Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 25, 2005

France and Algeria: some comparisons

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:55 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 25, 2005

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading a lot of material on the war in Algeria as background for a review of Battle of Algiers. Since top American military officials watched this movie shortly after the occupation began in an attempt to understand-and defeat-a similar resistance, it seemed worthwhile to take a fresh look at the movie, the actual war of liberation in Algeria and how it stacked up against the current one.

Yesterday I began reading War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam by David L. Schalk and the question of comparisons took a new direction. This book compares the anti-imperialst efforts of people like Sartre around Algeria with that of Robert Lowell et al around Vietnam.

It suddenly dawned on me that the USA has plunged into two adventures that were sequels in many ways to ones that France carried out unsuccessfully. First of all, the USA tried to accomplish in Indochina what had eluded the French. There is not all that much difference between Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the spectacle of helicopters fleeing Saigon in 1975.

Furthermore, Frances goals in Algeria had a lot to do with their own version of the Vietnam syndrome. After losing Vietnam, the ruling class and reformist parties of the left were anxious to prove that France was still capable of maintaining an empire.

While there are many differences between Algeria and Iraq, there is one thing they have in common with each other (and with Vietnam). They are countries with very headstrong peoples who have an inexhaustible capacity for resisting colonization, sometimes passively and sometimes actively.

The other thing that strikes me about the arrogance of the conduct of both France and the USA is how it might be connected to a kind of narcissism about their roles in world history as democratic revolution exemplars. There is a notion that 1776 and 1789 serve as models for the developing world, whether it accepts it or not.

You can find this self-deception at work in the foreign policy rhetoric of the Bush administration and its ideological whores like Christopher Hitchens and Norm Geras. You found almost the same sickness in the behavior of Camus and respected anthropologist Jacques Soustelle, who was governor-general of Algeria when the rebellion broke out and who gave his nod to concentration camps, torture and mass murder. Soustelle wrote a deeply sensitive and sympathetic book called Daily Life of the Aztecs that concludes as follows:

“Their culture, so suddenly destroyed, is one of those that humanity can be proud of having created. In the hearts and minds of those who believe that our common inheritance is made up of all the values that our species has conceived in all times and all places, it must take its place among our precious treasures — precious because they are so rare. At long intervals, in the immensity of the world’s life and in the midst of its vast indifference, men joined together in a community bring something into existence that is greater than themselves — a civilisation. These are the creators of cultures; and the Indians of Anahuac, at the foot of their volcanoes, on the shores of their lake, may be counted among them.”

It appears that capitalism and imperialism have infinite capacities for corrupting even the most noble among us.

June 15, 2005

Cinderella Man

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:57 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 15, 2005

“Cinderella Man” is a stolid, old-fashioned but moving film directed by Ron Howard. It combines elements of “Rocky” and “Seabiscuit” as it tells the rags-to-riches true story of boxer James J. Braddock, played by Russell Crowe.

In the late 1920s Braddock was a highly ranked light-heavyweight fighter, but fractured hands made him unable to compete effectively. After losing a string of bouts, he was forced to take a job on the Jersey docks just like the kind that Marlin Brando held down in “On the Waterfront.” Additionally, whatever money he had put aside in stocks was lost in the ’29 crash.

So, after a brief introduction showing the up-and-coming Braddock, we find him living in a meager basement apartment with his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and three young children. Whenever Braddock fails to get selected by a straw boss in the demeaning morning shape up ritual, he is forced to go home without money to pay for food or other necessities. The film pulls no punches as it shows Mae Braddock mixing water with milk so that it will last longer. Apart from John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath,” this is the only movie that I can recall showing life as it was in the Great Depression. That is no small achievement.

In an article on the making of the film that appeared in the May 8, 2005 NY Times, we learn that Ron Howard has a strong affinity for the period. He said, “I’ve always been fascinated by the Depression.” His father Rance Howard had told him stories about the family’s subsistence farm in Oklahoma, just like the kind that was featured in “Grapes of Wrath.”

In high school, Howard made a 30-minute documentary about the Depression, interviewing his father and others and using old photos.

He told the NY Times:

”What was really shocking to me were the images of poverty in big cities. Whenever you’d see poor straggling kids with the New York City skyline in the background, or you’d see these men, still dressed in their business suits but standing in a breadline, it was as least as devastating as the Okies with all their stuff packed on a Model T. I wanted to remind people that the working poor existed then, and we have it today. While the economy is mostly up and then sometimes down — the Internet bubble bursting felt a little bit like ’29, where people had overextended and fallen into that trap again — we’re anxious. Our population is anxious. We’re not in a depression, thank God, but I think it’s crossing our minds that something could happen, things could change, and not for the better, for the worse.”

In one memorable scene in “Cinderella Man,” Braddock goes to Central Park to try to find a fellow longshoreman and neighbor Mike Wilson (a fictional character) who had run away from home out of despair. Upon arriving there, he discovers cops sweeping across a Hooverville burning shacks and clubbing homeless men, including his neighbor.

