Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2010

Greg Giraldo, Insult-Humor Comic, Dies at 44

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm
NY Times September 30, 2010

Greg Giraldo, Insult-Humor Comic, Dies at 44

By ANAHAD O’CONNOR

Greg Giraldo, a comedian famous for his stinging insult humor, disgruntled rants and frequent appearances on Comedy Central’s highly watched roast series, died on Wednesday at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. He was 44.

Mr. Giraldo had been hospitalized since Saturday night after he was found unconscious in a hotel room in New Brunswick, where he was scheduled to perform at a club. Mr. Giraldo had suffered a drug overdose, The Home News Tribune of East Brunswick, N.J., reported, citing New Brunswick police. The precise cause of death on Wednesday was unclear. A hospital spokesman said the family declined to release that information.

A former lawyer who gave up a job at a law firm to pursue comedy, Mr. Giraldo became a wildly successful stand-up comic touring the country as a headliner at many clubs and dispensing his own brand of sharp and often brutal humor. As Mr. Giraldo’s following grew so did his presence on radio and television. He performed more than a dozen times on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and become a radio regular on “The Howard Stern Show.”

Mr. Giraldo was particularly known for his clever and exasperated rants, which he used to great effect on Comedy Central shows like “Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn” and Lewis Black’s “Root of All Evil.” But it was his regular appearances on that network’s roast series — one of Comedy Central’s most successful shows — that drew particular attention. Mr. Giraldo was a mainstay on that series, taking the stage in more than a half-dozen shows to mercilessly ridicule pop-culture figures like Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, Chevy Chase — “I could only dream,” he told Mr. Chase, of making “three good movies” and 40 horrible ones — and, in 2009, a fellow comedian, Larry the Cable Guy.

“Some people say Larry’s only successful because he’s pandering to the lowest common denominator,” Mr. Giraldo said. “Don’t listen to these people, Larry. They’re just bitter and jealous and right.”

Mr. Giraldo’s fame grew quickly, and by 2010 he was making prime-time appearances on network television. Earlier this year he was a judge on the NBC reality show “Last Comic Standing” and a panelist on “The Marriage Ref,” the Jerry Seinfeld brainchild that also airs on NBC.

But Mr. Giraldo’s humor had a dark side, which he sometimes referenced in his stand-up act. He had been a heavy drinker, but in interviews in recent years he spoke of being sober — with occasional slip-ups.

Mr. Giraldo was born in New York in 1965. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia and a law degree from Harvard. He was divorced with three children.

As something of a running joke, Mr. Giraldo was often needled by fellow roasters on Comedy Central for being the comedian no one had ever heard of. But on Twitter Wednesday night, “R.I.P. Greg Giraldo” was the top trending topic, and his fans posted countless notes and tributes on his YouTube videos and Facebook and MySpace pages.

Mr. Giraldo’s last major appearance on Comedy Central was in August during “The Comedy Central Roast of David Hasselhoff,” in which he hectored Mr. Hasselhoff about his own alcohol abuse.

“You used to have a car that started when you talked to it; now you have a car that won’t start when you blow into it,” he said.

Mr. Giraldo was one of the most widely praised and talked about comedians on the roast that evening. The show drew 3.5 million total viewers and was the highest-rated cable show of the night.

Did the Bolsheviks form blocs with the Cadets?

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

On and off since September 19th, when it posted an article titled “Electoral Work as Part of Revolutionary Preparation”, the Kasama Project has been host to an ongoing debate on the Democratic Party. As you might have anticipated, I have defended total opposition to the Democrats. Occupying a position toward the center, Mike Ely, the founder of the Kasama Project and a former member of Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party, is hostile to the Democratic Party but views supporting its candidates as a tactical question. On the right, there’s Carl Davidson, an SDS leader from the 1960s and co-chair of the Eurocommunist Committees of Correspondence, who launched a website in 2008 called Progressives for Obama.

On the 27th Mike crossposted a piece written by Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com titled “The Obama Boomerang: Pro-Obama lefties get slapped down by the FBI”. Raimondo, a disciple of Murray Rothbard who attempted to synthesize anarchism and libertarianism, has to his credit offered a withering critique of Democratic Party complicity in the “war on terror”. While I find his libertarian economics rather silly, especially given the current economic crisis that prompted Ayn Rand aficionado Alan Greenspan to confess to Congress that his free-market ideas had led to a disaster, I appreciate his anti-imperialist and anti-war journalism. After all, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds.

