Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2010

Media for Freedom?

Filed under: media — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

Media For Freedom?

By Michael Barker

In today’s world the media plays an important role in disseminating information to both sustain and undermine democracy. The mainstream media admirably fulfils the latter role, actively serving the capitalist system that allows a handful of individuals to reap handsome profits from an ill informed populous. However, the mainstream media, along with some influential alternative media outlets, simultaneously serve a vital role for such elites by clouding the plutocratic nature of society in a mist of democratic rhetoric. Consequently, alternative media outlets that pierce such illusions are a vital component for the growth of any coming anti-capitalist insurrection. Thankfully the long-running magazine, Monthly Review, is one such source for revolutionary hope, and their former coeditor, Robert McChesney (2000-2004), has blazed the way in highlighting the problems posed by the mainstream media in the United States. To illustrate the extent of the media-related problems faced by revolutionary activists and to highlight their potential solutions this article draws upon the content of two of McChesney’s recent books, Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media (New Press, 2007), and The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas (Monthly Review Press, 2008).

Within these two excellent books McChesney projects an inspiring call to the public “to create a communication system that will be a powerful impetus to a dramatically more egalitarian, humane, sustainable, and creative society, where justice and self-government are the order of the day.” However, he adds that the “window of opportunity” for implementing such changes “will not be open for long” and “will be opposed by very powerful entrenched corporate and political interests.” On this point it is important to acknowledge that while McChesney focuses on conservative opposition to this media project, it is clear that liberal elites are formidable adversaries in any bid to create a media that challenges capitalist power. No doubt we certainly “will need all hands on deck to win the fight,” but we should not necessarily include super-rich liberal elites among those deck hands.[1] By surmising and reviewing McChesney’s two aforementioned books this article endeavours to demonstrate how the fight for a new world order might be won: to do this, however, it is initially useful to review the historical forces that have shaped the current media landscape.

Referring to the important scholarship of Christopher Simpson and Timothy Glander, McChesney notes how they “documented the close relationship of the ‘founding fathers’ of mass communication research to the emerging U.S. national security state in the 1940s and 1950s.”  Likewise, drawing upon the research of Dan Schiller, McChesney surmises how in the early days of mass communications research radical critiques of propaganda were actively sidelined by elite funding bodies. In fact, as McChesney writes, critical approaches to media scholarship were “unwelcome by commercial media sponsors, university administrations, and the key foundations, especially [that of the] Rockefeller [Foundation], which bankrolled much of communication research during these years.” This trend would hardly have been surprising to McChesney who recalls how his own work had been influenced by the political philosopher, C.B. Macpherson, who had long ago pointed out the “paternalism and elitism [inherent] in elements of liberalism.” [2] Indeed, with regard to Macpherson:

Few have done a better job of showing the strain of contempt for genuine democracy that exists within aspects of liberalism, and how such liberals truly fear popular rule. It is this brand of liberalism that both the left and conservative populists harpoon. But what Macpherson also highlighted was the progressive and humanistic impulse of liberalism. I found this notion of liberalism extremely attractive and worth fighting for. (p.76)

McChesney thus regrets the decline of the influence of such liberal humanism on research agendas, noting how:

The broad historical and intellectually informed sweep that informed the research of the 1930s and early 1940s was gradually replaced by an increasingly ahistorical approach that accepted the commercial basis of U.S. media and the capitalistic nature of U.S. society as proper and inviolable. …When the Hutchins Commission made its seminal study of the press and media in the immediate postwar years, it combined piercing criticism of commercial media with lame pleas for industry self-regulation as the solution. (p.29)

Despite the evident shift away from progressive aspects of liberalism, which in recent decades has led to neoliberalism, the misleading “claim that the news media have a liberal political bias is [now] so widespread that it has come to play a crucial ideological role in the functioning of the news media system.”[3] But while this idea of a liberal bias has been thoroughly debunked by critical scholars, there is an element of truth in such claims, a truth that is rarely addressed by leftist researchers. This is because, historically speaking, large parts of the U.S. media landscape have been managed by liberal elites (although these elites are far from progressive); furthermore their associated philanthropic foundations are financing media reform efforts that effectively hide this fact by concentrating public attention on the right-wing nature of the media. Counter to McChesney’s thoughts on this matter, it could be said that in a perverse way conservatives are “battling the establishment liberal media elite.”

As one might expect conservative forces massively overstate their political case, and: “In this world, spun by the likes of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, conservatives do righteous battle against the alliance of Clinton, Castro, Bin Laden, drug users, gays, rappers, feminists; teachers` unions, vegetarians, and journalists who hold power over the world.” Such out of whack opinions would be laughable if they were not held so widely, and on this point McChesney helps explain the power that such views hold over the public mind by acknowledging how: “At its strongest, and most credible, the conservative critique taps into the elitism inherent to professionalism and to liberalism.” However, he correctly adds that “this populism turns to mush once the issue of class is introduced.” [4]

McChesney concludes that the “clear lesson of U.S. history is that we need to have a sector producing journalism walled off from corporate and commercial pressures.” But he apparently does not mean that this sector should be isolated from not-for-profit corporations, because, he counsels: “It would help matters if philanthropists and foundations began to devote significant portions of their portfolios to increasing the amount and quality of news and public information.” Here the solution presented to readers is to emulate the success that the political right has had in “masterfully manipulat[ing] traditional U.S. journalism.” Presenting Norman Solomon and Sam Husseini’s Institute for Public Accuracy as just one example, McChesney says: “Like the Right, labor and the progressive philanthropic community need to support think tanks of experts who can provide labor and Left perspectives on social issues for commercial and noncommercial journalists alike.” Yet a critical approach to understanding the historic role that liberal foundations (also known as not-for-profit corporations) have played in the United States (and overseas) would suggest that we should be wary of any solutions that are reliant upon elite aid. It is severely problematic then that McChesney argues that a “major influx of foundation funding” for media reform “is mandatory… for the survival of democracy”.[5]

Contrary to McChesney’s forcefully stated opinion, a strong case can be made that an influx of philanthropic monies will actually undermine long-term efforts to generate the kind of explicitly anti-capitalist journalism that will be needed to help develop meaningful alternatives to capitalism. Unfortunately McChesney ignores the deradicalizing effects that will be manifested by relying upon such a funding strategy, and simply suggests that the main problem with this temporary solution is that elite funders cannot be relied upon to indefinitely “bankroll viable public broadcasting.” McChesney agrees with me that what is “ultimately necessary is to have viable public funding for public broadcasting” but to get this state of affairs he thinks that “the high-quality journalism and public affairs programming provided by philanthropic funds will be Exhibit A in the case for the tremendous public need for a well-subsidized public broadcasting sector.” On this point I vigorously disagree; which helps explain why McChesney’s media activism has meant that he has closely worked with not-for-profit corporations, like for instance the Ford Foundation, whose “philanthropic” activities I am strongly critical of.[6]

