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.

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.

 

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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.”

January 4, 2014

Old Dog; Old Partner

Filed under: farming,Film,Korea,Tibet — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Now that I have gotten through the “prestige” Hollywood movies the studio sent me in November and December, I can finally get back to the kind of movie that I really care about—the leftwing documentary or the narrative film made in some peripheral nation on a shoestring budget featuring a non-professional cast. When I took one look at the back of the DVD for “Old Dog”, I knew I was back on native ground:

When a young man notices several thefts of mastiffs from Tibetan farm families, he decides to sell his family’s dog before it is stolen and sold on the black market. His father, an aging Tibetan herder, is furious when he discovers their dog missing. When the father seeks to buy the dog back, it leads to a series of tragicomic events that threaten to tear the family apart, while showing the erosion of Tibetan culture under the pressures of contemporary society.

Ah, just my kind of film. Given the theme, I was willing to cut the film a lot more slack than something like “Inside Llewyn Davis”. Fortunately, the film succeeded just as much as art as it did as social commentary.

The Tibet of “Old Dog” has nothing in common with the idealized version that revolves around the Dalai Lama and snow-capped mountains. This is not Shangri-La but a landscape of arid rolling hills and dirt roads. The main character, a young unemployed longhaired alcoholic man named Gonpo (Drolma Kyab), is seen as the film begins driving a noisy and underpowered motorcycle slowly along a dirt road with a strange looking dog with matted fur trailing behind him attached to a chain.

Wary about the growing number of dog thefts in rural Tibet where the breed—a Tibetan mastiff coveted by rich Chinese yuppies in the same way that some Americans dote on French bulldogs—is used to herd sheep rather than be shown off on a leash in a rich neighborhood, Gonpo has decided to sell the dog to a man in the nearest town who sells them to Chinese customers.

With the proceeds, he has lunch with his cousin, the local chief of police, and then spends some more on getting drunk. He returns late at night and teeters back into the house he shares with his father, a man who still dresses in traditional garb and raises sheep on a hillside, and his wife. The next day his father is angry that he has sold the dog behind his back and demands that he bring it back. That he does, but not without complications. Like their dogs, the Tibetan rural folk with roots in a nomadic mode of existence, have an uphill battle against the dominant Chinese nationality.

Although the film has an important message to deliver, it is not preachy. For those familiar with the deadpan minimalist irony of an Aki Kaurismäki or a Jim Jarmusch will be familiar with director Pema Tseden’s style. In an iconic scene, you see father, son, and daughter-in-law sitting glassy-eyed in front of a poorly focused television set watching a Chinese infomercial for a bracelet that looks like gold but that is even better.

“Old Dog” can be seen on Amazon.com and is well worth it for those looking for a film off the beaten track. It doesn’t get much more off than this jewel of a film.

Probably by coincidence, “Old Dog” has much in common with “Old Partner”,  Korean film that mourns the passing of a traditional way of life embodied in a work animal’s role in the life of country people. I reviewed the film, which is now available as a Netflix DVD, back in December of 2009. I will repeat the review now just to allow you to read them side-by-side for comparison’s sake.

In keeping with the high standards of the Korean film industry that I have called attention to in past reviews, one is a documentary titled “Old Partner” showing at the Film Forum. The “old partner” referred to in the title is a 40 year old ox on his last legs, the prize possession of Choi Won-kyun and Lee Sam-soon, husband and wife farmers, who are stooped over from old age and backbreaking work. The general mood of the film evokes Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

In the same manner as Gray’s poem, there is a muted but recognizable rejection of industrialism’s benefits. Choi refuses to use insecticide because it threatens to poison his ox. He also refuses to use a rice-harvesting machine because too many grains will be lost. Even though he is in his 80s, he prefers to gather up the rice by hand. His wife, who is forced to work alongside him, nags him throughout the film. Sell the ox. Get a machine. Use insecticide. He ignores her all the while, facilitated no doubt by the fact that he is nearly deaf. Meanwhile, the only sound he strains to hear is the bell attached to his ox’s neck that provides a kind of soundtrack throughout the film. Its constant tinkling reminds you more of a Buddhist temple than hard labor, accentuated by the sight of the beast’s oddly beatific gaze.

Choi travels everywhere in a cart drawn by his beloved ox, even to the nearest city where he observes a demonstration by local activists against the importation of American cattle. They chant “No to Mad Cow!” Choi says not a word as he trudges slowly by, but it is clear that he is in sympathy, as is the film’s director no doubt.

An interview with director Lee Chung-ryoul is worth quoting in its entirety:

Where did the idea from the movie come from? Why do you think it was important to make this film?

I happened to visit a cattle market for coverage in 1999 where I saw an ox shed tears looking at his former owner as he was being pulled away by his new owner. That moment reminded me of my father’s ox from my childhood.

Before industrialization, the business of the Korean countryside was the sole domain of oxen and our fathers. They were heroes, idols and the driving force of Korean agricultural development. Since industrialization, however, they had nothing to do. Oxen became only beef; our fathers retired and aged with an aging town.