Raimondo wrote:

I think it’s safe to say the antiwar movement was unprepared for this kind of attack from an administration they hailed as “a very good development,” and I’m not just talking about FRSO. The idea that the election of a black man whose resume reads “community organizer” is going to change the face of US imperialism even slightly is an illusion brought on by the identity politics that have long since replaced Marxism (or any coherent ‘ism) in the canons of the left. If many have wondered who let the air out of the antiwar movement, it was precisely those “radical” leftists who, like the “orthodox” Marxists of FRSO, signed on as the “left” wing of the Obama cult. That’s why they didn’t see the mailed fist of the State coming even when it was a few inches from their faces.

Since many people who read and comment on Kasama have a “Marxist-Leninist” past, it is not surprising that one person asked “Didn’t Lenin talk about participation in legal elections too?” It should be understood that in such circles, Lenin’s imprimatur will count as much as the Pope’s for Catholics. It should also be understood that there is an unfortunate amalgam made during the entire discussion on Kasama between “electoral work” and supporting the Democrats. The two really have to be separated, in my opinion.

I tried to put Lenin’s position in context:

The peculiar condition was the continuing ability of the parties of the Second International and British Labour to draw working-class votes in the 1920s. Lenin advocated that the Comintern parties urge a vote for their candidates in order to get a hearing from such voters, understanding that once they got elected they would sell out–thus helping to persuade workers to join the CP. In any case, this had nothing to do with supporting bourgeois parties like the Democrats in the USA. For people who want to understand how Lenin regarded such parties, go to the Marxism Internet Archives and do a search on “Cadet” within Lenin. This, after all, was the major difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: how to understand bourgeois liberalism. It is regrettable that a century after these debates took place, ostensible revolutionaries are dusting off Menshevik arguments.

This led Mike Ely to correct me: “actually there were situations in the Duma elections where the Bolsheviks would support Cadets against the Black hundreds.”

Now this was not the first time I heard such a claim. Back in November 2008, just around the time that Obama was in all his glory, one Marxmail subscriber cited an article by Lenin from 1912 that advocated blocs with “bourgeois democrats”. But he did not realize that Lenin was referring to the SR’s and not the Cadets.

When I asked Mike Ely to document his claim, he cited a book written by a Bolshevik deputy A.E. Badaev. Titled “Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma”, it seemed to support his claim:

The Bolsheviks thought it necessary to put up candidates in all workers’ curias and would not tolerate any agreements with other parties and groups, including the Menshevik-Liquidators. They also considered it necessary to put up candidates in the so-called “second curiae of city electors” (the first curiae consisted of large property owners and democratic candidates had no chance there at all) and in the elections in the villages, because of the great agitational value of the campaign. But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals, and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.

Well, that seemed pretty solid evidence for a Lenin who the Committees of Correspondence could love. A “practical” kind of guy who could urge a vote for the Obamas of his day against the really scary Black Hundreds, the Sarah Palins of Czarist Russia.

This was worth checking out. Although I don’t think it is very useful to base one’s politics in 2010 on what Lenin or A.E. Badaev wrote in 1912, as an amateur Lenin scholar I was curious to figure out what was going on. So I assiduously searched through Badaev’s book looking for more detail on the “agreements” between the Bolsheviks and the Cadets but could only come up with items like this that are hardly redolent of Carl Davidson’s popular front maneuvers:

Despite their failure on the question of chairman [a reference to an invitation from the Cadets to the left parties to support their nomination], within the next few days the Cadets made another attempt to draw the Social-Democratic faction into some agreement. They invited our fraction to a joint meeting of the “united opposition” to discuss certain bills which were being drafted by the Cadet fraction. In reply to this invitation the Social-Democratic fraction passed a resolution stating that they would undertake no joint work with the Cadets, that the Cadets were essentially counter-revolutionary and that no friendly relations were possible between them and the party of the working-class.

