Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2014

Kurdish and Turkish films of note

Filed under: feminism,Film,Kurd,Turkey — louisproyect @ 11:26 am

Over the past several days I’ve looked at two Kurdish and two Turkish narrative films that would be of particular interest to my readers. The Kurdish films were filmed on location in Kurdistan, the new state taking shape in northern Iraq and the Turkish films in the remote Black Sea and Anatolian regions that are far from urbane Istanbul. Moreover, despite the intensity of the Turkish-Kurd conflict, the four films depict societies that despite their deep contradictions, especially involving the oppression of women against the backdrop of communal solidarity, are very much alike. Leaving aside their topical relevance, they are all examples of art film in the best sense of the term.

Opening yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York are two films by Jano Rosebiani, Kurdistan’s leading director. I use the term Kurdistan to indicate a people rather than an existing state although conditions are ripening in the Middle East that will make that a reality before long, both in Iraq and Syria.

Set in Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, “One Candle, Two Candles” is a comedy about a very serious topic: a young woman named Viyan (Kurdish for desire) is about to become the third wife of a local “headman” who is old enough to be her grandfather. As a car dealer, Haji Hemmo is about as close to a big businessman as you will see in Kurduva, the fictional name for Akre, a particularly beautiful town in Kurdistan where the film was shot. It is a jewel of the liberated territory that has extracted itself from the ongoing sectarian bloodbaths to its south.

In fact the bucolic charm of this town is a poignant reminder of what Iraq could have become if a combination of war and ethnic/religious sectarianism had not torn it apart. In a part of the world where state powers have become synonymous with brutality and economic greed, it is interesting to see how a historically stateless people can lead the way.

At the beginning of the film, Botan, a young, handsome and carefree artist from Zakho, the town that director Rosebiani grew up in, is sketching Viyan and her two companions while he charms them with allusions to ancient Kurdish history. He compares them to beautiful Nefertiti, the Hittite queen of Egypt who came from Zakho. Although the ancient history of the Kurds is not easily documented, there is no question that they originated in the territory occupied by the Hittite kingdoms.

The film is structured around the rivalry between Botan and Haji Hemmo over Viyan as they each line up supporters. Viyan’s father has a vested interest in seeing her married to Hemmo since the dowry includes a car from his lot. The town menfolk live in fear of Kitan, a middle-aged woman who is nicknamed the “ball-buster” since she squeezed the life out of her husband’s family jewels on account of his abusive treatment. Although the Kurds have moved a long way towards achieving peace within their borders, the household remains a battlefield with women under siege. As Engels once said, within the family the husband is the bourgeois and the wife the proletariat.

When Kitan walks through town, men practically duck into an alley to avoid her punishing grip. In one of the film’s many slapstick moments, she spots Viyan’s father on a virgin spin in his new car. She then commandeers the car and forces him to a stop; the town’s avenging proto-feminist in pursuit of another deserving prey. If Norman Mailer considered feminists to be ball-breakers, Kitan would be his worst nightmare. It is too bad a Kitan never got her hands on him.

At times the film will remind you of magical realism. Viyan climbs a tree in a wedding dress to avoid Hemmo’s all-too-persistent advances, a scene that will remind you of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. But it probably makes more sense to see it in terms of a thousand-year old folk tale that Kurds might have told each other around campfires long before there was the novel, movies, television or the Internet.

“Chaplin of the Mountains” is listed as a documentary on the Quad Cinema website but it actually a narrative film. Perhaps the fact that its action consists mostly of some young film students making a documentary in Kurdistan leads to this confusion.

At a hotel in Erbil, a beautiful young Kurdish woman named Nazé, who grew up in France, strikes up a conversation with a group of young filmmakers who have come to Kurdistan to visit small towns and villages in order to document the reaction that people have to their screening of Charlie Chaplin films. Considering the Chaplinesque moments in “One Candle, Two Candles”, one can easily imagine them having the same outlook as director Rosebiani when he was a film student himself.

When Nazé’s flight back to Paris is cancelled, she decides to join the film crew on their tour and accepts their generous offer to help her find her mother’s village that was destroyed during one of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks.

As they wend their way through the countryside, the results are not quite what they expected. Although the children are amused by Chaplin’s antics, some of the elders question the value of comedy to a people trying to build a new nation. Even worse, when they use a temple wall as a screen for a Chaplin one-reeler, they come close to being charged with sacrilege.

As a classic road movie, “Chaplain of the Mountains” is more a series of vignettes than a conventionally plotted drama. To this viewer, what makes it most memorable is the portrait of ordinary Kurdish people shot on location in a remote but beautiful region. They are the real stars. Most of all, you will be mesmerized by a series of performances by Kurdish folk musicians and dancers who are celebrating the continuation of an ancient civilization against all odds.

Ten years ago, almost to the date, I wrote an article about the Kurds for Swans, an online magazine. Given that the USA had just invaded Iraq, I tended to bend the stick in the direction of backing the Sunni resistance, which meant referring to the Kurds as “pawns”. I would not write the article in the same way today. I would refer you to the article if for no other reason that it will stimulate you into learning more about a people with a unique history. At the time I wrote:

The Kurds are ethnically related to the ancient Medes, but only came into their own with the rise of Islamic power. A Kurd by the name Salah-ud-Din reconquered Jerusalem from Richard the Lionhearted in the 12th century. Better known as Saladin, he established the Ayyubid dynasty which ruled over much of the Middle East until the rise of the Ottomans.

Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World had an enormous impact on commerce in the Middle East, which would no longer serve as a lucrative link between Europe and East Asia. Among the casualties were Kurdish merchants and toll-collectors.

In addition to being economically marginalized, the Kurds were isolated geographically as well. Preferring to dwell in the mountains or rocky hills, they subsisted on sheep-herding and small-scale farming. In the strict Marxist sense, class formation of modern capitalist society never took place until late in the 20th century.

Perhaps the amity that now characterizes Kurdistan today is an expression of the belated development of class relations. That is a topic worthy of further investigation.

“Watchtower” is a 2012 Turkish film directed by Pelin Esmer that is now available from Film Movement, a Netflix for the cognoscenti. This is probably at least the third film I have reviewed from their inventory and continue to be impressed by their curatorial finesse. “Watchtower” is a hauntingly beautiful film that is Turkish art film at its very best.

Essentially a two-character film, it depicts a middle-aged man and a young woman drawn together through pure happenstance in the Western Black Sea region, a ruggedly beautiful area. Nihat, the man, has just taken a job as a fire spotter on a mountaintop watchtower. Seher, the young woman, has taken a job with a small bus company headquartered in the tiny village at the foot of the mountain where Nihat stands watch. When she is not serving as a hostess on the bus, she is doing odd jobs around the restaurant that serves the bus passengers during a rest stop.

Seher’s parents have no idea why she should have dropped out of college and taken a dead-end job in such an isolated place. She can only reveal to her mother that she has become pregnant and is due to give birth shortly. Being unmarried and pregnant is tough enough for a Turkish woman from a traditional Anatolian family but in her case there is the added complication of her having been raped by her uncle. The bus stop is a way for her to get the birth of the baby out of the way and allow her to return to a normal life.

