Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 29, 2008

Human Connections

Filed under: crime,racism — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

It is easy to become inured to the steady diet of sensationalist crime stories in the New York news media, but the torture and rape of a Columbia University journalism student over a 19 hour period in April 2007 spoke to me in a way that others didn’t. I felt more connected since she was a Columbia student (I have been employed by the university since 1990) and because the incident took place in her Hamilton Heights apartment, a Harlem neighborhood that is rapidly being gentrified just like the rest of Harlem.

Hamilton Heights begins just 4 blocks from my office in the Manhattanville neighborhood that Columbia will be expanding into over the objections of some community groups. It is clear that the intention of the university and its allies in the real estate industry is to “improve” the neighborhood. Such a desire led to the famous campus rebellion of 1968 when students resisted the war in Vietnam and Columbia’s plans to build a new gymnasium in Morningside Park over the objections of the Black community.

The Columbia student, whose name was not released to the press as is customary in rape cases, was victimized by Robert A. Williams, a homeless man who had followed her into her building. He was found guilty of attempted murder, rape and arson last Tuesday. The arson charge stemmed from a fire he lit beneath the futon he had tied her to and from which she managed to escape.

A June 10th NY Times article recounted her desperate efforts to make some kind of emotional connection with Williams, who had already raped her and made clear his intention to kill her.

When the rapist asked her to turn on her iPod, she said, a Bob Dylan song popped up. She asked if he liked Bob Dylan. “I don’t know who that is,” he responded.

The prosecutor, Ann P. Prunty, asked the woman why she struck up that conversation.

“I wanted to have some kind of human connection so he wouldn’t kill me,” the woman said.

No matter how much Williams was determined to dehumanize his victim by raping and torturing her (he slit her eyelids and sealed her mouth with glue at one point), she kept struggling to break through the enormous abyss that separated them.

After the conversation about Bob Dylan and after Mr. Williams had her make him a microwave meal and some tea, he asked her a series of questions. He picked up a book she had, “A Savage War of Peace,” about the fight for independence in Algeria, and asked her, “Do you like black people from Africa?”

She told him yes.

Later, after looking at her Connecticut driver’s license, he asked her if she was on the run from the law and other questions about her encounters with the police. She said she believed that he wanted to find out if she had anything to lose by going to the police. So she told him, “I can’t go to the cops.”

She said she wanted to let him “infer whatever that meant, that I was somehow in trouble with the law.”

At a lull, she told him: “Well, I guess you know my name. What’s your name?” She said he told her to shut up. The woman told Ms. Prunty that she was “trying to bring some element of humanity into it.”

The state of reporting being what it is at the newspaper of record, I am not surprised that the reporter did not bother to draw out the powerful associations between Horne’s book and the human tragedy taking place in the student’s apartment. Horne’s book is one of the most respected accounts of the war in Algeria, but very much written from the point of view of “what went wrong”, like the rafter of books written by former Bush administration officials attacking his ineptitude. One can only assume that if the occupation of Iraq had met no resistance that not a single one of these books would have been written.

Indeed, Bush once told an interviewer that he was reading Horne’s book himself. One supposes that he was looking for helpful hints to put down the Iraqi resistance. When Horne learned that Bush found his book “most useful,” he told Salon.com that he was “stunned.” Originally a supporter of the war, Horne–like most of sentient humanity–began to retreat from that position. He was especially averse to the use of torture, since one of the lessons of the Algerian war is that it is counter-productive. This, indeed, is the universal criterion adopted by both liberal and conservative critics of the war in Iraq. If it is not working, then there must be a change. Implicitly, if the war were going well–as it had in the invasion of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s–there would be no objection.

I relied heavily on Horne’s book for my review of “Battle in Algiers”. It thoroughly documented the torture meted out to FLN captives in order to wrest information about the underground. In an epoch where torture has become the modus operandi of imperialist powers in their overseas adventures, it should not come as any surprise that psychopaths would mete out the same kind of treatment to their hapless victims. If Mr. Williams had watched the evening news over the past few years, he would have noted Alberto Gonzalez’s strenuous efforts to legitimize water-boarding and all the rest. If the President of the United States can get away with torture, why should a homeless man with a grudge against white America be held to account?

It is also worth noting that Horne’s book focused on the Casbah, the “native quarters” of Algiers that was feared and despised by the French colonists. Harlem, of course, is our Casbah. Like its Algiers counterpart, it is also a place with a certain kind of allure for the outsider. The trailer for the 1938 movie Algiers included the tag line “Come with me to the Casbah”, just as white Manhattanites frequented Harlem jazz clubs in the 20s and 30s. With the arrival of 1960s militancy and the subsequent crime waves driven by drugs and poverty, Harlem became a no man’s land. However, the real estate squeeze has made it attractive once again, both for bargain hunters and for a major university looking to expand.

The intense racial and economic pressures that led to the journalism student’s ordeal have been part of the fabric of New York life for quite a long time. Like many third world cities that mix super-rich and super-poor populations cheek by jowl, there are outbursts of violent crime that shock the news commentators. It is only surprising that there are so few of them given the extreme class differences and the indifference of those at the top.

Finally, I should reveal that I felt a connection with the Columbia student’s ordeal because I went through one myself, and, like her, found a way to connect with the humanity of my victimizers.

In late 1977, just after entering the alcove of my apartment building on West 69th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West around 6pm, I was accosted by two youths–one African-American and the other Latino–who demanded my money. Since there was only about 5 dollars in my wallet, they decided to force me into my apartment where they thought more money or goods could be found.

Although they did not show me a weapon, I acceded to their demands since I didn’t want to risk being stabbed or shot over items that could be easily replaced–as opposed to my life.

Once inside the apartment, they noticed prints of chimpanzees and gorillas on the wall that the Black mugger interpreted as proof of my racism. He threw me down on my bed and the two of them begin to punch me in the face, cursing me out all the while. The prints of course had nothing to do with race. A year or so earlier, when I had been living in Houston, I found myself growing more and more disaffected from the Socialist Workers Party, the sect-cult that I had belonged to for about a decade. When I saw the movie “Morgan”, I felt a powerful identification with the insane eponymous artist who was obsessed with Leon Trotsky and primates. That and nothing else led to my adorning my walls with their pictures (the apes, not Trotsky).

After about five minutes of being beaten, the Black attacker decided that “this motherfucker had to die” and placed a pillow over my head with the clear intention of suffocating me. After a minute or so, I decided to try to make a human connection and pushed the pillow off my face (which led to a new flurry of blows) and plea for my life. I told them:

“Look, you got the wrong guy. I am not a racist. Those pictures are just pictures. I have been fighting racism all my life. I work with the Militant, a socialist newspaper that Malcolm X supported. I just came to New York from Houston, Texas where my party’s headquarters were bombed by the Ku Klux Klan.”

I kept at it while I was being punched. Finally, my words must have made some kind of connection since the Black mugger announced to his accomplice that “he didn’t need a homicide rap”. They then tied me up with my neckties, blindfolded and gagged me. They picked me up like a trussed animal and carried me from room to room until they finally decided on the bathroom where they dumped me in my bathtub. For an agonizing moment or two, I cringed at the idea of a knife being plunged into my chest. When I heard them leave through the front door and walking down the stairs, I knew that I would live. I ended up with a broken nose and a stolen stereo, but that was about it.

A week or two later, I read in the N.Y. Times that a man had been found bound and gagged in an apartment about 3 blocks from my own. He was not so lucky. He died of stab wounds.

As American society and New York City in particular becomes more and more class divided, the underclass will continue to lash out at those who it deems to be responsible. Since the Donald Trumps and Michael Bloombergs of the world are protected by multiple layers of security, they will never become victims like me or the journalism student. Facing an unfolding crisis of monumental dimensions, their answer will be to defend the existing class system since it alone is capable of generating the “trickle down” wealth that is necessary to keep everybody happy. This lie will be challenged more and more by a population that sees its living standards diminished while the fat cats go to the opera and $100 per plate restaurants in their chauffeured limousines.

If a massive revolt of the American people eventually abolishes the privileges that the Trumps and the Bloombergs defend to the hilt, one of the side benefits might be a lowering of the class tensions that victimized me and the journalism student.

When I was involved with Nicaragua in the late 1980s, I was always struck by the account of street life in Managua given by solidarity activists. They said it was possible to walk all around the city late at night without fearing for your life or your property. Once the Sandinistas were overthrown, that came to an end as a desperate and atomized urban underclass resorted once again to mugging and burglary.

Happiness and security are realizable as long as one understands that the main obstacle to achieving them has to be removed, namely the private property system that pits one human being against another in a ruthless struggle for survival. When they describe this as the law of the jungle, they are slandering the animals who live there. Those animals only kill when they are hungry, while the big capitalists kill millions in order to enjoy the kind of privileges that the Kings and Queens of Europe enjoyed until they were toppled from their thrones.

June 25, 2008

Turks and American Indians

Filed under: indigenous,Turkey — louisproyect @ 3:09 pm

A Uighur (Turkic) girl

An Inuit (Eskimo) girl

Two Melungeon boys

One of my favorite TV shows is The Turkish Hour, which runs on the local cable access channel in New York on Sunday night from 10 to 10:30pm (yes, I know it should be called The Turkish Half-Hour). You can watch segments from past shows at their website.

Last Sunday night, there were two eye-opening segments on admittedly remote connections between Turks and the peoples of North America. Even if they are impossible to establish with 100 percent accuracy, they certainly are intriguing.

In the first segment, we see a meeting at the Turkish Center in New York with American Indians performing music and dance, while scholars from both Turkey and North American Indian nations exchange ideas about the possibility that the two peoples are related ethnically!

That thought first entered my mind when I discovered that the word for boat in Turkish is “kayık”. (When the ‘i’ is not dotted in Turkish, it is pronounced almost like “uh”. With the dot, it is more like the ‘i’ in it.) A kayak, of course, is the boat favored by Inuits in Alaska and across northern Canada.

It is generally accepted that the Inuits and other indigenous peoples came across the Bering land bridge between Asia and North America up until about 5000 BC. It is also generally accepted that they originated from Eastern Siberia, the homeland of the Turkic and Mongol peoples.

Polat Kaya, a Turkish engineer and amateur scholar, wrote a paper titled “Search For a Probable Linguistic and Cultural Kinship Between the Turkish People of Asia and the Native Peoples of Americas”, a version of which can be read here. Kaya’s ideas are highly speculative, but other more mainstream scholars have made some of the same points. For example, Rene Bonnerjea’s “A Comparison between Eskimo-Aleut and Uralo-Altaic Demonstrative Elements, Numerals, and Other Related Semantic Problems” that appeared in the Jan. 1978, International Journal of American Linguistics.

Throwing caution to the wind, I will accept Kaya’s amateurish speculations on their own terms, if for no other reason it opens up huge avenues of literary and philosophical investigations about mankind’s common ancestry.