So I scratched my head and tried to figure out which Badaev was the true one, the one who Mike Ely cited or the one that comes across repeatedly throughout the rest of the book like an early version of Glenn Ford or Paul Street? It reminded me a bit of that old television show “To Tell the Truth”. Would the real A.M. Badaev please stand up?  I decided to reread the citation that Mike Ely found so convincing for the 12th time. Maybe there was something I was not getting.

Finally, I figured it out.

Badaev wrote:

with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.

The election of electors? What was an elector? I felt that this was the key to unraveling the mystery of Bolshevik “agreements” or blocs with the Cadets, the “bitter enemies” of the Black Hundreds in the same way that the Democrats are toward the Republicans. Ha-ha-ha.

You have to understand that the Czar set up a Duma on pretty much the same basis as our electoral college, in order to preempt the will of the people. You did not vote directly for Bolshevik, Trudovik, Black Hundred or Cadet candidates. Instead you had to vote for electors who came from four different “curiae”, or electoral groups: the landowners, urban middle class, peasants and workers. So the Bolsheviks came to an agreement with the Cadets not on a common electoral slate, but on who should be an elector. In some ways, this reminded me of all the flak that Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo got in 2008 when they used the ballot designation in some states that had belonged to a 3rd party that originated out of the Pat Buchanan campaign. You would have to be daft to accuse them of supporting Pat Buchanan’s politics, even though of course there were plenty of nuts who did, starting with the Demogreens, Eric Alterman et al.

Now I would be willing to be persuaded that Badaev was actually referring to political agreements between the Bolsheviks and the Cadets, but I would not hold my breath waiting–especially in light of the long and unambiguous record of Lenin’s hostility to the Cadets at all times and under all circumstances.

Although I don’t think it is very useful to base one’s electoral strategy on Lenin’s writings and prefer to understand our problems in terms of what Eugene V. Debs said (“I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it”), I do think that there are some similarities between the challenges Lenin faced and what we face today. In December 31, 1906, Lenin wrote an article titled “The Attitude of the Bourgeois Parties and of the Workers’ Party to the Duma Elections” that strikes me as sounding quite contemporary. Lenin wrote:

Hence, the whole of the Cadets’ election campaign is directed to frightening the masses with the Black-Hundred danger and the danger from the extreme Left parties, to adapting themselves to the philistinism, cowardice and flabbiness of the petty bourgeois and to persuading him that the Cadets are the safest, the most modest, the most moderate and the most well-behaved of people. Every day the Cadet papers ask their readers: Are you afraid, philistine? Rely on us! We are not going to frighten you, we are opposed to violence, we are obedient to the government; rely on us, and we shall do everything for you “as far as possible”! And behind the backs of the frightened philistines the Cadets resort to every trick to assure the government of their loyalty, to assure the Lefts of their love of liberty, to assure the Peaceful Renovators of their affinity with their party and their election forms.

No enlightenment of the masses, no agitation to rouse the masses, no exposition of consistent democratic slogans— only a haggling for seats behind the backs of the frightened philistines—such is the election campaign of all the parties of the liberal bourgeoisie, from the non-party people (of Tovarishch) to the Party of Democratic Reforms.

Substitute the words Democratic Party for Cadets and you pretty much get an idea of why there is non-stop and hysterical chatter about the Tea Party from MSNBC, the Nation Magazine, and all the other ideological heirs of the Cadets and their best friends on the left at that time, the Mensheviks whose spineless reformism is apparently alive and well in 2010.

September 29, 2010

Three great ones pass on

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm
NY Times September 29, 2010

Buddy Collette, Musician Who Played With Jazz Greats, Dies at 89

By DENNIS HEVESI

Buddy Collette, a jazz saxophonist, flutist, clarinetist and bandleader who blended his usually soothing, often pungent sounds with those of many jazz greats and who was a leader in the struggle to break racial barriers in the music industry, died on Sept. 19 in Los Angeles. He was 89.

The cause was a respiratory ailment, his daughter Cheryl Collette-White said.

Unlike many jazz musicians who gravitate to New York to achieve visibility, Mr. Collette remained primarily a West Coast player, performing and recording with stars there and teaching music at several colleges and universities.

Over the years he played with performers like Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Stan Kenton, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Nelson Riddle and Louie Bellson.

