Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 5, 2014

Obiang’s enablers

Filed under: Africa,corruption,oil — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

President Barack Obama, President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, and their First Ladies

From Wikipedia:

Controversy

In July 2003, state-operated radio declared Obiang “the country’s god” and had “all power over men and things.” It added that the president was “in permanent contact with the Almighty” and “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.” He personally made similar comments in 1993. Macías had also proclaimed himself a god.[14]

Obiang has encouraged his cult of personality by ensuring that public speeches end in well-wishing for himself rather than for the republic. Many important buildings have a presidential lodge, many towns and cities have streets commemorating Obiang’s coup against Macías, and many people wear clothes with his face printed on them.[15][16]

Like his predecessor and other African dictators such as Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko, Obiang has assigned to himself several creative titles. Among them are “gentleman of the great island of Bioko, Annobón and Río Muni.”[17] He also refers to himself as El Jefe (the boss).[18]

In 2008, American journalist Peter Maass identified Obiang as Africa’s worst dictator, worse than Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.[19]

Since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, Obiang has been the world’s longest-ruling non-royal head of state.

In an October 2012 interview on CNN, Christiane Amanpour asked Obiang whether he would step down at the end of the current term (2009–2016) since he has been reelected at least four times in his over thirty years’ reign. In a Gaddafi-like reply, Obiang categorically refused to step down at the end of the term despite the limits set on presidential service in the 2011 constitution.[20]

Abuses

Abuses under Obiang have included “unlawful killings by security forces; government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture of prisoners and detainees by security forces; life threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention.”[21]

Wealth

Forbes magazine has said that Obiang, with a net worth of US$600 million, is one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state.[22] Official sources have complained that Forbes is wrongly counting state property as personal property.[23]

In 2003, Obiang told his citizenry that he felt compelled to take full control of the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from being tempted to engage in corrupt practices. To avoid this corruption, Obiang deposited more than half a billion dollars into accounts controlled by Obiang and his family at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., leading a U.S. federal court to fine the bank $16 million.[24] Later scrutiny by a United States Senate investigation in 2004 found that the Washington-based Riggs Bank took $300 million on behalf of Obiang from Exxon Mobil and Amerada Hess.[25]

In 2008, the country became a candidate of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – an international project meant to promote openness about government oil revenues – but never qualified and missed an April 2010 deadline.[25] Transparency International includes Equatorial Guinea as one of its twelve most-corrupt states.[25][26]

Beginning in 2007 Obiang, along with several other African state leaders, came under investigation for corruption and fraud in the use of funds. He was suspected of using public funds to finance his private mansions and luxuries, both for himself and his family. He and his son, in particular, owned several properties and supercars in France. In addition, several complaints were filed in US courts against Obiang’s son. Their attorney’s stressed that the funds appropriated by both Obiang’s were done so entirely legally under Equatoguinean laws, although they may not agree with international standards.[27]

From the Militant newspaper, a socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people:

N.Y. conference discusses
Equatorial Guinea today
(feature article)

BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
HEMPSTEAD, New York—A three-day international conference at Hofstra University on Long Island was a forum for discussion and debate on a wide range of topics about Equatorial Guinea—its history, economic development, languages, natural resources, literature and art, biodiversity, and ethnic composition and conflicts. The event, held here April 2-4, was titled “Between Three Continents: Rethinking Equatorial Guinea on the 40th Anniversary of Its Independence from Spain.”

Equatorial Guinea, a Central African country of about 1 million inhabitants, gained its independence from Spanish colonial rule in October 1968. For 11 years the people of Equatorial Guinea faced a brutal dictatorship under the first president, Francisco Macías, who in 1979 was overthrown by young Guinean military officers led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the current president. Since the mid-1990s the exploitation of the country’s newly discovered oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

In what was one of the least economically developed nations in Africa, the government is today using some of the revenues from the labor of those who work in the oil fields to begin to create the nationwide infrastructure necessary for industrial development—such as paved roads, electrification, cellular phone networks, safe water distribution, primary health care, and the national university. Equatorial Guinea remains marked by the contradictions between this rapid transformation of production and the legacy of millennia of economic activity based on hunting, fishing, and subsistence agriculture, distorted by subjugation to slave traders and colonial domination.

(clip)

December 20, 2013

Screening Slavery

Filed under: Africa,Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

We need more films like “Quilombo”–about slave revolts rather than slavery.

Counterpunch Weekend Edition December 20-22, 2013

Screening Slavery
by LOUIS PROYECT

In a podcast discussion between veteran film critic Armond White and two younger film journalists focused on their differences over “12 Years a Slave” (White, an African-American with a contrarian bent hated it), White argued in favor of benchmarks. How could the two other discussants rave about Steve McQueen’s film without knowing what preceded it? That was all the motivation I needed to see the two films White deemed superior to McQueen’s—“Beloved” and “Amistad”—as well as other films about slavery that I had not seen before, or in the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Queimada” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” films I had not seen in many years. This survey is not meant as a definitive guide to all films about the “peculiar institution” but only ones that are most familiar. Even if I characterize a film as poorly made, I still recommend a look at all of them since as a body of work they shed light on the complex interaction of art and politics, a topic presumably of some interest to CounterPunch readers.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/20/screening-slavery/

December 7, 2013

Thoughts triggered by the passing of Nelson Mandela

Filed under: Africa,philosophy — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation to meet with the African National Congress then still in exile over the feasibility of extending our Nicaragua technical aid project to the ANC and the frontline states.

We were invited to Thabo Mbeki’s house in Lusaka, Zambia where his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC. It turns out that she needed to put a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech. Once she did that, the speech was saved for posterity’s sake. I just discovered that the speech, which was delivered on May 13, 1988, can now be read online.

Tambo expressed his solidarity with revolutionary Nicaragua in the speech:

We must also pay tribute to the people of Central America who are daily sacrificing their lives for justice and peace. In this connection we support the peace efforts undertaken by the Sandinista Government and would also like to associate ourselves with those Non-Aligned countries who have expressed their support for the Nicaraguan Government`s candidature to host the next Non-Aligned Summit Meeting in Managua.

He also paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who was still in prison:

In July of this year, our organisation, the masses of our people and the rest of the international community will observe the 70th birthday of that great African patriot and revolutionary, Comrade Nelson Mandela. This will be an occasion further to intensify the campaign for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the release of all detainees and the granting of prisoner-of-war status to all captured freedom fighters.

Just two years after Tambo gave this speech, Daniel Ortega would lose the election to Violeta Chamorro, the American-backed politician who would be the culmination of Ronald Reagan’s campaign to make the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”. Ortega was only able to return to power by forsaking the historical Sandinista program for socialism.

On February 11th 1990 Nelson Mandela would walk out of a South African prison, and four years later he became president of South Africa, serving five years. Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, whose policies parallel that of the chastened FSLN in Nicaragua, succeeded him in office. In an article that appeared in the January 10, 2013 issue of Foreign Policy, there’s a frank description of “Orteganomics” that sounds a lot like what the ANC has been carrying out since taking office:

Although Ortega campaigned on the Christianity, socialism and solidarity platform of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Alianza Bolivariana (ALBA), his regime has few of the trappings common to other ALBA countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and several Caribbean islands. His actions to date suggest he is politically authoritarian, economically pro-business, socially populist — and, above all else, pragmatic. This mix translates as an eclectic set of policies that can best be characterized as Orteganomics.

The Marxist slogans of the revolutionary period are gone, as is direct government involvement in production. In fact, Ortega’s economic model retains many of the legal and regulatory underpinnings of his predecessors’ policies. In its October 2007 reconciliation with the IMF, the Sandinista government pledged to implement policies linked to targets on fiscal discipline, along with spending on poverty and energy regulation.