After finally giving birth, she leaves the newborn at the gate in front of the bus stop in the same fashion as poor women leaving their baby on the doorstep of a police precinct or hospital in New York, if they are at least humane enough not to leave it in a garbage can as happens from time to time.

Seher does not realize that Nihat has spotted her from inside the restaurant. In response to a tragic loss he has just suffered, he brings mother and child with him into the watchtower as they embark on a complicated relationship. He tries to persuade her to take a more loving relationship to the child despite her frequent attempts to be free of the responsibilities of motherhood, all the more understandable given the circumstances of how it came to pass.

The cinematography of “Watchtower” is stunning, with constant long shots of the Turkish forests and mountains. And even more effectively, there is an inspired use of sound. Dispensing with a film score, the action is highlighted by the sound of automobile tires on the roads beneath the mountains and the rustling of the leaves in the forest, creating a forlorn mood that is the perfect accompaniment to the unfolding human drama.

Female director Pelin Esmer majored in sociology at an Istanbul university before launching a career in film. “Watchtower” is a work imbued with a humanism that is very rarely seen in American films, either Hollywood or indie. It reminded me of a Chekhov short story as if a Turk had written it. Although the film is definitely an art film, it is also a deeply touching story that reminds you of what was lost when young filmmakers discovered irony. A must-see.

I discovered “Bliss” trawling through Netflix trying to find a movie that is geared to those with more than an IQ of 25. It is a 2007 film directed by Abdullah Oğuz that like “The Watchtower” and “One Candle, Two Candles” deals with the oppression of women in Turkish and Kurdish society. If you are not a Netflix subscriber, you can also watch it on Youtube. Part one is above.

When the film opens, we meet Meryem, a 17-year-old woman who has been violated in some fashion in a rural village in Anatolia, the eastern part of Turkey that is hobbled by “traditional values”. Despite the fact that Meryem is the victim, she is deemed unclean and must kill herself as expiation for her sins. While I have doubts that such a punishment is at all prevalent in Turkey, there are reports of such barbaric treatment of women elsewhere in Muslim society. In 2008 a 13-year-old had been gang-raped in Somalia. Instead of punishing the rapists, she was stoned to death by a mob.

Just before Meryem is forced to hang herself in a makeshift cell, soldiers enter the town since it has become notorious for imposing its own vigilante version of Islam, disregarding—for example—the Koranic stricture against suicide.

In order to expedite the punishment, the town elder, a creep named Ali Riza who is cut from the same cloth as Haji Hemmo, orders his son Cemal to take Meryem to Istanbul where he will take her life. Since Cemal has just returned from serving as a commando in the Turkish military against Kurdish rebels, he presumably can be trusted to carry out another act of brutality.

In Istanbul, he takes Meryem to a bridge and orders her at gunpoint to jump. She asks only one favor, if he would allow her to make a blindfold out of her scarf. Just before she jumps, Cemal decides that her life is more important than a village’s rigid codes and pulls her back from the edge. It also helps that the two have become infatuated with each other on the way to Istanbul. Love conquers all.

From that moment on, the couple are fair game for Ali Reza who dispatches a couple of goons to track them down in order to carry out the punishment. Just one step ahead of the hit squad, Cemal and Maryem are fortunate enough to run into Irfan, a professor who is on an extended leave from the academy and the shallowness of urban life in Istanbul. He invites them to work on his yacht as first mate and cook as he sails from island to island in the Sea of Marmara, an inland body of water that is one of Turkey’s most beautiful natural assets.

Irfan develops a paternal affection for the couple, understanding that they are fugitives—not so much from the law but from those who would wish them harm. Essentially, a three-character drama, the relationships between the three intensifies throughout the film as the village hit men close in on them.

“Bliss” is based on a novel by Zülfü Livaneli, a 68 year old Turk who is also a composer, singer, and politician. In 1997 he performed before a crowd of a half-million people in Ankara, to give you some sense of his popularity.

Wikipedia reports:

During his political career in Ankara, Livaneli presented a legislative proposal for amending Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The amendment proposed that the concept of “Turkishness” should be replaced with that of the “Turkish nation” which would put an emphasis on the concept of “nation” which, as formulated by the Republic, unites under its umbrella people of different origins. With this amendment, there would no more be a stress on the notion of Turkish race.

It is in the hands of people like Zülfü Livaneli and Jano Rosebiani to lead the transformation of the Middle East and North Africa. As I have stated on previous occasions, it is the artist—and particularly the filmmaker—who is functioning as the real vanguard of social change. The four films under review here will give you a sense of the yearnings of a people to finally make the land that was the birthplace of civilization its crowning glory once again.

August 2, 2013

Our Children

Filed under: feminism,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

Opening today at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Theater in Lincoln Center, “Our Children” is based on a tragic incident in which a Belgian woman named Genevieve Lhermitte killed her five children during a period of extreme psychological stress. She lived with her husband Bouchaib Moqadem in the house of an elderly Belgian physician upon whom the couple was dependent. Director and screenwriter Joachim Lafosse has taken the bare bones of the story and transformed it into a general meditation on dependency with the elderly doctor serving as a symbol of colonialism and the wife as her Moroccan husband’s subject within the household. At first blush, the title “Our Children” would seem to refer to the four children (the film changes the number of offspring for no obvious reason) but upon further reflection points to the colonial and patriarchal relationships that taint this tragic household.

Leaving no doubt about the outcome, the film starts with Murielle lying in a hospital bed inquiring whether it would be possible for her murdered children to be buried in Morocco. It was not what the young lovers Mounir and Murielle would have expected years earlier, driving along in their car in perfect bliss. He proposes and she accepts. He then reveals his plans to his adoptive father, a physician named André Pinget who scowls upon hearing the news, adding that a young man should not get married to the first woman who gives him a blow job.

Despite his seeming aversion to a perfectly lovely young woman who has the advantage of being an educated woman of good Belgian stock, he ultimately accepts her as a daughter-in-law and even more generously as a resident in the apartment that he has shared with Mounir since he was a young boy. For reasons never explored in the film, Pinget has become entwined with a Moroccan family. After marrying Mounir’s older sister solely to allow her to become a Belgian citizen, he adopts Mounir, leaving his younger brother to languish in a backward Moroccan village. When his brother comes to France for the wedding, he lashes out at him in resentment, telling him that everybody in the village “knows” that he in an incestuous relationship with his adoptive father.

Despite earning a medical degree, Mounir is having trouble finding work. In an interview, a Belgian doctor tells him that his skills are inadequate. Once again, Pinget comes to the rescue in dubious fashion. He invites Mounir to work for him, thus tightening his control over the young man.

As Pinget’s grip over Mounir tightens, so does his over his wife. Within what appears to be a span of about six years, four children have come into the world—three girls and a boy, the latest arrival. Like one of the women profiled in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”, Murielle—an elementary schoolteacher forced to devote herself to child-rearing, cleaning, and preparing André and Mounir’s dinner—is growing increasingly desperate in a claustrophobic environment. After talking her husband into moving to Morocco, he broaches the subject with André who explodes at him: “I raised you for twenty years and now your are dumping me?” The solution is for the doctor and the family he controls with a tight leash is to move into a larger house. Of course, this is no solution at all and Murielle’s despair deepens.