Mingus so admired Mr. Collette’s saxophone playing that he went so far “as to claim that his friend Buddy Collette could play as well as Bird,” a reference to Parker’s nickname, Ted Gioia wrote in his 1997 book “The History of Jazz.”

After serving in the Navy in World War II, during which he led a dance band, Mr. Collette became a well-known name among the swing and bebop players in the night spots dotting Central Avenue in Los Angeles. In 1949, he broke a color barrier when he became the only African-American in the band for the Groucho Marx show “You Bet Your Life.”

Along with the alto saxophonist and composer Benny Carter, Mr. Collette became a leader in the struggle to eliminate segregation in the American Federation of Musicians. On April 1, 1953, the black and white locals of the union in Los Angeles merged.

“I knew that was something that had to be done,” Mr. Collette told The Los Angeles Times in 2000. “I had been in the service, where our band was integrated. My high school had been fully integrated. I really didn’t know anything about racism, but I knew it wasn’t right. Musicians should be judged on how they play, not the color of their skin.”

NY Times September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn, Director of ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ Dies

By DAVE KEHR

Arthur Penn, the stage, television and motion picture director whose revolutionary treatment of sex and violence in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” transformed the American film industry, died Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan, the day after he turned 88.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his son, Matthew, said.

A pioneering director of live television drama in the 1950s and a Broadway powerhouse in the 1960s, Mr. Penn developed an intimate, spontaneous and physically oriented method of directing actors that allowed their work to register across a range of mediums.

In 1957, he directed William Gibson’s television play “The Miracle Worker” for the CBS series “Playhouse 90” and earned Emmy nominations for himself, his writer and his star, Teresa Wright. In 1959, he restaged “The Miracle Worker” for Broadway and won Tony Awards for himself, his writer and his star, Anne Bancroft. And in 1962, he directed the film version of Mr. Gibson’s text, which won the best actress Oscar for Bancroft and the best supporting actress Oscar for her co-star, Patty Duke, as well as earning nominations for writing and directing.

Mr. Penn’s direction may also have changed the course of American history. He advised Senator John F. Kennedy during his watershed television debates with Richard M. Nixon in 1960 (and directed the broadcast of the third debate). Mr. Penn’s instructions to Kennedy — to look directly into the lens of the camera and keep his responses brief and pithy — helped give the candidate an aura of confidence and calm that created a vivid contrast to his more experienced but less telegenic Republican rival.

But it was as a film director that Mr. Penn left his mark on American culture, most indelibly with “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Arthur Holch

NY Times September 28, 2010

Arthur Holch, Emmy-Winning Documentarian, Dies at 86

By MARGALIT FOX

Arthur E. Holch Jr., an Emmy Award-winning television documentarian whose work at midcentury and afterward tackled charged subjects like race relations, Nazism and Communism, died on Thursday in Greenwich, Conn. He was 86 and a longtime Greenwich resident.

The cause was heart failure, his family said.

Mr. Holch’s best-known documentaries include “Walk in My Shoes,” broadcast on ABC in 1961 and later nominated for an Emmy Award. With sober intimacy, the hourlong program chronicled what daily life was like for black people in the United States, through interviews with African-Americans from a range of social classes.

Among those whose voices graced the film were a Harlem cabby, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the comedian Dick Gregory and Percy E. Sutton, then a young lawyer and later a Manhattan borough president.

Mr. Holch (pronounced Holtsch) wrote the script of the documentary, which was produced and directed by Nicholas Webster.

Reviewing “Walk in My Shoes,” an installment in the Bell & Howell “Close-Up!” series, The New York Herald Tribune called it “one of the finest documentaries ever offered on television,” adding, “No one with a spark of human compassion could witness this program without an infinitely deeper understanding and sense of concern for an appalling American problem.”

Mr. Holch won a News & Documentary Emmy in 1992 for “Heil Hitler! Confessions of a Hitler Youth,” a half-hour documentary he produced and directed.

Broadcast the previous year on HBO, “Heil Hitler” told the story of Alfons Heck, who as a child in Germany belonged to the Hitler Youth. Mr. Heck, who later settled in the United States, came to repudiate Nazi ideology and wrote and lectured widely about his boyhood experience.