Sometimes I wonder how I keep at it. As I approach my 69th birthday in January, every single mass revolutionary movement I have organized to defend has turned out this way once taking power. If you had told me in 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, that a victorious NLF would join the Communists in the north in transforming Vietnam into a nation in which there are billionaires, I would have laughed in your face. But here it is from the March 25, 2013 issue of Forbes, the magazine that proudly describes itself as a “capitalist tool”:

On a brilliant morning last October Dong Khoi Street, the premier commercial thoroughfare in Saigon, was closed for nearly two hours to celebrate the opening of Vincom Center A, a precisely, if infelicitously, named shopping center. The development was remarkable, not just for its scale (410,000 square feet of commercial space; three floors of underground parking; a 300-room, five-star hotel) or for its high-end tenants (Versace, Hermès, Dior) but simply because it was opening at all. Vietnam’s real estate market had been frozen hard since crashing in 2011, with at least 13.5% of the country’s $10 billion in real estate loans having gone bad.

But Pham Nhat Vuong, the man most responsible for this $500 million commercial triumph in the heart of what is still officially called Ho Chi Minh City, wasn’t drinking any champagne, cutting any ribbons or giving any speeches. Rather, the 44-year-old quietly watched the ceremony from a front-row seat. “I prefer sipping happiness by myself,” Pham explains later, in a rare interview from his elegant new offices in Hanoi’s Vincom Village, another of his projects.

After returning from Zambia in early 1988, Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica, hired his old friend and comrade Hari Dillon to supervise the expansion of our organization into Africa. By 1990, when the ANC was legalized, we had dozens of volunteers working in the offices of the ANC and COSATU training people in the use of databases and spreadsheets just as we had done in Nicaragua. Michael and Hari had been in the Maoist Progressive Labor Party in the late 60s and had kept in touch. After leaving the party, Hari had become a key anti-apartheid activist in the Bay Area and his connections helped us raise funds for our work in Africa. Unfortunately, the ouster of Daniel Ortega dried up funds for Tecnica and eventually we folded—when I am not exactly sure.

Not long afterwards Hari took a job with the Vanguard Foundation, a Bay Area philanthropic group that funded leftist causes. I had lost touch with Hari for over 20 years but was shocked to discover about a year ago that he had been arrested for misuse of Vanguard funds. I kept in touch with him throughout the trial until his sentencing in January of 2013. He is going to serve three years and four months as the San Francisco Gate reported that month:

An East Bay man who stole $2.5 million from investors in the San Francisco nonprofit he headed while it was being driven into bankruptcy by con man Samuel “Mouli” Cohen was sentenced to three years and four months in federal prison Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer sentenced Hari Dillon to a prison term 10 months longer than federal prosecutors had recommended after a hearing that included testimony from some of Dillon’s victims, investors in the now-defunct Vanguard Public Foundation.

“He decimated the lives of those he called friends,” said Cindy Woods, who described herself as a former friend of Dillon’s and a swindled investor, along with her family. “He’s simply a sociopath, not a victim.”

The FBI issued a press release that described what Hari did with the money contributors trusted him with:

Dillon admitted that while soliciting and collecting these fees, he defrauded various victims by intentionally failing to tell them that he intended to and did use some of their contributions for his own personal expenses. For example, according to his plea agreement, Dillon used approximately $60,000 to pay his American Express bills. In addition, the government noted in connection with sentencing that Dillon used victim money toward luxury hotel expenses, fine dining, limousine travel, and other personal expenses. In all, Dillon admitted that of the tens of millions he solicited and collected for this investment, most of which he passed on to Cohen, Dillon skimmed not less than $2.5 million, defrauding his victims out of that amount.

I knew Hari when he lived modestly in a San Francisco apartment on a Tecnica salary. I am tempted to say that his evolution into someone staying at luxury hotels parallels the evolution of the FSLN in Nicaragua and the ANC in South Africa.

When I visited Thabo Mbeki back in 1987-88, I had suspicions that he was someone used to the good life. He lived in a two-story house in Lusaka and drove a Mercedes-Benz that was parked in the driveway. His father Govan was known as a member of the South African Communist Party and was arrested along with Nelson Mandela. As it turns out, Thabo Mbeki was also a CP’er, Mercedes-Benz and all.

And, surprise of surprises, so was Nelson Mandela. I refer you to the South African Communist Party’s website:

At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our Party’s Central Committee. To us as South African communists, Cde Mandela shall forever symbolise the monumental contribution of the SACP in our liberation struggle. The contribution of communists in the struggle to achieve the South African freedom has very few parallels in the history of our country. After his release from prison in 1990, Cde Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days.

There was a time, when I was much younger, when I would have made some “smug” remark about Stalinism but after seeing that Trotskyism was no prophylactic against corruption, I will avoid that temptation. In fact I had high hopes that the South African Communist Party would turn out different. At least I can take solace that one of the party’s top leaders has never lost faith. Here’s Ronnie Kasrils from the June 23, 2013 Guardian:

What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda, was considered a necessary evil, as were concessions to keep negotiations on track and take delivery of the promised land for our people. Doubt had come to reign supreme: we believed, wrongly, there was no other option; that we had to be cautious, since by 1991 our once powerful ally, the Soviet union, bankrupted by the arms race, had collapsed. Inexcusably, we had lost faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles. Whatever the threats to isolate a radicalising South Africa, the world could not have done without our vast reserves of minerals. To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out.

So what keeps me going? In a way I feel like Sisyphus, the King of Corinth in Greek mythology who the gods force to eternally roll a huge boulder up a hill that rolls back on him just as he reaches the top. I first learned of the myth of Sisyphus back in 1961 when I was a freshman at Bard College. Back then existentialism was all the rage. The acrid smell of Gauloise cigarettes hung heavy in the campus coffee shop as 18 year olds discussed the meaninglessness of life. You can read Camus’s book online. I haven’t looked at it since 1961 and tend to look askance at Camus nowadays, especially for his waffling on the war of independence in Algeria. I have to admit, however, that a favorable review of his correspondence from that period by George Scialabba, a writer I admire very much, might force me to take a second look.

Most of Camus’s book is an examination of existential beliefs focused on the question of whether suicide is justifiable in the face of an absurd world. Since I tend to shy away from such discussions, I went directly to the pages that deal with the Greek myth itself. Camus writes:

His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

“There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night”. I guess those words describe my absurd commitment to Marxism. Like the Greek gods who condemned Sisyphus to repeat a futile act throughout eternity, I will continue to push that rock up the hill for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I will ever see the sun but it is the shadows of a savage system that keeps me going.

November 13, 2013

Fela in performance

Filed under: Africa,dance,music — louisproyect @ 4:11 am

November 2, 2013

Behind the Blue Veil; Following the Ninth

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

Woe betides a people unfortunate enough to have been excluded from statehood as colonialism drew its final breath. The Palestinians and the Kurds come immediately to mind but so do the Tuaregs who like the Kurds were dispersed across a number of states, often with clashing interests but who could agree on the question of keeping the Kurds down.

“Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the Quad in NY, is an excellent introduction to the people who were able to make a home for themselves in the Sahara desert for thousands of years but who are now driven to undertake a costly civil war against a Malian government more deadly than the arid sands. The wisdom of the ages handed down over generations allows the Tuaregs to find an oasis but there are no easy answers to a dictatorship’s tanks and planes.

Directed by Robyn Symon with very few frills and clocking in at a brief but meaty 62 minutes, “Behind the Blue Veil” consists of interviews with Tuaregs in Mali as well as academic experts who identify the problems of a people cloaked in obscurity. The “blue” of the film’s title refers to the dye used in Tuareg garments that tends to color the skin of those wearing them. Unlike other peoples of Muslim North Africa, it is the man rather than the woman who wears the veil. Also, unlike other Muslim ethnicities, Tuareg society is matrilineal. These are just some of the things that you will learn from this most informative documentary that is never stodgy.

What enlivens it the most is the force of the Tuareg personalities, especially the “star” of the film, the music producer Mamatal Ag Dahmane who warns that unless something is done as quickly as possible, his people will disappear. The underlying cause of Tuareg desperation is the loss of their basic economic role as a kind of communal transportation company connecting Sub-Saharan Africa with the North. Their camels carried precious goods like salt and gold back and forth. Once highways and air transportation became prevalent, they became redundant. Mali and Niger have done little to help the Tuaregs out of a combination of chauvinism and a lack of funding.

