Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 18, 2014

Notes on a staggering ISO

Filed under: aging,Counterpunch,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 11:03 am

Counterpunch February 18, 2014

The Slow Death of “Leninism”

Notes on a Staggering ISO

by LOUIS PROYECT

It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.

In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.

Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.

read full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/18/notes-on-a-staggering-iso/

February 1, 2014

The downside of aristocracy

Filed under: aging — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Screen shot 2014-02-01 at 12.47.23 PM

That’s Prince Charles, three years younger than me. But he looks nearly old enough to be my father. Just look at my photo below with my wife’s cousin Ceyda’s dog Daisy in Izmir. Prince Charles has spent a lifetime on the decks of yachts, skiing in the Alps, playing polo, etc. By contrast, I have spent my time indoors pouring over the Grundrisse, etc.

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March 15, 2013

Notes on China’s New Left

Filed under: aging,China,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

Recent articles about China in Harper’s and N+1 remind me that there will always be a need for print publications, as long as they can deliver in-depth and trenchant analysis of the sort that is harder to find on the web. Before discussing the articles, it would be worth saying a word or two about the two magazines.

Harper’s has been around since June 1850 and is the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S. after Scientific American. I took out a subscription in the early 80s around the same time I took out one to the Nation. Eventually I grew tired of the tepid liberalism of the Nation and did not renew my subscription. Harper’s can best be described as close to Ralph Nader type politics with a strong patrician streak that was most pronounced under the editorship of Lewis Lapham who I adored. Roger Hodge, whose book on Obama, “The Mendacity of Hope”, is a great read despite its odd affinity for Thomas Jefferson, replaced Lapham in 2003. Hodge got on publisher John MacArthur’s wrong side and was fired in 2010. MacArthur is heir to a family fortune and apparently runs the magazine in a rather imperious fashion. Despite that, I find it a great read and especially value the monthly “difficult” crossword puzzles.

N+1 is published 3 times a year out of Brooklyn and has ‘tude to spare. Benjamin Kunkel, who has written for The Nation and Dissent, two mainstays of left-liberalism, was one of the founding editors. In an N+1 article commemorating Christopher Hitchens, Kunkel began:

In high school I was, like many incipient writers, too high-minded and self-involved to take any serious notice of the world as described by journalists. Wars, elections, and revolutions were trivial events beside the development of literature and my part within it. Later, as a college freshman, when I first discovered politics, it was on a summit of vertiginous abstraction.

I suppose I never got a paying job as a journalist because putting together a phrase like “a summit of vertiginous abstraction” is simply beyond me. My goal in writing has always been to express myself in exactly the same way that I speak to people. I suppose having read Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” back in 1961 also had something to do with it: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

“The Unraveling of Bo Xilai: China loses a populist star” appears in the March 2013 Harper’s. Written by Lauren Hilgers who lives in Shanghai, it—like most Harper’s articles—is behind a paywall. My feeling is that as long as such articles continue to appear in Harper’s, I will continue to be a subscriber. I had been following the Bo Xilai saga in the N.Y. Times but found it all totally confusing. I knew that he was one of China’s richest men and that his wife had been charged with the murder of a British citizen but the politics—you couldn’t figure out a thing from the Times.

Thanks to Ms. Hilgers, I finally have an idea of what was going on. Apparently, Bo was orienting to China’s “New Left”, a odd term for a group of people who express nostalgia for Mao. She writes:

Bo Xilai offered a potential solution— one that didn’t require real political reform. He relied on his populist appeal, his revolutionary bloodline, and an utter disregard for the law. He was undoubtedly corrupt, but in Chongqing, as in Dalian, he rolled out policies with something for everyone. Bo orchestrated a return to communist values, sending out mass text messages with his favorite Mao quotes. He promoted the singing of “red songs” and banned all primetime advertising on Chongqing’s television station, encouraging its executives to run patriotic films instead. Bo’s “red culture” campaign turned him into a figurehead for China’s New Left, a movement that lionizes Mao and looks to return to what adherents think of as a simpler, less corrupt era. Bo planted trees (Xilai trees), built low-income housing, and attracted investment. At the same time, Bo’s “Chongqing model” encouraged a greater economic role for China’s state-owned enterprises. His anti-mafia campaign, promoted with the slogan “Strike the black,” helped him wipe out his opponents and establish an extensive surveillance network— but it also helped Bo beef up the police force, making the city safer. Bo cast himself as a champion of China’s poor, a crusader against corruption, greed, and inequality.

Hilgers visited the Utopia Bookstore, an outpost of Maoist values and discovered broad support for Bo there:

The people at Utopia bookstore were Bo’s target audience. They wanted to be engaged; they worried about the fate of their country and were hungry for more information, whatever the source. And Bo, more than other Chinese politicians, was available. For them, a little accessibility went a long way. The regular old lady listed her concerns: Capitalism had made some people happy, but it had made some people rich and some people poor. It had also made people corrupt. Leaders weren’t concerned with equality or the poor. China bowed too easily to America’s demands. And Bo Xilai, she said, was the only leader addressing her concerns. “We all pretty much support Bo Xilai here,” a visiting volunteer from Shandong told me. He was a little bit suspicious of me and asked to be identified as a “reader.”

Bo Xilai was recently expelled from the CCP and his wife was arrested for murder. Clearly the party leaders were getting nervous about pretenders to the throne who were striking a chord in the restive population.

As I have pointed out to comrades on Marxmail recently, the Chinese boom appears to be coming to an end and the country faces a real estate bubble of biblical proportions. Under such conditions, having a Mao-spouting millionaire presents problems even if he doesn’t mean a word of it.

Nikil Saval’s N+1 article is titled “The Long Eighties” and deals with the problems facing the democrats in a country whose rulers seem to have stifled the mass movement through a combination of repression and state-managed economic growth.

It is a very probing and well-researched article that includes some insights into the affection the New Left had for a corrupt and demagogic millionaire like Bo Xilai:

Meanwhile the Chinese “New Left”—a loose assemblage of intellectuals that formed around the journal Dushu (Readings)—occupies the opposite position. The “New Left” is highly opposed to the country’s economic direction, yet its members are not only not in jail, but in some cases socially affiliated with the government. Its leading figure, Beijing-based intellectual historian and social theorist Wang Hui, has criticized intellectuals like Liu for remaining fundamentally unopposed to the neoliberal direction of the country. Wang argues that while China has the opportunity to craft an “alternative modernity,” a form of social democracy opposed to the creeping of market logic into every corner of existence, Chinese liberals simply accept a teleology of modernity that basically resembles America—a model that is visibly failing. Not that Wang is in fact against markets. On the contrary, following Braudel’s distinction between markets and capitalism, Wang argues that “a critique of an actual market society and its crises cannot be equated with repudiation of the mechanisms of market competition, as the principal task of critical intellectuals is to disclose the antimarket mechanisms within market society and to bring to bear a democratic and socialized conception of markets to counter the antimarket logic of actual market society.” Wang espouses, in other words, a kind of market socialism, which would preserve competition on a local, small-scale level, in contrast to China’s rather ostentatious collusion of government and business.

