Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 21, 2014

Hanukkah — bah, humbug

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

An innocent toy connected to a not so innocent holiday

In the same way I used to organize sales for the Socialist Workers Party in Houston in the 1970s, directing people to various grocery stores or college campuses with bundles of the Militant, the Chabad sends its young missionaries to what they regard as fruitful opportunities for converting lost souls. But this Hasidic outreach group is not interested in saving Christians or Muslims. It is people like me, secular Jews, that they are trying to reach, based on their presence in front of my building during Jewish holidays throughout the year.

Yesterday as I was on the sidewalk in front of my high-rise, one of these young men, clad in a dark suit and wearing a wide-brimmed fedora made by Borsalino, approached me to ask if I’d like to have a donut in honor of Hanukkah. (My building is ecumenical with a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah in the lobby in an obvious bid to make the Jewish residents more amenable to chipping in for the staff’s holiday bonus.)

No thanks, I said.

As I was making my way up to my apartment, I wondered what the deal was with the donut. I don’t remember anything like that from my relatively observant household in the 1950s. We lit candles on the menorah, even though I had only the vaguest idea of what that was about—it had something to do with a synagogue lantern miraculously staying lit for 8 days after the oil had been exhausted, while the Maccabees were fighting the infidels but that’s about all I knew.

Out of curiosity, I took a quick look at the ever-so-useful Wikipedia to see what connection there was between donuts and the holiday and discovered: “Fried foods (such as latkes potato pancakes, jelly doughnuts sufganiyot and Sephardic Bimuelos) are eaten to commemorate the importance of oil during the celebration of Hanukkah.”

As I was perusing the article, I began to wonder what role Hanukkah played in the Jewish religion. For young people in observant households, it was our Christmas but a rather unproductive one. The Christian kids had a gaily-decorated tree and gifts galore while we had nothing but a stupid candelabra and a cheap little trinket called a dreidel that you spun like a top, towards what end I had no idea. Once again, Wiki delivered the goods:

Tradition has it that the reason the dreidel game is played is to commemorate a game devised by the Jews to camouflage the fact that they were studying Torah, which was outlawed by the Seleucids. The Jews would gather in caves to study, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Seleucid soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops, so the Seleucids thought they were gambling, not learning.

I had no idea that gambling was involved. I feel like Captain Reynault in “Casablanca”.

But of the most interest was the battlefield victory it was meant to celebrate. I had a feeling that in the 16 years of Marxmail, there must have been something that dealt with the legacy of the holiday that was in its way just as bloodthirsty as Passover that celebrated the death of innocent Egyptian children. I was not disappointed. I crossposted this article nearly 3 years ago to the date:

http://thebusysignal.com/2010/12/01/rethinking-hanukkah-the-dark-history-of-the-festival-of-lights/

Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights

2010 December 1

by J.A. Myerson

OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?

And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?

Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.

A decade earlier, Antiochus IV Epiphanes had assumed rule of the Seleucid Empire, which stretched farther east than Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire, from modern day Saudi Arabia all the way to what are now Turkmenistan and Pakistan. Antiochus appointed Jason—probably in reward for a bribe—to the governorship of Judea, then a client state of the Seleucids, and, in 167 BCE, Jason did away with Jewish law and rebuilt Jerusalem in a Greek model. This included banning genital mutilation and Jewish sacrifice, permitting Jews to marry gentiles and instituting an internationalist program exemplified by participation in the Olympic Games.

To be sure, Seleucid Judea, being an imperial protectorate, was hardly the democratic polis par excellence; widespread corruption and capricious political leadership combined with a measure of jealous authoritarianism hardly constitute the virtuous city. Nevertheless, a secular, multicultural state is subject to civic reform in a way that dictatorial theocracy is not, and the latter is precisely what the Maccabees sought to establish. (The Maccabees are routinely called a “rebel army,” but really this is a romantic and obfuscatory term; “terrorist militants” is a well chosen substitute, and the one we use for their contemporary analogues).

Judah Maccabee, whose father Matthias had had to flee Judea after killing a Hellenistic Jew for worshiping before an idol, served as the chief of that fundamentalist army, his brothers Jonathan and Simon occupying the upper lieutenancy. Their holy war featured the demolition of pagan altars in the villages, the ritual cleansing of the temple and compelling the circumcision of children. Their terror campaign worked and, in 165 BCE, after just two years of secular law, the Maccabees overtook Judea, establishing the political reign of the Hasmonean dynasty.

Not content with the victory, Judah continued the war—when was the last time holy war ended with the conquest of but one land?—and expanded the boundaries of Israel, setting a nationalist-expansionist precedence whose reverberations we (leave alone the Palestinians) continue to feel. Between Judah’s regime and the subsequent administrations of his brothers, the fanatical Maccabee Israeli army conquered the port of Joppa and the fortress of Gezer and razed the Acra in Jerusalem. Hasmonean rule lasted until 64 BCE, when the Romans moved in and Herod the Great became King of Israel—for more on that, see the gospels of the New Testament.

*   *   *

Judaism, as much as any other world religion, can boast an extraordinary history of secular thought. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Hitchens, Tony Kushner—who can think of better Jews than these or imagine, without anguish, a world devoid of their contributions? My own family’s ancestry is Jewish and we are ourselves devoted to secularism and the pursuit of a Judaism in the image of those named above.

