Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2006

The Internationale

Filed under: Film,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

On November 18th I attended a memorial meeting for Caroline Lund, a socialist activist who I knew from the Socialist Workers Party in the 1960s and 70s. She had died a few weeks earlier of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) at the age of 62 and the speakers and audience were honoring her accomplishments.

In keeping with the traditions of our movement, the meeting concluded with a singing of the Internationale. It was the first time I had sung it in public since the last SWP convention I had attended in the 1970s. For people like us, this was like a national anthem but even more central to our being. It always made my hair stand on end like a great operatic aria. No matter how amateurish the singers, they always sounded stirring.

For anybody who has ever sung this song or who still has hopes that, as the lyrics say, “The earth shall rise on new foundations” will want to see Peter Miller’s 60 minute documentary “The Internationale”, now available in DVD/video. Miller also directed the definitive documentary on the Sacco and Vanzetti case and is one of our finest radical film-makers.

Miller blends together archival footage of people singing the Internationale from all around the world with interviews of various well-known socialists–and some not so well-known–about what the song means to them. We hear from Pete Seeger and from Dorothy Healey, who died recently. Healey, who is worth the price of admission just for her own fantastic insights, talks about being jailed during a farm workers organizing drive in the early 1930s. In jail, she sang the Internationale with the workers, who were mostly Mexican and who had vivid memories of the revolution led by Zapata and Pancho Villa.

Seeger and Healey get to the heart of a contradiction that is contained in the song’s lyric: “No more shall tradition’s chains bind us…” Since the song is the quintessential expression of iconoclasm, it becomes turned against this very goal when it is adopted as the national anthem of the USSR. Seeger says that performances in the USSR, especially at military parades, etc., slow down and become ponderous. The song was now meant to convey an awesome state power and Stalin’s authority. He illustrates this by singing a few bars in his altogether unique style.

Miller’s documentary is also filled with fascinating historical detail, especially the circumstances of its origin. Although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about socialist history, I had no idea that the song was composed by Eugène Pottier, a partisan of the Paris Commune who was fleeing repression. Later on, it was set to music by Pierre Degeyter, a Belgian worker.

Although the song might be regarded in some circles as kitschy, it will certainly continue to be embraced by anybody fighting to change the world. One of the more striking examples, which can be found on the MRZine website, is a video of militants of the Nepalese Communist Party singing the song accompanied by indigenous instruments. It, like Miller’s film, is truly inspiring.

Video of Nepalese Communists singing (shown in photo above)

Film Website

Film trailer on Youtube

 

November 26, 2006

Four Mainstream Films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

This is the time of year when I get swamped by screener DVD’s from the major studios that are meant to assist members of NYFCO (New York Film Critics Online) choose the “best of” for 2006. While we are by no means as prestigious a group as the one that hands out Oscars, I think we have a lot more integrity. Because of the power of the Internet to influence movie ticket sales, the industry is paying more attention to what we have to say. Last year our awards were mentioned in a number of trade papers like Variety and I expect the same thing to happen this year.

Even though “Half Nelson” is the prototypical “Indy” film, I still regard it as mainstream from my rather outre perspective. I would regard any film that gets sent to me in a bid for a NYFCO award to fall into that category. Most of the movies I have seen this year, which are either documentaries or exceedingly obscure foreign films, will never get promoted in this fashion. It is a miracle that they are ever shown in theaters.

Interestingly enough, the first four I chose to view out of a pile of 20 or so are involved to one extent or another with questions of class society. It confirms the continuing interest by major studios, despite all sorts of pressure in the opposite direction, to carry out the major responsibility of anybody involved with fine or popular art–namely to tell the truth about the world we live in. None of these four films are a masterpiece, but I have no problem recommending them. They should either be available now as a video rental or soon will be.

1. “Little Children”– This film was based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, who co-wrote the screen adaptation with Todd Field, the highly regarded director who began his career as an actor. I have not seen any of the previous films he directed, including the 2001 “In the Bedroom” which garnered rave reviews as well.

“Little Children” covers the same kind of terrain as the hit TV show “Desperate Housewives” and the 2003 film “Far From Heaven”. This is a suburbia of barren marriages and phony values from which the major characters are trying to escape. The obvious inspiration for these pop culture expressions is Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, to which “Little Children” pays homage. Around the time that Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) has an affair with Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), her best friend invites her to take part in a local book discussion club that is currently focused on Flaubert’s study of another bored housewife. When some of the book club members denounce Madame Bovary as a slut, Sarah defends her as a proto-feminist. Considering her background as a graduate student in literature, it is not surprising that she would approach the novel from this angle, especially since it resonates with her own experience.

The film is very much concerned with the question of social norms, especially around sexual behavior. Their town is up in arms over the return from prison of a sex offender, a middle aged man who had exposed himself to young girls. Although he is certainly a detestable figure, the local villagers who write nasty graffiti on his house and hound him relentlessly come off as not much better.

“Little Children” makes extensive use of a voice-over narration lifted from Perrotta’s novel. While such a technique is usually seen as a hindrance, it worked well in this instance. Perrotta seems to be a rather sensitive and intelligent writer based on both his work and an interview he gave to Post Road Magazine. When asked his opinion about the function of novels in society today, he replied:

This question deserves a book instead of a couple of paragraphs, and the answer should be written by someone a little more knowledgeable than me. But my sense is that the novel’s status in American culture is a bit precarious at the moment. On the one hand, the novel has been superseded by movies and TV shows (and perhaps soon by computer games) as our preeminent popular narrative art form. On the other hand, there isn’t much of an audience left for the elitist, high modernist (or postmodernist) novel—there are apparently fewer and fewer readers of “serious” or “literary” fiction than there used to be. So it’s possible to look at the demographics and economics of reading in this country and feel kind of gloomy about the future of the novel. Maybe the novel is heading for the ghetto of once-flourishing mainstream art forms—like poetry and jazz—that now are lucky to reach a niche audience.