In the press notes for “Our Children”, the finest narrative film I have seen in 2013, Joachim Lafosse touches on the subject of colonialism:

There is a colonialist dimension to the character: a European who has adopted a young North African…

Lafosse: Precisely. The problem with colonialism is that the colonizer doesn’t make his history with the colonized official, he doesn’t recognize it. It remains unofficial and secret for him. Doctor Pinget presents himself as Mounir’s adoptive father but he isn’t because he hasn’t given him his name. That’s why I would say instead that Mounir is Pinget’s protégé, with all the ambiguity that entails. That is one of the things that fascinated me. You don’t make a film with ideas but with characters. That’s the lesson that the Dardenne brothers teach us. And here the characters are what I care about. How do you break free of someone who has given you everything, who has been your protector, your teacher, your educator? It can be a dangerous gift. We can imagine that André Pinget finds it hard expressing his love, that he is concealing a fragile side of his personality. That is what I told Niels Arestrup who plays him: “Your character is like a little boy who has to hand out sweets all the time to have friends in the schoolyard! And if he doesn’t have any sweets, he thinks that no one will love him!” André can only imagine bonds from that angle. That is the tragedy of his life and it’s a vicious circle.

March 23, 2013

Kinder, Küche, Kirche propaganda in Bookforum

Filed under: feminism,journalism — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Nick “Shoe Polish” Gillespie

Jonathan V. Last–mugshot taken at time of intellectual prostitution arrest

Over the past couple of years I’ve taken out subscriptions to a handful of edgy, left-leaning print journals that satisfy my appetite for better quality writing that cannot be found on the Internet: Bookforum, The Baffler, and N+1. I generally ignore the fiction and reviews of fiction found there and look for the social and political commentary I am addicted to. There’s an overlapping group of writers and editors that can be found in these journals including the ubiquitous Chris Lehmann and Choire Sicha, both of whom I encountered first on awl.com, a website that incorporates the same Young Turk sensibility that can be found in these print publications but sometimes makes me wonder if their unstated goal is to become as influential as The New Yorker Magazine. I hope that does not sound too cynical.

Lehmann is the editor of Bookforum, a magazine that was the progeny of Artforum, a publication of little interest to anybody like me who steers clear of Chelsea galleries, the Whitney Biennial, etc. Two days ago the April/May issue arrived in my mailbox and the table of contents looked promising. There was an article by George Scialabba, a sort of intellectual’s intellectual, on Camus’s newly published “Algerian Chronicles”, a collection of his wartime journalism. As someone with an intense interest in the Sartre-Camus wars over pacifism, French colonialism, etc., I was looking forward to sitting down with a glass of Johnny Walker’s Black Label and the article.

But what was that just three entries below Scialabba’s in the table of contents? What the fuck? Nick Gillespie reviewing some book about “America’s Coming Demographic Disaster”? Gillespie is the editor of Reason Magazine, a Koch-funded libertarian publication that fancies itself “rebellious” after the fashion of Spiked Online in Great Britain. In fact Gillespie has adopted the slightly punkish look of many Spiked writers, wearing a black leather jacket for his occasional Bill Maher appearance. My only advice to this 50-year-old man is to stop dyeing his hair. The shoe polish tint is just a bit too Reaganesque.

My first reaction to spotting this article in a magazine I paid good money for was akin to seeing a hair on an entrée that had just been delivered to my table at a pricey restaurant. It turned my stomach. At least in a restaurant I could send the dish back but what was I supposed to do with the Bookforum? Send it back to Chris Lehmann with instructions to replace Gillespie’s article by something written by Scott McLemee or Liza Featherstone? Fat chance of that.

After taking a swig of Kaopectate, I sat down to read Gillespie’s article. I figured that Lehmann, being a pretty smart young fellow, might have seen some wisdom in it that made it worth publishing. Boy, was I wrong.

The article begins with a reference to Paul Ehrlich, the neo-Malthusian who wrote a book about “the population bomb” in 1968. According to Jonathan V. Last, the author of “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster”—a book whose message Gillespie is touting, the opposite problem is looming:

As Jonathan V. Last notes in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Ehrlich was so way off that it’s stunning anyone ever took him and his neo-Malthusian assessment of overpopulation seriously. There were no mass starvations, and the famines that occurred all had political, not agronomic, causes. “What’s so wonderful about Ehrlich’s silly book,” writes Last, a senior writer at the conservative Weekly Standard,” is that he was wrong at the exact moment when the very opposite of his prediction was unfolding.” Total fertility rates, or the number of babies a woman is expected to bear over the course of her life, were already declining in the United States, but starting in 1968 “they sank like a stone.”

They continue to. By 1979 the global fertility rate was 6.0, and now it’s 2.52, according to UN data. All first-world countries are already below a 2.1 rate, the “replacement level” needed to keep a population constant, and fertility rates are plummeting through-out developing nations as well. “Today,” writes Last, “only 3 percent of the world’s population lives in a country whose fertility rate is not declining.” The UN projects that world population, currently around seven billion, will peak over the next eighty-five years between ten billion and twelve billion people before starting a long and inexorable decline.

I for one am worried more about the world’s population peaking at between ten billion and twelve billion in the next 85 years than I am about the “long and inexorable decline” afterwards. With the enormous strain on water and other natural resources with our current population of seven billion, what can we expect with a near doubling of that population, particularly in light of the greenhouse gases that will be produced to sustain the consumerist life-styles extolled by the idiotic magazine that Gillespie edits. Of course with funding by the Koch brothers, one can hardly expect that to matter much.

But the title of the book reveals Last and Gillespie’s true agenda: America’s loss of power due to a declining population. He cites Stalin’s attempt to increase the fertility rate in the USSR by awarding “Motherhood Medals” to women who bear six or more children, as well as Japan’s stipends and cash bonuses to women who agree to be breeders for the fatherland. Ah, just what an edgy magazine like Bookforum should be up to, giving space to books that fret over the consequences of women deciding that their bodies belong to them and not to the state.

Indeed, Last’s primary interest is in America being able to remain a hegemonic power in the face of declining population, as his April 23, 2012 Weekly Standard article would indicate. Even though it references Japan, it is clear that the U.S. faces the same dilemma:

Population is the wellspring of power, both economic and military, and the reordering of global power is…inherently destabilizing. Consider Japan. Faced with some of the lowest fertility rates on earth, Japan’s population has already begun aging and shrinking…In a sense, Japan could fall into the same trap that Western Europe already faces: the inability to formulate proportional military responses.

So you get the idea, American women have to have more babies in order to be able to police the world better.

Last also sides with the Catholic Church’s opposition to Obamacare on the grounds that its right to control a woman’s body took priority over any government health plan, biased as it was to corporate interests:

It is now a requirement of Obamacare that every Catholic institution larger than a single church—and even including some single churches—must pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and morning-after abortifacients for its employees. Each of these is directly contrary to the Catholic faith. But the Obama administration does not care. They have said, in effect, Do what we tell you—or else.