Nevertheless, growing up, we lit the candles and sang the Hebrew prayer my mother could remember from her childhood (but—how Jewish—cannot translate to English). My father, for his part, is fond of proving that he can sing “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” in Yiddish—his father escaped an Orthodox home at age 13, never to return—not that the rest of us are in any position to verify his rendition’s accuracy. Latkes (with sour cream and apple sauce, naturally), gelt (lousy chocolate, sure, but it’s shaped like money!) and dreidels came out once a year, in order, I’m sure I always knew, to make Jews feel better about not having Christmas, which is a big deal to the goyim (so big that the Myersons celebrate it too, and more enthusiastically than the Jewish consolation prize, to boot).

What a piercing irony, that secular Jews have taken to comforting ourselves in the yuletide season by celebrating the destruction of the Hellenistic Jewry, whose legacy we inherit, at the hands of fundamentalist fanatics who wouldn’t even consider us Jewish. With each lunatic attempt to expel Palestinians from their homes to make room for Orthodox settlers from Brooklyn, with each story of a Hasidic woman confined to a medieval lifestyle of bondage and repression born of superstition and uncritical faith, with each exposure of depravity and fraudulence in the communities who make the most exuberant claims to piety, it becomes clearer: the time has come for us to proclaim loudly that we have a better tradition. Let us celebrate the Hellenistic Jews and their struggle, rather than the violent extremists and their victory.

The prayer Jews are expected to say on the first night of Hanukkah (the only one my mother knew to teach us) translates thus: “Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.” Need anyone mention that the greatest Jewish tradition is not one of following any commandments whatever, but rather of investigating, examining, discovering? The secular Jewish tradition holds that it is through those processes that one learns truth, not through the revelation of commandment. Cast off that prayer.

The klezmer ditty, though, can stay. “One for each night, they shed us with light to remind us of days long ago.” Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves of what really happened in days long ago, and commit ourselves to reversing it.

*   *   *

The author is obliged to mention Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews along with the biblical apocrypha contained in the first and second book of the Maccabees, which provide the history presented here. For additional reading, please see relevant works by Christopher Hitchens and James Ponet, both in Slate.

[Hitchens and Ponet are both worth reading as well.]

 

December 20, 2014

Obama’s hackers

Filed under: computers,cops/agent provocateurs,corruption,crime,Obama — louisproyect @ 9:29 pm

kim_obama

No matter how many years I have been monitoring crimes high and low in what co-authors Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein called “Washington Babylon”, there are those times that I can only do a double-take over something I read in the NY Times. Today was one of those days as I read an article titled innocently enough “Panel to Advise Against Penalty for C.I.A.’s Computer Search”. If you tried to guess what the article was about from the heading, you’d wonder why anybody would be penalized for a “computer search”. After all, I use Google 25 times a day and nobody ever had the need to penalize me, even IT management at Columbia University that probably figured out that if I was on Google, it was to find out who starred in Godard’s “Contempt” rather than how to do a recursive grep in Unix.

But the heading should have been “Panel to Advise Against Penalty for C.I.A.’s Computer Hack” since that is what actually happened:

A panel investigating the Central Intelligence Agency’s search of a computer network used by staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who were looking into the C.I.A.’s use of torture will recommend against punishing anyone involved in the episode, according to current and former government officials.

The panel will make that recommendation after the five C.I.A. officials who were singled out by the agency’s inspector general this year for improperly ordering and carrying out the computer searches staunchly defended their actions, saying that they were lawful and in some cases done at the behest of John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director.

If it was done at “the behest” of the CIA director and behind the backs of the Senate investigators, but seen as not worthy of punishment, there must have been mitigating circumstances that would have allowed that panel to act as it did. Like the possibility that Diane Feinstein was a secret al-Qaeda operative and it was necessary to check up on her. I mean, after all Obama is a Marxist, right? That’s what Glenn Beck says and who would gainsay him?

As it turns out, the panel is like one of those police department internal investigations that are conducted after some Black youth gets shot 37 times. Who would expect the cops to find themselves guilty? That’s basically what happened here. As the NY Times reports, the members were “appointed by Mr. Brennan and composed of three C.I.A. officers and two members from outside the agency.”

The CIA broke the law just as cops do when they shoot an unarmed Black youth. The Times article referred to “improperly” hacking the Senate computers. That is not quite the term that describes what took place. “Illegally” is more like it. When Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence committee, asked Brennan whether the CIA was subject to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – an anti-hacking law, Brennan said that he’d have to get back to him.

Those two members from outside the agency might as well have been career CIA officers for what it’s worth. One of them was panel chairman Evan Bayh and the other was Robert F. Bauer, Obama’s legal counsel during his first term.

Evan Bayh was the Senator from Indiana between 1999 and 2011 and served as the Chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council from 2001 to 2005. The DLC embodies the sort of politics that the Clintons made infamous. Some people voted for Obama in 2008 under the assumption that being opposed by Hillary Clinton meant that he was not cut from the same DLC cloth. As it turned out, Obama was exactly like Bill Clinton, a loyal servant of Wall Street and a firm believer in the right of the US to rule the world. In 2002, Bayh stood at George W. Bush’s side in a ceremony announcing their joint support for an invasion of Iraq.

Since Barack Obama is strictly opposed to punishing John Brennan or any of his flunkies, you can expect his former lawyer to understand what his job is. After Robert F. Bauer stopped functioning as the White House shyster, Obama sent him off with the following encomium: “Bob was a critical member of the White House team, He has exceptional judgment, wisdom and intellect, and he will continue to be one of my close advisers.” With a White House that has clamped down on the press more than any administration in modern history and that has made secrecy its standard operating procedure, who would expect Bauer to do anything else except get the CIA off the hook?

Bauer wrote for the Huffington Post briefly. You can get a flavor of his worldview from a couple of articles. In one he makes “the progressive case” for pardoning Scooter Libby, the Bush aide who went to prison for perjured testimony in the Valerie Plame investigation. And here I am, stupid me, always thinking that progressive meant something like public works programs or single-payer health insurance. Golly, you really learn so much from the Huffington Post.

