Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 29, 2012

A Royal Enfield spotting

Filed under: motorcycles — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

Parked in front of my building this morning

I was stunned this morning to see a Royal Enfield motorcycle in mint condition parked in front of my building, worthy of being displayed in a motorcycle museum.

When I was at Bard College in the early 60s, Japanese motorcycles were still a rarity. Friends owned a Matchless 500cc single scrambler, a Triumph Bonneville road bike, a Norton Dominator 750cc road racer, a BSA 250 cc road bike, and a BSA 650cc Lightning Rocket scrambler—all British bikes. I took the Lightning Rocket for a spin once and was amazed by its power. The friend who owned the BSA 250 sold it and bought a Ducati Diana 250 cc instead. The first Japanese bike was a Yamaha YDS3 that my friend Steve bought in 1965, our senior year. I took it for a spin once and found it much more to my liking than the scary BSA Lightning Rocket.

After doing a bit of research on the net, I discovered that the Royal-Enfield was not a restored model but something fairly new. Except for the Triumph, motorcycles are not being built in Britain any longer. It should be added that a new company that is committed to maintaining the quality of the original is making the Triumph of today. You can see them all around N.Y., rivaling the Ducati’s in sex appeal.

As it turns out, the Royal-Enfields are being made in Chennai, India today. The model I saw this morning (a Bullet 500 ES) is one of 11 models being sold. It has the same exact look as a vintage machine. This is not the first case of colonialism in reverse. In 2008 Tata Motors of India took over Jaguar and cars are now being made in Puna, India.

The Royal Enfield story is fairly paradigmatic of British industry. Enfield was an arms manufacturer. When they got involved with making motorcycles, they created a logo that featured a cannon and whose motto was “Made like a gun, goes like a bullet”. By contrast, Yamaha, which started out as a piano maker, developed a logo for its motorcycles of superimposed tuning forks.

I suppose there’s some moral to be drawn from the choice of logo’s but I’ll leave those of you disposed to cultural studies analysis to figure it out for yourself.

September 28, 2012

Won’t Back Down; Obama’s America 2016

Filed under: Education,Film,Obama — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

“Won’t Back Down” is a marriage made in hell between bad art and bad politics. Sitting through it at a press screening on Monday night was the most painful experience I have had since undergoing emergency laser surgery on both eyes to relieve the pressure that would have led to glaucoma and possible blindness. Halfway through the screening I began to wonder if laser surgery might be needed to relieve the pressure on my brain that this awful film was producing. With its treacly Lifetime cable TV clichés and its reckless disregard for the reality surrounding the charter school juggernaut backed by Democrats and Republicans alike, it might take months for me to get the bad taste out of my mouth, like the one that accompanies a hangover from really cheap wine. Maybe the answer is to lock myself in my bedroom and watch the collected works of Akira Kurosawa over the next week or so.

Despite some rather pro forma gestures at making the teacher’s union appear something a bit less threatening than a George Romero zombie attack, the key moment arrives when the head of the union quotes Albert Shanker: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Although Shanker was a pretty despicable figure, that quote was apocryphal. It first appeared in a Mississippi newspaper (surprise, surprise) but without any source. In fact enemies of the teacher’s unions rather than their leaders are the ones that tend to use it. For example, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, one of the country’s top charter school boosters along with Michelle Rhee, used it an June 2011 Atlantic Magazine article that also stated:

The traditional schools, as well as their employees and the unions, are screaming bloody murder, something vividly depicted in The Lottery, a recent documentary that shows community agitators brought in by the union to oppose giving public-school space to the Harlem Success network. But this kind of push-back is actually a good sign: it means that the monopolists are beginning to feel the effects of competition.

Furthermore, with respect to the real Albert Shanker—as opposed to the inversion made by screenwriters Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz (who also directed)—the truth is that he was one of the early supporters of charter schools as the American Federation of Teachers website points out:

In a landmark address in 1988, former AFT president Albert Shanker became one of the first education leaders to champion the concept of charter schools. Shanker envisioned teacher-led laboratories of reform that would experiment with new instructional practices. These practices would then be subjected to rigorous evaluation and, if successful, would serve as models for other public schools.

Shanker also saw charter schools as a way to empower teachers, free them from overly bureaucratic regulations, and strengthen their voice in school and curriculum decision-making. In his view, unions were essential to charter schools, because unions help create the kind of secure work environment that encourages innovation and risk-taking.

As a stand-in for the creator’s confused liberal politics, the script includes a young, dedicated and pro-union teacher named Michael Perry who becomes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s love interest at first and then ultimately her ally in privatizing the school (this is really what the struggle ultimately boils down to.) As a way of demonstrating his idealism, he is identified as coming off the Teach for America assembly line. In keeping with the failure to represent Shanker’s true beliefs (and it is no surprise that the rancid social democrat would have had good words for charter schools), there is little inkling of the dovetailing of charter schools and Teach for America. Both are “reforms” intended to break the back of a powerful and effective trade union.

The July 29, 2009 USA Today reported:

In Boston, TFA corps members replaced 20 pink-slipped teachers, says Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman. “These are people who have been trained, who are experienced and who have good evaluations, and are being replaced by brand-new employees.”

This month, he met with about 18 other local union presidents, all of whom said they’d seen teachers laid off to make room for TFA members.

“I don’t think you’ll find a city that isn’t laying off people to accommodate Teach For America,” he says.

In March, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools Superintendent Peter Gorman told board members he was laying off hundreds of teachers but sparing 100 TFAers because the district “made a commitment to this program.” Gorman noted that TFA teachers “are placed at schools with high populations of underprivileged students where the placement of personnel has proven to be difficult.”

You really have to wonder if Brin Hill or Daniel Barnz gave a shit about the truth. These are a couple of hacks that were only too happy to pick up a paycheck from Walden Media, the rightwing production company founded by billionaire Philip Anschutz who advocates teaching creationism in public schools. I can just imagine these knuckleheads sending their kids to such a place.

This is Brin Hill’s first screenplay and it really shows it. As for Barnz, he had the chutzpah to tell the N.Y. Times last February that “I am strongly pro-union”. He also stated that “wanted to recreate the thrill of past action-inspiring social dramas without being snared in partisan debate.” Working from an earlier script by Hill, Barnz clearly sought to create a movie in the spirit of “Norma Rae”, “Erin Brokovich”,  or “Silkwood”, all of which feature a working-class woman fighting against Bad Guys standing in the way of truth, justice and the American way. Showing some awareness that an Anschutz-funded project is not likely to fulfill those hopes, he has a female character on the trade union staff say, “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?”

Perhaps there is some value to the film in that it will galvanize public opinion, and particularly that of critics, about what it represents politically. As a clumsy recitation of charter school talking points, it will hopefully serve as a wake-up call in the same manner as Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks. But it would be a big mistake to attribute its toxic message to the designs of the Mitt Romney’s of the world, including the men who run Walden Media and Twentieth Century Fox, the corporation that released it (owned by Rupert Murdoch.) The charter school movement is an alliance between conservatives and liberals, something that was perhaps lost on A.O. Scott who told his N.Y. Times readers that it “might serve as a useful counterweight to the conventional wisdom that Hollywood is a liberal propaganda factory.”

