Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 28, 2006

The dubious distinction of high-traffic

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

Lately I’ve been getting over a thousand hits a day because the ad for the Al Franken documentary links to my review. This ad is on all the high-profile liberal websites, plus the rightwinger Hugh Hewitt’s for some reason. Here’s today’s stats so far for the 10 top-ranking “linked from” list:

crooksandliars.com 145

dailykos.com 94

juancole.com 41

hughhewitt.townhall.com 36

democraticunderground.com 23

atrios.blogspot.com 23

crooksandliars.com/2006/09/25/olberma… 16

smirkingchimp.com 15

americablog.blogspot.com 12

crooksandliars.com/2006/09/27/olberma… 10

At first I was pleased with the increased traffic, but now I am getting a bit annoyed. I am much more interested in finding out if people are linking from Lenin’s Tomb or Stan Goff rather than from crooksandliars.com. It sort of reminds me of the difference in commitment between the liberal and radical movements. I am trying to reach people who have decided that the capitalist system is worthless while democraticunderground.com is trying to reach people who want to elect somebody like Ned Lamont. The chance that an atrios regular will ever visit my blog again is pretty remote.

This has some connection to a bit of a brouhaha between the atrocious Marc Cooper and Dennis Perrin. Cooper’s blog gets a huge amount of traffic for the same reason that Harry’s Place does. Rightwing or liberal provocateurs like these rivet one’s attention like a car wreck on the highway. But who needs it?

Here’s Perrin’s take on the situation:

http://redstateson.blogspot.com/2006/09/marginal.html

Far from going tit-for-tat over a relatively minor point, I’d like to thank Marc Cooper for raising a blogging issue that doesn’t get enough attention, namely, how many readers does an “effective” blog make? See, Marc was miffed with a few of my comments from Friday, and told someone who posted my remarks at his site that it didn’t matter what I said about anything since the Son probably, at best, has 50 readers. A cheap dismissal based on nothing serious, but a dismissal I’ve seen dispensed regularly on the Web, meant to shame or embarrass anyone speaking out, since only those with robust readerships have anything important to say.

Marc’s not the first to suggest that I’m ranting in the mirror. I’ve received similar putdowns since I kickstarted this thing, and even before, when followers of James Lileks, upset with my take on their idol, deluged me with mail, bluntly informing me that I could never reach Lileks’s heights, that my critique was purest envy of my betters, I was a loser, etc. etc. Tying all this together was the predictable, “Who cares what you think!”, which of course, if taken seriously, would mean those people wouldn’t bother writing to or about me in the first place. I would be ignored, and there’s nothing a writer hates more, right?

I bring this up not in defense of my humble tappings or of those who like what I do, but simply to say that it doesn’t matter how many people read you. Any audience is a good audience. Indeed, expressing yourself to a small, interested group of people is far more worthwhile than shouting party-line clichés and platitudes to an anonymous mass. Sites like Daily Kos and Firedoglake have, on first glance, an impressive number of comments, suggesting that their correspondents are reaching The People. But when you actually read thru some of those threads, the majority are single-sentence Dem dittoheads who occasionally burst into flame should anyone show up to disagree with their host’s sentiments, or worse, diss the Holy Clintons. These sites, and others like them across the spectrum, serve as echo chambers for those who need daily ideological reinforcement and related comforts of the hive mind. And this makes those sites absolute bores to read, since each post’s conclusion is known before the opening sentence is finished. If that’s what it takes to attract more than 50 readers, then come forward and fill up the front rows, ’cause I ain’t gonna shout to the cheap seats.

Since bringing the Son to life, I’ve received many requests from smaller sites (yes, there are smaller sites than mine) and bloggers who are just getting started to exchange links, and this I’ve done on occasion. But for the most part I tell them to keep writing and try to build their own, personal audience. There’s no point in linking if you have yet to find your voice or blog angle. Like the early days of stand-up, new bloggers need a place to fail, to bomb, to experiment and crash without a lot of readers watching. If you go back and look at the first few months of the Son, you’ll see me trying to find the right balance and tone, while posting some pretty awful stuff in the process. I don’t know how many readers I had back then, probably less than 50, but that’s okay since there was little for them to chew on. It took me about a year to work most of the kinks out, and it’s only been in the past 6-8 months that I feel like I’ve found my groove. Now my posts are linked to sites large and small, and I’m comfortable with that since I’m comfortable, more or less, with what I produce.

Bottom line — write for yourself first, because if you can’t stand what you do, then there’s no point in pushing it on others (unless you’re a sadist, in which case I respect your lifestyle choice). Some of the best work is done in the margins, and don’t let those obsessed with numbers tell you otherwise. Kick open your door and rant, scream, stomp, cry, sing, persuade, criticize, analyze, throw rocks and blow kisses. Take full advantage of this opening while it lasts, and fuck those who say you’ve nothing to add.

For those curious, my weekly numbers, which double whenever I appear at Counterpunch or This Modern World (and nearly tripled during Israel’s assault on Lebanon), are roughly the same as Partisan Review’s monthly circulation circa 1938, when the likes of James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, Paul Goodman and Clement Greenberg published there. That’s a readership I can definitely live with.

(PS, one visit to Perrin’s blog will be more rewarding than an entire year of gazing in on Cooper’s latrine.)

September 27, 2006

The ISO and King Canute

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Today’s Counterpunch has the latest installment in an ongoing series of attacks on UFPJ written by ISO’ers. It encapsulates once again the “left opposition” mentality that characterizes their intervention in the antiwar movement from the beginning. Instead of trying to figure out ways to construct an alternative leadership, it is mostly content to wag its finger at the UFPJ misleaders and more particularly the CPUSA contingent therein.