McChesney is not reticent of his intimate relations with elite philanthropists, and he openly discusses such matters in his books. With respect to his recollection of the launch of his ties to media reforming capitalist elites, McChesney writes:

I recall being invited to present a lecture on my historical research at the University of California at San Diego in 1995. Before the talk an official for the foundation sponsoring the event told me how much he admired my work. I still remember what he said: “I think we are going through a similar moment to the early 1930s with the Internet today. We cannot afford to blow it this time. Our goal should be to make it impossible for you to write a postmortem for this era like you did the early 1930s.”[7]

The post-mortem referred to by this foundation official was McChesney’s first book, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press, 1994). In this instance the official’s comment is particularly significant given that in the aforementioned book McChesney demonstrated the means by which liberal elites (i.e., the Carnegie Corporation and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) successfully undermined the success of a potentially threatening and progressive media reform movement. The foundation official evidently recognized that the current media reform movement — which has been supported by liberal foundations since the early 1980s — was gaining pace, because as McChesney observed, in the “second half of the 1990s, media was becoming a political issue, especially on the left.”[8]

Evidence of the new interest in addressing media as a political issue was all around. The Nation and The Progressive began to run articles and special issues on the media crisis. Don Hazen and the Independent Media Institute organized two large “media and democracy” conferences in San Francisco in 1996 and in New York City in 1997 to draw attention to the problem. Mark Crispin Miller formed the Project on Media Ownership, and put his ample talents toward publicizing the extent of media consolidation in a series of special issues on media ownership in The Nation. Former TV journalist Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” was a one-man army calling for the formation of a media democracy movement along the lines of the student movement in the 1960s.[9]

While foundation support for media reform became a rising priority towards the latter end of the 1990s, there is no doubt that foundation grants also influenced academic priorities in guiding media scholars away from radical research. Thus when leading media political economist, Nicholas Garnham, retired from academia in 2001, McChesney recalled how after speaking at his retirement celebration his “Yankee faculty colleagues” were reluctant to talk about the politics of media reform. “Instead,” he continued, “all the talk was about consumer purchases, upcoming vacations, popular movies and TV shows, and, of course, academic politics: who got this job or that job, who got the big grant, and, after a few drinks, whose colleagues were the biggest schmucks.”[10] Of course such talk is normal in any profession, but the point is simply to observe that big grants bring prestige, and play a large role in shaping research agendas.

Sometime after Garnham’s retirement get-together, McChesney recalled how in late 2001 he “received a phone call out of the blue” from Josh Silver from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. “Silver said he was convinced that deplorable news was the main barrier to success in the issues he cared the most about, and he wanted to organize a campaign to change the media system.”[11] The following autumn Silver again called McChesney, and along  with John Nichols, the three of them formed a media reform group called Free Press. On the successful formation of Free Press, McChesney observes how:

Josh was our only staffer, working out of Sut Jhally’s Media Education Foundation in Northampton. We managed to find a couple of courageous funders — God knows how — willing to give us initial funds, so Josh could have a very modest income and we could eventually add a few more people by the middle of 2003. (p.154)

Free Press cofounder John Nichols suggested that their new organization “should use the environmental movement as our guide” for strategizing: a decision that was influenced by Nichols having “spent a good deal of time interviewing and conversing with Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin’s former senator,” the individual who had been the “guiding force behind the creation of Earth Day.”[12] Nelson said that he had been inspired to organize Earth Day when he read a 1969 issue of Ramparts magazine, so it is ironic that Ramparts provided the first extended critique of Nelson’s Earth Day activism, noting how it was “the first step in a con game that will do little more than abuse the environment even further.” McChesney unfortunately shows no signs of familiarity with such critiques of liberal foundation co-option of the American environmental movement.[13] This historical blind spot provides one potential explanation for why McChesney consequently failed to recognize why his media reform efforts were suddenly promoted by limited parts of the mainstream media. On his successful courting of the mainstream media, he says:

We knew we were onto something when Nichols and I appeared on the PBS program NOW with Bill Moyers in February 2003 to discuss our latest book, Our Media, Not Theirs. We did not discuss Free Press then — the group did not even have a website yet — but we laid out our basic critique of the failing U.S. media and the need to have citizens change the system and establish a truly free press. Moyers was so taken with the topic that he gave it his longest segment in the show’s history, and then he said the program received as much immediate and positive feedback as any he had ever done. John and I received an avalanche of positive feedback. On the Amazon.com bestseller list, we watched after the show as Our Media, Not Theirs climbed from around 5,000 to end up in the top ten. It was exhilarating. (p.155)

In the aftermath of this momentous television appearance McChesney says that a “massive grassroots uprising against media consolidation… caught everyone… by surprise”; although perhaps the same cannot be said for the liberal elites funding the media reform movement.[14]

Moving on a few years to the evening prior to Free Press’ second National Conference for Media Reform in 2005, McChesney writes how they “organized an ‘Academic Brain Trust’ (the name was meant to be tongue-in-cheek) to meet” to discuss the role of communications scholars in the newly emergent media reform movement. In this way Free Press was able to bring some 150 scholars together with the support of the “Ford Foundation [which] graciously chipped in with some stipends to support a couple of dozen grad students and assistant professors who would not be able to attend otherwise.”[15] The conference in St. Louis then went ahead, but:

Plans to formalize the Academic Brain Trust as an independent entity following St. Louis collapsed when the prospective funding fell through. Some of the scholars kept in touch with each other and collaborated on projects, but too much of the energy dissipated. Fortunately, the Ford Foundation funded the Social Science Research Council in this area and they began to assume the leadership reins by 2006. During the course of the year, the SSRC began giving out grants to academics for media policy research projects.[16]

While McChesney honestly believes that liberal elites and their not-for-profit corporations have not detrimentally influenced his activities, he does acknowledge that: “I have sacrificed some of my independence, not to a corporate benefactor, but to a movement in which I am a participant.”[17] This has meant that as a socialist McChesney has necessarily worked with organizations and people that may seem a little incongruous.