Most people became aware of the Tuareg in the aftermath of the rebellion against Gaddafi. They were mercenaries used against the rebels driven more by economic desperation than any kind of fervor for “Green Socialism”. Some Gaddafi supporters stigmatized the rebels as racist because they sought reprisals against the Tuaregs as if it were a conflict mapping to skin color. However, when you look at all the personalities in the film, you will see only one that appears Black. Most in fact resemble the ethnic group they belong to—the Berbers who proved decisive in the dictator’s overthrow. The Tuareg language is a subset of Berber and they share the same mode of subsistence as nomadic herdsmen.

Once Gaddafi was overthrown, the Tuaregs returned to Mali and Niger with their weapons determined to create a new state in the north of Mali called Azawad. Almost as soon their insurgency started, jihadists began their own armed struggle with its own agenda using the same totalitarian tactics against “infidels” such as the kind being used now in Northern Syria. As a sign that the US has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests—as Kissinger put it—it has been training Tuareg rebels so that they can fend off the jihadists.

The film is not primarily a guide to all the factions on the ground in Northern Mali but an introduction to a people that is sorely needed. Since Mali appears to be a country that is subject to the same contradictory dynamics of ethnicity, religion, and class at work in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere, it is incumbent on the left to keep an eye on the region. Robyn Symon’s film is a good place to start.

Also opening yesterday at the Quad is “Following the Ninth: in the footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony”, a documentary by Kerry Candaele that explores the importance of this great work to people living in China, Chile, East Germany, and Japan. The first three nations appropriated their music for freedom struggles, while in Japan it functions more as a kind of semireligious ritual in December celebrating the people’s humanity and the divinity of music.

In interviews with people who put their bodies on the line in Tiananmen Square, defending Allende against the military coup, and opposing Stalinism and the artificial barriers of the Berlin Wall, Beethoven’s Ninth was as important as any leaflet. The “Ode to Joy” was often sung in the spirit of Billy Bragg who performs it at the beginning of the film with his own words.

If you’ve read my review of “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”, you will know that Zizek is unimpressed with all this, stating that the Nazis also loved Beethoven’s Ninth. While it is difficult to argue with this, it is also difficult to argue with the notion that Friedrich Schiller’s worldview was antithetical to that of National Socialism. Schiller’s play “Don Carlos” that was adapted for Verdi’s opera is a stirring denunciation of monarchy.

This is not to speak of Beethoven’s own politics that were in sympathy with the French Revolution even when Schiller recoiled from its excesses. None other than the composer who fled Bolshevism made the case for Beethoven’s revolutionary fiber:

Beethoven is the friend and contemporary of the French Revolution, and he remained faithful to it even when, during the Jacobin dictatorship, humanitarians with weak nerves of the Schiller type turned from it, preferring to destroy tyrants on the theatrical stage with the help of cardboard swords. Beethoven, that plebeian genius, who proudly turned his back on emperors, princes and magnates – that is the Beethoven we love for his unassailable optimism, his virile sadness, for the inspired pathos of his struggle, and for his iron will which enabled him to seize destiny by the throat.”

–Igor Stravinsky

http://www.marxist.com/beethoven-man-composer-revolutionary190506.htm

October 11, 2013

God Loves Uganda; Cooper & Hemingway: the True Gen

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

I’m as willing as any other socialist to declare myself okay with religion, especially when it comes to liberation theology. Also, I do understand that when Marx likened religion to opium, he did not expect his followers to declare war on it like the DEA war on drugs. He said in the 1843 “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”: “To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” Yet after watching “God Loves Uganda”, the documentary that opens today at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas in New York today (nationwide screening information is here), I was reminded why I became an atheist if not a god-hater. “God Loves Uganda” is a scathing exposé of the evangelical missionaries who make the priests who accompanied Cortés and Pizarro look benign by comparison.

The documentary is focused on a mega-church that operates out of Kansas City, the city of my birth, called International House of Prayer (IHOP). Like the pancake empire, this is an outfit that views Ugandans as their “market”. You see the missionaries being trained at church headquarters as if they were expected to open franchises rather than save souls. Like many of the evangelical hustlers, IHOP operates a vast electronics empire dispensing its sermons across television stations worldwide as well as the Internet. The head bible-thumper shown in the film is one Lou Engel, a bald, middle-aged father of seven who has the muscular neck and growling delivery of a professional wrestler. Engel organizes the missions to Uganda but it is up to younger acolytes to actually go over and do the dirty work. We meet Jesse and Rachelle Digges, a husband-and-wife who pepper nearly every sentence with “Jesus” or the “Lord’s work”. The smiling couple is thin as models and pretty as a picture but radiate an aura of pure toxicity worse than a puff adder’s.

In 1985 Uganda became targeted by a number of these vampire denominations, IHOP being one of the more egregious. Using their pocketbooks, they opened clinics and orphanages (an obvious need given the devastating wars that were visited on the nation) all over the country. Like such outfits from time immemorial, you had to put up with the sermon to get served. Before New York’s Bowery turned into a pricey and trendy neighborhood, missions catered to the alcoholics. You went there for a bowl of soup and put up with a sermon about going to heaven.

In Uganda, the bargain was a lot tougher. In addition to the sermons, you had put up with a sexual-political agenda that was murderous. Uganda was one of the countries in Africa hit hardest by AIDS. George W. Bush worked hand in glove with the evangelicals to make abstinence the tool of choice for preventing AIDS. Condoms were seen as the devil’s work. The net result has been a continued and costly epidemic.

Just as sickening has been a campaign of homophobia that has been endorsed by both the Church of Uganda and the government. The film shows David Kato, a father of the nation’s gay rights movement, speaking out against legislation that would make homosexual behavior punishable by death. For his efforts, he received a death sentence but one carried out by a vigilante who has never been identified.

Against the truly poisonous missionaries and their flunkies inside Uganda, a number of whom have grown wealthy from pay-offs by their American sponsors, there are a couple of men who deserve Nobel Prizes. One is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, an elderly man who studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He turned to religion after a poisonous snake killed his wife. Late in life he has to deal with a new set of vipers, who have made it impossible for him to carry out his clerical duties and who would probably not stop short of martyring him given the opportunity.

A younger Anglican priest named Kapya Kaoma is also featured in the film, although in Boston rather than Uganda. His courageous stand for the LGBT community in Uganda has made it impossible for him to remain in the country.

There is always the question of what makes a documentary entertaining. For those trying to figure out whether a Saturday night is better spent by watching a powerful film on the colonial conditions of a supposedly postcolonial Uganda or a baseball game on television, I can only tell you that it is very important for Americans to get up to speed on a terrible injustice being meted out to a long-suffering people. I don’t know about you but this description from the press notes is a pretty good description of what awaits you. Entertaining may not be the right word, but compelling surely is.

Perhaps the damage that enforced “traditional” sex roles does to innocent human beings made me ill-disposed to anything with even a fleeting resemblance. It took me a while to warm up to “Cooper & Hemingway: The True Gen” that also opens today at the Quad in New York (and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on December 3rd). The machismo of these two American icons hit me in the face like a clenched fist at first.

The documentary is a parallel biography of the two men who became best friends. Born in 1898 and 1901 respectively, Hemingway and Cooper were both products of an age in which Theodore Roosevelt was a prototypical male. With his insatiable appetite for big-game hunting and a willingness to risk all sorts of danger, Roosevelt was an obvious model for Hemingway who was into hunting and bullfights. Although too young to fight in WWI, Hemingway signed up as an ambulance driver. After being badly wounded, he told anybody who would listen that the words patriotism and sacrifice were no longer part of his vocabulary.