Arthur Everett Holch Jr. was born in Omaha on March 13, 1924, and reared in Denver. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver, followed by a master’s from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Mr. Holch began his career as a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News before moving to New York, where he worked first for CBS radio and afterward for NBC television. He later formed his own company, Round Hill Productions.

His other documentaries include two films about life in Communist countries that he wrote, produced and directed: “The Beautiful Blue and Red Danube” (1967) and “Cuba: The Castro Generation” (1977). Both were broadcast on ABC.

Mr. Holch is survived by his wife, the former Ellen O’Keefe Hare, whom he married in 1951; three sons, Gregory, Christopher and Jeremy; four daughters, Hilary O’Neill, Milissa Laurence, Meredith Holch and Allegra Holch; and seven grandchildren.

Join the Socialist Contingent on Oct. 2nd

Filed under: socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

http://socialistcontingentoct2.blogspot.com/

War Don Don reminder

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

I reviewed this powerful documentary about a deeply flawed war crimes tribunal of a Sierra Leone militia leader in late August:

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/war-don-don/

It airs tonight on HBO at 8pm and should not be missed.

September 28, 2010

Rachel

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

From October 8-14, the Anthology Film Archives in New York will be screening “Rachel“, a documentary about the martyrdom of Rachel Corrie. This is a perfect time to be honoring her memory since it finally appears that the tide is turning in her favor. Her sacrifice, along with those made by the Mavi Marmara martyrs, has finally begun to persuade powerful forces worldwide, including the trade union movement, to take a stand against Israel.

Simone Bitton, who was born in Morocco in 1955 and considers herself an Arab Jew, directed the film. She interviews both the International Solidarity Activists who worked alongside Rachel as well as the IDF soldiers responsible for her death. Bitton’s last film was “Wall“, a powerful indictment of one of the primary institutions of the Israeli version of apartheid.

Serving as a narrative thread that holds this powerful movie together, we hear young women reading from her letters. These are the very same letters that formed the basis of Alan Rickman’s “My Name is Rachel Corrie” that was staged originally in London’s Royal Court Theater in 2005. When an attempt was made to present it at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 2006, the theater’s director took it upon himself to poll Jewish groups whether this might offend them. Whether he did this because he got phone calls from people threatening to cut off his funding is impossible to say. But I have a feeling that there would be much more openness to it today, especially in light of the decision by Hollywood’s elite, including many Jews, to support a boycott of performances at a theater in a West Bank settlement.

Throughout the movie, I could not help but think of Ben Linder, an American engineer who was murdered by Nicaraguan contras in 1987. Like him, Rachel Corrie came from a comfortable and privileged family in Olympia, Washington just as Ben came from in Oregon. No matter how many times the mainstream media tells young well-educated people such as these that the Nicaraguans or Palestinians are threats to American interests, they will find a way to make a connection with them, even at the risk of death.

Bitton takes the audience to Rafah, where eyewitnesses from the ISM recreate the day’s events of March 13, 2003 when an armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozer pushed hundreds of pounds of dirt over her, leading to her death by suffocation. The IDF maintained that the driver could not see her despite the fact that it admitted that the activists were driving them to distraction in the Gaza Strip. Speaking to these cynical terrorists in their native Hebrew, Bitton challenges their official version of what happened every step of the way. Since Israel controlled the autopsy, against the express wishes or her parents, it assumed that they could spin things the way it wanted, just as was the case with the Mavi Marmara. Unfortunately for the Zionists, these lies no longer have the effect they once did.

The documentary has moving interviews with Ghassan Andoni, a Palestinian physicist and one of the three co-founders of the ISM, and Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli activist with the group whose emails I have been receiving for well over five years. Pollak is a totally engaging personality who says that his activism was inherited from his Communist grandparents and other members of his family. Ideologically, he describes himself as an anarchist and as such puts the best foot forward for the latest manifestation of this 150-year-old movement. The wiki on Pollak states:

Pollak was injured numerous times, including a head injury on April 3, 2005. An Israeli soldier shot Pollak in the head with a teargas canister from an M-16, from a distance of approximately thirty meters at a protest against the Wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in. This left him with two internal brain hemorrhages and a wound requiring 23 stitches.[1]  Jonathan was arrested dozens of times and convicted together with 10 others for blocking a road in front of the Israeli Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on the day the International Court of Justice in The Hague  began its proceeding on the legality of the wall. He was also acquitted of a rioting charge together with another AAW activist, Kobi Snitz. They were both arrested at a demonstration against the wall in the village of Budrus.[2]

When the time comes for Israeli apartheid to be buried in the ashcan of history, just as the Afrikaner system that preceded it, people like Rachel Corrie and countless Palestinians will be seen as the Stephen Biko’s who paved the way for its demise through their example. In that sense, their memory will last forever since they have entered the realm of the immortals of peace and social justice.