God, I feel like Larry David in that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode with the hair stuck in my throat. At least that hair was a result of enjoying oral sex with his wife. Mine is the result of reading Kinder, Küche, Kirche propaganda in a magazine that I spent good money on.

February 5, 2011

Mad Men

Filed under: feminism,repression,television — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm

Having finished watching season one of “Mad Men” a week or so ago, I had made plans to write something about it eventually. After reading a rather provocative attack on the AMC series–now in its third season–in the New York Review of Books, I decided to move it to the front burner.

Although this cable TV show has garnered lots of attention, I suppose it would make sense to provide some background on the show for readers who do not have cable. Season one of “Mad Men” begins in 1960 and takes place in the office of a mid-sized advertising agency in Manhattan and in the homes of its major characters.

The main character is Don Draper, who is the creative director of the agency and the most sympathetic member of a largely unattractive cast ensemble. Played to a tee by Jon Hamm, Don Draper is a strong silent type who would have been played by Robert Mitchum in bygone eras. He is the typical alpha male constantly putting down challenges to his authority from those lower in the pecking order.

His nemesis is a sniveling Ivy Leaguer and junior copywriter named Pete Campbell whose sense of privilege collides with his lowly status and constantly brings him into conflict with Don Draper who grew up in poverty but managed to climb his way to the top through dint of his ability to dream up ads that would seduce an American population hungry for consumer goods.

Two equally obnoxious partners, each in their own way, run the agency. Roger Sterling Jr. (John Slattery) is a fortyish roué who suffers a heart attack in season one. Since he is a chain smoker (like practically everyone else in the office) who eats red meat every chance he gets, his heart attack is practically anti-climactic.

The other partner is Bert Cooper, a seventyish character played by Robert Morse, a veteran stage actor. Cooper is an Ayn Rand fanatic who is devoted to everything Japanese. Employees are expected to remove their shoes before entering the office.

Two of the three lead female characters work at Sterling-Cooper and have to endure the sexism of all the male employees that is either expressed either through a smiling paternalism toward the “gals” or through growling viciousness and/or sexual harassment that would get any man fired on the spot today. One is Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), the voluptuous office manager who has been conducting a long-time affair with Roger Sterling. Her main role is to teach new female employees the ropes; this boils down to pleasing the men in the office.

The other is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a Brooklynite who started season one as Draper’s secretary but who is promoted to junior copy writer after offering some shrewd advice about how to pitch cosmetics to women. Peggy, who is a bit overweight and a frumpy dresser, worships the men at the agency and views her job at Sterling-Cooper with starry eyes. In many ways she is like John Travolta’s dancing partner in “Saturday Night Fever”, a working class girl who idolizes everything about Manhattan even when the objects of her worship are pigs.

Finally, there is Betty Draper, Don’s wife, who appears to have stepped out of the pages of “Feminine Mystique”. She is a former model who spends her day worrying about what to cook for the evening meal or which earrings would go nice with her hat. The emptiness of her life and Don Draper’s affairs with other women have brought on a deep depression that leads to psychoanalysis by a coldly aloof practitioner who advises Don that his wife is making progress when in reality their marriage is falling apart.

I will have a bit more to say about this momentarily but the show is basically a high-class soap opera like some of my other television favorites, including “Desperate Housewives” and “The Sopranos”. The show’s kinship with the latter should be obvious given the fact that the show’s creator—Matthew Weiner—also wrote for “The Sopranos”. In some ways, it is very much “Mad Men” and “Made Men”. If you like colorful characters, broad humor, a modicum of social satire, solid performances, and snappy dialog, then I strongly advise renting the series from Netflix as I plan to do.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s assault in the New York Review seems to be an exercise in knocking the show down to size. Perhaps he felt impelled to do this since tastemakers in all the usual places have hyped it. For example, in a long piece on the show that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on June 22, 2008, Alex Witchel spoke for most sophisticated television viewers when she wrote:

Weiner’s achievements with ”Mad Men,” which is produced by Lionsgate, are plentiful, starting with the storytelling. Setting it in the early 1960s, on the cusp between the repression and conformity of the cold war and McCarthy-era 1950s and the yet-to-unfold social and cultural upheavals of the 60s, allows Weiner an arc of character growth that is staggering in its possibilities. It also gives him the opportunity to mine the Rat Pack romance of that period, when the wreaths of cigarette smoke, the fog of too many martinis — whether exhilarating or nauseating — and the silhouettes specific to bullet bras only heightened the headiness of the dream that all men might one day become James Bond or, at the very least, key holders to the local Playboy Club.

Deepening the tension between that fantasy and reality, Weiner has put Sterling Cooper, the fictional ad agency that employs the show’s characters, on the old-school, WASP side of the equation, letting them revel in their racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. It was during that period that the creative revolution in advertising was taking off at agencies like Grey and Doyle Dane Bernbach, where Jews and some women held leadership positions. That Sterling Cooper’s creative director, Don Draper, is played by Jon Hamm, a leading man in the Gregory Peck mold who manages to make his sometimes oblique and often heartless character into a sympathetic figure (and won a Golden Globe for best actor), eases the pain.

Mendelsohn would have none of this. He writes:

As I have already mentioned, the actual stuff of Mad Men‘s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets; what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element. When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today. An unwanted pregnancy, after all, had different implications in 1960 than it does in 2011.

To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

Mendelsohn grudgingly admits: “I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal—to which I shall return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having been a child in the 1960s…” He also is a fan of Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights, two shows geared to the cognoscenti whose appeal somehow eluded me.

Despite his characterization of the show’s writing as “extremely weak”, he has no problem comparing it unfavorably to “The Sopranos”, a paradox given the fact that Matthew Weiner was a major creative talent in both series. For my money, the writing is the best thing about the show. For example, one of Don Draper’s flings is with a Jewish department store CEO who has come to his agency in search of talent that can help transform the store from a discount house into something more contemporary and upscale. For those who keep track of such ephemera, this was clearly inspired by the transformation of Barney’s. Without attempting to recreate the dialog between Draper and Rachel Menken, those who have tended to trust me on such matters should understand that the combination of attraction and revulsion between the two is sharply conveyed. Although Draper is no anti-Semite, he manages to put his foot in his mouth frequently with Rachel Menken—a function of his unfamiliarity with Jewish sensitivities rather than hatred. Their relationship is finely nuanced and a credit to Weiner’s ability to express psychological depth.

That being said, I don’t think that “Mad Men” is in the same league with “Revolutionary Road” or “Far From Heaven”, two movies that cover the same terrain: 1950s suburban angst, petty prejudices, and the straight-jacket of social convention.

For anybody who is curious about the 50s and early 60s, “Mad Men” is a great introduction. No matter how broad the characterizations and crude the satire, this is a show that will bring a smile to your face almost constantly. While most of us got into politics to oppose the war in Vietnam or fight racism in the 1960s, we should never forget how much our battle was one over the right to define ourselves freely.

The main thing that comes across in “Mad Men” is the invisible chains that drag each character down. Men are slaves to commodity fetishism and women are slaves to men’s expectations. You can’t escape the feeling that the characters are deeply impoverished no matter how much money they are making. All of them appear to be having a great time getting drunk and eating 16 oz. steaks, but they are on a slow march to ruin.