Joe Allen, the author of the article and a name new to me, writes:

“ONE FACTOR in this strategic orientation is the influence of the Communist Party (CP) USA, which plays an important part in shaping the direction of UFPJ. One of UFPJ’s co-chairs and most active leaders is Judith LeBlanc, who is publicly identified as a member of the Communist Party.

“For the past 70 years, with few exceptions, the CP has argued that it is essential for progressive movements hoping to win social change in the U.S. to support the Democratic Party against the Republicans.”

What’s this? The CP orienting to the Democratic Party? This shocks me as much as gambling at Rick’s place shocked Inspector Reynault in “Casablanca.” Of course, the CP orients to the Democrats and uses its influence to tie the antiwar movement to the DP like a tail to a kite. That’s what they do and no amount of ink in the left press will change that. The real answer to a bad strategy, however, is building an alternative. The ISO is smart enough to build the Green Party as an alternative to the DP but I guess they are not smart enough to work with others on building an effective antiwar movement. Trying to scandalize the CP into changing its ways is about as effective as King Canute commanding to the waves: “I command you to come no further! Waves, stop your rolling!. Surf, stop your pounding! Do not dare touch my feet!”

The article concludes with a socialist bromide, namely:

“The demand for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan is the only principled and practical position that the antiwar movement can take to end the misery brought to the region by the United States. Support for the Democratic Party is pulling antiwar organizations further from this principled position–and must be rejected.”

Back in 1970, when I was in the Boston branch of the SWP, Peter Camejo was our organizer and leading out antiwar work. We were beginning to challenge SDS, which had decided that the antiwar movement was no longer relevant. Students facing the draft and horrified by the carnage in Indochina obviously felt differently. After a couple of successful rallies had left them feeling isolated, they began to use violence against us and the antiwar movement. Camejo made the point that politics is not just about words. It is about force in the streets; physical facts. We had to defend ourselves against attacks and build the movement.

Whatever stupidity existed in the SWP at the time, it did benefit from the accumulated mass movement experience of people like Fred Halstead who was a trade union veteran and who had been an organizer in the “Bring us home” GI movement in 1945. Fred brought skills into the movement that could not be reducible to a set of formulas. It involved knowing how to relate to people who don’t belong to your organization and who don’t even share your basic politics. The CP, which still has a vast resource of trade union experience to draw on, is far more skilled at this than the Workers World/Party of Liberation and Socialism sects. The Marcyites pay lip service to the idea of a united front but end up creating narrow coalitions with their own “anti-imperialist” outlook.

I really have no serious political differences with the ISO other than their analysis of Cuba. I would only hope that they begin to grapple with the problem of developing leadership skills, which in the final analysis are going to be crucial for making a revolution in the USA.

September 25, 2006

The Classroom And The Class Struggle

Filed under: Education,swans — louisproyect @ 4:56 pm

(Swans – September 25, 2006) At first blush, the “campus wars” would seem to pit rightwing ideologues like David Horowitz against nearly everybody to the left of Howard Dean. While this is supported by the meat cleaver approach of “The Professors,” Horowitz’s McCarthyite dossier on the 101 most “dangerous” professors in the USA, there are significant differences among the ultraright’s targets. For example, UCLA Marxist education theorist Peter McLaren and Penn State postmodernist liberal Michael Bérubé are worlds apart politically, despite coming under attack from Horowitz and those under his influence.

The latest evidence of this is an exchange on the MRZine between former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leader Bill Ayers and the organizers of an event honoring civil rights veteran Bob Moses for his contributions to progressive education. Despite counting Ayers as one of the most respected progressive educators in the country himself, they are regrettably forced to inform him that he is not welcome:

It is because of our commitment to educate the public and to undertake what is primarily a symbolic project that we cannot risk a simplistic and dubious association between progressive education and the violent aspects of your past. We believe, of course, in your right to express your views, then and now.

Ayer’s reply to the organizers gave no quarter to their liberal cowardice:

Your hope to position progressive education “not as radical or threatening but as nurturing and familiar” is in some ways a fool’s errand. Of course, no one argues that the progressive movement should threaten students or teachers or citizens — progressive education does indeed hold the hope of realizing a humane and decent education for all within a revitalized politics and a more authentically democratic society. But progressive education, if it means anything at all, must embody a profound threat to the status quo. It is a direct challenge, for example, to all the policy initiatives that deskill and hammer teachers into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, all the pressure to reduce teaching to a set of manageable and easily monitored tasks, all the imposition of labels and all the simple-minded metrics employed to describe student learning and rank youngsters in a hierarchy of winners and losers. It’s a threat to all that, and more.

Ayers and like-minded educators stress the importance of class criteria in developing an effective pedagogical approach. In an epoch of neoliberalism, all public institutions are under attack. For revolutionary-minded educators, class plays a central role since establishment-minded administrators view the student as a micro-economic actor who has to be prepared for the future — one that puts an emphasis on survival skills in a Hobbesian universe. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” It is this lie that people like Bill Ayers are anxious to refute.

For educators who still cling to old-fashioned notions of class, there is always a need to distinguish themselves from postmodernists who actually enjoy much more power on the campuses than socialists. Postmodernism has also influenced academic feminism, “queer studies,” postcolonialism, and other ostensibly radical trends on campus. As a group, they argue that class is superseded by various “identities,” including race, gender, etc. Any attempt to subsume women, blacks, gays, etc. under the universal category of the working class is resisted because it supposedly sacrifices the particularistic needs of an oppressed group on behalf of some abstract notion of a White Male in overalls.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy40.html

September 23, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:34 am

Update: I finally got around to watching this film in its entirety. My review is here.

