had helped him gain his freedom by getting to Canada two years earlier. Washington had since “opened correspondence with a young white man in the South,” who had promised to ferry his wife away from her plantation and to bring her to an appointed place so that the two of them could then escape northward. Purvis did not like the plan. He had witnessed others undertake such dangerous labors of love and fail. He was sure that his visitor would be captured and reenslaved. Washington, however, was determined to carry on.

By coincidence Washington arrived at the abolitionist’s home on the very same day a painting was delivered: Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad,” as Purvis called it. It so happened that Cinque and twenty-one other Amistad Africans had also been in Purvis’s large, majestic home on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Mount Vernon streets, when they visited Philadelphia on their fund-raising tour of May 1841. (Cinque later sent a message, “Tell Mr. Purvis to send me my hat.”) Purvis had long been inspired by the Amistad struggle and in late 184o–early 1841, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the case, he commissioned Jocelyn to paint the portrait.

Washington took a keen interest in the painting and the story behind it. When Purvis told him about Cinque and his comrades, Washington “drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.” Washington soon departed, headed south-ward in search of his wife, but he never returned, as he had hoped to do in retracing his steps toward Canada. Someone betrayed him, as Purvis had predicted (and only learned some years later). Washington was “captured while escaping with his wife.” He was clapped into chains again and placed on board a domestic slave ship called the Creole, bound from Virginia to New Orleans in November 1841.

As the Creole set sail, Washington remembered Cinque’s story—the courage and the intelligence, the plan and the victory. Working as a cook aboard the vessel, which allowed him easy communication with his shipmates, Washington began to organize. With eighteen others he rose up, killed a slave-trading agent, wounded the captain severely, seized control of the ship, and liberated a hundred and thirty fellow Africans and African Americans. Wary of trickery, Washington forced the mate to navigate the vessel to Nassau in the Bahama Islands, where the British had abolished slavery three years earlier. In Nassau harbor they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and insuring their victory.

Representatives of the federal government literally screamed bloody murder, just as those of Spain had done two years earlier, following the rebellion aboard the Amistad. They demanded the return of the slaves, who must, they insisted, be tried in the United States for rising up to kill their oppressors. U.S. officials self-righteously defended the institution of slavery and called for all property to be restored to its rightful owners. The British government, however, refused to comply with the order. Madison Washington and many of his comrades gained their freedom, boarded vessels bound hither and yon around the Atlantic, and left no further traces in the historical records.

The reverberations of the Amistad rebellion were beginning to be felt in the wider world of Atlantic slavery, as predicted by abolitionist Henry C. Wright, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison. He foresaw that Purvis’s painting, properly displayed, would confront slaveholders and their apologists with a powerful message about successful rebellion against bondage. To have it in a gallery would lead to discussions about slavery and the “inalienable” rights of man, and convert every set of visitors into an antislavery meeting.

Wright did not imagine a meeting of only two people, one of them a rebellious fugitive, nor could he have known that the painting would inspire radical action on another slave ship, which would result in both a collective self-emancipation and an international diplomatic row between the United States and Great Britain. The combination of the Amistad and Creole rebellions had a major impact on the antislavery struggle, pushing activists toward more militant rhetoric and practices. As Purvis concluded many years later, “And all this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture.”

John Wick

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:36 am

I wasted $11 and more importantly two hours of my precious time watching “John Wick” this afternoon, a film that has an 86 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and raves from the Boston Globe (“It’s all sharp stuff from Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves finds decently tailored material in their mix of busy physicality, spare drama, and wickedly dry humor.”) and the Chicago Sun-Times (“Stahelski has created an impressively distinctive, self-contained world for John Wick that emphasizes sophistication and stylishness”). Well, don’t believe the hype.

“John Wick” stars Keanu Reeves in the eponymous role as a professional killer who has retired after his wife died of some unspecified illness. After Russian gangsters steal his car and kill the puppy his late wife left him for companionship, he sets out on a course of bloody revenge.

Such a well-worn theme of a professional killer coming out of retirement must rely on writing and performance to stand out from the crowd. Done right as in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, it can be memorable. That film was noteworthy for emphasizing the vulnerability of the main character. His frailty and his being past his prime made the climax all the more powerful as Eastwood blasts a saloon full of bad guys to kingdom come.

In “John Wick” the hero is much more like The Terminator. When a powerful gangster learns that his thuggish son has killed Wick’s dog (the lout did not know that he had preyed on a legendary executioner nicknamed “the Boogyman” who used to work for his father before retiring), he sends a hit squad of a dozen men out to Wick’s ultramodern and luxurious house as a preemptive measure. In a kind of scene that gets repeated 4 or 5 times for the rest of the film until it gets to the point when you feel like yelling “enough already”, Wick kills them all and is not even scratched in the process. If you want to see Keanu Reeves shooting people in the head for an hour-and-a-half, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I think most of the critics got suckered into raving about this film because they had never been exposed to the films that it rips off, namely the Korean revenge genre. The film was co-directed by David Leitch, who worked as a stunt man in 81 movies before getting behind the camera, and Chad Stahelski, who started out as a kick-boxer before becoming a stunt man himself and appearing in his own 71 films. So with them, you should not expect Merchant-Ivory, not that I am a big Merchant-Ivory fan. In fact, despite my preference for coming-of-age narrative films made in Turkey or Marxist agitprop documentaries, there’s nothing I love better than mindless action films—provided they are done right.

The script was written by Derek Kolstad, who had only two credits before this—VOD movies starring Dolph Lundgren, the woefully untalented hulk who played Drago, the Russian boxer knocked by Rocky Balboa.

