Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 15, 2014

Karl Marx and hunting animals

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,farming,food — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

Of the three magazines that brandish “Review of Books” in their title, Los Angeles’s (http://lareviewofbooks.org/) leads the pack, at least from the standpoint of serving as a critic of capitalist society. In an epoch of imperial decay, that’s the most important criterion after all. At the bottom of the pile is New York’s (http://www.nybooks.com/), a publication that was pretty edgy in its early days, to the point of publishing Noam Chomsky and putting a David Levine drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the front page. Nowadays it is a snoozefest for elderly professionals, the print counterpart to PBS. In the center of the pack is the London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/), a journal that was distinguished by a takedown of Christopher Hitchens that was both laugh out loud and politically cogent. While it still is a source of trenchant social criticism, the LRB has a blind spot on Syria, offering its readers Seymour Hersh’s conspiracy theories about rebels gassing their families. It was up to the good people at the LARB to publish Muhammad Idrees Ahmed’s devastating critique of Hersh, a sign that it was not in thrall to pack journalism.

In the most recent issue of LARB, there’s an article by Jedediah Purdy titled “Killing It” that is accompanied by a drawing of an aproned Karl Marx holding up a bleeding chicken in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other. With such an image, it is no surprise that the article claims:

Writing 20 years before the first volume of Das Kapital appeared, Marx imagined desultory killing as one of the joys of human liberation. In a passage that became a touchstone for parts of the 1960’s New Left, he urged that a free person should be able to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner […] without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” This was the ideal of unalienated labor, spontaneous and expressive, exercising all human powers without ever turning the worker into the tool of her task.

To start with, I am not sure how much of a grasp that Purdy has of the 1960s New Left since he was born in 1974. In fact the New Left—strictly speaking—was much more into Marcuse than Marx.

Furthermore, like most people with a casual interest in Marx no matter their academic credentials, Purdy leaves out the rest of Marx’s sentence that can be found in the German Ideology:

He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In other words, Marx was not writing a paean to killing animals but rather making an observation about how a future communist society would allow the full development of human beings rather than the current state that forces them into limited economic roles. Indeed, rearing cattle is not exactly what most people would choose to do on a vacation as opposed to recreational hunting or fishing.

Jedediah Purdy, by David Levine in the NY Review of Books

Just a few words about Jedediah Purdy. He is a law professor at Duke University, where misinterpretations of Karl Marx are rampant even if well-intentioned. A cursory look at Michael Hardt’s oeuvre should bear that out.

If Zizek, another celebrity given to misinterpretations of Marx, is the Elvis super-star of Marxism, Jedediah Purdy basks in the glow of being rather super himself. An article in the April 10, 2006 Washington Post refers to him as “A Super-Scholar, All Grown Up and Still Theorizing”. A portrait of a wunderkind emerges:

When we reached him, Jedediah Purdy, now 31, was in his office at Duke University’s law school where he is an assistant professor, counseling a student in the throes of the seemingly inevitable “first year of law school crisis.” In his mid-twenties, though, Purdy was one of Washington’s intellectual darlings: ensconced at the New America Foundation — a think tank that bills itself as featuring “exceptionally promising new voices” — and named by Esquire magazine as one of the nation’s “best and brightest.”

Ensconced at the New America Foundation, Purdy made sure that nobody would confuse him with some kind of bomb-throwing anarchist: “Just let me echo about five million other progressives and say, Bring us someone who can do every night for a year what Barack Obama did in his keynote address to the DNC.”

Turning our attention now to Purdy’s “Killing It”, we learn that it is a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the “food movement”, for lack of a better term, that includes Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman at its helm. Purdy notes that Pollan went out hunting wild pigs with a .290 rifle and was pleased to have bagged a 190-pound creature.

In something that amounts to a sleight of hand, Purdy makes Karl Marx into a 19th century precursor of Michael Pollan as if communism, hunting and meat-eating were part of the same overall project of human emancipation:

Doing violence seems to force the doer either to celebrate it or to recoil in a futile effort to get the feeling out of one’s own nerves. Without much warrant, I suspect all of this informs the idea behind many ritual sacrifices: that the priests, or the community, either take the power of the animal into themselves or expel its pollution. Either way, the transaction is intimate, metabolic: the killer comes right up against the “specific expression” of life and powers that Marx was after.

Frankly, I doubt that bagging a wild pig with a .290 rifle is what “Marx was after”. Purdy, who grew up and was home-schooled in rural West Virginia, was into hunting as a youth. I suspect that he is capitalizing once again on his “good old boy” credentials that clearly sets him apart from the other faculty members at Duke who if given a choice would prefer tofu to shooting a wild animal.

The shortcomings to Purdy’s approach can be more obvious when you have a look at a scholarly article he wrote titled “Our Place in the World: a New Relationship for Environmental Ethics and Law”. It’s main concern was to identify some kind of ethical basis for the proper treatment of animals within the overall need for reproducing our species:

These situations—we can take the factory farm as just one example—are thoroughly artificial: we made them. We create and control the suffering of animals in these settings, and that fact is the prompt for ethical reflection. To call whatever we do to these animals “natural” would be to give up on ethical reflection altogether; and to imagine that reflecting on our own behavior must mean condemning lions and predatory insects would be far too quick and casual.