Another Update: James Wolcott of Vanity Fair has a blog entry on “Little Miss Sunshine” here.

****

As a member of NYFCO (New York Film Critics Online), I get to see films for free at AMC/Loew’s theaters. Unlike my colleagues, I tend not to use the privilege that often. Generally speaking, they have professional obligations to cover the latest dreadful weekly openings. I tend to review documentaries, foreign films and rented vintage films. NYFCO has an awards meeting at the end of the year that picks the best out of Hollywood in the spirit of the Oscars. Last year my nominations were viewed with a mixture of annoyance and bemusement. This year I feel honor-bound to try to take in some of the more critically acclaimed independent films made in the USA that are generally favored by my colleagues. As my first foray into this unfamiliar territory, I went to see “Little Miss Sunshine” with an open mind. It only took me 10 minutes to walk out of this off-putting mess of a film.

The first 10 minutes of the film introduce you to the most unpalatable group of characters imaginable, all members of the dysfunctional Hoover family in Albuquerque that goes on a cross-country trip to enter their young daughter at a beauty contest of the sort that JonBenet Ramsey was exploited at until she was murdered. I got off at the first exit myself.

Greg Kinnear plays Richard Hoover, the little girl’s father. He is first seen presenting one of those dopey motivational talks about how to succeed in business in nine easy steps to a tiny group of paying customers. This of course establishes him as a complete loser. How can you make a living giving such talks when you can’t fill the seats yourself?

His teenage son Dwayne is played by Paul Dano. His bedroom is constructed as a shrine to Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings have inspired him to take an oath of silence. Why is not exactly clear. When I was a miserable adolescent myself, reading Nietzsche made me want to speechify. Despite his deep alienation, Dwayne has his heart set on being accepted at the Air Force Academy as a first step toward realizing his dream of being a fighter pilot. In other words, the character has no reality. Teenage boys with such hopes do not read Nietzsche. They play video games, watch football and beat up boys like Dwayne.

Richard Hoover’s father Edwin (played by Alan Arkin) lives with the family. We first meet him in the family bathroom snorting heroin–he has been thrown out of a senior residence for unspecified misbehavior.

Olive Hoover, the youthful beauty contest aspirant, is played by Abigail Breslin. She is obsessed with Miss America contests and spends every free moment watching past contests on her VCR.

Richard’s wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) returns home with Richard’s brother Frank, a college professor and Proust scholar who has just been released from the hospital after slashing his wrists. He is played by Steve Carrell, the star of the horrid “40 Year Old Virgin,” another film that has him typecast as a pathetic loser.

As the entire clan sits down for a dinner of take-out fried chicken, Frank explains the bandages on his wrist to Olive, who was initially told that he was in some kind of accident. He confesses that he attempted suicide after being rejected by a male student that he had fallen in love with. Olive is aghast at the news that men can love other men. It seems doubtful, of course, that a 10 year old in contemporary America would be unaware that homosexuals exist. While munching on a corncob, the grandfather says that there are words to describe such behavior but he would refrain from using them.

Shortly after dinner, Richard expresses his anxiety about getting a phone call from Stan Grossman who has been working with him to get his book published. When I heard that name, I said to myself that rings a bell. After beginning to reflect more on the character that Greg Kinnear was playing, a pathetic loser with delusions of grandeur, I suddenly realized that Stan Grossman was a character in “Fargo,” the financial adviser to the millionaire father of the kidnapped woman. The Kinnear character was practically lifted from the husband (played by William Macy) of that woman.

Okay, I get it. The film had now classified itself, if there was any doubt, as belonging to the freak show tradition mastered by the Coen brothers and emulated by bright young things coming out of film school everywhere–but without the talent of the Coen brothers (sadly mostly now eroded.) The idea of spending another 90 minutes with the Hoovers was about as appetizing as getting root-canal work, so I walked out.

The 10 minutes of this film left me feeling with such a sour taste that I decided to write about it when I got home. Who was responsible for this freak show crafted for an audience whose sense of humor has largely been molded by television situation comedies and SNL?

It is co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who have never made a feature film before. They have done nothing except music videos before, featuring attractions like Paula Abdul and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Indeed. It was written by one Michael Arndt, who had never written a screenplay before. It shows.

I suppose I should have been more careful given this endorsement from Marc Cooper:

Faster, shorter movie review: “Little Miss Sunshine is fabulous.” It’s been a long, long, long time since I have so thoroughly enjoyed a movie. Go see it this weekend and report back.

I guess that Cooper is more in line with mainstream opinion on this film than me, since 93 percent of the critics on rottentomatoes.com, where my reviews appear, raved about it. (Of course, 93 percent of Americans probably hate Hugo Chavez along with Cooper as well, for what that’s worth.) Indeed, the audience was guffawing at the stupid jokes as I made my way up the aisle out of the theater. I guess I needed reminding why shows like “Will and Grace” remain on the air, if not beloved by millions.

Recently economists have been mulling over the question whether American workers have progressed at all since 1973. While the numbers indicate that more hours are needed to secure a house and other basic goods, some economists argue that the introduction of new technologies like cell phones, microwave ovens and video games, etc. more than make up for this.