But the real template for “John Wick” is the Korean revenge film that compared to this effort is like putting John Coltrane next to Kenny G. Over the past twenty years or so, Korean film studios have turned out one noirish classic after another, all revolving around a man or woman who has been wronged so grievously that their mission to take revenge has an ineluctable logic that gains momentum like a locomotive engine burning a mixture of kerosene and nitroglycerine.

The best of them can now be seen on Netflix: “I Saw the Devil”. This is the story of a Korean spy whose wife is murdered in the first 5 minutes of the film. Despite his unimposing appearance, he is just as fearsome as John Wick. There are a lot of bad guys who get killed but it is a lot more substantial than the Hollywood cheap imitation. Forgive me for self-plagiarism but this is my review from February 15, 2011.

Two new South Korean movies deepen my conviction that this country is producing some of the finest in the world. Furthermore, one of them, “Poetry”, is directed by Lee Chang-dong who I am now convinced should be grouped with the greatest directors of the past half-century, including Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene and Akira Kurosawa. Given the names of these three directors, it should be obvious where my preferences lie. I have a deep love for films that display an affection and respect for the salt of the earth, especially when they reach the level of fine art.

While not quite ascending to this rarefied level, Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil”, which opens on March 4th at the IFC Center in New York, is a roller coaster ride of a thriller that features two of Korea’s top actors in a cat-and-mouse revenge tale of the kind that Korean audiences dote on. Kim is a master of genre-bending, with a horror movie (A Tale of Two Sisters) and a “Western” (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) that takes place on the Mongolian steppes in the 1930s to his credit.

“I Saw the Devil” is a mixture of Hollywood serial killer movies, particularly those based on the Hannibal Lecter tales, and a genre that is unique to Korea in many ways, the revenge tale that was perfected by Park Chan-wook in his Vengeance Trilogy, of which “Oldboy” is the most popular installment.

Choi Min-sik, who was the tormented victim seeking revenge in “Oldboy”, plays Kyung-chul, the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil”. The husband of the woman he has killed in the opening moments becomes his relentless pursuer seeking revenge. When a search party turns up his wife’s severed head in the marshes not far from Kyung-chul’s home, Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hyun, a star of “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) vows to make the killer suffer just as much as his wife did in Kyung-chul’s torture chamber. Soo-hyun is surely capable of inflicting such punishment since he is an elite special agent of the Korean security forces. It turned out that Kyung-chul picked out the wrong person to kill.

Not only is Soo-hyun determined to track the killer down, he will not be satisfied by taking his life. Instead, after he finds and beats him into unconsciousness, he puts an electronic tracking device down his gullet that will allow him to follow his every step. When the spirit moves him, especially when Kyung-chul is about to take a new victim, Soo-hyun steps in and delivers a new round of beatings to the mystified serial killer. How does that guy keep finding me?

Director Kim Jee-woon proclaims deeper philosophical goals for his latest genre-bender, even quoting Nietzsche in the press notes: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” But—thankfully—the film is much more about action than meditation. From the moment it starts until its macabre conclusion, this is an exciting, often darkly comic, movie that Hollywood is no longer capable of making.

If you are looking for an escapist joy-ride that will send shivers down your spine, then I can’t recommend “I Saw the Devil” highly enough.

October 26, 2014

Fuck Jared Diamond

Filed under: Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

The title of this article is the unexpurgated version of one that appeared in a recent issue of “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”: “F**K Jared Diamond”. I only hope that the author of the article, who is referenced in the same Guardian article as me, is a tenured professor since even the expurgated version of the title certainly risked violating the new “civility” code spreading across academia like a metastasized tumor and might lead to his Salaitazation.

Titled “Jared Diamond: ‘150,000 years ago, humans wouldn’t figure on a list of the five most interesting species on Earth’”, it at least has the merit of confronting the UCLA celebrity professor with some of the criticisms that have been mounted against his work, including mine. The subtitle makes that clear: “The bestselling biogeographer talks to Oliver Burkeman about dealing with the critics who condemn him as a cultural imperialist.”

I and the “F**K Jared Diamond” author are both referenced in the article. First honors goes to David Correia, writing in “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”, the same journal I have had the honor to contribute to a while back:

They condemn him as a cultural imperialist, intent on excusing the horrors of colonialism while asserting the moral superiority of the west. (One 2013 article, in an ecology journal, was entitled “F**k Jared Diamond”, the asterisks failing to conceal the general tone of the debate.) Diamond strikes back with equal force, calling his critics “idiots”, unscientific timewasters and purveyors of “politically correct blabber”.

Later on my own potshot is mentioned:

As one writer put it, after the book [“Guns, Germs, and Steel”] was adapted for the US TV network PBS, his stance means that “a PBS donor can sit in his Connecticut estate feeling no guilt since it was, after all, only an accident of geography that made him rich and the Bolivians poor.”

I am pleased that at least Diamond has been confronted with the charges that many on the left have made, but unfortunately interviewer Oliver Burkeman does not go for the jugular as I am about to do now through my own obiter dictum on the article.

To start with, Burkeman is far too deferential to Diamond’s first book “The Third Chimpanzee” that is a completely idiotic exercise in sociobiology after the fashion of “The Naked Ape”. He alludes to Diamond’s observation that we share 97% of the chimp’s DNA and in Burkeman’s words: “by any commonsense classification, we are another kind of chimpanzee.” I wonder if Burkeman would go along with Diamond’s argument that since chimps have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their genes, art must be a clever stratagem by men to lure women into bed. This led Tom Wilkie to drolly observe in the May 22, 1991 Independent that this lesson must have been lost on Tchaikovsky, Andy Warhol and other homosexual artists.