That said, there are also reasons for optimism. The novel has always occupied a murky zone between “high” literary culture and “low” mass culture, so its place in society right now isn’t necessarily that depressing or unfamiliar to its practitioners. And the fact is, the novel as an art form is flourishing—as far as I can tell, there are far more good novels being created right now than there are good movies or TV shows. And the novel remains the single best and most flexible art form for examining the individual in a social context, and exploring the inner lives of human beings. Those of us who love novels have no choice but to go on reading and writing them. Whether we can replenish the ranks of hungry readers in the decades to come will determine whether the form continues to thrive, or slowly fades away.

2. “Half Nelson”– This is the story of a white, Marxist, crack addicted intermediate school teacher who befriends Drey (Shareeka Epps) a 13 year old student who catches him on the pipe in the girl’s locker room. In other words, we are dealing with some rather unfamiliar (and perhaps unlikely) material.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is committed to teaching history through dialectics. History is about change, he tells his students, and change only comes about through the struggle between opposites, like the civil rights movement and racism, the rich and the poor, etc. Throughout the film, there are set pieces in which his students recount some key episode in American society that demonstrate these tendencies, like the killing of Harvey Milk.

While Dan is all energy and enthusiasm in the classroom, he is in a depressed drug haze everywhere else. This is actually the main problem with the film. Although there was a conscious decision to make the central character a bundle of contradictions, keeping with the emphasis on dialectics no doubt, it does not quite come off. For somebody who is as supposedly as political as Dan Dunne is, there is almost no indication outside the classroom that he cares much about politics. When another teacher, a female Puerto Rican, asks him if he is a communist after she spends the night with him, he asks her why she asked such a question. She answers that she got that impression from the Che Guevara books on his shelf. He replies that if she saw a copy of Mein Kampf, would that mean that he was a Nazi? This is not the kind of reply that I would have come up with if I had written this film. It was a perfect opportunity for Dan Dunne to reveal more about his character and why he was riddled with contradictions. But then again, I criticize movies not write them.

The best thing about “Half Nelson” is the performance by Ryan Gosling. It also has some funny moments, such as when a drug-dealing friend of Drey’s jailed brother asks Dan Dunne if he is still teaching “dianetics” in the classroom.

3. “Thank You For Smoking” is a satire on Washington lobbyists. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the main character, is a handsome, roguish, well-paid employee of an industry-funded tobacco institute whose main purpose is to get people to smoke more and to block any anti-smoking legislation, including a bill proposed by a Vermont Senator played by William Macy that would put a skull and crossbones on every cigarette pack. The institute was launched by the CEO of one of America’s biggest tobacco companies, who is played by Robert Duvall seen in the sickbed below. A lifetime of smoking has finally caught up with him.

At a Washington hearing, Naylor turns the tables on the Senator by accusing him of causing the deaths of thousands of Americans who eat cheddar cheese from his state, a high cholesterol foodstuff that clogs arteries and causes heart attacks. As somebody who has been urged by doctors to lower my blood pressure, I am certainly sympathetic to this line of reasoning.

But the edge in “Thank You For Smoking” is somewhat blunted by the underlying cynicism at work in the scene described above. Based on a novel by Christopher Buckley (William F. Buckley’s son), the main message is that everybody is for sale. Buckley can best be described as a conservative smart alec along the lines of P.J. O’Rourke. Whatever problems I had with the ideas–such as they are–that are expressed in “Thank You For Smoking,” I found it a breezy entertainment that was in some ways a throwback to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day epoch and as easy to take as a gin and tonic.

4. “Lassie” is based on the original 1943 movie that was set in Great Britain and which drew sharp class distinctions between the impoverished family that owned the collie and the aristocrats who bought it. Unlike the slew of Hollywood movies that appeared later and the TV show that they inspired, this film does not depict some kind of super-dog warding off bears, lions and snakes from his youthful master. It is basically the story of a dog making every effort repeatedly to return home to Joe Carraclough (Jonathan Mason), the boy who originally owned her and who loves her more than anybody.

Joe’s father is a Yorkshire coal miner whose poverty forces him to sell the dog to a Duke played by Peter O’Toole seeking to please his granddaughter Jeanie (Kelly Macdonald) after she falls for the collie during a visit to the village. For the rest of the film, the dog runs away repeatedly, each time being returned to the new owner. Eventually Jeanie realizes that the dog prefers to be with Joe and conspires to help it return.

“Lassie” is a welcome antidote to all the animated crap being churned out of Hollywood today with voices by Chris Rock, Robin Williams and the usual cast of characters. It is a return to the kind of humanitarianism that all children’s films should be endowed with. It also would introduce young children to the realities of class society. Highly recommended.

November 23, 2006

Another “antiwar” General calls for escalation

Filed under: Iraq — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

Retired Major General John Batiste: antiwarrior?

On November 10th, I wrote about retired General Eaton’s call for “a Manhattan Project-level effort to build the Iraqi security forces”, a sentiment in clear distinction to an article in the Nation Magazine that characterized him as “antiwar”. That same article grouped him with General John Batiste, who is even more bellicose based on this interview on Chris Matthews’s MSNBC Hardball show last night:

MATTHEWS: Well, help us. What should we do in Iraq? Who should we be shooting at and fighting at, and who should we be defending? What side should we be on in Iraq? Tell us how to — what`s going on over there, and what should we be doing?

BATISTE: Chris, the first thing we have to do, like I said, is recognize that we are fighting a long-term struggle. Iraq is but phase one in this whole effort. This could go on for decades. We need to mobilize this country in multiple areas. We have been fighting this war on the cheap. We`ve inconvenienced the American people as little as possible and that`s not how we`re going to eventually win this struggle.

We need to properly resource the Army and the Marine Corps. These great organizations — we`ve never fielded better military forces in our history — are too small for our national strategy. We need to get serious about funding this war. We need to think about some kind of a war tax so we are not funding this war at the expense of our domestic budget. It goes on and on.