I don’t know. I often feel nostalgic for the 1950s when you could go into a fruit store like my father’s and eat a tomato whose flavor expresses a kind of Platonic ideal, not to speak of the fact that you didn’t have to worry about e. coli.

I also feel nostalgic for the movies I used to watch when I was an undergraduate. The other night I caught most of “The Seventh Seal” on TCM and sat enthralled once again by Ingmar Bergman’s genius.

I’ll tell you what. I’ll give back my cell phone if I could see films like that any day of the week.

UPDATE:

Excellent review of “Little Miss Sunshine”

 

September 20, 2006

Hugo Chavez speech to the United Nations

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Text of Speech to United Nations on 9/20/2006

Video of Speech to United Nations on 9/20/2006

September 18, 2006

Nip/Tuck

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

 

Dr. Sean McNamara and Dr. Christian Troy

With enough postmodernist tropes to keep a MLA convention going for an extra week, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” uses plastic surgery as a metaphor for various gender, racial and broader cultural issues. Although not as acclaimed as some of HBO’s marquee attractions such as “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City,” “Nip/Tuck” is certainly as well written, acted and directed. Now in its fourth season on the FX cable network, which is not a premium outlet like HBO or Showtime, it is a true pop culture achievement. Past seasons can be viewed on DVD as well.

The two main characters are Christian Troy and Sean McNamara, partners in a Miami plastic surgery clinic, who are played by journeymen actors Julian McMahon, an Australian, and Dylan Walsh respectively. Now in early middle age, the two men have been friends since college days and both are going through a midlife crisis since the show began. Troy is the quintessential lothario who lures women into bed with promises of a free boob job. McNamara is desperately longing to have a stable married life but nothing goes right for him. His wife is sexually frustrated, his teenaged son hates him for all the usual reasons while his prepubescent daughter is still too young to suffer the miseries that attend the other members of the family on a nonstop basis.

The show is a combination of primetime soap opera and grand guignol experiment. In one of my favorite episodes, the two physicians face recertification which involves doing plastic surgery on a cadaver’s head under the watchful eye of an examiner. Christian Troy, who was far too busy partying as a college student to hone his skills to perfection, is so worried about the test that he decides to practice on his own cadaver beforehand. When it turns out that one can only be secured at the city morgue, Troy tries to bullshit his way past the security guard who will have none of it. After buying him off with some free “nip and tuck” work, we see a triumphant Troy making his way out the hospital with the cadaver’s head concealed in a bag.

Although McNamara is the far superior surgeon, he has lately been suffering attacks of the “yips”, an uncontrollable hand tic that afflicts golfers. So anxious is he about his prospects that he suffers hallucinations while working on the head of the cadaver assigned to him. The severed head of an elderly woman begins to chastise him for failings, both professional and personal. The scene achieves the kind of surreally comic intensity of a Dennis Potter teleplay.

The major female characters in “Nip/Tuck” are McNamara’s wife Julia, played by British actress Joely Richardson (the daughter of actor Tony Richardson), and McNamara’s long-time girl-friend Kimber Henry, who has turned from modeling to directing porn films. She is played by Kelly Carlson, a Sharon Stone type. Making occasional appearances on the show is Julia’s overbearing psychiatrist mother who is played to perfection by Vanessa Redgrave. The show often features celebrated actors in cameo roles, including Kathleen Turner who is somewhat typecast as a once-glamorous actress trying to recapture her youth though the surgeon’s blade (Turner has suffered a ‘coup d’age’ in real life.)

Each show begins in the same fashion with the two doctors asking a prospective patient what they don’t like about themselves. You get an endless litany of complaints about breasts being too large or too small, noses that are too Jewish, stomachs that need liposuction, etc. It is difficult to imagine how such matters can serve as an anchor for each week’s plot, but the writers have a gifted imagination as well as an obvious willingness to go beyond the bounds of medical realism. “Nip/Tuck” is most certainly not interested in verisimilitude. For that, you’re better off with documentaries like E Television’s Dr. 90210 or ABC’s “Extreme Makeover,” whose blandishments I have found all too easy to resist.

Plastic surgery, like crime on “The Sopranos” or sex on “Sex and the City”, is merely a means for the writers to explore the psychology of the major characters and to meditate on American society’s foibles, most especially the commodification of beauty. Over and over again, characters discover that physical transformation does not bring them happiness. When one elderly female patient goes through extensive surgery in order to transform herself into the younger woman that her Alzheimer’s afflicted husband can only recognize in an old photo at that point, she discovers that he can still not recognizer her.

In an August 3, 2003 NY Times interview with head writer and creator Ryan Murphy conducted by Mim Udovitch, he explains how the show originated:

UDOVITCH — How did the concept develop?

MURPHY — When I was a journalist in the mid-90′s, calf implants for men had just come out, and I was going to do a very snarky, sarcastic article, going through the entire process and then stopping. So I went into my consultation with this plastic surgeon, and within five minutes, he told me five things I could do to improve my face and my body, and thus my life. And I walked out of that thinking, yeah, that makes total sense to me. I was so struck and appalled by that, I got scared off doing the article. Then when I started to have some luck in my career, I would always say, “I want to do a show about plastic surgery.” People would laugh and say: “I can totally see it. It’s hilarious.” And I would always say, “It’s not a sitcom, it’s a brutal hour look at the reasons people hate themselves.” Because I felt that when I walked out of that plastic surgeon’s office.

UDOVITCH — What do you think about the plastic surgery and makeover reality shows?