Kaya includes a table demonstrating the similarities between the Turkish words for father (ata, as in Ataturk, or “father of the Turks”, the name adopted by Mustafa Kemal; in more intimate settings, the word baba is used) and mother (anne) and various American Indian peoples. The Eskimo word for father is atataq and mother is ananaq.

Going even further out on a limb, The Turkish Hour had a segment on possible ties between Turks and the Melungeon people of Appalachia, a group that I had never heard of before. The term Melungeon seems to be derived from ‘mélange’, or mixture, a reference to the mixed ethnicity of this group. A wiki article on the Melungeons states:

A common belief about the Melungeons of east Tennessee is that they are an indigenous people of Appalachia, existing there before the arrival of the first white settlers. But genealogists working in the late 20th century have documented, through a range of tax, court, census and other colonial, late 18th and early 19th century records, that the ancestors of the Melungeons migrated into the region from Virginia and Kentucky as did their English, Scots-Irish, Irish, Welsh, and German neighbors.

The likely background to the mixed-race families later to be called “Melungeons” was the emergence in the Chesapeake Bay region in the 17th century of what historian Ira Berlin calls “Atlantic Creoles.” These were freed slaves and indentured servants of European, West African, and Native American ancestry (and not just North American, but also Caribbean, Central and South American Indian: see Forbes (1993)). Some of these “Atlantic Creoles” were culturally what today might be called “Hispanic” or “Latino”, bearing names such as “Chavez,” “Rodriguez,” and “Francisco.” Many of them intermarried with their English neighbors, adopted English surnames, and even owned slaves. Early Colonial America was very much a “melting pot” of peoples, but not all of these early multiracial families were necessarily ancestral to the later Melungeons.

“The historical and anthropological evidence … suggests that in general a significant portion (though not necessarily all) of the ancestry of the Magoffin County, Kentucky, and Highland County, Ohio, enclaves originated principally from an admixture of African Americans and Whites in the early colonial period (from the late 1600s until about 1800) and secondarily from an admixture with presently unknown Native American groups in the mid-Atlantic coast region.”

The article also dismisses the claim of any kind of Turkish connection:

More recent suggestions by amateur researchers as to the Melungeons’ ethnic identity include Gypsy, Turkish, and Jewish. There is no evidence that Melungeons themselves ever claimed any of those ancestries. Nor does any creditable historical evidence exist to support such theories. There is ample evidence from the research of David Beers Quinn and Ivor Noel Hume that all the Turks rescued by Drake in the sack of Cartagena were repatriated to their homeland.

The reference to Turks being rescued has to do Drake’s freeing of Ottoman Turks being held captive by the Spaniards in the Caribbean. They were originally enslaved by the Spanish in Europe and brought over to the New World where they worked as galley slaves. Apparently Francis Drake brought 500 of these men to Roanoke, Virginia where they were going to be ransomed back to the Ottoman Empire. Some Melungeons believe that the Turks were never returned and remained in Virginia where they became their ancestors.

The Melungeons, who are generally understood to be part American Indian, might have been descendants of a group of people who shared blood ties to the freed Turkish slaves, Roanoke colonists and native peoples. One amateur Melungeon historian writes:

About one hundred miles inland, from Roanoke Island, and adjacent to the South Carolina border, was an area called Robinson County, North Carolina. In 1719, a group of hunters and trappers strayed into the hilly landscape and stumbled upon a tribe of Indians. The Indians had light skin, gray/blue eyes and light brown hair. But most astonishing was the fact that they spoke nearly perfect Elizabethan English. These Indians said that their ancestors “talked from a book.” Their customs were similar to the early English Roanoke Colony. This sighting brought about a theory that the starving colonists at Roanoke took refuge with the Croatan Indians during the first winter when Governor John White didn’t return. To this day the descendants still live in Roberson County, North Carolina. They are known as the Lumbee Indians. The surviving remnants of the Roanoke settlement may have been assimilated into the indigenous tribes. The existence of fair skinned Indians in Roberson, North Carolina substantiates the theory that the Roanoke colonists and perhaps the abandoned Turks and Portuguese and Moors blended in with the Croatan and other Tidewater, Virginia Indian tribes, including the Powhatan and Lumbee Indians. Dr. Robert Gilmor, a Melungeon researcher, suggests the people of the legendary “Lost Colony of Roanoke” intermarried with the Powhatan Indians who had already intermarried with Jamestown Colony. Adding the surnames White and Dare to the Indian population.

Now some of you might remember that the Lumbees have a very proud tradition of fighting racism. In 1957, when Robert F. Williams was arming the NAACP in Roberson County against Klan terror, he found allies in the Lumbee Indians who had been the targets of racism themselves as Timothy Tyson recounts in “Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power”:

The rout of Catfish Cole’s bedsheet brigade by the Monroe NAACP on October 5, 1957, crushed the evangelist’s aspiration to unite the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas under his charismatic leadership. His manly honor in tatters, Cole retreated from Union County to Robeson County in southeastern North Carolina to rebuild his following. “Both counties,” one observer noted, “were Catfish Cole’s territory.” In Robeson County, which had a history of strong support for the Klan, Cole hoped to rally his forces in a population divided almost evenly among African Americans, whites, and Lumbee Indians. “There’s about 30,000 half-breeds in Robeson County and we are going to have a cross burning and scare them up,” Cole announced. Asked whether he intended to use violence to stop the race-mixing in Robeson County, Cole replied that the guns his Klansmen carried “speak for themselves, and if they don’t, they will.” On January 13, 1958, the Klan burned a cross on the lawn of an Indian woman in the town of St. Pauls as “a warning” because, Cole claimed, she was “having an affair” with a white man. The cross burnings continued, with the former carnival barker ranting at each gathering about the terrible evils of “mongrelization,” the loose morals of Lumbee women, and the manly duties of white men “to fight [America’s] enemies anywhere, anytime.” As one visitor to Monroe later wrote to a friend, “Cole was in a particular mad dog fury” because of rumors that Ava Gardner, eastern North Carolina’s own homegrown movie star, was having a Hollywood affair with Sammy Davis Jr., whom Cole contemptuously referred to as “that one-eyed nigger.”

The climax of the Klan’s Robeson County campaign was to be a heavily armed rally on January 18, 1958, near the small town of Maxton, at which, Cole predicted, 5,000 Klansmen would remind Indians of “their place” in the racial order. “He said that, did he?” asked Simeon Oxendine, who had flown more than thirty missions against the Germans in World War II and now headed the Lumbee chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Well, we?ll just wait and see.”

Cole’s references to Lumbee women were particularly galling. Robeson County sheriff Malcolm McLeod visited the grand wizard at his South Carolina home and “told him that his life would be in danger if he came to Maxton and made the same speech he?d been making.” That Friday night, as a few dozen Klansmen gathered in a roadside field in darkness lit only by a single hanging bulb powered by a portable generator, more than five hundred Lumbee men assembled across the road with rifles and shotguns. The Lumbees fanned out across the highway to encircle the Klansmen. When Cole began to speak, a Lumbee dashed up and smashed the light with his rifle barrel. Hundreds of Indians let out a thunderous whoop and fired their weapons repeatedly into the air. Only four people were injured, none seriously; all but one were apparently hit by falling bullets. The Klansmen dropped their guns and scrambled for their cars, abandoning the unlit cross, their public address system, and an array of KKK paraphernalia. Magnanimous in victory, the Lumbees allowed the white supremacists to escape. The war party even helped push Cole’s Cadillac out of the ditch where his wife, Carolyn, had driven in her panic. The grand wizard himself had abandoned “white womanhood” and fled on foot into the swamps. Laughing, the Lumbees set fire to the cross, hanged Catfish Cole in effigy, and had a rollicking victory bash. Draped in captured Klan regalia, they celebrated into the night. “If the Negroes had done something like this a long time ago, we wouldn’t be bothered with the KKK,” Oxendine said in a remark that kept his Lumbee troops clearly on a side of the color line different from that of African Americans.

Now, I have no idea whether the Turks are related to the Eskimos or the Melungeons, but I would suggest that this is a powerful theme for an epic novel. Start with a character crossing the Bering land bridge from Eastern Siberia in 7000 BC and his ancestors ending up fighting General Custer, or maybe an Ottoman slave’s ancestors confronting the Klan in 1957. Now that’s a novel that I would buy, one with a message—namely that we are all brothers and sisters under the skin.

June 23, 2008

Pitfall

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

For an interesting mixture of Marxist politics and surrealist film-making techniques, I recommend Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1962 “Pitfall” (Otoshiana) that I rented from the estimable Netflix. Teshigahara is best-known for “Woman in the Dunes”, the movie that followed this, his first feature. “Pitfall” is based on a stage play by Kobo Abe, the Japanese novelist and long-time collaborator of Teshigahara who wrote the novel that “Woman in the Dunes” is based on. Abe was a member of the Communist Party while Teshigahara belonged to an artist’s circle called “Night Association” that Abe founded. Like Communists everywhere in the world in this period, Abe was beginning to become disenchanted. The screenplay for “Pitfall” reflects an artist in transition, while “Woman in the Dunes”, a more fully realized work of art, reflects a post-political outlook.

“Pitfall” not only combines class struggle politics with surrealism, it also includes other styles and genres including a ghost story reminiscent of “Ghost” (the Patrick Swayze/Whoopie Goldberg vehicle), a film noir detective story, the French new wave, and Italian neo-realism. Teshigahara was bursting at the seams creatively when he made his first movie.

The main character in “Pitfall” is Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa), an itinerant coal miner not that much different from those in China today who were dramatized in the excellent “Mine Shaft”. He is followed from mine to mine by his young son who is totally dependent on him after what we assume was the death of his mother. Unlike the father and son pair in “Bicycle Thief”, there is no love lost between the two. His father pays little attention to the boy who trails after him mutely like a pet dog. The father is fixed entirely on survival and his big dream is to work in a union site.

A possible job offer leads father and son to a desolate coal mine next to a ghost town, the result of the bosses picking up and moving elsewhere. The only person left in town is a woman who operates a run-down candy store crawling with ants that evoke those crawling across the pocket watch in Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”. This suggests the influence of Luis Bunuel, who worked with Dali on “Un Chien andalou”. As we shall see, it is not just the surrealist Bunuel who influenced Teshigahara but also the Bunuel of “Los Olvidados”, a film whose leftist director uses to project despair rather than hope for radical transformation.

Not long after Otsuka shows up, he is directed to the site of new mine just down the road by the candy shop owner. While walking on a path through some tall reeds toward the workplace, he is accosted by a mysterious man in a white suit who stabs him to death. Almost immediately after dying, Otsuka reappears as a ghost and begins a search to discover why he was murdered. We soon learn that he looked exactly like the president of a miner’s union in the next town who was the intended target of the assassination. We are soon introduced to the union official (also played by Hisashi Igawa) who fears that his chief rival in the miner’s union will be falsely accused of the murder. The two men travel to the ghost town and become embroiled in further killings and ghostly manifestations.