The situation makes me sad. So I wanted to recollect the devotion and beautiful sympathy of farmers and oxen in this film, and the scenery might be the last moment of this age. This film is dedicated to the oxen and our fathers devoted to this land.

How did you meet this farmer?

For five years, I traveled around the nation to find a proper ox and farmer. In early 2005, someone told me there was a proper man and an ox in a small town in Bong-wha. I was so lucky to encounter them.

What elements of the South Korean culture are portrayed in the movie?

Before the introduction of farm machinery to the countryside, our farms totally depended upon oxen. This film portrays the core of Korean agricultural practices. Also, it shows aspects of traditional Korean culture, such as patriarchy, unequal conjugal relationships and the commitment of parents to educate their children at any cost. It also shows the affection for oxen, who are considered family members and collaborative partners, not just animals.

 

October 3, 2013

Three environmental films of note

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Two of the documentaries under review here are focused on rivers, while the third takes a close look at soil. Given the mounting environmental crisis, they achieve an urgency that would put them at the top of any serious filmgoer’s “must see” list. The fact that all three are fully realized works of art, independent of their topic, recommends them even more. Those looking for escapist fantasies should not feel the need to read any further. Of course, any of my regular readers are the film audience elite and would be well advised to continue reading.

Although I have seen a number of very good documentaries on organic farming, “Symphony of the Soil” is the first to ground them (excuse me for the bad pun) in soil chemistry. The first half of the film is a guided tour of various locales by some of the world’s leading soil chemists, ranging from fjords to rain forests, with an emphasis on how soil becomes fertile. Like most people, I suppose, the idea of listening to a scientist explain the differences between different kinds of soil might seem dry as dust (excuse me for another bad pun) but it is almost impossible not to be swept along by their passion. In some ways the film is a throwback to the classic Disney nature films of the 1950s like “The Living Desert”. If you loved those films as a kid, you will find “Symphony of the Soil” impossible to resist. If you have kids, this is the quintessential family film.

My interest in soil chemistry is heightened by my reading of John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” that described in great detail the ecological crisis of the 19th century, namely the loss of soil fertility. The crisis was so deep that scavengers went through battlefield remains looking for bones that could be pulverized into fertilizer. The “guano wars” between Peru and Chile were fought over control over the fertilizer-rich islands in the Pacific.

“Symphony of the Soil” describes how this crisis was resolved in the 20th century though the discovery of chemical-based nitrogen fertilizers. This was the so-called Haber process, named after Fritz Haber who was involved with military research. His goal was to procure the chemical compounds that could be used for explosives, a reminder of how Timothy McVeigh was able to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. It was with a bomb based on 200 pounds of ammonium nitrate from a farm supply company.

In a way, chemical fertilizers became just as deadly even though they were touted as solving the hunger problem through the much-heralded Green Revolution. When chemical nitrates are introduced into the soil, they are absorbed into the water at a much greater rate than organic fertilizers and eventually leach into the rivers and lakes where they accelerate the growth of algae and rob marine life of much needed oxygen. The net result in one instance is the presence of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of New Jersey and expanding rapidly.

The final half of the film is a guided tour of organic farms across the world with farmers who are as passionate about their responsibilities to Mother Earth as the soil chemists that preceded them. I found the interview with Jaspal Singh Chattha, a Sikh farmer living in Punjab, particularly interesting. Chattha is the hope for farming in India, a nation whose reliance on chemical-based farming and its heavy capital outlays has led to a suicide epidemic.

“Symphony of the Soil” is aptly named. The photography is first-rate, including many time-lapse images of plants and flowers growing that come out of the Disney tradition. The film score is also top-notch.

Deborah Koons Garcia directed “Symphony of the Soil”. In 2004 she made “The Future of Food” that took aim at the genetic modification industry and about which I wrote:

The film gives one example after another of how elected politicians serve on the board of Monsanto and related companies. It also documents the incestuous relationship between their high-level employees and federal agencies meant to regulate them. It is not unusual for some top manager of Monsanto to take a job with the FDA, which is analogous to an Exxon executive going to work for the EPA. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican, have been co-opted as shills for biotechnology. In 1997, Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, joined the Monsanto board where William Ruckelshaus, Nixon’s EPA director, already sat. One wonders why the property-owning class bothers with the pretense of democracy at this point. It would be far more honest if the government was simply made up of CEO’s selected at random from Fortune 100 companies.

“Symphony of the Soil” opens at the Quad Cinema in NY on October 11th. If you can’t make it to the theater, I strongly urge you to buy the DVD from the film’s website (http://www.symphonyofthesoil.com/watch/buy-dvds/). This is a film that would be of great significance for both the high school and university classrooms. It unites art and science in a way that sets the standard for such documentaries henceforth.