While I think that the ethical treatment of animals is fundamental and that both factory farming and hunting both involve unnecessary cruelty, there are more important issues for Marxists and even people like Jedediah Purdy. (In terms of hunting, since Purdy invokes the example of American Indians, perhaps the only “ethical” way to kill animals is with a bow and arrow since this puts hunter and hunted on a more equal footing.)

The real issue is how humanity can survive, something that the food movement barely recognizes, nor for that matter law professors with a smattering of Marxism under their belt. In my review of a rather good documentary titled “Food Inc.” that was based to a large degree on Pollan’s writings, I noted:

Although I strongly urge my readers to see this movie, I do feel obligated to offer some criticisms that get to the heart of my differences with Schlosser and Pollan, no matter how much I applaud their work. A significant part of the movie is devoted to an examination of Stonyfield yogurt, a product that is always in my refrigerator especially since yogurt is a staple of the Turkish dishes I enjoy preparing. The CEO of Stonyfield is one Gary Hirshberg who is seen conferring with Walmart representatives who were about to introduce his products to their vile stores. Hirshfield justifies dealing with Walmart because he believes that there is no alternative to capitalism, even though he doesn’t quite use those words. If we are going to make wholesome food grown in conditions respectful to the environment and to animals, you need retailers like Walmart to make the organic sector grow.

The press notes for “Food, Inc.” quotes Walmart on this score:

“Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.”

– Tony Airosa, chief dairy purchaser for the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which recently began carrying organically-produced food in its store. Wal-Mart has since stopped carrying milk containing growth hormone.

In my view, it is utopian to think that the factory food system will be transformed incrementally in this fashion. The Monsantos, Purdues, Tysons and Smithfields of this world are not going to be displaced by organic farming for the simple reason that they were produced by the forces of production that have taken a century to mature. American society is under enormous pressure to compete with other capitalist powers in an epoch of stagnating profits. As such, factory farming is geared to the economic imperatives of a nation that is being forced to attack the living standards of workers and farmers alike.

If any evidence of the bankruptcy of the system is needed, as well as its talent for self-deception, you can start with the White House itself—a symbol of American corporate power and its strategy for continued world domination.

When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, Michael Pollan hailed the move in the Huffington Post:

Perhaps the most encouraging action so far has come from the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has been speaking out about the importance of real, fresh food, home cooking and gardening. By planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, she launched a thousand victory gardens (vegetables seed is suddenly in short supply), gave conniptions to the pesticide industry (which wrote urging her to use some of their “crop protection products” whether she needed them or not), and at a stroke raised the profile and prestige of real food in America.

He also was encouraged by Obama’s appointments:

Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer — Kathleen Merrigan — as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department’s nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.

I wonder if Michael Pollan watched the movie he appeared in, since Monsanto was rightfully pilloried as using its control over genetically modified soybean seeds as a way of maintaining a monopoly over farmers, who once had the right to reuse seeds. (Monsanto patented the seeds and sues any farmer its detectives find in violation.)

In the final analysis, we need a socialist movement, not a food movement. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, there is a call for overcoming the breach between city and countryside: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Unless this is accomplished, the conditions for sustainable food production will diminish to the point of no return. It is not too hard to imagine that in a more rational human social environment, animals will be raised in humane conditions and only be turned into produce under the strictest and most humane conditions, which will almost certainly not entail bullets from a high-powered rifle equipped with a scope. Furthermore, by that point in our social evolution, we may have learned that beans cooked properly taste a whole lot better. I’ve had steak and I’ve had Indian dals. And if I had to choose a last meal, it would be a dal.

September 2, 2014

A Return to Rockaway

Filed under: Ecology,energy,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

This is a video I recorded last weekend in Rockaway, Queens—the epicenter of Hurricane Sandy. It is a follow-up to the video I made in November 2012, shortly after the hurricane had inflicted major damage in Rockaway including the deaths of local residents.

It is a report both on how the peninsula has recovered as well as the threats now posed by a natural gas pipeline being installed underneath Rockaway as part of a nationwide network built by the Williams Company, an outfit that can be described as the BP of natural gas pipelines.

August 28, 2014

Vandana Shiva answers Michael Specter

Filed under: Ecology,farming,india,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Screen shot 2014-08-28 at 1.42.49 PM

Read article

August 22, 2014

Gunning for Vandana Shiva

Filed under: Ecology,farming,science — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm
The New Yorker, GMOs and Chemical Farming

Gunning for Vandana Shiva

by LOUIS PROYECT

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the decline of the New Yorker magazine more than the hatchet job on Vandana Shiva that appears in the latest issue. Written by Michael Specter, the author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress”, the article is a meretricious defense of genetically modified organisms (GMO) relying on one dodgy source after another. This is the same magazine whose reputation was at its apex when Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking articles on DDT appeared in 1962. If DDT was once a symbol of the destructive power of chemicals on the environment, GMO amounts to one of the biggest threats to food production today. It threatens to enrich powerful multinational corporations while turning farmers into indentured servants through the use of patented seeds. Furthermore, it threatens to unleash potentially calamitous results in farmlands through unintended mutations.

Specter represents himself as a defender of science against irrational thinking. Since many activists regard Vandana Shiva as grounded in science, it is essential that he discredit her. For example, he mentions a book jacket that refers to her as “one of India’s leading physicists”. But when he asked her if she ever worked as a physicist, she invited him to “search for the answer on Google”. He asserts that he found nothing and furthermore that no such position was listed in her biography. Not that I would ever take an inflated publicity blurb that seriously to begin with (having read one too many of those for Slavoj Žižek), I wondered what being a physicist would have to do with GMO in the first place. Is a degree in particle physics necessary for understanding the transformation of vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone because of fertilizer-enriched algae?

read full article

UPDATE

Wouldn’t you just know it? Bard College hired GMO hustler Michael Specter as a Visiting Professor of Environmental and Urban Studies.