In June of 1934, Braddock was thrown in as a last-minute substitute for a bout with top heavyweight contender John “Corn” Griffin. Nobody expected him to survive the first round. To everybody’s surprise, Braddock was victorious. For the next couple of years he fought and defeated other top contenders until meeting Max Baer, the reigning champion who had already killed two fighters with his devastating punches. This showdown supplies the dramatic momentum for the remainder of the film.

When Braddock was at his most desperate, he was reduced to applying for relief payments at a government office. After he started making money again, he went back to the office and paid back exactly what he had received. In including this scene, Howard explained its importance to the NY Times: “As much as it [receiving government assistance] ate at him, it saved his family. It’s this kind of harmony, in a way, between a governmental system that would offer support, and a population that wouldn’t exploit it.”

Unfortunately, this feeds into a prevailing mythology about government hand-outs that grew up during the Reagan administrations and continues unabated. It views aid to the needy as a kind of favor that often goes unappreciated. Unlike the Irish-American Braddock who was anxious to get back on his own feet and pay off his debts to the government, there are ostensibly far less honest people who use such handouts as a way to buy booze or drugs.

In another key scene, Wilson and Braddock are seen discussing the problems of finding work on the docks in a waterfront bar. Wilson is bitter at the system. He tells Braddock that he distrusts both FDR and the Republicans and sees unionizing the longshoremen as their only salvation. Unfortunately­-but understandably­-Howard does not dramatize Mike Wilson acting on these beliefs. Braddock tells Wilson that the only fighting he wants to engage in is in the ring.

In a very real sense, Howard’s take on the Great Depression is in the tradition of Frank Capra. Although Capra obviously made movies calling attention to the plight of working people in the 1930s, he did not view political action as a means to redress these conditions. It was instead a kind of old-fashioned “roll up your sleeves” ethos that was championed in films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In order to get the audience to identify with an underdog like James J. Braddock, Howard felt it necessary to turn Max Baer into a stock villain. Baer is seen warning Braddock not to take on the fight unless he wanted to be killed like his previous victims. He also tells him that he might sleep with his wife after he is dead and buried.

In real life, Max Baer was nothing like this. He preferred partying to fighting and only saw it as a necessary evil to make a living. In other words, he was not that much different from any other fighter. Furthermore, after Frankie Campbell died from the beating administered by Baer in 1930, a traumatized Baer cried and had nightmares long afterwards. Baer was charged with manslaughter, but was cleared of all charges. He gave purses from succeeding bouts to Campbell’s family, but lost four of his next six fights. Indeed, by the time that Baer met up with Braddock, he had lost his edge.

Although no attention is drawn to it in “Cinderella Man,” you can see a Star of David on Baer’s trunks during the fight with Braddock and in an earlier fight in the film with Primo Carnera. Baer first wore the Jewish Star in a bout with the German Max Schmeling in 1933. Although Schmeling was no Nazi by any stretch of the imagination, Hitler stated that his championship vindicated Aryan superiority. At this point Baer proclaimed his Jewish identity and turned the fight into a struggle for racial justice, just as Joe Louis would a few years later. There is some controversy whether Baer was Jewish, but some researchers are convinced that his father was probably half-Jewish. Whatever the case, he became a hero to Jews after beating Schmeling.

Primo Carnera was also a fascist icon. This oversized but under-talented heavyweight was hailed by Mussolini as a symbol of the new Italy, but Carnera went back to Italy in 1937 and joined an anti-Fascist resistance group. After being captured by Mussolini’s state police, he spent most of World War II in a forced-labor camp.

In the 1950s, Budd Schulberg wrote a movie titled “The Harder They Fall” that was based on the Carnera-Baer fight. It was one of a legion of exposés about the fight game. It was no coincidence that Schulberg also wrote the screenplay for “On the Waterfront.” Schulberg was forced to become an informer against the Communist Party in the 1950s. As an ex-party member himself, he was given a choice of naming names or being blacklisted himself. Like other ex-CP’ers, Schulberg remained attracted to ‘social’ issues, but lost the radicalism of his youth. “The Harder They Fall” was a polemic against the corruption of the boxing industry, but stopped short of addressing the question of why capitalist society mounts such latter-day gladiator contests.

That question gets to the heart of how class society is constructed. Professional sports in general, and boxing in particular, expresses the cash nexus that is intrinsic to commodity production. The boxer is simply super-exploited labor. Even though James J. Braddock left the blue-collar world of the Jersey docks for the glittering ring, he never really left class exploitation behind.

It is doubtful that Hollywood would ever be capable nowadays of getting at this deeper reality, especially when it requires millions of dollars to finance a film. Today’s NY Times reports that Universal Pictures executives are considering shelving “Cinderella Man” since it is a box-office failure, taking in a mere $34.6 million after two weeks. The film cost $88 million to make. Brian Glazer, the producer, said, “There are hardly words to describe how we all feel. I feel like crying.”

One way the film might have realized a profit is if it had selected a less costly actor than Russell Crowe. There other reasons to have passed him over. One cannot think of anybody less suited to play the self-effacing and likeable James J. Braddock. Crowe has been in the news lately after pummeling a hotel desk clerk with a telephone in a moment of pique. Last March he told an Australian magazine that Osama bin Laden wanted to kidnap him as part of a “cultural destabilization plot.” In this particular instance, one might have considered giving critical support to bin Laden.