Unlike Liu, Wang has managed to stay aboveground and out of prison. (Though he is no longer editor-in-chief, Readings was and is published with state approval.) He teaches frequently in the US, and outside China his writing—unfailingly intelligent, though dense and laborious where Liu is fleet and lucid—has been best received among left-wing English and American academics, who are naturally skeptical of the liberals. (The liberals, meanwhile, attract the attention of every-one else.) Part of the reason Wang stays out of jail is the attitude he and his comrades display toward the political scene. Where Liu sees generalized abjection and totalitarianism, Wang and his collaborators see hope for criticism and a margin of openness in the political atmosphere. But they may be kidding themselves. The recent government has been in the habit of adopting “New Left” rhetoric while doing little to prosecute its aims. High-placed officials speak unctuously about equality and the continuing project of socialism while silently (but blatantly) cultivating their relations with factory owners and financiers.

While I generally find N+1’s articles compelling (except for the fiction that like most fiction leaves me cold), I do wish they would lay off the Young Turk posturing that can be found in a section at the front of the magazine called “The Intellectual Situation” that is obsessed with exposing well-established magazines like Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review as “old fogies”. They have a particular animus toward Harper’s. You can actually read the latest “The Intellectual Situation” here: http://nplusonemag.com/the-intellectual-situation-issue-15.

While the Atlantic hustles women for page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacat

Apparently the editor’s disparaging of people running Harper’s or other such moldy figs as “aged” annoys me to no end. After all, I am 68 but do not listen to Guy Lombardo or wear diapers. Some other old fogey got so fed up with some other such business they wrote N+1 a letter giving it a piece of its mind. I don’t know if it will do any good. You know how full of themselves young people can be.

AGAINST AGEISM

Dear Editors, I am surprised by the ageism of “Big Babies,” in a magazine that otherwise seems conscious of social injustice and the power of language. The authors adopt old age as a metaphor for the stupid and repugnant, as women long were used as a metaphor for evil. Adjectives such as “old” and “retired” are thrown around as insults; “senilely” is meant to ridicule. The image of old people with “suit sleeves flopping” (yes, many of our wrists become skinny and bony, as the authors’ may, should they live to old age) is taken to be patently repellent. I thought that was the worst until I came upon the sneering depiction of the “Autocrat of the Senior Center” in a “second childhood” in which “someone wipes his spills.” The dis-abilities often associated with old age, “confusion and impotence” and being “forgetful,” are invoked to demean, while “Napoleon in Depends” is presented as the ultimate insult. It’s not the old who are disgusting but this rhetoric. The authors condemn misogyny and the war on women but happily enlist in the war on the old and disabled. I wish on those who wrote that section a long old age in which they—without, I hope, confusion, impotence, or Depends, but don’t bet on it—will have to slowly chew, swallow, and expel their indigestible words.

—Alix Kates Shulman

October 21, 2012

Bruce Springsteen victim of early Alzheimer’s

Filed under: aging,music,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 2:56 pm

August 2, 2012

Retirement miscellany

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Last Monday they had a little going away party for me at work with a gift clock to remind me of my workmates. You can’t see the words with the glare off the bronze but it says “Thanks Louis Proyect, from FINSYS”. Finsys is Financial Systems, the project I have supported for the past 15 years or so.

Although I am a pretty unsentimental bastard, I was genuinely touched by the tributes people paid to me. I was in an unusual position on the team, having functioned more or less as their technical support. Typically I was asked to create a Sybase table that could be used in testing by another programmer. So just as someone, for example, in the accounts payable department was their user, so were they mine. As so often is the case in information technology, the user tends to complain about the technical support they are getting. Accounts payable might complain about the service they were receiving from the rest of the team, and they had the same attitude toward me much of the time no matter how hard I tried to keep up with the requests. That is why I appreciated their thanks to me so much. I was leaving on a positive note. I told them as well that no matter how churlish I could be—and believe me, I can get very churlish—I was always grateful to work with such good people.

I told the group that there were three things that allowed me to work at Columbia University as long as I did. The first was the people I worked with, who like me tended to be at the school for reasons other than money. Because of their relative indifference to big bucks, they were a lot less aggressive and a lot less conniving than the people I used to work with on Wall Street.

The second was my boss who had a better knack for motivating her staff than anybody I’ve worked for in my 44-year career. She could ream you out if your work was not up to snuff but you never held it against her. Usually performance reviews were anxiety-provoking  in previous jobs over the years but that was not my experience working for her for the simple reason that you always knew where you stood. If she didn’t yell at you, you were doing your job. Over the past 10 years or so, I got yelled at very infrequently so I felt pretty secure most of the time.

Lastly there was the advantage of working at a university, which meant being able to take classes for free, the high point of which was the two years of Turkish language courses given by the irrepressible Etem Erol, who is now at Yale. With houseguests from Izmir here since July 25th, I find that I can follow much of the conversation although my speaking is limited to simple questions like “Yemek istiyor musun?” (Do you want something to eat?)

But of even greater importance was access to Jstor, Lexis-Nexis, and Proquest—three scholarly databases that I have used over the years to great advantage, as well as the Columbia University library. I will continue to have access to all of this as a retiree.

As part of my exit process, I spent time talking to a woman in personnel about my insurance options. With my last paycheck on Tuesday, I am no longer insured except for Medicare Part A, which is free and available to everybody over 65. I understood that I had to look into getting Medicare Part B or Part C, or whatever but needed her help in sorting things out. As it turns out, Medicare is not exactly free. Part A entitles you to hospitalization but only 80 percent. Part B is intended to help cover the costs of Part A as well as pay for doctor visits. Furthermore, if you have access to private insurance, as I would as a spouse added to my wife’s GHI plan, you should sign up for that rather than Part B.  As the woman in personnel began explaining all the ins and outs to me, my brain began to fog over. It reminded me of how Peter Camejo used to explain covered options, or butterfly spreads, to me. I could never figure out what he was talking about but trusted him to give me good advice.