The conservative support in 2003 made for some difficult coalition politics. At one point, we had so many conservatives opposing media concentration on the Free Press website that a friend contacted me and asked me if I had pulled a “David Horowitz” and become a right-winger. One prospective funder withdrew her support for Free Press when she saw that Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was also opposed to relaxing media ownership rules, and that we promoted this on our site. That just about every major civil rights group in the nation was working with Free Press or some other media reform group on this issue did not seem to register. In her mind, any cooperation with Lott was a de facto endorsement of white supremacy. She has had nothing to do with media reform ever since. Likewise, Free Press lost a board member in protest of our working with Parents Television Council; Bozell had been an antagonist of the progressive organization where she was employed. (Bozell also criticized Free Press and me in a manner that was far from flattering, once terming me a “socialist sob sister.”) (p.165)

Clearly the rapid speed with which the U.S. media reform coalesced around McChesney generated extreme problems for all concerned; but it is especially ironic that McChesney was accused of pulling a David Horowitz. This is because in the 1960s when Horowitz was a leading Marxist activist and editor for Ramparts magazine, he penned the seminal critique of liberal philanthropy. In this three-part series, Horowitz observed how “nominally philanthropic institutions” like the Ford Foundation actually “sustain the complex nerve centers and guidance mechanisms for a whole system of institutional power.”

The jibe that McChesney was pulling a Horowitz was made in reference to the fact that during the 1970s Horowitz decided to renounce his structurally sound grasp of the processes of social change by undergoing a process of intellectual devolution to enable him to become a key member of an increasingly powerful neoconservative elite. However, while the jab at McChesney is unfair — as he is still a committed socialist — McChesney fails to see the irony that he was compared to a fellow radical who documented the anti-democratic practices of liberal elites from both Marxist and neoconservative positions. Here McChesney would do well to learn from Horowitz, but not from his opportunistic and well-funded rantings against progressives, but from Horowitz’s deep engagement with the institutional foundations of capitalism.

In conclusion, it is beside the point that Robert McChesney has aligned his work with liberal capitalist elites, as everyone is capable of making strategic faults under great pressure to act now to counteract capitalism. Instead it is far more important that activists learn from previous organizing mistakes (not just McChesney’s), so they can continue to build stronger movements capable of generating the type of popular momentum for social change that will eventually be capable of eradicating, and not just domesticating, capitalism.


[1] Robert McChesney, Communication Revolution, pp.xii-xiii.

[2] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.30, p.29, p.76. “In the hands of Harold Lasswell, propaganda research was turned on its head: It went from being a critique of propaganda as a threat to self-government to a theoretically informed treatise on how elites could use propaganda to manage people in their own interests.” (p.29)

[3] McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, p.57.

[4] McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, p.62.

[5] McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, p.141, p.391, p.458.

[6] McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, p.458.

For recent criticisms of the Ford Foundation, see Michael Barker, “The Ford Foundation and the Co-option of Dissent,” Swans Commentary, January 25, 2010; and Michael Barker, “Buying Freedom for Africa,” Swans Commentary, March 8, 2010. To read an excellent critique of not-for-profit corporations, see Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (State University of New York Press, 2003).

[7] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.109. “Whether I liked it or not, people were demanding I address the contemporary situation. And I discovered quickly enough that I liked it. As a result I wrote many short pieces for periodicals like The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones, and In These Times. I wrote op-eds in scores of newspapers and centrist publications like Current and The New Republic. I quietly abandoned the extensive plans for further historical research I had developed, and wrote a book on global media with Ed Herman and a pamphlet on the media crisis, both published in 1997.” (p.110)

[8] Michael Barker, “The Liberal Foundations of Media Reform? Creating Sustainable Funding Opportunities for Radical Media Reform,” Center for Research on Globalization, June 3, 2008. This article was previously published as a peer-reviewed paper in Global Media Journal, Issue 1, Number 2.

McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.110. For information on the influence of liberal foundations on the early growth of the U.S. media reform movement in the 1980s, see Michael Barker, “Social Engineering, Progressive Media, and the Benton Foundation,” (pdf) In E. Tilley (Ed.) Power & Place: Refereed Proceedings of the Australian & New Zealand Communication Association Conference, Wellington, July 9-11, 2008; and Michael Barker, “Who Funds the Progressive Media?,” Center for Research on Globalization, July 7, 2008. The latter article was removed from their website on the same day it was first published, but it can now be found online here.

[9] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.111. “There was a community of public interest advocates working on media policy issues in Washington during this period, most notably the Media Access Project, Action for Children’s Television, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the United Church of Christ, the Benton Foundation, and the Center for Media Education. The work on media policy by groups like these had blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s, when the space created by popular social movements gave public interest groups increased leverage over the FCC and Congress to enact proactive reforms, especially around issues of promoting community media and minority ownership. In particular, by the 1970s the feminist critique of how media represented women and gender roles attracted considerable interest in the importance of media and the need to change media. (Most of this critique remains all too relevant today and drives significant elements of the current media reform movement.)” (p.113)

[10] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.151. For more on the conservative nature of academia, McChesney recalls how after Noam Chomsky gave “gave the most brilliant and riveting lecture” in 1986 on media and U.S. foreign policy at the University of Southern California. However, the following morning, “the assembled [university media] faculty all dismissed Chomsky categorically as a conspiracy nut who was unfamiliar with the “real” research on media that they were doing. No actual hard criticism was leveled, just insinuation. No student dared to raise a dissenting voice, including me. I was flabbergasted.” (p.42)

[11] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.153.

[12] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.154.

[13] Cited in Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1995), p.25.

For more on the co-option of the American environmental movement by liberal foundations, see Michael Barker, “The Liberal Foundations of Environmentalism: Revisiting the Rockefeller-Ford Connection,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 19 (2), 2008, pp. 15-42; Robert Brulle, Agency, Democracy, and Nature: The U.S. Environmental Movement from a Critical Theory Perspective (MIT Press, 2000); Robert Brulle and J. Craig Jenkins, “Foundations and the Environmental Movement: Priorities, Strategies, and Impact,” (pdf) in Daniel Faber, and Deborah McCarthy (eds), Foundations For Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Brian Tokar, Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (South End Press, 1997).