June 9, 2005

Charles Bukowski: Born Into This

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:52 pm

posted to http://www.marxmail.orgon June 9, 2005

Although I had a VHS screener of the 2004 “Bukowski: Born Into This” on my shelves for over a year, I only got around to watching it last night. Since the insufferably pretentious Bono of U2 fame–a Bukowski fan–was among the interviewees for this documentary about the decidedly unglamorous writer who died of leukemia in March 1994 at the age of 73, I was leery of first-time director John Dullaghan’s intentions. As it turned out, this film is deeply moving and true to the memory of the man that Sartre called “America’s greatest poet.”

Nearly everything that Bukowski wrote was autobiographical, including this poem:

My Father (from “Septuagenarian Stew” 1994)

was a truly amazing man
he pretended to be
rich
even though we lived on beans and mush and weenies
when we sat down to eat, he said,
“not everybody can eat like this.”

and because he wanted to be rich or because he actually
thought he was rich
he always voted Republican
and he voted for Hoover against Roosevelt
and he lost
and then he voted for Alf Landon against Roosevelt
and he lost again
saying, “I don’t know what this world is coming to,
now we’ve got that god damned Red in there again
and the Russians will be in our backyard next!”

I think it was my father who made me decide to
become a bum.
I decided that if a man like that wants to be rich
then I want to be poor.

and I became a bum.
I lived on nickles and dimes and in cheap rooms and
on park benches.
I thought maybe the bums knew something.
but I found out that most of the bums wanted to be
rich too.
they had just failed at that.

so caught between my father and the bums
I had no place to go
and I went there fast and slow.
never voted Republican
never voted.

buried him
like an oddity of the earth
like a hundred thousand oddities
like millions of other oddities,
wasted.

As a youth in Los Angeles, Bukowski experienced great suffering. His father was a strict disciplinarian who beat him with a razor strop on any pretext, including a failure to mow the front lawn properly. He was also a social outcast due to a particularly virulent form of acne that left his face permanently scarred as well as his own rejection of conventional society.

Unlike the beat generation, with whom he is often incorrectly grouped, Bukowski never sought out a bohemian counter-culture that would offer some sort of consolation and support. Instead he became a loner at an early age, performing menial labor, drinking in skid row saloons and living in rooming houses or cheap hotels. When he wasn’t drinking, he was pounding out poems and short stories on a portable typewriter under bare light-bulbs in dingy rooms.

Stylistically, Bukowski was strongly influenced by Hemingway. His spare but dramatic approach consciously disdained the florid and mannered writing that was becoming fashionable in the post-WWII period. A Bukowski short story is utterly devoid of stream of consciousness, highly detailed descriptions of physical place or any other modernist conventions. One would never confuse a Bukowski story with James Joyce or William Faulkner.

Despite his debt to Hemingway, Bukowski spoke derisively about the mystique that surrounded him. Bukowski did openly acknowledge the impact of John Fante on his prose and referred to him once as “my god.” Like Bukowski, Fante was an original. I strongly recommend his “Ask the Dust,” which is about a struggling writer in Los Angeles in the 1930s. It is obvious why Bukowski would have an affinity for Fante. After Bukowski’s rise to fame, he demanded that “Ask the Dust” be republished by Black Sparrow Press.

To the film’s credit, it interviews Fante’s widow Joyce and others qualified to speak about his literary influences and contributions, including Carl Weissner who translated Bukowski’s writings into German, San Francisco Renaissance figure Lawrence Ferlinghetti who is still going strong at 85 and Bukowski’s long-time publisher John Martin of Black Sparrow Press.

Martin was Bukowski’s Medici. In the mid 1960s, he found himself utterly captivated by Bukowski’s writings and offered him $100 per month for life if he gave up his job at the post office and devoted himself full-time to writing. Bukowski accepted the offer and the rest is history.

Some of the most moving moments in the film come from the women in Charles Bukowski’s life. Although he had the well-deserved reputation of being a misogynist, he could also be deeply loving and tender. The final scene shows Linda Bukowski at his gravesite reminiscing about his final breaths in a hospital bed, where immediately after his death his face seemed to relax for the first time ever.

June 8, 2005

McLibel

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:29 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on June 8, 2005

Scheduled for release in U.S. theaters on June 10, “McLibel” is the inspiring story of Helen Steel and Dave Morris, two London environmental activists who were sued for libel by the fast food giant in 1990 after their group had been infiltrated by undercover agents. The trial, which was the longest in British history, heard expert witnesses from both sides evaluating whether McDonalds was guilty of the following offenses:

  • Damage to the environment, including the use of non-recyclable packaging and wholesale destruction of the environment.
  • Damage to the human organism through bad nutrition, including obesity and cancer.
  • Assaults on working people through low pay and speedup.
  • Victimization of children by bombarding television shows with fast food ads featuring Ronald McDonald.
  • Cruelty to animals who are slaughtered as if they were inanimate objects.