In truth, despite its ultra-right corporate backing, the movie is very much liberal propaganda. The movie was inspired by the attempt of Parent Revolution to take over a couple of schools in California. To call this outfit conservative would be very far from the truth, as the composition of its board of directors would indicate:

Maggie Neilsen

Previously, as a strategy consultant, she launched new organizations, restructured existing efforts, forged partnerships across sectors and branded international efforts.. For Sir Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela, she helped convene and advise the development of The Elders, an independent group of eminent global leaders who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.

Peter Shakow

Peter also has extensive national, state, and local political experience. He was a staff member in the Office of Political Affairs at the White House during the Clinton Administration, and has worked on numerous political campaigns across the country. He remains involved in the community, both as an active participant in bar activities and as President of the Board of Directors of the Tierra del Sol Foundation, a non-profit that serves developmentally disabled adults. Immediately before joining the firm, he was Vice President of Communications for a $100 million/year nonprofit based in Los Angeles County.

In other words, these are the same kinds of people that Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, is aligned with. They get their funding from the Gates Foundation, launched by a billionaire who has lavished money on Democrats and Republicans alike, just as is the case with Goldman-Sachs.

I want to conclude with a recommendation of some pieces I have written in the past about charter schools and Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media.

I first took a look at charter schools after seeing “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, a Walden Media documentary and “The Lottery”, another preachy documentary:

In Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery, the heroes are charter school administrators like Geoffrey Canada and Eva Moskowitz who operate in New York City, and Michelle Rhee who ran the board of education in Washington. Moskowitz is an ubiquitous and truly unpleasant presence in The Lottery while the equally toxic Rhee is dominant in Waiting for “Superman”. Mostly they say that if the teachers unions were busted, an educational Messianic era would ensue. The only thing standing in the way of success in poverty-stricken Black and Latino neighborhoods is teachers enjoying protection against being arbitrarily fired–a basic right won through collective bargaining.

Canada, Moskowitz and Rhee are depicted as the champions of the plucky families who are doing everything they can to get their kids into a charter school. Canada practically guarantees that graduating from his Harlem Children’s Zone will open doors at Harvard, Princeton and Yale. It is hard not to feel for the underdogs they profess to fight for, whose main enemy appears to be an unfeeling and greedy teacher’s union rather than poverty and racism.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is called upon to make the case for protection against firing but is not really allowed much more than soundbites. She plays kind of the same role that Charlton Heston played as head of the National Rifleman’s Association in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, or a Dr. No in a James Bond movie: the sum of all fears.

And with respect to Philip Anschutz, he is a far more evil bastard than Dr. No as my review of “Amazing Grace” would demonstrate.

Thanks to my good friend and comrade Prairie Miller who was one of the founders of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) and who hosts an Arts show at WBAI, I was able to watch Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary on Barack Obama on Vimeo, an option becoming more prevalent for film reviewers both professional and amateur like me.

Although it was not quite as painful as sitting through “Won’t Back Down”, it was not easy listening to this conservative creep for 90 minutes. Even worse was looking at him, a face that only a mother could love.

The documentary is titled 2016: Obama’s America, and is based on his 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage. According to Prairie, it “is apparently poised to overtake Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 as the most financially successful documentary of all time.” As P.T. Barnum once said, “a sucker is born every minute.”

D’Souza is a graduate of Dartmouth College and a veteran of the “culture wars” in which rightwingers try to make the case that places like his alma mater and Columbia University, from which I retired after 21 mostly happy years, are the equivalents of the Smolny Institute in the summer of 1917. With other noodniks like David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes, who is given the platform in the final 15 minutes or so of the film, we are led to believe that characters like Columbia University’s Lee Bollinger and Bard College’s Leon Botstein are allied with George Soros and other liberal billionaires in a conspiracy to lead a socialist revolution in the U.S. In fact the title of D’Souza’s film is meant to warn Amuricans (as LBJ used to put it) that Obama’s reelection will culminate in a Soviet America in 2016. Christ almighty, if only that were true.

Doing a clumsy imitation of an intellectual, D’Souza tries to get to the roots of Obama’s alleged “anti-Americanism”. It goes something like this. Although Obama hardly knew his father, his mother served as a transmission belt for his anti-colonial ideas. When she was in Indonesia with her new husband Lolo, she always expressed a preference for her first husband who supposedly was for “sticking it to the man”. Lolo, it seems, was bought off by the Western oil companies doing business in Indonesia and even went so far as to go out on commie-killing missions when he was in the Indonesian army during Suharto’s dictatorship.

Once she bought her son back to Hawaii, he was put under the tutelage of Frank Marshall Davis, a member of the Communist Party who was close to Barack’s Nigerian birth father ideologically as well as his grandfather Sidney Dunham, who according to interviewee Paul Kengor (the author of “The Communist. Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor”) was some kind of Red. It all sounds rather like a half-assed version of “The Manchurian Candidate”, doesn’t it? All this led to Obama finally embracing the ideas of Edward Said, Roberto Unger (his law professor at Harvard), Bill Ayers, and Jeremiah Wright.

Like most rightwing intellectuals, I doubt that Dinesh D’Souza reads much out of his comfort zone of the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and Wall Street Journal editorial pages.

But if you read the article titled “Party of None: Barack Obama’s annoying journey to the center of belonging” by Chris Bray in the thankfully reincarnated “The Baffler”, you will discover that Barack Obama’s mother was “an employee of a thinly veiled Cold War agency, reporting to the American director of an organization with an office at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.” This hardly sounds like sticking it to the man.

As far as Frank Marshall Davis is concerned, I found his advice to Obama, as recounted in “Dreams From My Father”, a rather perceptive take on where his supposed tutee was headed:

What had Frank called college? An advanced degree in compromise. I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet, a few days before I left Hawaii. We had made small talk for a while; he complained about his feet, the corns and bone spurs that he insisted were a direct result of trying to force African feet into European shoes. Finally he asked me what I expected to get out of college. I told him that I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head.

“Well,” he said, “that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of those young cats out here. All you know is that college is the next thing you are supposed to do. And the people who are young enough to know better, who fought all those years for your right to go to college—they’re just so happy to see you in there that they won’t tell you the truth. The real price of admission.”

“And what’s that?”

“Leaving your race at the door,” he said. “Leaving your people behind.” He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you that you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.”

And finally there’s this. If Roberto Unger is supposedly a guide to the ideology of the man who is a shoo-in for another term as most powerful capitalist head of state in the world, just check what he said on Youtube in May of this year:

President Obama must be defeated in the coming election.

He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States. He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices. He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunities to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight.

He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice. He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money. He has reduced justice to charity.

His policy is financial confidence and food stamps. He has evoked a politics of hand holding. But no one changes the world without a struggle.

Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a contest for the re-orientation of the Democratic Party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country. There will be a cost for his defeat in judicial and administrative appointments.

The risk of military adventurism, however, under the rule of his opponents, will be no greater than it would be under him.

Only a political reversal can allow the voice of democratic prophesy to speak once again in American life. Its speech is always dangerous. Its silence is always fatal.