[14] “Then something wonderful and magical happened: The massive grassroots uprising against media consolidation that caught everyone, including me, by surprise. Some three million people from across the nation sent letters and e-mails, made telephone calls, or signed petitions protesting the relaxation of media ownership rules. Free Press became one of the groups doing the organizing work, but we were very much backbenchers. This was a moment in the sun for Consumers Union’s Gene Kimmelman, Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeff Chester, Media Access Project’s Andy Schwartzman, and Consumer Federation of America’s Mark Cooper. They used their skills and experience to drive the campaign, and they were clearly energized by the throngs of new activists and supporters coming to the issue. Outside Washington, existing and emerging media activist groups like Reclaim the Media, Media Alliance, Media-Tank, and the Prometheus Radio Project — which had been fighting for low-power FM — generated grassroots attention to the issue. And then the big guns, MoveOn.org, Common Cause, and even the National Rifle Association, joined the party. Media reform became arguably the second hottest issue in Washington in 2003 following only the war in Iraq, and it had no big corporate lobby behind it.” McChesney, Communication Revolution, pp.156-7.

[15] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.175.

[16] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.177. “’Applied’ research is necessary to address immediate policy issues that are being determined in the near term and midterm. This includes research surrounding media ownership, use of spectrum, media content, public broadcasting, and Internet access, for example. The list is actually quite long, and academics have played too small a role heretofore. This is the work that concerns the researchers at Free Press, Consumer Federation of America, New America Foundation, Public Knowledge, and the Future of Music Coalition, and they need all the help they can get The Telecommunications Policy Research Conference has done a much better job of bringing nonindustry scholars into the mix, and under the auspices of the Benton Foundation, a group of scholars connected to the TPRC now meets to work on creating policies to promote universal access to the Internet.” (p.197)

[17] McChesney, Communication Revolution, p.195. This statement demonstrates how McChesney is unable to recognize that liberal foundations, like the Ford Foundation, are in actual fact corporate benefactors, upon whom his media reform movement is dependent for funding.

March 30, 2010

Answering an email about Iran

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

Yesterday I received an email that has the merit at least of encapsulating all of the arguments from the “anti-imperialist” supporters of President Ahmadinejad, including Yoshie Furuhashi, Edward Herman/David Peterson, Sam Marcy’s followers of one stripe or another, James Petras and others not important enough to mention. The letter appears below. My reply is interspersed in italics. I would only preface the letter with an observation that “Margo White” is probably a phony identity. Frankly, I never understand why people conceal their true identity since one of the greatest pleasures I get out of writing crank letters to people like Avishai Margalit is the knowledge that they will wince at the sound of my name.

Mr. Proyect,

Not knowing you at all, I risk overstepping here. However, as an American with a long and deeply rooted understanding of Iran (I lived there before, during and after it’s revolution 1977-82), I am always alert to the ongoing, increasingly disguised, machinations of the US elites to regain control of that country, one way or another.

It is, therefore, in that context that I want to suggest several concerns. One is that I agree with you, the Leveretts are questionable sources of ‘peoples’ support in Iran. They are clearly well connected in US establishment circles and, as such, cannot possible be on the side of the Iranian people.

Well, that at least puts you one step ahead of MRZine which features the Leveretts on almost a daily basis.

However, while I agree with your skepticism about the Leveretts, I am astounded that you offer Mina Khanbarzadeh as a “real Marxist”! Read her articles! She is a supporter of the very same ‘Green Revolution’ nonsense that is sponsored by Soros, aka, CIA-US. Where on earth do you get the idea that she’s a ‘real marxist’??

I get that idea from reading her articles. (By the way, her last name is Khanlarzadeh.) Here, for people who have never had the pleasure of reading her laser-beam critiques of the Ahmadinejad government and its useful idiots in the West, are some of her greatest hits:

A reply to Edward Herman and David Peterson

Some thoughts on the Leveretts

The Green Movement

I should add that Mina’s views on the Green Movement can hardly be interpreted as uncritical support. She wrote in the article above:

Some believe that the Green Movement aims to revive justice and the citizens’ socio-political freedoms, and that the class discourse takes the movement off its path and is in conflict with the principles of the movement. This claim is erroneous since individuals from different classes are active in the movement, and obviously class demands do exist in the movement, even if not expressed explicitly. To explain what I mean, let’s look at the women’s movement: one of the weaknesses of the women’s movement is that it is presented as a class-less phenomenon, and the demands of working class and poor women are less frequently heard in the women’s movement. Doubtless, changing of discriminatory laws will be to the eventual benefit of all women from all social classes; however, the issue remains that in order to expand the movement to different social strata there is no way other than to include class in the movement’s discourse.

Now if only the Quran-thumping Yoshie Furuhashi or the prolix Herman/Peterson duo (the Batman and Robin of the radical left?) could muster the analytical power to interject class into their own discussions of Iran. Everything in their world is reduced to the White House and the Iranian government, bus drivers of Tehran be damned.

Most of all, Mr. Proyect, while I have great respect for anyone who was supportive of CISPES and other progressive organizations in the 70s’ and 80s’, I am nonetheless astonished that anyone could fall for the “Green Revolution” business and claim that this is consistent with progressive politics. It is a US sponsored movement, aimed at destabilizing Iran, making it appear that Iran cannot govern itself and must have, therefore, some kind of ‘regime change’ facilitated by the US. It is the same old brutal US power play for the Eurasian landmass. Learn some history!

I have learned from history, namely from Leon Trotsky. Although I found his efforts to build a new International largely a mistake, I do think his analysis of Stalin’s USSR to be useful for how to relate to Iran’s Islamic Republic, not that the bazaari capitalist mode of production deserves the kind of fan club gushing found at MRZine. During the 1930s, Trotsky defended the Soviet Union against imperialist attack even while he was dissecting the bureaucratic crimes of Stalin and his epigones. In fact, he was a better defender of the Soviet Union than the CPUSA, which argued from the same perspective of Furuhashi and company in the 1930s. It did not serve the Soviet Union’s defense for it to have put its top military leaders on trial for collaborating with the Nazis in the Moscow Trials. It does not serve Iran’s defense for Ahmadinejad to invite a Ku Klux leader to Iran for a conference on whether the holocaust took place.

Furthermore, I have a somewhat different agenda than the “anti-imperialist” brigade so anxious to burnish Ahmadinejad’s reputation in the West, like latter-day followers of the feckless Foucault who fell in love with the Ayatollahs because they were radical but not Marxist. My purpose in life is to unite Marxists worldwide, although I have no delusions of grandeur that I am some kind of Leon Trotsky. My aims are more modest. On the Marxism list I moderate, I am anxious to make connections with the Iranian left that is not content to serve as a tail on the kite of political Islam. These comrades, although small in number, have the future in mind for unless socialism triumphs on a worldwide basis, humanity has no future.