Cooper was also an outdoorsman but mostly as a function of working on his father’s ranch, where he became an expert horseman. When he ended up in Hollywood, he got a job as a stunt man in silent pictures. When he saw men like Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson “acting”, Cooper decided that he could do that himself. That is essentially how he became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

For reasons that are not fully explained, Hemingway became fixated on Cooper and worked on making a date with him. I should add that the film does not speak in such terms since it assumes that the “bromance” was purely based on admiration for each other’s work as a writer and an actor. While the film interviews a number of Hemingway scholars, none even begins to entertain the possibility that there was a homoerotic dimension. It is too bad that they did not broach this question with Nancy R. Comley, who was one of the co-author of “Hemingway’s Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text” along with Robert Scholes. In a 1994 discussion of the book in the NY Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote:

Here, in an exploration of transsexuality far more overt in the original manuscript than in the sanitized Scribner’s version — which, the authors say, “does its author a serious disservice” — Hemingway “has positioned his surrogate, David Bourne, in an intolerable double bind: the source of his creativity lies in what for him is the forbidden territory of the feminine.”

The film is a kind of joint project of the Hemingway and Cooper clans, with Patrick Hemingway—the sole surviving son—and Cooper’s daughter Maria serving as consultants and interviewees. Maria is married to Byron Janis, the acclaimed concert pianist, who wrote the film score.

The most interesting parts of the documentary dealt with two important Cooper films. The first was an adaptation of Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, in which the political conservative Gary Cooper played a member of the anti-fascist resistance in the Spanish Civil War. It turns out that Hemingway had Cooper in mind when he developed the character Robert Jordan, long before the film was made.

The other was “High Noon” that was very much contested territory of the Cold War and the witch-hunt. Cooper had been a friendly witness in a HUAC investigation of Communists in Hollywood in 1947 but had not named names. This angered Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s wife, a lot more than it did him. Gellhorn was a famous war correspondent and very much part of the cultural front of the New Deal.

According to the film Cooper’s opposed the attempts to get Carl Foreman fired as screenwriter on “High Noon” when he was identified as a former CP’er, threatening to quit unless Foreman remained part of the team. Since Cooper’s daughter was a consultant, I am not surprised that she decided to leave out some uncomfortable details as found on the TCM website:

During production on High Noon, the House Un-American Activities Committee was creating quite a stir in Hollywood. Thousands of actors, writers, directors, and others in the film industry lost their jobs due to real or imagined affiliations – past or present – with the Communist Party. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was subpoenaed before HUAC during the making of High Noon to answer questions about his own past affiliations with the Party. As was his right, Foreman pleaded the Fifth Amendment. But after he returned to the set of High Noon, Foreman knew his days in Hollywood were numbered. Hedda Hopper and John Wayne both launched public attacks on him in the trades, trying to force him out of the industry. Even Foreman’s most loyal supporters like Fred Zinnemann were threatened because of their association with him. Just like in the film, Gary Cooper seemed to be the last man standing in supporting Carl Foreman. But once threats ensued from MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and the powerful independent producer Walter Wanger, even Cooper had to relent, fearing an end to his acting career. When the actor called Foreman with the news, the writer sympathized. “I know. Nobody can hold up against this…not even you.”

Cooper’s character in “High Noon” never backed down but the actor turned out to be made of less sturdy material. But then again that’s what you’d expect from someone who makes a career out of pretending to be someone they are not.

August 5, 2013

Leftist support for BRICS: a faith-based initiative

Filed under: Africa,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

One of the odder items to show up on my radar screen recently was the eThekwini Declaration on BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation adopted at a conference in Durban, South Africa on March 27, 2013. I found a copy of the declaration at the University of Toronto BRICS Information Centre, along with an analysis. You can get a flavor for who’s behind the Information Centre from one of the co-authors of the analysis, a certain John Kirton who is the author of many books and articles urging a more compassionate capitalism. Building Democratic Partnerships: The G8-Civil Society Link is fairly typical, with a warning that the police killing of an anarchist protestor at a G8 meeting in Genoa was ill-advised. We can’t have that, can we?

Kirton called the Durban conference “a productive performance” that was “also a promising one for the future,” as well he should. When you stop and think about it, there are no differences between the G8 nations and the BRICS on the fundamental question of our day, namely whether the capitalist system should be abolished. For those on the left who carry the banner for the BRICS, this does not seem to matter very much. For them, the fundamental question is “imperialism”. The BRICS are “our” peeps because they challenge the USA here and there, Putin’s decision to allow Snowden to stay in Russia for a year being one example as well, of course, his military and diplomatic efforts on behalf of the blood-soaked Baathist regime in Syria.

One can easily understand the psychology of the BRICSite left. If Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro both aligned with the BRICS, who are we to quibble? What’s more, when Tom Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, Barack Obama, Samantha Powers, and Louis Proyect say nasty things about Putin, isn’t that reason enough to back Putin?

To be perfectly blunt about it, there is an element of TINA in all this. If you accept the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism, then why not align yourself with the BRICS? They at least are devoted to a modicum of nationalist development, symbolized one gathers by Putin’s repudiation of Yeltsin’s groveling before Western banks and corporations. Yeah, Putin is a nasty piece of work with his ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, his homophobia, his tightening the screws on the political opposition, and all that but at least he ain’t as bad as Yeltsin. I should add that it is the same argument I have heard from Obama supporters on the left as well. How can you note vote for Obama with someone as bad as Mitt Romney ending up in the White House? He might even unleash the NSA on us. Furthermore, they are ill-disposed to standing up for the democratic rights of Putin’s opponents because that would undermine all the great progress being made in Russia.

I know that all this sounds insane but we are dealing with a bankrupt left that through its pretzel logic is driving just about every young person into the arms of the anarchist movement. Fuck it, if they dropped the black bloc tactic, I might join it myself especially since I can’t live without my morning Starbucks blonde.

Turning now to the eThekwini Declaration, you can’t help feeling that it was written by the same people who write those advertising supplements for the Sunday NY Times on “The new and dynamic South Africa” with pictures of wineries, gamboling elands, and a Black family in a BMW. The article starts off with the cheery affirmation: “As the global economy is being reshaped, we are committed to exploring new models and approaches towards more equitable development and inclusive global growth by emphasising complementarities and building on our respective economic strengths.”

Maybe they should start with a look at Durban itself to see how “equitable” that city is. Despite being the scenic host of many prestigious “progressive” conferences, including the one on climate change that failed to put forward any serious measures, Durban’s poor live in utter squalor as reflected in an 2007 Pambazuka article titled Children of a Lesser God: Durban’s legacy of poverty by public health worker Saranel Benjamin. Durban, South Africa’s most poverty-stricken major city in 2004 (44 percent of its citizens were beneath the poverty line), is noteworthy for the desperate conditions of its youth, as is of course the case with Brazil, another showcase. Benjamin writes:

Every night I am haunted by the faces of the children I meet during the day. Their stories weigh heavy on my heart and when I close my eyes I see their hungry, pained, desperate faces. I want to hug them all, save them all. I am riddled with guilt with every spoonful of food I put into my mouth, for the roof I have over my head, and the warm bed I have every night. I panic when it starts to rain because I think of Thabo, Senzo and all the other children who are sleeping on pavements with no shelter over their heads, getting drenched to the bone – six children sharing one tattered blanket. I look at the time. It is about 5pm. I know that the children will be going out, like stealth-hunters, spreading through the shadows of the city, scavenging in bins for food.

Hardly the sort of people who would be attending the BRICS conference.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a reference to South Africa’s neoliberal institution par excellence but the statement that “Within the framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), we support African countries in their industrialisation process through stimulating foreign direct investment, knowledge exchange, capacity-building and diversification of imports from Africa” brings back debates on Marxmail when there was still some lingering illusions in the ANC, mostly from aging former members of the SWP—even older than me.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the NY Times reported: “Attacks Have Immigrants Worried Again in South Africa”.  The situation appears grim:

A fresh wave of violence aimed at foreign citizens living here and in several other poor black communities outside Cape Town has raised new fears among residents, community leaders and advocates for poor refugees.

Some 200 Somali shops and an unknown number of others run by Chinese immigrants, Zimbabweans and others have been looted and sometimes burned to the concrete foundations in recent months, said Braam Hanekom, director of a Cape Town-based activist group called People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty.