When I asked her whether Part B was the way to go if it was cheaper than getting added to my wife’s GHI plan, she said that you get treated better if you have private insurance. Some doctors will not take Medicare patients.

At that point, I told her that she should excuse me for sounding political but it sounded to me like Medicare was not exactly cracked up to be as advertised, namely basically free medical coverage for retirees. The slogan of “Medicare for All” that is counterpoised to the new Affordable Care Act by some on the left might need to be rethought.

At that point, she opened up to me and started off by saying that she remembered me from my remarks to Robert Kasdin, Lee Bollinger’s chief of administration, at a meeting for IT, Personnel and Financial Systems employees held the day after a worker was killed during demolition of the building across the street from ours. I had told Kasdin that Columbia should make every effort to force the companies it was using for the Manhattanville expansion to follow OSHA rules to the letter. It was very bad for a leading liberal arts institution to give the appearance that it put construction costs over the lives and well being of ordinary working people.

Apparently this was the sort of thing others would like to hear at such at a meeting but only I had the brass to say.

I was pleasantly surprised to find her assessment of Medicare’s shortcomings in terms familiar to readers of Alternet or the Nation Magazine. It reminded me that the support for the Occupy Movement did not come out of the blue. Millions and millions of Americans have been profoundly impacted by the financial crisis to the degree that an unrepentant Marxist like me does not so nutty to a solid middle-class citizen.

The times they are a-changin’

Yesterday and today were the first post-retirement days. Today I had breakfast with a member of my wife’s dissertation board who is a lefty like me. The three of us had a pleasant chat, with her talking mostly about the ardors she faced getting tenure and me exchanging ideas about the political situation.

Afterwards, we came home and I sat down to write this article. As much as I liked being at Columbia University, I think I prefer things this way. Years ago, when I fantasized about retiring this was the image that always came to mind, Ferdinand the Bull smelling the flowers rather than dodging the matador’s sword:

I think I can get used to this.

April 3, 2012

Sugar: the bitter truth

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

A couple of months ago, after I began taking naps almost every night over a three week period—something that was unprecedented for me—my wife urged me to get a check-up. So alarmed was I about my changing sleep patterns coming at me with the force of jet lag that I broke with my ostrich-like aversion to medical exams and made an appointment. At the age of 67, I knew that it was better to find out about some frightening condition even if medical science lacked the means to overcome it.

My overall attitude toward such matters was profoundly fatalistic. I could not help but think that my body was like a car with over 100,000 miles on it. It might get me from point A to point B for the time being but eventually it would be done in by the organic counterpart of rust. To extend the motor vehicle analogy further, by the time I had reached the age of 50 I began feeling like Yves Montand driving that truck filled with dynamite in “Wages of Fear”. No matter how careful you were, death would catch up to you. I might have spent over 45 years defending socialist ideas, but before that I was a hard-core existentialist. It was hard not to think in existential terms, after all, when it came to matters of life and death.

By the time of the appointment, my sleeping patterns had returned to normal. But the report I got back from my blood test left me feeling a bit rattled. My cholesterol levels were high and the doctor recommended a change in diet and more exercise. About five years ago I took a blood-pressure test in a cafeteria at work and was told that it was slightly elevated. That persuaded me to cut down on salt and start using a butter substitute. With respect to exercise, there’s not much more I can do beyond the 10 to 12 miles per week that I have been jogging since 1970. I may not be very fast but I am consistent.

After getting this report, I tried to figure out where the bad cholesterol was coming from. Most nights, a typical meal at home is fish or some white meat with vegetables. I have a couple of eggs on Sunday morning and a bit of cheese in the evening before dinner, but that’s about it when it comes to dietary fat. I began to feel like someone who has been told that they are HIV positive. But instead of trying to figure out which one-night stand had made me ill, I looked back at some of my foolish flings with fast food. Was it the Kentucky Fried Chicken I used to eat 2 or 3 times a week when I lived in Kansas City in 1978? Or maybe all the slices of pizza I’ve enjoyed over the years in New York City? Like Christopher Hitchens telling an interviewer that he would have not have forsaken booze or tobacco, even if he knew early on that it would lead to esophageal cancer, I had difficulty imagining what life in New York would be like without pizza. Given all the shit you have to put up when living here, such small pleasures make it worth it.

Last Sunday’s “Sixty Minutes” had a segment that cleared things up for me. It turns out that sugar is the main cause of high cholesterol rather than fat nowadays. Titled Is Sugar Toxic?, it focuses on the crusade of Dr. Robert Lustig, a California endocrinologist whose main concern is with the impact of sugar on young people. Among the people interviewed is Kimber Stanhope who conducted an experiment on young people whose sugar intake was measured carefully hour by hour. This is what she reported:

But now, studies done by Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional biologist at the University of California, Davis are starting to back him up. She’s in the middle of a groundbreaking, five-year study which has already shown strong evidence linking excess high fructose corn syrup consumption to an increase in risk factors for heart disease and stroke. That suggests calories from added sugars are different than calories from other foods.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: The mantra that you hear from most nutritionists is that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.

Kimber Stanhope: And I think the results of the study showed clearly that is not true.

Stanhope’s conclusions weren’t easy to come by. Nutrition studies are expensive and difficult. Stanhope has paid groups of research subjects to live in this hospital wing for weeks at a time, under a sort of 24-hour lockdown. They undergo scans and blood tests – every calorie they ingest, meticulously weighed and prepared.

Kimber Stanhope: They’re never out of our sight. So we do know that they are consuming exactly what we need them to consume.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And they’re not sneaking any candy bars on the side.

Kimber Stanhope: Yeah, right, exactly.

For the first few days, participants eat a diet low in added sugars, so baseline blood levels can be measured.

[Research assistant: So remember you guys have to finish all of your Kool-Aid. ]

Then, 25 percent of their calories are replaced with sweetened drinks and Stanhope’s team starts drawing blood every 30 minutes around the clock. And those blood samples? They revealed something disturbing.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And what are you starting to see?

Kimber Stanhope: We found that the subjects who consumed high fructose corn syrup had increased blood levels of LDL cholesterol and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: How quickly did these changes occur?

Kimber Stanhope: Within two weeks.

Kimber Stanhope’s study suggests that when a person consumes too much sweet stuff, the liver gets overloaded with fructose and converts some of it into fat. Some of that fat ends up in the bloodstream and helps generate a dangerous kind of cholesterol called small dense LDL. These particles are known to lodge in blood vessels, form plaque and are associated with heart attacks.

Unlike most people, I don’t have a sweet tooth. I have a teaspoon of sugar with my coffee in the morning and a piece of cake or a cookie on Saturday afternoon but that’s about it. Perhaps the fact that I have had only one cavity in the past 20 years testifies to what I thought my ostensibly good dietary habits supported.