Bauer’s other article worth noting was a tribute to Richard Rorty on his passing. It demonstrates an understanding of the culture wars that I wouldn’t have expected from a shady lawyer in the corridors of power. He urged that the heirs of the New Left, the professors at places like Columbia University teaching cultural studies and standing up for diversity, would find common cause with the New Deal left that preceded it.

In making his case, Bauer referred to Rorty’s essay “The Last Intellectual In Europe — Orwell on Cruelty”. On the very first page of the essay, Rorty quotes Orwell’s opposition to practices that had become widespread in the 20th century. He referred to them in “1984”, those that “had long been abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years – imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations – not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.”

Such is the Orwellian state that we have finally arrived at that Robert F. Bauer can write such an article for Huffington Post honoring a man who opposed “torture to extract confessions” while at the same time covering up for a CIA that was guilty of such crimes.

 

December 19, 2014

A response to Owen Jones and James Bloodworth on Cuba

Filed under: anti-Communism,cuba,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Owen Jones

James Bloodworth

Vexingly but not unexpectedly, Owen Jones and James Bloodworth used their Guardian and Independent columns as bully pulpits against the Cuban government. Despite their impeccable left-liberal credentials, their commentary left a bad taste in my mouth not unlike the one I experienced when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews weighed in: “I just don`t think they are going to change their stripes. I think they’re commies. I think they’re communists.” Commies. Nice.

I have more respect for Jones, who was on Marxmail briefly when he was 16 years old or so, a most precocious lad. Back then he repeated the talking points heard across the British left: “If the working class wield no political power, then who does? A privileged layer of officials, i.e. bureaucrats. It is they who legislate and enforce law, not the working class.” Nothing has changed in the 14 years when he wrote this except maybe a softening on bureaucracy, something understandable given his loyalty to the British Labour Party—a far cry from the heaven-storming sensibility of his adolescence.

Yesterday Owen Jones weighed in at the Guardian on the Cuban “dictatorship” that he hoped would disappear with the blockade. Like a comparison test for detergents, Brand X—Cuba—fails miserably next to those “progressive governments that promote social justice as well as democracy.” He adds: “They have lifted 56 million people out of poverty this millennium, and have done so without imposing a dictatorship.” (The 56 million figure was arrived at by the United Nations Development Programme and formed the basis of a BBC article Jones linked to.)

Apparently Peru was one of the countries Jones held up against Cuba since its poverty rate was reduced by 26.3 percent and had lots of freedom—hurrah, hurrah.

But I would urge some caution on taking the United Nations Development Programme report at face value, the source of the BBC article’s poverty reduction claims. If, as is likely, Peru’s National Statistics and Information Institute (INEI) is feeding data to the UN, the numbers are not to be trusted.

The INEI recently announced a sizeable 5.2 reduction in poverty in 2007. However, many have questioned the validity of these numbers, including Farid Matuk, an ex-president of INEI, who guesses that such numbers might be forged. They suggest a poverty reduction rate of 0.6 percent per each point of GDP growth, which is three times higher than the average of previous years. At this rate, Peru would eliminate poverty completely in about 10 years, which strains credulity.

I suppose that if having parliamentary democracy is ipso facto a sign that a nation is freer, then Peru—Brand A—is superior to Brand X. But if you are an Indian, Peru does not seem all that free. Between 2006 and 2011 after protests were mounted against mining on indigenous lands, the government declared martial law and gave the green light to the military to kill 200 activists.

For an incisive report on the reality behind Peruvian president Ollanta Humala’s faux populism, I recommend Deborah Poole and Gerardo Rénique’s NACLA report from May 2012:

Within weeks of Humala’s inauguration, major mobilizations were staged in the departments of Ancash, Apurímac, and Cajamarca—which are characterized by extreme poverty, long traditions of subaltern politics, and some of Peru’s largest mining projects. The protesters’ demands included an end to all mining in headwaters, a ban on the use of cyanide and mercury, a national ecological zoning code elaborated with citizen participation, and implementation of the national Law of Consultation. Led by Valdés, at the time minister of the interior, the Humala government moved quickly to repress the popular mobilizations. In November, during a strike in Apurímac, Valdés’s heavy-handed approach clashed with the more conciliatory politics of then prime minister Lerner and other left-wing cabinet members who favored negotiation and reform. It also, however, drove home the widening political and cultural divide pitting Humala’s right-wing functionaries against the popular organizations that had helped to bring his government to power.

I guess that if Humala came to power through multiparty elections, he had the right to “repress the popular mobilizations”. That’s how democracy works, right? In Brazil as well, right? Another Brand-A success story.

Let me repeat. Except for this sort of article and his membership in the Labour Party, I really respect Owen Jones especially when he backed out of a Stop the War Coalition’s meeting on Syria that was featuring Assad apologist Mother Agnes. James Bloodworth, on the other hand, is a sniveling little rat.

Bloodworth’s column opens with the obligatory “god that failed” confession that is so necessary for those pursuing a career as a lapdog for the ruling class:

One small claim to fame of mine is that I was present during Fidel Castro’s final public speech as Cuban President back in 2006. Stood at a lectern about 50 yards from me, El Maximo Lider harangued the relatively small crowd for over two hours, littering his speech with the usual denunciations of ‘Yankee imperialism’, ‘capitalist monopolies’ and – I particularly enjoyed this part – ‘Bush and Blair’.