The odds were against the defendants from the beginning. British libel laws are considered plaintiff-friendly since the words of the defendant are considered false until proven otherwise. In the case of Helen Steel and Dave Morris, the words were those found in a 1986 brochure that can be read here: http://www.mcspotlight.org/case/pretrial/factsheet.html. (More about this website momentarily.)

McDonald’s had taken advantage of British libel laws to intimidate any news outlet that aired unfavorable reports. If a newspaper or TV station would say ‘mea culpa,’ the libel suit would be withdrawn. So, for example, Channel 4 television apologized in High Court for a 1990 program implying that McDonald’s was responsible for rainforest destruction in Costa Rica. Despite their mild-mannered demeanor, Steel and Morris decided that they would rather fight than grovel.

Besides being hampered by British libel laws, they were at a disadvantage in how they were to be represented at court. Legal aid was only available for criminal cases, so they had to scuffle around to find legal defense. Meanwhile, McDonald’s paid twenty million dollars for its legal team and lined up dozens of “expert witnesses” cut from the same cloth as those who used to testify that smoking cigarettes was harmless. Eventually, the two defendants secured the pro bono services of Attorney Keir Starmer and lined up their own expert witnesses, who are interviewed throughout the film.

Another disadvantage was that the judge decided to make this a jury-less trial. This meant that the two rather plebian defendants (Helen Steel was a gardener and busdriver, Dave Morris a postman) were at the mercy of an upper-class judge.

One of their most powerful witnesses was Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher who had grown disgusted with the treatment of animals in this highly commodified food-chain and the consequences of commercial farming on his own health and the consumer. After developing a tumor on his spine that he was convinced was brought on by chemical additives on his land, he changed his life radically. He became a vegan and an outspoken critic of industrial ranching. In addition to his role as a witness at the McLibel’s trial, he was a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show where he warned about the dangers of Mad Cow disease. Information about Howard Lyman’s book “The Mad Cowboy” and a documentary based on his life can be seen at: http://www.madcowboy.com/

Even though he was not a witness, Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” is heard throughout the documentary. Schlosser is clearly grounded in a class analysis. His critique of McDonald’s focuses on the corporate drive to maximize profit without concern for the environment, the consumer or the worker. In an excerpt from his book on the McSpotlight website, we learn how Burger King, another fast food giant, gets its strawberry milkshake to taste just right:

“A typical artificial strawberry flavour, such as that found in a Burger King strawberry milk shake, contains the following ingredients: amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amyl ketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethlyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphenyl-2-butonone (10% solution in alcohol), a-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylactophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, g-undecalactone, vanillin and solvent.”

Based solely on the strength of their testimony and that of the expert witnesses, Steel and Morris wound up with a partial victory. They were forced to pay 40 thousand pounds for certain “libelous” charges they had made, but not others. Immediately after the verdict was announced, Steel and Morris held a press conference announcing that they would rather go to jail than pay a penny to McDonald’s. Publicity surrounded the trial amounted to a PR disaster for the fast food giant. Not only did they back off from collecting their libel award, they decided not to press forward with an injunction against further leafleting in front of their stores.

On September 20, 2000 Steel and Morris launched their own case against the British government in the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the McLibel trial and British libel laws violated the European Convention on Human Rights Article 6 (Right to a Fair Trial) and Article 10 (Right to Freedom of Expression). The film shows the two traveling to Strasbourg to press their case.

The film ends on a triumphant note on February 15th of this year, when the McLibel two received an email notification that the European Court had decided in their favor. Internet addicts will get a big kick out of this scene as you see Steel and Morris waiting anxiously to receive email via Eudora, while weeding through spam to get the message that they were expecting.

Indeed, the Internet was critical to this entire campaign. The film shows the two deliberating on how to get their message out when the corporate media was obviously intent on keeping their anti-corporate message to the margins. In 1996 they hit upon the idea of setting up a website, which is one of the more important environmental resources on the Internet.

Although “Super Size Me” garnered excellent and well-deserved reviews (and is referred to briefly in “McLibel”), I found “McLibel” to be a more compelling and useful film. Unlike Morgan Spurlock, Helen Steel and Dave Morris are less intent on being “personalities.” With their self-effacing and sincere manner, they put the focus on getting out the truth rather than striking dramatic poses. They are the quintessential activists of the 1990s who came into prominence as part of the anti-globalization movement. With their emphasis on democratic control and harmony between humanity and nature, they make the case for abolition of private property without ever resorting to dogmatic formulations. The Marxist left can surely learn from such activists.

“McLibel” was directed by Fanny Armstrong with help from legendary British director Ken Loach, who was responsible for dramatic reenactments of the trial. For screening information in the U.S., go to http://cinemalibrestudio.com/. For those in Great Britain and elsewhere, a DVD of the film can be ordered be ordered from http://www.spannerfilms.net/?lid=161.

June 6, 2005

Saul Bellow in Retrospect

Filed under: literature,swans — louisproyect @ 10:57 am

(Swans – June 6, 2005) When Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, he joined other American prize winners who expressed their time. 1962 Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck captured the spirit of the turbulent 1930s just as African-American Toni Morrison, who received the award in 1993, gave expression to another period of strife and struggle.