I suppose that makes sense given that Stewart Resnick is on the board of trustees, the agribusiness billionaire who has diverted water from the commoners in Fiji and California to improve his bottom line and buy more politicians. When a college hires a big-time promoter of GMO to lecture on the environment, you just chalk that up to Leon Botstein’s Wizard of Oz con artistry.

 

Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 12.48.03 PM

August 1, 2014

A letter to the author of “The Cancer Chronicles”

Filed under: Ecology,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 1:37 pm

Dear George Johnson,

I am currently reading “Cancer Chronicles” and am really impressed by both the elegance of your writing and your erudition.

I am a film critic and am doing some background research for a review of “Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering” that opens in NY on Aug.29. I used to work as a database administrator at Sloan-Kettering in the late 80s on patient registration systems and became interested in the “politics of cancer” as Samuel Epstein puts it, mostly as a function of my Marxist orientation. I read Epstein’s book while there and Robert Proctor’s “The Cancer Wars” much later on.

I noticed that–unlike Epstein–Proctor was hesitant to make a link between pollution and cancer. All this was in the back of my mind when I began reading your account of Love Canal yesterday that to my surprise concluded that there was no greater occurrence of cancer there than in the rest of NY state. I know that it is hard to argue with the data but I wonder whether your case would have been strengthened by a somewhat broader perspective.

I have been paying pretty close attention to China over the past 30 years ever since the country abandoned socialism (even a distorted version) and plunged full speed ahead into capitalist development with zero concern over health and safety. I seemed to have recalled many reports on cancer clusters–so to speak–over the years.

Refreshing my memory, I did a quick search and came up with this:

http://igov.berkeley.edu/content/water-pollution-and-digestive-cancers-china

> Water Pollution and Digestive Cancers in China
> author(s): Avi Ebenstein
> 2008
> Following China’s economic reforms of the late 1970s, rapid industrialization has led to
> a deterioration of water quality in the country’s lakes and rivers. China’s cancer rate has
> also increased in recent years, and digestive cancers (i.e. stomach, liver, esophageal) now
> account for 11 percent of fatalities (WHO 2002) and nearly one million deaths annually. This
> paper examines a potential causal link between surface water quality and digestive cancers
> by exploiting variation in water quality across China’s river basins. Using a sample of 145
> mortality registration points in China, I find using OLS that a deterioration of the water quality
> by a single grade (on a six-grade scale) is associated with a 9.3 percent increase in the death rate
> due to digestive cancer, controlling for observable characteristics of the Disease Surveillance
> Points (DSP). The analysis rules out other potential explanations for the observed correlation,
> such as smoking rates, dietary patterns, and air pollution. This link is also robust to estimation
> using 2SLS with rainfall and upstream manufacturing as instruments. As a consequence of the
> large observed relationship between digestive cancer rates and water pollution, I examine the
> benefits and costs of increasing China’s levy rates for firm dumping of untreated wastewater.
> My estimates indicate that doubling China’s current levies would save roughly 29,000 lives per
> year, but require an additional 500 million dollars in annual spending on wastewater treatment
> by firms, implying a cost of roughly 18,000 dollars per averted death.
>
> Attachment Size
> Pollution_in_China.pdf 904.88 KB

I know that you were not trying to write a comprehensive study of pollution and cancer but I was left with a worry that you were giving too much credence to an analysis I have seen over the years from Gina Kolata, your colleague at the NY Times,  who has downplayed environmental factors to the point where she seems like a pro-chemical industry hack.

April 4, 2014

Noah

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

Noah, Revised

A Hard Rain

by LOUIS PROYECT

More Tolkien than Torah, Darin Aronovsky’s “Noah” is a cinematic tour de force that combines breathtaking CGI-based imaginary landscapes with a film score by Clint Mansell that hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Even without a single minute of dialog, the film achieves the mesmerizing quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, especially the last installment Naqoyqatsi, the Hopi word for “Life at War”.

Like other films that view the bible as a theme to riff on in the manner of Miles Davis improvising on a banal tune like “Billy Boy”, Aronovsky takes the material of Genesis 5:32-10:1 and shapes it according to his own aesthetic and philosophical prerogatives. As might be expected, the Christian fundamentalists are not happy with the film since it turns Noah into something of a serial killer on an unprecedented scale, acting on what he conceives of as “the Creator’s” instructions, namely to bring the human race to an end. Religious Jews who have a literalist interpretation of the bible have been far less vocal, no doubt a function of the Hasidic sects viewing all movies as diversions from Torah studies. (For those with unfamiliarity with Jewish dogma, the Torah encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament that are replete with fables such as the Great Flood, many of which have inspired some classic cinematography, such as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea.)