September 27, 2010

Middletown

Filed under: economics,Film,religion,workers — louisproyect @ 3:40 pm

Since I was familiar with Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds”, the definitive documentary about the war in Vietnam, I was anxious to view the Icarus Film’s rerelease of “Middletown”, a PBS documentary series that aired in 1982. As producer of the series and director of the episode “Second Time Around”, about a downwardly mobile couple about to be married, Davis sought to create a film analogue of the classic sociological study conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd in 1929. I had always assumed that the name Middletown referred to the Ohio city, but as it turns out the subject of their study and Davis’s PBS series is Muncie, Indiana. The Lynds were the parents of long-time radical scholar and activist Staughton Lynd, who shared Davis’s passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as his parents’ socialist beliefs. In a PBS interview, Staughton described how his parents went about the project:

I don’t want to present myself as an expert on Middletown, but I will add this fact to the stew. The most powerful employers in Muncie, Indiana at the town were the Ball family, who made glass jars for putting up preserves. And my father, in conducting the original Middletown study, kind of went everywhere and met everyone. He talked to the Rotary Club. He sang in church. He shot the breeze with the local socialists, or one of them. And he had a cordial relationship with the Ball family. And again the kitchen table story is that after the second book appeared the Ball family stopped sending Christmas cards. So there came a time when I suppose you would say my dad had to pick sides or at least was perceived by others as picking sides. And certainly his choice was with those who worked, who did manual work in Muncie rather than with the owning class.

Davis clearly was just the sort of person who could adapt the original material to the film medium. In the booklet that accompanies the Icarus package, he writes:

Looking at the Middletown films a generation after their completion, I find it striking – embarrassing really – that a single word not only binds but flows like a rushing stream through all six films. It is a peculiarly American word that seems to apply to us as it would not if a similar study were made in Italy, China or even among our cultural progenitors in the British Isles. The word is wanting…

My embarrassment is that I didn‟t see the wanting much earlier. When the academic advisors and I formed the Middletown Film Project in 1976, my own aim was to look at a single American community for what it could tell us about our society. Writers and observers as far apart as Alexis de Tocqueville, Saul Bellow, and Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd have looked at America and seen the wanting. “The Indian,” de Tocqueville wrote, “knew how to live without wants,” while the new American man was “constantly on the move” trying to improve his lot, “and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort.” In Henderson The Rain King, Bellow‟s protagonist is assailed by the refrain, “I want, I want, I want,” which also haunts the main character in his late novel Ravelstein. The reprise is neither lazy nor accidental; it was Bellow, born a Canadian, on American yearners.

While all six films in the series are powerful statements about the American psyche, I want to single out “Community of Praise”, which was directed by Richard Leacock. Leacock, now 89, is one of the giants of documentary film-making, serving as cameraman with Robert Flaherty on “The Louisiana Story” in 1946. Leacock, like Davis and all the other directors, used a cinéma vérité style to show how a family’s life revolved around their Christian fundamentalist beliefs. Although Indiana is a northern state, it has many features in common with Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma. Indeed, in “Seventeen”, another episode in the series (PBS refused to air it because it was deemed too controversial), we see an interracial couple being persecuted for breaking taboos. A cross is burned on the white girl’s front-yard.