Contrary to these voices of rebellion, Bellow epitomized the postwar America retreat into psychoanalysis, material success, and establishment politics. As somebody who had experienced poverty in the 1930s and who had made a brief commitment to radical politics, Bellow was the artistic counterpart to an entire generation of intellectuals who had made room for themselves at the American dinner table. As so many of the others in this movement, Bellow’s Jewish identity gave added weight to his right turn. The ascendancy of the Jewish intellectual in terms of social acceptance and material gain in the USA corresponded to the rise of the state of Israel. Not only had they made it; they resented others who had not picked themselves up by the bootstrap.

Despite his conservative bent, Saul Bellow was a great writer capable of deep humanitarian insights. This article will consider his life and career and focus on one of his most highly regarded works, Seize the Day. This 1956 novella captures the anxieties of people on the precipice of fame and wealth but still capable of falling backwards into poverty and obscurity. Bellow was the bard of an America that still remembered the Great Depression but that was anxious to move forward to power and prosperity. This tension gives it literary value. It also drives home what a loss it was when people such as Saul Bellow finally achieved insider status and lost touch with their humble roots.

Born on June 10, 1915 to immigrant parents in Lachine, a working-class suburb of Montreal, Saul Bellow and his family soon moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father struggled to make ends meet, eventually turning to bootlegging. Ironically, things improved after the 1929 crash, when his father began selling wood chips for bakers’ ovens. (This biographical detail and subsequent ones come from James Atlas’s Bellow, a definitive 685-page work that took a decade to research and write. Atlas is obviously alienated from Bellow’s political views and shortcomings as a human being, but was scrupulous in his treatment of the great writer.)
Bellow discovered an early love of literature. By the time he was nine years old, he had read all the children’s books in the local library and was moving on to the adult section, starting with Gogol’s Dead Souls.

When Saul Bellow arrived at Tuley High School in 1931, he discovered a thriving radical movement. He soon struck up a friendship with Albert Glotzer, a Trotskyist who later became one of the exiled Russian’s bodyguards. Although Bellow was never ideological, his sympathies were with the left. As Glotzer put it, “It was inevitable, given our experience of life under Tsarism, that our family and close friends would be politically radical, if not always socialist.”
Bellow was a fellow traveler of the Young People’s Socialist League, which was moving leftwards in the 1930s and offered an alternative to the Communist Party. In addition to Glotzer, Bellow had struck up a friendship with Isaac Rosenfeld, another leftist and son of immigrant Jewish parents, who would eventually become a respected contributor to the Partisan Review, a journal that reflected Trotsky’s influence. Bellow remained friends with Glotzer and Rosenfeld long after his shift to the right.

After Bellow and Rosenfeld became freshmen at the University of Chicago, they became known as Zinoviev and Kamenev on campus. They belonged to the Socialist Club on campus and edited Soapbox, its journal. On the masthead there was a quotation from William Randolph Hearst: “Red radicalism has planted a soapbox in every educational institution in America.”
In 1938, the Depression was still in full-swing and Saul Bellow had to scramble around for employment like other young men and women. That year he landed a job with the Federal Writers’ Project, which was a hotbed for aspiring young authors, especially those with a social conscience. It provided employment for other Chicago radicals like Nelson Algren, who had already published a novel, Somebody in Boots, about vagrant life, and Richard Wright, who spent most of his time at the project working on Native Son. Algren was a supporter of the Communist Party (CP) and Wright a member.

Looking back at this period in a Guardian article dated April 10, 1993 — long after he had embraced conservative ideology — Bellow still demonstrated an obvious affection for his youthful radicalism:

The country took us over. We felt that to be here was a great piece of luck. The children of immigrants in my Chicago high school, however, believed that they were also somehow Russian, and while they studied their Macbeth and Milton’s L’Allegro, they read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well and went on inevitably to Lenin’s State And Revolution, and the pamphlets of Trotsky. The Tuley high school debating club discussed the Communist Manifesto and on the main stem of the neighbourhood, Division Street, the immigrant intelligentsia lectured from soapboxes, while at “the forum,” a church hall on California Avenue, debates between socialists, communists and anarchists attracted a fair number of people.

This was the beginning of my radical education. For on the recommendation of friends I took up Marx and Engels, and remember, in my father’s bleak office near the freight yards, blasting away at Value Price and Profit while the police raided a brothel across the street — for non-payment of protection, probably — throwing beds, bedding and chairs through the shattered windows. The Young Communist League tried to recruit me in the late 1930s. Too late — I had already read Trotsky’s pamphlet on the German question and was convinced that Stalin’s errors had brought Hitler to power.

In college in 1933 I was a Trotskyist. Trotsky instilled into his young followers the orthodoxy peculiar to the defeated and ousted. We belonged to the Movement, we were faithful to Leninism, and could expound the historical lessons and describe Stalin’s crimes. My closest friends and I were not, however, activists; we were writers. Owing to the Depression we had no career expectations. We got through the week on five or six bucks and if our rented rooms were small, the libraries were lofty, were beautiful. Through “revolutionary politics” we met the demand of the times for action. But what really mattered was the vital personal nourishment we took from Dostoevsky or Herman Melville, from Dreiser and John Dos Passos and Faulkner. By filling out a slip of paper at the Crerar on Randolph Street you could get all the bound volumes of The Dial and fill long afternoons with T. S. Eliot, Rilke and e. e. cummings.