That very NEPAD that the BRICS brass recommends for uniting Africans is in fact very likely an instrument of disunity as Shawn Hattingh argued in an article titled “Xenophobia, Neo-liberalism, and NEPAD: The End of African Unity?”. Hattingh states:

The South African corporate elite are certainly benefiting from NEPAD.   South African-registered companies are now the largest source of foreign direct investment in other African countries.  They have become major players in almost every economic sector in Africa.  The people of Africa, however, have not benefited from this.  This is because South African corporations and government-owned parastatals have become directly involved in exploiting Africa’s people and resources and in some cases even destabilizing parts of Africa.  This is due to the fact that South African corporations crowd out local capital in other African countries; South African corporations are mainly involved in predatory mergers and acquisitions in Africa; many South African corporations have been involved in the destruction of the environment in Africa; and many South African companies have been involved in undermining human rights in the countries in which they operate.  Indeed, 13 South African-registered companies were operating in the Congo during the war, and AngoGold Ashanti was directly involved in financially assisting one of the warlords involved in the conflict.  In Zimbabwe, a South African-based company Barloworld provided the bulldozers that were used by the ZANU-PF to destroy thousands of homes and informal traders’ stores during Operation Murambatsvina.  Providing these bulldozers proved very lucrative for Barloworld as they sold them to the Zimbabwe government for approximately US $123 000 each.  Many South African linked companies undermine workers’ rights in other African countries.  For example, Shoprite in Zambia pays its workers as little as $48 a month.  In Zimbabwe in 2001, the South African-based AngloGold Ashanti also used Mugabe’s riot police to brutally break up a strike at its Freda Rebecca mine.  The workers had gone on strike because of the appalling working conditions.  Between 1996 and 2003 there were 120 accidents reported at the mine.

So whose word are you going to take? The bullshit artists who wrote the eThekwini Declaration or Shawn Hattingh? I vote for Hattingh.

Most of the economic proposals in the declaration are as ludicrous as the one calling for operating within the NEPAD framework and are not worth answering. I do, however, want to take up a few of the war and peace issues.

The declaration states: “We commend the efforts of the international community and acknowledge the central role of the African Union (AU) and its Peace and Security Council in conflict resolution in Africa. We call upon the UNSC to enhance cooperation with the African Union, and its Peace and Security Council, pursuant to UNSC resolutions in this regard. We express our deep concern with instability stretching from North Africa, in particular the Sahel, and the Gulf of Guinea. We also remain concerned about reports of deterioration in humanitarian conditions in some countries.”

Just to give you an idea of how wretched the African Union as a peace-keeping force, I am going to quote from an article in the Party of Socialism and Liberation, a member in good standing of the BRICSite International:

After duly plunging the country back into war, the United States and European Union have gone to great lengths to support increases in AMISOM forces [African Union Mission in Somalia] and provide money, weapons and training to TFG troops. A recent report by The Nation details substantial CIA operations in Somalia, where it runs a secret prison and trains a secret police.

And even more revealingly, the African Union and AFRICOM, the chief imperialist gendarme in Africa according to the BRICSites, have played nice with each other:

U.S.-European imperialists initiate joint military exercises
November 4, 2010
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Published Nov 3, 2010

A 10-day joint military exercise involving the European Union, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the African Union headquarters based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was recently uncovered in a series of press releases from the Pentagon and other sources. Labeled “Amani Africa,” the operation brought together the combined forces of the EU, the Pentagon and 120 African military components.

Ostensibly designed to enhance the military and security capacity of the 53-member African Union states, the fact that both the EU and the Pentagon were heavily involved in this process raises questions about the role of the leading imperialist states in usurping and misdirecting African political and military policy on the continent. The joint exercises culminated on Oct. 29 with a VIP ceremony in the U.S.-backed state of Ethiopia.

According to African Union Commission Chair Jean Ping of Gabon, “The command post exercise is the culmination of two years of engagement and partnership throughout the Amani Africa cycle of preparations and activities, designed to both contribute toward and validate the operational readiness of the African Standby Force. The ASF therefore lies at the very core of the efforts of the African Union to take ownership of and lead in matters related to peace, security and development in Africa.” (U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs, Oct. 27)

In a way, none of this matters since leftist support for the BRICS is what boils down to a faith-based initiative. The small scattered bands of aging leftists who can’t get over the fact that Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are poised to become imperialist powers themselves as the awful 21st century lurches forward need something to keep them going, like Rosary beads. I personally prefer the truth.

You can get the truth from this stunning article that appeared in Pambazuka recently:

Brics lessons from Mozambique

Bobby Peek

2013-07-24, Issue 640

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/88334

Just across the border in Mozambique there is neo-colonial exploitation underway. It is not Europe or the United States that are dominating, but rather countries which are often looked up to as challengers, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This is a dangerous statement to make but let us consider the facts.

South Africa is extracting 415 megawatts of electricity from Mozambique through the Portuguese developed Cahora Bassa Dam, which has altered permanently the flow of the Zambezi River, resulting in severe flooding on a more frequent basis over the last years. In the recent floods earlier this year it is reported that a women gave birth on a rooftop of a clinic, this follows a similar incident in 2000, when Rosita Pedro was born on a tree after severe flooding that year.

South Africa’s failing energy utility Eskom is implicated in the further damming of the Zambezi, for it is likely to make a commitment to buy power from the proposed Mpanda Nkua Dam just downstream of Cahora Bassa. Most of the cheap energy generated by that dam is fed into a former South African firm, BHP Billiton, at the world’s lowest price – but jobs are few and profits are repatriated to the new corporate headquarters in Melbourne, Australia.

After years of extracting onshore gas from near Vilanculos, the South African apartheid-created oil company Sasol is planning to exploit what are some of Africa’s largest offshore gas fields, situated off Mozambique, in order to serve South Africa’s own export led growth strategy.

Brazil is also in Mozambique. Sharing a common language as a result of colonial subjugation by the Portuguese, business in Mozambique is easier. The result is that the Brazilian company Vale, which is the world’s second largest metals and mining company and one of the largest producers of raw materials globally, has a foothold in the Tete Province of Mozambique between Zimbabwe and Malawi. They are so sensitive about their operations there that an activist challenging Vale from Mozambique was denied entrance to Brazil last year to participate in the Rio +20 gathering. He was flown back to Mozambique, and only after a global outcry was made led by Friends of the Earth International, was he allowed to return for the gathering.

Further to this, India also has an interest in Mozambique. The Indian based Jindal group which comprises both mining and smelting set their eyes on Mozambican coal in Moatize, as well as having advanced plans for a coal-fired power station in Mozambique, again to create supply for the demanding elite driven economy of South Africa.

Russia also plays an interesting role in Mozambique. While not much is known about the Russian state and corporate involvement, following the break when the Soviet Union collapsed, there is a link with Russia’s Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation which has non-ferrous metal operations in Mozambique. Interestingly the Russian government has just invested R1.3 billion in Mozambique to facilitate skills development to actively exploit hydrocarbons and other natural resources, according to Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

So this tells a tale of one country, in which tens of billions of rands of investment by BRICS countries and companies in extracting minerals results in the extraction of wealth. Mozambique will join the Resourced Cursed societies of our region, with polluted local environments, and a changed structure of peoples’ lives, making them dependent on foreign decisions rather than their own local and national political power. This is not a random set of exploitations, but rather a well-orchestrated strategy to shift the elite development agenda away from Europe, the US and Japan, to what we now term the BRICS.

This positioning means that the BRICS drive for economic superiority is pursued in the name of poverty alleviation. No matter how one terms the process – imperialist, sub-imperialist, post-colonial, or whatever – the reality is that these countries are challenging the power relations in the world, but sadly the model chosen to challenge this power is nothing different from the model that has resulted in mass poverty and elite wealth globally.

This is the model of extraction and intensely capital-intensive development based upon burning and exploiting carbon, and of elite accumulation through structural adjustment also termed the Washington Consensus. The agenda of setting up the Brics Bank is a case in point: it is opaque and not open to public scrutiny. Except for the reality as presented above, these countries are coming together with their corporate powers to decide who gets what were in the hinterland of Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Caucuses.

It is projected that by 2050, Brics countries will be in the top ten economies of the world, aside for South Africa. So the question has to be asked why is South Africa in the Brics? Simply put, the reality is that South Africa is seen as a gateway for corporations into Africa, be they energy or financial corporations. This is because of South Africa’s vast footprint on the continent.