But it turns out that the real culprit was probably the fucking corn syrup that is almost universal nowadays in just about every product found on grocery shelves:

Lustig says the American lifestyle is killing us.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And most of it you say is preventable?

Dr. Robert Lustig: Seventy-five percent of it is preventable.

While Dr. Lustig has published a dozen scientific articles on the evils of sugar, it was his lecture on YouTube, called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” that brought his message to the masses.

By “bad food” Dr. Lustig means the obvious things such as table sugar, honey, syrup, sugary drinks and desserts, but also just about every processed food you can imagine, where sugar is often hidden: yogurts and sauces, bread, and even peanut butter. And what about the man-made, often vilified sweetener, high fructose corn syrup?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Is it worse than just table sugar?

Dr. Robert Lustig: No. ‘Cause it’s the exact same. They are basically equivalent. The problem is they’re both bad. They’re both equally toxic.

Since the 1970s, sugar consumption has gone down nearly 40 percent, but high fructose corn syrup has more than made up the difference. Dr. Lustig says they are both toxic because they both contain fructose — that’s what makes them sweet and irresistible.

Dr. Robert Lustig: We love it. We go out of our way to find it. I think one of the reasons evolutionarily is because there is no food stuff on the planet that has fructose that is poisonous to you. It is all good. So when you taste something that’s sweet, it’s an evolutionary Darwinian signal that this is a safe food.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: We were born this way?

Dr. Robert Lustig: We were born this way.

Central to Dr. Lustig’s theory is that we used to get our fructose mostly in small amounts of fruit — which came loaded with fiber that slows absorption and consumption — after all, who can eat 10 oranges at a time? But as sugar and high fructose corn syrup became cheaper to refine and produce, we started gorging on them. Americans now consume 130 pounds per person a year — that’s a third of a pound every day.

Perhaps the widespread use of corn syrup might have something to do with all the commercials for products that contain it, including “Sixty Minutes” that has been sponsored by:

  • Campbell’s Soup
  • Lifesavers
  • Pepsi-Cola
  • Prego tomato sauce
  • Progresso
  • Werther’s butterscotch candies

If you go to Prego’s website, you will be deluged by all the “nutritional” buzzwords like organic and healthy, but except for its Heart Smart brand that only came into existence as a result of consumer pressure, all their products contain corn syrup.

Campbell’s, which owns Prego, has also adapted to consumer pressure but most of its soups contain high fructose corn syrup, including the Classic Tomato Soup I used to eat growing up.

Even if I was to be more careful in looking for corn syrup in anything I buy in the store, there’s not much I can do about the food I eat at lunch, which has come from Fairway’s kitchens over the past 5 years since I have been working on West 131st Street in West Harlem. Almost all their hot meals come with some kind of sauce that is calculated to taste good, even if it is larded with corn syrup (and salt for that matter.) I am trying to be more selective in what I take out from Fairway but in the final analysis I will have to wait until I retire to make sure that I control what goes down my gullet.

But ultimately sugar is a political problem rather than an existential one. In an article I wrote  five years ago on Sidney W. Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History,” I cited a passage that dealt with the role of sugar in the capitalist economy, especially as a way of “lubricating” the de facto machinery that human labor represents. It is well worth repeating:

Mintz sketches out the early consumption of sugar, which was a commodity as precious as gold. When the Venerable Bede died in 735 A.D., his fellow monks inherited his trove of spices, including a package of sugar. Besides its tastiness, sugar–like salt and other spices–had importance as a preservative. That is why it was important to the Venerable Bede and the average European. Until the “discovery” of the Americas, sugar was a luxury imported good from the East that was largely confined to the ruling classes. In 1288, the royal household consumed 6,258 pounds of sugar. (Does this explain the hit-or-miss quality of the British smile, one wonders.)

When the British East India Company was chartered in 1660, one of its chief goals was to increase tea imports into Great Britain. A century later tea was the drink of choice in Great Britain, even more popular than malt liquor–and considerably cheaper. The rural poor had used malt liquor to moisten their bread, but a tax on malt made it relatively expensive. Meanwhile, factory workers relied on tea and sugar for a jolt that could help them keep pace with the rigors of the assembly line.

Tea, by comparison to malt liquor or gin, was cheap. You just needed sugar to make it more palatable. Hence, the irony that two key consumer goods of the British lower classes–tea and sugar–relied on the super-exploitation of African slaves and Indian plantation workers. This obviously sets the pattern for Wal-Mart today. Sugar also supplied a cheap substitute for complex carbohydrates, just as it does today. Oatmeal porridge was mixed with molasses–so-called “hasty pudding”. Mintz’s description of consumption patterns in the 18th century seem depressingly similar to those today:

The first half of the eighteenth century may have been a period of increased purchasing power for laboring people, even though the quality of nutrition probably declined at the same time. Innovations like the liquid stimulants and the greatly increased use of sugar were items for which additional income was used, as well as items by which one could attempt emulation of those at higher levels of the social system. But labeling this usage “emulation” explains very little. The circumstances under which a new habit is acquired are as important as the habits of those others from whom the habit is learned. It seemes likely that many of the new tea drinkers and sugar users were not fully satisfied with their daily fare. Some were doubtless inadequately fed; others were bored by their food and by the large quantities of starchy carbohydrates they ate. A hot liquid stimulant full of sweet calories doubtless “hit the spot,” perhaps particularly for people who were already undernourished.

December 20, 2010

The comeback kid and bipartisan attacks on working people

Filed under: aging,Obama,workers — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Almost immediately after Obama persuaded the Democrats to support an extension of the Bush tax cuts, the mainstream media began to trumpet his new-found effectiveness. Even before the deal was approved, the NY Times opined that a “political lift” for Obama was in store. The article reasoned that “In the Senate, Democrats were quicker to accept that Mr. Obama’s tradeoff could help reverse the party’s political misfortune, in which important swing voters, especially independents and women, turned toward the Republicans.”

And afterwards, the consensus began to mount that Obama was a “comeback kid” like President Clinton. USA Today put it this way:

Is Barack Obama the new Comeback Kid?

Six weeks after he acknowledged taking a “shellacking” at the polls, President Obama is on the verge of what may be a political rebound.

Late Thursday, he scored a big victory in Congress when the House followed the Senate in approving a deal he struck with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts for two years for all Americans, including top earners.