MURPHY — “Extreme Makeover” on ABC I find almost irresponsible and reprehensible. There’s a girl. She’s unhappy and she’s ugly and she’s been picked on, and they whisk her away to the surgery in a limo as if she were going to a premiere. There’s the 10-second soundbite after the surgery, when she’s drugged out of her mind, saying, “I don’t know if this was the right decision.” Then it’s “Brittany decided it was absolutely worth it.” And the last shot is always when the victim, the plastic surgery patient, walks down the stairway in her neighborhood Ground Round, and everybody applauds and cries. I want to see the show where the child looks at that person and weeps, and says, “You don’t look like my mother anymore.”

Apparently, plastic surgery has been around a long time as a wiki article reveals:

The history of cosmetic surgery reaches back to the ancient world. Physicians in ancient India including the great Indian surgeon Susrutha were utilizing skin grafts for reconstructive work as early as the 8th century BC. His work Sushruta Samhita describes rhinoplasty and otoplasty. This knowledge of plastic surgery existed in India up to the late 18th century as can be seen from the reports published in Gentleman’s Magazine (October 1794).

The Romans were able to perform simple techniques such as repairing damaged ears from around the 1st century BC. In mid-15th century Europe, Heinrich von Pfolspeundt described a process “to make a new nose for one who lacks it entirely, and the dogs have devoured it” by removing skin from the back of the arm and suturing it in place. However, because of the dangers associated with surgery in any form, especially that involving the head or face, it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that such surgeries became commonplace.

Notwithstanding plastic surgery’s long history, it seems fairly obvious that it functions in American society as a typical “self-improvement” tool that goes along with diet, meditation techniques and other devices meant to help the individual human being stay afloat in a deeply competitive society. Since American society is based on a “dog eat dog” economic logic, it is no wonder that people are tempted to go under the knife to stay viable. This is obviously most true in professions like acting and television broadcasting where crow’s feet around the eyes or a double-chin can mean the loss of a livelihood.

In 1997, a book titled “Venus Envy: a history of cosmetic surgery” came out. It was written by Elizabeth Haiken, a history professor at the University of Tennessee. A January 23, 1998 Boston Globe review said:

In 1924, the New York Daily Mirror ran a Homely Girl Contest, awarding the unfortunate winner a surgical makeover. In 1929, after Rudolph Valentino’s death, his older brother, at the urging of movie executives, underwent seven nose jobs in a futile effort to achieve “a nose the camera will like.” Readers of the New York Daily News were treated to a sympathetic account of his ordeal.

As Haiken’s research reveals, it wasn’t just the great and near-great who availed themselves of cosmetic surgery. The movies exerted a powerful influence on ordinary Americans’ self-image. Women, especially, wanted to look like stars they saw onscreen, and some were willing to submit to surgery, often at the hands of disreputable “beauty doctors,” sometimes with unfortunate results.

In the 1920s and ’30s, trained plastic surgeons realized the importance of establishing the legitimacy of their specialty and brought it under the auspices of the American Medical Association. The American Board of Plastic Surgery was founded in 1941 to set standards for the profession. In the years between the wars, many plastic surgeons had concentrated on performing reconstructive surgery and were reluctant to operate on patients motivated by vanity. But by the ’40s most had realized that vanity was where the future lay, to say nothing of the money. The doctors were shortly persuaded that these patients weren’t motivated by (unhealthy) vanity but by a (healthy) desire for self-respect through self-improvement. If a new nose or chin would help them land a job or a husband, the cosmetic surgeon was ready to help. It was, and is, the American way.

If the fetishism of commodities is symptomatic of a society based on capitalist exploitation, no wonder that fetishism of the face and the body has become part of the “American way.” Just as we are told over and over that one can never be too rich or too thin, we are more and more buying into the idea that we can never be too beautiful. “Perfect Lie,” the haunting theme song of “Nip Tuck” performed by “Engine Room”, says it all:

Make me beautiful
Make me beautiful

Perfect soul
Perfect mind
Perfect face
A perfect lie

Make me beautiful
Make me beautiful

Perfect soul
Perfect mind
Perfect face
A perfect, perfect soul
Perfect mind
Perfect face

A perfect lie
A perfect lie

A perfect lie
A perfect lie

September 16, 2006

Darfur activism?

Filed under: Africa,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Organisations supporting the Global Day for Darfur include Waging Peace:

Waging Peace campaigns against British support for dictators. Where there is currently inadequate pressure regarding specific countries, we lobby decision-makers to change diplomatic and corporate relationships with unsavoury regimes.

From the Waging Peace website:

TESS FINCH-LEES

Director, is an anti-discrimination specialist and social commentator. She has lived and worked overseas and speaks Spanish and French. Tess publishes regularly in the press including: The Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Irish Times, The Voice and The Guardian. At Waging Peace Tess is responsible for, and has successfully led, a number of high profile media campaigns in relation to Darfur. As Director of The Global Effectiveness Group, Tess frequently chairs and presents at international Diversity and Corporate Social Responsibility conferences. She has advised organizations such as: BP, Barclays and The Royal Mail. Tess has an MSc in Organisational Behaviour.

 

Tess Finch-Lees, Director

From the Global Effectiveness Group website:

Tess Finch-Lees is Irish and has lived and worked in the UK, Colombia, and France. She speaks English, Spanish, and French and has an MSc in Organisational Behaviour from the University of London.