For a young revolutionary tourist like myself the spectacle of the bearded ideologue in full flow was subversively exciting: I hated all of those things too, or at least I thought I did. Like so many who pretend to despise the boring machinations of liberal democracy I was passionately rooting for the romanticism of Che Guevara over the banal compromises of the capitalist system. And so beards, green fatigues and tropical exuberance were in and Starbucks and McDonalds were most definitely out.

Did you catch the business about getting over denunciations of ‘Bush and Blair’? Oh no, we can’t have such dogmatic notions cropping up in the writings of a 31-year old journalist angling to be the next Christopher Hitchens. How so yesterday, railing against Bush and Blair. Why the next thing you know, people will be playing Billy Bragg CD’s. So embarrassing.

But our latter-day Arthur Koestler came to see the light:

But in reality the ‘plucky Caribbean island’ was no tropical Shoreditch and what I witnessed was the stage-set Cuba rather than the grim and Spartan reality. I was a Useful Idiot, in other words; a person who would valorise the 95 per cent literacy rate on the island without telling you that it was the Cuban Government which decided what a person was allowed to read. Like many a pampered comrade, I rallied against the ‘superficiality’ of McDonald’s and Burger King while forgetting that plastic food is incomparably better than no food at all.

What is there to say in reply to a claim that fast food is better than “no food at all”. This is the sort of shit-flinging rhetoric you get on the Sean Hannity show and hardly worth bothering to answer.

Now it is true that Cuban media is state-owned. Presumably it would be better for Cuba to have the sort of free press we have in the USA where those with the money have the freedom to own one, to paraphrase AJ Liebling.

But it is not enough to be able to buy and sell a newspaper or television station. Bloodworth raises the bar even higher. If you buy a newspaper or TV station and then use it to editorialize on behalf of a government that was voted into power but that does not live up to your lily-white liberal standards, then watch out.

On February 19, 2014 Bloodworth repeated his god that failed shtick, this time about Venezuela:

There was a time when the so-called Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela appeared to hold great promise. I remember watching The Revolution Will Not Be Televised back in 2003 and being mesmerised by what I saw: here was a government spending the country’s oil wealth on social programmes for the poor and giving the rich a kicking in one of the most unequal societies in the Western Hemisphere.

But unlike 2003, Venezuelan television no longer plots against the government, a function of private enterprise apparently:  “In 2013 the last remaining independent television station in Venezuela was sold to an ally of the president.” Maybe there’s something I’m missing but isn’t that the way bourgeois democracy operates? Last week the New Republic editors and writers that Martin Peretz had hired resigned because they objected to the new owner’s intentions to make the magazine more like the Huffingto Post or the Daily Beast. And that’s not much different from when Peretz bought the magazine in 1974. He fired the liberal editor and a bunch of people then resigned.

That’s how capitalism operates as far as I know. Newspapers are profit-making enterprises. You buy one and then you have the right to order people to write things that reflect your POV. That’s how the Independent operates, doesn’t it? If Rupert Murdoch bought it tomorrow, heads like Patrick Cockburn would roll. I do suspect that James Bloodworth would still have a job. Murdoch would smile ever so benignly on such a bright young anti-Communist thing.

 

My film picks for 2014

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 11:44 am
From “Winter Sleep” to “Particle Fever”

The Year in Film

by LOUIS PROYECT

I deliberately refrained from attaching the word “best” to the films listed below out of consideration that my personal taste weighed heavily. While I would have no problem defending the picks based on artistic merit, there is a subjective factor that is probably no more arbitrary than that reflected in any other critic’s “best of” list even if they are reluctant to admit that personal taste tilted the scale. I can only say that if you have seen and valued films based on my recommendations, then you should look for those listed below in local theaters or on the Internet.

As a rule of thumb, I probably pay less attention to the visual aspects of a narrative film than I do to more conventional dramatic elements such as character development and plot. This meant that I had little use for a film like “Mr. Turner”, a work that made it to many ‘best of 2014’ lists on the basis of breathtaking images of the British landscape evoking the work of the boring and repulsive artist whose life it was celebrating. I could only wonder why Mike Leigh would want to make a film about such a man when you are better off going to the museum and looking at his paintings. My benchmark for such films was “Lust for Life”, the biopic about Vincent Van Gogh that was co-written by Irving Stone, from whose novel the script was adapted, and Norman Corwin. As you may know, Norman Corwin wrote and produced 100 radio plays in the 1930s and 40s, the medium’s golden age. The only images evoked in those classic plays were those that Corwin’s words produced in your mind’s eye.

Read full article

December 17, 2014

The Lenin Museum

Filed under: art,Gay,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Screen shot 2014-12-17 at 1.46.23 PM

 Representing a men’s room stall at the Lenin Museum, where gay men cruised

It would be hard to imagine any art show more topical than “The Lenin Museum” that opened at the James Gallery in the CUNY Graduate Center on 365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street) in New York on November 14th and runs through January 17th. As a statement on the troubled relationship between gay people and the state in Russia, it is not to be missed. The show is the latest in a series by conceptual artist extraordinaire Yevgeniy Fiks, a Russian émigré whose work I have been following with keen interest for the past two years.

In conceptual art, the ideas take precedence over traditional aesthetic and commercial considerations. Since much of it is one-time installation, it is hardly the sort of thing that you can take home and mount over a mantelpiece. While many of its adherents have taken it up as a challenge to the tyranny of the gallery, someone like Damien Hirst creates conceptual art that caters to the decadent-minded hedge fund speculator with a taste for the transgressive.

Fiks has created his own niche, one that is dedicated to the examination of the Soviet legacy. As someone left-of-center, he is intrigued by the experience of official Communism, both in the USSR and in the USA, the home of this 42-year old artist for the past twenty years.