Despite his ultraright politics or perhaps because of them, Charles Krauthammer told his Washington Post readers that he agreed with USA Today:

If Barack Obama wins reelection in 2012, as is now more likely than not, historians will mark his comeback as beginning on Dec. 6, the day of the Great Tax Cut Deal of 2010.

Obama had a bad November. Self-confessedly shellacked in the midterm election, he fled the scene to Asia and various unsuccessful meetings, only to return to a sad-sack lame-duck Congress with ghostly dozens of defeated Democrats wandering the halls.

Now, with his stunning tax deal, Obama is back. Holding no high cards, he nonetheless managed to resurface suddenly not just as a player but as orchestrator, dealmaker and central actor in a high $1 trillion drama.

Also basking in new-found glory is Senator Harry Reid, who, according to NY Times blogger John Harwood, a disgusting and ubiquitous presence on cable news shows, “boasted” that the tax-cut compromise was ”some of my greatest work”.

So, what will be act two as a follow-up to preserving a tax break for millionaires that Democrats railed against for so long? It will be an attack on deficits apparently, as Reid indicated in Harwood’s post: “His interpretation of the midterm election message: voters want both parties to cooperate on reducing the deficit.”

Obama and Harry Reid are united on the need to cut the deficit. If it is obviously not going to be solved by making millionaires pay taxes at the same rate as during the Eisenhower or even the Reagan presidency for that matter, how else do you expect the budget to be balanced except by taking out of the hides of working stiffs?

In a visit to Mr. Krauthammer’s employers on January 16 2009, Obama assured the Post’s editors that Social Security and Medicare were badly in need of “reform”:

President-elect Barack Obama pledged yesterday to shape a new Social Security and Medicare “bargain” with the American people, saying that the nation’s long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs.

That discussion will begin next month, Obama said, when he convenes a “fiscal responsibility summit” before delivering his first budget to Congress. He said his administration will begin confronting the issues of entitlement reform and long-term budget deficits soon after it jump-starts job growth and the stock market.

“What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further,” he said. “We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.”

While most of my readers are aware that Obama appointed former Republican Party Senator Alan Simpson and centrist Democrat Erskine Bowles to come up with some solutions that would victimize working people, the more important body to beware of has received less scrutiny. In my view, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) should be seen in the same light as the Project for the New American Century that had a major responsibility for crafting the war plans against Saddam Hussein. In one case, the Iraqi people were the enemies; now, in the latest phase of capitalism in decline, the American people are targeted. Such think-tanks, endowed with millions of dollars, are a crucial element of policy formulation. In the case of the Project for the New American Century, the fingerprints of the neoconservative movement were impossible to miss. In keeping with the agenda of the wretched Obama White House, the Bipartisan Policy Center falls all over itself to establish its “broad-based” credentials to the American people, who after all tend to vote for both parties on a habitual basis.

The BPC describes itself in the same terms as the idiotic No Label group that met recently in New York:

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) is a non-profit organization that was established in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell to develop and promote solutions that can attract public support and political momentum in order to achieve real progress. The BPC acts as an incubator for policy efforts that engage top political figures, advocates, academics and business leaders in the art of principled compromise.

Too often partisanship poisons our national dialogue. Unfortunately, respectful discourse across party lines has become the exception – not the norm.

Now Baker and Dole are key players from the Republican Party before the Tea Party began to leave its indelible stamp on the GOP. These are exactly the sort of people that Obama had hoped to build some kind of partnership with, not anticipating the venomous politicians who question whether he was born in the U.S. and who routinely brand him as a socialist. It is clear that Obama’s latest deal with the Republican Party will have an effect on isolating such elements:

The Tea Party dissent on tax cuts was clear in the House, where the movement’s supporters like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. — founder of the Tea Party caucus — voted against the bill. Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky said he would lean against voting for it if he were in office, while Tea Party darling Sarah Palin called it a “lousy deal.”

As for Tom Daschle, you are dealing with someone very much in keeping with the Obama White House’s basic governing philosophy. Considering the fact that Daschle was forced to step down from consideration as Secretary of Health and Human Services due to his failure to pay $120,000 in back taxes, it makes perfect sense why he got together with the Republicans over cutting entitlements. As a rich bastard seeking to avoid paying his fair share to the IRS and as someone who was a high-profile supporter of Obama’s pro-insurance company health plan, he has exactly the right background.

George Mitchell is best known for his foreign policy exploits, including a major role in convincing the British ruling class that Sinn Fein could be a willing partner in keeping Northern Ireland a semicolony. He might be a cynical bourgeois politician, but he certainly is shrewd enough to help craft a plan that will screw American workers out of a decent retirement.

The Board of Directors of the Bipartisan Policy Center is a rogue’s gallery of long-time operatives in the National Security State and Wall Street. Here’s some scum off the top of the fetid pond:

  • Larry Higby
    Chairman, New Majority California; Retired CEO, Apria Healthcare
  • Norman R. Augustine
    Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (ret.) Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • John W. Rowe
    Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

Just the kind of people you’d expect to see advocating a retirement age of 75 or so.

The BPC has dozens of people working for it, all busily preparing white papers that NPR, PBS, the NY Times and the Washington Post can study in order to come up with high-minded arguments about why old folks might not be so bad off eating cat food.

The BPC is basically a retread of the Concord Coalition, another bipartisan effort to attack entitlements that was launched by Peter G. Peterson, the Wall Street billionaire who has been railing against Social Security for decades now. Like the BPC, the Concord Coalition’s top officers come from both capitalist parties.

It should be understood that this onslaught against the two pillars of Democratic Party liberalism, Social Security—a gain of the New Deal–and Medicare, a legacy of the Great Society–is not primarily motivated by hatred of workers or the poor. Ever since the recovery of Western Europe and Japan after WWII, the U.S. has been forced to adjust by cutting government spending. To remain competitive, it has to reduce expenditures on housing, hospitals, roads, schools and all the other accoutrements of the Welfare States just as much as Britain, Sweden, France and Germany are forced to do. This is a race to the bottom that will have no winners except the filthy bosses who expect nothing out of us except as a cheap supply of labor power.

July 24, 2010

Are recessions better for the right or the left?

Filed under: aging,economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Phil Gasper

Doug Henwood

This is a contribution to the debate between Phil Gasper, a philosophy professor and long-time member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and Doug Henwood who really needs no introduction.

In the latest issue of International Socialist Review, the ISO magazine, Gasper has an article titled Economic crisis and class struggle that poses the question whether recessions are better for the right or the left, which is directed at Doug’s article on MRZine that begins:

For a long time, I’ve been critical of the left-wing penchant for economic crisis.  Many radicals have fantasized that a serious recession — or depression — would lead to mass radicalization, as scales simultaneously fell from millions of pairs of eyes and the imperative of transcending capitalism became self-evidently obvious.  I’ve long thought that was nonsense, and now there’s empirical support for my position.