Teshigahara weaves actual footage of coal miners and their hungry and desperate families into “Pitfall” to establish his sympathy for the workers, but do not expect a neo-realist call to arms. Mirroring a growing sense of futility in Japan, “Pitfall” ends on a bleak note not much different from Luis Bunuel’s “Los Olvidados”, the powerful study of youthful criminals in Mexico City.

However, all of the social and political concerns are almost secondary to the real ambition of Abe and Teshigahara, which is to create a narrative that operates on the level of a dream—or a nightmare. For example, much of the film consists of truly disquieting images such as dogs in the distance walking across the top of an immense coal slag heap, suggestive of the dancers being lead by Death in the final scene in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. To put it one way, “Pitfall” has enough material in it to keep a film studies seminar busy for 5 years at least.

Just a couple of sentences about Kobo Abe’s “Woman in the Dune”, which is discussed in an interesting article by Mutsuko Motoyama that appeared in the Autumn 1995 “Monumenta Nipponica”. It gives you a good sense of the disaffection of the Japanese intelligentsia during the crisis of Stalinism in the late 1950s.

Like many European surrealists, especially Andre Breton, Abe was drawn to revolutionary politics. He believed that avant-garde politics and art went hand in hand. Abe belonged to an artist’s group close to the party that sought to unite surrealism and socialism. Vladimir Mayakovsky was one of their idols. Somehow, this group with Communist sympathies was not dissuaded by the fact that the Russian poet took his own life in despair over the USSR’s failings to live up to its original ideals.

In 1951 Abe was organizing literary circles among factory workers, a far cry from his professional training as a physician. In a memoir of that period, he said that he wished to “associate with workers as closely as possible.”

As was so often the case, Japanese Communist artists and intellectuals ran afoul of the party leadership. In 1962, 28 writers were expelled. They were invited to recant but Abe remained defiant. He was just not ready to forsake his artistic principles to political exigencies, especially when he was growing more distrustful of Stalin. Participation in a writer’s conference in Czechoslovakia in 1956 opened up his eyes to the limits of artistic freedom in the Soviet world. This discontent grew after the USSR invaded Hungary in 1956, but not to the extent that it prevented him from disassociating himself from Sartre who had publicly condemned the invasion.

With “The Woman in the Dune”, the break with politics is thorough. His imagination would no longer be held hostage to party ideology. The captivity in this novel (and movie) is in the sand dune, an existentialist symbol reminiscent of the rock that Sisyphus is condemned to eternally push up a mountain in Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”. In “The Woman in the Dune”, the protagonist has to shovel sand from the bottom of a dune each day in the same manner.

Despite their disenchantment with the organized left, neither Teshigahara nor Abe became typical capitalist apologists of the kind that sprouted up during the Cold War. Teshigahara eventually left film-making behind and devoted himself to Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. (His father was a legendary artist in this field.) He did make “Summer Soldiers” in 1972, a movie that is sympathetic to an American GI deserter opposed to the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Abe returned to the existentialist beliefs of his youth, exploring deeper questions of the meaning of life that will persist even after socialism is victorious everywhere.

June 22, 2008

Lenin’s “Imperialism” in context

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

(This was written for the Introduction to Marxism class mailing list on yahoo.)

Over the next week or so we will be taking a close look at Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/index.htm), but I would like to start off with this introductory article to put the work into context. There has been a unfortunate tendency to view Lenin’s writings as etched in granite, when that is exactly the wrong approach. This tendency obviously is rooted in his deification in the USSR, with the mausoleum, the ritual invocation of his texts and all the other behavior suggestive of organized religion rather than a revolutionary movement.

Even among Marxists, who have never had any sympathies for Kremlin-style sanctification, there is still a tendency to misunderstand Lenin’s goal in writing something like “Imperialism”. Since so much of the analysis in the book no longer seems to apply to our contemporary world, especially monopoly capitalism leading inexorably to world war, some have concluded that it is of limited value.

But if you understand that Lenin was simply dealing with conjunctural issues, then it makes a lot more sense. Lenin never wrote for the ages. He was always writing for a particular time and a particular place. “Imperialism” was prompted by the outbreak of WWI. He was trying to explain why the imperialist system of his day led to that war. He was also trying to debunk Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism” that viewed the development of cartels as reducing the tendency toward war. But Lenin never had the intention of writing some kind of handbook that would be a guide to understanding future wars.

And, most importantly, he was not trying to explain the relationship between “core” countries like Great Britain and “peripheral” countries like India or China. In the debates over the Brenner thesis that began to take place in the 1970s and continue until this day, you hear repeated complaints about Lenin’s irrelevance. Those complaints can only emerge by misunderstanding what Lenin was trying to do. This is obviously a function of Marxist academics projecting onto Lenin their own scholastic habits of thought. The average Marxist academic is always thinking in terms of permanent contributions to the literature, while Lenin never thought that much beyond the immediate tasks facing the revolutionary movement.

The same thing can be said for “What is to be Done”, which “Marxist-Leninist” groups regard as a handbook for the ages, when in fact it was strictly meant for resolving problems facing the socialist movement in Czarist Russia and nothing more. Lenin once said that within five years of its appearance, its conclusions were no longer valid. And he was right.

Within a year after the start of the war and a year before he wrote “Imperialism”, Lenin was trying to identify the character of the period. If Marx and Engels theorized capitalism as a force of progress in 1848, when they wrote the Communist Manifesto, what would be the proper outlook now that the world war had started? In 1915, Lenin wrote an article titled “Under a False Flag” that decisively broke with the framework of the CM. No longer was the bourgeoisie forging ahead as a kind of revolutionary class. Instead it was to the 20th century that the feudal aristocracy was to the 17th century:

The place of the struggle of a rising capital, striving towards national liberation from feudalism, has been taken by the struggle waged against the new forces by the most reactionary finance capital, the struggle of a force that has exhausted and outlived itself and is heading downward towards decay. The bourgeois-national state framework, which in the first epoch was the mainstay of the development of the productive forces of a humanity that was liberating itself from feudalism, has now, in the third epoch, become a hindrance to the further development of the productive forces. From a rising and progressive class the bourgeoisie has turned into a declining, decadent, and reactionary class.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/mar/x01.htm

Although many Marxists paid lip-service to this idea of the capitalist class being reactionary, the socialist parliamentarians found all sorts of excuses to defend their own bourgeoisie in 1914. In a speech to the Reichstag backing war credits, the chief socialist deputy Hugo Haase said:

We must ward off this danger, [we must] protect our civilization and the independence of our own country. Thus, we carry out what we have always emphasized: in the hour of danger, we shall not desert the Fatherland. In saying this, we feel ourselves in accord with the International, which has always recognized every nation’s right to national independence and self-defense, just as we agree with it in condemning any war of aggression or conquest. We demand that as soon as the aim of security has been achieved and our opponents are disposed to make peace this war shall be brought to an end by a peace treaty that makes friendship with our neighbors possible. We ask this not only in the interest of national solidarity, for which we have always contended, but also in the interest of the German people. We hope that the cruel experience of suffering in this war will awaken in many millions of people the abhorrence of war and will win them over to the ideals of socialism and world peace.

http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=816

Lenin sought an explanation not only for Haase’s behavior, but for the first world war in history. There had been wars in Europe before, but nothing quite like what was happening in 1914. The two phenomena were related. An extended period of peace and prosperity, accountable to some extent by the development of empire, had fostered illusions on the left that capitalism remained a progressive force. Even as the outbreak of war had shattered such illusions, the reformists were still not ready to make a clean break with their own bourgeoisie. Lenin wrote “Imperialism” in order to mobilize the leftwing of the world socialist movement against the traitors in their midst and not in order to provide some universal guide to the world economy.

The biggest challenge was to undermine Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism” that no doubt had a disorienting effect on the movement. While the growing wealth and prestige of the socialist parliamentarians and trade union officials led them to think like the ruling class, in the same manner as AFL-CIO bureaucrats playing golf with the bosses, they still needed the kind of ideological cover that Kautsky’s theory provided. In April 1914, just before the war began, Kautsky wrote an article for Die Neue Zeit, the socialist newspaper, that stated:

“The subsiding of the Protectionist movement in Britain, the lowering of tariffs in America; the trend towards disarmament; the rapid decline in the export of capital from France and Germany in the years immediately preceding the war; finally, the growing international interweaving between the various cliques of finance capital—all this has caused me to consider whether the present imperialist policy cannot be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capital. Such a new phase of capitalism is at any rate conceivable. Can it be achieved? Sufficient premises are still lacking to enable us to answer this question…”

Despite the hedging, it was clear that Kautsky saw a new, more peaceful world emerging out of the cartelization taking place in Europe and elsewhere. A year later in 1915, after the war had become a full-scale conflagration, Lenin took on the concept of “ultra-imperialism” in “The Collapse of the Second International” and connected the dotted lines between Kautsky’s false economic projections and the treachery of the socialist parliamentarians:

From the necessity of imperialism the Left wing deduces the necessity of revolutionary action. The “theory of ultra-imperialism”, however, serves Kautsky as a means to justify the opportunists, to present the situation in such a light as to create the impression that they have not gone over to the bourgeoisie but simply “do not believe” that socialism can arrive immediately, and expect that a new “era” of disarmament and lasting peace “may be” ushered in. This “theory” boils down, and can only boil down, to the following: Kautsky is exploiting the hope for a new peaceful era of capitalisms as to justify the adhesion of the opportunists and the official Social-Democratic parties to the bourgeoisie, and their rejection of revolutionary, i.e., proletarian, tactics in the present stormy era, this despite the solemn declarations of the Basle resolution!

http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/csi/iv.htm

The economics of Lenin’s book are derived from a number of sources, most especially Bukharin and Hilferding, who were Marxists, and J.A. Hobson, a British progressive. (His great-grandson, John M. Hobson, has also written a very good book, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation”.)

Although Lenin had sharp disagreements with Bukharin’s “Imperialism and World Economy”, which can be read in its entirety at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1917/imperial/index.htm, he still saw it as an excellent corrective to the sort of illusions in imperialism that Kautsky’s theories represent, as should be obvious from his 1915 introduction:

The scientific significance of N.I. Bukharin’s work consists particularly in this, that he examines the fundamental facts of world economy relating to imperialism as a whole, as a definite stage in the growth of most highly developed capitalism. There had been an epoch of a comparatively “peaceful capitalism,” when it had overcome feudalism in the advanced countries of Europe and was in a position to develop comparatively tranquilly and harmoniously, “peacefully” spreading over tremendous areas of still unoccupied lands, and of countries not yet finally drawn into the capitalist vortex. Of course, even in that epoch, marked approximately by the years 1871 and 1914, “peaceful” capitalism created conditions of life that were very far from being really peaceful both in the military and in a general class sense. For nine-tenths of the population of the advanced countries, for hundreds of millions of peoples in the colonies and in the backward countries this epoch was not one of “peace” but of oppression, tortures, horrors that seemed the more terrifying since they appeared to be without end. This epoch has gone forever. It has been followed by a new epoch, comparatively more impetuous, full of abrupt changes, catastrophes, conflicts, an epoch that no longer appears to the toiling masses as horror without end but is an end full of horrors.