Fiks is a mischievous sort who in some ways hearkens back to the glory days of Dadaism, when every work of art conveyed a bit of the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. that depicted the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Nothing expresses that more than his “Lenin for your Library?”, a project that involved sending copies of Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism“ to 100 major transnational corporations including the Gap, Inc., Coca-Cola, General Electric, and IBM as donations to their corporate library. He received 35 response letters with 14 companies accepting the donation.

Fiks’s latest show is more somber. It deals with one of the most troubled legacies of the former Soviet Union that persists until this day, namely homophobia. In 1917 the young Soviet state decriminalized homosexuality. At the time the socialist movement was finally tackling this medieval prejudice, especially in the Weimar Republic where Magnus Hirschfield organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform in 1921. In a key article on socialism and homosexuality, Thomas Harrison wrote about the possibilities that were opening up at the time:

In 1923, the Commissar of Health, N.A. Semashko, on a visit to Hirschfeld’s Institute, assured the Germans that Soviet legalization was “a deliberately emancipatory measure, part of the sexual revolution.” Two years later, the Director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene Grigorii Batkis, in a pamphlet, The Sexual Revolution in Russia, described Soviet policy as “the absolute non-interference of the state and society in sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon. Concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against morality — Soviet legislation treats these exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

In 1934, Stalin recriminalized homosexuality, a measure that was consistent with the Bonpartist retreat from the early 20s when the heavens were being stormed. Even under the threat of repression, gay men and women were determined to hold on to the gains of 1917. In May 1934, Harry Whyte, the editor of Moscow’s English newspaper, The Moscow News, sent an open letter to Stalin titled “Can a Homosexual be a Member of the Communist Party?” that is part of the installation. Whyte stated:

Since I have a personal stake in this question insofar as I am a homosexual myself, I addressed this question to a number of comrades from the OGPU and the People’s Commissariat for Justice, to psychiatrists, and to Comrade Borodin, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where I work.

All that I managed to extract from them was a number of contradictory opinions which show that amongst these comrades there is no clear theoretical understanding of what might have served as the basis for passage of the given law. The first psychiatrist from whom I sought help with this question twice assured me (after verifying this with the People’s Commissariat for Justice) that if they are honest citizens or good communists, his patients may order their personal lives as they see fit. Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked.

The title of the show “The Lenin Museum” is a reference to a favorite cruising spot, the men’s room of an institution that housed Lenin memorabilia of the sort that Fiks keeps returning to in his remarkable career. An article on “Sex in the Soviet closet: a history of gay cruising in Moscow” in the Moscow News (the only reliable newspaper in Putin’s Russia) will give you a sense of what will await you at this stunning show:

One day in 1955, a railway stoker named Klimov entered the GUM department store, looking for a bite to eat. While inside, Klimov, 27, stopped by the bathroom.

“In the toilet a young lad came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s get acquainted,'” Klimov later recalled. The man’s name was Volodya. He invited Klimov to the Lenin Museum.

“He bought the tickets with his money, and we went straight to the men’s toilet.”

An intimate encounter began, but they were interrupted by a pair of strangers.

Several weeks later, the men happened to meet in the GUM toilet again. This time, they opted for the secluded woods of Sokolniki Park.

From 1933 to 1993, homosexuality was officially outlawed in Russia under Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code. But all the while, the Communist capital’s most famous landmarks served as pick-up spots for gay men.

In a new photo book, titled “Moscow” and published by Ugly Duckling Presse, Russian-American photographer Yevgeniy Fiks captures the city’s Soviet cruising grounds as they look today. They are familiar to any resident of the city: the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexandrovsky Sad, Okhotny Ryad metro station.

Most of the spots are usually crowded. But in Fiks’ photos, they stand empty.

“This book is a type of kaddish [mourning prayer] for the lost and repressed generations of Soviet-era gays,” Fiks said.

December 15, 2014

Sony versus North Korea

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

In the hack of the century, Sony Corporation emails were released to the media with shockingly inappropriate statements made by studio executives about their employees and public figures, including President Obama.

Despite Hollywood’s tilt toward the Democratic Party, private communications reveal contempt for the chief executive who is the butt of stupid racial jokes. Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal, two extremely powerful Sony execs, exchanged email on their way to a fundraiser for Obama at Jeffrey Katzanberg’s mansion in November 2013.

Pascal: “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?”

Rudin: “Would he like to finance some movies.”

Pascal: “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked Django?”

Rudin: “12 YEARS.” (A reference to “12 Years a Slave”.

This is the same Rudin who bragged about his ”The Manchurian Candidate” being ”a very, very angry movie”, one that is “honestly distressed about a lot of things going on in the country right now” in 2004. In 2013, when Hollywood was coming out with some tame “social” dramas like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Rudin described this as “fantastic news for those of us who love trying to make them and have to fight hard for those opportunities” as if Wall Street would tremble at the prospects of Leonardo Di Caprio crawling across the floor after taking Quaaludes.

Meanwhile, Pascal is a major donor to the Democratic Party who is married to Bernard Weinraub, a former business reporter for the NY Times. One of the hacked emails revealed an exchange between him and Maureen Dowd over the proposed content of an article she was writing about “an old boy’s network” controlling Hollywood. There was agreement between Dowd and Weinraub that the article should not be “too antagonistic”.

One imagines that this would have meant sweeping some revelations, courtesy of the hacked emails, under the rug:

1) Men are paid more than women

Sony’s 17 biggest-earning executives are predominantly white men. According to a spreadsheet called “Comp Roster by Supervisory Organization 2014-10-21,” Amy Pascal, the co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment is the only woman earning $1 million or more at the studio.