Although I never worked in advertising, this world was still very much the norm in 1968 when I went to work for Metropolitan Life Insurance in New York. Fellow programmers told me that the movie “The Apartment” was filmed there. In season one of “Mad Men”, there is an allusion made to Billy Wilder’s classic since it is very much about the world that they inhabit. “The Apartment” is about executives sexually exploiting women in the office, a norm before women’s liberation put such practices into the ashbin of history.

My boss at Met Life was a guy named John Falzon who came to work in a fedora every day, just like Don Draper’s. He was the kind of guy who referred to “gals” in the office and who probably enjoyed a martini or two at lunch.

But by 1968, the old ways had begun to change. There is nothing about the red scare in “Mad Men” but it would not be hard to imagine it coming up in one of the episodes, especially with a character like Bert Cooper who worshipped Ayn Rand. One day I got a postcard at work that came through office mail. It had been sent to me by the FBI but was written as if by an SWP organizer reminding me to the next meeting. As the FBI put it in the file that I retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act, it was an attempt to “embarrass” me and possibly get me fired (although they did not state this.)

When Falzon heard about the postcard, he called me into his office and told me that if I ever got a postcard like that again, he should be the first to know. He would find out who sent it and have them fired. Things had definitely changed, thank goodness.

January 24, 2011

Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

In 2009 HBO aired the documentary “Afghan Star” that followed contestants from start to finish on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”, including Setara Hussainzada, a young woman who scandalized the country by dancing—modestly–in her final performance and allowing her scarf to drop to her neck. This act was sufficient to cause her to be evicted from her apartment and to receive death threats.

On January 26th (8:00 to 8:45pm ET/PT) HBO will be presenting a follow-up documentary titled “Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star” that is a close-up study of what has happened to Setara since her ill-fated appearance.

As feisty as ever, Setara insists that she has done nothing sacrilegious. She now lives in Kabul, having left her native city of Herat where conservative Muslims continue to threaten her. Even in Kabul, there is constant harassment, even from the local authorities backed fully by the USA as a counterweight to the misogynist Taliban. During filming for the documentary, a squad of Afghan cops materializes at her apartment, supposedly to protect her. Setara views their intervention as nothing but a provocation and she berates them fearlessly.

One consolation is her marriage to a man who loves her and, just as importantly, defends her right to sing or dance without fear of reprisal. But he is forced to conceal his face from the camera in order to avoid being attacked by religious fanatics. They are expecting their first child as well, a prospect fraught with uncertainty.

I strongly urge you to rent “Afghan Star” from Netflix and to see this HBO follow-up on Wednesday. It is a reminder of the gender oppression that continues in Afghanistan despite efforts by the USA to associate abuses against women as solely the work of the Taliban.

These two fine movies directed by Havana Marking serve as companion pieces to Afghan legislator Malalai Joya’s “A Woman among Warlords”. She writes:

I am the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament, but I have been banished from my seat and threatened with death because I speak the truth about the warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Hamid Karzai. I have already survived at least five assassination attempts and uncounted plots against me. Because of this, I am forced to live like a fugitive within my own country. A trusted uncle heads my detail of bodyguards, and we move to different houses almost every night to stay a step ahead of my enemies.

To hide my identity, I must travel under the cover of the heavy cloth burqa, which to me is a symbol of women’s oppression, like a shroud for the living. Even during the dark days of the Taliban I could at least go outside under the burqa to teach girls in secret classes. But today I don’t feel safe under my burqa, even with armed guards to escort me. My visitors are searched for weapons, and even the flowers at my wedding had to be checked for bombs. I cannot tell you my family’s name, or the name of my husband, because it would place them in terrible danger. And for this reason, I have changed several other names in this book.

I call myself Joya — an alias I adopted during the time of the Taliban when I worked as an underground activist. The name Joya has great significance in my country. Sarwar Joya was an Afghan writer, poet, and constitutionalist who struggled against injustice during the early twentieth century. He spent nearly twenty-four years of his life in jails and was finally killed because he would not compromise his democratic principles.

Long live Setara! Long live Malalai Joya! Long live the struggle for freedom in Afghanistan!

August 3, 2010

Rethink Afghanistan: women’s rights under Karzai

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Read more here

May 31, 2010

Sex and the City #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 21, 2009

One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur

Filed under: feminism,literature — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

While not nearly as well known as “On the Road”, Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur” is just as great a masterpiece. Written in 1951 and published 6 years later, “On the Road” marks the beginning of Kerouac’s career, a time of great joy even as he lived in poverty. Written in 1960 and published 2 years later, “Big Sur” was Kerouac at the pinnacle of his fame and fortune but totally miserable. Indeed, the main lesson of “Big Sur” is that fame can drive you crazy.

Kerouac fans and those who are interested in the creative process in general will surely want to get their hands on the documentary “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur”, directed by Curt Worden.  But even more it can be seen as a meditation on the corrupting influence of money and success on the arts. In one of the most revealing moments, Patti Smith reflects on the ambivalence that artists have about such matters. Speaking over the image of a Time Magazine cover, she says that Kerouac both hated what had become of him—the bad-boy “beatnik” darling of the mass media—as well as addicted to the very things that transformed him into such a commodity.

The movie has an outstanding cast of interviewees. Some are Kerouac’s contemporaries like Laurence Felinghetti, Kerouac’s girl friend Joyce Johnson (an outstanding writer in her own right; her “Minor Characters” is a must-read for those curious about the beats), Carolyn Cassady, and Michael McClure. There are also younger admirers of Kerouac like Smith, Tom Waits, and Sam Shepard. Every single one of them, it should be added, is intimately familiar with the corrupting influences of fame. Poor Sam Shepard, once one of the most gifted playwrights in the U.S., long ago became a mediocre Hollywood actor. One supposes that he makes more money in one film that he made as a playwright over a 2 or 3 year span. What a waste.

Kerouac’s novel was based on his experiences living in Big Sur as he tried to get over his addiction to alcohol and return to his roots as literary/mystical seer. He lived by himself in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin near the ocean and struggled largely in vain to stay away from San Francisco, where his fame could always draw a crowd of admirers at a North Beach saloon, as well as free drinks. After spending a weekend in debauchery at such places, Kerouac would return to his cabin and feel miserable for days on end. At the end of the novel, after one too many weekends in hell, he has a nervous breakdown that is described with great emotional and literary power.

The movie visits the cabin where Kerouac stayed as well as the North Beach neighborhoods that were his perdition. Interspersed are readings from “Big Sur” by John Ventimiglia, the actor who played Artie Bucco on “The Sopranos”. Ventimiglia, like everybody else, is a great admirer of Kerouac and manages to sound exactly like the writer but without the affectations usually associated with such performances.

Like millions of other teenagers, I became a big Kerouac fan after reading “On the Road” in 1959 or so. Ironically, I only discovered that Kerouac existed from reading Time Magazine, my periscope into a world different from the suffocating small town that I lived in. Two years later I was at Bard College, a kind of beat generation outpost in the early 60s along with other “alternative” colleges. Needless to say, Leon Botstein has made that place more “respectable” while draining all the energy and creativity out of it.