Matthews is an interesting figure. He was much more closely aligned with the political center, even hailing Bush’s “war on terror” when it first began, but has since become truculently opposed to continuing involvement in Iraq. Along with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, whose show follows Matthews, the two constitute the leading edge of television antiwar journalism (as opposed to the excellent spoof journalism of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.)

The night before Matthews pressed Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island and the Armed Services Committee to define what his party would do about ending the war in Iraq, now that it controlled both houses of Congress. Reed, who is a bit to the left of figures such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, was not very forthcoming:

Well, we have to try every option to try to regain the momentum. I don`t think we are in a position of winning, as the president said before the election. We have to do all we can to regain the momentum and try to move this Iraqi government forward.

Other Democrats are advocating dovish sounding policies, but that all fall short of pulling out of Iraq. Barack Obama, who was exposed as a creature of big business by Ken Silverstein in a recent Harper’s, says that American troops should be redeployed to the Kurdish-held North. Joe Biden advocates dividing the country into 3 parts along the lines that Peter Galbraith has described in the New York Review of Books.

But most of all, both parties seem bent on buying time in the hopes that the imperialists can “regain the momentum” as Reed stated. At this point, you are leaving the realm of politics and entering the world of clinical psychology and the phenomenon of denial in particular.

I can understand why these bourgeois politicians are so deeply reluctant to withdraw from Iraq. Unlike Vietnam, Iraq is one of the world’s largest oil suppliers. In an ensuing civil war, the only outcome would be hostile to US interests, with either a pro-Iranian regime or one that might embody a kind of radicalized Baathism.

Although this war is obviously less costly in terms of US lives than the Vietnam War, it is now reaching the same level of intractability. There are signs that the Democrats will attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for ending the war by arguing that war-making powers are invested in the Executive branch. This means that we face another 2 years of war until after the 2008 election. This will of course deepen the political crisis in the US and present openings for the left. The only question, as has been the case for the past half-century or so, is whether it has the presence of mind and the guts to take advantage of it.

November 20, 2006

Caroline Lund memorial meeting

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Caroline Lund: presente!

Last Saturday I attended a memorial meeting for Caroline Lund, who died of ALS on October 14th at the age of 62. The disease is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the Yankee star who succumbed to it as well. One of the best-known victims in the recent period is Stephen Heywood, who was the subject of the documentary “So Much So Fast“. He died on November 30th. Once it sets in, paralysis and death generally occur within a year or two. Caroline first noticed the symptoms in early 2005.

Caroline was married to Barry Sheppard. They were both leaders of the American SWP until irreconcilable differences between them and an ever increasingly sectarian leadership put them on a collision course. After they were separated from the party, both followed a trajectory known to many ex-SWP’ers which involved exploring non-sectarian socialist formations such as Solidarity, a group that both belonged to. Additionally, Caroline was a auto worker activist who put out a newsletter called Barking Dog that was read by between 2 and 3 thousand members of her plant each time it appeared.

I knew Caroline only from a distance since I was a rank-and-filer. That being said, she always made a good impression on me. I think that was because she had a warm smile and because she always appeared guileless, a trait that was generally in short supply in the Trotskyist movement.

Two of the speakers at the meeting, who I hadn’t seen in over 25 years, emphasized the decency of her character and the serious political commitment that had she had demonstrated over the years that they worked with her.

The first was Kipp Dawson, another party leader I always appreciated. Kipp was a leader of the antiwar movement and served on the National Executive Committee of the Young Socialist Alliance when the Trotskyist movement was feeling the wind in its sails. Kipp said that whenever Caroline walked into the room, she felt a sense of warmth and was put at ease. She also said that Caroline had a very sharp analytical mind but never expressed herself in an arrogant manner.

I should say a word or two about Kipp herself. After working for 13 years as a coal miner, Kipp is now teaching school. She brings the same kind of enthusiasm to teaching that she once brought to political work. She believes in the innate goodness and the capacity for change in her students that she saw in people in struggle The job seems a perfect fit for her talents.

I have a vivid memory of Kipp staying at my place in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1971 when she was on tour. This was just around the time that the gay liberation movement was taking shape and when Kipp would come out as a lesbian. We watched “A Streetcar Named Desire” together, the classic film based on Tennessee Williams play starring Marlon Brando. Williams, who was gay, had a profound understanding of sexual relationships and often used heterosexual couples as a stand-in for what were clearly gay ones. Kipp was utterly overcome by the power of Williams’s play, as was I. I remember thinking to myself at the time how lucky I was to be in organization which had leaders like Kipp, who could appreciate great art.

Ginny Hildebrand spoke next. Ginny became friendly with Caroline when the two of them were making the rounds in Pittsburgh on industrial jobs. Ginny, who was the most moving speaker among a group of highly moving speakers, had a self-deprecating sense of humor that I had never seen in action during the time I was in the party with her. She said that she was real loser. Every shop that she went to work for in Pittsburgh went out of business shortly after she got hired. Eventually she figured out that her bad luck made landing trade union jobs virtually impossible, so she switched careers and became a dog groomer! This was something that drew her closer to Barry and Caroline as well since they were all dog lovers.

But there was more to the dog business than this. Ginny said that the word “dogged” came to mind when she thought of Caroline. She really would not be budged when she felt principles were at stake. Her newsletter, the Barking Dog, of course captured both the image of the dog and the “dogged” attitude as well. (It turns out that she adopted the name from another newsletter that used to be circulated by another trade union activist at her plant.) After an unsigned leaflet was circulated at the plant singled her out for attack, she responded by writing a reply leaflet that had the heading: “Why unsigned leaflets are bad.” She explained that this was cowardly. In addition, after she figured out that the leaflet was written by a bureaucrat named Art Torres (the typeface was the same that he had used in signed pieces), she needled him: “Sign your name, Art. Be a man.”

Ginny said that after she had decided to conclude her remarks at the meeting with a quote from Howard Zinn, she discovered that Caroline had already used it in one of her Barking Dog newsletters. The quote embodies her spirit:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Credit must be given to Gus Horowitz for organizing and chairing a truly inspiring meeting. My memory of the SWP is pretty negative, but hearing Kipp and Ginny and being reminded of Caroline’s great character and dedication reminded me of why I stuck around for 11 years. These were among the most appealing people I had ever met in my life. They were also clear about why we had come together. Revolution, unlike art, is a group experience.