That is the voice of a genuine radical, not the one that the Tea Party and its house intellectuals choose as its target. Obama will surely withstand their attacks and in the next four years we can expect more of the same, an unrelenting austerity drive like the one taking place in Europe. There is a need for a documentary about Obama but it will be up to genuine socialists to make it. With Michael Moore’s shilling for Obama as some kind of man on white horse and the D’Souza’s of the world trying to knock him out of his saddle, there’s an opening for a radical filmmaker to tell it like it is. Hey, you out there, what are you waiting for?

September 27, 2012

September 22nd Syria rally in New York

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

As should be obvious from two of the speakers at last Saturday’s rally, there was zero sympathy for the violence that took place in the aftermath of the viral Youtube video “Innocence of Muslims”, nor was there for the killing of the American Ambassador in Benghazi that turned out to be unconnected.

Doomsday warnings about a Salafist takeover of the struggle against Bashar al-Assad must have escaped the attention of the Syrian-Americans for Democracy, the organizers of the rally who conveyed the spirit of the Arab Spring and not some threat about a Taliban-like tyranny imposed on a freedom-loving people. I suspect that there will be a Jihadist influence in Syria just as there was in Libya. And as was the case in Libya, the people know how to act in their own interest, as the uprising against extremist militias in Benghazi should have demonstrated, and as well the recent election in which Islamist parties fared poorly.

Unlike Libya, the Syrian revolutionaries fight without the protection of a no-fly zone. Despite all the nonsense from dogmatic leftists who serve as unpaid propagandists for Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi before him, the weaponry used in the struggle is mostly retrieved from defeated Syrian soldiers, purchased on the black market, or cobbled together in machine shops whose owners support the struggle. C.J. Chivers of the N.Y. Times has written two excellent articles about the DIY character of FSA armaments that are a must read:

http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/syrias-dark-horses-with-lathes-makeshift-arms-production-in-aleppo-governorate-part-i/

http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/syrias-dark-horses-with-lathes-makeshift-arms-production-in-aleppo-governorate-part-ii/

Of particular interest is his take in part two on what this cottage industry reflects about Syrian society and al-Assad’s tenuous grip on the country:

Now look beyond these battlefield curiosities for what they are really trying to tell you. This trade is important for many reasons. Having fielded arms that borrow from the work of Palestinians, Iraqis, Libyans or Lebanese fighters for Hezbollah, it suggests the busy cross-pollination of Middle Eastern insurgencies and uprisings. But this martial craftsmanship also speaks to something larger than regional tides. An important element is local and national. When tradesmen and businessmen organize to the degree that Syrian antigovernment fighters have organized, they indicate the depth of popular anger and the extent of a population’s commitment to the fighters’ cause.

And that leads back to one of this blog’s regular points. It’s quite easy, when gazing upon such weapons, to miss the point of their existence. As interesting as these are, makeshift rockets and mortars do not win wars. Nor do zip guns, or even zip guns in modular form. These weapons are likely transitional. They mark a phase. If the day comes when Syrians storm the country’s presidential suite, most of the fighters won’t be carrying homemade firearms, just as they won’t be carrying pitchforks and rakes. They will be carrying assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. What the makeshift weapons really speak to is the degree of organized commitment of many people seeking to topple the current government in Damascus.

Why? Because the manufacture of the weapons shown in this post is a dangerous and difficult craft. In ordinary times, ordinary men would not come together for this kind of project. It defies good sense to brew explosives from industrial or agricultural precursors, much less to assemble remote detonation systems on your work bench or in your home, or to pack pipe bombs and fuzes [the British spelling apparently] that you and your neighbors will fire through a steel cylinder at positions occupied by a conventional army. Even testing these weapons carries risks, as evident not just in Mr. Turki’s account of the errant rocket’s boomerang course but in Badr’s 20-meter long lanyard.

What’s more, the physical risks are only part of the obstacle to this kind of underground industry taking shape. The social barriers are significant, too. To reach this point, many tradesmen have to set aside time and energy and form their own intellectual and material collective. And so the technical merits of these weapons, and their origins, point to the human side. Like the cartoon below, the very existence and aspiring complexity of these weapons all but announce that many people stand behind the fighters. This is an insurgency that has matured.

Recently there has been a lot of buzz about a “regional solution” that would bring together powers that traditionally have been at odds, including Egypt’s ruling party the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Long-time leftwing journalist Walden Bello has found reasons to cheer about this in a Foreign Policy and Focus piece titled “Staunching Syria’s Wounds” co-written with Richard Javad Heydarian, an Iranian living in the Philippines who has written for Asia Times, Tehran Times, and Russia Today (RT), three outlets it must be said that tilt in a Baathist direction.

Their article starts out on a curious note:

Unlike the “lightning” revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, where strongmen were overthrown in a matter of weeks, the Syrian uprising has instead entailed a slow-motion disintegration of the rich tapestry that has characterized Syrian society for centuries.

It would be more correct to say that one strongman was overthrown in Egypt to be replaced by a new bunch that holds power over the parliament and that continues to use repression against its opponents.

As is so frequently heard from both liberals and leftist friends of al-Assad, Syria is facing a Islamist nightmare:

Notwithstanding the almost universal demand for democracy among the Syrian population, what we are witnessing is the frightening possibility of a Sunni-dominated opposition—spearheaded by a less-than-moderate Muslim Brotherhood and buttressed by the inflow of armed extremists—waging an all-out war on not only the minority Alawite sect that has stood by President Assad and his regime, but also other minority groups, such as the Christians and Shiites, perceived to be invested in the Baath party.

Odd that they have completely missed the same “frightening” developments in Tunisia, a country they lauded in the first paragraph:

Tunisia govt responsible for police impunity: lawyer

By Antoine Lambroschini (Agence France-Presse) – 4 hours ago

TUNIS — Tunisia’s Islamist-led government is “morally and politically” responsible for police attacks against women, the lawyer for a young women allegedly raped by two policeman and charged with indecency said on Thursday.

“It has a political and moral responsibility,” Bouchra Belhaj Hamida told AFP.

Police violence “is not organised, but the language of the (Ennahda) party on women has paved the way for it,” she added.

“Since October (when the Islamists were elected to power), there have been many cases of moral, sexual and financial harassment by the police. When they see a modern woman, a Tunisian woman, they reckon they have the right to hold them to account” for their behaviour, Hamida said.

“Women victims (of harassment) are then condemned.”

Who knows? Maybe if Tunisia had gotten on Iran’s wrong side, our intrepid journalist/experts might have noticed that the nasty Islamists were in charge. They seem particularly excited by new developments with the Non-Aligned Nations in the driver’s seat:

Among the most prominent in the third camp is Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who has emphasized the need for a regional Syrian Contact Group composed of all relevant regional powers—including Iran, the external actor that wields the largest leverage over Assad—to build an effective framework for a political resolution of the crisis. The framework would be backed by a UN mediation led by the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. Morsi’s proposal has been endorsed by both Russia and Iran.