As I will point out in an article I have pending on the Fourth International, Leon Trotsky decided to launch this movement in the most inauspicious conditions. In fact, as Isaac Deutscher relates in “The Prophet Outcast”, the Polish delegation warned that it was doomed to fail since Stalinism and fascism were such powerful forces (it should be mentioned that Deutscher—as he relates in a footnote—wrote their proposal.)

Today, after nearly 30 years of neoliberal assault, the tide is turning. A general strike in Turkey and Greece, the rise of a revolutionary Maoist movement in India and Nepal, the growth of the radical movement in Latin America are all signs that the long period of reaction is finally coming to end, no doubt a reflection of the fact that capitalism is not working. As people come to Marxist conclusions during these stormy days, my goal is to offer solidarity to them and to create a means of communication so that our movement can take shape globally. There is nothing more important to me.

Most of all, the ONE lessons that all these Americans who are currently posturing as ‘friends of the Iranian people’ have failed to learn is to STAY OUT OF IRAN. It is not the business of Americans, progressive or otherwise, to ‘take sides’ in Iran’s internal politics. If you had ever bothered to live there and really KNOW the people and their country, you would appreciate and RESPECT the extraordinary complexity and sophistication of their politics and their system — and honor their RIGHT to sort things out for themselves.

It doesn’t MATTER, Mr. Proyect, if you or I — or any other Americans — like the Islamic Republic or not. It is the IRANIANS who will sort it out, or not. It’s THEIR country.

Sincerely,

Margot White, JD
human rights attorney

I am for staying out of Iran if that means opposing Israel’s designs on nuclear facilities or punitive sanctions. But I will be god-damned if I stop condemning the jailing and torture of bus drivers trying to start a trade union in Tehran.

March 29, 2010

Answering some questions about Marxism and socialism

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 3:25 pm

Dear Mr. Proyect,

I am very much interested in Marxism – or theories resulting from Marxism – which deal with the question as to what a Marxist Government would look like. I do not subscribe to any notions that under a Marxist – or similar system, that there would not be a Government which is hierarchical, as I believe our world is much too complex. At the same time, my understanding of Marx is limited and I get very confused about what is Marx or is not Marx, and what is Maoist or Leninist etc.

For example what kind of Government is Cuba? or what was the Soviet Union? China, Vietnam? What is Chavez doing? What is the real difference between Marxism and Socialism. What are the differences between Lenin and Stalin and Trotsky?

When I was in the Trotskyist movement in the 60s and 70s, I used to use the term “workers state” to describe Cuba, the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam. This term tried to convey the sense that these were transitional societies that retained features both of capitalism and socialism. This concept is not exclusive to the modern age. In the 1600s most of Western Europe could be described as being in transition from feudalism to capitalism. Of the four countries mentioned above, I would say that Cuba is the only one that can still be described as a workers state. The rest have relapsed back into capitalism, although some Marxists would disagree with me about China and Vietnam, comparing the two to the USSR in the 1920s when the New Economic Policy allowed the capitalist mode of production some leeway. Perhaps Vietnam is still not as far-gone as China but I remain to be persuaded.

The problem I have is that these subjects are often discussed as textbook without real world application. On the one hand are those such as the Democratic Socialists who claim that they would use for example the Democratic Party of the USA as long as it would help them reach socialism, then there are the Revolutionary Marxists who claim that they refuse to vote for any party, and evidently are waiting for some big proletarian uprising in the USA which I don’t see coming for another one hundred years.

I don’t know about one hundred years but a proletarian revolution is certainly nowhere as near as the “revolutionaries” claim. Leaving aside the proximity of such an event, the real political issue facing us is how to achieve substantial reforms on issues such as health care, gay marriage and climate change. My direct experience from the 1960s and from studies of the 1930s tells me that real change takes place because of direct action, such as demonstrations, rallies, petition drives, picket lines, and even individual acts of conscience like burning a draft card. Unfortunately, those on the left seem to have lost the appetite for activism of this sort while our enemies on the right, especially the tea party movement, are going like gang-busters.

Therefore I spend my time trying to keep the fascist right from coming into power, yes I realize that both parties are flirting with Fascism in the USA, however I am taking my chances with the Democrats, to at least advance more to the left.

I strongly disagree with you on the Democratic Party. In my view the DP is the main obstacle to the kind of principled and uncompromising direct action that will lead to major reforms. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than Obama’s refusal to call upon the countless numbers of young people who volunteered to elect him. A huge network of idealistic and energetic young people could have been mobilized to press for single-payer but instead the movement was turned off like a faucet once Obama was elected. Interestingly enough, the Republican Party is much better at mobilizing people in action, even if it is for reactionary ends. This is one of the reasons I was a supporter of the Green Party until it decided to tail-end the DP. It could have been an electoral party that had an activist dimension. We still need something like that and I hope that worsening economic conditions can bring into being.

So in conclusion, if I am a Marxist, what the heck am I trying to establish?? Dumb question? I hope not. I am looking for some kind of specifics. Can Marx incorporate into such things as World Federal systems? Like World Parliament movements for example. I see this as necessary in my understanding.

What type of political system we can look forward to on a national or global level will be answered down the road when people in the USA finally take power and begin producing for human need rather than private profit. Since that is not on the agenda for the foreseeable future, but let’s hope sooner than a hundred years, I wouldn’t worry about it. I suspect that we will not see the typical separation of powers you see today, which is largely designed to frustrate direct democracy.

Thank you for your response if you can find the time. I am asking you these questions as you seem like you may have some answers to these questions.

I do have answers. Whether they are correct or not is of course another question altogether.

March 28, 2010

March Madness

Filed under: Academia,sports — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Although none of the sports writers alluded directly to this, the contrast between Cornell and the University of Kentucky was mostly about race. Cornell was an Ivy League school with a meager budget for basketball compared to Kentucky’s whose scholar/athletes were mostly white. Kentucky was just the opposite. Like most Division One schools, the best Kentucky basketball players would likely go directly into the pros without graduating while the Cornell athletes could look forward to professional careers. Seniors dominated the Cornell starting team, while the Kentucky players were largely freshmen. But finally it was about race just like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.

Cornell: a study in white

U. of Kentucky: not as smart; not as white

On WFAN, the NY sports talk radio station, all they could talk about a day or two before the Kentucky-Cornell game was how Cornell players could solve a Rubiks Cube in record time. A Youtube clip that went viral showed how it was done. A check on Google for “brainy Big Red” (the school colors) returned over 5000 hits. This from the San Francisco Chronicle on 3/26 was typical: “All the fan adulation and media hype shifted to Cornell this week after brainy Big Red (29-5) stunned the field with a run to the round of 16.”