With a title like “Big Sur”, I expected Kerouac’s new novel to be one long feast of bebop, drugs, poetry and madness. It turned out there was madness but not the kind I expected. To this day, I have vivid memories of Kerouac’s harrowing confessional outpourings. Unfortunately, not much of the book is available on the Internet but these few observations/quotes from the Rainblessed website should give you an idea of what’s in Kerouac’s most powerful novel:

Towering cliffs, fog-banked canyon, roaring surf and the little cabin near the meadow and creek: Jack Kerouac went to Big Sur to escape his clamorous fans and the resulting circus of his life in Long Island. He went for peace and to write a poem about the sea sounds, a kind of Beat Jazz Serenade of Nature. Briefly, among premonitions of madness, he found a gentle peace.

Although Jack loves people and long talks, his new fame is incredibly stressful. As much as he enjoys rollicking orgies of booze and conversation, it seems to pull him down into mornings-after of despair.

…Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils …Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realizing I was surrounded and out numbered and had to get away to solitude again or die

I wake up drunk, sick, disgusted, frightened, in fact terrified by that sad song across the roofs mingling with the lachrymose cries of a Salvation Army meeting on the corner below “Satan is the cause of your alcoholism, Satan is the cause of your immorality, Satan is everywhere workin to destroy you unless you repent now” and worse than that the sound of old drunks throwing up in rooms next to mine, the creak of hall steps, the moans everywhere –Including the moan that had awakened me, my own moan in the lumpy bed, a moan caused by a big roaring Whoo Whoo in my head that had shot me out of my pillow like a ghost.

Alone in the Big Sur cabin, he is able to shake off his demons here and there. But always, bittersweet and dangerous, there are people hunting him down, firing him up, but also exhausting him.

Big Sur also has a tender image of Dean Moriarty (called Cody in this story) in case you wondered about him some years on from On the Road. Cody seems relatively softened and clarified following two years in San Quentin prison (for marijuana possession) and a return to wife and children:

…in the same cell with a murderous gunman…I expect him to be all bitter and out of his head because of this but strangely and magnificently he’s become quieter, more radiant, more patient, manly, more friendly even –and tho the wild frenzies of his old road days with me have banked down he still has the same taut eager face and supple muscles and looks like he’s ready to go anytime –But actually loves his home, loves his wife in a way tho they fight some, loves his kids …wants immediately to challenge somebody to a chess game but only has an hour to talk to us before he goes to work supporting the family by rushing out and pushing his Nash Rambler down the quiet Los Gatos suburb street, jumping in, starting the motor, in fact his only complaint is that the Nash wont start without a push –No bitter complaints about society whatever from this grand and ideal man who really loves me moreover as if I deserved it…

Movie website: http://www.kerouacfilms.com/onefastmove/index.html

August 15, 2009

Alexander Cockburn: fetus fetishist

Filed under: feminism — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

For the past 25 years or so Alexander Cockburn has been flirting with the American ultraright. I first took note of how he put a positive spin on the militia movement in the 1980s, a typically contrarian position that probably reflected his evolving social position as a country squire in Northern California. It also probably reflected his hatred of “big government” tied to a protracted battle with the IRS.

When he began publishing Counterpunch, the symptoms grew apace. From his dalliance with Ron Paul to his inexplicable decision to run economic commentaries on a weekly basis from Paul Craig Roberts, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, who advised his readers on lewrockwell.com:

President Ronald Reagan’s stature will grow as his achievements come to be more widely recognized.

Few Americans realize that President Reagan’s economic policy won the cold war by rejuvenating capitalism. Members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, with whom I spoke in Moscow during the Soviet Union’s final months, agreed that it was President Reagan’s confidence in capitalism, not his defense buildup, that caused Soviet leaders to lose their confidence.

This is not to speak of his climate change skepticism which has drawn from the poisoned well of bogus science, including from a character who has written numerous articles for a Lyndon Larouche magazine.

But a new chapter is being written apparently. For the first time, Cockburn is echoing the complaints of the anti-abortion movement. He feels that since women have gotten the right to a safe and legal abortion, the fetuses have gotten the short end of the stick. In the latest Counterpunch, he writes the following in an article dealing with health care reform:

The liberals are howling bout the unfairness of these attacks, led by Sarah Palin, revived by her “Death Panel” talk and equipped with a dexterous new speech writer who is even adding footnotes to her press releases.

But what is a conservative meant to think? Since the major preoccupation of liberals for 30 years has been the right to kill embryos, why should they not be suspect in their intentions toward those gasping in the thin air of senility? There is a strong eugenic thread to American progressivism, most horribly expressed in its very successful campaign across much of the twentieth century to sterilize “imbeciles.” Abortion is now widening in its function as a eugenic device. Women in their 40s take fertility drugs, then abort the inconvenient twins, triplets or quadruplets when they show up on the scan.

In 1972, a year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion on demand nationwide, virtually all children with trisomy 21, or Down syndrome, were born. Less than a decade later, with the widespread availability of pre-natal genetic testing, as many as 90 percent of women whose babies were pre-natally diagnosed with the genetic condition chose to abort the child.

One survey of 499 primary care physicians treating women carrying these babies, however, indicated that only 4 percent actively encourage women to bring Down syndrome babies to term. A story on the CNS News Service last year quoted  Dr. Will Johnston, president of Canadian Physicians for Life, reacted to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) pre-natal testing endorsement as another step toward eugenics. “The progress of eugenic abortion into the heart of our society is a classic example of “mission creep,’ ” Johnson said. “In the 1960s, we were told that legal abortion would be a rare tragic act in cases of exceptional hardship. In the ’70s abortion began to be both decried and accepted as birth control. In the ’80s respected geneticists pointed out that it was cheaper to hunt for and abort Down’s babies than to raise them. By the ’90s that observation had been widely put into action. Now we are refining and extending our eugenic vision, with new tests and abortion as our central tools.”

When Cockburn writes “Since the major preoccupation of liberals for 30 years has been the right to kill embryos”, one must ask the obvious question whether he is philosophically committed to the idea that an embryo is a living human being. This would lend credence to the idea that a ban on abortion prior to Roe-Wade made sense and that the state had the right to punish women and doctors involved in such medical procedures. Additionally, the idea of innocents being “killed” might inspire some ultrarightists to take the law into their own hands. If the state is immoral enough to allow innocent babies to be slaughtered, then an act of civil disobedience involving putting a bullet into an abortion provider could well be justified.

And what do we make of a supposed epidemic of women in her 40s taking fertility drugs, and only deciding to have an abortion when they discover that they will have twins, triplets and even more? To begin with, this does not exactly sound like “eugenics” but rather a woman’s decision not to bring children into the world that she is physically and psychologically incapable of rearing adequately let’s leave that aside for the moment. The real issue for me is how in the world can we make a judgment on Cockburn’s claim when he offers no evidence for such an epidemic? What are the numbers? How many 40 year olds? How many twins or triplets as a result of taking fertility drugs? How many abortions? If this is such a big problem, why haven’t we seen the cable news outlets reporting on it?