Whilst in the UK , Tess developed team building workshops, as well as workshops in stress management, assertiveness for women, and managing conflict. In Colombia she worked as an organisational consultant for BP Exploration, where she designed and implemented programmes on multi-cultural teamwork, as well as providing workshops on cultural adaptation for Colombian employees in preparation for expatriation. Tess also acted as a strategic advisor to Diageo PLC and was the Andean region representative for Saville & Holdsworth Ltd in South America. More recently, she has led the design and development of a “Diversity Leadership Questionnaire” which was successfully piloted for a major pharmaceutical client and which has become a widely used and respected tool. As part of her ongoing work with FTSE 100 companies, Tess provides coaching and strategic support at board level and has extensive experience of project and people management.

Until recently Tess managed the “Global Diversity Network”, a knowledge-sharing forum for global heads of diversity including Barclays, BP, Cable and Wireless, Dow Chemicals, Hewlett Packard, Kodak, the Philip Morris Company, & Shell.

The Independent (London)

June 18, 2005, Saturday

SECTION: First Edition; NEWS

COLOMBIAN OIL PIPELINE: FARMERS ‘TERRIFIED OUT OF THEIR HOMES’ TO SUE BP FOR £15M

BY ROBERT VERKAIK

Martin Day, right, is acting for farmers who say the pipeline has brought them destitution and, in some cases, eviction by paramilitaries

BP is facing a £15m compensation claim from a group of Colombian farmers who say that the British oil company took advantage of a regime of terror by government paramilitaries to profit from the construction of a 450-mile pipeline.

In what will be a landmark human rights case in the UK, the farmers allege that the pipeline destroyed their land and forced them into destitution.

A British law firm representing the farmers has written to BP, accusing the company of benefiting from harassment and intimidation meted out by Colombian paramilitaries employed by the government to guard the pipeline.

What is to be done?

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:47 pm

Since the Columbia Library has Lars T. Lih’s “Lenin rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context”, I will have more to say after reading it. However, at this point I’d like to make some observations on the reviews that appear in the latest International Socialism journal and in “The Weekly Worker”, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The first publication is produced by the Socialist Workers Party that was founded by the late Tony Cliff on the principles of state capitalism and is now the largest left group in Great Britain . Although it has paid some lip-service to breaking with democratic centralism, the SWP still retains much of the “Leninist” baggage of the past 90 years designed to be made more palatable through a “socialism from below” sugar coating.

On the other hand, the CPGB (despite the name, it has never had any connection with the Kremlin-based movement) is a tiny group that largely exists as a gadfly presence on the left with a particular obsession with the SWP. To its credit, the CPGB has written many interesting things about the organizational question over the years. Despite this, it seems to have little understanding about party-building, which is as much of an art as it is a science. If I were the leader of this group, the first thing I’d do is drop the name Communist Party and the hammer-and-sickle icon from the home page of their website, but that’s none of my business.

My interest in reviewing these reviews is basically to see how sections of the left are reacting to a challenge that has been put forward on the question of what democratic centralism, Leninism, etc. really mean. I have written numerous articles on the Internet but there have been books as well, including Paul LeBlanc’s “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” that is referred to in the International Socialism review. LeBlanc was a member of the American SWP during my tenure, but has since moved on to an academic career and membership in Solidarity. Around 6 or 7 years ago, he still believed that the American SWP of James P. Cannon was a model for a revolutionary party. He probably still does today, although his efforts to reconstruct one appear largely theoretical rather than practical. Volume one of American SWP leader Barry Sheppard’s memoir also endorses the idea that Cannon’s party was virtually flawless, but he surely will have to come to terms in volume two with whether its organizational principles have anything to do with its subsequent degeneration into a sect-cult. LeBlanc explains this evolution in terms of psychology, but I think it has more to do with methodology. Basically, any group that is predicated on assuming the power and influence of Lenin’s party on the basis of a set of ideas and a mechanical application of “democratic centralism” is on the road to ruin. Groups like the American SWP of the 1960s and 70s and the British SWP of today are distinguished by being exceptions to this rule, at least on a temporary basis.

The International Socialism review was written by Paul Blackledge and is titled “What was Done“. According to Blackledge, “Lih’s basic argument is that Lenin sought to apply in Russia the model of socialist organisation that had proved so successful in Germany.”

This is what I wrote in the early 1990s in an article titled “Lenin in Context“:

It is essential to understand is that the whole purpose of the convention at which this historic split took place was to form a party where none existed. It was Lenin and Plekhanov’s intention to form a new social-democratic party on the model of the Western European parties. It was not, as our contemporary “Marxist-Leninists” believe, an initiative to innovate some new “democratic-centralist” type of party. Plekhanov was the father of Russian Marxism and Lenin considered himself a disciple of Plekhanov. In the articles leading up to the convention, Lenin continuously pointed to the example of Kautsky’s party in Germany as something Russian socialists should emulate.

Now I have to confess that I did not come to these conclusions totally on my own. I was simply repeating the case made by Neil Harding in the early chapters of “Lenin’s Political Thought,” an essential text for understanding what Lenin really stood for. Unfortunately, Harding has demonstrated a certain susceptibility to anti-Communism in “Leninism”, his most recent book written in 1996. Against the preponderance of all evidence, including Lenin’s will, Harding argues that Stalinism is merely a continuation of Leninism (as if that term had any real meaning.)

Blackledge’s main criticism of Lih’s book is that it is content to make the case that Lenin’s party did not represent any qualitative breach with the party-building approach of the Second International. He invokes Lukács, of all people, as a guide to what was qualitatively different about Lenin’s party and the Third International, which was a bid to replace Second International parties worldwide:

Lukács recognised that, while there were undoubted levels of continuity between the Marxisms of the Second and Third Internationals, there was a fundamental break between the two. This break began with the debate on the expulsion of the revisionists in the 1890s, and culminated in the publication of Lenin’s State and Revolution in 1917. In breaking with the degeneration of the Second International, the left of that organisation, led by Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, was compelled to make a root and branch critique of Kautskyism.