Unlike the fable it is based on, Aronovsky’s Noah never received instructions about being fruitful and multiplying. His intention is to leave the planet to the animals and wind down the human race’s participation in the tree of life, to use the title of Terrence Malick’s overrated 2011 film. In my view, Aronovsky has much deeper thoughts and more sure-handed cinematic instincts than Malick could ever hope for. To pick only one scene, the massive moving carpet of animals headed toward the Ark is a CGI tour de force. Instead of a stately procession in circus parade fashion, it is more like a zoological tsunami that anticipates the great tsunami soon to follow.

read full article

The Unknown Known; Watermark

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Two legends of documentary filmmaking have seen better days. Last November I was disappointed to see Frederick Wiseman take the side of the university administration in its attempt to thwart student protests over escalating fees. If anything, Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”, opening at theaters everywhere today, is even more of a failure. It allows Donald Rumsfeld to defend himself for 103 minutes with hardly any tough questions from Morris, his interlocutor. And when he does stray into Mike Wallace “Sixty Minutes” territory, it is always with the absence of a follow-up. Indeed, the closest resemblance is not to Mike Wallace, but to Charlie Rose or Larry King, the masters of softball interviews.

The new film is obviously modeled on Morris’s 2003 “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” that gave the Johnson administration’s Pentagon boss a platform. That film was somewhat easier to swallow since it demonstrated that the war-maker was suffering from some pangs of conscience, including a scene with him weeping—one that it was easy to describe as a display of crocodile tears.

That was to be expected with a war in which American imperialism was the clear loser. With Iraq, there is no abiding sense that the Pentagon’s nose was bloodied. In fact, the main point that Rumsfeld makes throughout the film is that it was worth it, even going so far as to insist that there was no deliberate attempt to con the American people into believing that there were weapons of mass destruction.

On top of the ideological self-justifications, there is the added ordeal of putting up with Rumsfeld’s personality. He is one of the more insufferably vain and boring personalities that has ever emerged out of the military-industrial complex, an ambitious hustler who started out as a Nixon administration operative and moved upwards and onwards to the heights of the Pentagon under George W. Bush. With his cold smile and “gee whizzes”, and “goshes”, you hope for something—anything—that will knock him back on his heels. Needless to say, this is not to be expected from Errol Morris.

Morris and Rumsfeld even managed to frustrate the Washington Post, a pillar of the establishment:

In the film, Morris quotes a 2003 Washington Post poll showing that 69 percent of Americans believed Hussein was involved in 9/11, then cuts to Rumsfeld suggesting the same at a news conference when he sarcastically rejects suggestions to the contrary. “It isn’t a confrontation in the sense of [me] saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ ” Morris said. “But, golly gee whiz, it’s all there.”

If Morris’s oblique strategy invites frustration, so does Rumsfeld’s seeming inability or unwillingness to confront the implications of his policies and actions, whether they have to do with interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay or the planning of the war itself. Whereas “The Fog of War” presented a fascinating portrait of McNamara as a historical figure reflecting, often painfully, on the events he witnessed or authored, in “The Unknown Known,” Rumsfeld often offers vague, inconclusive cliches: About Vietnam, he says simply, “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.” About Iraq, “Time will tell.”

In attempt to better understand the career of the much-heralded Errol Morris, I checked Wikipedia and was startled to discover that the “edgy” documentary filmmaker lost his edge long ago:

Although Morris has achieved fame as a documentary filmmaker, he is also an accomplished director of television commercials. In 2002, Morris directed a series of television ads for Apple Computer as part of a popular “Switch” campaign. The commercials featured ex-Windows users discussing their various bad experiences that motivated their own personal switches to Macintosh. One commercial in the series, starring Ellen Feiss, a high-schooler friend of his son Hamilton Morris, became an Internet meme. Morris has directed hundreds of commercials for various companies and products, including Adidas, AIG, Cisco Systems, Citibank, Kimberly-Clark’s Depend brand, Levi’s, Miller High Life, Nike, PBS, The Quaker Oats Company, Southern Comfort, EA Sports, Toyota and Volkswagen. Many of these commercials are available on his website.

Finally, it is necessary to take stock of the Errol Morris legacy. Giving scumbags the right to hold forth unchallenged for over a hundred minutes has been seen in two other highly regarded films. The first is “Act of Killing” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/07/20/fact-versus-fiction-in-three-new-films/), a film that Morris actually co-produced and that gives Indonesian death squad leaders a chance to tell their part of the story, as if there was one. The other is “The Gatekeepers” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/01/31/the-gatekeepers/), an Israeli documentary that gives a platform to the Zionist entity’s military judges, a bunch of disgusting war criminals who go unscathed.

Don’t bother with this crappy movie. You can watch FOX-TV for free.

“Watermark” is the second film I have seen that is based on the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian who specializes in landscapes of the most sterile and industrialized places on earth, particularly in China where the government is on a forced march to “modernize”. His first was the aptly named “Manufactured Landscapes” that I reviewed in 2007, about which I said:

He is not the typical photographer. As a teenager, he worked in automobile assembly plants and gold mines in Northern Ontario. Although he refrains from editorializing in his photographs (as does this very fine documentary), it is very clear that he is appalled by this spectacle of “progress”. In one scene, he shows a neighborhood in Shanghai that has been razed in order to make way for spanking-new high rises, with the exception of one old house whose elderly female inhabitant refuses to move. The high rises were simply built around her. The million or so villagers who were about to lose their homes because of the construction of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam had no choice. The film shows them being paid by the government to demolish their homes to make way for the new reservoir that will be created by the dam.

In “Watermark”, he returns to the same preoccupations but more closely focused on the rivers, lakes, and underground reservoirs and the communities they serve that are jeopardized by unsustainable practices such as China’s megadams and irrigation dependent on the Ogalalla aquifer.