Turning specifically to Kautsky, Lenin writes:

In this tendency to evade the imperialism that is here and to pass in dreams to an epoch of “ultra-imperialism,” of which we do not even know whether it is realisable, there is not a grain of Marxism. In this reasoning Marxism is admitted for that “new phase of capitalism,” the realisability of which its inventor himself fails to vouch for, whereas for the present, the existing phase of capitalism, he offers us not Marxism, but a petty-bourgeois and deeply reactionary tendency to soften contradictions. There was a time when Kautsky promised to be a Marxist in the coming restless and catastrophic epoch, which he was compelled to foresee and definitely recognise when writing his work in 1909 about the coming war. Now, when it has become absolutely clear that that epoch has arrived, Kautsky again only promises to be a Marxist in the coming epoch of ultra-imperialism, of which he does not know whether it will arrive! In other words, we have any number of his promises to be a Marxist some time in another epoch, not under present conditions, not at this moment. For to-morrow we have Marxism on credit, Marxism as a promise, Marxism deferred.

Unfortunately, there are only 3 chapters of Rudolf Hilferding’s “Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development” on the Marxist Internet Archives (you can see how much of an influence it was on Lenin, just from the title.) As was the case with Lenin’s book, Hilferding’s study was very much of a time and place. For example, Hilferding wrote that the Anglo-American stock-market system was on the way out, but that has not panned out. This does not invalidate Hilferding’s analysis so long as it is understood to be very much geared to a specific time and place.

Fortunately, J.A. Hobson’s 1902 “Imperialism, a Study” is online at MIA and I strongly recommend giving it a look. Despite the fact that Lenin’s book is narrowly focused on the clash between one core imperialist power and another, Hobson devoted quite a few words to the conditions of “peripheral” countries and as the title to chapter Chapter IV, “Imperialism and the Lower Races”, would indicate, they are not very good. For example:

The real issue is whether, and under what circumstances, it is justifiable for Western nations to use compulsory government for the control and education in the arts of industrial and political civilisation of the inhabitants of tropical countries and other so-called lower races. Because Rhodesian mine-owners or Cuban sugar-growers stimulate the British or American Government to Imperialism by parading motives and results which do not really concern them, it does not follow that these motives under proper guidance are unsound, or that the results are undesirable.

There is nothing unworthy, quite the contrary, in the notion that nations which, through a more stimulative environment, have advanced further in certain arts of industry, politics, or morals, should communicate these to nations which from their circumstances were more backward, so as to aid them in developing alike the material resources of their land and the human resources of their people. Nor is it clear that in this work some “inducement, stimulus, or pressure” (to quote a well-known phrase), or in a single word, “compulsion,” is wholly illegitimate. Force is itself no remedy, coercion is not education, but it may be a prior condition to the operation of educative forces. Those, at any rate, who assign any place to force in the education or the political government of individuals in a nation can hardly deny that the same instrument may find a place in the civilisation of backward by progressive nations.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/hobson/1902/imperialism/index.htm

Needless to say, theories of imperialism from the Marxist left have never, or nearly never, been put forward in such horribly racist and paternalistic terms. One of the things we will be trying to identify as we pursue our study of imperialism is how Marxism eventually takes the side of the “Rhodesian mine-owners or Cuban sugar-growers” explicitly. There is an implicit identification in Lenin’s book, but it would be up to others–starting with Rosa Luxmberg–to make those ties explict.

Finally, I would raise these questions for consideration as we plunge into a close reading of Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”:

1. Whatever happened to World Wars? Did the seeming ability of capitalism to stave off both worldwide economic depression and world war reflect to some extent that Kautsky was on to something? Are we living in something like “ultra-imperialism” today, a point that is made in Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”?

2. What relationship does the theory of imperialism have to do with Karl Marx’s writings on capital? Is there a need for another explanation for the world system today other than in the categories found in Marx’s value theory?

3. Does the spectacular growth of capitalism in China and India suggest that Lenin was premature when he wrote that “the bourgeoisie has turned into a declining, decadent, and reactionary class”? What kind of decadent class would permit the rapid industrialization of the largest nation on earth?

June 21, 2008

Hell’s Ground and Turkish Star Wars

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

About a week ago, I got a DVD screener for “Hell’s Ground”, a Pakistani zombie movie that was an entry in last year’s Asian Film Festival. Made on a shoestring budget, it borrows shamelessly from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with a mace-wielding, burqa-clad fiend chasing the movie’s hapless teens through the forest. I happen to love knock-off’s like these that pay homage to Hollywood blockbusters on the cheap. Whatever financial handicaps “peripheral” countries suffer is more than made up for by the director’s sheer enthusiasm and embrace of local color.

Probably no other film embodies these qualities better (or worse, in some eyes) than “The Man Who Saves the World” (“Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam”), a Turkish cult film nicknamed Turkish Star Wars because it weaves Star Wars clips into the film. The soundtrack is also lifted directly from Hollywood films, primarily “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. But it throws in the music of “Moonraker”, “Ben Hur”, “Flash Gordon”, “Battlestar Galactica”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Silent Running” as well. Considering Hollywood intellectual property imperialism, one might regard the movie as payback.

It was directed by Çetin İnanç (pronounced Chetin Inanch) and was written by Cüneyt Arkın (pronounced Junait Arkin), who stars as a karate-chopping Turkish version of Han Solo. I first saw the movie during a Halloween party thrown by the organizers of the New York Turkish film festival about 5 years ago. When the name Cüneyt Arkın comes up, most educated Turks raise their eyebrows since he is sort of their version of Ed Wood of “Plan Nine from Outer Space” fame (infamy?)

The good news is that you can now watch “The Man Who Saves the World”, including subtitles, here. I strongly recommend smoking some pot before watching this movie to enjoy it properly. Here’s an idea of what you will see, as excerpted from the wiki article on the movie:

The film follows the adventures of two comrades, Murat (Arkın) and Ali (Akkaya), whose ships crash on a desert planet following a space battle that apparently inserts footage from the actual Star Wars films as well as newsreel clips of both Soviet and American space rockets. While in the desert one of them says that perhaps it is a planet only populated by women, so the other man begins to do his whistle which he uses to attract women. However, he uses the wrong whistle, and they are then assaulted by skeletons on horseback. The pair then proceed to defeat the skeletons in hand-to-hand combat. The film’s main villain then soon shows up and captures the heroes, bringing them to fight in his gladiatorial arena. The villain mentions that he was actually from Earth and is in reality a 1,000 year old wizard. He tries to defeat the Earth, but his attacks are always repelled by a shield of concentrated human brain molecules.

Go ahead. Admit it. You can’t wait to watch it, right? I would only add that some of the fight scenes take place in a rather otherworldly looking network of cavern-like temples carved out of stone. That, my friends, is none other than Cappadocia, one of Turkey’s most famous tourist spots, that served as a Christian monastery between 300-1200 AD.

Just one or two more words about Cüneyt Arkın that I just learned about from wiki, the people’s encyclopedia (yes, I know, leftists have all sorts of complaints about it.) He was a physician originally and a master of seven different martial arts. Although he made a lot of schlocky films, he also acted in Remzi Aydın Jöntürk’s “The Adam Trilogy” that supposedly relates the story of the class struggles in Turkey in late 1970s in a psychedelic style! Jöntürk was prosecuted for promoting Communism, but did not serve any time.

Turning to “Hell’s Ground”, I don’t think I can improve on the description found on Subway Cinema, the organizer of the yearly Asian Film Festival:

Shot during the rainy season when the Pakistani countryside erupts into radioactive green, with wild marijuana plants growing up to ten feet tall, HELL’S GROUND was shot on a low budget by first-time filmmaker, Khan, who managed to round up an impressive cast and crew for his flick, most of whom were eager to do something new after laboring for years in Pakistan’s predictable television and film industry. The plot is bare bones simple: five teenagers who want to go to a rock concert hit the road in their Mystery Van. A protest against polluted drinking water is blocking their way and so they take an ill-advised detour through the countryside. Turns out that the problem with the drinking water is that it’s been turning people into zombies. On top of that there’s a mysterious killer hidden inside a bloody burqa racing through the forest who wants to introduce his cast-iron mace into everyone’s face.

“Hell’s Ground” is available now from Netflix and your better video stores.

June 20, 2008

A panel discussion on Obama

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 3:23 pm

Last night I attended a well-attended and fascinating panel discussion at the Brecht Forum in New York on the Obama campaign. With the exception of Doug Henwood, all the panelists were for voting for Obama to one extent or another. During the Q&A, there were some extraordinary contributions from the floor. The meeting was being videotaped as well. If it ever ends up the Internet, I will make sure to publicize the URL.

All the speakers were limited to five minutes in their initial presentation and Doug, unlike the others, read from a prepared text. Let’s hope that it is available online at some point since he had some very interesting insights, as you might expect. Basically, he called attention to the rather insubstantial character of the Obama “movement”, which rests on his charisma and built-up disgust with the Republican Party more than anything else. He also spoke about Obama’s turn to the right following his nomination, a familiar pattern with Democratic nominees for President. In a follow-up, Doug made a very useful point. He said that Reagan, unlike Obama, had a real movement behind him. Reagan was part of a well-organized conservative movement, while there is no counterpart on the Democratic side this year. That being the case, what sense did it make to talk about the “movement” keeping Obama honest?

Next to speak was Gary Younge, a Black Briton who is the Guardian correspondent based in New York and a contributor to the Nation magazine. Younge has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Obama and rather than trying to summarize what he said last night, I will instead refer you to one of his articles. Younge also made a point that was a leitmotif throughout from the panelists and the audience, namely that since the left was so weak it had no other option except to back Obama. We were impotent while Obama attracted 75,000 people to a rally. Fortunately, according to Younge, Obama was far better than the average Democrat so we would not be compromising ourselves so much. He saw the role of the left as organizing itself so as to keep pressure on him to hew to the left, even if we were kind of impotent.

Next to speak was Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American journalist who was decidedly skeptical about Obama even though one had the impression that he thought it was a good thing for 90 percent of African-Americans to have voted for him. That kind of unity was difficult to achieve in the past. He also admitted to feeling a swell of pride when he turns on the TV in the evening to watch a report on Obama sticking it to McCain. On the other hand, he was not happy about the “absent Black fathers” speech on Father’s Day, a topic that he has written about here:

The strain of black conservatism that Cosby evokes has also surfaced in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Early on, some commentators speculated that Obama’s Cosby-esque appeals to personal responsibility would cost him black votes. But if his admonishments for black kids to turn off the PlayStation and for black fathers to do their jobs did him any damage, it was not reflected at the polls. In fact, this sort of rhetoric amounts to something of a racial double play, allowing Obama and Cosby to cater both to culturally conservative blacks and to whites who are convinced that black America is a bastion of decadence.