Burkeman next takes up “Guns, Germs and Steel”, the blockbuster book that put him in the same company as Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukuyama and Henry Kissinger, all a-list guests on the Charlie Rose show. The famous encounter with Yali, a native of Papua New Guinea, is mentioned: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo” – meaning manufactured goods, medicines, clothing – “but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

As I might have expected, Burkeman does not take the trouble to point readers to social scientists who have a different take than Diamond’s, most particularly Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz, the authors of “Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History”. Yali’s question was not so much about material goods as reflected in the awful saying, “Those who die with the most toys win” but about racial oppression. The real meaning of the question, according to the authors, was this: “Yali and many other Papua New Guineans became preoccupied with the reluctance, if not refusal, of many whites to recognize their full humanness–to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history.”

This is of fundamental importance for anybody trying to come to terms with Diamond’s legacy since an important part of it was slandering a Papuan New Guinea native as a mass murderer in the pages of the New Yorker Magazine. The whole story is laid out on Rhonda Shearer’s IMediaethics website. Without taking the trouble to fact-check his own work, let alone the magazine’s failure to follow up, Diamond exploits what was likely some braggadocio from his driver for the purposes of imposing a sociobiological narrative on the tribesmen who supposedly had violence in their genes. As such, Diamond was spinning the same tale that Napoleon Chagnon told about the Yanomami.

In my own analysis of Papuan New Guinea blood feuds and Diamond’s shoddy research, I wrote:

The problem with Diamond’s case is that it rests on bogus history. He deploys Daniel Wemp as an expert witness in describing a savage tribal war that went on for years, when in fact the only fighting that took place in recent years was a rather tame affair described by Mako J. Kuwimb, one of Rhonda Shearer’s PNG consultants and a model of restraint in his debunking of Diamond’s version.

The “war” in question did not take three years and cost 29 lives, as Diamond asserts. It was instead a fight between two youths over a couple of dollars that went missing during a card game that got out of hand after one had his jaw broken. Fighting lasted for three months and only four men died. Daniel Wemp, who Diamond described as a warlord seeking revenge for his tribe, was not involved in this affair at all. Apparently, Diamond wove together some actual incidents and others that were cooked up, all the while exaggerating the severity of the conflict so as to turn the PNG highlands into something on a par with contemporary Congo. Meanwhile, Daniel Wemp and the other participants are described as having almost as much fun killing each other as if it were a sport.

Burkeman next takes up “Collapse”, a book on ecology that has none of the redeeming features of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, at least in the eyes of its leftist admirers who were persuaded by its lame attempt to debunk a cruder form of racism. He at least has to acknowledge what many critics had to say, referring to the NY Times, which has generally been deferential to Diamond. The paper of record summarized his critics’ take: “The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise.” In other words, the same “accidents can happen” explanation of world history found in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

I wrote a series of posts on “Collapse” here that can be read alongside those on the TV series drawn from “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. The book is rotten from beginning to end, especially the section that deals with “progressive” corporations like Chevron—no I am not joking. I quote from my final installment in the series:

Although Shell has the well-earned reputation of being the dirtiest oil company operating in Nigeria, Chevron is no slouch. Notwithstanding Diamond’s assurances that Chevron CEO Kenneth Derr has “been personally concerned about environmental issues” and that Chevron employees receive monthly emails from him about the state of the planet, some ingrates from the more radical wing of the environmental movement threw cream pies in his face back in 1999. They were angry over Chevron’s involvement with human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, where 90 percent of Nigeria’s crude oil is produced.

According to the June 1999 Earth Times:

“Members of the Ijaw tribe, native to the Delta, say they have lost as much as 70 percent of their ancestral lands to Nigeria’s oil operations. Ijaws who protest the environmental degradation of their lands and ask for greater economic returns for their communities have been killed by government troops, their women and children raped and run off, say human rights groups.”

Chevron, it seems, made its helicopters available to Nigerian troops who were summoned to deal with angry protestors. In 1998, after 200 demonstrators took over a Chevron oil platform for three days, the manager called in Nigerian troops, who, Chevron representatives admit, were transported to the platform in the company’s helicopters by company pilots. Two demonstrators were killed. In the second incident, which occurred two months later, four people were killed and 67 left missing when Nigerian forces attacked two small villages, reportedly once again using Chevron helicopters and boats.

Chevron blandly denied any wrongdoing. It said that any equipment, including helicopters, that is leased to its joint venture company in Nigeria is free to be used by its majority partner. That joint venture company just happens to be the blood-soaked Nigerian government.

Perhaps the Ijaws should have picked up and moved to Papua New Guinea where they would have been looked over properly by the good Chevron twin. As it turns out, things were not all they were cracked up to be over there.

I haven’t taken the trouble to read and refute Diamond’s latest book, titled “The World Until Yesterday”, one that shares Steven Pinker and Napoleon Chagnon’s sociobiological beliefs that state-based systems are effective barriers to the wanton violence that prevailed in hunting-and-gathering societies.

Since I am a glutton for punishment and even more so for dishing it out, I probably will get around to reading this stinking pile of horseshit and writing about it. This much I can glean from the reviews. Diamond seeks to portray hunter-gathering practices as more humane in some ways, for example carrying babies around long after what is acceptable in “civilized” society.

But he taketh away with one hand that he giveth with the other, far more so in fact. He regards primitive man as driven by a bloodlust that would have made Hitler blanch. As I referred to above, he found the tales of the Papuan New Guinea blood feuds useful even if they were not true.