During the recent Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit—which brought about 120 countries, 17 observer nations, and around 30 heads of state to Tehran—the Iranians also proposed the formation of a special NAM committee under the leadership of the organization’s past, current, and future chairs: Iran, Egypt, and Venezuela. This could serve as an institutional bedrock for a coordinated regional and international approach as proposed by Morsi. The key element here is the emphasis on political dialogue, compromise, and pressure on both sides of the conflict to end the ongoing cycle of violence. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Washington, Riyadh, or Ankara will ever agree to such arrangement.

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance at work here. Bello and Heydarian feel that “The key element here is the emphasis on political dialogue, compromise, and pressure on both sides of the conflict to end the ongoing cycle of violence” but the committee assigned to sort things out consists of Iran, Egypt, and Venezuela. Maybe there’s something I’m missing here but two out of three of these states have been the bedrock of support for Bashar al-Assad.

But what about Egypt, my shrewder readers might point out. Doesn’t the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni-based party that supposedly is the polar opposite of the Shiite clergy that rules Iran, rule Egypt? Isn’t this a sign that traditional rivalries can be superseded in the interests of peace?

To start with, it is important to understand that peace in itself is not the be-all and end-all. As frequently heard on mass demonstrations in support of one cause or another: “No Justice, No Peace”. During the late 60s and early 70s there were many Democratic Party politicians and even some Republicans (including Richard Nixon) who wanted to see a negotiated settlement in Vietnam that would lead to a lasting peace. Is there any big difference between their goals and the goals of Morsi?

Despite their apparent irreconcilable differences, there is one thing that Morsi and Ahmadinejad have in common. They both would prefer to see a solution in Syria that more closely resembles what took place in Egypt, not in the sense of Sunni rule but rather a housecleaning that can restore business as usual. One can easily imagine them coming to an agreement around a Manaf Tlas presidency. Tlas was a Sunni general and member of a family that enjoyed great wealth and power in Syria, and formed part of the inner circles of the Baathist machine. His defection signaled that some members of the ruling class had decided that the long-term viability of the al-Assad regime was guarded at best. Guess what, they are right.

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert whose fear and hatred of the FSA is almost palpable, had this to say about Tlas in a recent blog post:

Syria’s opposition needs a national leader desperately. It is important to note that by its very nature, the Syrian regime is constructed to prevent any such leaders from emerging. Indeed, to date, the opposition is struggling to unite behind a single person/entity. Each faction sees this as its only chance. Manaf’s military background is important in this chaotic environment. His secular credentials could attract a large following including the country’s minorities.  Alawites were heavily represented in the Republican Guard division that he led. Many reportedly respected and trusted him. This relationship is crucial, if the opposition is to convince Alawites to stop fighting.

“Manaf’s military background is important in this chaotic environment.” That rather says it all.

September 26, 2012

Liza Featherstone on “Won’t Back Down”

Filed under: Education,Film — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm

http://dissentmagazine.org/online.php?id=631

“Empowerment” Against Democracy: Tinseltown and the Teachers’ Unions
Liza Featherstone – September 26, 2012

“You know those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies?” says Jamie Fitzpatrick, a working-class mom (played Maggie Gyllenhall), in a confrontation with a corrupt union rep in Daniel Barnz’s edu-drama, Won’t Back Down. “They’re nothing compared to me.”

It’s a “you-go-girl” moment. But real moms can’t lift trucks. And just about everything in this movie is as wildly fantastical as that image.

Fed up with her daughter’s horrible public school, Jamie learns about a law that allows parents and teachers to “take over” a failing school. Against the odds, she organizes the powerless and wins over the naysayers. The movie is inspired by real-life “parent trigger” laws, which are pushed by right-wing groups like ALEC, but backed with equal enthusiasm by progressive urban mayors nationwide. The laws allow a charter takeover if 50 percent of the parents agree to it. Charter schools are mostly non-union, and democratically elected officials have little control over them.

Won’t Back Down is liberal Hollywood’s second blast of gas on what was once a bugbear of the Right: the badness of public schools and teachers’ unions, and the magic bullet of hope offered by privatization. The first was Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman. Barnz’s movie, featuring great actresses Viola Davis and Gyllenhall, is far more watchable than Guggenheim’s, but the fantasy world it inhabits is exactly the same. Its release, just on the heels of the Chicago teachers’ strike, feels eerily timely, as its anti-union talking points are just the same as those of Rahm Emanuel and the monied interests of Chicago.

read in full

Dear Mandela

Filed under: Film,housing,South Africa — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of “Dear Mandela”, a documentary now showing at the IndieScreen Theater in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn through tomorrow evening. After a decade or more of Hollywood movies like “Invictus” or “In My Country” that can best be described as public relations for the ANC, a fierce documentary directed by Dara Kell, a South African now living in the U.S., and Christopher Nizza, finally catches up with reality–a system of economic apartheid has replaced one based on race.

Just as the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 helped galvanize a movement against racial apartheid, the slaughter of 36 miners in Marikana creates the political context for a new freedom struggle based on class. To understand how South Africa has entered a new terrain of struggle, there is no better introduction than “Dear Mandela”, a film that focuses on the struggle against slum clearance in the name of “development” that took place in the outskirts of Durban. We meet three young activists of Abahlali baseMjondolo (Residents of the Shacks) who are committed to the rights of the poor to live in informal settlements. Despite the promise of President Nelson Mandela that every South African would have the right to a decent home, the new ANC pushed through legislation that would give the government the right to demolish the shacks that the poor were forced to live in. Each day “Red Ants”–work crews in red coveralls–come to the slums and raze their shacks to the ground and each day community members rebuild them. They had learned that ANC promises to build new homes were empty.

The only solution was to challenge the constitutionality of the law that allowed the state to rob the poor of their only shelter. Minister of Housing Lindiwe Susulu is heard defending the law and expressing surprise at the movement of slum dwellers against it. As the daughter of Walter and Albertina Susulu, she is about as apt a symbol of the ANC’s degeneration as can be imagined. When I visited the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia in 1987, I met Albertina Susulu whose husband was serving his 24th year in prison at the time. Like most activists opposed to apartheid, I never would have dreamed that 20 years later their daughter would defend a law that could have been written by the De Klerk government.

The three main protagonists of “Dear Mandela” are Mazwi, a high school student, Zama, a mother and university student, and Mnikelo, a shopkeeper and activist who I had the good fortune to interview this morning while he was in New York for a nationwide tour coinciding with the film’s debut.

In the film, Mnikelo goes to recently evicted slum dwellers with a copy of the South African Constitution to tell them about their rights. When he and other members of the movement boycott national elections under the slogan “No Land, No House, No Vote”, he becomes a target of the ANC.

The relationship between the ANC and such activists provides the central dramatic tension throughout the film. In one of the more memorable scenes, Mazwi speaks to a rally of slum dwellers and leads them in chants directed against rightwing parties that they eagerly take up. But when he yells out “Down with the ANC”, he is met with stony silence. Later he explains that the old folks still have a fondness for Nelson Mandela that is expressed in his portraits seen on the walls of many shacks. Some, however, have grown tired of this nostalgia as demonstrated by their willingness to deface graffiti from decades past. They have crossed out the word “Free” in “Free Nelson Mandela” and replaced it with “Hang”.