In the Staughton Lynd interview alluded to above, he stresses that his parents’ intention was to focus on the role that religion plays in Muncie, something that “Community of Praise” lays bare. The main thing that comes across is the sheer desperation that drives ordinary people to the church, much like a drowning person clings to a life-preserver. The husband tells Leacock that he always had a bottle at his side when he was in the barn working on drag racers. He might not have gone to taverns like other men, but he got drunk every night just like them. His wife confesses that she went through a bad period when she was getting drunk, taking valium and suffering from insomnia and depression. She got involved with a local church first and then convinced him to come along. The church, which appears to be Pentecostal, has members and pastors speaking in tongue and rolling around on the floor in divine inspiration. There is very little talk about spirituality or social justice. The main preoccupation appears to be getting rid of demons inside the body that can manifest themselves along a spectrum, from alcoholism to the scoliosis that afflicts a teen-age girl. How will they know that a demon has been expelled? You might experience it either as a sneeze or a passing of wind, the veterinarian faith-healer advises.

A while back when I was studying the controversy around Napoleon Chagnon’s “fierce people” hypothesis on the Yanomami, I imagined a scenario in which a couple of Indians would come to the United States and begin knocking doors in a New Jersey suburban bedroom community to ask people about the most intimate details of their private lives. “Community of Praise” might have been the documentary that embodies this spirit of inquiry into one very superstitious and backward group of people.

The Middletown films, a 4 disk DVD package, can be purchased from amazon.com for $29.99 and is worth every penny. For people trying to understand the stresses of American society that are generating phenomena like the Tea Party, Peter Davis’s series are eye-opening reminders that the process has been deepening every since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the very year that these documentary films were being filmed. As the hammer blows of a post-prosperity economy rain down on the working class families of Muncie, they turn to either a faith in the marketplace or the god in the sky to help them see things through. Now that we are in an economic downfall that makes the early 80s look tame by comparison, it should not come as a surprise that all sorts of bizarre religious beliefs are embraced by those who have been hammered the worst.

While Davis, Leacock and the other obviously progressive-minded film-makers who worked on this project could find no answer to these contradictions within Muncie itself, it is good that they embarked on this project because it gives scholars and activists an accurate picture of the state of the American mind, one that Peter Davis characterized as wanting. Our job is to persuade them that a radical transformation of the economy is the only thing that can address their hunger for security and well-being.

September 26, 2010

Harvard gives Martin Peretz a hard time

Filed under: zionism — louisproyect @ 2:22 pm

I should have mentioned that I saw this video clip on the excellent Mondoweiss blog, which has a new entry on the Harvard opposition to Peretz here.

September 25, 2010

From an old friend

Filed under: China — louisproyect @ 12:22 am

Did you catch the NPR report on the Chinese Worker Protests this morning?

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130078240

It has this gem from a Chinese activist:

“Karl Marx was right. We should struggle like he said in 19th century Europe. Chinese factories now are just like factories in 19th century Europe. And just like Karl Marx said, only through struggle with the capitalists can we gain our rights,” Liu says.

I think we’re headed into interesting times.

Mark

September 24, 2010

Inside Job

Filed under: Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

I had few expectations from Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”, a documentary opening on October 8th, since it appeared to adhere to the same formula as his debut film “No End in Sight”. That movie, which won an Academy Award nomination, relied heavily on experts who portrayed the war in Iraq as some kind of tragic blunder rather than a product of long-standing American imperialist policies in the Middle East. “Inside Job” is to the financial crisis as “No End in Sight” is to the war in Iraq. You won’t find Doug Henwood, Michael Perelman, David Harvey or Leo Panitch being interviewed. Indeed, the question of capitalism as a system is never raised just as imperialism is not in “No End in Sight”.

All that being said, “Inside Job” is a brilliant dissection of the financial industry and the political system that it shares a bed with. Ferguson might rely solely on industry experts and regulators but to what astonishing results. This tautly organized film gathers momentum from the very first minutes and builds up a head of steam like a locomotive engine. Despite avoiding the question of how the economic system is organized, it is a dagger aimed at its heart no matter the intention of Charles Ferguson. All in all, it reminds me of these words in the Communist Manifesto:

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.

While we are obviously not in a period when the class struggle is nearing “the decisive hour”, Charles Ferguson—like Chris Hedges—has obviously washed his hands of the most powerful sector of the bourgeoisie, the Goldman-Sachs’s of the world that are portrayed as master thieves. Indeed, the title of the movie refers to crimes taking place inside a company by people who are supposed to be trusted with its well-being. In the case of Goldman-Sachs, we are not dealing with an inside job within the firm but within American society as a whole. Using their insider connections in Washington, people like Lloyd Blankfein, Robert Rubin, Henry Paulsen and a host of others have cracked open the safe and run off with taxpayer dollars that they spend on 25,000 square feet mansions in the Hamptons, 20 million dollar yachts, private planes, cocaine and prostitutes.