(As it turns out, Coates has a blog entry inspired by last night’s meeting.)

Next to speak was Jo-Ann Mort, a hardened social democrat and Zionist who told the audience that she was not that upset over Obama’s AIPAC speech since he would very likely conduct a foreign policy dictated more by realpolitik than ideology. Somehow I did not find that very encouraging. Mort also made a point that I have heard only about 346 million times, namely that electing a Democrat would relieve the pressure on the left and allow us to move forward, especially the trade unions. With the Republicans, you get evil Supreme Court judges, etc, etc, etc.

The final panelist was Betsy Reed, executive editor of the Nation Magazine who made more or less the same points as Gary Younge, but was surprisingly open-eyed about Obama’s failings.

Although I found the presentations interesting, it seemed that an opportunity was lost by not including a Marxist defense of Obama. Younge, Mort and Reed have little interest in trying to explain their support for Obama in class terms–a function obviously of not having any background or interest in Marxism. That being the case, it would have been more useful to have, for example, Bill Fletcher on the panel. Fletcher has made the case for “critical support” of Obama on Black Commentator.

As some of you might know, “critical support” is a tactic employed traditionally by the Marxist left. However, it has been applied to social democratic candidates rather than bourgeois candidates. Yes, I know how pedantic this might sound for me to even refer to the hoary past.

During the discussion period, I tried to make some points within the 2 minute time-frame the chairman had understandably allocated. Let me expand on them now.

Taking off from Gary Younge’s remark about Obama’s 75,000 person rallies, I observed that Ralph Nader filled Madison Square Garden in 2000 and spoke to enthusiastic rallies of 5 to 10 thousand people routinely that year.

After Gore lost the 2000 election for essentially using the same kind of Carter-Clinton triangulation that Obama is using now, the Democratic Party establishment waged war on the Greens, assisted by a fifth column inside the party that preferred the Democratic Party but did not have the honesty to spell out their political agenda. From within the pages of Reed’s Nation Magazine and other such venues, there was a crusade to isolate, demonize and marginalize the Nader campaign in 2004 while the Greens were happy to pitch in. This was a party that had demonstrated through its actions that radical opposition to the two-party system was okay, just as long as it didn’t cost the Democrats the presidential election. This year they have picked Cynthia McKinney as their candidate, who is quite worthy but I am afraid that the damage that the Greens have done to themselves over the past 4 years will rob this campaign of the vitality it so badly needs.

When backbiting articles by Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin proved insufficient to torpedo the Nader campaign in 2004, you could always count on corporate lawyers hired by the Democrats to do the job. In state after state, they challenged Nader’s petitions or otherwise threw a monkey wrench into his campaign. How dare this impudent egoist dare to spoil Kerry’s chances to become the next president of the U.S. when he was doing such a good job by himself?

Nader is running again this year with the excellent Matt Gonzalez as his running mate. No matter how much I support this team and plan to vote for them, I can’t help but think that it would be much better if there was some kind of institutional base beneath them. In other words, the movement that Doug Henwood spoke about at the Brecht Forum. Such a movement was in its infancy in 2000, but the Demogreens, the Nation Magazine liberals and the DP’s corporate lawyers did a very good job strangling it in its cradle. They should be prosecuted for political murder.

In the final analysis, the “left” is not all that weak in the U.S., but it is constantly being undermined by elements within its ranks who bow to pressure from the capitalist class. This, of course, is an old story. To prepare for an article on Lenin’s concept of imperialism for an introduction to Marxism class that I am leading in a yahoo mailing list, I am re-reading some chapters in Neil Harding’s excellent “Lenin’s Political Thought”.

Lenin was shocked to see the social democratic parliamentarians in Germany and France vote for war credits in clear defiance of their principles. So deep was the sense of social chauvinism in 1914 that it was impossible for revolutionary socialist opposition to the war to get a hearing. Eventually, the loss of life and treasure convinced workers to oppose the war and their misleaders, thus giving birth to a new, revivified socialist movement.

Nobody can possibly promise that such a movement will arise from the ashes of 8 years of naked imperialist rule by the Bush administration, but if it does it will need the kind of steely resolve that allowed Lenin to write in 1914:

An International does not mean sitting at the same table and having hypocritical and pettifogging resolutions written by people who think that genuine internationalism consists in German socialists justifying the German bourgeoisie’s call to shoot down French workers, and in French socialists justifying the French bourgeoisie’ call to shoot down German workers in the name of the “defence of the fatherland”! The International consists in the coming together (first ideologically, then in due time organisationally as well) of people who, in these grave days, are capable of defending socialist internationalism in deed, i.e., of mustering their forces and “being the next to shoot” at the governments and the ruling classes of their own respective “fatherlands”. This is no easy task; it calls for much preparation and great sacrifices and will be accompanied by reverses. However, for the very reason that it, is no easy task, it must be accomplished only together with those who wish to perform it and are not afraid of a complete break with the chauvinists and with the defenders of social-chauvinism.

June 19, 2008

2008 Asian Film Festival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:24 pm

In an era of rising real estate prices and falling construction cranes, New York no longer has the allure for me that it once did. Among the charms are the film festivals that present independent, documentary and foreign films that are not likely to be seen anywhere else in the U.S. By far, the most eagerly awaited of these for me is the Asian Film Festival hosted by Subway Cinema and organized by the indefatigable Grady Hendrix who I salute for his creativity, hard work and organizational talents.

The festival begins tomorrow and information, including a schedule, can be found at http://www.subwaycinema.com/. This year I saw 6 of the films in advance and-as always-am impressed with the high quality of Asian films. Often using a tiny fraction of what it costs to make a Hollywood blockbuster, they produce some really quality work. I strongly urge New Yorkers to attend the festival. I also invite non-New Yorkers to continue reading this article in order to find out about some movies that hopefully will be available in your local theaters or on DVD some day.

Although I did not plan it this way, the 6 films I requested from Grady fall into three categories. Here goes:

1. Wars of National Liberation

The Rebel” is the first movie I have ever seen shot in Vietnam. Set in the 1920s, it is clearly related stylistically and thematically to “Once Upon a Time in China”, another exciting mixture of anti-colonialism and martial arts. The two main characters are a cop named Le Van Cuong and an anti-colonial fighter named Vo Thanh Thuy that he falls in love with. Shocked by the brutality of the French occupying forces and their Vietnamese puppets, Le Van Cuong joins the resistance. After being captured by the French, Le and Ho end up in a slave labor camp where they watch their countrymen beaten like mules. They escape and make their way to the small village where the leader of the resistance-Vo’s father-is based. This leads to the film’s climactic showdown between the French and the heroic resistance.

For fans of Asian martial arts movies, you are in for a treat since all of the fight scenes eschew the kinds of gimmicks that have shown up in recent movies with their gravity-defying stunts (accomplished through wires, etc.) “The Rebel” is old school, so much so that Vietnamese American stuntman and actor Johnny Tri Nguyen who plays Vo and other cast members refused to use doubles.

Vo’s nemesis, his former boss in the colonial police, is Sy, played by Dustin Nguyen. Like Johnny Tri Nguyen (no relation), Dustin is Vietnamese-American. His family escaped Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975, and the film’s editor, Ham Tran was also a boat person. This background does not prevent them from making a full-throated anti-colonial potboiler.

The opening scene in “Assembly” (“Ji jie hao”) takes place in 1948 during the Civil War in China. The main character is People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu), who leads his men in an assault on a nationalist stronghold. The scene is reminiscent of recent Hollywood movies such as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Letters from Iwo Jima” that offer up images of war in their full horror, with severed limbs, spilled intestines, etc. What makes “Assembly” more interesting, to me at least, is that it looks at a period of history that has never been the subject of a war movie. The willingness of Communist soldiers to put their lives on the line is a welcome reminder of a period in Chinese history when altruism was still held dear.

During the aftermath of the battle, Gu Zidi decides to kill his Nationalist prisoners, a war crime that lands him in the stockade with Wang Jincun (Yuan Wenkang), a former schoolteacher whose crime was cowardice rather than murdering prisoners. Gu Zidi is offered a way out of jail. He will lead his company to an abandoned mine that will be used as a line of defense against the Nationalists. It is a highly dangerous mission that Gu Zidi accepts, even after complaining that his company is understaffed. He invites Wang Jincun to become his political officer-more on the basis being able to read and write than ideology. Gu Zidi, like just about all the men under his command, is illiterate.

During one especially poignant scene, Gu Zidi describes his early childhood to Wang Jincun. His parents sent him off to work as a servant on a landlord’s estate. When he accidentally allows the landlord’s son’s pony to escape, he is beaten. But, he adds, the beating was nowhere near as bad as the beating he got from his father who lost half his land to pay for the cost of the missing pony.

During the battle at the mine, everybody is killed except for Gu Zidi who then ends up recovering from his wounds at a PLA hospital. The death of his men haunts him so much that he dedicates the rest of his life trying to find their remains and convincing the Army and state bureaucracy to honor them.

After the end of the Korean War, the mine has been put back into production even though the remains of Gu Zidi’s men are buried under a mountain of coal. In defiance of the miner’s foremen and the Communist administrators who are anxious to resume production, he digs through the coal each day to find proof of their death. “Assembly” is a very powerful reminder of the egalitarian values that allowed the great people’s revolution to triumph. It is a hopeful sign that Chinese film-makers still adhere to such values.

2. Unconventional policiers

Mad Detective” (“Sun taam”) is directed by Johnnie To, who is best known for movies like “Fulltime Killer” that push the boundaries of Hong Kong cop movies. The screenplay is by Wai Ka-fai, who shared directing responsibilities.

The mad detective in question is one Inspector Bun (Lau Ching-wan) who pushes the art of detecting to the extreme. In the opening scene, he is in police station asking one of his colleagues to help stuff him in a suitcase which will then be pushed down the stairs. He is reenacting a crime scene that will help him identify the killer.

We soon learn that his unconventional crime-fighting techniques are the function of a psyche that is barely under control. At one point, that control is lost as he offers up a gift to a retiring police captain in full view of his fellow officers. He calmly takes a knife from his pocket and slices off his ear in Van Gogh fashion that he then hands to the captain as a gift.

After being forced to retire with a permanent mental disability, Bun is pressed into duty once again by his former comrades who are stymied by a crime wave being carried out by a number of different culprits, but with the same gun. That gun was stolen from a police officer whose partner disappeared during a chase in the woods in pursuit of an unidentified suspect.

It is Bun’s contention that all of the suspects are in fact the same person, the fractured identities of the cop whose gun was stolen and who killed his partner as well. The plot unfolds with Bun and a cop who has been assigned to work with him tracking down the mysterious killers who Bun insists is a single person. As an expert in detecting peoples’ “inner personalities” (ghosts, really), Bun is in a unique position to solve this crime. However, we are never sure if he is seeing things as they really are or hallucinations since he has gone off his medications.