One can certainly understand Blackledge’s need to emphasize the political differences between Kautsky and Lenin. However, it is difficult to see how “democratic centralism” is any kind of guarantee that you will not end up making reformist errors. Moreover, the real problem with “Leninist” organizations is that they largely breed ultraleftism and sectarianism, not reformism.

Although I have to reserve judgment until I get a chance to read Lih’s book, it would seem to me that his main interest is scholarly rather than political. He wants to rescue Lenin from the distortions that have been imposed on “What is to be Done,” both from Lenin’s “friends” on the extreme left who see themselves as his heirs, and from his enemies who see this early work as a kind of smoking gun that led to Stalin’s dictatorship.

To really understand Lenin in context, you have to look at the entire project of revolutionary party-building from 1903 to the present age. Apparently Lih steeped himself in the European and Russian socialist literature of the early 20th century to help frame his ideas. My own view is that it is necessary to look at the history of the Cuban communist movement as well, which largely encapsulated the lessons of “What is to be done” without saying as much.

The CPGB review makes a number of the same points as the SWP, which is understandable. Both groups are anxious to preserve the “revolutionary” kernel of WITBD against Lih’s attempt to contextualize it in terms of European Social Democracy of the late 19th century. However, Mike Macnair concludes his review with an observation that jibes much more with my own take on the matter:

There is a lot more than this in Lih’s book. But its primary lesson should be clear from this last point. There is no angelic, or demonic, ‘new party concept’ emerging from WITBD or from the 1903 split in the RSDLP. The party concept WITBD defends is the Kautskyan party concept. In contrast, the actual political debates the book discusses – especially the argument between Iskra and Rabochoye Delo – is one which has important lessons for the modern far left.

Just one parting word on the disjunction between Lih’s work, no matter his subjective intention, and the legacy of Lenin for workers today. There is something truly grotesque about publishing a book with a $174 price tag that will be available only in research libraries like Columbia University and its ostensible goal, which is to educate activists about what Lenin really stood for, so as to correct mistakes. Since Lih has no visible connection to the organized left, perhaps this assumption is unwarranted. Maybe his only goal was to correct the historical record.

But surely the people involved with Historical Materialism, who include a number of academics in the British SWP, must understand that this sort of thing would strike the average activist as somewhat ludicrous. Even in the unlikely event that Lih’s book ended up in the library at Albany State, it is doubtful that somebody like Marxmailer Jon Flanders, who works as a locomotive mechanic in the area, would spend his day off at the Albany library pouring through this 900 page tome.

There is something singularly hierarchical about this information model that betrays a complete disjunction from the free-wheeling spirit that produced WITBD. Not a single leader of the British SWP, including Budgen himself, have any use for the debates that take place on the Internet, which is seen largely as a place to drop off announcements for a new issue of Historical Materialism or Socialist Worker.

Lenin’s goal in WITBD was to create a forum for the exchange of ideas across Russia where none had existed. Iskra would thereby strengthen the nascent Marxist movement and prepare the way for a revolution. He wrote:

Political and economic exposures gathered from all over Russia would provide mental food for workers of all trades and all stages of development; they would provide material and occasion for talks and readings on the most diverse subjects, which would, in addition, be suggested by hints in the legal press, by talk among the people, and by “shamefaced” government statements. Every outbreak, every demonstration, would be weighed and, discussed in its every aspect in all parts of Russia and would thus stimulate a desire to keep up with, and even surpass, the others (we socialists do not by any means flatly reject all emulation or all “competition”!) and consciously prepare that which at first, as it were, sprang up spontaneously, a desire to take advantage of the favourable conditions in a given district or at a given moment for modifying the plan of attack, etc.

It would seem obvious from this interview on Mrzine that Chinese workers have adapted this new technology to accomplish the same goals as Iskra:

An Interview with Yan Yuanzhang
by Stephen Philion

On February 22nd, the Chinese government shut down the China Workers’ Website and Discussion Lists because, according to the order of closure, the owner of such a website must make a 10,000,000 Yuan (US $1.2 million) deposit to register it as a legal one. The editorial collective responded that they would not be able to pay the fee since they were mostly farmers and employed and unemployed workers without access to such a huge sum. Thus the first leftist-run website in China that enabled workers and farmers to talk about their struggles to defend socialism in today’s China was shut down.

Below is an interview I conducted on February 26th with one of the administrators of the China Workers Website editorial collective in Beijing. He, as well as other members of the collective, is evidence of a new generation of leftists in China who are actively involved in struggles of workers and farmers, stepping into the role that the Party rejected long ago.

Q: Now, why would the Chinese government, a socialist government in name, be concerned about a website run by leftists discussing the kinds of things that were discussed on the China Workers Website?

A: Well, because the government is not making socialism.

Q: Of course. I’m asking because outside China there are still some leftists who see China as a socialist country.

A: Well, hearing such nonsense would reduce a pig to tearful fits of laughter! Our web discussion is designed for workers and farmers to discuss their issues and struggles. This is the kind of thing a socialist democracy would want, for workers to have the kind of democracy that capitalism couldn’t provide.