You can understand the rising anger. In one of the more terrifying moments of the film, activists scatter for their lives as a group of armed men invade the community with the intention of killing people like Mazwi, Zama, and Mnikelo. Instead of apprehending the invaders, the cops end up arresting a group of men assigned to provide security for the shack dwellers—a deed that anticipates the Marikana disaster.

When I raised the question of Marikana with Mnikelo, he thought that it marked a turning point for the ANC. When cops can kill miners in this fashion, it shows disrespect for the nation’s laws. A responsible police force might have resorted to rubber bullets to disperse a violent mob, but shooting people in cold blood was an unlawful act. As always, Mnikelo demonstrated his mastery of constitutional law.

For those who have grown disillusioned with the ANC, the film is an inspiring reminder that “the struggle continues” in South Africa. At one point, S’Bu Zikode, the leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo is described as the new Nelson Mandela. It is hard to argue with this claim after seeing “Dear Mandela”. I would add that the three young activists remind me of the young ANC’ers I met in Lusaka back in 1987 before they were born. Their idealism, their intelligence and their willingness to put their bodies on the line are qualities that once defined the ANC. Fortunately for South Africa, a new generation has once again risen to the occasion.

If “Dear Mandela” was nothing but a clumsy Youtube video with zero production values, there would still be a compelling need to watch it as a document about South African reality today, so much so that it would probably go viral in a couple of days. The good news is that “Dear Mandela” is a top-notch production that will certainly earn my nomination for best documentary of 2012. With a superb score by Ted Reichman, who has worked with Marc Ribot and other leading edge musicians, the film’s dramatic moments receive just the right accompaniment. The cinematography stands out as well, a function no doubt of acclaimed Director of Photography Matthew Peterson’s involvement. To his great credit, Peterson worked for free. Funding came from the Sundance Institute, an outfit that I have faulted in the past for its tendency to foist the worst art-house clichés of young narrative filmmakers. But with this brilliant, powerful and timely documentary, I can say all is forgiven.

Although “Dear Mandela” runs only through tomorrow in Brooklyn, a national and global roll-out might bring it within nearby viewing distance. Check the schedule on the film’s website and make sure to put it on your calendar if it is coming to your neck of the woods.

September 25, 2012

Separated at birth?

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 11:08 pm

Maggie Gyllenhaal in trashy charter school propaganda movie “Won’t Back Down”

Jack Nicholson as “The Joker”

Jeffrey Marlin on Kindle

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 1:43 am

Jeffrey Marlin

Jeffrey Marlin, whom I recently interviewed here, has just released a 1300- page opus on Amazon Kindle. It’s entitled Tales of the Great Moral Symmetry, by J. Marlin, and includes five complete verse-novels: The Three Wicked Pigs; Jack and the Time Stalk; Boots: By Puss Possessed; The Outlaw Rumplestiltskin; and Snow White and the 7 Deadly Sins. You’ll find some more-or-less progressive social commentary around the edges, and whether or not it’s your idea of great literature, I can guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. Comrades with Kindles may want to have a look.

September 24, 2012

It takes a professor to get the Occupy Movement really, really wrong

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

As befits a movement that challenged both the “one percent” and conventional leftist understandings of how things get done, it is understandable why the Occupy movement has launched a cottage industry of commentary, much of it written by academics devoted to exploring its alleged shortcomings. One supposes that any movement that fails to achieve a substantial breakthrough in these most difficult times will be susceptible to second-guessing, including the recent strike of Chicago schoolteachers. On the occasion of the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the commentariat might be expected to have more to say than usual. Please permit me a few words of commentary on the commentary.

While it was originally written in January for an online journal called “Possible Futures” (a project of the Social Science Research Council), its inclusion on the Kasama Project on September 21 surely must have been intended to stimulate discussion among activists involved with the Occupy movement on its anniversary. The Kasama Project, to its credit, has been a solid supporter of the movement and thankfully above the sniping seen elsewhere.

The ubiquitous Jodi Dean, who can be described as a disciple of Slavoj Zizek, and Marco Deseriis, a postdoctoral fellow at the New School, are the authors and state their intentions rather forcefully:

In this essay, we claim that far from being a strength, the lack of demands reflects the weak ideological core of the movement. We also claim that demands should not be approached tactically but strategically, that is, they should be grounded in a long-term view of the political goals of the movement, a view that is currently lacking. Accordingly, in the second part of this text, we argue that this strategic view should be grounded in a politics of the commons.

Before making their case for raising demands, the authors describe three different justifications for not raising them:

ANTI-REPRESENTATIONAL: Supposedly some “anarchists and libertarians” fought against raising a demand for something like a Tobin Tax since that would increase “the size of the government and the scope of its intervention.” Unfortunately, there is no citation for this so it is a little bit hard to know exactly what they advocated. Speaking for myself (and who else matters?), I am for drastically increasing the size of government to the point of returning to the status quo ante of the USSR circa 1925, but find myself sympathizing with my anarchist and libertarian brethren and sistren (if in fact they did make this point) about the Tobin Tax, even if from a completely different angle. The Tobin Tax is the pet hobbyhorse of liberal think tanks and hardly the sort of thing that a radical movement should get involved with.

AUTONOMIST: Dean and Deseriis write: “The autonomist approach, then, emphasizes the creation of autonomous structures and new political organizations and practices. From this perspective, the problem with demands is not only that they provide life support to a dying system, but that they direct vital energies away from building new forms of collectivity ourselves.” Once again, without a citation it is a bit difficult to weigh the autonomist objection even though admittedly I would be usually willing to think the worst of them.

NON-COOPTATION: Once again, we are forced to rely on the authors’ characterization rather than a citation but be that as it may, it does sound rather familiar:

Will the demand for a national jobs plan mean that the movement has been co-opted by the unions? Will a push for a constitutional amendment to eliminate corporate personhood fold the movement into the Democratic Party? And isn’t the support of partisan organizations such as MoveOn a symptom that this co-optation is already under way?

Now I can’t think of anybody who better symbolizes the dangers of cooptation than Van Jones, but in an interview with Keith Olbermann last November, he hardly sounded like someone stressing the need for demands:

I—I think that one of the things that people were saying early on, you know, “Occupy—they don’t have any demands, what are they doing?” Well first of all, it was important that they—it’s not for lack of demands that the progressives haven’t made any headway. We’ve got more demands than we know what to do with. Nobody cared. They were able to get people to care, and to make the problem big enough that people have to look for solutions.

More to the point, Dean and Deseriis failed to engage with the key point made by Occupy supporters around the question of demands, namely that they were implicit throughout. When you protest against the “one percent”, it was not hard to figure out that the thrust was against unemployment, home foreclosure, corporate control of the two-party system, wars abroad both overt and covert, racism, and all the rest. All you had to do was look at the hand-painted signs to get an idea of what the movement was for.