I had a chance to meet John Percy, who was over from Australia. He spoke at the beginning of the meeting and described his friendship with Barry and Caroline who were very helpful to the DSP both when they were in and out of the SWP. I knew Jim Percy, John’s brother who died of cancer in 1992. Jim was a very likable guy and so seems John based on the brief conversation we had. Both of us, and everybody in the room, agreed that somehow the good things that had brought us together originally had to be recreated. Of course, the big question is how.

Caroline Lund website

 

November 19, 2006

A Journey of Dmitri Shostakovich

Filed under: music,ussr — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Despite its obvious cold war inspiration, “A Journey of Dmitri Shostakovich,” directed by Okasana Dvornichenko and Helga Landauer, is an excellent introduction to the great composer’s life and career. Structured around a trip by ocean liner he made to the USA near the end of his life in 1973, it blends together performances of his work, excerpts from his letters and appalling evidence of how he was hounded by Stalin and his cultural commissars.

 

Oddly enough, despite the obvious intentions of the directors to cast the USSR as a kind of unredeemed failure, one of the greatest attractions of the film is its liberal use of Soviet era kitsch. Footage of men and women performing calisthenics under Stalin’s gaze, shipboard lectures on the glories of socialism, old agitprop posters, etc., are actually the perfect visual complement to Shostakovich’s music, which was not afraid to indulge in patriotic and socialist flag-waving. Indeed, this contradiction, which was at the heart of his creativity, is something that defies easy resolution. As much as the directors would like to recruit the great composer to a rerun of the cold war culture wars, he remains very much as part of the legacy of a unique experiment.

We learn that Shostakovich was very much a product of the USSR’s historical experience. As an 11 year old boy, he witnessed street fighting between revolutionary workers and Czarist cops. Only 15 years later, he would serve as a fire warden during the siege of Leningrad. He was always torn between writing music for the masses that depicted broad social struggles using straightforward harmonies and more experimental chamber works and opera that were heavily ironic and even nihilistic. When I was first exposed to Shostakovich’s music in the 1950s, I tended to dismiss the first kind of composition and rue the fact that he was prevented from devoting himself fully to the more modern works. My attitude was of course shaped by the prevailing prejudices of the time, which tended to equate artistic “difficulty” with political freedom and private property.

It is a credit to the directors, who despite receiving funding from the Boris Yeltsin fund, that they refrain from a one-sided portrayal of Shostakovich as a prototypical dissident. His relationship to Stalin was far more complex and paradoxical, mirroring in some ways the relationship that Bukharin had to Stalin which alternated between abject worship and open defiance.

In 1979, a posthumous “Testimony” by Shostakovich appeared in an edited form by Solomon Volkov, a Russian musicologist. Supposedly the composer dictated the book to him in a series of meetings from 1971 to 1974. The finished work was a typical anti-Soviet diatribe that belonged on the same bookshelf as Solzhenitsyn et al. This was a typical passage:

“The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. It happened to many of my friends. Where do you put the tombstones for Meyerhold or Tukhachevky? Only music can do that for them. I’m willing to write a composition for each of the victims, but that’s impossible, and that’s why I dedicate my music to them all.”

Eventually “Testimony” was revealed as something of a hoax by Laurel Fay, an American musicologist who discovered numerous flaws and inconsistencies in the work. You can find a complete account of the debate that raged between the supporters of Volkov and Fay on a website titled “Music Under Soviet Rule”. I personally have not followed this debate as closely as I probably should, but I tend to remain skeptical of the idea that the great composer was a secret dissident. Why would I hold that view? Simply because the works that were labeled simple propaganda are just too heart-felt to not be infused with a kind of belief in the power of socialism. If you go to the BBC Radio 3 archives, you can listen to Shostakovich’s 5th symphony online. This is the kind of work that has often been dismissed by Western critics as second-rate musical propaganda, especially considering its origins.

After Shostakovich came out with the opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk,” a more experimental work, he came under attack in Pravda. In a kind of apology, he subtitled the crowd-pleasing 5th symphony as “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” Whatever the circumstances of its origin, I agree with the composer’s assessment that “The idea behind my symphony is the making of a man. I saw him, with all his experience, at the centre of the work, which is lyrical from beginning to end. The Finale brings an optimistic solution to the tragic parts of the first movement.”

Video interview with co-director Helga Landauer.

 

November 18, 2006

Lion of the Desert

Filed under: Africa,Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

A couple of months ago, an old friend who works at the World Bank (yes, we are everywhere) recommended “Lion of the Desert” to me. I finally got around to watching it this week and can strongly recommend it as one of the finer anti-colonial films of recent years and one that like “Battle of Algiers” resonates strongly with the struggle now taking place in Iraq.

Made in 1979, “Lion of the Desert” is a historically faithful study of the guerrilla struggle against the Italian fascist occupation of Libya led over a 20 year period by Omar Mukhtar, who is played by Anthony Quinn. In keeping with the film’s respect for historical accuracy, Quinn, who was 64 at the time, is a perfect choice to play Mukhtar who was 69 when he was captured by the fascists. With his naturally white hair and beard, Quinn seems an unlikely choice to play the stereotypical warrior but the historical Mukhtar was no stereotype.

 

Omar Mukhtar in captivity

As the film progresses, we discover that the character relied more on wile than on physical prowess, just as was the case in real life. Quinn’s character wears eyeglasses that fall from his face during his final combat, just as took place historically. This is not a Braveheart type treatment that depicts the oppressed Libyans as defeating much larger and much better equipped armies through sheer courage, but rather one that is marked frequently by exhaustion and defeat. We remember Omar Mukhtar today less for his ability to foil the fascists than for his inner resourcefulness and his belief in freedom. He might be a lion, but he is also a human being.