I would refer you to Steven Corry’s article in the Daily Beast, a publication that is generally more wrong than right. In this instance it was right. Corry is the Executive Director of Survival International, an indigenous peoples rights group that is on the lookout for genocide mounted in the name of development. He writes:

Diamond claims that tribes are considerably more prone to killing than are societies ruled by state governments. He goes much further. Despite acknowledging, rather sotto voce, that there are no reports of any war at all in some societies, he does not let this cloud his principal emphasis: most tribal peoples live in a state of constant war.

He supports this entirely unverifiable and dangerous nonsense (as have others, such as Steven Pinker) by taking the numbers killed in wars and homicides in industrialized states and calculating the proportions of the total populations involved. He then compares the results with figures produced by anthropologists like Chagnon for tribes like the Yanomami. He thinks that the results prove that a much higher proportion of individuals are killed in tribal conflict than in state wars; ergo tribal peoples are more violent than “we” are.

There are of course lies, damned lies, and statistics. Let us first give Diamond the benefit of several highly debatable, not to say controversial, doubts. I will, for example, pass over the likelihood that at least some of these intertribal “wars” are likely to have been exacerbated, if not caused, by land encroachment or other hostilities from colonist societies. I will also leave aside the fact that Chagnon’s data, from his work with the Yanomami in the 1960s, has been discredited for decades: most anthropologists working with Yanomami simply do not recognize Chagnon’s violent caricature of those he calls the “fierce people.” I will also skate over Kim Hill’s role in denying the genocide of the Aché Indians at the hands of Paraguayan settlers and the Army in the 1960s and early 1970s. (Though there is an interesting pointer to this cited in Diamond’s book: as he says, over half Aché “violent deaths” were at the hands of nontribals.)

I will also throw only a passing glance at the fact that Diamond refers only to those societies where social scientists have collected data on homicides, and ignores the hundreds where this has not been examined, perhaps because—at least in some cases—there was no such data. After all, scientists seeking to study violence and war are unlikely to spend their precious fieldwork dropping in on tribes with little noticeable tradition of killing. In saying this, I stress once again, I am not denying that people kill people—everywhere. The question is, how much?

Awarding Diamond all the above ‘benefits of doubt’, and restricting my remarks to looking just at “our” side of the story: how many are killed in our wars, and how reasonable is it to cite those numbers as a proportion of the total population of the countries involved?

Is it meaningful, for example, to follow Diamond in calculating deaths in the fighting for Okinawa in 1945 as a percentage of the total populations of all combatant nations—he gives the result as 0.10 percent—and then comparing this with eleven tribal Dani deaths during a conflict in 1961. Diamond reckons the latter as 0.14 percent of the Dani population—more than at Okinawa.

Viewed like this, the Dani violence is worse that the bloodiest Pacific battle of WWII. But of course the largest nation involved in Okinawa was the U.S., which saw no fighting on its mainland at all. Would it not be more sensible to look at, say, the percentage of people killed who were actually in the areas where the war was taking place? No one knows, but estimates of the proportion of Okinawa citizens killed in the battle, for example, range from about 10 percent to 33 percent. Taking the upper figure gives a result of nearly 250 times more deaths than the proportion for the Dani violence, and does not even count any of the military killed in the battle.

Similarly, Diamond tells us that the proportion of people killed in Hiroshima in August 1945 was a tiny 0.1 percent of the Japanese people. However, what about the much smaller “tribe” of what we might call “Hiroshimans,” whose death toll was nearly 50 percent from a single bomb? Which numbers are more meaningful; which could be seen as a contrivance to support the conceit that tribespeople are the bigger killers? By supposedly “proving” his thesis in this way, to what degree does Diamond’s characterization differ significantly from labeling tribal peoples as “primitive savages,” or at any rate as more savage than “we” are?

If you think I am exaggerating the problem—after all, Diamond does not say “primitive savage” himself—then consider how professional readers of his book see it: his reviewers from the prestigious Sunday Times (U.K.) and The Wall Street Journal (U.S.) both call tribes “primitive,” and Germany’s popular Stern magazine splashed “Wilde” (“savages”) in large letters across its pages when describing the book.

Seek and you shall find statistics to underscore any conceivable position on this. Diamond is no fool and doubtless knows all this—the problem is in what he chooses to present and emphasize, and what he leaves out or skates over.

I urge you to read Corry’s article in its entirety here.

Making history with Howie Hawkins

Filed under: third parties — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

Must reading on Iran

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 12:57 am

(The author is someone I know very well and respect highly.)

 

Dancing in the Dark?

The Iran-US Tango

by REZA FIYOUZAT

Four steps forward, four steps back,

Right foot forward, left foot back,

Two steps sideways, one step back.

It is a remarkable feat to witness the inexplicable and sudden disappearance of the legions of leftist doom and gloom as regards the Iran-US relations. Indeed some readers may not even remember such legions at all. It is excusable to forget that for some years we were audience to regular warnings of “imminent military attacks” to be unleashed by the US against the Iranian regime. Likewise, you might not remember that some commentators made a lucrative living going around forewarning, “Imminent attacks coming! Imminent attacks coming!” Stirring up hysteria, the legalistically oriented lobbied the US Congress Quixotic style to avoid such eventuality; in leftist publications, the literarily oriented filled columns quoting previous write-ups of warnings as evidence that imminent attacks were forthcoming any time, very soon and inevitably. All the while throwing a thick cover over the internal oppressions committed against, and the rights denied, the Iranian people.

For some time now, however, those commentators have been uncharacteristically silent about imminent attacks. What happened? If the Iranian and the US governments were such enemies and if the US had been planning for years to launch a military attack, what changed then? Or is the situation still the same? Those commentators should not be so quiet. In fact, they owe everybody a detailed explanation of how it came to be that such imminent attacks never took place.