When I got email from Icarus Films about their new acquisition, I said to myself that this was a must:

Unbeknownst to today’s city-dwellers, buried beneath nearly every major metropolis are a network or convergence of rivers. As urban living grew with the Industrial Revolution, these rivers became conduits for disease and pollution. The 19th-century solution was the merge them with sewer systems and hide them underground. These rivers still run through the cities of today, but they do so out of sight. LOST RIVERS examines hidden waterways around the world from the United States to the United Kingdom, from Korea to Italy. Viewers are introduced to environmentalists and urban explorers re-discovering their city’s network of medieval rivers. As climate change forces us to reconsider the relationship between built and natural environments, a fascinating secret of contemporary ecology is revealed.

If you are a native New Yorker, you are probably aware of a road called the Saw Mill River Parkway, a prime route into the city from the north. The river, a tributary of the Hudson, runs alongside the highway until its final leg into Mount Vernon, a suburb that has seen its better days.

In the 1920s the city fathers decided to literally bury the river under what is called a flume, a tunnel in effect, that effectively turned the river into part of the city’s sewer system. As was the case everywhere underground rivers went through such “scientific engineering”, there were unintended consequences. In heavy rainstorms, the sewer system became overloaded and the waters below came rushing out of drainpipes saturated with feces and other pollutants.

Mount Vernon decided to return the river to the surface as part of an effort to beautify the downtown and to allow native species to thrive once again. Despite some temporary dislocations for local small businesses, the project has been an overwhelming success.

While it may not come as a big surprise to see a suburb of New York move in such a direction, it is quite a revelation to see that Seoul has embarked down the same road. An underground river has been reclaimed there as well, leading to sense of well-being for urban society that now has a healthy and beautiful resource in its midst. In a very real sense, such projects are analogous to the decision made in the 19th century to create Central Park in New York.

It is understandable that environmentalism is framed in terms of functionality, as if its dictates serve as a kind of RX for a sick planet. But when you see an underground river rescued from obscurity and made the centerpiece of a downtown metropolis, you realize that being surrounded by beauty is as important as being surrounded by clean air and water. A week ago when I was running in Central Park, I saw a green heron in the reservoir and stood there mesmerized for a minute or two. The salvation of the planet has to be understood in spiritual as well as physical terms and “Lost Rivers” is a good place to start.

Go to the Icarus website (http://icarusfilms.com/) for information on how to view this groundbreaking film.

“A River Changes Course” is a poignant study of the struggle of Cambodian fishermen to make a living against a backdrop of ecological crisis and declining marine life in the waters near Phnom Penh, the capital city. It is directed by Kalyanee Mam, a young Cambodian woman who served as cinematographer on Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”.

Despite their relative closeness to the city, the people featured in Mam’s documentary appear to live under conditions that prevailed 100 years ago. Mostly Muslim, they survive as traders hooked into local markets that they rely on for cash to purchase essentials like clothing and food.

As is the case everywhere in the world, small, subsistence fishermen are being crowded out by much larger and much more technologically advanced commercial fishermen who care little about environmental sustainability.

Not only are the river’s riches being squandered, so are the rain forests that surround the river. As is happening throughout Asia, the forests are being cleared to make room for plantations producing export crops. In this particular instance, the main exploiters are Chinese who not only take over the land but also turn desperately poor Cambodians into virtual slaves on the plantations.

“A River Changes Course” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York and on October 11, 2013 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles. If circumstances prevent you from attending a screening, I urge you to visit the film’s website at http://ariverchangescourse.com and to read the press notes as well for useful background on the political economy of contemporary Cambodia.

September 28, 2013

Utopia in the Catskills

Filed under: Catskills,farming,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In assembling still photos to be included in a video I am doing on a trip up to my hometown in the Catskills in August, I could find nothing on the net that showed Woodridge in its prime. A visit to the Sullivan County Historical Museum in Hurleyville turned up the intriguing first page of a PM article dated July 20, 1947 with the title “Utopia in the Catskills”. I eventually tracked down the full print version at the New York Historical Society that I scanned in for the results below. PM was a leftist newspaper with heavy Communist Party participation that was published out of NYC from 1940 to 1948 and funded by Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III, a scion of the Montgomery-Field department stores. They don’t make millionaires the way they used to.

In a nutshell, the article was as much of a find for me as the Ark of the Covenant was for Indiana Jones. It told me who I was and where I came from.

The title of the article refers to the strong left sympathies in the village and the importance of co-op’s. My grandfather Louis, who died around the time that this article was written, was president of the Workman’s Circle that is referred to in the article as follows:

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives.

There are lots more that I can say about this article but do not want to interrupt the flow with my observations. As you read through it, you can find my elaborations on both personal and historical matters by clicking various links, starting with a longer introduction on Woodridge and the left here.

PM July 20, 1947

Utopia in the Catskills

Story and Photos by Croswell Bowen

railway_stationThe station platform at Woodridge, which opens on to the town’s main street, is extra large to accommodate summer population of 30,000

Refugees who wanted to be farmers made Woodridge, N.Y., into a prosperous farm-resort town with five co-ops

West of the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie and Highland, beyond the Shawangunk (pronounced shongum) Mountains toward the Alleghany Plateau is the rocky, hilly country of Tom Quick, the Indian killer, and the now virtually extinct Irish tanners, The New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad threads its way among the foothills and mountains of the Catskills and these days its Diesel locomotives sound foghornlike warnings when they come to road crossings and towns.