The Italians colonized Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia as part of an attempt to get up to speed with their more “advanced” Western European rivals who had a toehold in Africa for some time. Mukhtar was a leader of the Senusi people who lived in the Cyrenaica region in Eastern Libya before it had become a modern state. Described as Bedouin in the film, they appear to have the same kind of fiercely independent streak as the Algerian Kabyle (Berbers) who challenged the French in Algeria in the 1950s.

When we first meet Mukhtar Omar in the film, he is giving lessons in the Quran to young boys in a Senusi village. Throughout the film, the character’s religious faith goes hand in hand with his determination to resist the occupation. His Islamic beliefs in the brotherhood of man also lead him to avoid treating Italian prisoners with the same kind of cruelty that his own fighters endured.

Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar explaining the Quran

His main adversary in the film is Gen. Rodolfo Graziani (Oliver Reed), who was hand-picked by Mussolini to quash the Senusi rebellion and who eventually succeeded. His methods included herding the Senusi into concentration camps and erecting a long barbed-wire fence between Libya and Egypt in order to cut off supplies. Historians estimate that between 30,000 and 70,000 Senusis were killed by the occupiers. With a population numbering about 185,000 in 1923, we are talking about a slaughter of epic proportions.

Shortly after the fascists hung Omar Mukhtar, his followers issued a statement that could be a rallying cry for the Iraqi resistance today:

The Fascists believed that the condemnation of Omar al-Mukhtar to death would make it easier for them to occupy the country, but unfortunately for them the souls of the martyrs are an eternal flame which inspires the national spirit in the hearts of the people still living.

The martyr of the Tripoli-Barce nation is not dead, for he has left his people with an immortal monument of heroism which will be inherited by future generations.

This sad monument, built by the Fascist assassins’ hands, will remain for ever and will never be forgotten because it has left mortal wounds in our hearts.

Woe to those oppressors who do not respect the age, the courage and the incomparable heroism of Omar al-Mukhtar: but they cannot understand the significance of this quality.

The years cannot wipe out the horror of this crime, which struck the heart of all Arabs, and which will always remain as a stain on their history, washed as it is in the blood of innocents, of women, of men, of the aged and of children.

People of Tripoli and Barce!

Always remember that day when that greatest of misfortunes occurred.

You must always retain this memory so as to learn a lesson that will serve in future to tell you how to avenge yourselves for your martyrs.

In that memory there is a lesson that will encourage and bring about the vengeance on those who have colonized your country and who deprived you of your rights and who have killed and driven far away many of your men.

On this day we ask the Arab nation and its patriots to join with us in grief and sadness for the misfortune that we commemorate today.

Omar al-Mukhtar was not only the martyr of the Tripoli-Barce people, but he was the martyr of the whole Arab nation. The lessons of heroism and courage that he gave the Fascist armies do honour to all Arabs, because the Arab people are like one body united in their griefs and joys, and this truth should be known to westerners, who should know that we are united. This memory must not be forgotten, it must be kept in your hearts until the day when the Fascists have to account to the Arab nation for this assassination, unheard of in the history of the world.

Since Hollywood has always been hostile to the Arab cause, the fact that a film such as “Lion of the Desert” could be made at all is noteworthy. No doubt, without Moustapha Akkad’s involvement both as producer and director the film would have never seen the light of day. This Syrian, who was born in 1930, had a fascinating film career. In addition to the pro-Arab “Lion of the Desert,” he also produced “The Message” in 1976, a biography of the prophet Mohammad (again with Anthony Quinn in the cast as Mohammad’s uncle Hamza). In keeping with Muslim rules, the image of the prophet does not appear on screen but we hear his words.

While there is an obvious connection between “Lion of the Desert” and “The Message,” it is amazing to consider that Akkad also produced the Halloween horror movies! He died last November 12th, 2005 in circumstances that expose the contradictions now standing in the way of the emancipation of the Arab peoples called for by Omar Mukhtar’s supporters:

For a generation of Arabs, Moustapha Akkad’s historical epics became cultural icons the same way “Star Wars” did in the West.

Mr. Akkad was best-known in the United States as the executive producer and driving force behind the “Halloween” horror-movie series. But in the Arab world, he was known as the director of two much-admired films: a history of Islam and the story of a Libyan nationalist leader.

Mr. Akkad, 75, died Friday in a Jordanian hospital from injuries he sustained in one of the suicide bombings that struck three hotels Wednesday in Amman, the capital. The filmmaker and his daughter, Rima Akkad Monla, 34, were attending a wedding reception at the Radisson SAS hotel. She died Wednesday night, leaving behind a husband and two children. Mr. Akkad, who was divorced, also had three sons.

Hours after his death was announced, one Arab satellite channel broadcast his most famous movie, “The Message,” a sweeping history of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Released in 1976, the three-hour film gained a wide audience in the Arab world because of its sophisticated production and cinematography. The movie cost $17 million, a huge investment for a film at that time.

” `The Message’ came out at time when most Arab historical films were shoddy and had low budgets,” said Ali Abdullah, a Lebanese writer and critic. “Akkad made his film into an epic by using technology, large sets and thousands of extras.”

To reach Western audiences, Mr. Akkad refused to subtitle the Arabic film. Instead, he made a separate English version starring Anthony Quinn.

Religious leaders praised the movie for its positive portrayal of Islam. For example, Islamic tradition dictates that the prophet cannot be depicted on screen nor can his voice be heard. Throughout the film, actors who interact with Muhammad speak directly to the camera and then nod to unheard dialogue.

“I did this film because it was a personal thing for me,” Mr. Akkad told a newspaper in 1998. “Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it was my obligation, my duty, to tell the truth about Islam.”