The Masters of Cinema collection in the United Kingdom has included “Mad Detective” in their select catalogue alongside masterpieces by Fritz Lang, Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles. That and my thumb’s up should be ample recommendation.

Joining “The Rebel” as a unique experience, “Kala” (Dead Time) is the first Indonesian film I have ever seen. The main character is Janus (Fachry Albar), a narcoleptic reporter, who witnesses what appears to be an accidental killing (a pregnant woman struck by a truck) in the opening scene. That killing turns out to be related to several other killings whose motive and perpetrator he is anxious to discover.

Another victim is an old friend who is pursued by a ghost that he first spots on top of a wardrobe in his bedroom, who then pursues him crawling on all fours down the hallway like the ghosts in “Grudge” and other Asian horror movies.

But this is definitely not the cut from the cookie mold Asian horror movie, even though director Joko Anwar was expected to make such a movie. Instead he has crafted a very atmospheric film noir on a relatively low budget that reminds me of the films of Jacques Tourneur, including “Cat People” and “I Walked with a Zombie”. Like Tourneur, Anwar is far more interested in conveying mood than orchestrating on-screen mayhem. When killings take place, they are almost anti-climactic. The movie moves along through a series of compelling images out of the noir vocabulary such as gloomy, neon-lit streets and hotel rooms with ceiling fans. It also includes some totally unexpected secondary characters such a gay cop named Eros.

3. Japanese militarism, left and right

United Red Army” (“Jitsuroku rengô sekigun”) is a 190 minute semi-documentary (actors re-enact real historical events) about the group formed through the fusion of two of Japan’s most notorious terrorist organizations in the early 1970s, the Red Army Faction and the Revolutionary Left Faction. It was directed by the controversial director Koji Wakamatsu who was a construction worker before he began making films. The first films he made were so-called “pink films”, or soft-core Japanese pornography. In the early 70s he gravitated toward the Japanese ultraleft and was even considered a sympathizer of the United Red Army.

He made the film in an effort to humanize and possibly redeem the United Red Army (URA), but this is an almost an impossible task as they far exceeded any of their counterparts like the Weathermen or the Baader-Meinhof gang in cruelty and self-deception. Wakamatsu’s film begins by setting the context for an ultraleft development in the student left in Japan-not that different from what occurred everywhere else. Frustration over the inability of mass demonstrations, even those incorporating “exemplary” physical confrontations with the cops, to end the war led a segment of the movement to opt for Narodnik type tactics, but in the name of “Marxism-Leninism”, and Maoism more specifically.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, such students were encouraged to use violence against their opponents on the left. Since the Red Guards were encouraged by Mao, who was ostensibly the world’s greatest revolutionist, to beat their rivals into submission, why not do it at places like the University of Tokyo?

After the URA decides to train itself in guerrilla warfare techniques, several dozen of its key members go up to a large mountainside shack where they spend their time in nearby woods and fields marching or taking target practice. In the evenings there are “self-critique” sessions in which members are required to correct themselves for one inadequacy or another.

When they are deemed to be inadequate self-critics by the cult leader Tsuneo Mori, who is given to exclamatory rants about the need to become “true communists”, other members take turns beating them in the face and stomach, or even stabbing them. Fourteen members of the small group died as a result of this kind of violence.

Eventually the cops found out about their location and pursued them to a ski resort near Karuizawa and laid siege to the heavily fortified lodge from February 19, 1972 to February 28, 1972. The film describes the confrontation in dramatic and convincing detail. So repugnant are the URA activists that I almost found myself cheering the cops, despite my long-standing socialist convictions.

Japan was so shocked by the behavior of the URA that the left was put on the defensive for a number of years. Although I am no expert on Japanese politics, I do have to wonder if the weakness (non-existence, almost) of the Japanese left is the price paid for the stupidity of the URA.

Yasukuni” is a documentary by a Chinese director who wanted to examine Japanese nationalism at the so-named infamous shrine to Japanese war veterans, including some major war criminals.

The shrine is a pole of attraction for ultra-rightists in the same way that a Confederate War monument might be. Unlike the Germans (except for a small minority), the Japanese have never felt the need to view WWII in exactly the same terms as an evil for which they have to atone. In recent years, the tendency to view the Japanese Empire as something to be proud of has accelerated, even to the point where Prime Minister Koizumi has felt comfortable making pilgrimages. The film depicts the noisy protests over his visit and other expressions by delegations from Taiwan and Korea to challenge the war-making character of the shrine. In one particularly moving scene, a Taiwanese activist asks for her father’s remains who was forced to serve in the Imperial army with many other indigenous Taiwanese people.

The Last Professors

Filed under: Academia,Education,workers — louisproyect @ 1:07 am

In the June 18, 2008 edition of “Inside Higher Education”, there was an interview with Frank Donoghue, the author of the newly published “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities” that caught my eye, especially with what he had to say about adjunct professors in the humanities field.

Q: Many advocates for adjuncts say that tenure-track (and especially tenured) professors did nothing or far too little as academe was restructured. Is this true? Why do you think this happened?

A: Certainly most tenure-track professors were oblivious as the teaching workforce was restructured, and very few predicted how dire a problem it would become. Had we identified the casualization of the teaching workforce as a problem when it began to take hold in the 1980s, we might have been able to correct it. Paul Lauter referred to the misuse of adjuncts as a “scandal” in 1991 in Canons and Contexts, and he may have been the first to use language that strong. That we could have done much about it over the past twenty years presupposes that professors set hiring policies. At most institutions, professors have a lot of input in the hiring of other professors, but not in the hiring of adjuncts, either the people themselves or the terms of their contracts. Decisions about adjunct labor have, by and large, never been made by faculty, but have instead been part of larger administrative policies.

Since a number of young adjunct professors in New York I am friendly with have told me some real atrocity tales about finding a tenure-track position, I decided to read Donoghue’s book. In a way, it might as well be titled “Peak Education” since it describes a downward trajectory ending in disaster in the same fashion as “peak oil” theories, except in academia the prospects seem far more grounded in objective reality.

The Donoghue interview has sparked more than the usual number of comments, including from long-suffering adjuncts. One writes:

I completed my Ph.D.in philosophy as a nontraditional student in the last few years. I spent a long time in graduate school (6 for PHD) because I had to string 4 adjunct positions together to earn the whopping sum of $28,000/year. This extravagant sum was necessary just to keep the roof over our heads and heat the house.

I remember distinctly telling the undergrad professors who so irresponsibly advised me to soldier on the to Ph.D. that they would be the last generation to live with tenure and middle-class lives. They denied this fact and pointed out that there were no adjuncts in their tiny department. After naively following their advice off a cliff, tenure track jobs are as rare a winning powerball tickets and only graduates from the top 10-20 ranked programs are considered worthy of even the smallest crumbs. Thus, I still work two jobs, one as an adjunct, and teach 18 classes per year with no summers off. Worse yet, I am told because I work at these non-research schools, my fate is sealed and I will never ascend to the privileged class as I am labeled a “lecturer,” not something I chose but rather was forced into to survive. The end has already arrived. I teach in a less than prestigious institution with Ph.Ds from Columbia and Pitt. We are not non-scholars.

In order to write for publications that hold articles for a year or more, I will take off the summer, sacrifice 25% of my not-so-large annual income and lose all economic stability. The path to knowledge and prosperity in the humanities is dead. Now the question is how to leave the profession? Entirely. Google the Philosophy Job Market blog and see the future if you are an idealistic humanities major.

The growth of adjunct positions in academia, an elevated form of contingent labor not that different than from any other part-time job lacking benefits such as health insurance and pensions, has had the effect of casting 70 percent of all college professors into economic misery, as well as a loss of status. 30 years ago they constituted only 43 percent of all professors. At this rate, tenured positions will disappear a lot quicker than oil.

Adjuncts typically–including my young friends–lack both an office and a computer. Each semester they have to anxiously await word to see if they will receive some crumbs from the table. Unlike professors on the tenure track, they are not guaranteed that they will be asked to give classes.

Although the adjuncts I know are relatively young (in their mid-30s), some have been at it for a very long time. There’s an article in the June 17th “Inside Higher Education” titled “Waiting 20 Years for the Tenure Track” by an English instructor named Phil Ray Jack that puts flesh on the broad historical analysis in Donoghue’s book. Jack writes:

Gradually, I began to see myself as a “professional part-time instructor.” At one time, I had business cards printed that showed a pawn in one corner and said, “Freelance Faculty – Have Degree, Will Travel.” I know it sounds a little corny, but calling myself a part-timer when I actually taught almost twice as many classes as most full-time professors didn’t seem accurate. Calling myself “a contingent faculty member” was more accurate, but I didn’t like admitting that I could lose my job at the whim of an administrator. Adjunct sounds a little better, and that’s the term I currently use, but at the time I was still trying to hold on to a romantic view of what I was doing.

During my 20-year stint as a part-timer, I built a repertoire of horror stories like thousands of other part-timers. One college announced that I would no longer be needed there because my students complained about my forcing them to read pornography in the class. The books they referred to were Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp. When I pointed out that these books were on reading lists for classes taught by others, I was told, “Yes, but they have tenure so I can’t do anything about it.”

The dean pointed out that I wasn’t being fired, I would simply not be offered classes.

Donoghue’s first chapter, which can be read in the inaugural issue of “American Academic,” the journal of the American Federation of Teachers, debunks a notion that is widespread on the academic left, namely that the corporate assault on the humanities is a recent phenomenon. Since American society has gone through a number of wrenching changes since the early 1970s associated with “neo-liberalism”, there is a tendency to see the university as having some kind of higher and protected status in a golden age. As it turns out, the American capitalist class (my formulation, not Donoghue’s, although anybody reading his book would understand that this was the enemy he was identifying) has hated the idea of a liberal, humanities-oriented education since the Gilded Age.

Frank Donoghue

Consider what Andrew Carnegie, who Donoghue refers to as “the meagerly educated self-made multimillionaire” had to say to an 1891 commencement address at the Pierce College of Business and Shorthand of Philadelphia:

In the storms of life are they [traditional graduates] to be strengthened and sustained and held to their post and to the performance of duty by drawing upon Hebrew or Greek barbarians as models. . .? Is Shakespeare or Homer to be the reservoir from which they draw? . . . I rejoice, therefore, to know that your time has not been wasted upon dead languages, but has been fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting. . . and that you are fully equipped to sail upon the element upon which you must live your lives and earn your living.

Andrew Carnegie: favored short-hand, not scholarship

While this sentiment has always existed among the American plutocracy, it has only been within the past 30 years or so that it has had the means to ensure that young people are steered into what amounts to “shorthand” and “typewriting”. Economic hardship has forced more and more students to chose college majors that will lead to a job and the university system will do everything it can to accommodate such an emerging market since more often than not the President of the university is well-connected to the corporate world.

This is particularly true of the state universities and the community colleges where the student body tends to be more economically insecure. Why waste time studying 17th century poetry when a computer science or accounting major can put a roof over your head and food in your belly?