Like many African-American basketball players who go to Division One schools, Kentucky’s John Wall—likely to be picked number one in the NBA draft—had eligibility issues stemming from payoffs from the school that he received through his agent. As David Zirin has pointed out, this is par for the course for the basketball factories that should be regarded as minor leagues for the pros and nothing else:

These “amateurs” are playing in a tournament where they are the content for a $6 billion television contract. They wear sneakers that enrich their coaches and athletic departments. The NCAA then owns their image in perpetuity, selling it for use in video games, advertisements and other assorted merchandise. Everyone gets paid except for them, and the NCAA is facing a steadily advancing lawsuit by former NCAA All-American Ed O’Bannon on this very question. If the goal is not to graduate but just to “make millions,” then let’s lose the charade and pay them some kind of a stipend for their labors.

If Kentucky’s goal was to compete with other Division One schools for its share of the money pie, they couldn’t have hired someone with better qualifications than John Calipari. When Calipari was at the U. of Massachusetts, his star player Marcus Canby was revealed to have received $28,000 from agents. His next college gig was at the U. of Memphis where his star player Derrick Rose, like Canby a future pro, also got payoffs in 2008. Additionally, there was evidence that someone took Rose’s entrance exams for him. Despite having the most wins in NCAA history, the U. of Memphis had to forfeit its games that year.

In between the U. of Mass and U. of Memphis jobs, Calipari coached in the big leagues for the New Jersey Nets. When criticized by Newark Star-Ledger sports reporter Dan Garcia, Calipari called him a “fucking Mexican idiot” and was fined $25,000 by the NBA for his racist outburst.

Despite the sleazy character of basketball factories like the U. of Kentucky and the coaches they hire to ride them to the top, there is little doubt that Ivy’s like Cornell and my own employer Columbia University are up to the same kinds of tricks. Instead of banking on revenue from postseason appearances, the Ivy’s are all about collecting research grants from big corporations and government agencies, including the Pentagon. Between Nike and General Electric, perhaps your hands are cleaner when they are tying the laces of sneakers rather than conducting nuclear power feasibility studies.

Finally, a word should be said about another part of the Cornell experience that hardly gets connected to March Madness, even though it is certainly a kind of madness—namely the epidemic of suicides.

Since last fall, there have been six suicides at Cornell, a number of which involve victims hurling themselves over a bridge into a steep rocky gorge below. Every so often, a prestigious school seems to go through these problems. In 2003, 6 NYU students killed themselves, using an exposed ramp on a high floor in the main library as a launching pad.

Psychologists seem fairly united in explaining the suicides as a product of stress and depression, an occupational hazard of studying at expensive universities where you are expected to succeed. With the predominant ethic of bourgeois society amounting to “making it”, it is no wonder that more athletes are not involved in collecting baksheesh or young scholars throwing themselves off bridges. With all the other problems facing America in its imperial dotage, the corruption and self-destruction of its youth deserves its own spotlight.

March 26, 2010

Class struggle canines

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Memories of Murder

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Despite my disappointment in Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s latest movie Mother, I was so impressed with The Host, the one that preceded it, that I was determined to look further into his work, especially since I found him such an intriguing personality when he spoke at The Korea Society about a month ago on a publicity tour for Mother.

Available from Netflix, the 2003 Memories of Murder, his second film, has a plot very similar to Mother. Not only is it about a psychopathic murderer, it involves a young retarded man as a suspect. As I mentioned in my review of Mother, I found Bong’s decision to ultimately reveal that the retarded man was guilty so disappointing from a moral and political standpoint that the technical virtuosity that other critics treasured above all else left me cold. In Memories of Murder we never know who the killer is but we do learn that the retarded youth is not. Indeed, the entire movie is one long series of misadventures by the local cops who are bent on extracting confessions from one suspect after another using beatings and fabricated evidence when it suits them.

In his presentation to The Korea Society, Bong explained that he was drawn to genres but always sought a way to subvert them and defy audience expectations. The genre of The Host was clearly 1950s Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, but Bong transcended the genre by making the pursuers a transcendentally dysfunctional but endearing Korean family rather than the flinty-eyed military.

In Memories of Murder the genre should be familiar if you’ve seen flicks like Dirty Harry or Silence of the Lambs. But instead of the intrepid and farsighted hero detective, you get a trio of cops who can’t seem to do anything right. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is both flabby in body and mind. When he insists to his captain that he can tell if a man is guilty just by looking in his eyes, the captain challenges him to tell which man is the rapist and which is the cop sitting a few feet away from them in the station house, answering wrong. His partner Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) is a lean and violent thug who will begin beating a suspect without a moment’s hesitation. Despite the creepiness of these two characters, Bong accomplishes the impossible by making them sympathetic. He does so by portraying them essentially as losers, not quite lovable but comically menacing like the Nazi officer played by Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds.

Before long Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a Seoul detective, joins these two and becomes rapidly dismayed by their brutality and lack of proper forensic training. The central drama of this movie is about the cultural and moral clash between the local cops and Seo, evoking Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night.

Neither the hard cop tactics of Park or Cho, nor the sophisticated detective work of Seo gets results. On rainy nights, after a sentimental tune is played as a request on the local radio, a woman in a red dress is killed. For each new victim, the pressure mounts on the cops to find the killer. Despite the fact that the movie resists tying things up neatly in a red ribbon at the conclusion, you are totally satisfied by it if for no other reason it has the chaotic feel of real life.

Strongly recommended.

March 25, 2010

A guest post from Prairie Miller, my favorite critic

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Generation Zero Movie Review: Tea Party Cinema A Weak Brew

By Prairie Miller

Dredging up tired old myths about America while concocting misleading new ones, the documentary Generation Zero assembles a host of valid gripes currently troubling the nation, but is more than careful to detour around any proposed remedies anchored in reality. In other words, all dressed up in undercover Republican in rebel’s clothing, and with basically nowhere new to go.

Written and directed by Reagan partisan Stephen K. Bannon (In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, and Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration) Generation Zero boasts an exceedingly odd couple combo of assorted right wing egghead think tank rhetoric talking heads and angry white middle class rants. And all wrapped up in highly sophisticated production values fueling alarmist high speed imagery, and topped off with a musical score seemingly gleaned from really scary slasher movies.