The Seattle Times, November 12, 2005

November 16, 2006

David Schweickart follow-up

Filed under: China,economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

David Schweickart posted a comment on my blog entry about his debate with Michael Albert. I will respond to the key passage:

I do think material incentives are necessary so long as the problem of scarcity persists–which may be quite a long time. To rely prematurely on moral incentives alone is a recipe for disaster. Does Proyect disagree with this? I also happen think that an economic system should be concerned with what people would like to consume. I don’t think “consumer satisfaction” should be equated with the desire for designer jeans. I think, even after the revolution, people will be concerned the “mundane” things of life–the kind of food they eat, the clothes they wear, the houses they live in and how they are furnished, etc, etc. Try telling workers that they should settle for what the Russian doughboys had in 1916, and that all these other things to which they have grown accustomed are bourgeois frivolities. (I’m not saying that consumption habits won’t have to change, but does Proyect really think that after the revolution, we’ll all be so concerned with impending ecological catastrophe that we won’t worry about birthday presents anymore? Do only “shopkeepers” worry about such things?)

To begin with, I certainly understand the need for markets after a revolution takes place. However, my objection is not to inexorable realities dictated by the relationship of class forces in a given moment in time but in wasting time writing blueprints for how future socialist societies should implement them. From my perspective, Schweickart’s market socialism is as much of a utopian schema as Parecon or any other such attempt at crystal-ball gazing. If a powerful capitalist nation like Japan has a socialist revolution, it is conceivable that a planned economy can be implemented with no concessions to NEP-like mechanisms.

Socialist economics proceeds mostly from a combination of class principles and pragmatism as my trips to Nicaragua in the 1980s taught me. The last thing that Carlos Fonseca had on his mind when he launched the FSLN was how to transform the Nicaraguan economy, except for the obvious: radical land reform, expropriating the Somozista kleptocracy, etc. It is only in advanced capitalist countries that are extremely far removed from challenging capitalist rule that you find socialists having heated debates about what a future socialist society should look like. This, sadly, reminds me of the “hot stove league” baseball fans who phone into sports talk shows about whom they would trade. This is about as close as they ever get to the action.

I also want to say a thing or two about an article that Schweickart wrote defending the idea that China is not capitalist. Titled “What’s Wrong with China?”, it is an answer to Burkett and Hart-Landsberg’s MR book-length article and was referred to by Carl Davidson in a comment on my original post.

Schweickart first poses the question of what capitalism is and considers various plausible definitions:

–There’s the structural definition. Capitalism is an economic system in which private ownership of means of production, wage labor and the market constitute the dominant economic institutions.

–There’s the class-based definition: Capitalism is a society controlled by the economically-dominant capitalist class, this class usually defined as a class whose considerable income derives primarily from ownership of productive assets, not from employment.

Etc.

Perhaps the difficulty I have with Schweickart’s entire approach is that it is grounded in formal logic. When you begin to search for definitions, you are entering the troubled waters of Aristotelian scholasticism, especially since he next poses the question: Does China fit any of these definitions? He additionally asks whether China is “socialist”. Since he once again resorts to a formal definition, namely “a society in which the working class is the ruling class,” he can answer his own question by stating that China is not socialist.

In the end, he concludes that China is neither socialist nor capitalist but I am afraid that his conclusion has little in common with the analysis found in Trotsky’s “The Revolution Betrayed,” which described the USSR as being in transition from capitalism to socialism. There might have been a case for China being such a society 20 years or so ago, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that the transition to capitalism is pretty much complete.

I really have too little time and even less incentive to make the case here that China is capitalist and would only refer you to my summary of the arguments that Burkett and Hart-Landsberg made. Of course, your best bet is to purchase their book from MR.

However, I do want to comment briefly on point that Schweickart makes:

To be sure, there now exists a small capitalist class, but it is by no means in control of the economy or the society. This is a new class and it remains politically vulnerable.

An important distinction has to be made here. State ownership in China must not be identified as socialist in character, even though it has obvious affinities with an earlier period when the “iron rice bowl” was intact. Even though the direction is against state ownership of any sort, the men at the top of state-owned firms have much in common with their fellow bourgeoisie by the evidence of a new trend:

A couple of hours’ gallop from the Great Wall at Badaling is a spectacle not seen in this part of communist China for many a decade, if ever.

On a verdant field surrounded by mist-shrouded mountains, a team of horsemen elegantly decked out in helmets, breeches and boots, and armed with wooden mallets are practising that most socially exclusive of colonial sports: polo.

The sight of the riders swinging hard, turning sharply and charging their mounts after the ball is more familiar in an English country club, an emir’s stables or the grounds of a wealthy landowner in Argentina or Australia.

But a Beijing businessman is determined it should become just as common for a new generation of Chinese rich, who now have the financial clout, the leisure time and the confidence to take on the world’s elite at their own game.

Xia Yang, an architect and property entrepreneur, is the founder of the Beijing Sunny Times Polo Club, which he describes as the only establishment of its type in mainland China…

Polo is far less well known. Mr Xia’s club, which is built on his own land, has only 20 members, but he says it includes the head of the state oil firm, Sinopec, and the head of the company which built the trains on the new Tibet railway. But he insists he is not being elitist.

–The Guardian (London) – Final Edition, September 12, 2006 Tuesday

When the head of the state oil firm has taken up the sport of princes and playboys, I think it is high time to rethink the nature of the Chinese economy, in either the private sector or the nominally “socialist” sector.

 

UPDATE–posted to the PEN-L mailing list on 11/16/2006:

Many people continue to celebrate the Chinese experience, largely on the basis of the country’s rapid and sustained industrialization and export successes. Some still call it a socialist success story, often on the basis of Chinese party claims or Chinese foreign policy initiatives which are seen as supporting Venezuela, Cuba, or other countries under US pressure. Unfortunately very few people have actually looked at the accumulation process underpinning Chinese growth, in particular its consequences for working people. Paul Burkett and I have been doing some work on this, and I want to share some information that I think raises important questions about how we understand success and socialism.

The ILO has recently completed a major study of the Chinese labor market. Its results closely match work done by the IMF and the Asian Development Bank.