Twice a day passenger trains stop at the town of Woodridge (population 300 in winter, 30,000 in summer), which looks like most of the other combination farm and resort country towns which sprinkle the Catskill Mountains.

Actually, Woodridge is unique among the neighboring communities, because it possesses five highly successful consumer co-operatives, owned and operated by their members. Three of the five comprise one large intercounty co-operative association. All five are loosely connected with national co-operative groups which furnish over a billion dollars in services and goods to more than 2,500,000 member-owners throughout the United States each year. In practice, the Woodridge co-ops follow along the lines of the Rochdale pioneers. The prices are competitive, that is, in the same range as nonco-op establishments. But the co-op members realize savings through a system of rebates or dividends paid out of what in nonco-op businesses is chalked up as profit and loss to the consumer. In the co-ops the profit is returned to members after small sums are set aside for reserve. Most of the citizens of Woodridge have small chicken farms and take summer boarders. If you were such a citizen, would, in Woodridge, have your farm and buildings insured at the Associated Co-operative Insurance Companies.

fogelson

co-op2
You would stop to buy your groceries from the Mountain Resort Owners’ & Farmers’ Co-op_Inc. If you needed extra beds or mattresses or window shades or garden furniture, this co-op would also supply you.

After this, you would drive your pick-up truck to the feed division of the Inter-County Farmers’ Co-operative Association Inc. for a few sacks of chicken feed. You might stop and chat with young Joe Cohen, the manager of the feed co-op. about poultry and end up taking a gallon of a new kind of disinfectant.

The friendly village

In another building, you’d drop off a crate of eggs at Inter-County’s egg co-op where eggs are processed, packed, shipped, and sometimes put into cold storage. Upstairs in Inter-County’s farm machinery co-op, you’d look over the new poultry equipment and other accessories, and perhaps end up buying a new tire. Leaving town, you’d remember you needed some gas and stop again at the grocery co-op and fill her up.

joe cohen new

Lou YoungThis is Louis Young, the father of SDS leader Allen Young who later on became a pivotal figure in the gay liberation movement. More on Allen here.

egg candlingThe women candled eggs while the men packed them. Not everything was up to date in 1947. It took Betty Friedan to shake things up.

packing new

packing 2 new

When you drive west through Ellenville past Spring Glen on Route 209 a sign tells you that you are entering Woodridge, The Friendly Village. This is not a Chamber of Commerce exaggeration. The summer population of the town, although mostly Jewish, includes a diversified group of nationalities. There are Negro entertainers and household servants, Puerto-Rican, Moslem, Indian, Cuban and Lascar [Indian sailors, an archaic term] hotel workers. A few of the old-time Irish settlers from the Irish tanner days are still there. Everybody gets along. Anybody can check into any hotel regardless of his race or creed.

Max Schwartz, owner-proprietor of The Actors Inn, a restaurant and bar, boasts that “nobody who lands in this town goes hungry or bedless if he’s broke. And we help him get a job if he’s willing to work.” We’re supposed to be a kosher restaurant,” jolly Mrs. Schwartz, his wife, says, “but we got ham for the gentiles and, my heavens, I’ve even had to learn how to get up curry and rice with lamb for the Moslems. And very, very hot stuff for the Puerto Ricans. We’re a regular United Nations restaurant.”

sam katzowitz

Sam Katzowitz, Mayor of Woodridge, sums up the town’s inter-racial  equilibrium somewhat more wryly. Recently, he was asked if the town elections shaped up along the conventional Republican and Democratic lines or were other factors present?

ethel katzowitz

In the Majority

“If you have in mind,” he said, “is there any anti-Semitism here, the answer is no. And, for a very simple reason. Jews in Woodridge are in the majority. But we treat the gentiles pretty good. I guess you might say we’re mostly all liberals.”

“Like liberals everywhere else,” he adds, “we don’t necessarily agree. We have our arguments, too.”

Political discussion in Woodridge is at a very sophisticated level. In any store, on any corner, you can hear talk of the relative merits of the Socialist Party or Communist Party in the trade union movement. The “Russian question” touches off explosive viewpoints.

The character of the town, the co-ops, and the high incidence of liberals were not indigenous to up-state hill country. This Utopia in the Catskills has evolved from a chain of events that occurred in Europe as well as locally during the past 50 years.

During the last half of the past century, the land around Woodridge (or Centerville station, as it was called until 1915) was inhabited mostly by Irish immigrants. The iron-muscled men of Galway and Cork and Mayo and Killarney cut down the tall hemlock trees and hauled them to tanneries which constituted the main industry of the Catskills.

The pay was bad and the work was hard. To eke out a living, they tried to do a little farming, a cow, a pig and some chickens. But the soil is rocky and sometimes solid rock is only a few inches below the top soil. Toward the turn of the century the tanning industry had changed and the hemlocks mostly cut down. The early Irish settlers died off and the young folks went to the cities.