Doug bases his conclusion on a paper by Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner that shows “recessions boost the vote for extreme right-wing and nationalist parties.” The authors promised to send Doug statistics for left-wing parties but he has not posted anything about it yet on his website. I doubt if those numbers will do anything to change Doug’s mind but my sense of European politics is that both the extreme right and the radical left are growing. In France, the NPA has probably quadrupled in size in the past 5 years or so, while Die Linke in Germany and other such parties are making headway. Meanwhile, Greece is going up in flames even if there is no meaningful way of correlating that to the growth of the electoral left, a questionable criterion perhaps in light of the tendency of the mass movement to vote with its feet.

Doug concludes his article with a warning about a repeat of the 1930s, which many socialists have an attachment to as the last hurrah of the industrial working class:  “And that Great Depression didn’t do much for the left in Europe.  So please, let’s put this one away and stop hoping for the worst.”

In a sense, it is difficult to answer something like this since it turns the economic meltdown of the 1930s into some kind of catalyst that is expected to produce predictable results, like throwing a match into a jar of gasoline. It doesn’t work that way. Economic crisis simply polarizes society into warring camps, as the street battles of the Weimar Republic bear out. The victory of the left rests on its ability to fight intelligently. As Phil Gasper pointed out, the left could have triumphed over Hitler in Germany if it had simply run a common electoral slate.

In some ways, attempts to establish a direct link between economic collapse and the triumph of socialism err on the side of economic determinism and its second cousin vulgar Marxism. That being said, it is understandable why Marxists would be riveted on economic crisis since it does have an impact on the way people view society. In Marx’s own writings, there are frequent references to the connections between crisis and revolution, including an article co-written with Engels that appeared in the 1850 Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue. They write a bit breathlessly, sounding like our friend Patrick Bond:

The results of the commercial crisis now impending will be more serious than ever before. It coincides with the agricultural crisis, which began with the abolition of corn tariffs in England and has increased as a result of the recent good harvests. For the first time England is experiencing at the same time an industrial and an agricultural crisis. This dual crisis in England will be accelerated, widened in scope and made even more explosive by the convulsions, which are now simultaneously imminent on the Continent; and the continental revolution will take on an unprecedentedly socialist character as a result of the repercussions of the English crisis on the world market. It is a known fact that no European country will be hit so directly, to such an extent and with such intensity as Germany. The reason is simple: Germany represents England’s biggest continental market, and the main German exports, wool and grain, have by far their most important outlet in England. History is most happily summed up in this epigram addressed to the apostles of order: while inadequate consumption drives the working classes to revolt, overproduction drives the upper classes to bankruptcy.

Now as it turned out this was a bit simplistic. The first genuinely socialist revolt took place 21 years after this article was written and the immediate cause was working-class unrest in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war that was not specifically related to an economic crisis. The revolt grew out of long-standing grievances over exploitation in general.

If economic suffering, such as the unemployment and home foreclosures taking place today–what Marx and Engels refer to as the “inadequate consumption” that “drives the working classes to revolt”–can lead in some cases to radical action, then perhaps recessions are “good for the left” in a perverse sense.

There is a long-standing tradition that leans in that direction, a tendency that might be described as “the worse, the better”. If Doug is taking aim at that mistaken view, then I am with him one hundred percent.

The man likely to have coined this phrase is one Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, a founder of Russian populism who lived from 1828 to 1889 and who was a major influence on Lenin and Emma Goldman, among others. He is reputed to have used the phrase “the worse the better” to indicate that the worse that social conditions became for the poor, the more inclined they would be to launch a revolution. Chernyshevsky wrote a novel “What is to be Done” whose title Lenin borrowed for his 1903 pamphlet. The highly informative wiki on Chernyshevsky states:

The novel was an inspiration to many later Russian revolutionaries, who sought to emulate the novel’s hero, who was wholly dedicated to the revolution, ascetic in his habits and ruthlessly disciplined, to the point of sleeping on a bed of nails and eating only meat in order to build strength for the Revolution. Among those who took inspiration from the character was Lenin, who wrote a work of political theory of the same name, and who was ascetic in his personal life (lifting weights, having little time for love, and so on).

I never knew about Lenin lifting weights or having little time for love. Is that an urban legend possibly, like him saying that the “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”? Hmm, I wonder.

If there is one thing that militates against “the worse, the better”, it is the experience of Africa over the past 25 years or so. In country after country, the standard of living has dropped precipitously but without leading to revolution anywhere. Mostly you see internecine warfare, xenophobia in South Africa, and a general social atomization. In this respect, I think that Doug is quite correct. Immiseration is generally a guarantee of one thing and one thing only, that people will become miserable. How they react to that misery has a lot to do with pre-existing political conditions, which in Africa have been fairly weak.

Finally, I want to address the question of what Doug calls “hoping for the worst”. In my view, it is insane to welcome an economic crisis in the “worse, the better” sense. When the stock market tanked in 2008 and homes began being foreclosed at a record rate, I reacted the same way I reacted to the start of the war in Iraq in 2003 or to the news of the BP spill—with horror.

On a personal level, it has touched one of my oldest and closest friends in the most devastating fashion. This is a guy one week younger than me that I grew up with in the Catskills. Just over six months ago he lost his job as a salesman and went on unemployment. A year before he lost his job, he lost 50 percent of the value of his retirement plan. And two months ago when he was up in my apartment using my high-speed connection to look at some job-related websites, I noticed a tremor in his left hand. Perhaps being in denial, he had been ignoring it. When I asked him about the tremor, he said that he would make an appointment right away. He has since learned that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.

So here we have a sixty-five year old guy with a major medical condition who needs to work since the Social Security payments and unemployment are insufficient to make ends meet. He has lost over $100,000 in the Wall Street casino through no fault of his own. And lately he has been worried about whether Washington would extend unemployment benefits.

This is happening in one form or another all across the country. It is suffering on a mass scale. I have no idea whether this will lead to the growth of the left. All I know is that the left has an obligation to put forward a strategy for the unemployed and the working class that is in their interests rather than big capital.

We do not “hope” for such disasters. All we know is that they occur with alarming frequency in the period of capitalist decline. Rather than speculating on whether such events are to our benefit or not, we should think about how to get off the treadmill once and for all, so that everybody—including my old friend—can lead decent lives without worrying where their next meal is coming from.