The ILO created five employment categories for urban sector workers:

TF is employment in traditional formal enterprises (state and collective enterprises);

EF is employment in emerging formal enterprises (cooperative enterprises, joint ownership enterprises, limited liability corporations, shareholding corporations and foreign-funded enterprises);

EP is employment in small-scale private registered enterprises;

ES is employment in individual registered businesses;

IRR is irregular employment (which includes casual wage employment or self-employment–often in construction, cleaning and maintenance of premises, retail trade, street vending, repair services or domestic services).

Looking at the period 1990-2002, the ILO found that:

TF Employment fell from 139.1 million to 79.7 million.

EF Employment rose from 1.6 million to 25.7 million.

EP Employment rose from 0.6 million to 20 million.

ES Employment rose from 6.1 million to 23.5 million.

IRR employment rose from 15.3 million to 95.3 million.

Thus almost all the urban job creation over this twelve year period has been irregular.

Not only are growing numbers of Chinese workers being forced into irregular employment, many others are suffering from outright unemployment. According to the ILO, “A major consequence of the reforms of the 1990s has been the emergence of open unemployment in China’s urban areas.” More specifically, the ILO estimates that the 2002 unemployment rate for long term urban residents was between 11-13 percent. This is a strikingly high rate given that the Chinese government counts as unemployed only those persons with non-agricultural household registration at certain ages (16-50 for males and 16 to 45 for females) who are capable of work, unemployed and willing to work, and have been registered at the local employment service agencies to apply for a job. And this rate has been kept down only by the fact that the labor force participation rate of urban residents fell from 72.9 percent in 1996 to 66.5 percent in 2002.

Marty Hart-Landsberg

 

 

November 12, 2006

Saturday Night Live Update

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

From 11/12/06 NY Times Magazine article on Will Ferrell titled “A Wild and Uncrazy Guy”:

In the 2000 presidential election, [Will] Ferrell voted for Al Gore. This would not have been especially noteworthy if at the time he hadn’t been impersonating George W. Bush every week on “Saturday Night Live.” His depiction of Bush as an inarticulate, slightly addled frat boy who spoke about “strategery” and about his wish to emerge “victoriant” played no small part in defining the public persona of the real Bush. In one particularly memorable sketch, actors playing Gore and Jeb Bush debated the country’s future while Ferrell, as Bush, the soon-to-be president, stood in the corner of the room playing with a ball of string like a contented cat.

Not long after that sketch, “S.N.L.” ran a prime-time election special, and Bush and Gore themselves visited the studio. “It was that strange sensation when art and life collide,” Lorne Michaels, the producer of “Saturday Night Live,” told me on the phone from his office at NBC. “There were the two candidates making fun of themselves to the actors who were playing them. Will, especially, captured something essential about Bush, and because Will is so likable, I believe, he tilted the election toward Bush. Often, it’s the messenger that makes the material.”

Although Ferrell portrayed Bush as bumbling and not too bright, the impersonation was strangely affectionate, and Bush reportedly loved it. He asked Ferrell to make an appearance with him at the White House Press Corps dinner in 2000, which Ferrell declined. Bush later made a similar request for a charity event held by Barbara Bush. When Ferrell said no a second time, Bush phoned Jeff Zucker, then the head of NBC, and asked him to persuade Ferrell to perform. “He said, ‘You gotta get your guy to do my mom’s charity,’ ” Ferrell recalled, using his Bush accent, over dinner at Kelly and Ping’s, a restaurant in downtown Manhattan. “The idea was that Dana Carvey would imitate the dad and I would be the son. And then the two real people would come up behind us, and we’d go, ‘Oops, sorry!’ That was the whole thing. So George the son called Zucker and I was … busy. In both cases, I especially did not want to do the inevitable photo op afterwards where we are all holding hands. That would have been a gesture of support.” Ferrell paused. “I’ve actually had people say to me, ‘Thanks a lot for Bush,’ as if I helped him win the election. Luckily, no one has said that in a while. But I can’t help the fact that people in America seem to not mind stupidity.”

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/12/magazine/12ferrell.html

November 11, 2006

Mongolian Ping Pong

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

Now available in home video, last year’s “Mongolian Ping Pong” has all the elements that made “The Story of the Weeping Camel” such an appealing film. It is filmed on location in China’s Inner Mongolia, uses nonprofessional actors and employs a folkloric plot to great advantage.

After seven year old Bilike discovers a ping pong ball floating by in a nearby stream, he becomes convinced that it was sent by river spirits. After his grandmother assures him that this is true and refers to it as a “glowing pearl,” it becomes a gift from the gods in his youthful eyes. His eventual discovery of the ping pong ball’s true origins constitutes a coming of age tale that will be appealing to all ages. Unlike the cynically packaged “family films” that get mass produced in Hollywood, this is the real thing.

The plot is reminiscent of the 1980 “The Gods Must Be Crazy” that recounts the worship of a Coke bottle by Kalahari Desert Bushmen after it is thrown from an airplane. Unlike the exploitative cheap humor of that film, “Mongolian Ping Pong” is deeply respectful of its characters. Director Ning Hao, not Mongolian himself, makes this clear:

Mongolia, whether for the East or West, is such an enigmatic place. With their small horses and efficient yurt tent homes, these are the people who conquered every piece of reachable land 800 years ago. In a very short period of time, the Mongolians established history’s biggest empire with their legendary invincibility. However, their empire disappeared in an equally enigmatic way. The Mongolians then returned to the barren grasslands of their ancestors where they continue their nomadic existence still today. The vast grasslands environment plays a part in shaping Mongolian children’s unruly character. When seeing them ride freely on horseback on the wide-open landscape, I am deeply touched. Their childhood, like everyone else’s around the world, is full of questions and confusions. Those questions and confusions may either be clarified or simply forgotten along the way. All just a part of life.

Like “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” Ning Hao’s film is very much taken up with the impact of modern technology and the outside world on Mongolian life, which they generally take in stride. In one scene, the family haggles with the price of “American tea” (coffee actually) with the local peddler, for which they refuse to pay more than one lamb. In another, Bilike’s father struggles with the placement of a TV antenna cobbled together with wire and old tin plates in a manner that suggests Ralph Kramden’s antics in a classic Honeymooner episode.