Invoking intimidating biblical scriptures that are fused visually with looming tornadoes, rotting fruit, paper money on fire, and a man versus lion beatdown, Generation Zero gets down to business on fast forward by blaming the current economic crisis retroactively on Lucifer, Woodstock, Dems, post-hippie yuppies lighting up cigars with burning Ben Franklins, Hollywood, Black Panthers, anti-war protesters and disrespectful post-WWII youth. Which might leave the woefully marginalized left in this country scratching their heads while caught between pondering these neo-McCarthyite accusations, and shock that they seem to wield such enormous power over the course of history.

At the same time, the right wing populist thrust of this documentary mourns the economic tragedy of the Great Depression, while reticently longing for the good old days of capitalism unregulated by the government. History alert, that’s exactly what led to the Great Depression. And in glaring contradiction, the current ‘incestuous’ relationship between government and big business is condemned as contributing to the economic woes facing us today. But if in reality those two entities have merged into one and the same with politicians the actual under the radar conflict-of-interest corporate partners, isn’t that unregulated capitalism after all?

In a case of repeatedly not saying what you mean moviemaking in the extreme, Generation Zero is ironically advocating in its own way, a utopian nation grounded in a prevailing small business society that no longer exists, and is in effect hardly different from the hippie fantasy back to nature version of the world. And in this small business interests butting of heads with big capitalism that is the core grievance of this film, where exactly do the American masses you’re inflaming – with no businesses of their own, let alone even a job or home in many cases – fit in?

Now while there’s nothing wrong with spouting your opinions loudly in a movie, at the same time it’s respectful of your audience to come out of your political closet and say so. Instead of manipulatively shouting at viewers about everything that’s ailing America and rightly so, while quietly tiptoeing around your own hidden agenda solutions that’s really a same politics, different day, voting booth Republican pep rally.

Generation Zero: A Tea Party animal all steamed up, but whose tempest in a teapot is basically empty.

Citizens United Productions
Unrated
‘Zero’ Stars

Responding to Duncan Foley

Filed under: economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Duncan K. Foley

In January 2010, there was a Historical Materialism conference in NYC that I unfortunately was unable to attend since the CUNY Graduate Center was not large enough to accommodate all the people who tried to register, including me. I guess that’s an auspicious sign of what’s happening politically even though I didn’t luck out personally.

New School economist Duncan K. Foley’s talk Notes on Crisis and Social Change can now be read online. The abstract contains these intriguing words:

Capitalist crisis is neither more nor less favorable than other periods of capital accumulation for the promotion of fundamental social change. Left-wing critics of capitalism owe their readers an account of what alternatives to capitalism they advocate.

Foley believes that “moments of capitalist crisis greatly excite left critics of capitalism”. I am not sure that this is the case, even though I have made a point of regularly sending news of the current crisis to the Marxism list on an almost daily basis. I don’t think that the crisis in and of itself will lead to action surely it will lead to a change in consciousness. That is already taking place as dissatisfaction with all branches of government reaches new depths. Whether that change in consciousness will lead to action is, of course, another story altogether. Considering the self-destruction of the revolutionary left in the 1970s and 80s and the sabotage of the Green Party in the more recent period, we are certainly coping with an unfavorable “subjective factor” to put it in Leninist jargon.

Part of the problem with Foley’s analysis is that it is simply uninformed about the “subjective factor”, a lack that can be explained by his deep immersion in academia I suppose. He writes:

For example, we now generally agree that the period of the nineteen-seventies was a major crisis of capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries, in which declining profitability of the type Marx analyzed played a major role. The outcome was a great strengthening and extension of capitalist social relations on a world scale in the form of neo-liberal trade and investment policies, the reversal of import-substitution development policy in large parts of the world, the financialization of global capitalism, and a predictable consequent sharp increase in income inequality in favor of the ruling classes all over the world. Conversely, some periods of advance for left-wing critical ideas are periods of capitalist economic boom, such as the 1960s in the U.S., where conditions of extreme prosperity triggered a crisis in the ideological reproduction of the U.S. ruling classes which had profound and at least in part progressive consequences for U.S. imperialism, race relations, environmental policy, and intellectual discourse.

I am afraid that this is topsy-turvy. The 1960s was a product of capitalist crisis, even if Foley is not up to the task of integrating it into his Marxist economics framework. I am nearly finished with Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North and can assure you that his book and my own experience working as a welfare worker in Harlem do support the idea of economic crisis in the Black community. If Black workers had the same social and economic status as whites, there would not have been ghetto rebellions. These rebellions were fundamentally a reaction to an economic contraction in basic industry which combined with racism robbed young Blacks of the opportunity to get their share of the pie.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to reduce everything to the Dow-Jones Industrial Average or the level of unemployment, unless of course your preference is for economic determinism rather than historical materialism. The war in Vietnam was a product of the ongoing economic crisis in the Third World. If Vietnamese peasants were as prosperous as their counterparts in California (obviously an impossibility given the divergent agrarian social relations of the two countries), there never would have been a war of liberation nor an antiwar movement that shook the country to its foundations.

Also, it is a mistake to make some connection to the economic crisis of the 1970s and the ability of the ruling class to restabilize the system around the Reagan-Thatcher economic program. The simple fact is that the organized left in the USA and Western Europe simply lacked the knowhow to lead working people in action. Burdened by sectarian conceptions or by urban guerrilla madness, the left imploded over a 10 year period thus allowing politicians like Carter, Bush and Clinton to get the upper hand. Indeed, the fundamental task of the left today is to get its act together so that when the masses begin to move another opportunity will not be lost.

Even worse is Foley’s version of what happened in the 1930s:

The U.S. left tends to have a somewhat sentimental view of the crisis of the Great Depression as a period of considerable advance for some left-wing goals. It is important to remember that the New Deal (and its aftermath after the Second World War) was understood by its political architects to be a way of saving capitalism from itself, not an attempt (whatever panic it may have caused in the breast of Frederick Hayek) to collectivize or socialize U.S. or European society. The coalition of progressive capitalists and radical labor union leadership that pushed through the major New Deal reforms had been building its political strength and program for many years before the Depression (at least beginning in the Progressive era).

I have no idea which part of the “U.S. Left” Foley is talking about, but it does not include me. I see the 30s as another version of the squandered opportunity of the 1970s but written on a much larger canvas. If the radical movement of the 1970s wasted its time in ultraleftist schematic attempts to recreate Russia 1917 or some fantasy of a 3rd world urban guerrilla war, the 1930s was a time in which Stalinist hegemony made it possible for a 2-party system to remain intact. Attempts to form a labor party were scuttled by a CPUSA that was determined to keep the trade unions wedded to the Democratic Party.