One of the interviewees in the film is Kristin Davis, the madam of a high-priced call girl service that catered to Wall Street investment banks, including Goldman-Sachs employees. She states that the cops were not interested in following up on her clients. On the other hand, Elliot Spitzer, who is one of the chief “prosecution” interviewees in the film, did have his career destroyed for his personal vices. The movie makes the point that this was directly related to his crusade against Wall Street criminal activity as NY State Attorney General.

The movie is about as good an introduction to the financialization of the American economy, the growing risk-taking associated with that, the housing bubble, and all the other topics that have been the subject of a spate of books over the past few years. Ferguson’s movie covers some of the same ground as Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story” and Leslie Cockburn’s “American Casino”  but with a lot more power and authority. Despite its necessary deep burrowing into how CDO’s and CDS’s functioned, the movie is fast-paced—even breathtakingly so.

The research at times is staggering. Ferguson, who earned a PhD in Political Science from MIT in 1989, dramatizes the financial takeover of the American economy by taking a look at the J.P. Morgan investment bank. In the 1950s it had just over 100 employees, all of who worked in about half the floor of a downtown office building, with assets of a few million dollars. It was a partnership with capital that came out of the partner’s pockets; naturally they were very conservative about how it was spent. The investment banks were handmaidens to major industrial corporations. All that began to change with Reagan’s election and only deepened under Republican and Democrat alike. New Deal regulations had to be flushed down the toilet for the financial industry to reach its ambitious goals. Unlike Michael Moore, Ferguson lacerates Barack Obama as a president who is simply continuing this trend.

While the movie is excellent throughout, there is one part that I derived exquisite pleasure from. As has been noted in leftwing blogs and magazines, the business schools and economics departments of America’s most prestigious universities have been regarded as complicit in the financial collapse through their neoclassical embrace of deregulation, market efficiency and other fictions.

Using his impressive academic qualifications and his reputation as a relatively mainstream documentarian, Charles Ferguson lined up interviews with a number of high-profile economics professors at Harvard and Columbia like Martin Feldstein and Glenn Hubbard who had major roles in ruining the American economy and in one case that of Iceland. It would be hard to imagine characters in a fictional film like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” being more repulsive than these economics professors. Feldstein in particular has a smirk on his face throughout the interview that is positively Mephistophelian. In a course I am taking on documentary film at Columbia this semester, the instructor said that in documentaries the subjects often turn themselves into characters following some irresistible impulse that ensues when you are on camera. In the case of these economists, you can almost charge them with overacting through their coldly alienating affect.

Just three months before the banks of Iceland collapsed, Columbia University’s Frederic Mishkin wrote a report that described the banks as models of stability and good governance. (The film begins with a close look at the impact of the meltdown on the people of Iceland.) Ferguson asks Mishkin how much he earned for writing such a report. He grins sheepishly and replies that the amount can be found in the public record. It turns out to be $124,000. You can see an excerpt from this portion of the movie here. Unlike his namesake Prince Mishkin in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”, this Mishkin seems incapable of telling the truth or acting ethically.

One could not fault Ferguson for omitting a Marxist or radical perspective in this documentary because it is likely that he would not know where to begin. He simply does not come across as someone who makes MRZine, ZNet or Counterpunch part of his daily reading. Judging from his interviewees, the main fare would be the Financial Times, the NY Times and financial books and newsletters. What struck me about this lack was the failure of our movement broadly speaking to rise to the occasion.

When it is left up to the likes of Michael Moore, you are left with a populist paean to Barack Obama at the conclusion of his film on the financial crisis. We need documentary film makers who can relate the current crisis to the deeper structural problems of capitalism that go back to the early 70s at least. Unlike Charles Ferguson, who saw the war in Iraq as a tragic blunder and the current crisis as the outcome of greed on Wall Street, we would see it as the normal and expected outcome of a system in terminal decay. One can get the sense that based on what you see on the screen as this powerful and intelligent documentary unfolds that he indeed has the nagging sense that we might be right.

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