July 21, 2010

From a January 2010 interview with Harvey Pekar

Filed under: aging,comedy — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

One of the best things I ever did is called “Huntington, West Virginia on the Fly” which is sort of biographies of friends of
mine, but they’re told from my point of view. That was supposed to come out in September, but now, for all intents and purposes, it’s just gotten indefinitely postponed. I have another one that I wrote for Random House called “The Unrepentant Marxist” which is a biography of a guy I met in New York who was a member of a Trotskyist organization for a really long time, and he put up with a whole lot of bullshit until he finally got to where he couldn’t take it anymore. I’m really interested in that stuff. It was apparently accepted but I don’t know when that’s supposed to come out. I don’t know if I’ll live that long.

full: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=24421

May 31, 2010

Sex and the City #2

Filed under: aging,feminism,Film,Islam,television — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

The vitriol directed by critics against “Sex and the City #2″ (SATC #2) is unprecedented. The last movie to bear the brunt of such an Orwellian “minute of hate” was Michael Cimino’s 1980 “Heaven’s Gate”, a movie that eventually led to the collapse of United Artists.

Now my tendency is to put a minus where mainstream critics put a plus. And occasionally, the reverse. If that makes me a sectarian film critic, so be it. My take on “Heaven’s Gate”, although I never wrote a review about it, is that it is a masterpiece on a par with the best work of Luigi Visconti, an acknowledged influence on this Marxist western about the Johnson County range wars.

Now I am not going to put SATC #2 on that plane, but this much I can say. I went to see a press screening with my wife before the reviews came out and therefore with an open mind. Admittedly the two of us were huge fans of the HBO show and therefore inclined to cut it some slack. But no amount of slack would allow me to refrain from trashing the movie if it deserved it. My reaction to the movie when it was in progress and even now is this. It is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, even if you are not a big fan of the show. It is basically fluff, much more so than the TV show, and includes some genuinely funny moments.

My favorite is when Samantha, the oldest of the four female lead characters who is on a date with a Danish architect in a hookah bar in Abu Dhabi, begins to suck on the mouthpiece of the water pipe as if it was a penis. When the aroused architect stands up, you can see the outlines of his erect penis through his trousers, thus infuriating observant Muslims at the next table. If this is not the thing that you would find funny, then don’t bother seeing the movie. I can say this, however. The movie is about as potent a weapon against Islam as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road to Morocco”. Indeed, this is where SATC #2 was filmed.

Oddly enough, mainstream film critics have rallied around this question of Islamophobia in a way that is truly remarkable given the steady stream of poison that comes out of Hollywood about “the war on terror”, including “The Kingdom”,  “Body of Lies”, and “Hurt Locker”, the truly rotten recipient of the Oscar for best picture in 2009.

The other thing that struck me as hypocritical was the outrage over the lavish lifestyle of the heroines, starting with their staying in a $22,000 per night hotel. The NY Times’s A.O. Scott assumes the posture of James Agee in finding the movie insensitive to our current economic crisis: “But the ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense.” Scott also appears to have read Karl Marx at some point in his life based on this observation: “The Emirate to which the four friends repair is an oasis of gilded luxury in a world that has grown a little ambivalent about unbridled commodity fetishism.”

Excuse me. Am I missing something? If there’s any media outlet that should not be talking about “unexamined privilege” and “unbridled commodity fetishism”, it is the NY Times that is almost singlehandedly responsible for backing the yuppification of the island of Manhattan. This is a newspaper with society pages gushing over $10 million weddings and whose restaurant reviews are strictly devoted to venues that will cost you $150 per meal.

Leaving aside the obvious political charges of Islamophobia and “unexamined privilege”, there is an element of the hatred directed against the movie that is a bit beneath the surface in most reviews. It does raise its nasty head above the surface briefly, however, in Scott’s review where he writes, ” the party girls of yesteryear are tomorrow’s Ladies Who Lunch.” For those who know something about the life-style of elderly Manhattan dowagers, the phrase “Ladies Who Lunch” is a clear reference to Scott’s disappointment that the movie treats women in their 40s and 50s as if they still had a libido. The wiki on the term states:

Ladies who lunch is a phrase to describe slim, well-off, old-money, well-dressed women who meet for lunch socially, normally during the working week. Typically, the women involved are married and non-working. Normally the lunch is in a restaurant, perhaps in a department store during shopping. Sometimes there is the pretext of raising money for charity.

Rex Reed, a gay film critic and a colleague in NYFCO, writes what A.O. Scott and other more respectable scribes will not, for fear of being accused—rightly—of ageism and sexism:

The women-too old now to pout, whine and babble about their wet dreams, affluent and successful for reasons that are never clear-are all vain, narcissistic, selfish, superficial and really rather stupid. The actors work hard to perform triage, but they’ve been playing these roles so long they’ve grown moss.

There are some out there that have figured this angle out, most notably a certain Balk who wrote:

My theory is that the radical aversion to the current installment of Sex and the City says something about the way we look at elderly women in modern American society. We would prefer that, if we must indeed be subject to their representation in popular culture, they be confined to small supporting roles in which they play spinster older sisters or embittered, loveless career women. The idea that we are not only supposed to pretend that the shriveled harridans we see on the screen might still engage in the act of sexual intercourse but that we are supposed to celebrate their enjoyment of such defies both credulity and good taste.

I quite agree. I also agree strongly with another colleague at NYFCO, the estimable Prairie Miller who summed up the hatred against SATC #2 this way in an email to me:

Here’s the opening statement I added to my review at Critical Women. And when I mention Hillary, it’s not because I admire her, which I don’t, but because of the way she was ridiculed as a woman during the campaigns:

The hostile, emotionally charged critic assault on SATC 2 is really a ‘veiled’ attack on the power of older women. And gives the strange impression that females are pariahs more here than in the Middle East, women – not men – who confront sheik sexism and burka blues in the movie. If only those ‘make war not love’ critics were as outspokenly outraged against the US military in that region, as they are against these women. And the fact that women are showing up in droves without men for SATC 2, says it all about the gender divide right here at home. Not since the nasty sexist campaign to drive Hillary Clinton out of the presidential race, has there been such an attack on anything expressing female political or sexual empowerment…

And, finally, here’s my February 26, 2004 review of the original HBO series that you can rent from Netflix:

* * *

Back in 1994 Candace Bushnell began writing a column in Arthur Carter’s weekly NY Observer called “Sex and the City”. Since Carter’s upscale salmon-colored publication was being given away for free on NYC’s Upper East Side at the time, I would pick it up to satisfy my unquenchable reading addiction. I was also curious to see where Carter was going with his NYC paper, which seemed to be modeled on his Litchfield County Times–an outlet for coverage on antique auctions, debutante balls, yacht races and other WASP foibles in Connecticut.