But more to the point, it would be a fundamental mistake to expect a semi-spontaneous movement without elected officers devoted mostly to changing the discourse in the U.S. about who benefits from corporate domination to switch gears and begin operating as traditional movements that did pose demands. In my view, the best of all possibilities would have been a very broad demand for something like “Peace, jobs and freedom” that would have not gotten sidetracked in the fashion described by the authors. That such a demand did not get raised is almost incidental. Everybody understood what the movement sought, a reversal of the current course of American politics. If some demonstrated out of socialist convictions, or others out of anarchist or liberal convictions, that was not a problem. The best thing about Occupy was its ability to get peoples’ asses off their couches and into the streets.

The second half of Dean and Deseriis’s article deals with issues related to problems related to “the commons”, a term with much currency in autonomist literature, especially the journal Commoner, edited by Massimo De Angelis. It is really a bit beyond the scope of this article to deal with the authors’ attempt to explain the movement’s failure to define its relationship to the commons, but do have something to say about this:

Weary of the historical failure of actually existing socialism—and lacking large-scale models of alternative development—most Occupiers seem to content themselves with a neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors such as infrastructure, green technologies, education, and health care.

Now I could be wrong, but the last thing that would seem to describe the people who slept in the bitter cold at Zuccotti Park or other public spaces around the country was weariness over “the historical failure of actually existing socialism” or being contented with a “neo-Keynesian politics that begins and often ends with demands for fiscal reform and government investment in strategic sectors”. In fact, this would instead be a rather succinct and on-target description of the Crooked Timber blog, about which the less said the better.

The late and great poet Robinson Jeffers best known poem “Shine, Perishing Republic” contains these memorable lines:

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,

And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.

This pretty much summarizes the intellectual outlook of Morris Berman, a 68-year-old professor who contributes occasionally to Counterpunch. The Waning of the Modern Ages, the title of his latest article there, speaks for his affinity with Jeffers.

As was the case for Dean and Deseriis, but to a much larger degree, the Occupy movement serves as a kind of inkblot upon which Berman can project his fantasies. Most of Berman’s article is a salute to Naomi Klein’s article “Capitalism and the Climate” that appeared last November in the Nation Magazine and that defends a “zero growth” perspective in sync with Berman’s own belief that capitalism is doomed. As he puts it:

In a word, its number is up, and it is our fortune or misfortune, as I said before, to be living during a time of very large, and very difficult, transition. An old way of life dies, a new one eventually comes into being. Of this, the poet Mark Strand remarks: “No need to rush; the end of the world is only the end of the world as you know it.” For some odd reason, I find that thought rather comforting.

Obviously, Berman could have quoted Robinson Jeffers to equal effect.

Part of America being doomed can be explained by its refusal to listen to those with a different message than unimpeded industrial and technological growth based on private property. These are the sorts of prophets that we should have been listening to:

This alternative tradition can be traced from John Smith in 1616 to Jimmy Carter in 1979, and included folks such as Emerson, Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Vance Packard, and John Kenneth Galbraith, among many others.

I don’t want to be one to quibble but the inclusion of Jimmy Carter here would suggest that Morris Berman does not really have a handle on American politics. The conservative establishment pilloried Carter for advocating “limits” but the last thing the left should be engaged in is defending his record on such matters. In 1979 Carter made a speech that might have confused Dr. Berman:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Trust me. The “piling up material goods” business was not intended for the investment bankers, corporate lawyers, real estate magnates, and entertainment industry movers and shakers who fund the Democratic Party. It was for the benefit of the factory workers who were losing their jobs by the millions during a process encouraged by Carter that some called “globalization” but can be more accurately described as monopoly capitalism. In Bill Clinton’s memoir “My Life”, he described the help that former president Carter provided: “After Al Gore plainly bested Ross Perot in a heavily watched TV debate in NAFTA, it passed the House, 234-200. Three days later the Senate followed suit, 61-38. Al and I had called or seen two hundred members of Congress, and the cabinet had made nine hundred calls. President Carter also helped, calling members of Congress all day long for a week.

Morris Berman does not appear to be all that bothered by the prospects of declining economic fortunes for the masses. Mostly the “99 percent” receive the verbal lash from him. He quotes John Steinbeck about how the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” and later cites a Pew Charitable Trust poll that “revealed that most Americans have no problem at all with the existence of a small wealthy class; they just want to be able to join it.” Sounds to me that Berman’s view of the working class is based on the TV show from the 1970s “All in the Family” and the movie “Joe” that starred Peter Boyle as a hippy-hating factory worker.

But worst of all is Berman’s take on the Occupy movement, something advanced despite his admission that he “personally never visited Zuccotti Park.” Well, why let reality get in the way of this?

[B]ut most of what I saw on the Web, including very favorable reportage of the Occupy movement, seemed to suggest that the goal was a more equitable American Dream, not the abolition of the American Dream, as I indicated above. In other words, the basic demand was that the pie be cut up more fairly. I never had the impression that the protesters were saying that the pie, in toto, was rotten…

I was never very optimistic about the movement; at least, not as it existed in the United States. As many sociologists have pointed out, America has no real socialist tradition, and it is no surprise that the serious maldistribution of wealth that exists in the U.S. is no issue whatsoever in the forthcoming presidential election.  In fact, a recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trust revealed that most Americans have no problem at all with the existence of a small wealthy class; they just want to be able to join it—which takes us back to the quote from John Steinbeck. My own prediction, several months ago, was that OWS would turn into a kind of permanent teach-in, where the disaffected could go to learn about a “new civilizational paradigm,” if that would indeed be taught.

I know that Berman has not taken the trouble to visit Zuccotti Park, but the idea that the activists would bother with constructing a “permanent teach-in” where you can learn about a “new civilizational paradigm” sounds fairly ridiculous even though Berman’s own calling—as epitomized by his Counterpunch piece—boils down to such a business, even if it includes Jimmy Carter as an outside consultant.

In fact, the impact of the Occupy movement, as well as the Wisconsin protests that it dovetailed with, can be seen at work in the Chicago teacher’s strike. If you go to the Chicago Teacher’s Union official blog, you can find a reference to some training sponsored by the union:

October 8th –Non-violent Direct Action Training:

Saturday, October 8th 10a-6p @ Teamster City 300 S Ashland Ave (lunch and dinner provided) Non-violent Direct Action/Peace Keeper Training for Take Back Chicago Week of Action led by Lisa Fithian

If you go to Lisa Fithian’s website, you will learn about her qualifications to lead such training:

In 2011 Lisa worked with numerous allied organizations organizing “On May 12″ a week of escalating daily action culminating on May 12 with a 20,000 people in 9 un- permitted marches that converged to Teach Wall Street a lesson.  This mobilization helped energize a community based movement under the New Bottom Line to launch a fall campaign of actions on banks in 8 cities. This work both energized and benefited from the Occupy Movement that launched on September 17th and has lead to important collaborations.

Lisa also offered trainings to the and participated in the  2nd International Freedom Flotilla to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza on the US Boat to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope; the March to Blair Mountain, Midwest Rising, United We Dream Network, Chicago SOUL- Southsiders Organizing for Unity and Liberation and was arrested at the White House along with 1200 others to protest the Tar Sands pipeline.