Indeed, a search on Lexis-Nexis reveals what Cockburn omitted. In the case of multiple embryos, a physician will occasionally use an injection to terminate all but one of them. This is called “selective reduction” in the medical profession and is often opted as a way to increase the health of the single birth. This is a matter of some urgency for married couples facing onerous medical costs and unsure economic situations in today’s world, a matter that Cockburn contemptuously dismisses as “eugenics”. Now none of this should be the business of the fetus fetishists, or their friends on the left like Alexander Cockburn, should it?

The final paragraph excerpted from Cockburn’s article cites a physician affiliated with the Canadian Physicians for Life, leaving no doubt where Cockburn’s loyalties lie.

I was so shocked by Cockburn’s newfound fetus fetishism that I scoured through Counterpunch to find early signs of dementia. This one from 4 years ago caught my eye. It was a nod of approval to Howard Dean. My emphases are in bold:

DNC Chairman Howard Dean told a student audience last week that “I think we need to talk about this issue differently. The Republicans have painted us as a pro-abortion party. I don’t know anybody in America who is pro-abortion. [But surely he's read Katha Pollitt.] We do have to have a big tent. I do think we need to welcome pro-life Democrats into this party.”

He also approves of Dean’s comment that “a woman has a right to make up their own mind” but you have to wonder why he regards Katha Pollitt as “pro-abortion”. Does Katha Pollitt go around at Nation Magazine cocktail parties lecturing pregnant women to go get an abortion? Who the hell can figure out what this one-time crack journalist was trying to say?

For all of his animosity toward Christopher Hitchens, this is one issue that he and his fellow British expatriate have in common. Although both are formally in favor of a woman’s right to choose, at least for the time being, both are disposed to hand-wringing exercises when the question of “unborn children” comes up.

In a February 2003 Vanity Fair article titled “Fetal Distraction” (ha-ha), Hitchens makes a case for abortion as “killing”, just as Cockburn does:

As the evidence about early “viability” mounted, and as advances in medicine made it ever easier for even a distressingly premature fetus to survive outside its mother, the argument showed a tendency to shift. Suddenly, we were talking trimesters. And there was no longer much dispute about whether the unborn subject was alive. It certainly couldn’t be dead, since the whole battle consisted in how or whether to stop its growing and developing (not metastasizing). Now and then there would be a tussle over whether it was a fully “human” life, but this was casuistry. What other species of life could it be? Some states even announced laws on fetal personhood, conferring the moral equivalent of citizenship on every fertilized egg, thereby presumably extending to it the warm embrace of the equal-protection clause and voting rights at age 17¼.

Unfortunately, given the sorry state of Hitchens’s journalism in the past decade or so, it is almost impossible to figure out if he is joking or not when he raises the possibility of “fetal personhood” enjoying the equivalence of citizenship. Who knows? Maybe he will someday back humanitarian intervention in abortion clinics in order to protect the rights of the human life under attack from the medical Milosevic’s of the world. That would be consistent with a worldview that went into the toilet long ago.

October 9, 2007

De jure discrimination and the capitalist system

Filed under: feminism,racism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Last Sunday MRZine editor Yoshie Furuhashi posted an article titled “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” on her Critical Montages blog that has led to a heated debate on Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list. Basically Furuhashi argues that the abolition of de jure discrimination brings the spirit of capitalism closer to the pure spirit of “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” that Karl Marx referred to in Chapter six of Volume One of Capital:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will.

While the abolition of Jim Crow laws might have removed barriers to the commodification of labor, Marxists don’t view this as some kind of capitalist plot. It is in the interest of workers to remove all legal/political barriers to their full right to sell their labor power, even if this brings them closer to some kind of 19th century liberal economic ideal. After all, Jeremy Bentham advocated the elimination of slavery for his own reasons. On the other hand, radical abolitionists in Great Britain saw emancipation from slavery as related to the general emancipation of the working class. We must not recoil from emancipation because Jeremy Bentham favored it, should we?

The same thing was true in the US in the 1970s. Bourgeois women wanted to move ahead in the corporate world, while working class women wanted the right to work in construction jobs, etc. that they had been formerly excluded from. Marxists would have supported the ERA even if it benefited both rich women seeking better-paying corporate jobs and working class women trying to break into the construction trades. We are for a united working class, even if the measures that promote such unity also allow some women to enter the ruling class. Concealed beneath Furuhashi’s ultraleft rhetoric is utter indifference to the need for working class unity.

Furuhashi links to another article of hers titled “Winning the Culture War, Losing the Class Struggle” that initially appeared on dissidentvoice.com. We learn that “our social and cultural victories have been made to serve an economic agenda that is against our class interests.” When women fought for equality with men in the 1970s, little did they suspect that they were preparing the ground for the assault on Aid for Dependent Children:

The partial victory of the women’s movement made new assumptions dominant: the assumptions that able-bodied women ought to work for wages rather than bear and raise children as the primary duty of women, and that mothers and fathers should bear equal financial responsibilities for their children, so fathers should pay child support instead of making mothers depend on the government. The assumptions are not so much feminist assumptions per se as liberal petit-bourgeois feminist assumptions in particular. In any case, the Clinton administration effectively exploited the newly dominant assumptions and abolished AFDC: poor women should work and make the fathers of their children pay and become economically independent of the government (or so went the ideology).

There are so many false premises packed into this paragraph that one hardly knows where to start. The idea that women ought to work for wages rather than bear and raise children is utterly disconnected from a movement that emphasized choice. In other words, women must have the same options as men. Furthermore, when Clinton went on the attack against AFDC, “liberal petit-bourgeois feminists” hardly joined in. On the very day that Clinton signed this racist bill, he was protested by these very people that the ultraleftist Furuhashi stigmatizes:

Attending to the accusation that he was severing his party’s New Deal taproot, the President declared, “The typical family on welfare today is very different from the one that welfare was designed to deal with 60 years ago.” In contrast to needy Depression-era Americans, he said, modern Americans who get aid “are trapped on welfare for a very long time, exiling them from the entire community of work that gives structure to our lives.”

As he signed the measure, a long line of protesters stretched along the block north of the White House, out of sight of the Rose Garden, in a rally organized by the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority. “We intend to fix the political climate that makes the President and Congress think they can get away with writing off the poor,” declared Patricia Ireland, president of NOW.

NY Times, August 23, 1996

Of course, in Furuhashi’s mind the Patricia Irelands of the world are secretly backing Clinton’s attack while pretending to be sympathetic to his victims. Ireland is like those dastardly leftists who say that they oppose war with Iran, but give Bush the excuse he needs to start bombing when they call attention to the lack of democratic rights in Iran. People who love peace should understand that it is best to keep quiet when Iranian cops haul International Women’s Day demonstrators off to jail.