Well, as it has turned out, no such attacks were forthcoming. Everybody can now breathe a sigh of relief and thank whatever deity they are deferential to (personally I’ll be thanking JD while playing James Brown’s Say It Loud).

Some Iranian socialists were however explaining for all those same years that no such attacks would materialize. They were likewise advising to pay more attention to the miseries and injustices meted out daily to the Iranian people not just by imperialist outsiders (be it the US-imposed sanctions for example, or the Russians extracting ransom from a regime under pressure), but by the internal theocracy choking the Iranian people: a theocracy that is in fact the embodiment of imperialism inIran. The point is seldom acknowledged that this regime is actually not disliked by imperialist powers. Ask IMF. Iran gets decent grades from that international institution epitomizing finance capital, the quintessential imperialist institution of record if ever there was one.

Imperialist countries house a long list of definitely eager corporations willing to stand in line to get to do business with this regime: no regime-changes here, they agree, no thank you please! The multinationals and international finance institutions also know best how effectively Iranian state has privatized state assets, and how much more privatizing can still happen; they have observed in detail the cutting of subsidies of all kinds, which actually started with Ahmadinejad’s administration and continues under the current administration of Rouhani; they know, in other words, how willing the regime is in sticking it to the poor. Multinational corporations are as well the biggest promoters of anti-labor laws, which Iranian government is prolific at legislating. In Iran, international companies get the additional bonus of a robust legal system promoting anti-women, puritanically anti-communist, anti-dissent and just plain anti-everything-normal-human-beings-may-enjoy laws. Just for one item, Iranian authorities recently issued an order for imprisonment and lashing for a bunch of kids dancing to a song! You realize how many coups imperialists and their local cohorts have had to organize in some other countries just to get to this level of social repression written into law? So, why would the US militarily destroy such a golden goose?

read full article

October 24, 2014

Red Army; Wild Tales

Filed under: Film,Russia,sports — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

The other day I saw a couple of films at the Sony screening room that were being released through Sony Picture Classics, an autonomous division catering to the “art-house” market. Both were very good.

“Red Army” is a documentary about the legendary Russian hockey team of the pre-Perestroika era that reflected the USSR at its best and worst. It consists mainly of interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, arguably one of the greatest hockey players of the past half-century as well as an extremely witty and insightful interviewee as deft before the camera as he was with a hockey stick.

Director Gabe Polsky was using the fate of Russia hockey as a symbol of Communism’s contradictions and how they were unsuccessfully resolved in the favor of capitalism. Clearly Polsky has learned from Werner Herzog, having served as his producer on the 2009 narrative film “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”. The two men obviously have the same off-kilter view of the world based on this new film for which Werner Herzog returned the favor, serving as co-producer. Like Herzog, Polsky includes some elements that guarantee that the audience will understand that something is being filmed, in his case showing some of his assistants setting up gear and including Fetisov’s admonitions to stop filming since he has to take a phone call. For documentaries, it is the equivalent of breaking through the “fourth wall”.

The film will appeal to people who are still trying to figure out what happened to the Soviet Union and the nature of Putin’s Russia today, as well as hockey fans. In fact the film, which opens on November 14 at the Empire 25 Theater in NY, will have a nationwide rollout in January that will be pitched to sports fans. It has been many years since I watched hockey but followed the NY Rangers in the early 70s when it was led by Rod Gilbert, a speedy forward who turned up as a fellow resident of my high-rise on the Upper East Side.

The film begins with Fetisov reflecting on the state of Soviet Russia when he was a 9-year-old boy trying out for the Russian Army youth team. He tells Polsky that 25 million of his countrymen were killed and that most of the country was destroyed. (Stock footage depicts the horror.) When the country began rebuilding, the new apartment buildings were barely sufficient. It was normal for 3 families to share a 400 square foot apartment. Despite that, Fetisov said that he was happy. There seemed to be enough food to eat, even if you had to stand on line. Of course, once markets were introduced the lines disappeared but hunger became widespread.

Fetisov was a protégé of Anatoli Tarasov, the coach of the Red Army hockey team and the man widely considered the father of Russian hockey. Fetisov joined the team in 1976 at the age of 19, playing defense and learning the skill of passing, something Tarasov saw as fundamental to the game. For Tarasov, hockey as a kind of chess game in which sharing the puck was fundamental.

Indeed, when he was demonstrating to his players how to move forward on the ice, he often illustrated with chess pieces. He was also convinced that ballet exercises could make his players more nimble on the ice, as the film demonstrates from archival footage. By the time that Fetisov began playing on the Red Army team, Tarasov had acquired a huge beer belly. Watching him demonstrating some steps to his team is like watching the hippopotamuses dancing in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.

Despite losing to an inferior American hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, a loss that inspired the chauvinistic chant “USA, USA” that has tainted every game since including table tennis, the Red Army team rolled over every professional hockey team that they faced over the years. Tarasov’s goal-sharing methods were superior to the individualistic style of the West. Although the film is far too subtle and skeptical about socialism for that matter to point out that the collectivist culture might have something to do with that, you can’t help drawing such a conclusion.

After Perestroika, it became possible for Russian hockey players to turn professional in the West. Fetisov and other Red Army superstars took high-paying jobs but were not shown to their best advantage since the teams were all based on the individualist model.