Remember Thabo Mbeki’s peace missions? Well they were not all about peace; they were about getting South African companies established in areas of unrest so that when peace happens they are there first to exploit the resources in these countries. This could potentially be a negative role, if South Africa is only used as a gateway to facilitate resources extraction and exploitation of Africa by BRIC countries, as it is now by the West. The question has to be asked by South Africans why do we allow this? I do not have the answer.

Returning to poverty alleviation, the reality is that in the BRICS countries we have the highest gap between those that earn the most and the poor, and this gap is growing. Calling the bluff of poverty alleviation is critical. How to unpack this opaque agenda of the Brics governments is a challenge. For while their talk is about poverty alleviation the reality is something else.

We recognise that what the BRICS is doing is nothing more than what the North has been doing to the South, but as we resist these practices from the North, we must be bold enough to resist these practices from our fellow countries in the South.

Thus critically, the challenge going forward for society is to understand the BRICS and given how much is at stake, critical civil society must scrutinise the claims, the processes and the outcomes of the BRICS summit and its aftermath, and build a strong criticism of the Brics that demands equality and not new forms of exploitation.

* Bobby Peek is director of the NGO groundWork

March 22, 2013

You Don’t Need Feet to Dance; Benda Bilili

Filed under: Africa,disabled,Film,music — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

A new film opening day in New York and one that opened last year focus on African musicians who overcome disabilities—polio in particular—to make a life for themselves. They succeed both as inspiring testimonies to the ability of the disabled to surmount steep odds as well as the irresistible charm of African music and culture.

Opening today at the Quad Cinema, Alan Govenar’s documentary “You Don’t Need Feet to Dance” is a portrait of Sidiki Conde, a 52-year-old man from Guinea, West Africa who was stricken by polio in 1975. Initially almost completely paralyzed by the virus-borne ailment largely a thing of the past in richer countries, he regained the use of his entire body above his waist through strenuous exercise so much so that he gets around in most places by walking on his hands. When he was confronted by the need to dance in an initiation rite, he satisfied the requirements by by dancing on his hands rather than his feet.

First Run Features provides some background on Sidiki’s musical accomplishments:

Sidiki ran away to Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, where he and his friends organized an orchestra of artists with disabilities recruited from the city’s streets. They toured the country, striving to change the perception of the disabled. In 1987, he became a member of the renowned dance company Merveilles D’Afrique, founded by Mohamed Komoko Sano. Sidiki became a soloist and served as rehearsal master, composing and directing the company’s repertoire. He also worked as a musician and arranger with Youssou N’Dour, Salifa Keita, Baba Maal and other popular musicians.

In 1998 Sidiki relocated to New York City where he continues his efforts as a professional musician and a trainer to the disabled, especially children. In one of the more intriguing moments of the film, you see him rehearsing with a band called Afro-Jersey that includes Terre Roche on guitar. If that name rings a bell, it is because she was one of the Roche sisters, a fabulous band that developed a cult following in the 1980s. I confess to being a member of that cult and have no regrets—something I can’t say about my membership in the Trotskyist movement.

As a kind of parallel story to Sidiki’s, this is also about the glories of life in New York. As you see Sidiki wending his way through the streets of New York, relying occasionally on the kindness of strangers, you understand that beneath its gruff exterior, there is no better place on earth to live. It is also a deep pleasure to see Sidiki taking part in African customs, going to a mosque, in other words all the things that drive Fox TV nuts. When I think about Golden Dawn terrorizing African immigrants in Athens, it makes my blood boil. If anything like this ever developed in New York, expect to see me going out to confront the fascists even though I am something of a physical coward.

Staff Benda Bilili is a Congolese band made up of disabled musicians just like Sidki Conde. In 2010 Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye made a documentary titled “Benda Bilili” (the words mean “look beyond appearances” in Linglala) that is now available as a DVD from Netflix. Additionally, you can watch the movie on Vimeo although only with French subtitles: https://vimeo.com/48679055

In addition to making music, the band campaigns around the need to bring Congo’s senseless and brutal civil wars to an end. I confess to not having seen the film but plan to watch the DVD from Netflix the first chance I get. That being said, I have heard them play on Youtube and they are terrific. Here is what David DeWitt had to say about the film in his September 29,  2011 NY Times review:

The joy is palpable when Staff Benda Bilili plays the World Music Festival in Oslo. A heart-racing energy pumps the musicians and transports the audience. The band celebrates by sipping wine with the Argentine ambassador, smoking substances in hotel rooms and reflecting on an improbably successful European tour.

The back story of these moments is uplift and then some: the core band members are middle-aged and disabled by polio, performing from wheelchairs and on crutches. Other players are teenagers of the street. All have known nights sleeping on cardboard in the urban misery of Kinshasa, Congo.

The documentary “Benda Bilili!,” in French and Lingala, captures five years in the lives of this intergenerational street band, five years in which the buskers move from practicing at the decaying Kinshasa zoo to performing for enraptured crowds on the strength of their album, “Très Très Fort,” French for “Very Very Strong” — which they are.

January 19, 2013

So what the fuck was Humphrey Bogart doing in North Africa anyhow?

Filed under: Africa,Film,war — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Back in the late 50s the only way you could see a movie on television was to turn on the CBS network. With the Early Show, the Late Show, and the Late Late Show, you got to see just the kinds of films that are the staple of the Turner Classic Movie cable station today. Today I stumbled across a TCM screening of the 1943 “Sahara”, one my favorite movies from way back when. Written by CP’er John Howard Lawson and starring Humphrey Bogart as a tank commander in Libya during WWII, I always felt like standing up and cheering when the dirty Nazis surrendered to the outnumbered allies, a small band of men assembled from the “united nations” fending off Nazism. There was a Brit, a Frenchie, some Yanks, a North African, and an Italian prisoner who eventually gave up his life to help his captors. Like most CP’ers in Hollywood, Lawson really knew how to spin a tale that would get people rallying around the stars and stripes.

The only problem was figuring out what the hell Humphrey Bogart was doing in North Africa. After reading chapter seventeen of James Heartfield’s “Unpatriotic History of World War Two”, a book that I would nominate for Isaac Deutscher Prize of 2013 if I were on the jury, I will never be able to see “Sahara” in the same light.

Bogart plays Sergeant Joe Gunn (sounds like a Tarantino character?), whose tank crew has been attached to the British army to gain experience in desert fighting. The film opens with the British in general retreat after Rommel’s forces overran Tobruk, a seaside city on Libya’s eastern border to Egypt.

At a bombed out field hospital, Gunn picks up a motley crew of soldiers from other countries including a Sudanese with an Italian prisoner named Giuseppe played by J. Carrol Nash, an Irish actor who had perfected an Italian accent. We used to watch Nash in “Life with Luigi” back in the 1950s, a show that might be described as the Italian version of “The Goldbergs”. Nash’s role in “Sahara” is to personify the inept Italian army that had no heart in fighting. Made in 1943, the film reflected the state of Italian fascist politics. Mussolini was tossed aside that year and a new Italian government took up the fight against the Nazis, but eventually showed more grit in suppressing the local CP partisans who had dealt the deathblow to Mussolini.

Rex Ingram, an African-American who was the first to receive a Phi Beta Kappa Key from Northwestern University, plays the Sudanese soldier. As might be expected, his first acting role was in “Tarzan of the Apes”. Wikipedia comments drily: “He made his (uncredited) screen debut in that film and had many other small roles, usually as a generic black native, such as in the Tarzan films.”