During the 90s, Jews fleeing the terrible pogroms taking place in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and the Balkans, were arriving in the United States. Many had been farmers in the old country and wanted to be farmers in the new country.

The land in the Catskills was cheap. Much of it was abandoned. Some say the Polish and Lithuanian Jews bought the land because it reminded them of their native countryside. The deciding factor, however, was more probably that the prices of the farms suited what little money these early refugees had salvaged from their old-world homes.

Many of the early Jewish settlers were helped with money and advice by the Baron De Hirsch Fund. De Hirsch, a wealthy Hungarian railroad builder, believed that Jewish colonization was the answer to the terrible pogroms sweeping Europe. He also helped settle Jews in Palestine.

Unite the workers

Another influence among the Jews who settled in the region of what is now Woodridge was the Workman’s Circle. (http://circle.org/) This Jewish organization, called in Yiddish Der Arbeiter Ring, had been formed on New York’s Essex Street in the flat of Sam Greenberg, a cloakmaker. His aim was to “unite by a ring of friendship every worker in the land and with many links unite the workers of every land.”

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives. There were “Sunday schools” for children; dramatic and choral groups for elders.

But the settlers around Woodridge as well as in other parts of the Catskills did not prosper. The few natives left in the region did not welcome the strange-speaking newcomers.

The settlers found it as hard to farm the land as the Irish who’d perished before them. To help make ends meet they began taking in boarders. Mostly, the Jewish farmers took fellow Jews in from New York City. This was logical. They had friends in the city and these friends had other friends.

Jews who came into the farm homes in the Catskills found respite from the toil of the New York sweatshops. They knew they would find no discrimination. And further, the meals at the farmhouse were in compliance with the dietary laws of their religion. In this way the region became one of the great resort centers of the East.

Almost prohibitive

About the time of the first World War, the new farmer-hotelkeepers discovered they couldn’t get any fire insurance on their places. If a farmer took in one hoarder even for one week, be was charged a “hotel rate” for every room in his house, regardless of whether he rented it out. The hotel rate made the farmers’ insurance almost prohibitive.

The result was that the farmer-hotelkeepers organized their own insurance co– operative and on April 1913, the first policy was written. Each member put up a certain sum of money and at the end of the year, they were assessed a sum of money to pay as premiums. The insurance Department of the State of New York was puzzled by the new kind of insurance company and for a time the organizers, Philip Thomas and Victor S. Kogan had a hard time operating within laws which had been put on the books to cover oldline insurance companies that worked entirely for profits.

But the company grew and grew so that today it has 35 million dollars worth of insurance in force and 2300 policy-holders. On October 31, 1940, George N. Jamison, Superintendent of the Department of Insurance of the State of New York, addressed 1000 policyholders of the Associated Co-operative Insurance Co., the first sizeable policyholders meeting he’d ever heard about. “This,” he said, is a real policyholders’ meeting. We in the Department know your directors have rendered service to the community, one which in holders could go nowhere else to obtain. The co-operative deserves the praise for performing this function.

The insurance co-operative at Woodridge owns its own fireproof building today. Its 24 directors are elected for terms of three years. It saves its policyholders from 20 to 80 per cent of the cost of insurance in the nonco-op companies. The next big co-operative in Woodridge was organized in 1938. Twenty members put up $25 to form the Inter-County feed and grain co-operative. Today there are 400 members and the co-operative does business in Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties. New members are accepted after a probationary period of six months “to see if the hi suer is co-operatively minded and to make sure he is nut a disrupter.”

As the feed and grain co-operative grew its scope has been enlarged to include a farm machinery co-operative and an egg co-operative.. The gross business is a million and a quarter dollars. Feed and grain accounts for $1,100,000; farm machinery for $50,000; and egg storage and marketing for $50,000. Most of the members are poultry men. Lately, many GIs with Gl loans are becoming members.

The most recent co-operative to come into being in Woodridge is the Mountain Resort Owners and Farmers’ Co-operative. It was organized in 1944 when scarce hardware and grocery items were turned on the black market and the hotelkeepers had to pay premium prices or do without merchandise. Two hundred and fifty shareholders, each owning one share, put up $25. A building, railroad siding and warehouse were purchased for $4000. They are worth $10,000 today. Last year the gross business was $55, 000. This year it will gross $75,000. Gum sells for three cents a pack, motor oil for 15 cents a quart and $1.25 window shades sell for 81 cents. Its officers are a president, secretary-treasurer, and a board of directors of nine. A paid full-time manager handles the actual operation of the business. We asked all the people in key jobs in the co-operatives how they accounted for their success. All said virtually the same thing: “We try to sell the best merchandise at the lowest prices. We stick strictly to business and avoid political quarrels that might divide and disrupt us.”