It was only when the Detroit Red Wings recruited Fetisov and a cadre of ex-Red Army players that they were able to cash in, winning the Stanley Cub in 1997 and 1998.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It is a very sharp analysis of the Communist experience by a director who not only studied at Yale but also was on their hockey team. As the son of Russian immigrant parents, he has just the right background for drawing all the human drama out of the Red Army story. His statement in the press notes indicates the outlook that was clear to me but one that he did not want to beat over the audience’s head:

When I was at Yale, I studied politics and history and learned about the unusual role sport played in the Soviet Union. The Red Army team was designed as an instrument of propaganda to prove the superiority of the Soviet system. The country’s investment in the team’s success was massive. The demanding lifestyle and oppressive circumstances under which the players trained were a reflection of broader Soviet society. It became clear to me that the Red Army’s style of play, too, was significantly informed by the country’s ideology. Much like Communism, there was little emphasis on the individual. Those who became heroes earned as much money as teachers. Priority was placed on serving your teammates and your country, and expressing individuality or questioning authority was forbidden.

“Wild Tales” opens on February 8th. It is an Argentine narrative film directed by Damián Szifron that he described in the following terms:

I frequently think of Western capitalist society as a sort of transparent cage that reduces our sensitivity and distorts our bonds with others. Wild Tales presents a group of individuals who live within this cage without being aware of its existence. But at that point where most of us would repress – or get depressed – these people shift into gear.

Although I loved the film, I don’t think it had much to do with “Western capitalist society”. Basically it is a dark comedy about people going to extreme lengths to destroy each other in the fashion of classic Warner Brothers cartoons but without any hero like Bugs Bunny to cheer for. Instead it is like watching Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd trying to blow each other’s brains out with shotguns.

The film consists of six chapters, each one set up as elegantly as an O. Henry short story and an ending that serves as poetic justice for the miscreant characters. In “Road to Hell”, road rage turns into an elemental battle for survival pitting an Audi-driving yuppie against a hulking rural bumpkin who refuses to allow his wreck of car to be passed on a mountainous road. Not long after the yuppie passes him by, making sure to curse him out as he passes, he gets a flat tire next to a bridge over a mountain stream. When the bumpkin catches up to him, all hell breaks loose, including him taking a dump on the Audi’s hood. As the violence escalates, you will not be able to keep your eyes off the action. It is akin to not being able to avert your eyes from a highway accident except one that is far more entertaining.

I will only add that the final chapter, titled “Till Death to Us Part”, is about a Jewish wedding party that will remind you of the great Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner vehicle “War of the Roses” with bride drawing almost all the blood. It is obvious to me that the guests are Jews even though this is not a point made specifically. Since the director (and screenwriter) has a last name that is a dead giveaway for his Jewish origins, this is a conclusion I feel safe drawing.

Both films are worth putting down on your calendar.

Political Minimalism and “The Death of Klinghoffer”

Filed under: Counterpunch,music — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

Night Chorus

When Rambo Met Klinghoffer on Club Med

Political Minimalism and “The Death of Klinghoffer”

by LOUIS PROYECT

Since I could not justify spending hundreds of dollars for tickets to “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, I did the next best thing, which was to take out a CD from the Columbia University library. Something told me that the work was a bit off, so I wanted to reduce my financial liability to a minimum—the price of a subway ride back and forth from my old workplace.

My goal was to come to terms with the opera as an artistic/political statement rather than comment on Zionist attempts to squelch it, as ably reported by Bill Dobbs in CounterPunch.

I first became aware of composer John Adams back in the 1970s when I was always on the lookout for works by minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Since Adams was touted at the time as the new kid on the block, I made sure to pick up a recording of “Shaker Loops” when it came out in 1987, a piece like most of Reich and Glass that was calculated to appeal to the average listener as a kind of ear candy. As the classical music counterpart to Kraftwerk or Brian Eno, minimalism was about as close as you could come to the pleasure of pre-20th century classical music, joined on these terms later on by the neo-romanticism of composers like Henry Górecki.

read full article

October 23, 2014

Gubernatorial Debate: Howie Hawkins won it

Filed under: third parties — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

October 22, 2014

Charles Glass on the “improving” situation in Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

Charles Glasshole

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has an article by Charles Glass titled “In the Syria We Don’t Know” that has been making the rounds on the Internet. I have seen links to it from Vijay Prashad on Twitter, on the Greenleft mailing list in Australia, and just this morning on ZNet. Apparently, those who link to it must have taken heart in Glass’s assurance that the Baathists were getting the upper hand:

As Bashar’s prospects improve with each American sortie against his enemies in the east of the country, Damascus and the populous towns to the north have been enjoying a respite of sorts from war. The Syrian Ministry of Education reported that, of the 22,000 schools in the country, more than 17,000 of them reopened on time in the middle of September. Needless to say, almost all of the functioning schools are in government-held areas. The souks in the old city of Damascus, unlike their more extensive and now destroyed counterparts in Aleppo, are open. Shops selling meat, vegetables, spices, and other basic items to the local population are doing well, although the tourist boutiques in and around the famous Souk Hamadieh have no customers apart from UN workers and a few remaining diplomats. At night, restaurants in most neighborhoods are, if not full, nearly so. Everything from wine to grilled chicken is plentiful, albeit at prices higher than before the war. Traffic remains heavy, although somewhat less obstructed since June when the government felt confident enough to remove many of its checkpoints. Electricity is intermittent, and those who can afford private generators use them in the off-hours.

So, any normal person—especially those who prefer RT.com to Aljazeera—would conclude that it was best for Assad to stay the course, no matter how many barrel bombs it takes to level Aleppo and other cities to the ground just as long as there is meat, vegetables, and spices for sale in Damascus.