2) It’s not just executives

Sony paid Jennifer Lawrence less than it paid Christian Bale or Bradley Cooper, her co-stars in last year’s hit movie “American Hustle.” Lawrence was paid 7 percent of the movie’s profit, while Bale and Cooper received 9 percent, according to emails sent to Pascal.

The emails contain unflattering comments about Hollywood superstars like Angela Jolie, who is referred to as “a minimally talented spoiled brat”. I think I’ll offer critical support on this.

The hackers call themselves the Guardians of Peace, a fairly obvious reference to the North Korean government’s likely role in organizing the hack. It was angry over the new film being produced by Sony titled “The Interview”, a “comedy” about a couple of American TV reporters being lined up by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un when they gain access to him under the guise of doing an interview. Ha-ha-ha. Dan Sterling, who wrote jokes for Jon Stewart, was the screenwriter. Ha-ha-ha.

As it turns out, Scott Rudin produced another “comedy” about North Korea, this time demonizing Kim Jon-il, the current dictator’s father. Titled “Team America: World Police”, it was supposedly a satire on American military power. It incorporated the “edgy” style of “South Park”, the cable TV show written and directed by Trey Parker, the film’s director/writer. In my CounterPunch review of a J. Hoberman book, I referred to the long time film critic and scholar’s take on Trey Parker’s film:

In the service of human interest, Team America recruits a replacement commando from the Broadway hit Lease. (He’s first seen singing “Everybody Has AIDS.”) His job is acting, something that intrinsically amuses animators Parker and Stone. Their marionettes vomit, bleed, and explode into organ parts. Indeed, these puppets show more guts than the filmmakers, who direct their fire at very soft targets: French and Egyptian civilians, a Communist dictator, and a bunch of Hollywood showboats. Despite some pre-release Drudge-stoked hysteria regarding an “unconscionable” attack on the administration, no American politicians appear in the movie. (The movie has since garnered Fox News’s seal of approval.) Nor do any media moguls. The filmmakers never satirize anyone who could hurt their career—not even Michael Moore enabler Harvey Weinstein.

When a Sony executive learned that the film concluded with a graphic depiction of Kim Jung-in’s head being blown to bits, he rightly worried that North Korea might be prompted to respond. After he asked the film’s creative team to tone down the conclusion, co-star Seth Rogen blew his stack over the threats to artistic freedom as revealed in a hacked email: “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy. That is a very damning story.” This is the same Seth Rogen, by the way, who made headlines defending Israel against the BDS movement a few months ago.

In today’s NY Times, there is little interest in trying to understand why North Korea was moved to hack Sony emails (although I would have been overjoyed to see them under any pretext). Instead, the emphasis is on Japanese fears about the rogue state:

While many Americans seem to see North Korea as too distant to keep them awake at night, many Japanese see it as a very visible threat. Until three decades ago, North Korean agents occasionally snatched people off beaches in neighboring Japan to serve as Japanese-language teachers, and long-range North Korean rockets on test runs still fly ominously over Japan’s main islands.

Now I wouldn’t put it past the North Korean government to commit any number of heinous acts, but I wonder what the real story about “snatched people” is in light of this report from the March 11, 2002 NY Times:

In court, Meguni Yao, the former wife of a Japanese leftist, said that when the couple lived in North Korea during the 1980’s, she tried to lure lonely Japanese students, some of them studying abroad, to North Korea. There they were to either join a government-supported ”Japan Revolutionary Village” or to train North Korean spies for work in Japan.

Is it possible that the “abductees” were simply young Japanese leftists who made the mistake of relocating to North Korea? Who knows?

What I do know is that North Korea has ample reasons to be afraid of and angry at both Japan and the USA. Keep in mind that Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and imposed a vicious regime that even the anti-Communist south regards as a stain on the country’s history. Korea was a source of raw materials and cheap labor, corresponding to the model identified in Lenin’s essay on imperialism. During WWII up to 200,000 Korean women were forced to become prostitutes to serve the Japanese army, euphemistically called “comfort women” while twice that number of men were sent to work in Japanese war plants against their will. Meanwhile, after the fashion of Nazi German’s Dr. Mengele, the Japanese experimented with captive Koreans in Unit 731, as Nicholas Kristof reported in the March 17, 1995 NY Times:

He is a cheerful old farmer who jokes as he serves rice cakes made by his wife, and then he switches easily to explaining what it is like to cut open a 30-year-old man who is tied naked to a bed and dissect him alive, without anesthetic.

“The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down,” recalled the 72-year-old farmer, then a medical assistant in a Japanese Army unit in China in World War II. “But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming.

“I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”

Whatever other sins he is guilty of, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the ruling dynasty in North Korea, deserves historical accolades for driving the Japanese out of Korea. For this transgression, he was punished by the USA that under the fig leaf of UN-sponsored conflict resolution, invaded Korea and killed 290,000 North Korean soldiers and was responsible for nearly 3 million civilian casualties in the south and north combined. That is about 10 percent of the total population in 1950. Can you imagine how the USA would react if a country that had invaded and killed 30 million of its citizens would react to a “comedy” that climaxed with the assassination of its president? Of course, that is completely hypothetical question given the fact that the USA has ruled the world for the better part of a century. Eventually that will change under the impact of economic transformations that will render the imperialist monster toothless—the sooner the better.