There are interviews with people whose lives and culture are deeply intertwined with traditional and more sustainable use of the water systems such as Chinese abalone fisherman who work communally and a Native American from northern British Columbia.

As in Burtynsky’s first film, the footage is ravishingly beautiful even when what is being seen threatens the health of the planet, such as the Chinese megadam. There are also some fascinating meditations on the special power of water, as a scientist notes that without water there cannot be life itself. For a plant or a human embryo to grow, it needs water. In fact, the amniotic fluid an embryo grows in is like a tiny ocean. Another scientist observes that water owes its existence solely to the accident of a comet—a huge snowball in effect—colliding with the planet earth billions of years ago.

February 14, 2014

How a Bard trustee and billionaire agribusinessman corrupts higher education

Filed under: bard college,Ecology,Education — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Stewart Resnick

The deep-going drought in California presents a fundamental challenge to the ecological status quo in which agribusiness trumps the needs of ordinary people relying on water for their dietary and sanitary needs. Does the right of a billionaire farmer to have his pomegranate or pistachio plantations irrigated trump that of a working person having a glass of water or being able to flush his or her toilet? It so happens that Stewart Resnick–the billionaire in question–is on the board of Bard College, an institution with enormous pretensions to social responsibility and Green values.

But his ties to Bard are small potatoes compared to UCLA, where he is a member of the executive board of the UCLA Medical Sciences, the advisory board of the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the advisory board of the Lowell Milken Institute for Business Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law. The name Lowell Milken might ring a bell. He was the younger brother of securities crook Michael Milken with whom he worked at Drexel-Burnham and like his brother was charged with racketeering. Michael cut a deal with the prosecutors. He’d plead guilty if they let his kid brother go free—just the sort of person you’d want a business law department to be named after.

Stewart Resnick is a latter-day Noah Cross. If you’ve seen “Chinatown”—for my money, one of the 10 greatest movies ever made in the USA—you’ll remember that character as a water utility CEO who conspired to divert precious water resources to agribusiness. Resnick has made huge donations to the Democratic Party in California to make sure that the tap is never turned off for his irrigation pumps. And all the while Resnick and his wife Linda unleash a steady barrage of advertising and PR trying to make the case that their agribusinesses ranging from pomegranates to Fiji bottled water are good for the planet.

In doing some research for this piece, I stumbled across an article in the August 8, 2009 Financial Times that is mind-boggling in its failure to acknowledge the double-dealing of people like Resnick. Interestingly enough, it is a profile on UCLA’s most famous professor: Jared Diamond. Diamond wrote a book called “Collapse” that warned about the looming environmental crisis. His solution called for developing partnerships with companies like Chevron. In a December 5, 2009 op-ed piece in the NY Times, Diamond wrote: “Not even in any national park have I seen such rigorous environmental protection as I encountered in five visits to new Chevron-managed oil fields in Papua New Guinea.” Chevron, of course, is the same oil company that is fighting tooth and nail to prevent Ecuador from collecting on damages to farmland and water supplies from Texaco’s drilling (Chevron took over Texaco some years ago and is unwilling to be responsible for its liabilities.)

The Financial Times reports:

As he moves between fridge and table, he [Diamond] launches into his pomegranate story. “Pomegranate was one of the first fruits domesticated in the world. It was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 4000 BC,” he says. “A friend of mine, a very successful businessman, bought farm acreage in the central valley of California, which is the most productive agricultural area in the US. And there happened to be 100 acres of pomegranates, about which he knew very little. So he started learning about them and discovered how healthy they are, that they are full of vitamins and full of antioxidants and that they may be a treatment for prostate cancer.”

The friend, Stewart Resnick, had the capital and commercial acumen to spread the message to the US consumer. Thus did the pomegranate boom begin, and the fruit make its way to the refrigerators of 21st-century America. The story somehow captures Diamond. We have the awe of ancient civilisations, the physical explanation of the fertile soil of ancient Mesopotamia and modern California, and the accident of his friend’s financial resources and ingenuity. In this way, all things, big and small, come to pass.

I suppose if you are going to promote Chevron, the logical next step is to promote Stewart Resnick’s POM juice, an ubiquitous product on grocery store shelves. I wonder if Diamond got paid for making this commercial or whether he did it out of gratitude for all the millions that the Resnicks have lavished on UCLA. You’ll note that Diamond qualifies POM as a cure for prostate cancer with the careful “may be”. He probably knew that the authorities were about to shut down the Resnick’s bullshit advertising campaigns that centered on its “miracle” cancer-curing powers, a claim that has about as much scientific value as copper bracelets relieving the pains of arthritis, etc.

Seven days ago San Francisco CBS News reported on a major lawsuit that challenged agribusiness’s right to divert water for pistachios, pomegranates, etc. while ordinary people go thirsty.

But there is one place where there’s no shortage of water. The bountiful pomegranate, almond and pistachio fields of Paramount Farms are as green as ever.

You wouldn’t know it because you can’t see it. But there is a huge underground water reservoir on the south end of the Central valley, near Bakersfield. It’s four times as big as Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

It’s called the Kern Water Bank. And it’s majority controlled by two of the state’s biggest agribusinesses: Paramount Farms, a division of Roll International, and Tejon Ranch Company.