By the end of WWII, the United States had already begun to move past the revolutionary fervor of the 1930s. To an extent, a new-found willingness to accept liberal capitalism on its own terms was accentuated by the Communist Party’s submersion into the New Deal, symbolized by party chairman Earl Browder’s announcement that the CP was ready to dissolve itself into a kind of discussion club called the Communist Political Association that disavowed revolutionary goals.
For writers and intellectuals around the Trotskyist movement, a willingness to accommodate had more to do with personal ambition rather than ideology. Since Saul Bellow was always consumed early on by a desire to write great literature rather than make a revolution, the goal of “tending one’s garden” made perfect sense.

From the publication of Dangling Man in 1944 (a semi-autobiographical tale of a young writer awaiting a military call-up at the end of WWII) to the 1953 Adventures of Augie March, Bellow would earn the reputation of a gifted and serious writer who never enjoyed commercial success. His struggle to make it had Oedipal overtones since his father (and brothers) had all become wealthy businessmen by the late 1930s. Saul was always seen as the dreamer whose modest achievements were downplayed as long as he remained economically insecure. He would often have to borrow money from his father or brothers just to make ends meet. Handouts were inevitably accompanied by a lecture.

If Bellow remained unfulfilled in a material sense, by the arrival of the 1950s there was a spiritual void that gnawed at him as well. Despite his strong identification with the Yiddish language and culture, he was basically a secular Jew. Like many people in the 1950s, Bellow gravitated toward psychoanalysis, which had become a secular religion with the analyst filling in for the priest. For Bellow, deliverance assumed the form of Reichian therapy delivered at the hands of Dr. Chester Raphael.

Wilhelm Reich had earned a reputation as a Marxist opponent of Nazism, especially in terms of its sexual repression, but had become something of a crank during his exile in the United States. Reich had developed a bizarre theory of orgone energy, which posited the existence of an invisible substance that was critical to mental health. To overcome neurosis, he recommended sitting in specially licensed orgone boxes. Eventually the FDA cracked down on Reich’s quackery and he died in prison.

For a time Bellow followed a strict Reichian regimen. He sat in an orgone box in his modest Queens apartment gathering up orgone energy while reading books beneath a single light bulb strung from the ceiling. Occasionally he stuffed a handkerchief into his mouth and screamed, another method recommended by Reich to achieve emotional release. There is no indication that this therapy did much for Bellow, who remained profoundly unhappy throughout his life, just as Woody Allen remains neurotic despite decades of psychoanalysis.

(In many ways, Woody Allen is the popular culture analogue to Saul Bellow. Perhaps in recognition of these connections, Bellow appears as one of the talking head experts in Zelig, a modestly amusing meditation on a mediocre character played by Allen who adapts chameleon-like to changing circumstances. Bellow’s take on Zelig: “His sickness was also at the root of his salvation; it was his very disorder that made a hero of him.”)

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy25.html

June 5, 2005

An Emmett Till documentary

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 5, 2005

On June 1, the NY Times reported that Emmett Till’s body was being exhumed as part of a reopening of an investigation into his murder. The article stated that “Federal interest in the case was heightened more recently by a documentary, as well as the long-lost trial transcript. Its discovery was announced this spring” and concluded with the following paragraph:

Reached by phone in New York, Keith Beauchamp, the documentary filmmaker who helped reignite interest in the case, said that he believed authorities were now on the right track. “What good is the legacy of Emmett Till,” he asked, “if you cannot find the truth?”

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/01/national/01cnd-till.html

Yesterday I had the good fortune to attend a press screening of Beauchamp’s documentary at the Film Forum in NYC which has scheduled the film for August (http://www.filmforum.org/films/untold.html). The director introduced the film with a stirring tribute to Emmett Till’s mother, who died two years ago–before the Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the case.

This is the second documentary that I have seen about the case of Emmett Till. The first, which appeared on PBS, prompted me to write the following:

In the summer of 1955 a 14 year old African-American from Chicago went to visit his uncle Moses Wright in the Mississippi delta, where he eked out a living picking cotton. Emmett’s mother Mamie Till, who died recently, warned him not to look at white women there and to get off the sidewalk if he saw one approaching.

Born in 1941, Emmett Till was a high-spirited youth with none of the submissive attitudes associated with growing up in the South. But he made a fatal mistake. When in the nearby village of Money, Mississippi to buy a soft drink at Roy Bryant’s grocery store, he whistled at the man’s wife.

That night Bryant and his hulking brother-in-law J. W. Milam descended on the Wright household and seized Emmett Till at gunpoint. They drove him back to their own place and beat him beyond recognition. They then drove him to the nearby Tallahatchie River, tied a heavy cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, and threw him in the water. But only after firing a bullet into his head–he was still alive at this point.