 

December 14, 2014

Parlez vous Francais?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 1:25 pm

Screen shot 2014-12-14 at 8.22.14 AM

Read full article

 

December 13, 2014

Podemos on the rise

Filed under: North Star,Podemos — louisproyect @ 2:37 pm

These are the lead paragraphs of my article “Where Did Podemos Come From? Where is it Going?” that is timed to coincide with the relaunch of North Star,

This article provides some background on Podemos in Spain, a broad-based radical party that has been likened to Syriza in Greece and that like Syriza could very possibly become a ruling party in the not too distant future. It was written for the relaunch of North Star (http://www.thenorthstar.info/), a website that calls for the creation of a non-sectarian, broad-based anticapitalist party—in other words, an American Podemos.

For those of us in the United States who are working to create something equivalent, there are many lessons to be drawn even if there are sizable differences between the USA and Spain. But what they do have in common is key: a two-party system that has effectively maintained hegemonic control over politics.

Since an earlier article announcing the relaunch, progress has been made to put the website on a firm footing. We have an editorial board of four people all committed to the original mission, namely to publicize the need for a broad-based anti-capitalist movement in the terms articulated by Peter Camejo in the original North Star Network of the early 80s. It is a pity that Peter did not live long enough to see Pablo Iglesias in action. This young leader of Podemos shows a grasp of revolutionary politics that would impress anybody.

Podemos has prompted some rich analysis since its formation. I would like to call your attention to some other articles that get it right, as opposed to the standard sectarian dismissal. The first appeared in the December 11, 2014 edition of Open Democracy. Titled “Leaderless no more” (https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/paolo-gerbaudo/leaderless-no-more) and written by Paolo Gerbaudo, an academic and journalist who looks as young as Pablo Iglesias, it calls attention to the growing realization of young Occupy type activists that some degree of centralized coordination is necessary. He writes:

While many anarchists are no doubt grumbling at seeing many of their comrades supporting Iglesias, Tsipras, and other emerging leaders (is Russell Brand the UK’s farcical equivalent of Iglesias and Tsipras?), those hoping for radical political change in Europe and beyond have many good reasons to celebrate this development. This shift from “leaderlessness” to the rise of new political leaders fighting for the demands raised by the movements of the squares is a demonstration of the “wisdom of the crowd”, of the fact that social movements and their supporters are capable of learning from their mistakes and evolving accordingly. Yet, it is apparent that this return of strong “personalised leadership” within the leftwing also raises some serious political questions for activists.

I would also call your attention to a series of articles on Left Flank, an Australian website, titled “Understanding Podemos”. Luke Stobart, a PhD student based in Spain, is the author. The first two of three has already appeared.

In the first, subtitled “15-M & counter-politics” (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/05/explaining-podemos-1-15-m-counter-politics/), Stobart addresses the question of “anti-politics”, a term that resonates with the feeling of most Americans, who like the Spanish, have grown weary of a two-party system that favors the rich. He writes:

“Anti-politics” is not just a counter to the parties but to the institutions and organisations tied to both them and the state (what Gramsci called the “outer fortresses” of “the integral state”). Crucially for those interested in emancipatory politics, this includes the union bureaucracies. The contradiction between representing workers’ interests and containing their demands has always been present in mass trade unionism. However, Humphrys and Tietze have shown using the Australian example that from the beginning of neoliberalism the balance has shifted in the direction of the latter function. Indeed, in Australia the unions maintained an “Accord” with the Labor government while the latter restrained wages and brought in the first big neoliberal reforms. As a consequence, over the last three decades union coverage has decreased from over 50 per cent to just 17 per cent of workers.

As should be obvious from the above, Australia—like Spain and the USA—suffers from a two-party shell game.

In the second article in the series, subtitled “Radical Populism” (http://left-flank.org/2014/11/14/understanding-podemos-23-radical-populism/), Stobart links Podemos to the post-Marxist “radical democracy” theories of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, a couple of academics who in my opinion are given more credit than they deserve, even if Podemos leaders are in the habit of quoting them.

Much of Stobart’s article dwells on the specifics of Spanish politics and the usefulness or lack thereof in Podemos’s strategy and tactics. I am hardly in a position to judge the merits of his analysis but will simply say that Podemos, whatever its failings on this or that, represents a huge step forward for the Spanish left and an inspiration for revolutionaries everywhere trying to transcend the sectarian limitations of the “Leninist” parties.

The fact that Podemos has reached millions of Spaniards while self-declared vanguard formations largely speak to those already “in the know” about Lenin and the Russian questions should tell us that we are on the brink of a new period in the class struggle, one in which the socialist movement will be rebuilt on 21st century realities. It is about time.

 

As Assad and US play two-step bombing Raqqa, Assad demands US bomb more efficiently

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:27 pm

Originally posted on Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis:

In a recent interview in Paris-Match, Bashar al-Assad was asked whether coalition airstrikes were helping him, to which he replied that …

“there haven’t been any tangible results in the two months of strikes led by the coalition. It isn’t true that the strikes are helpful. They would of course have helped had they been serious and efficient.”

(http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/12/03/assad_airstrikes_aren_t_helping_me_hollande_you_re_as_popular_as_isis)

Assad’s call on the US to bomb his country more seriously and efficiently comes from someone who knows how that’s done. The following account of the US-Assadist bomb-Raqqa two-step dance over the last week or so shows who really knows how to kill all those Sunni wretched of the Earth “efficiently”:

– On Sunday 23 November, US warplanes carried out two strikes against an ISIS-occupied building in the city of Raqqa in north-eastern Syria. No civilian casualties were reported.

– On Tuesday 25 November, Assad’s air force carried out ten…

View original 1,818 more words

December 12, 2014

We are the Giant; Maidan

Filed under: Film,middle east,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm

Two documentaries open in New York today that provide a close-up look at the Arab Spring and Euromaidan. If you think that these upheavals were plots concocted by the CIA to weaken Iran and Russia, you will benefit from watching both since they present flesh and blood human beings in struggle rather than geopolitical abstractions–chess pieces being moved across a board. For those who identify with the struggles and have offered solidarity in one way or another, the films will help sustain you in these most trying of times when dark reaction rules almost everywhere.