July 28, 2011

Sleep Furiously

Filed under: farming,Film — louisproyect @ 4:09 pm

“Sleep Furiously”, a luminous documentary with music by Aphex Twin about life in Trefeurig, a tiny Welsh farming village, opens tomorrow at the Cinema Village in New York. It derives its title from the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” that was composed by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 Syntactic Structures as an example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical. Since “Sleep Furiously” is an exercise in cinéma vérité (but one that contains elements of magical realism), you don’t have a narrator explaining at the outset what Chomsky’s words have to do with the film, but it is not hard to figure out that Trefeurig is a place where logical expectations of how rural folks behave is discarded and lovingly so.

Before we see anything on the screen in “Sleep Furiously”, we hear a clanging bell. After a moment or two, we see its origin: a man in an 18th century red uniform walking down a country road ringing a bell, for what purpose we do not really know and which is never explained. The image and the sound are sufficient to delight the audience, including someone like me who is rational-minded to a fault.

Soon afterwards, we find ourselves in the back of what we used to call a Bookmobile when I was growing up in my own tiny rural village in the fifties with the librarian-driver advising a borrower about which books are worth taking out but all in the Welsh language. The film is subtitled when the subjects speak Welsh but when they use English, a language that is encroaching irresistibly, it is almost as difficult to follow. The obsolescence of Welsh like just about everything in this quaint village is something that will leave nobody impoverished materially but the spiritual and psychological loss would be immeasurable.

If you have seen “Babe”, you will get an idea of the kind of community that “Sleep Furiously” celebrates. Like the hero of this fictional film that teaches his pig to herd sheep, the residents of Trefeurig are not the kinds of people to embrace modernity for its own sake. They too use dogs to herd sheep, just the way it has been done for centuries. While it is not as well-known as “Pig”, the Korean documentary “Old Partner” is another affectionate treatment of resistance to modernization, in this case a husband and wife farming team who continue to use an ox for plowing and transportation.

In one of the most memorable scenes in “Sleep Furiously”, a man stands at a street sign by a crossroads in the village, reciting his own poem about how the wind often blows the steel signs about, making them useless. When they were wooden, they resisted the wind, leading him to wish that someone would “plant a nice old wooden one, at least it could be trusted.”

Trefeurig is located in the same general area as the villages celebrated by Dylan Thomas who surely would have appreciated the poem about the untrustworthy steel sign. When I was an undergraduate, I used to love to read Dylan Thomas who was much more fashionable than he is today. I especially loved “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that not only evokes the charm of places like Trefeurig but my own village in the Catskill Mountains. Lines like this still send shivers down my back:

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

If these words move you, then do make a point of going to see “Sleep Furiously”.

For those who are outside of New York, I invite you to watch it at Fandor.com starting at 12am ET on July 29th for 24 hours along with the online exclusive companion featurette, A Sketchbook for the Library Van, also by director Gideon Koppel, who grew up in Trefeurig as the son of Jewish parents who sought refuge from Nazism in Wales. The companion film is about the traveling librarian I wrote about above.

June 24, 2010

Peepli Live

Filed under: farming,Film,imperialism/globalization,india — louisproyect @ 3:38 pm

In 2004 the Indian government announced a program to provide cash payments to the family of farmers who had committed suicide because of crippling debt. The federal government would provide 50,000 rupees ($1,136), in addition to the 150,000 rupees ($3,400) compensation provided by the state government.

This bit of recent history provides the plot for “Peepli Live”, an Indian movie that was an official selection at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (a Bollywood first) and that opens in NYC on August 13th.

Natha (Onkar Das) and Budhia (Raghuvir Yadav) are two lower-caste (dalit) brothers who have been eking out a living as farmers on the outskirts of Peepli, a village in Uttar Pradesh. When debt overtakes them–mostly a function of being forced to buy seeds from an imperialist agribusiness–they trudge off to the center of town to throw themselves at the mercy of a local politician surrounded by his entourage. They tell him that unless he lends them the necessary funds, they will lose their land. He and his henchmen find this quite amusing. Just before sending them on their way, he tells them that they should kill themselves and take advantage of the government program.

Afterwards, Budhia and Natha sit down to talk about the feasibility of cashing in on the government program. Since Budhia, the older brother, is a bachelor, it only makes sense for Natha to kill himself. Once they return to the house they share, you can almost understand why Natha would carry out such a desperate act. His wife is a harridan who yells at him constantly, when she is not beating him. Their aged and bed-ridden mother is also a miserable wretch who has as little use for Natha’s wife as she has for him. You are not dealing with the mutually supportive and loving Joad family of “Grapes of Wrath”, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Indian television and newspapers have begun to take notice of the suicide epidemic. When a newspaper reporter (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a job that can almost be described as lower-caste in relationship to television reporting, overhears the two brothers discussing their plans, he writes an article that is picked up by a glamorous and cynical TV reporter (Malaika Shenoy), who is a female version of Anderson Cooper. She, the print journalist, and just about every other news outlet swoop in on Peepli to provide ongoing coverage of the first farmer to kill himself just to collect a cash award.