Perhaps if Till had been a native Mississippian, the case would have not gained the notoriety it did. But his mother was determined to confront the racist system that had taken her son’s life. Her first act was to put her son’s battered body on display at a local church, where thousands of people witnessed the effects of the sadistic beating. Since Mrs. Till had refused to allow the mortician to clean up the damage, those in the procession were shocked to see one eyeball hanging down the side of his face and a nose battered beyond recognition. A photo of the disfigured youth not only appeared on the front pages of black newspapers in the USA, it was featured prominently on front pages all over the world.

When the killers came to trial, most people did not expect a fair trial since the jury was composed exclusively of white men from the county. Mamie Till and her associates did not even bother to wait for the verdict since they knew it would be a foregone conclusion. When she wrote President Eisenhower a telegram demanding a federal investigation, he did not even reply. But an aroused black population was not ready to accept this state of affairs, even if the murderers could not be brought to justice. Just 100 days later Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus and the rest was history. As the PBS website recounts:

Other local leaders courageously stepped forward after the Till murder. Physician and civil rights leader Dr. T. R. M. Howard of the small, all-black Delta town of Mound Bayou was already known in Mississippi for his activism. Howard, whose life had been repeatedly threatened, had armed bodyguards to protect him and his family. During the trial, Howard extended this protection to the black witnesses and to Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley. After they testified, Howard, Medgar Evers and other NAACP officials helped the black witnesses slip out of town.

After Till’s murderers, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were acquitted, Howard boldly and publicly chastised FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: “It’s getting to be a strange thing that the FBI can never seem to work out who is responsible for the killings of Negroes in the South.” In December 1955, after the national black magazine Ebony reported that Dr. Howard was on the Ku Klux Klan’s death list and that several others on the list had already been killed, Howard sold most of his property in Mound Bayou, packed up his family and relocated to Chicago.

Momentum for a Movement

For Dr. Howard and others, the immediate impact of the acquittal of Till’s killers was increased repression in Mississippi. Still, the momentum and mobilization that followed Till’s murder fed the next stage of the movement. One hundred days after Emmett’s death, a black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus and was arrested for violating Alabama’s bus segregation laws. The Women’s Democratic Council, under Jo Ann Robinson, called for a citywide bus boycott and asked a young, 26-year-old minister to help.

His name was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Full: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/

Both documentaries are very strong. For those who missed the PBS presentation, the film can be ordered from their website in DVD or VHS for $29.95 and $24.95 respectively. It is highly suitable for classroom presentations.

For New Yorkers, a visit to the Film Forum to see Beauchamp’s film would be time well spent. It is an extremely moving presentation of this turning point in American history. Keith Beauchamp’s involvement with the Emmett Till is a story in itself, as this interview with New England Film magazine would indicate:

A photograph of that ghastly image first caught filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s attention; when he was a ten-year-old boy being raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It shocked me,” says Beauchamp, now 33, who found the image in an old copy of Jet Magazine, “I was looking on one side [of the magazine] and here was this angelic face of Emmett Till, and on the other side was this disfigured face of Emmett Till. I couldn’t believe that someone that young could be killed for whistling at a white woman. But, I don’t think I really understood at the time what this picture was really about. I didn’t understand the depth of it.”

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were tried for the murder of Emmett Till, and subsequently acquitted by an all white jury. The case has been considered closed ever since.

Since the age of 10, Keith Beauchamp has dedicated himself to serving justice for Emmett Till.

“I was blessed to have parents who instilled in me the education that they felt was needed for me to understand society,” says Beauchamp, “The Emmett Till case is very deeply embedded in the African-American male psyche; it was something that was mentioned to me all the time, to teach me about the racism that still existed in America. I grew up in the Deep South. My parents wanted to keep me aware, to be careful, so they would often tell me, ‘don’t let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you’.”

He came close to meeting a similar fate, however. In 1989, eight years after seeing Emmett’s body for the first time, Beauchamp attended a nightclub with some friends. He hadn’t been there long when he was accosted by a bouncer, then dragged outside by an unknown man who began throwing punches. Beauchamp fought back, though the situation proved even uglier when the stranger revealed himself to be an undercover police officer. Beauchamp was promptly arrested. His alleged crime? Dancing with a white girl.

After being dragged to the station, handcuffed to a chair, and kicked to the floor to endure more beatings, Beauchamp was finally asked for identification. He was released only when the detective on duty realized that Beauchamp was close friends with the son of a Major with the Sheriff’s Department.

“Living in the Deep South, where real racism exists, you feel like you’re invincible, and that’s how I felt. I was a kid, I was just having fun. Even though I was dating, and things of that nature, there was nothing serious for me. It was just having relationships and having a good time. A lot of things kept bringing Emmett Till up in my head, because I was so close to being Emmett Till himself.”

Beauchamp spent a few years studying Criminal Justice at Southern University, but left school before graduation to pursue a career in entertainment in New York. His first job was writing music videos with a production company owned by some friends. But it wasn’t the right fit. He began to develop a feature film about the boy whose face had haunted him since his youth. Knowing he would need to gather some facts to beef up a screenplay, he casually launched into production of a documentary, meant to serve as a tool for garnering supplemental information.