I took note of Glass in an article titled “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria” that was rejected by the publishers of Critical Muslim because they feared it would run afoul of British libel laws. I post the relevant section below:

Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.

Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. In a December 5th 2013 article titled “Syria: On the Way to Genocide?”, Charles Glass ends up echoing the talking points of more openly Ba‘athist elements:

The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side.

As is so often the case, the use of the passive voice allows the writer to condemn the rebels without any evidence. “Alleged to have been” leads to the obvious question as to who is responsible for the allegation. Was it Vladimir Putin? Assad’s propaganda nun Mother Agnes Mariam? Inquiring minds would like to know.

On August 20th 2012 Glass penned another article for the Review titled “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed” that portrayed the rebels as a wanton mob invading the civilized city. He wrote:

While the urban unemployed had good reason to support a revolution that might improve their chances in life, the thousands who had jobs at the beginning of the revolution and lost them when the Free Army burned their workplaces are understandably resentful. There are stories of workers taking up arms to protect their factories and risking their lives to save their employers from kidnappers.

Since Charles Glass is a Middle East analyst for NBC News, it is not surprising that he can allude to ‘stories’ of workers taking up arms against the rebels to protect the bosses. NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric, and naturally its analyst will find arguments for preserving Ba‘athist rule. You can do business with al-Assad, but the plebian rebels might be as difficult to deal with as the Libyan militias.

Glass was in the graduate program of the American University in Beirut, but did not complete his PhD. His best-known work is “Tribes With Flags: A Dangerous Passage Through the Chaos of the Middle East”, a title redolent of Orientalism. In a March 22nd 2011 NY Times column, Thomas Friedman adopted Glass’s thesis to explain why the natives might not be ready for self-rule:

[T]here are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.

Libya and Syria were unfortunate enough to be the kinds of ‘artificial states’ that were unsuited for democracy.

 

 

October 21, 2014

Kill the Messenger

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,journalism,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

Given its Hollywood provenance, I expected very little from “Kill the Messenger”, a film starring Jeremy Renner as reporter Gary Webb, who after exposing the CIA’s role in facilitating Nicaraguan contra planeloads of cocaine into the USA was martyred by forces more powerful than the modest San Jose newspaper where he worked, particularly the CIA and the Washington Post, a “newspaper of record” that had a long history of covering up for the CIA no matter the reputation it earned through the Woodward-Bernstein reporting on Watergate.

Given Renner’s role as an action hero in Katherine Bigelow’s awful “The Hurt Locker” and more recently as a successor to Matt Damon in “The Bourne Legacy”, I fully expected “Kill the Messenger” to figuratively inject steroids into Gary Webb and turn him into a combination of an investigative reporter and superspy. To the contrary, the film is restrained in its presentation of Webb and the forces aligned against him. The real drama is not of the conventional car chase variety but those that take place in the conference room of the San Jose Mercury News as Webb fights to defend his integrity from hostile forces outside the paper and a management all too willing to bend under the pressure.

The film was of particular interest to me since I had spent three years on the board of Tecnica, a volunteer technical aid project for Sandinista Nicaragua, until it succumbed to the same enemies that conspired against Webb: a reactionary presidency abetted by a Democratic Party that shared its ultimate goal—to crush a revolution—while differing only on the rhetoric put forward to achieve that goal. In the late 1980s the Washington Post was all too willing to stump for the contras despite its liberal reputation as Noam Chomsky reported in “Necessary Illusions”:

In April 1986, as the campaign to provide military aid to the contras was heating up, one of the [La Prensa] owners, Jaime Chamorro, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post calling for aid to “those Nicaraguans who are fighting for democracy” (the standard reference to the U.S. proxy forces). In the weeks preceding the summer congressional votes, “a host of articles by five different La Prensa staff members denounced the Sandinistas in major newspapers throughout the United States,” John Spicer Nichols observes, including a series of Op-Eds signed by La Prensa editors in the Washington Post as they traveled to the United States under the auspices of front organizations of the North contra-funding network.

In fact the reputation of Bob Woodward was inflated to begin with, as I pointed out in a Swans article in 2005:

In 1987, Woodward wrote Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, a book that had all the trappings of investigative journalism — especially the title. It was based on the career of William Casey, the CIA director who was a key figure in Reagan’s illegal wars. Although the book was filled with all sorts of lurid revelations (Casey thought Reagan was lazy, the King of Saudi Arabia was a drunk, etc.), it really didn’t get to the heart of why these wars took place and, more importantly, how to stop them.

The book generated some controversy that must have been a painful reminder of the Janet Cooke fiasco. An interview with the dying William Casey, who supposedly “confessed” all his contra-arms dealings to Woodward, was filled with so many inconsistencies and vagueness that the book was widely discredited. In addition, Woodward was accused of withholding important information just as he has done more recently. In Congressional hearings, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified that Casey was in on the diversion of funds from the beginning. If Woodward had Casey’s confession months before North testified, it would have been a major scoop for the Post had he come forward as well as a powerful blow against the illegal conspiracies being hatched during the Reagan presidency. But he held back in order to coincide with the publication date of his book.

Turning to the film itself, it benefited—as all good films do—from a strong screenplay written by Peter Landesman based on Webb’s 1999 “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion”. Landesman was an investigative journalist before he became a screenwriter, including time spent in places like Pakistan and covering matters such the illegal arms trade and sex traffickers. So he knows the territory and brings a verisimilitude to the story that might have been absent if developed by an industry hack straight out of film school. Landesman’s co-writer Nick Schou also has a lot of credibility as the author of “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Epidemic Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb”, a Nation Magazine book. Schou is the managing editor of Orange County Weekly, a sister publication of the Village Voice that has somehow retained some of the integrity that was present in this alternative weekly’s roots. So, all in all, the creative team behind “Kill the Messenger” are our kinds of people.