Once the movie takes this turn, it is much less about the plight of impoverished farmers and much more about the chicanery of the news media and politicians. The TV cameramen follow Natha relentlessly even when he goes out into the field to take a crap. Of course, the big question is when he will finally do it. Committing suicide becomes as compelling a story as winning the jackpot in “Slumdog Millionaire”. As such, the movie’s closest relative is Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe”, a 1941 movie about a newspaper columnist who prints a fake letter from an unemployed “John Doe,” threatening suicide in protest of society’s ills. The letter generates a national John Doe movement that the paper’s publisher uses as a catapult for his own political ambitions, just as transpires in “Peepli Live”.

While it is of some significance that such a film has been produced, given the urgency of the peasant suicide phenomenon in India, it is hobbled by a lack of strong and sympathetic characters. The two brothers are depicted as inarticulate pot-smoking slackers who almost seem responsible for their own financial ruin, while the media people are as repulsive as the film makers intended. All in all, you feel alienated from the entire world they live in. In some ways, there is a misanthropic streak in this movie that reminds me a bit of Billy Wilder’s work, especially “The Big Carnival”, a 1951 work that stars Kirk Douglas as a newspaper reporter about as repulsive as the television personalities in “Peepli Live”. IMDB summarizes “The Big Carnival” as follows:

Ex-New York reporter Charles Tatum lands a job on a Albuquerque newspaper in hopes that a sensational story will return him to the big time. When a man is trapped in an Indian cave, Tatum conspires with an unscrupulous sheriff to keep him there until the story can build to national proportions, which it does.

The cynical, unethical and unscrupulous journalist Chuck Tatum arrives at a small New Mexico newspaper asking for a chance. He was fired from famous newspapers because of drinking, lying and even for having an affair with the wife of one of his bosses. His real intention is to use the small newspaper as a platform to reach a bigger one. After one year without any sensational news and totally bored, Chuck travels with a younger reporter to cover a story about rattlesnakes. When they arrive at an isolated gas station, he is informed that a man called Leo Minosa is trapped alive in an old Indian mine in a nearby place called the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. Chuck manipulates the local corrupt sheriff, the engineer responsible for the rescue operation and Leo’s wife Lorraine Minosa, so that a rescue that could have been made in twelve hours lasts six days using a sophisticated drilling system. Chuck Tatum uses the time to create a media circus. Everybody profits from the accident – everybody except the victim.

“Peepli Live” was produced by Aamir Khan, the star of “Lagaan“, the likeable movie about Indians challenging the British colonizers to a cricket match. If the Indians win, they will not have to pay an onerous land tax (lagaan). Obviously Mr. Khan has his heart in the right place when it comes to struggles by poor peasants. He also starred in “The Rising“, a thrilling epic about the Sepoy rebellion.  “The Rising” is available from Netflix, but not “Lagaan”. Fortunately, you can buy a copy for very little money on amazon.com. Both are highly recommended.

October 12, 2009

Food Beware

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

Opening Thursday at the Quad Cinema in New York and available in home video on November 17th, “Food Beware: the French Organic Revolution” is a companion piece to films like “Food Inc.” and “The Future of Food” that detail the harm done to consumer and nature by chemical farming.

But “Food Beware” has an added dimension, going one step further to make the case that the cancer epidemic of our epoch is directly related to the chemical-laden agriculture that has been largely adopted in the pursuit of profit. Originally titled “Nos enfants nous accuseront”, this documentary by Jean-Paul Jaud explores the same deadly nexus that is the subject of Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream”. Stricken by bladder cancer in her 20s, Steingraber—a biologist and poet—sought to make the connections between cancer and the toxins that seeped into the waters of her Illinois farming community. In that book she wrote:

To the 89 percent of Illinois that is farmland, an estimated 54 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are applied each year. Introduced into Illinois at the end of World War II, these chemical poisons quietly familiarized themselves with the landscape. In 1950, less than 10 percent of cornfields were sprayed with pesticides. In 1993, 99 percent were chemically treated.

This is exactly the same threat that the people living in the small, rustic farming village of Barjac faced when the mayor decided to make the school lunch organic. Alarmed by a spike in cancer rates in an area dominated by chemical-based farming, the Communist mayor Edouard Chaulet (an affiliation unfortunately not identified in the movie) decides to take action against a cancer epidemic that has become generalized in Europe as the press kid for “Food Beware” indicates:

  • In Europe every year, 100,000 children die of diseases caused by the environment.
  • In Europe 70% of cancers are linked to the environment: 30% to pollution and 40% to food.
  • In Europe cases of cancer in children have been increasing by 1.1% yearly for 30 years.
  • In France the number of cancers in males has increased by 93% in 25 years.

Despite the clearly polemical—and urgently needed—focus of the movie, it does not preach to the audience and even sustains a meditative and lyrical quality throughout. Nestled beneath the Cévennes Mountains in south-central France, the village of Barjac and the surrounding fields look like something out of an impressionist painting. Furthermore, despite having all the reason in the world to be outraged by being victimized by toxic chemicals, the villagers appear more interested in creating alternatives to the existing system than confronting the powers that be. Since many of their friends and neighbors are farmers using carcinogenic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, perhaps they have no choice in the matter unless they were willing to fight a kind of civil war.