Some subscribers to LBO-Talk want to give Furuhashi the benefit of a doubt. They interpret her article as a call to combine the fights against de jure and de facto discrimination. Her most ardent defender has been Richard Seymour, better known as the “Lenin’s Tomb” blogger. He argues:

I suspect that Yoshie is arguing for what marxists sometimes call a ‘dialectical’ understanding of patriarchy and racism. In fact, the upshot is quite the contrary to what you suggest. It is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism should be subordinated to class struggle, but that these struggles are contiguous, and the attempt to separate them has been fatal, allowing the preservation of the worst forms of class rule, and patriarchy, and racism, while also stripping away the defensive aspects of traditional units of organisation, reducing people to atomised and practically defenseless agents in the face of a ruling class onslaught. It doesn’t mean we embrace patriarchy or defer the struggle against it, for example: it means we take it up as part of the class struggle.

If Seymour “suspects” a meaning that is not immediately obvious from Furuhashi’s words, he is not alone. Like a symbolist poem scrutinized by William Empson in “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” her article has led to multiple interpretations. In response to Doug Henwood’s criticisms, LBO-Talk subscriber Jim Farmelant wrote, “I am not at all sure that’s what Yoshie is saying. I think her point is that the struggle against de jure discrimination is insufficient for ending oppression.”

My advice to anybody involved in Marxist polemics, including Comrade Yoshie, is to strive for clarity. While academia, especially the postmodernist wing, encourages writing that invites multiple interpretations, the working class movement needs its writers to be direct and to the point. When the future of humanity rests on the outcome of our debates, it subverts our greater purpose to write murky prose.

This is the common failing of our “uniters”: they cannot give a clear answer to questions of the day; they do not themselves know what they want.

One thing is clear from their writings: they want to save the liquidators, and must therefore avoid clarity and precision in the formulation and solution of problems.

To the liquidators clarity and precision are the most dangerous things at the present time. Other articles in Yedinstvo bring this home to us still more forcibly.

But the workers want clarity, and they will get it, for they want to build up the unity of their organisation, not on the basis of diplomacy and equivocation, but on the basis of a precise appraisal of the political significance of the different “trends”. People who have two or even more opinions on this question are, poor counsellors.

V.I. Lenin, “Clarity First and Foremost!

Since Furuhashi’s musings have a somewhat detached, Platonic quality, one wonders whether she has actually bothered to check whether or not her thesis is backed up by the historical record. One gets the impression from her that the most far-sighted liberal ruling class figures seek to break the resistance of more reactionary figures who can’t understand the benefits of making Black and white workers equal before the law. If this was the case, we might expect the Kennedy White House to have been bent on smashing Jim Crow. This is not the case, however, as I discovered in my research on JFK:

Kennedy saw the Justice Department as the main instrument of his civil rights agenda, not the Civil Rights Commission that had been established in 1957 under Eisenhower as part of the Civil Rights Act. Several degrees to the left of Kennedy, the Commission was seen as something akin to Reconstruction and, therefore, unwelcome. In his best-selling “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy referred to Reconstruction as a “black nightmare…nourished by Federal bayonets.” When the Civil Rights Commission announced its attention to investigate racist violence in Mississippi, Robert F. Kennedy likened it to HUAC “investigating Communism.”

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

Even in their selection of voter registration as the least confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.

One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with the state of Mississippi!

The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA “look bad for us in the world.” His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors had no idea what they were demonstrating about.

Now it is entirely possible that JFK had a secret agenda that went against his outward demeanor and words. He might have been like Patricia Ireland and those leftists who secretly yearn for war with Iran despite words to the contrary. Despite JFK’s laissez-faire attitude toward Southern racists, he might have had carefully concealed plans to hasten the end of de jure discrimination. You ask how? Here’s how: by cutting the KKK some slack, its outrages would increase public pressure to speed up civil rights legislation or something like that. Perhaps JFK had studied the history of the German Communist Party when he was at Harvard and sought to carry out an American version of “the worse, the better”. Bourgeois politicians can be very shifty, after all.

Speaking for myself, I ruled out this possibility after deliberating on it for 10 seconds or so. My reading of American history going back to the days of Reconstruction teaches me that support for de jure discrimination crossed party lines. The initiative to destroy Jim Crow did not come from some bourgeois politician who had been inspired by Jeremy Bentham but by Black workers who had participated in the CIO struggles of the 1930s, as should be obvious from this article that appeared in the April 1956 American Socialist magazine:

THE incident that touched off things happened simply and spontaneously. It was not a test case. On the night of December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a seamstress at a Montgomery department store, was returning home from work. She boarded the bus that would take her to the public-housing project where she lived. She was carrying a sack of groceries, bursitis racked her shoulders, and she was dead-tired. She sat near the front of the Negro section. After a few minutes she heard the driver order her to move to the back—where there were no seats vacant. She looked up and saw a white man waiting to claim her place. She didn’t move. The driver again called out. She still didn’t move. The driver then stopped the bus, announcing that he was going for the police. For thirty minutes the passengers remained in the halted vehicle. No one got out, no one—white or Negro—spoke to her. ‘It was the longest time of my life,’ Mrs. Parks recalls. The police came and she was booked for violating the segregation ordinance—although the law specifically states that the driver can only reassign passengers if there are other seats available.

E. D. Nixon, sleeping-car porter who is president of his union local, put up her bond. The following day he summoned the city’s Negro ministers and suggested organizing a mass protest. As former president of the Alabama NAACP and long-time fighter for the right to vote, Nixon had some claim on the consciences of the men of the cloth. And Mrs. Parks, too, was not unknown. For years she had been doing the drab secretarial and dues-collecting chores of keeping an NAACP chapter alive in Montgomery, without thanks or glory. Nixon suggested that Negroes stay off the buses on the day of her trial, scheduled for December 5. The proposal won the enthusiastic approval of the Rev. M. L. King, Jr., 27-year-old native of Atlanta and graduate of Boston University, and he persuaded the others. The following Sunday some twenty ministers passed the idea along to their congregations.

If you are at all familiar with the Montgomery bus boycott, you will know that Rosa Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for a white couple, Clifford and Virginia Durr. The Durrs became her friends and encouraged Parks to attend—and eventually helped sponsor her—at the Highlander Folk School, a school formed by leftists in 1932 in order to train labor organizers. Furthermore E.D. Nixon’s union was one of the most militant trade unions in the 1930s and 40s whose leader A. Philip Randolph was ready to organize a March on Washington during WWII in order to protest discrimination against Blacks in the Defense Industry.

Of course, if FDR understood that such discrimination prevented the capitalist system from achieving it full Benthamite possibilities, I am sure that he would have organized buses to bring people to Washington.

Fundamentally, Furuhashi is unable to understand how the capitalist system operates. She is much more of an economic determinist in the Charles Beard sense. For people like Beard and what is sometimes called “vulgar Marxism”, politics has a direct and unmediated connection to the operations of the capitalist economy. The fight against de jure discrimination is understood in terms of Karl Marx’s discussion of labor as commodity in Volume One of Capital; the “culture wars” are an element of the capitalist system’s tendency to increase the rate of profit, etc. If politics could be derived from such simple formulas, the capitalist system would have ended long ago. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for complex, dialectical thought no matter the temptation to dumb down Marxism in accordance with the steadily deteriorating intellectual climate of the American empire as it lurches toward oblivion.

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