Apparently Ingram’s notions of Black theater clashed with those of the Communist Party, as related in Mark Naison’s “Communists in Harlem During the Depression”:

Shortly after the performance, the company announced plans to stage additional full-length dramas based on a “program of social realism.” The movement toward a black theatre of protest posed difficulties for black artists. “Social realist” drama had numerous cliches and conventions: e.g. the conversion, the crisis and the obligatory concluding strike —that made it difficult to portray human relationships that were not explicitly political. Such difficulties increased in a black setting where writers and their left-wing critics often felt compelled to emphasize the theme of black-white unity and to counteract popular stereotypes of black behavior. When an artist portrayed blacks as criminals, religious enthusiasts, or hedonists, no matter how accurate that might be in a particular setting, s/he risked the displeasure of Communist critics. Such a fate befell Rex Ingram. At a theatrical benefit for the ILD [International Labor Defense], Ingram’s company put on a play called Drums Along the Bayou, which portrayed the radicalization of black workers in Louisiana and their rejection of voodoo for Communism. The final scene, in which the “previously superstitious” workers began “shouting Communist slogans” and the voodoo drums beat a new “supposedly Communist rhythm,” horrified Daily Worker writer Alice Evans:

The treatment, presenting Communism for the Negro as a sort of sublimated voodooism, full of hysteria and drum beats, is very dangerous, in that it confirms the vicious capitalist myth about the Negro as a jungle creature instead of a human being. Thinking of the fine self-control, remarkable discipline, and quiet reasoning power of Negro workers, proved in hundreds of struggles it becomes extremely regrettable that Rex Ingram should have given us so frenzied a picture of Negro conversion to Communism.

The CP’s arrogance toward Rex Ingram should give you an idea of what a mixed blessing their hegemony represented. While far more capable of reaching workers and Black people than their Trotskyist rivals, they took such advantage of their power that they eventually turned their friends into enemies. No better example can be found than Richard Wright.

Despite the ability of Lawson to craft a movie that was made to order for the CP’s wartime needs, it was not so long ago when he was going through the same kind of travails as Ingram. Wikipedia reports:

During the 1930s, leftists accused Lawson of having a lack of ideological and political commitment. New Playwrights Theatre associate Mike Gold attacked him in The New Masses on April 10, 1934, calling him a “A Bourgeois Hamlet of Our Time” who wrote adolescent works that lacked moral fiber or clear ideas. Lawson responded a week later in The New Masses in the article “‘Inner Conflict’ and Proletarian Art” he cited his middle-class childhood as the reason why he could fully understand the working people. He also recognized that his prosperity and Hollywood connections were suspect in the fight for workers’ rights. Due to the criticism, he joined the Communist Party and began a program of educating himself about the proletarian cause. He would soon travel throughout the poverty-stricken South to study bloody labor conflicts in Alabama and Georgia.

In “Sahara”, Bogart’s small group of democracy-loving fighters stand off a much larger Nazi force who have become weakened due to a lack of water. When Bogart offers to exchange guns for water from the oasis he commands, they refuse. Ultimately the elements get the better of them just as it did in the invasion of Soviet Russia and they surrender en masse to the good guys.

But what the fuck were the Brits doing in North Africa to begin with? Let me turn the microphone over to James Heartfield:

In Western Europe, neither Britain nor Germany were willing to cross the channel – bombing each other’s cities, and attacking ship the Axis and the Allies’ respective armies did not meet on their own soil, but in North Africa. Italy’s bid for African Empire ended in ruins. Germany’s overtures to Arab nationalists added to the Empire’s troubles. Once the British Army had regained control over the Middle East, they could face the threat of Rommel’s Desert Army. Europeans would vent their hatreds in other people’s countries.

Britain had assembled an army of 630,000 British and colonial troops under Auchinleck, outnumbering Rommel’s men by three to two. Auchinleck had 900 tanks to Rommel’s 560 but were still being out-foxed. Pressed to take on the German, Auchinleck in February of1942 threw the War Cabinet into despair when he said he needed four months to get ready. In the end he was told to strike before 15 July or be relieved of command, which he did. But still Rommel fought back, taking Tobruk after intense fighting on 20 June. The next day, wrote Ribbentrop’s press officer,

Rommel entered the city of Tobruk at the head of his combat group. He found a pile of ruins. Hardly a house remained intact … the harbour installations and the streets had been transformed into a maze of rubble.

Thirty three thousand prisoners were taken, among whom were fully one third of all of South Africa’s armed forces.

Once Italy entered the war in 1940, trade in the Mediterranean was called to a halt by attacks on shipping, which undermined Middle Eastern economies. A Middle East Supply Council under E.M.H. Lloyd struggled with shortages of tea, coffee, spices, sugar and grain. In June 1941 Lebanon’s rich cereal harvest was broken up by the Allied invasion of Syria, so that by the winter the Middle East was without grain and close to famine. There were riots in Damascus. Allied authorities ordered all grain be sold to a control board for distribution, closing – in some cases burning – local mills. The Allies taxed the Middle East heavily and put a freeze on wages and salaries, just as prices were rocketing.

In October and November of 1942 the British Eighth Army – now under the command of General Bernard Montgomery – and Rommel’s Afrika Korps fought their decisive battle at El Alamein. At the same time American and British forces landed to the west, catching the Axis forces in a pincer movement. The Axis surrendered on 14 May 1943, with 275,000 taken prisoner. For nearly three years the Axis and the Allies had been avoiding a direct confrontation over their own territory, by hitting at each other in North Africa, but the surrender brought that phase of the war to an end. In September 1945 Sir Edward Grigg, Minister Resident in the Middle East summed up the British position:

the Middle East is no less vital to Britain than Central and South America to the United States, or than the eastern and western glacis of the Russian land mass to the Soviet Union … It was not for nothing that we sent to Egypt in 1940, when this island was in imminent jeopardy of invasion, the only armoured division of which we stood possessed. It was no mere accident that the whole face of the war began to change after our victory, two years later, at Alamein.

January 18, 2013

Senegalese portraits in cinema

Filed under: Africa,Film,immigration,imperialism/globalization,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Last Saturday a Facebook friend asked me for my opinions on an article in the December 28, 2012 CP-Africa:

Most African countries could be middle income countries by 2025

By Shanta Devarajan and Wolfgang Fengler

Hardly a week goes by without an African investors’ conference or growth summit. Portuguese professionals are looking for opportunities in Angola. Silicon Valley companies are coming to Kenya to learn about its home-grown ICT revolution. This is not an irrational fad.

Since the turn of the century, Africa’s growth has been robust (averaging 5-6 per cent GDP growth a year), making important contributions to poverty reduction. The current boom is underpinned by sound macro policies and political stability. Unlike in some rich countries, public debt levels in most of Africa are sustainable.

Earlier in the month The Economist ran something in a similar vein titled “Africa’s hopeful economies”.

I plan to write a detailed critique of such claims at some point but only wish that the authors of such shameless propaganda could join some of Senegal’s desperate undocumented workers who risk their lives in small fishing boats over a 7-day voyage to the Canary Islands. On January 23rd the Film Forum in New York will be premiering Moussa Touré’s “The Pirogue”, a powerful narrative directed by someone who could identify with his characters based on this interview:

My father died when I was 14 and as the eldest in the family I had to go out to work. I went to see a friend of my father who was making a film. That was my first job. For my second, I heard a film was being shot with François Truffaut, although I didn’t know who he was, and I went along! I learned very quickly, and started off working in the lighting.

“The Pirogue” is set in a small seaside village that is slowly being drained of its population due to a stagnant economy. Despite the authors cited above, it is doubtful that it would attract a maquila let alone a delegation from Silicon Valley looking for a place to set up a tech support call center.

Unlike a Europe that is in a recession, Senegal’s economic woes are more deeply entrenched and chronic in nature. If you stroll down New York’s avenues, you will see men and women selling counterfeit wristwatches and pocketbooks. Most are from West Africa and Senegal in particular. By the standards of the hapless citizens of the fishing village, these are people who have become fabulously successful even though they are only a step ahead of the cops.

The film begins with preparations for the journey with a fisherman named Baye Laye sizing up the job as captain. There will be 30 passengers, including him. Some are from Senegal and others are from Guinea. For the land-locked Guineans, who do not speak a word of any of Senegal’s languages, there is a sense of dread about the voyage anybody would feel but compounded by the fact that none of them have ever seen the ocean before. One man, a desperate peasant like all the others, is gripped by panic attacks as soon as they venture out to sea. His fellow passengers are compelled to tie him up and put a gag over his mouth to keep order in the rickety boat. Although I have not seen “Life of Pi”, I suspect that “The Pirogue” is the ultimate anti-Pi, forsaking the woozy mysticism of the lavishly funded 3D movie in favor of a kind of neorealist plea for ending the brutal exploitation of Senegal that forced 30,000 of its citizens to take such desperate measures, leaving 6,000 victims of drowning, dehydration, and starvation in the process.