The film begins with Webb reporting on the abuse of drug dealer property seizure by California cops, something I am intimately familiar with since my cousin Joel lost the home in upstate New York that he built with his own hands after a police raid on his property uncovered about a hundred marijuana plants he’d grown for his personal use.

On the strength of his reporting, Webb is approached by the girlfriend of a Nicaraguan émigré drug-dealer who wants his help in exposing courtroom irregularities, including the role of his accuser, a big-time dealer who is a DEA informant notwithstanding the millions of dollars he made and continues to make in the drug trade.

With a grand jury transcript that accidentally came into her hands, Webb begins a search in Los Angeles and then proceeds to Nicaragua to uncover the conspiracy that allowed planeloads of cocaine to be exported to the USA in order to raise funds for the contra killing machine.

His articles on the “Dark Alliance” make him a celebrity overnight, earning him appearances on “Nightline” and profiles in major newspapers everywhere. His reporting also sends shockwaves through the Black community suffering from an epidemic of crack cocaine. Meetings are held in South Central LA and elsewhere demanding a satisfactory explanation from the CIA. Six months after the CIA director John Deutsch speaks to an angry audience at one of these meetings, Bill Clinton fires him.

This is the real drama of “Kill the Messenger”, recreating these events without the slightest degree of exaggeration. It is a film that you can recommend to friends and relatives for Chomskyian type insights while they are being entertained. I use the word entertained in the most conventional sense since this is a brilliantly acted, directed and plotted story. The direction is of some significance since Michael Cuesta most important work prior to the film was the HBO series Showtime that is a nasty piece of Islamophobia from what I have heard.

The third act of the film consists of a counterattack by the CIA and the Washington Post that ultimately destroys Webb’s reputation, his career and his life.

Throughout the entire film, Jeremy Renner turns in a bravura performance as a fairly conventional man put into utterly unconventional circumstances. Right now he is my pick for best actor, to go along with my pick of “Kill the Messenger” for best film of 2014.

In 1999, the same year that Webb’s “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion” came out, Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn published “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press”, a book about Gary Webb’s crusade to tell the truth.

When Webb killed himself in 2004 after finally being worn down by the smears and the loss of income, Jeff and Alex wrote a memorial that read in part:

Trashed by the CIA’s Claque

Gary Webb: a Great Reporter

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN And JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, DECEMBER 13, 2004

News came over the weekend that Gary Webb had died Friday from a gunshot wound to the head in his home in Sacramento, California. It appears to have been self inflicted. The news saddens us, and rekindles our anger at the fouls libels he endured at the hands of his colleagues.

Webb was a great reporter whose best-known work exposed the CIA’S complicity in the import of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, during the US onslaught on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. His devastating series Dark Alliance, published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, provoked a series of wild attacks in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, purporting to demolish Webb and exonerate the Agency.

The attacks were without merit, but the San Jose Mercury News buckled under the pressure and undercut its own reporter with a groveling and entirely unmerited retraction by its publisher. It was a very dark day in the history of American journalism. We described the entire saga in detail in our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press which sets the story in the larger context of the Agency’s complicity in drug smuggling since its founding.

Their article also reprises something that Webb wrote for CounterPunch in 2001. If there’s anything that makes me prouder than contributing to the same magazine that Gary Webb wrote for, I can’t think of it.

March 21, 2001 Silencing the Messenger Censoring NarcoNews by Gary Webb CounterPunch

Not long after I wrote a series for the San Jose Mercury News about a drug ring that had flooded South Central Los Angeles with cheap cocaine at the beginning of the crack explosion there, a strange thing happened to me. I was silenced.

This, believe it or not, came as something of a surprise to me. For 17 years I had been writing newspaper stories about grafters, crooked bankers, corrupt politicians and killers — and winning armloads of journalism awards for it. Some of my stories had convened grand juries and sent important people to well-deserved jail cells. Others ended up on 20/20, and later became a best-selling book (not written by me, unfortunately.) I started doing television news shows, speaking to college journalism classes and professional seminars. I had major papers bidding against each other to hire me.

So when I happened across information implicating an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency in the cocaine trade, I had no qualms about jumping onto it with both feet. What did I have to worry about? I was a newspaperman for a big city, take-no-prisoners newspaper. I had the First Amendment, a law firm, and a multi-million dollar corporation watching my back.

Besides, this story was a fucking outrage. Right-wing Latin American drug dealers were helping finance a CIA-run covert war in Nicaragua by selling tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods in LA, who were turning it into crack and spreading it through black neighborhoods nationwide. And all the available evidence pointed to the sickening conclusion that elements of the US government had known of it and had either tacitly encouraged it or, at a minimum, done absolutely nothing to stop it.

And that’s when this strange thing happened. The national news media, instead of using its brute strength to force the truth from our government, decided that its time would be better spent investigating me and my reporting. They kicked me around pretty good, I have to admit. (At one point, I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about. The DEA raided my film agent’s office looking for any scrap of paper to back up this lie and appeared disappointed when they came up emptyhanded.)

To this day, no one has ever been able to show me a single error of fact in anything I’ve written about this drug ring, which includes a 600-page book about the whole tragic mess. Indeed, most of what has come out since shows that my newspaper stories grossly underestimated the extent of our government’s knowledge, an error to which I readily confess. But, in the end, the facts didn’t really matter. What mattered was making the damned thing go away, shutting people up, and making anyone who demanded the truth appear to be a wacky conspiracy theorist. And it worked.

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