Even as tenured jobs are disappearing, those who currently enjoy tenure appear fully absorbed in their own privileged state and incapable of addressing the larger problems of their profession, even if they are left trade unionists like Stanley Aronowitz who is a star in the City University Graduate Center. Donoghue quotes Aronowitz’s article “The Last Good Job in America” that appeared in the summer 1997 issue of “Social Text”:

I read a fair amount of detective and science fiction, but sometimes I write and teach what begins as entertainment. The same goes for reading philosophy and social and cultural theory. I really enjoy a lot of it and experience it as recreation but often integrate what I have learned into my teaching and writing repertoire. . . . And even though I must appear for some four hours a week in a seminar or two, I don’t experience this as institutional robbery of my own time.

Of course, Aronowitz makes sure to make the point that his easy life should be the norm for all workers, something that I am sure that he really believes in as a long-time socialist. Unfortunately, despite his best intentions and all the good work of the union that represents the city’s professors, there is little likelihood that an adjunct will ever have it this easy. Indeed, from what I have seen of the City University system, a tenure-track position is about as easy to gain entry to as Kafka’s Castle and even more foreboding. I have seen nepotism at work in at least two campuses, where powerful, politically-connected administrators override the wishes of a department’s recommendation for a new hire and pick their own candidate as a payoff. In other words, hiring is done in the same way as in mafia-controlled construction unions.

This is not just true of the City University. It is also true of Columbia University, my own employer. Around 10 years ago I was friendly with a sociology professor named John Hartman who, unlike my young friends, had a tenure-track position. In the very year that he was going to get his tenure, Charles Tilley, the renowned academician, took over the department, refused to renew Hartman’s contract and those of his associates, and replaced them with his own favorites. Hartman told me that it was like something out of “The Godfather”. This experience was enough to make him give up on teaching altogether. He took a job as a statistician with an insurance company in Western Pennsylvania and left academia behind. Unlike John Hartman, who had marketable skills in statistics and computer networking, most adjuncts know nothing except the humanities discipline of their PhD and are forced like Phil Ray Jack to roam from campus to campus like the Flying Dutchman.

When I hear stories like this from my adjunct friends or from professors who got screwed like John Hartman, my blood boils. I try to imagine what is like to spend 5 or more years completing a dissertation in lonely, stressful, mind-numbing circumstances just in order to be able to teach in a field that you are dedicated to. In most professional training, such as law or medicine, there is an expectation that after such a sacrifice there is a well-paying job and the respect of your community awaiting you like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

In my unrepentant Marxist fashion, I imagine all those angry adjuncts and all the other professors who have seen the handwriting on the wall fighting militantly to defend their profession, including its lowliest members. A general strike would teach the masters of academia, with their relentless drive to cut costs in the name of “tight budgets” (in other words, the same excuse as auto manufactures, hospitals et al), to back off and respect working people.

But then I reflect on how difficult it is to organize people in my own trade, who are far lower on the professional food chain than adjunct professors with their PhD’s. An article in the June 5th Nation Magazine titled “Dilberts of the World, Unite” describes efforts to organize subcontractors at Microsoft into a trade union. These employees are contingent labor just like adjuncts, even if they make considerably more money. For them, the problem is whether their job will be around very much longer as Microsoft continues to ship jobs overseas. No matter how pissed off the part-timers are, there are some myths deeply ingrained in their consciousness that prevent many of them from thinking in terms of collective action:

The first and most powerful of these myths is the Marlboro Man Fable. Doug, a Microsoft employee and WashTech at-large member, who asks me to use a pseudonym to protect him from blacklisting, tells me that while tech workers certainly have complaints about wages and benefits, they do not see unions as being congruent with their deeply held beliefs in “rugged individualism”–the Marlboro Man spirit that says everyone is a lone cowboy who can tough it out on his or her own. “One of the successful things the high-tech industry has done is to have sold people on the idea that if you just struggle all by yourself, you can be Bill Gates, too,” he says over lunch at Microsoft’s cafeteria in Redmond. “That’s kind of what we sell in our whole country as the self-made man. There’s no such thing, really, but that’s what lots of folks believe.”

The gulf between the Marlboro Man Fable and reality is one of the most combustible ingredients in today’s uprising. People’s economic experiences–stagnant wages, rising healthcare costs, decreasing retirement benefits–indict the fable in a far deeper way than even the best uprising leader could. However, as Doug says, the awakening has been slow in a white-collar world that matured during the go-go 1990s. The Marlboro Man Fable poses the toughest challenge to WashTech because it drills directly into white-collar workers’ psychology–specifically, their belief “that interests of employers and employees are the same,” as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset found in his groundbreaking research on the subject.

While the college professor is not exactly a Marlboro Man, isn’t it fair to say that the competition of the dissertation process and the search for a tenure-track job brings out the intellectual’s deepest individualistic tendencies? Isn’t the ivory tower one of the most perfect expressions of meritocracy known to humanity?

As I reflect on the problems of academia and the part-timer’s at Microsoft, I cannot help but think of the problems of the left in general. In a period of deepening economic insecurity, almost everybody thinks about himself or herself rather than collective solidarity. While nobody wants a return to the terrible 1930s, with its economic misery and headlong plunge into fascism and war, there was something about its ability to get people to bond together against its common enemy that remains inspiring. As the social and economic crisis of the past 30 years deepens, let’s hope that we can recapture that spirit of our ancestors.

June 17, 2008

Baseball and capitalism

Filed under: commercialism — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm
Tags:

Willie Randolph: fired and humiliated

Last night, just around midnight, Willie Randolph—the New York Mets baseball team manager and first African-American manager in New York baseball history—was fired by the team’s general manager Omar Minaya along with two of his coaches. The firing took place in a California hotel during a road trip. The media had been predicting Randolph’s firing for at least a month since the team was losing more games than it was winning despite the third largest payroll in baseball.

On WFAN this morning, NY’s all-sports radio station from which Mets games are broadcast, the host was railing against the Wilpons, the team’s owners, and Minaya for treating Randolph in such a shabby fashion. Why did they have to wait until he was 3000 miles away to fire him? Mike Vaccaro, a NY Post reporter, described it this way:

This? This is unspeakable. These men couldn’t have been fired in New York, before heading on a plane and flying 3,000 miles to their doom? They couldn’t have been spared the ignominy of a public perp walk back east, their dignity thrown into their carry-on luggage?

Really?

Is this the best the Mets can do? Is this really what they are about? Can they really consider themselves a professional operation when they do the simplest task in sports, firing the manager, this wretchedly?

My response is that of course they are a professional operation. That is how the bosses routinely treat employees, as I discovered after I left Goldman-Sachs. One morning, about 15 long-time managers were escorted by security guards with all their belongings shortly after discovering that they could no longer logon to the email system in the morning. The humiliation taught the remaining management who was in charge.

Fred Wilpon: N.Y. Mets owner and tax cheat

Fred Wilpon, the owner of the N.Y. Mets (his son Jeff is co-owner), is a real estate developer. If you know anything about N.Y. real estate, you can only wonder why the Wilpons did not have Willie whacked by a mafia hit-man.

In 2002, Fred Wilpon and other real estate barons bribed the city’s property tax assessors to illegally slash their tax bills. The city’s finance commissioner said, “We found a definite understatement of value with these properties. We set out to revalue them using standard assessment procedures. The end result is a higher tax bill.” If you want another example of this kind of double-dealing, you should study the early years of the Cuban revolution. When Castro decided to nationalize some American corporations, he paid them the same amount that Batista’s corrupt tax assessors has assigned. When they squealed about how unfair that was, Castro reminded them that they should have never tried to cheat the Cuba people to begin with.

Evidently, the Wilpons were not just unhappy with the Mets’s performance under Willie Randolph; they also were incensed that he had the nerve to talk about the problems facing Blacks in professional sports.

In an interview with the Bergen Record, a New Jersey paper, Randolph was asked whether black managers are held to different standards than their white counterparts. He replied:

I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but I think there’s something there. Herman Edwards did pretty well here and he won a couple of playoff [games], and they were pretty hard on Herm. Isiah [Thomas] didn’t do a great job, but they beat up Isiah pretty good. … I don’t know if people are used to a certain figurehead. There’s something weird about it.

The Wilpons reacted to this as if it were a Reverend Jeremiah Wright sermon. After he was summoned to their office and bawled out, Randolph carried out what amounted to a Maoist self-criticism:

First of all, I want to apologize to Met ownership, SNY and my team for the unnecessary distraction that I created, that I caused the last couple of days. I shouldn’t have said what I said. It was a mistake. Simple as that, it was a mistake. There’s no excuses for that. No excuses for it. I’m owning up to it.

Randolph is not the only Met manager whose performance was put under a microscope. Minaya is in the hot-seat as well since he hired the expensive free agents who are underperforming.

Omar Minaya: Mets general manager accused of reverse racism

There is also a racial dimension to the flak that Minaya is taking since he—a Dominican—has been accused of favoring Latino players. A few years ago the Mets traded their pitcher Kris Benson to the Baltimore Orioles. His wife, a former model and dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, accused Minaya of building an “all-Latino” team. Although I had always favored the Mets, this was enough to turn me into a rabid fan, especially when one of the Latinos was Carlos Delgado.

Carlos Delgado: political progressive past his prime

Delgado, a Puerto Rican, has been deeply involved with the movement to stop Vieques from being used as a testing ground for U.S. bombing runs. He was also against invading Iraq. During the 2004 season, Delgado protested the war by remaining silent in the dugout when the horrible “God Bless America” was played during the seventh inning stretch.

Unfortunately, Delgado’s performance on the field is not on a par with his politics. Like a number of the very expensive Latino free agents that Minaya lined up, they were past their prime. This is the consequence of trying to buy a baseball championship. Right now, some of the top teams have the lowest payroll. Sooner or later, some wealthier team will purchase their top players but at the risk of buying a faded rose. In the off-season, Minaya managed to acquire Johann Santana, a Venezuelan two-time winner of the Cy Young award. Many commentators thought that Santana’s best years were behind him, however, and his less than spectacular performance this year might bear that out. Of course, the mediocre hitting of the Mets was a factor in several of his losses.

One other source of top Latin talent is revolutionary Cuba, where baseball players and other athletes are expected to shun big contracts of the sort that Santana enjoys. Since there is enormous economic pressure on Cuba, affecting even the elite, it should not come as a surprise that Cuban baseball players defect to the U.S. on a regular basis.