Playing at the Cinema Village, “We are the Giant” focuses on the anti-government protests, both peaceful and violent, in Libya, Syria, and Bahrain. While there is little to distinguish the ideals and self-sacrifice of the protagonists in each arena, those from the first two countries are regarded by much of the left as tools of American imperialism while the Bahraini activists get a clean bill of health purely on the basis of not opposing an ally of Putin’s Russia. Such a litmus test of course does not do justice to the human beings risking their lives for the right to express their ideas without being tortured or killed. It is indeed ironic that a left so aroused at the new revelations about CIA torture managed to overlook how Gaddafi and Assad opened their torture chambers for the victims of the CIA extraordinary rendition program.

A Libyan man named Osama living in the USA and enjoying the good life has a 21-year old son named Muhannad who decides to join the armed struggle against Gaddafi. As is the case throughout the film, there is hair-raising footage of protests and street fighting. Muhannad, who has no previous military training, gets a crash course in how to fire an automatic weapon and soon becomes the bravest and most dedicated fighter. Like most young men and women who joined the rebellion, there was a failure to come to terms with both the military odds against them and the daunting tasks of building a new society out of the wreckage left by 40 years of dictatorship. Muhannad was willing to take the risk simply on the basis of knowing what life was like under Gaddafi. Students were tortured or killed for undertaking the most modest steps toward democracy. In risking his life to secure a measure of freedom, he did not ask for a promissory note that the new system would not bring along a new set of ills. While the film makes no comments on post-Gaddafi Libya, it is only people intoxicated by their own ideology who will reduce Muhannad to a symbol of US global domination.

Post-Gaddafi Libya is often held up as a poster child for what might happen in Syria if the “moderate” rebels prevailed as if anything could be worse than the prevailing conditions where barrel bombs are routinely dropped on outdoor markets and working class apartment buildings. Activists Ghassan and Motaz favored peaceful resistance and were key media activists in the early stages of the revolution when the masses took to the streets just as they had throughout the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. The film depicts in graphic detail how peaceful marchers were shot down in the streets. Even as Syria has descended into a hellish war of attrition with jihadists threatening to impose a Salafist regime as evil as Assad’s “secular” nightmare, Ghassan and Motaz continue to support Gandhi-type nonviolent resistance.

For me, the final section of the film that deals with Bahrain was most revelatory. Two sisters Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja share their father’s commitment to nonviolent struggle. As soon as the Arab Spring reaches Bahrain, he returns from exile and becomes a pivotal figure. Unlike Libya and Syria, Bahrain was an ally of the USA and the film shows John Kerry glad-handing a Bahraini despot while the father is facing 12 years in prison for speaking up against the dictatorship. The two sisters are powerful tribunes for a society trying to live in freedom and security. If you like me have only a sketchy idea of what the struggle in Bahrain has been about, “We are the Giant” will spur you to find out more and to join the solidarity movement to free their father and the rest of a long-suffering population.

“Maidan”, which opens today at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, is a strict cinema vérité production that adopts the fly-on-the-wall perspective of Frederick Wiseman. However, unlike Wiseman who tends to pan his camera on rather quotidian locales such as high schools or hospitals, director Sergei Loznitsa—a Ukrainian—and his crew are immersed in the Euromaidan protests and could not portray normalcy even if they intended to. From the opening minutes of the film, you realize that you are in the crucible waiting for sparks to fly.

In some ways, the film has the character of a live feed on the Internet as you simply watch people gathered together in an immense crowd or fighting with the cops. The obvious purpose is to allow you to make up your own mind about what was happening there rather than to impose some kind of ideological framework with facile conclusions such as the kind RT.com is famous for.

Although I have obviously made up my mind about the Euromaidan protests, I will reprise what I gleaned from Loznitza’s footage. To start with, the speakers at the early, peaceful rallies were decidedly non-ideological. The most common themes were redemption of the Ukrainian nation and the need to lead normal lives, with ample appeals to the crowd’s Christian beliefs. When speeches were not being made, folk singers were raising spirits with patriotic tunes that the crowd sang along with. If there were fascists on the stage, the film either made sure to ignore them or—more likely in my opinion—there were none to be found.

Undoubtedly the fascists did play a role in the street fighting as Yanukovych sent the cops out to clear Maidan of protestors, just as his Chinese counterparts are doing now in Hong Kong. But it is unlikely that any ordinary Ukrainian who was there simply to fight for the right to protest cared much who was fighting the cops or what they stood for. Since Svoboda and Privy Sektor were better organized than those who came to Maidan to protest the regime as individuals, they were able to control the facts on the ground. Despite this, Ukrainians continue to vote for centrist politicians no matter the RT.com inspired warnings about an immanent fascist takeover.

While RT.com ratchets up its rhetoric about the fascist threat posed by the Ukrainian government, the French National Front campaigns with funds it borrowed from a Russian bank at the behest of Vladimir Putin, something that the pro-Putin left is indifferent to.

Director Sergei Loznitsa is a skilled documentary filmmaker who has excelled in narrative films as well. If you ever get the opportunity to see his “In the Fog”, grab it since it is a perceptive look at how Byelorussia, another “lesser nation”, fared under Stalinist rule during WWII. Its hero is a railway worker who faces threats from Nazis and Communist partisans as well. Based on a novel of the same name by Byelorussian author Vasil’ Bykaw, it depicts the difficulties of making moral choices in a world where immorality prevails—in other words, a film very relevant to our situation today.

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