When the labor movement recruits someone like Lisa, you know that we are in a new period. When I was a teacher for a brief period in 1968, Albert Shanker, who would have preferred to drive a stake through Lisa’s heart rather than to hire her to train teachers in nonviolent mass action led the local.

Finally, it is not worth fixating on what Occupy was doing in 2011. History moves on inexorably and the best of its activists appears to be riding on its back, firmly seated in the saddle. Read this to find out how it is faring today. It is fact, not fantasy.

September 22, 2012

Head Games; They Call it Myanmar

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,Myanmar,sports — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

For those who have seen “Hoop Dreams”, arguably the best documentary about sports ever made, it should be sufficient motivation to see “Head Games”, a documentary about the link between sports-related concussions and permanent brain damage including early Alzheimer’s, simply by pointing out that they are both the work of director Steve James.

Opening yesterday at the AMC Empire 25 in N.Y. and the Laemmle in Los Angeles, as well as through video on-demand, the film is focused on the crusading work of Chris Nowinski, who played football at Harvard. They say that 9/10ths of the success of any documentary is based on the presence of a compelling personality. That being the case, Nowinski’s presence throughout the film should qualify it for an Academy Award. After graduating Harvard, Nowinski landed a spot on a TV reality show where his macho brawn and Ivy League degree served to make him a villain. After the show ended, he parlayed that into a career as a professional wrestler—a bad guy who taunted the crowds about his superiority. Professional wrestling turns out to be a dangerous sport despite the fact that it is fake. Nowinski explains that a headfirst fall to the mat—or worse to the concrete floor below—that is off by an inch can lead to a serious injury. After experiencing one such fall, he suffered a headache and dizziness that lasted for months. A visit to neurologist Robert Cantu revealed that he had suffered a major concussion.

Eventually Cantu and Nowinski teamed up to form the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine that has been in the forefront of understanding the impact of sports-related concussions and agitating for reforms, particularly in the NFL. As anybody who follows professional football can attest, there have been major changes. For example, the N.Y. Jets’s star defensive back Darrelle Revis was required to sit out at least one game after receiving what was described as a mild concussion. In the past, the only way a player was kept off the field is if he suffered a blow that would have left him unconscious for a minute or so and transported off the field on a stretcher.

What “Head Games” reveals is that a revolution in sports rather than piecemeal meliorist reforms might be required. For one thing, there is a strong possibility that what can be described as “sub-concussions” can lead to brain damage just as easily. These are the dingers that leave a player woozy for a minute or so but not impaired enough to be sent to the bench. Some medical experts estimate that someone having played football from high school into the NFL might have suffered dozens of such blows throughout their playing time.

The other problem is that NFL type standards, including a physician assigned to look for the evidence of concussions at each and every game, do not apply to amateur sports. Most high schools can hardly afford to keep a team on the field nowadays let alone pay for the presence of a doctor. Furthermore, the risk of concussion does not just apply to male sports. Young women playing soccer risk injury simply by “heading” a ball.

I first wrote about Chris Nowinski back in January of 2010 after seeing him on Brian Gumbel’s HBO Real Sports program. It is worth repeating what I said then:

I also recommend that you take a look at Chris Nowinski’s website (http://www.chrisnowinski.com/). With his Harvard degree, he is not the typical jock. As a professional wrestler, he took time to speak out on young people getting involved with politics, particularly through registering to vote. You might also be aware that professional wrestling not only requires immense physical gifts; it also requires the ability to craft a persona for yourself. Initially Nowinski styled himself as a villainous snob from the Ivy League (not that hard to do!) and even used the ring name Chris Harvard. While it is difficult to figure out whether this was meant to shore up his villainous image in professional wrestling, Nowinski also assumed the role of “race traitor” akin to the hero of “Avatar”, as his wiki page indicates:

On the May 26, 2003 edition of Raw, Christopher Nowinski helped Rodney Mack defeat Bubba Ray Dudley in a “White Boy Challenge” and joined Theodore Long’s group “Thuggin’ And Buggin’ Enterprises”, a group of African Americans who worked a race angle in which they portrayed themselves as being victims of racism and being held down by the “White Man”.

A remarkable character, to say the least. Let’s hope that his six concussions do not eventually rob the world of his talents as spokesmen for the gladiator victims of the bread and circuses in today’s version of the Roman Empire.

“They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain” opened at Lincoln Center yesterday as well as theaters in Louisville and Santa Fe. Director Robert H. Lieberman’s film is not exactly what I would describe as leading edge politically or cinematically but it is worth seeing since it really does lift the curtain on a country that has been as isolated as North Korea in many ways.

Lieberman’s model seems to be the sort of show that you can see on the Travel Channel, especially Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. The format consists of a bemused visitor from the West visiting the boondocks and asking the natives “How come you like to eat raw rats?” Lieberman’s presence throughout the film revolves around two questions: “What is life like for you in Myanmar?” and “Why are you wearing that funny stuff on your face?” The funny stuff turns out to be thanaka, a powder made of ground bark that has a cooling effect on the face and arms.

That being said, Lieberman is a lot more intelligent and interesting than Anthony Bourdain. He came to Myanmar to train young Burmese how to make films rather than to taste raw rats. From the Cornell University website:

Robert H. Lieberman, a Cornell graduate and member of the physics faculty since 1980, directs the LSC Physics Help Center and its staff of 15 course assistants.

A recipient of the John M. and Emily B. Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching, he holds a joint appointment as a Senior Lecturer with the Physics Department and the Center for Learning & Teaching. Since 1990 he has been a Faculty Fellow at Cornell’s Risley Residential College for the Performing Arts.

In addition to his work in science, he is a novelist and film writer/director. His latest novel “The Last Boy” is a story that deals with the subject of Global Warming. His most recent films include the feature comedy “Green Lights” and the documentary “Last Stop Kew Gardens.”

Prior to joining the Physics Department, he was a professor of Engineering at Cornell. He has held two Fulbright Lectureships in film and creative writing. The most recent was in association with the Mowel Film Fund in the Philippines. Prior to that he was at the Academy of Performing Arts and Film in Bratislava. He presently serves as a Senior Specialist with the Fulbright Program.

Despite the concessions made to the Travel Channel prejudices of his ostensible audience, Lieberman does provide useful information on the country including its long history of despotic rule predating the Generals who ruled and ruined the country in the name of socialism. He points out that when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the Generals initially prevented outside aid for political reasons despite the fact that the storm would cost the lives of 138,000 of its citizens. Given the secrecy and isolation that typified its rule, Lieberman was taking genuine risks by interviewing its people, who for their own safety remained unidentified throughout the film.

Much of “They Call it Myanmar” consists of interviews with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s Nelson Mandela. Filmed before the country’s thaw, it does not foreshadow her liberation from house arrest and return to politics.

U Thein Sein, a reformer who has given approval to her party’s re-entry into the electoral arena, currently leads the country. The N.Y. Times has urged the Obama administration to ease sanctions against the country in light of the progress that has been made.