Whatever the intrusions of the modern world, the Mongolians seem deeply at home on the steppes. The true lesson of the movie, which should not be lost on the children and parents who see it, is that you don’t need a lot of fancy toys or designer jeans to be happy. Bilike and his friends have a great time roaming free on horses. A single ping pong ball gives them far more pleasure than the latest X-Box would give a pampered suburbanite child.

Beyond the pleasure afforded by the interactions between the various characters, who are directed with obvious great insight by Ning Hao, is that which is given by the cinematography. Hao has a fantastic eye for the stark beauty of the Mongolian steppes. In scene after scene, your breath is taken away by the sight of a full moon or a rainbow over the rolling grasslands. It is simply the most visually compelling film I have seen this year.

Although I am not sure I will have the time to see it myself, the director of “The Story of the Weeping Camel” has a new film now showing in New York and other theaters in the U.S. Titled “Cave of the Yellow Dog,” it once again touches on the clash between tradition and modernity as Slant Magazine’s Nick Schrager relates:

With The Cave of the Yellow Dog, director Byambasuren Davaa only tweaks the template of her 2004 docudrama The Story of the Weeping Camel, employing a slightly more melodramatic narrative for her depiction of the day-to-day routines and cultural predicament of nomadic Mongolians. The friction between her real-life protagonist clan’s traditional customs and the outlying modern world remains the backbone of Davaa’s ethnographic cinema, in which eloquent, authentic panoramas of the Mongolian plains, nonfiction snapshots of time-honored rituals, and lightly dramatized scenes are all tinged with a mournfulness wrought from the nagging incompatibility of the conventional and the contemporary.

November 10, 2006

OUT NOW

Filed under: antiwar,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

General Paul Eaton is one of those retired officers who spoke out publicly against Rumsfeld. Here is what the Nation Magazine said:

The fact that so many retired generals are speaking out against the war and against Rumsfeld, and are doing so at such forums as New York’s prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, reflects the depth and intensity of the military’s dissent. Traditional discipline and career-protecting reticence prompt many disillusioned field-grade officers (majors and above) to keep silent. These are “the Carlisle elite,” who attend the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and from whose ranks are selected the generals and top leaders of tomorrow.

The military’s senior active-duty leadership will not openly revolt. “We’re not the French generals in Algeria,” says Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, now retired. “But we damned well know that the Iraq War we’ve won militarily is being lost politically.” The well-read retired Marine Lieut. Gen. Gregory Newbold wrote in a Time magazine essay: “I retired from the military four months before the March 2003 invasion, in part because of my opposition to those who had used 9/11′s tragedy to hijack our security policy.” Newbold calls the Iraq War “unnecessary” and says the civilians who launched the war acted with “a casualness and swagger” that are “the special province” of those who have never smelled death on a battlefield.

With politics shifting to the center and decisive weight being given to the bipartisan approach put forward by a committee headed by Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton, one might expect a new plan for Iraq that looks similar to the one proposed on the NY Times op-ed page today by Eaton:

First, on Iraq, the Democratic leadership needs to push the administration to move immediately on whatever recommendations come from the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. The decision to hold the commission’s report until after the election was political idiocy ­ every day we wait risks the lives of our soldiers and our Iraqi allies.

At the same time, we need a Manhattan Project-level effort to build the Iraqi security forces. A good blueprint can be found in an article in the July-August Military Review by Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, a former operations officer with the Army’s Fifth Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, and Lt. Eric D. Chewning. The plan is to create new multifaceted battalions ­ blending infantry, armor, engineers and other specialists ­ that would live and work beside Iraqi security forces and civilians. Some of our troops, working largely at the platoon level, have had great success along these lines; but as the authors note, such small units “lack the robust staff and sufficient mass to fully exploit local relationships.” It’s time to replicate that success on a larger scale.

Somehow I am not reassured by the proposal for a Manhattan Project-level effort to build the Iraqi security forces but maybe that’s because I am an unrepentant Trotskyite dinosaur.

Meanwhile, Chris Matthews had on Mary McCaskill, the new Democratic Senator from Missouri, on Hardball 2 nights ago. When he asked her if she would vote for John Bolton being the UN representative, she answered:

Yeah, probably. You know, I haven‘t had a chance it review all of Mr. Bolton‘s record. But, you know, I am a believer that the president has certain picks that he is entitled to. As long as I‘m convinced that they are serious about beginning work on diplomacy.

While Matthews is a horse’s ass who had no problem backing Bush when the war first started, I did enjoy his response to McCaskill:

What do you think of the neoconservatives, the people who come into the power and believe it is the job of the United States government, not to protect this country but their job, their mission, their messianic dream is to go around the world, looking for governments they do not like and trying to democratize them by force and killing and blood and treasure, go into those countries, overturn the leadership an try to turn them into us. Do you think that‘s the kind of person you want representing us to the world?

After the McCaskill interview was over, he had on a panel of liberal commentators discussing various things, including Lisa Caputo who was Hillary Clinton’s press secretary. Matthews posed this question: “Are we going to get out of Iraq at some point in the next couple of years with a minimum of casualties or are we just going to stick around another six months or a year to make it look good? Taking more casualties accomplishing nothing we couldn‘t accomplish if we left tomorrow morning.”

Caputo answered as follows:

I don‘t think it‘s a question, Chris, of slow or quick, I think it‘s a question of being pragmatic and being methodical about it. Right now our allies are feeling very exposed due to a weakened White House. Bush to his credit has moved quickly by nominating Gates, the number two to Scowcroft, let‘s not forget this, under Bush One. They are bringing a pragmatic approach back in with a signal to the Hill that they are going to be more middle of the road. So I don‘t think it‘s fast versus slow. Chris. I think it‘s a methodical, logical, thoughtful approach to get out.

Of course, this is not what people bargained for when they voted Democrat. They are sick and tired of this war and it is absolutely imperative for the left in this country to light a fire under Congress and the White House to get out NOW.

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