So guess who owns Roll International? Bingo. You got it. The fucking Resnicks. That’s the holding company for their agribusiness empire. An alliance of environmentalists is suing to break the stranglehold of Roll and Tejon on the water supplies while the Resnicks can be expected to use their influence on the courts and the politicians to maintain the status quo.

It is also of strategic importance for the Resnicks to have UCLA on their side. Just as the Koch brothers spread their millions around to get economics departments to preach the values of deregulation and a balanced budget, so do the Resnicks effectively bribe one of the country’s most prestigious universities (big-time Marxists Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson teach there) to get them on Roll International’s side.

Yesterday I got the latest news on the Resnick shenanigans from Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade paper that I have been reading ever since I went to work for Columbia University in 1991. I started reading it to keep track of IT developments but soon learned that it was a good source for news on how academia is exploited by the rich and the powerful to suit their needs. Every so often it reports on Leon Botstein’s dodgy deals, like hosting a seminar on the advanced philosophical theories of a nitwit jeweler in New York who must have donated a small fortune for that privilege.

Unfortunately, the article “For UCLA, Pomegranate Research Is Sweet and Sour” is behind a paywall but I would be happy to send a copy to anybody who requests one. The Chronicle reports:

“Drink to Prostate Health.” “The Antioxidant Superpill.” “Take Out a Life Insurance Supplement.” Pomegranates are a superfood, or at least that’s what ads told us for years in newspapers and magazines.

Those ads have now vanished. They were banned as part of a lengthy battle between the couple behind Pom Wonderful, the company responsible for the ads and the federal government. Tangled up in that dispute, in more ways than one, is the University of California at Los Angeles.

In an opinion issued last year, the Federal Trade Commission found that 36 ads and other promotional materials for Pom Wonderful products, many of which cited UCLA studies and quoted UCLA experts, were false or deceptive. An order now prohibits Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Pom’s owners, from making any disease-related claims about Pom or any product of their holding company, Roll Global, during the next 20 years unless they have substantiated those claims through at least two well-controlled, randomized clinical trials. The Resnicks appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last August.

The continuing legal battle has highlighted the complications that can arise when people have multiple relationships with a university, as the Resnicks do with UCLA.

The couple has given generously to various parts of the university. They’ve provided money to UCLA scientists to do research. They have engaged some of those same researchers to act as advisers. They paid the chief of the UCLA Health System more than $120,000 from 2010 to 2012. Two of the Resnicks’ expert witnesses at the FTC trial were from UCLA.

Last summer the university created the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy in the university’s School of Law, through a $4-million gift from the couple. The program’s founding executive director, Michael T. Roberts, worked as special counsel at Roll Law Group, part of Roll Global, for five years.

It is not uncommon for industry donors and university researchers to have more than one connection. But, says Josephine Johnston, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, an independent institution that studies bioethics, she cannot recall hearing of a relationship as multilayered as the one between the Resnicks and UCLA. Such relationships “could actually create some kind of bias or impaired judgment” in researchers, she says, but even if they don’t, “they raise this question about how independent and trustworthy the institution is.”

Well, obviously the institution is neither independent nor trustworthy. As is the case with all other sectors of the economy, the modern university is very much a corporate entity with tentacles from the Resnick’s or the Koch’s reaching into ever pore of its body.

The article continues:

Another UCLA scientist who has played more than one role with the Resnicks’ companies is David Heber, an emeritus professor of medicine and public health, and founding director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. He is on the Pistachio Health Scientific Advisory Board for Paramount Farms, a Roll Global company. He said in an email message that he is paid an annual honorarium of $2,500 for that role.

Dr. Heber also participated in studies on Pom products and pistachios, was quoted in promotional materials for Pom, and served as one of the Resnicks’ expert witnesses.

No one at UCLA Health Sciences agreed to be interviewed for this article, although a few researchers and Ms. Tate responded to questions by email.

Gosh, only $2500 to promote the Resnicks’ snake oil. I know call girls who would be insulted by such a low-ball offer.

Then there is David T. Feinberg, who is president of the UCLA Health System and chief executive of the UCLA Hospital System. The Chronicle report states:

Last May in Maryland, several students from the organization [Students Against Sweatshops] confronted Dr. Feinberg as he stood on stage to give a speech at the national conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine. One of them read a letter objecting to his and UCLA’s financial relationship with Pom.

In state disclosure forms, Dr. Feinberg, a psychiatrist, indicated that he received between $10,001 and $100,000 from the Stewart & Lynda Resnick Revocable Trust in 2010 and again in 2012, and more than $100,000 in 2011, for his role as a “consultant/adviser.”

Government is for sale. The media is for sale. Higher education is for sale. All these bastards are no different then the Chinese or Bangladeshi officials getting pay-offs from American corporations to look the other way when a sweatshop is a firetrap or workers are getting paid for 8 hours work when they are putting in 12. But at least you understand that a Bangladeshi or a Chinese bureaucrat is taking bribes on a straightforward basis. The dollars that Nike or Walmart lays on him is meant to pay for a BMW and a country house. But in the case of these UCLA professors and administrators lining up at the Resnick trough, there is the claim that they are fighting prostate cancer or saving the planet. Dante should have created a 10th circle in Hell just for them.