While I can recommend “They Call it Myanmar”, the best film about the country so far remains “Burma Soldier”, a film I reviewed back in May 2011 that appeared originally on HBO and can be still be watched there on-demand. For those appalled by the crimes of Green “socialism” in Libya or Baathist “socialism” in Syria, it is a reminder of how that word can be so obscenely appropriated by those with nothing but a lust for wealth and power as I pointed out in my review:

General Ne Win, who came to a power in a 1962 coup, proposed a “Burmese Way to Socialism” that blended Marxist verbiage with outright nonsense. For example, the film describes his 1988 fiscal measures, taken on the advice of an astrologer. Win devalued the currency according to a formula: any monies divisible by the number nine were now invalid. So devastating were consequences for the poor and the working class that the seeds for today’s pro-democracy movement were implanted. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the main reason the Burmese people want the right to elect their own leaders freely is because that is a way to address economic exploitation, even that which occurs in the name of socialism. As a tarnished symbol of a degraded system, General Ne Win had much in common with Libya’s Qaddafi. Win claimed that his socialist system would mix Marxism and Buddhism, while Qaddafi’s recipe included Islam instead of Buddhism. In either case, you ended up with a despotic system that sparked a wholesale revolt.

 

September 20, 2012

Tears of Gaza; In My Mother’s Arms

Filed under: Film,Iraq,middle east,Palestine — louisproyect @ 9:47 pm

Two powerful documentaries from the Middle East should be put on the must-see list for New Yorkers with a passion for justice. Sharing the theme of the impact of war on children and a partnership between Arab filmmakers and Europeans of conscience, they should definitively answer the question so much in the news today: why do they hate us?

“Tears of Gaza”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village, is an unstinting, Guernica-like look at the horror visited on the Palestinian people by the Israeli Wehrmacht (called the IDF) that is focused on three children who lost their parents and other family members in the winter of 2008-2009.

While watching the television news, veteran Norwegian director/writer/actress Vibeke Løkkeberg saw a story about a boy crying over his father who was killed during an Israeli bombing. Upset over the failure of the world media to cover the ongoing brutality that reminded her of the US invasion of Iraq, she wrote a script for the film based on three orphaned children.

Teaming up with her husband and producer Terje Kristiansen, the two were prevented by both Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza. As was the case with Libya before Qaddafi’s overthrow and Syria today, the international press was blocked from Gaza. Unlike Libya and Syria, which were and are ruled by “villains” (excepting of course when they were brokering deals with Western multinationals or torturing victims of the CIA on behalf of the “war on terror”), Israel’s blitzkrieg received the endorsement of American and European elites and was not likely to inspire newspapers or television networks to risk their reporters’ lives over a war against “Hamas terrorists trying to destroy Israel”.

As necessity is the mother of invention, Løkkeberg and Kristiansen ended up with footage shot by Palestinian photojournalists Yosuf Abu Shreah, Mwafaq al Khateeb, and Saed al Sabaa who were in Gaza at the time. Editing and postproduction was done in Norway.

The film starts on a wistful note showing Palestinians at the beach and celebrating a young couple’s marriage. And then all hell breaks loose. In unrelenting detail, you see Israeli jets and helicopters destroying civilian homes and leaving dead bodies strewn everywhere as ambulances speed here and there collecting the still-living. When you see the obvious defenselessness of the Gaza slums and the aerial terror being rained down on them, you feel a rising sense of anger at the Zionist entity. If you were for the Palestinians before you saw the movie, your solidarity will increase. If you were sitting on the fence (and those sorts of people should be dragooned into seeing it), you will find reason enough to oppose Israel. And for those who know how to connect the dotted lines, there is every reason to understand why al-Assad—up to now—has been getting away with Gaza-style slaughter of his own people and why you should demonstrate on Saturday against him.

The press notes for “Tears of Gaza” includes an epigraph from Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Opening at Maysles Cinema on October 8th, “In My Mother’s Arms” is focused on three war orphans just like “Tears of Gaza”. Filmed during the final days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq (excluding the remaining mercenary forces of course), it tells the story of Husham Al Thabe, a young, handsome, and chain-smoking Iraqi man who runs an orphanage for 32 children in a two-story house in the Al-Sadr neighborhood, Baghdad’s poorest slum and a frequent target of senseless bombings by Sunni terrorists. Although the film, like “The Tears of Gaza”, lacks any didactic narration of the sort found in more explicitly political films, Husham’s mission speaks for a break with the sectarian strife that has marked Iraq since the early 2000s, intentionally fostered by American imperialism. The orphans are Sunni, Shia, Turkman and Kurd, a cross-section of the country’s population and obviously representing Husham’s intention to heal the nation’s wounds.

The film begins with Husham stopping his car beneath a bridge and approaching two homeless boys. Do they have families, he asks? No, they were killed. How do you survive? The answer: begging.  He invites them to come with him and they do. He provides a warm and supportive environment for all the kids, even if he is one step ahead of the landlord who seeks to evict him. Unlike the state orphanages, which are notorious for their mistreatment of children, Husham’s relies totally on private donations, mostly from humble bazaar merchants who give hundreds rather than millions of dollars.

The most poignant of the children is 7-year old Saif, a Kurd who barely remembers his mother who was killed by a terrorist bomb along with his father. When other children taunt him by calling out his mother’s name—Mujada—he attacks them in a blind rage.

The name of the film derives from a play that Husham mounts with the help of a theater director based in the Al-Sadr slum. “In my mother’s arms” is a kind of oratorio devoted to the vision of mother and child reunion, even if only in the realm of the imagination. It stars Saif who sings a lament about life’s cruelties. Despite the sadness of the play, Saif achieves a kind of psychological breakthrough by finding a reason to live: the chance that others can appreciate his performance.

The film is co-directed by two Iraqis: Atia and Mohammad Al-Daraji. Atia founded Iraq Al-Rafidan, a full-service film and video production company with a mission to give a voice to the Iraqi people. The Al-Daraji’s partnered with Humam Film, a UK/Dutch company established in 2006 “to seek and explore individual creativity while producing films with a social conscience and impact.” This of course is the kind of partnership between NATO countries and the Arab world that should serve as an example.

The film begins with some shocking statistics about the number of orphans the war has left. You get some sense of the depth of the problem by reading an Alternet article dated December 18, 2007:

Iraq’s anti-corruption board revealed on Saturday that there were five million Iraqi orphans as reported by official government statistics, urging the government, parliament, and NGOs to be in constant contact with Iraq’s parentless children.

That’s about 1/6th of the country. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. has just over 2 million orphans even though it is nearly ten times the size of Iraq.

Meanwhile, the government of Iraq has demonstrated hostility toward private aid even when its own institutions are worse than useless. Alternet reported:

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a member of the parliament’s Civil Society Organizations Committee, slammed a recent government decision that closed down all private orphanages. “Instead of helping private institutions improve their performance and remove all obstacles hindering their work, the Iraqi government decided to close them down, adding to the complexity of the situation in the state-run institutions.

This is one instance in which an exception to the drive toward privatization hastened by the invasion and occupation of Iraq works would benefit the people. Or perhaps the more important lesson to be drawn is that the clash between state-ownership and privately-owned institutions is secondary to the more important criterion, namely whether a government serves the people or the people serve the government—the struggle that virtually defined the Arab Spring that is ongoing.

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