In my article “Lenin in Context,” I explain how Lenin sought innovations in party organizing in the same way that the enemy class was innovating within the factory:

Economism belonged to Russia’s past; orthodox Marxism was the way forward. He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the highly complex and specialized nature of modern mass production. He saw socialist parties as the working-class equivalent of large-scale industrial plants. A centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor was needed to move the struggle forward, just as it was necessary to construct steam locomotives. Lenin was no enemy of capitalist technology and mechanization. Rather he sought to appropriate its positive features whenever necessary.

If he were alive today, I am sure that he would be trying to make the same use of the Internet that he made of Iskra in the early 20th century. That should be our goal as well.

 

September 14, 2006

American Eustonians

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 8:04 pm

Although it has almost no presence in Great Britain outside of a handful of pro-war blogs, the Euston Manifesto has now inspired (for lack of a better word) an American offshoot. You can read the American manifesto and its signatories both on the Euston website and at Telos Magazine, a publication that broke with socialism like many of the principals–including Norm Geras and Ronald Radosh.

The American manifesto was drafted by six professors and a deputy editor of the New Republic by the unlikely name of Richard Just. Like many of the New Republic editors, Just is a callow youth who graduated from Princeton in 2001. As is the case with many such ambitious ivy leaguers, it is well-understood that one’s career can best be advanced by promoting the New Republic brand of DLC politics or that of the overlapping neoconservative camp, especially when your main goal in life is to make bushels of money by flattering the men in power on Wall Street and Washington, DC. Just was formerly the editor of New Republic Online, which recently suffered a major embarrassment:

After an investigation, The New Republic has determined that the comments in our Talkback section defending Lee Siegel’s articles and blog under the username “sprezzatura” were produced with Siegel’s participation. We deeply regret misleading our readers. Lee Siegel’s blog will no longer be published by TNR, and he has been suspended from writing for the magazine.

 

Richard Just: callow youth

I guess that in the world of Democratic Party centrism, the Peter Principle applies just as much as it does in the corporate world.

The statement is filled with boiler-plate denunciations of anti-Americanism and Islamic extremism with one interesting Freudian slip:

Yet the passions of too many liberals here and abroad, even in the aftermath of terrorist attacks all over the world, remain more focused on the misdeeds and errors of our own government in Iraq than on the terrorist outrages by Islamic extremists.

Although one supposes that the “our government” referred to above refers to the one led by President Bush, it is certainly open to interpretation that they are referring to the Iraqi quislings which certainly can also be understood as “our own”.

The initial group of signers includes a mixture of cold war liberals like Daniel Bell as well as Republican Party activists like Robert “K.C.” Johnson, a Brooklyn College professor who comes across like David Horowitz on mood-relaxing medication.

The most interesting player in all this is Telos Magazine, which started out in 1969 as a Marxist journal with Franfurt School sympathies. Ironically, one of the more interesting accounts of this journal’s break with the left comes from Danny Postel, a turncoat himself. When he still had socialist pretensions, Postel wrote an article for “In These Times” in April 24, 1991 titled “The metamorphosis of Telos” that starts out like this:

WHY WOULD A JOURNAL that has described itself as “the philosophical conscience of the American left” and “a journal of radical thought” invite a senior contributing editor of The World & I–a publication of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times corporation–into its editorial circle? The journal is Telos, and its new comrade is Paul Gottfried, a self-described “reactionary” who has also written for such publications as Policy Review, the official magazine of the Heritage Foundation. Why would someone with Gottfried’s politics be interested in a journal like Telos?

That’s a good question, but it seems less challenging today than it did back in 1991 before the gates of hell had opened to unleash a transformed Christopher Hitchens and company. It was “Man bites dog” back then but today it amounts to “Dog bites man” and a big yawn.

Four years earlier Telos had put out a special issue on Carl Schmitt, the German legal theorist who, according to Postel, “authored no fewer than five books and 35 tracts in support of Hitler’s regime during the period of 1933-36.”

Schmitt, of course, became a figure to be reckoned with in the more recent past as the spiritual forefather of many of the neoconservatives associated with the war in Iraq, largely through the intermediary of his disciple Leo Strauss who was professor to a number of the prominent hawks at the U. of Chicago. Although Strauss was Jewish and forced to flee Nazi Germany, he retained many of the ideas he picked up from his professor.

Quoting from a Telos newsletter written in 1987, Postel hones in on what was behind the ideological mutation:

In a 1987 issue of the editors’ newsletter (the Telos Public Sphere), Piccone acknowledged a crisis at the journal–both organizational and theoretical: “Half of our editors have retired intellectually and burned out politically, the other half [are] rapidly becoming senile, cynical or purely careerist, while the rest are beset by a combination of both… What I think has happened is that, with the disappearance of any meaningful political ‘movement’ and the abandonment of the Marxist paradigm, we have scattered in many directions–not always necessarily compatible.” He bluntly called on his fellow editors to ask, “What do we stand for, and what are we attempting to accomplish with Telos?”

He concluded candidly that, “in a nutshell, our relation to capitalism has become much more tolerant and nuanced than ever before, especially in light of the disasters associated with any kind of socialism or planned economies.” He went on to lament that “lately Telos has not been flooded by much on the way of dynamite theoretical contributions… Either we move beyond this point or we are not going to be around very long.”

I found the self-description of “Half of our editors have retired intellectually and burned out politically, the other half [are] rapidly becoming senile, cynical or purely careerist, while the rest are beset by a combination of both…” most apt as a description of the Euston crowd as well.

September 11, 2006

Separated at birth?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:11 pm

Fred Ward, actor featured in numerous b-movies, including “Tremors”

 

Stan Goff, fearless author and antiwar leader

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