January 6, 2014

The New York Times’s free advertisement for genetically modified crops

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

University of Hawaii officers hold up Monsanto gift–no strings attached, of course

I am not sure when I began reading the N.Y. Times on daily basis but it must have been just after I graduated Bard College in 1965 and moved to New York City. So addicted I became to the paper that I had recurring bad dreams a few years ago about waking up much later than usual on a Sunday morning and desperately searching newsstands for a copy of the Sunday Times to no avail. In all the years I have been reading the paper, I have never run into a more biased and misleading article than the one that appeared yesterday—a Sunday—under the title “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” by Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Amy Harmon. This 5442-word article reads as if someone working for Monsanto wrote it. Harmon, like Clifford Krause who is a shameless propagandist for fracking in the paper’s business section, is clearly an industry spokesperson. Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism as this excerpt bears out:

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

A number of the pro-GM scientists Harmon refers to are at the University of Hawaii. From the university’s newspaper:

The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa received $500,000 from Monsanto Company to establish the Monsanto Research Fellows Fund. The fund will assist graduate students pursuing a masters or PhD degree and post doctoral researchers at the college related to the study of plant science and protection.

 “We are very grateful to Monsanto Company for its generous financial support of CTAHR students engaged in agricultural research – Hawai‘i’s future leaders of sustainable industries and a strong, diversified economy,” said UH Mānoa Chancellor Virginia S. Hinshaw.

Harmon dismisses the idea that the contribution might have an influence on the school by quoting an administration figure that said that the money is only one percent of the school’s budget.

This question of corporate ties to pro-GM scientists is a sensitive one since Monsanto and other such firms have such a shitty reputation. Harmon cites a blog that supports her case:

“Just as many on the political right discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warming, many progressive advocacy groups disregard, reject or ignore the decades of scientific studies demonstrating the safety and wide-reaching benefits” of genetically engineered crops, Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, wrote on the blog of the nonprofit Biology Fortified.

If you go to Biology Fortified, you will get these assurances on their financial information page:

The site hosting costs of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI) were initially footed by the founding editors, and currently the majority of financial support for these overhead costs comes from individual personal donations. BFI is not supported by any companies, government entities, or political parties.

Now I don’t know if Pamela Ronald says the things she says because Monsanto is paying her under the table, but one has to wonder about the journalistic integrity of Amy Harmon by accepting Ronald’s word at face value in light of the reporting on her work at Independent Science News just six weeks before Harmon’s article appeared. Does the N.Y. Times care that Harmon was trawling through the garbage for support? Apparently not. In the article titled “Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?”, we discover:

Did Pamela Ronald jump, or was she pushed?

In fact, scientific doubts had been raised about Ronald-authored publications at least as far back as August 2012. In that month Ronald and co-authors responded in the scientific journal The Plant Cell to a critique from a German group. The German researchers had been unable to repeat Ronald’s discoveries in a third Ax21 paper (Danna et al 2011) and they suggested as a likely reason that her samples were contaminated (Mueller et al 2012).

Furthermore, the German paper also asserted that, for a theoretical reason (3), her group’s claims were inherently unlikely.

In conclusion, the German group wrote:

“While inadvertent contamination is a possible explanation, we cannot finally explain the obvious discrepancies to the results in..…..Danna et al. (2011)”

Pamela Ronald, however, did not concede any of the points raised by the German researchers and did not retract the Danna et al 2011 paper. Instead, she published a rebuttal (Danna et al 2012) (4).

The subsequent retractions, beginning in January 2013 (of Lee et al 2009 and Han et al 2011), however, confirm that in fact very sizable scientific errors were being made in the Ronald laboratory. But more importantly for the ‘Kudos to Pam’ story, it was not Pamela Ronald who initiated public discussion of the credibility of her research.

Harmon can’t resist taking a potshot at Vandana Shiva, who is probably the best known critic of GM crops in the world today:

Monsanto’s cotton, engineered with a gene from bacteria to ward off certain insects, had “pushed 270,000 farmers to suicide” since the company started selling it in India in 2002, the activist Vandana Shiva said in a Honolulu speech Ms. Wille attended.

But in Nature, a leading academic journal, Mr. Ilagan [a Hawaiian elected politician who favors GM] found an article with the subhead “GM Cotton Has Driven Farmers to Suicide: False.”

You can read Shiva’s rebuttal to the Nature article here but I think it is far more worthwhile to consider what India’s Supreme Court has decided. In October 2012 they called for a 10 year ban on Monsanto’s GM cotton over worries that “transgenics can contaminate and adversely affect the biodiversity”. The last time I checked the Indian Supreme Court was not exactly a champion of poor peasants or environmental safety. Something must be going on, no?

Furthermore, the Hindustan Times reported on March 26, 2012 that a “Secret govt note says Bt cotton failing, leading to farmer suicides” had been leaked to the press. The government agency referred to in the article was the Ministry of Agriculture, which like the Supreme Court was not to be mistaken for Vandana Shiva even on its best days.

Harmon makes the case that genetically modified papayas have been a boon to the Hawaiian economy relying on the expertise of one Jon Suzuki. Unfortunately, she neglects to mention that he is an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, an agency that has been presented with over 5,000 applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops. Not a single one has been denied.