I was puzzled at the time why Arthur Carter would also be the publisher of the Nation Magazine, a journal that I had a strong identification with in the late 1980s and even sent donations to from time to time. Of course, it is much clearer to me in hindsight that Carter was part of a process to shift the magazine to the right, where it now sits as a kind of Kerberos of liberal orthodoxy.

I remember Bushnell’s column leaving me cold at the time. It was a hodge-podge of fictionalized references to the nightlife of Eurotrash, investment bankers, models and freelance writers that she had access to. Her columns left me cold because I had some familiarity with this world as well and what I saw left much to be desired. Escorted by an old friend from Hollywood and the Catskills, I had spent enough time in Nell’s (a trendy disco), the Hotel Chelsea (a Warhol hangout) and art galleries to know that these were not places to have an intelligent conversation, which for me is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Bushnell’s columns were transformed eventually into the highly acclaimed HBO series, which had its final episode last week. Co-Producer Sarah Jessica Parker played Carrie Bradshaw, who is loosely modeled on Bushnell. The three other lead characters were single females who like her were on a nonstop hunt for sexy men, great restaurants and drop-dead designer clothing. You never find any reference to the other NYC in this show. The stars never take subways, they are never confronted by homeless people and they never worry about AIDS. In other words, their NYC has about as much connection to the real thing as a Woody Allen movie, or its antecedent in another troubled time, the movies of Fred Astaire.

I would also have to confess that I became a big fan of this show over the past few months. I will explain why momentarily.

For people who had been watching the show for a long time, especially women who identified with the four co-stars, the final episode was a major event. People gathered together to watch it. The New York Times reported:

What better way to mark the end of “Sex and the City” than a ménage à 50?

Across New York, people commemorated the end of the cable television show that romanticized New York City for six seasons by massing together and tuning in. Bars pushed “Sex and the City” parties. Friends gathered at one another’s apartments. Out-of-towners bereft of cable posted desperate messages on Internet bulletin boards.

One party that captured the spirit and meaning of the show could be found inside a loft on West 49th Street. Fifty women, some in their 20’s and some in their 50’s, some friends and some strangers, piled onto couches and sat on the floor to watch the last unfurling of a television show that seemed always to be about them.

They got slightly drunk on wine and pomegranate-red Cosmopolitans, laughed at the same moments and cried through the ending. Some hooted and others clucked when the main character, a sex columnist named Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), decided to abandon her boyfriend in Paris and return to New York with a recurring love interest, known, until last night, only as Mr. Big (played by Chris Noth).

The show’s final punch line – that Mr. Big’s name is John – drew shrieks all around.

As people trickled into the cavernous white loft, they marveled how, over its six years, a show that began with jokes about oral sex and orgasms had become such a part of their lives.

“It’s a sad night for us,” said Jalande James, 29, who organized the party at the rented loft as part of Just Us Girls, a social network for women in New York. “We’ve lived with it for so long. When I moved here from Florida, I knew nobody. I’d watch ‘Sex and the City’ and think, ‘Oh my God, they have such wonderful lives.'”

In Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels”, a screwball comedy made in 1941, the eponymous lead character is a Hollywood director who has become highly successful making comedies, but who is frustrated with the studio’s refusal to allow him to make serious films about the working class. In other words, Sullivan appears to be a fictionalized representation of Sturges himself. Sullivan decides to go on the road disguised as an unemployed worker in order to learn about the working class firsthand. In a string of comic mishaps, he learns that workers are somewhat different than the idealized notion he had of them. In the stunning climax of this classic film, they show one of Sullivan’s comedies to an audience of chain gang prisoners. They laugh until they cry. This becomes an epiphany to Sullivan, who realizes that the gift of laughter is precious and that it helps us get through life.

That is my reaction to “Sex and the City”. In a time of deepening social and economic crisis, war and environmental despoliation, you need to laugh in order to keep from crying, as the title to a great Harry Edison jazz record once put it.

“Sex and the City” is one of the few laugh out loud comedies you can enjoy anywhere. With the collapse of Woody Allen, there are very few adult entertainments out there. Comedy has become cruder and more misanthropic, with the films of the Farrelly brothers setting the standard. As escapist fare, it ranks with the stories of P.J. Wodehouse that depicted a world of dotty English aristocrats having about as much relationship to reality as the glittery world of “Sex and the City”.

Here’s a summary of a typical week’s episode. If you think that you might enjoy this sort of thing–not everybody’s cup of tea I would be the first to admit–you can find all of the episodes in your local DVD/Video shops.

The girls are invited to the unlikely wedding of Carrie’s supposedly gay friend, flamboyant lounge singer Bobby Fine to society lady Bitsy Von Muffling. Stunned by the news, Carrie thinks about what it takes to make a relationship work. She asks: When it comes to saying ‘I do,’ is a relationship a relationship without the zsa zsa zsu (aka: that special something that gives you butterflies in the stomach)?

Charlotte’s new ‘just sex’ partner, Harry, invites her to be his date for the big Hamptons wedding. Charlotte worries about his crass behavior, but accepts provided that hairy Harry wax his back. In another not so clear relationship, Miranda inexplicably finds herself having sex with Steve. Meanwhile, Samantha calls upon the services of her ex, Richard, in another way: she arranges to throw a party at his house in the Hamptons.

On the way out to the Hamptons, Carrie runs into Jack Berger, who tells her he broke up with his girlfriend. Carrie can’t help but feel that zsa zsa zsu. At Samantha’s fabulous pool party, Carrie and Berger have a heart to heart about relationships past, but it’s too much for Berger to handle and he departs suddenly and swiftly. Carrie wonders if she should just throw in the towel and settle for a so-so relationship. Samantha struggles to enjoy herself because of the appearance of three of Richard’s bikini-clad bimbo babes. She accuses the party-crashers of freeloading but realizes that she herself is still hurting over the end of her affair with Richard.

At Bobby and Bitsy’s wedding, the girls find themselves moved by the mutual love of the bride and groom. It appears Bobby and Bitsy do have the zsa zsa zsu. Obviously inspired, Charlotte tells Harry mid-dance that she may be falling in love with him. He says he shares her feelings but that he’s Jewish and he has to marry a Jew. Also on the dance floor, Berger tells Carrie that he’d like to go on a date with her before they break up. Carrie is reminded why she refuses to settle for anything less than butterflies.

Sex and the City website: http://www.hbo.com/city/

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