To reiterate, these sorts of problems can be characterized as revolving around the “subjective factor”, which I am afraid are largely out of the purview of a too narrowly focused Marxist academician–an occupational hazard I suppose.

The rest of the paper is a plea for developing “alternatives to capitalism” of the sort that I consider a waste of time. Foley writes:

Thus a major crisis for the left is its current lack of a compelling vision of alternative institutions to organize economic production and distribution. The left has some excellent values, which do have broad political appeal. But without a more developed, even if tentative and not completely consistent, vision of an economic alternative, leftwing energy tends to slide into reformism.

I am afraid that even though he does not offer even a hint of what such a compelling vision might be, it would end up as another exercise in neo-Utopianism that I have written about in the past. From Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Parecon to the latest spate of proposals from Michael Moore et al about the need for cooperatives, you end up with a 21st century version of the utopian experiments of the 1800s. Not that there is anything wrong with this, it is just that will have nothing to do with a revolution in the U.S. Such a revolution will not be fuelled by chatter about “how we socialists can do it better” but because the working class will be sick and tired of the bourgeois fangs in its neck. Once it takes power, it will convene a panel of top-notch economists to figure out how to move forward. The concrete steps that will be taken next will be a function of the level of consciousness in the population, the relationship of class forces and a million things that cannot be predicted at this point. I doubt if I will be alive to have a role in this, but I surely can advise young people today to not waste their time dreaming up solutions detached from material class relations.

Hand Jive

Filed under: african-american,music — louisproyect @ 5:04 pm
Apr/May 2010

Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story

Erin Aubry Kaplan

Midnight at the Barrelhouse:

The Johnny Otis Story

by George Lipsitz

$24.95 List Price

For more info visit:
Amazon • IndieBound

Musician, producer, and songwriter Johnny Otis was born in the nondescript central-California city of Vallejo, but his life story is pure LA. By that I don’t mean he’s a small-town boy who ended up in Hollywood and became a star, though that’s certainly true. A multifaceted force in the music business for some sixty years, Otis started out in swing bands in the late 1930s and wound up shaping the popular music that came after, most notably R&B. Otis legitimized the ideal of a West Coast melting pot in that he was multicultural, professionally and personally, long before multicultural became a popular term.

The son of Greek immigrants (he was born John Veliotes), Otis was profoundly influenced by the rhythm and energy of black American music, so much so that he adopted black people and culture as his own. He did this seriously—not as a voyeur or thrillseeker (he called it being “black by persuasion”)—and in ways that went far beyond music. Otis marched for civil rights, wrote a weekly column for a black newspaper, and tirelessly promoted black artists he felt were under-valued and exploited by white-owned record labels.

In Midnight at the Barrelhouse, George Lipsitz, a professor of black studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara, gives Otis his due. That this is the first biography of the man, who was born in 1921, says volumes about the critical neglect of West Coast jazz in general and Otis in particular. With passion but academic measuredness, Lipsitz portrays Otis as a complex person who saw himself as a small part of a much bigger picture. The book opens with a distraught Otis driving through the ruins of Watts during the racial unrest of 1965; Watts and neighboring South Central Los Angeles were touchstones for Otis, the black part of town where he co-owned and performed at a club called the Barrelhouse. It was foolhardy for anybody white to drive into Watts on that fateful August afternoon when it erupted into flames, but Otis did, not because he thought he transcended whiteness but because this was his home and these were his people.

Otis comes off as warm and generous but also salty and impolitic, certainly in terms of the racial etiquette of his times. As a white bandleader and advocate for social justice, Otis experienced overt racial hostility right along with his musicians, both on the road and at home (black musicians called LA “Mississippi with palm trees”). But it wasn’t all struggle. Otis was, after all, successful; his R&B band had one of the biggest hits of early rock ‘n’ roll with “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Always on the lookout for talent, he jump-started the careers of Jackie Wilson, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton.

Although Lipsitz’s sociologist-speak bogs things down in spots, that doesn’t dim his portrait of Otis as an artist of great imagination and even greater racial courage and conviction. If Otis had any doubts about the authenticity of his own life, they were put to rest during that nightmarish drive through Watts. Lipsitz writes that “amid the frightening sounds of windows breaking, objects striking automobiles and police car and fire engines wailing,” a hefty black woman flagged Otis down and leaned into his car window. He expected the worst, but the woman only greeted him calmly—”as if they were in the middle of a picnic”—and asked him where his band was appearing next. That bizarre moment captures the essence of Otis’s legacy: even in the most uncertain times, an expectation of the next big thing.

Alfred Hitchcock needn’t worry

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:49 pm
NY Times March 25, 2010

A Cheesy Horror Turkey Becomes a High-Flying Cult Hit

By DAVE ITZKOFF

If the title of “Birdemic: Shock and Terror” does not immediately tell you what kind of movie it is, its teaser trailer should do the trick.

In panoramic shots, it shows an idyllic Northern California town — city streets, parking lots, a pumpkin farm — over and over again. These scenes continue for more than a minute, until the ambient noise is punctured by menacing screeches. Suddenly the sky is filled with birds: badly animated birds, out of proportion to the dwellings below, that barely flap their wings as they glide by. Occasionally an aggravated fowl breaks away from its clip-art flock, plummeting to the ground and exploding in a similarly unconvincing cloud of smoke.

James Nguyen, the 43-year-old writer and director of “Birdemic,” a would-be thriller about an avian rampage, will be the first to tell you that it is far from a perfect film. But, as he said recently, “if it was perfect, in every angle and the visual effects and everything, maybe it wouldn’t be where it is today.”

Since “Birdemic” was discovered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival — where Mr. Nguyen brought it anyway and showed it in bars after it was rejected by the festival’s selection committee — it has become a cult hit on the midnight movie circuit. Crowds in Austin, Tex., Phoenix and Los Angeles have thrilled to its stilted dialogue, substandard production values and young heroes who defend themselves with coat hangers. (A “Birdemic” national tour is currently booked through the end of May.)

As “Birdemic” arrives in New York for late-night showings at the IFC Center on Friday and Saturday, it has spawned a discussion about why, of all the Z-grade movies that are made each year, this particular one should find favor with audiences. What has made Mr. Nguyen a latter-day anti-genius to rival Edward D. Wood Jr., whose 1959 horror dud “Plan 9 From Outer Space” became legendary for its countless defects?

“It’s something unexpected,” Mr. Nguyen said. “Maybe it’s meant to be like that.”

full article

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