This is now the third article in a row in which Harmon has made the case for GM crops. So egregious has been her advocacy that it has even attracted the notice of the Columbia Journalism Review that gave her the benefit of the doubt, no doubt a function of the journalism school’s cozy relationship to the gray lady. I do recommend a look at it, however, since it will give you an idea of the amount of controversy Amy Harmon has been generating. It is focused on food policy expert Michael Pollan’s disapproving tweet of an earlier Harmon article: “Important NYT story on GM oranges; 2 many industry talking pts.” For those unaccustomed to the 140-character straight jacket imposes, the 2 means too. The concluding paragraphs of the CJR article will give you a sense of the authoritative journal’s unease with Amy Harmon’s reporting, despite her Pulitzer Prize (but then again Thomas Friedman has a wheelbarrow full of them.)

In many ways this is less a clash of journalistic ethics than of journalistic styles. Pollan would like Harmon to use more of the history and economics of crop modification to give a picture of Monsanto’s cornering of the market. Harmon explicitly chose to leave out such scope to focus on the narrative at hand. “I didn’t consider it my responsibility to put in 20 years of the GMO debate,” she says.

But without a fact-driven chronicling of GMO’s lineage, Harmon’s story of innovation lacks what Pollan considers crucial context. “Should we be debating what GM might do to feed the 9 billion, or should we debate what, after 15 years in the market, it can and has done,” he says. “They’re always trying to get us to focus on these wonders to come. And I’m looking forward to the wonders to come too. I just haven’t seen them yet.”

November 12, 2013

Musicwood

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 10:23 pm

While most of my readers understand that the environmental crisis threatens humanity’s survival, that understanding revolves generally around issues that effect us as a species. This is typified by the loss of foodstuffs and the increase of catastrophic flooding such as demonstrated by the typhoon that just wreaked havoc in the Philippines–very likely the result of the wanton production of greenhouse gases.

But there is more to the equation than that. The environmental crisis also threatens the extinction of many animals, whose loss also affects us in a material way. When predators like the eagle disappear, carcinogenic chemical pesticides become the rule. But the extinction of animals such as the polar bear, the raptor, the orangutan, and the tiger also lessen us culturally. What would our world be if it is left with the pigeon, the rat, and us? It is the same as burning Rembrandts.

“Musicwood”, a documentary that plays at the Quad in NY through Thursday (the film is also available on ITunes and DVD), poses the question of what our world would be like if the great guitars became extinct as well. It turns out that the sounding board of a Gibson or a Martin (the top of the line of which can cost close to $200,000) relies on the Sitka Spruce tree that can be found in the Tongass National Forest of Southeastern Alaska on land that is owned by a First Nations corporation called Sealaska. Although I referred positively to the Inuit and to the tribes resisting the tar sands extraction of Canada as examples of the ecological Indian, I now realize I was being somewhat reductionist. In reality, native peoples have frequently made deals with oil, mining and lumber companies to profit from unsustainable practices on tribal lands. Sealaska unfortunately is one of the most egregious examples, allowing clearcutting of trees ranging from 300 to 600 years old with the raw materials shipped off to Asia where they become furniture or construction material. In the grand scheme of things, it is not much different than burning Rembrandts.

The film makes it clear that the beneficiaries of this wasteful practice are the tribal elite who serve on the board of directors of Sealaska with a couple of non-native men who have spent their careers in the lower 48 states supervising clearcutting operations. They are the moral equivalent of those who are responsible for mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

The two First Nations people on the Sealaska board who are featured in the documentary are hostile to Greenpeace since it has made preserving Tongass a priority. Rosita Worl, a Tlingit who serves on the board of trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian, sets the tone by referring to Greenpeace as the outsiders who want to “save the whale” at the expense of native peoples. As someone who has stood up for the right of the Makah to hunt whales against the interference of the Sea Shepherds, I might have been sympathetic to her objections but there’s a huge difference between a whale or two being killed by a tiny band of Indians desperate to maintain their cultural heritage as opposed to an entire rainforest being turned into coffee tables for sale at Pier One.

The ordinary Indian, who is a shareholder in Sealaska, has no problem seeing through the elite’s pretensions. One native woman shrewdly observes that not a single penny of the corporation’s profits has filtered down into her pocketbook. She and her family, like most other ordinary folks, survive by catching salmon and hunting deer while the Rosita Worls of their world go to cocktail parties in Washington and receive handsome salaries for serving on the board of Sealaska.

The nominal heroes of the film are a Greenpeace lobbyist and a group of guitar industry presidents who understand the need to preserve Tongass through the auspices of Musicwood (http://www.musicwood.org/), an advocacy group that is supported by world-class musicians such as Steve Earle and Ya Lo Tengo who are seen in the film. Unfortunately the guitar companies can be as easily seduced by the dollar as the native elite. We learn that the FBI raided Gibson Guitars for using unlicensed rosewood and ebony from Madagascar.

The struggle to preserve Tongass is ongoing. Like the equally essential “People of a Feather” I reviewed for Counterpunch last Friday, the film’s website points you in the direction of valuable resources. I strongly recommend the purchase of the film for high school and college classes since it poses the question of how capitalism pits people against each other without bludgeoning you over the head in didactic fashion. It challenges the student to think about how justice can be served in a period of declining expectations—mostly a function of the need to preserve corporate profits.

Director Maxine Trump has done an excellent job of making her material appeal to anybody concerned about the planet’s future. In the press notes, she states:

Working with our editor, we simplified the politics as much as possible without doing disservice to anyoneʼs issues, and let the passion, the music, and the spiritual essence of the film take over. We had to make sure we werenʼt taking on anyoneʼs agenda; we let the facts speak for themselves, and got to the truth of the situation.

She has succeeded admirably. Very highly recommended.

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