Despite the neorealist aesthetic, “The Pirogue” is beautifully filmed and strengthened by a film score drawing upon Senegalese popular music. At one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film, when the boat people begin to realize that they may never reach their destination, they take turns singing songs from their respective ethnic regions.

In the press notes for “The Pirogue”, Touré was asked what he thought when he saw the finished film. His reply:

I wondered how we can live in such a climate. That’s the question the parents back home ask themselves. They know there’s nothing they can do to help their children, that there is no future for them in the country, and there’s no point in trying to hold them back. I also watched my wife cry like I’ve never seen her cry before. I was almost ashamed to have moved her so deeply. In a way, it was a kind of sufferance making this film. I have put all my energy, all my truth and emotions in this film. It was something I had to do.

Put “The Pirogue” on your calendar. It is not only a glimpse into African filmmaking at its most political; it is also a work of art.

Among the wheelbarrow full of DVD’s I received from The Weinstein Company in November was one unheralded French film titled “The Intouchables”. (This decision to retain the French word for “untouchables” strikes me as perverse. Perhaps the Weinstein’s were afraid that it would be confused with the Elliot Ness movie.)

I have to confess that I postponed watching “The Intouchables” as long as I could, even putting in behind Dustin Hoffman’s “Quartet”, a film that I correctly anticipated would be a soporific exercise in the Merchant-Ivory vein. (I gave it my customary 10 minutes worth of attention.) “The Intouchables” was described as an “inspirational” tale about the bonding of a super-rich Frenchman quadriplegic and the impoverished African youth who is hired as his caregiver.

The great Omar Sy in “The Intouchables”

Having had a strong reaction against “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, Julian Schnabel’s film about a paralyzed stroke victim from the French upper class, I worried that “The Intouchables” would be more of the same—an unendurable descent into someone else’s misery.

Nothing prepared me for the sheer energy and ebullience of a “buddy” movie unlike any I have ever seen. From the minute that Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese youth from the banlieues, the outskirts of Paris populated largely by poor North African and other non-white immigrants that erupted in riots in 2005, meets Philippe (François Cluzet) in a job interview, the young man demonstrates neither the professional background nor the cloying sympathy for the “victim” that other applicants display. Driss admits to Philippe’s staff that he is there mainly to fulfill his obligation to the unemployment bureau. He has to show up for job interviews or else his benefits are cut off.

Philippe admires the young man’s honesty as well as his rebelliousness, obviously seeing some kind of kindred spirit despite their class differences. Philippe has enjoyed taking risks all his life, including a passion for paragliding that would eventually rob him of the use of his arms and legs. As Philippe’s driver, Driss takes him on a joy ride through Paris’s streets in a Maserati at speeds over 100 miles per hour. When the cops catch up to the two, Driss tells them that they were racing to get to the hospital since Philippe was suffering some kind of seizure. To fool the cops, Philippe manages to get white foam pouring out of his mouth. Afterwards the two men have a big laugh and go out for dinner and drinks.

As Driss, Omar Sy delivers a charismatic performance that helps put the film over the top. It is almost impossible for me to imagine any combination of actor and character that works as well. With a Senegalese father and Mauritanian mother, Sy understands exactly what kind of experience Driss has had in the banlieues since he came from one: Trappes. Despite having moved to Los Angeles to improve his English and further his career, Sy will continue to fulfill his obligations as a French citizen. He told The Independent: “I grew up with [state] family benefits. They gave my parents a big helping hand. Paying taxes is no problem for me. It is a bit like I was paying back a debt.” That’s a real Frenchman, not the loutish Gérard Depardieu.

Quentin Tarantino has claimed that “Django Unchained” has revealed the truth about slavery as if “Gone With the Wind” was Hollywood’s last film on the topic. While it was not a movie, “Roots” had much more of an impact than “Django Unchained” can ever hope to have, as well as reflecting what an African-American author felt about the subject. When it aired on ABC TV in 1977, it became the 3rd highest-rated production in history. Based on the novel by Alex Haley, who co-wrote Malcolm X’s autobiography, the show had a dramatic impact on public opinion. Although Haley had plagiarized sections of the novel “The African” by David Kourlander, who whom he settled out of court for $500,000, most of “Roots” reflects Haley’s 12 year research project on slavery.

While I never watched “Roots”, I have to believe that it is a better introduction to the “peculiar institution” than “Django Unchained”. But despite its obscurity and its general unavailability, the movie that I would recommend to my readers is “Ceddo”, which appeared the same year as “Roots”. Directed by the Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, Africa’s greatest director and arguably one of the world’s as well, it tells the story of how both Islam and Christianity conspired to force slavery on indigenous peoples in the 19th century.

The entire film can be seen on the Internet but only with French subtitles. I am afraid that the only way you will be able to get a copy with English subtitles is to request a copy from a well-stocked video library at a research institution like Columbia University’s. Pirate’s Bay has a bit torrent of the film but I can’t say if it has English subtitles. It is certainly worth a try.

The complete “Ceddo” with French subtitles

The ‘common folk’ of “Ceddo” are the serfs of a small village in 19th century Senegal who are miserably oppressed by organized religion and by their feudal overlords. The clerical structures are much more modest than those found in any feudal society (Islamic services are held on the open ground bounded by pebbles), but the bonds enforced by custom are the same. The ceddo must pay tribute to their King in the form of firewood bundles. An Islamic caste also takes tribute in the form of slaves, who are exchanged for guns or cloth in a general store run by a white man. To round out the microcosm of feudal society, there is a single white Catholic priest who is barely tolerated by the Moslems.

Weary of oppression, a ceddo youth kidnaps the daughter of the king and takes her to an isolated wooded glen near the ocean. She will only be returned after the ruling classes forsake slavery and forced conversion to Islam. Played by amateurs, as is the case in nearly all of Sembene’s films, the villagers, have a simple desire to live as they have always lived.

The film’s most dramatic scenes pit the hostage-taker against aristocrats from the village who come to rescue the princess with rifles in hand. Armed only with a bow and arrow and superior cunning, the ceddo youth vanquishes them one by one. In the course of his courageous resistance, the princess begins to warm to him although he is slow to respond in kind. His memory of oppression remains too strong. In one of the more gripping images of the film, the beautiful princess bathes nude in the ocean while the young commoner stands on the beach glowering at her, bow and arrow in hand. He will not indulge himself in desire as long as his people are in bondage.

In a conflict between the King and the Islamic clergy over how to divide up ceddo tribute, the clergy seize power. Now that they are the new ruling class, they force the village to undergo conversion. One by one, the men’s heads are shaved as they are given new names. The arrogant Imam tells the disconsolate villagers: “You are now Ishmaila”, “You are now Ibraima”, etc. , Whether in Africa or in the New World, cultural assimilation always precedes economic assimilation. Implicit in Sembene’s films is the notion that cultural renewal must precede social and economic transformation.

Born in 1923, his father a fisherman like the captain in “The Pirogue”, Sembene fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi documentary Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembene quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembene decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

So he went to Moscow, where he studied at the Gorki Institute under Soviet directors Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov. This was the time when the USSR was not only offering an economic alternative to developing countries, but a cultural one as well. Indirectly, the Soviet Union became a midwife to modern African cinema.

How sad it is that a great talent such as Ousmane Sembene is neglected while Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse remake of movies like “Mandingo” get taken seriously by our most prestigious film critics. I agree. We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms. We need class-conscious films about slavery that are rooted in African and American reality. It will probably take a political sea change that will make it possible for works like “Roots” and “Ceddo” to reappear. Until that happens, I am not going to offer tributes to something like “Django Unchained” that offers tributes to nothing but Quentin Tarantino’s inflated ego and Harvey Weinstein’s corporate coffers.

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