An alternative model

In a long article titled “Commie Ball: A Journey to the End of a Revolution” that appeared in Vanity Fair Magazine, financial journalist Michael Lewis reveals the slim pickings that face North Americans who want to exploit Cuba’s human resources:

For the 30 players who traveled with the Cuban national team, quitting Communism for the big leagues has been as simple as missing the bus or hopping the wall in left field. But relatively few Cuban players have left their island and almost none of the best. What has come to the U.S., instead, is a rattlebag of players past their prime, players in political trouble, players injured, and players who were never very successful in Cuba. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez escaped by boat in 1997, when he was in his early 30s, and became a star with the Yankees—but he had spent most of his prime in Cuba, and insisted that he never would have left had he not been banned from baseball by the Cuban government because his half-brother, Livan, had fled Cuba two years earlier. Gus Dominguez’s former client Rey Ordoñez, who spent seven years as the starting shortstop for the New York Mets, left Cuba in 1993 only after it became clear that he was blocked by better players from starting for his Cuban team, the Havana Industriales.

U.S. agents seeking to convince Cuban ballplayers to defect have a tough time entering Cuba, but the doors are always open for people who simply love the sport in harmony with the island’s socialist values. One of them is Kit Krieger, a former head of British Columbia’s 41,000-member teachers’ union. Michael Lewis reports:

There were no official Friends of Cuban Baseball, and so Kit Krieger became an unofficial one. “I have the largest collection of Cuban-autograph baseballs in Canada,” he says. “The second-largest is 31 million people tied, with none.” Once he went to Cuba with paper and pencils and schoolbooks; now he goes with bats and balls and gloves. He meets with team managers and players and league officials. He became close friends with Communist Party officials who shared his love of baseball.

It strains the resources of a retired schoolteacher living on his pension to medicate half of Cuba’s old-timers and equip some large number of young Cuban baseball players, and creates domestic problems in the bargain. “My wife thinks I’m being used,” he says. “And she’s right. I am being used. But so what? These people have nothing.” In 2001, to supplement his pension, he created a small company, called Cubaball, to introduce baseball fanatics to Cuba. Most of the people who go on these trips aren’t anyone’s idea of normal. They all know more than any human being should about Cuban baseball history, and perform, for the benefit of the locals, astonishing feats.

Michael Lewis is the author of “Liar’s Poker”, an excellent book about Wall Street financial cutthroats. He knew this world from experience, having started out as a bond salesman for Salomon Brothers, a firm that once employed me as well. In 2003, he wrote a book titled “Moneyball” that investigated the success of the Oakland A’s, a successful professional team that was under-funded, just like the teams that have shot ahead of the budget-busting N.Y. Mets.

With his fascination about price/performance ratios, Lewis is at a loss to explain how Cuban society works, especially within the baseball stadiums. It starts with the snack vendors who resist the temptation to rip him off when he overpays:

Up in the stands are three ladies with trays of peanuts and cookies and whatnot. I grab a few sacks of peanuts and some weirdly wrapped cookies and ask them how much for the lot. “Five pesos,” they say, and so I give them five of what the foreign-exchange lady at the Havana airport had given me. Wrong! I’d paid them 25 times the going rate for peanuts and cookies, and the ladies are so delighted and startled that they try to give me their entire store.

And it extends to the souvenir stands, or lack thereof:

What’s even odder is what is not sold: souvenirs. It’s hard to imagine an American baseball game without jerseys and autographed balls and bobble-head dolls being hawked for outrageous sums. There’s none of that in Cuba.

And to top it all off, there’s the players themselves who play for seeming peanuts:

Officially the players aren’t paid at all for playing baseball but for some other “job” they hold. “Coach,” say, or “sports counselor.” For their phony jobs they get 250 Cuban pesos a month. The 520 players in the Cuban National Series receive, in total, $60,000 a year. In theory, the entire Cuban league could be bankrolled with roughly one-seventh of the salary of a rookie big-league benchwarmer.

The rest of Lewis’s article is interesting, but contains the typical jibes at a society that does not operate on the profit motive. He accuses Cuba’s baseball players of supplementing their meager income with black market sales of sports gear, something he presumably finds reprehensible. One might hope that with his interest in Cuban baseball and an obvious affection for the Cuban people he might work for an end to the blockade which creates the economic difficulties that provide a fertile ground for the black market.

On Saturday and Sunday I like to run in Central Park. I always stop at the baseball fields on the east side of the park, near 102nd street to take in an inning or two of baseball. It is much more fun than watching it on television since you can stand very close to the action. I like to stand behind home plate and watch the ball speeding toward the batter. When he connects, there is a solid crack of the bat that television can never approximate. Plus, you get to hear the banter between the players, a very important part of the sport.

Pancho Coimbre

Last Saturday I stopped to chat with the manager of one of the teams and learned a bit more about the teams. They are organized through the auspices of the Pancho Coimbre Baseball League. None of them earn a penny but local businesses contribute to a fund that pays for uniforms and gear. In others words, these mostly Latino players are in it for pleasure rather than profit. As such, they have an affinity with the Cubans.

Coimbre played professional ball in Puerto Rico in the 30s and 40s. After leaving Puerto Rico, he played with the New York Cubans, who were part of the Negro Baseball League. Following his retirement Coimbre began managing teams in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean nations. It was in Puerto Rico that Coimbre discovered the great Roberto Clemente, who he helped recruit to the major leagues in the U.S. (Clemente died in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering goods to the victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua.) In the wiki entry on Coimbre, learn that he promoted an ideology that focused in the performance of the team, instead of the success of individual players. Coimbre died on November 4, 1989, when he was trapped in a house fire. The Central Park-based teams play in a league quite rightly named in his honor.

A September 5, 1994 Newsweek article explains the economics of the Pancho Coimbre league. Many of New York’s Latinos cannot afford the price of a ticket to watch the Yankees or the Mets. And the prices cited below are from 14 years ago. They are much higher today.

I make $ 7 an hour,” says Luis Rivera, 40, a cook who coaches a neighborhood peewee team. “I have four kids. If I go to the stadium, I can only take one.” It costs $ 29 a month just to watch most of the games on cable TV, and parts of the neighborhood still aren’t even wired for cable.

Given these harsh economic realities, they did what was necessary to satisfy their love of the sport:

Instead, Latino immigrants have imported their own baseball — and some say it’s better. Owners in the Paneho Coimbre Athletic League, named after a Puerto Rican star in the old Negro Leagues, put up $ 5,000 each to field teams of dazzling young players from around the city. A training ground for big-leaguers like the Blue Jays’ Devon White, Pancho Coimbre attracts hundreds of fans every weekend in Central Park. Its 71-year-old president, Jose Calderon, says the striking pros might learn something from organizations like his. “This league’s only for one purpose — to play ball,” he says from his beach chair behind home plate. “We have no drugs. No fights. If you want to have a beer after the game, you can have it. But not in uniform. If I see that, I’ll suspend them.” In Puerto Rico, Calderon says, the pros stay active in youth leagues and teach kids to play. Here the players demand even more money — while Calderon’s teams play on dirt and gravel. “In Yankee Stadium, we’ve got Latin guys making millions of dollars,” says Lueis Vazquez, who at 34 is one of the league’s retired legends. “What do they do with it?”

To watch the Pancho Coimbre teams in action, just go to Central Park on any Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It is a welcome break from the scummy world of capitalist sports.

June 16, 2008

Tim Russert in Retrospect

Filed under: media — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm

Tim Russert, the dean of inside-the-beltway television news shows, died on June 13, 2008, at the age of 58 from a massive heart attack. Notwithstanding the reverential coverage on television and in newspapers, his career was symptomatic of everything that is wrong with American journalism.

Like George Stephanopoulos, who moderates a competing Sunday morning news show on the ABC network, Russert began as a political operative. Shortly after graduating from law school in 1976, Russert worked on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s senatorial campaign in New York State. After Moynihan’s election, Russert was promoted to chief of staff. Moynihan had been Richard Nixon’s top domestic adviser, calling for confrontation with the USSR and Third-World countries. He was also notorious for sending a memo to Nixon stating that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect’. The subject has been too much talked about….We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.” Given Moynihan’s dubious credentials, it appeared a natural fit for somebody like Russert who would carve out a television career based on deference to the rich and the powerful.

Russert’s next political job was serving as counselor to New York State Governor Mario Cuomo from 1983-84, a smooth-talking liberal not so nearly as toxic as Moynihan. In late 1984, Russert left politics behind and became a vice president of NBC news. Seven years later he became moderator of “Meet the Press,” a show that began on the radio in 1945 and switched to television two years later, where it is the longest-running in history.

For the entire time up until 1991, when Russert became host, the show was very similar to the PBS NewsHour — a snooze-inducing series of interviews with top government officials. Russert, trained as an attorney, livened things up by employing a prosecutorial style with government officials, at least when public opinion favored such an approach. His goal was to reveal inconsistencies in their current stand on issues versus what they might have said some years earlier so as to yield the impression that they were “flip-floppers.” Russert’s interview with Senator John Kerry during the 2004 campaign was typical.

MR. RUSSERT: Before we take a break, I want to talk about Vietnam. You are a decorated war hero of Vietnam, prominently used in your advertising. You first appeared on MEET THE PRESS back in 1971, your first appearance. I want to roll what you told the country then and come back and talk about it:

(Videotape, MEET THE PRESS, April 18, 1971):

MR. KERRY (Vietnam Veterans Against the War): There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare. All of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free-fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: You committed atrocities.

SEN. KERRY: Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That’s a big question for me. You know, I thought a lot, for a long time, about that period of time, the things we said, and I think the word is a bad word. I think it’s an inappropriate word. I mean, if you wanted to ask me have you ever made mistakes in your life, sure. I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger. It was honest, but it was in anger, it was a little bit excessive.

MR. RUSSERT: You used the word “war criminals.”

SEN. KERRY: Well, let me just finish. Let me must finish. It was, I think, a reflection of the kind of times we found ourselves in and I don’t like it when I hear it today. I don’t like it, but I want you to notice that at the end, I wasn’t talking about the soldiers and the soldiers’ blame, and my great regret is, I hope no soldier — I mean, I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them. But the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top. And I think that there were breaches of the Geneva Conventions. There were policies in place that were not acceptable according to the laws of warfare, and everybody knows that. I mean, books have chronicled that, so I’m not going to walk away from that. But I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on. A lot of those stories have been discredited, and in hindsight was your testimony…

SEN. KERRY: Actually, a lot of them have been documented.

MR. RUSSERT: So you stand by that?

Russert pursued this dogged line of questioning for several minutes longer with the clear intention of putting Kerry on the spot for having the temerity to call attention to war crimes in Vietnam in 1971. His prosecutorial style earned him the reputation of being a bulldog, but somehow he lacked both bark and bite when the interviewees were members of the Bush administration prior to the invasion of Iraq.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/lproy46.html

also see: http://wsws.org/articles/2008/jun2008/russ-j16.shtml

Joaquín Bustelo: “Tim Russert is still dead

Alexander Cockburn on Russert

Update:

Check Dennis Perrin’s blog for his own take on Russert’s death. Dennis used to work for FAIR, the media watch-dog, and is well trained to detect bullshit. Of particular interest is the Youtube clip that shows Russert getting nailed for feeding at the trough.

http://dennisperrin.blogspot.com/2008/06/no-moment-of-silence.html

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