Some of the more interesting moments of this very human drama involve local organic farmers and their chemical-based counterparts having discussions about whether it is feasible to make the transition to all-organic, exploring the social and economic factors that divide the two groups. Relying wholly on the testimony of the interviewees rather than direct commentary, the audience hears the case for organics in strictly economic terms—a clear rebuttal to those who condemn organic farming as impractical and expensive. Considering the subsidies that chemical-based farming receives as well as the damage it does to soil and water resources, not to speak of the collateral damage it does to human beings, it condemns itself in both economic and human terms.

The movie arrives at a time when the food production system has received intense scrutiny. Yesterday, when I watched the screener, the Sunday NY Times Magazine section had a special Food Issue. One article promoted vegetarianism and another considered the calorie-restriction diet, a regimen that allows people to live far longer and with fewer ailments like diabetes and heart disease based on statistics. There was also an article by Michael Pollan touting “Rules to Eat By”. Along with the Times’s Mark Bittman, whose most recent book “Food Matters” worries about unsustainable agriculture, Pollan has become one of the major spokesmen for the values upheld in movies like “Food Inc.” and “Food Beware”.

But there is not a neat fit between the Food Revolution and the more traditional ideas about revolution upheld by people like Barjac’s Communist mayor. Pollan became a lightning rod for criticism after he urged people to continue shopping at Whole Foods. After John Mackey, the libertarian founder of Whole Foods, had written an article in the Wall Street Journal attacking government involvement in health care, there were calls for boycotting his stores. Using his reputation as a prophet of healthy eating, Pollan denounced the boycott using a singularly tortured logic:

John Mackey’s views on health care, much as I disagree with them, will not prevent me from shopping at Whole Foods. I can understand why people would want to boycott, but it’s important to play out the hypothetical consequences of a successful boycott. Whole Foods is not perfect, however if they were to disappear, the cause of improving Americans’ health by building an alternative food system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats and sustainable agriculture, would suffer. I happen to believe health care reform has the potential to drive big changes in the food system, and to enlist the health care industry in the fight to reform agriculture. How? Because if health insurers can no longer pick and choose their clients, and throw sick people out, they will develop a much stronger interest in prevention, which is to say, in changing the way America feeds itself.

There is also some reason to question the NY Times’s commitment to healthy eating despite the frequent publication of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman’s articles on eating healthy. Their science pages have been polluted for some years now by the writings of John Tierney, a libertarian who never saw a chemical he didn’t like. On June 5th 2007, Tierney mocked Rachel Carsons for warning of “a cancer epidemic that never came to pass.” He also touted the work of I. L. Baldwin, a professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin who believes that “civilization depended on farmers and doctors fighting ‘an unrelenting war’ against insects, parasites and disease.”

Possibly an even worse offender is the NY Times’s Gina Kolata, who has virtually made a profession out of denying links between chemical pollutants and cancer, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) being a sibling of Judi Bari, the environmental activist who was killed by a bomb planted in her car. In an article published in the July 6th 1998 Nation Magazine, environmental journalist/activist Mark Dowie pointed out:

On March 19, 1996, two long stories by Kolata appeared in the Science Times section. “Some environmentalists are asserting that humans and wildlife are facing a new and serious threat from synthetic chemicals,” reads Kolata’s lead, ignoring the fact that Colborn’s hypothesis was drawn not from environmentalists but from the work of more than 400 scientists, all of whose names and numbers were provided to the Times. Throughout the main article she uses the “e” word repeatedly to describe Colborn and Myers, though both have doctorates in zoology. And she calls Myers’s employer, The W. Alton Jones Foundation, “an environmental group.” (The private foundation dedicates only part of its philanthropy to environmental issues.) Kolata invokes the expertise of Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Stephen Safe of Texas A&M, as she has often before, to counter Colborn and Myers’s hypothesis. Ames is an active adviser to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a corporate-supported “watchdog coalition that advocates the use of sound sciences in public policy.” TASSC has about 900 members, 375 of whom are scientists. The rest are executives from the chemical, oil, dairy, timber, paper, mining, manufacturing and agribusiness industries seeking ways to defend their products in media and the courts.

Ultimately, the cognitive dissonance at work in the pages of the NY Times points to the political paralysis that prevents major reforms from taking place in American society as well as other major industrialized countries like France. The powers-that-be recognize that humanity is threatened by greenhouse gases, chemical-based farming, exhaustion of the world’s fishing stocks, mountaintop removal in coal country and a myriad of other environmental problems but they stop short of attacking the root of these problems, namely production on the basis of profit.

As the crisis deepens, with all its attendant symptoms from the cancer epidemic to species extinctions, the understanding that a radical change is necessary will seep into the consciousness of those who have the power to change the system, namely the working people who bear the brunt of unhealthy food, chemical pollution and other hazards that constantly lowering wages leaves them vulnerable to. A NY Times editor or a hedge fund manager can afford all the healthy food and the best medical care required to fix the illnesses that attack even the wealthy but the world we need should make it possible for everybody to live well, not just the rich. If it takes socialism to make that world possible, then let’s move forward.

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