Full: http://www.newenglandfilm.com/news/archives/05january/beauchamp.htm

June 1, 2005

Letter to a Bard College professor

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:59 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on June 1, 2005

Dear Professor Mark Danner,

One of the reasons I didn’t attend my Bard College 40th anniversary reunion this year is that I don’t feel any connection to a school that Leon Botstein has transformed after his own image, namely a hodge-podge of the NY Review of Books, George Soros’s latest project to change the world and garish Gehry architecture.

Generally, I try to ignore pronouncements from President Botstein or any of his illustrious hires nowadays, but your musings seem to have a way of being picked up on the left-liberal wing of the Internet that I keep track of. Today, for example, Commondreams.org saw fit to post your commencement speech to the Berkeley English department graduating class of 2005, which was filled with all the usual sorts of high-minded recommendations to go out and change the world, just as long I suppose as their ambitions do not collide too much with George Soros’s class interests.

Since you referred the students to one of your Serb-bashing articles in the NY Review of Books, I felt a bit of pique. A bit hot under the collar, so to speak. Since you have cultivated the image of a tough-minded journalist like the one James Woods played in Oliver Stone’s “Salvador” ready to confront the establishment, especially in those countries you refer to as TFC (“Totally Fucked-up Countries” in State Department parlance), one might expect a bit more willingness to dig deeper into a story. But on the wars in Yugoslavia, you never really did anything except function as a State Department operative. Your articles, like Christopher Hitchens’s, served the same purpose as William Randolph Hearst’s correspondents in Cuba–namely to fan the fires of imperialist war.

Furthermore, there is little question that the abject posture of people such as Hitchens and yourself on the Balkans wars prepared the ground for the current operation in Iraq. By lending credulity to the idea that the USA can bring freedom to the long-suffering peoples of the Balkans through the agency of B-52’s or Cruise Missiles, it became easier for George W. Bush to run the same scam in the Middle East.

Your commencement speech contains the following recollection about Sarajevo:

“Let me give you another example [of evil]. It’s from 1994, during an unseasonably warm February day in a crowded market in the besieged city of Sarajevo. I was with a television crew — I was writing a documentary on the war in Bosnia for Peter Jennings at ABC News — but our schedule had slipped, as it always does, and we had not yet arrived at the crowded marketplace when a mortar shell landed.”

I must say, parenthetically, that writing material for ABC TV is not exactly what I would consider risk-taking journalism. This is not exactly how John Reed made a living, is it?

But returning to the matter at hand, you seem utterly shocked by Radovan Karadzic’s denial of Serb responsibility, an outrageous claim that you described as requiring the talents of Dostoyevsky or Conrad to fully understand. I must say that raising the question of Serb evil is not exactly the sort of thing that will get you hounded out of the journalism business. A Lexis-Nexis search on “Serb” and “Evil” returned 306 articles for 1995 alone.

Unlike you, NY Times reporter David Binder found the inner resources to resist this war hysteria. In a October 2, 1995 Nation Magazine article titled “Bosnia’s Bombers,” he referred to the 1994 marketplace bombing you witnessed and other such bombings blamed on the preternaturally evil Serbs. This is what he said:

“Amid the roar and blinding flashes of NATO’s airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs, the impetus for the bombing was obscured: the August 28 explosion in a narrow, enclosed market in the center of Sarajevo that killed thirty-seven people.

“Within a day of that explosion, investigators for the U.N. Protection Force under Lieut. Gen. Rupert Smith ‘concluded beyond all reasonable doubt that the lethal mortar round had been fired from a Bosnian Serb position in the suburb of Lukavica, 1.5 to 3.5 kilometers southwest of the marketplace. On August 30, NATO’s bombs began to fall.

“The crucial U.N. report on the market massacre is classified, but four specialists–a Russian, a Canadian and two Americans–have raised serious doubts about its conclusion, suggesting instead that the mortar was fired not by the Serbs but by Bosnian government forces.

“Similar suspicions were raised following the February 5, 1994, mortar shell explosion that killed sixty-eight Sarajevans in the adjacent Markale marketplace. The origin of that shell was never determined officially. The U.N.’s after-action report in 1994 (also classified) was based on separate examinations of the impact sight by eleven artillery specialists over a period of nine days and ran forty-six pages. General Smith’s report was based on three hours of on-the-spot investigation and covered only one page. Yet virtually nobody has questioned how the blame was assigned this time almost immediately to the Bosnian Serbs.”

I think I can answer why nobody questioned this. There was far too much of a gung-ho mood in the American media to go to war against humanity’s latest version of Adolph Hitler–that is until Saddam Hussein was dredged up once again. Your role in creating this mood was critical. By writing pro-war propaganda in the NY Review of Books, the journal favored by academics and other opinion makers, you helped Bill Clinton get the respectability he needed to plunge our country into an illegal, unjust and immoral war. You performed the same function in the mid 1990s that people such as Judith Miller performed a couple of years ago. This ill-befits somebody advising Berkeley English majors about how to use their degree: “To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget…”

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect ’65

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