Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 24, 2013

Terraferma

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

Like Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”, “Terraferma”, opening today at the IFC in NY,  celebrates ordinary working people in southern Europe risking arrest to protect undocumented workers from Africa. Standing firmly against the xenophobia that is gripping the continent as well as the United States, these films remind us of how working class solidarity can manifest itself at the deepest and most intimate level even when those expressing it have never read a single word of Marx. Furthermore, “Terraferma” is in some ways a modern version of “Huckleberry Finn”. When offered a choice between justice and the law, the young protagonist—like Huck Finn–chooses justice.

The film is set on a small island that traditionally relied on fishing, but that has fallen on hard times due to overfishing. Relief seems to be on its way, however, in the form of tourism since the island is breathtakingly beautiful. The only drawback, however, is that it is in the direct route from Libya to Italy’s mainland and often a repository for shipwrecked Africans whose rickety boats fail to make it past the treacherous waters and jagged reefs.

The economic fork in the road is dramatized by the choices facing a particular family. Ernesto takes his grandson Filippo out fishing each day, enjoying every moment of their day even if the catch is barely sufficient to pay for expenses. Filippo’s father was lost at sea a few years earlier and his mother and uncle are anxious for him to find a new source of income, particularly in the tourism business that employs his uncle as a seaside bartender and tour boat tummler.

When summer arrives, Filippo and his mother move into the garage attached to their newly repainted house that will be rented to tourists. They turn out to be two young men and a woman from northern Italy who probably regard the Sicilian bumpkins in the same fashion that rich kids from Connecticut on vacation in New Orleans would regard Cajuns taking them out for a tour of nearby swampland. Local color.

One of the selling points of renting Filippo’s house is the availability of his grandfather’s fishing boat for day trips even if the tourists flout local mores. With a smirk on her face, the young attractive woman in the group asks Filippo if his grandfather would mind if she goes out on the boat bare-topped. He replies that she can wear whatever she wants.

On the day before the tour, as Filippo and his grandfather are out fishing, they spot a raft overloaded by Africans crying out for help. Following the strict laws that the racist Italian government has laid down, they immediately call the coast guard. Before the coast guard arrives, a handful of people from the raft jumps into the water and begin swimming to the fishing boat. The grandfather tells Filippo to allow them to come on board since that is the law of the sea. It is also the law of terraferma (dry land) since the family shelters an Ethiopian woman named Sara and her son in the garage risking arrest.

Emanuele Crialese wrote the screenplay and directed “Terraferma”. Born to Sicilian parents in Rome in 1965, he earned a filmmaking degree at NYU in 1995. Thankfully, his work hearkens back to the grand traditions of Italian neorealism rather than the flavor of the month style of filmmaking taught at NYU. Considering the increasingly violent and racist behavior of Italian cops and their fascist allies, this is a film for which there was a crying need. Thankfully, it is a lovely work of art to boot.

Crialese was on tour in the USA in February talking about his film. At Cornell, during the Q&A, he spoke about the woman who played Sara, the Ethiopian woman sheltered by the Sicilians. A student reported:

After watching the film, we had a wonderful Q&A section with Emanuele. He discussed the film as both a personal and general observation. An example of the personal aspect, the woman who plays Sarah, arrived in Italy on a boat that was drifting away for three weeks with eighty people, seventy-five of which were dead. They kept the story away from the tourists, much as they do in the film. The woman was already dead, was placed in a bag, and was committed for dead until they saw movement from inside the bag. She showed up at the audition a year later and asked if Emanuele remembered her from their first meeting a year earlier. She was then cast into one of the main roles, re-living on screen a part of this tragic story. But as a general concern, Emanuele said he “felt every person deserves to know when family is lost, [Emanuele] wanted to do something new, something that was politico-social to get to the heart of this issue of global responsibility.”

Mindless Entertainment Addendum

These two films don’t really merit a review but I can urge my readers to see Johnnie To’s “Drug War” that opens at the IFC two days after “Terraferma”. This is a tightly-wound Hong Kong version of “The French Connection” that represents this genre at its best. The last 20 minutes, a shoot-out between cops and gangsters, is as deftly choreographed as a Balanchine ballet. But even more entertainingly, the hero of the film—a cop leading the investigation—goes undercover as Mr. HaHa, a drug lord. His performance was so stunning and so amusing that I could not even recognize him as the cop. A must see.

I also can give a thumb’s up to “Wolverine”, the latest installment in the X-Men franchise that has a lot in common with the early James Bond movies with a Dr. No type villain but without all the Queen and Country horseshit. I am not gay but I could not get my eyes off Hugh Jackman, ten times more buff than Geraldo Rivera. The film opens everywhere in the next few days, including the planet Mars.

January 18, 2013

Senegalese portraits in cinema

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

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

Most African countries could be middle income countries by 2025

By Shanta Devarajan and Wolfgang Fengler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great Omar Sy in “The Intouchables”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The complete “Ceddo” with French subtitles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2012

Our dying corporate class is the guarantee that the mass movement will expand and flourish

Filed under: immigration,Occupy Wall Street,racism — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Over the past few days, I have noticed a couple of articles sizing up the Occupy movement’s status. One comes from the left, and the other from an inside-the-beltway liberal pundit. Let me dispense with the last one first.

Although he is obviously at the Washington Post because his opinions jibe with his employer’s, I always find Dana Milbank worth reading, if for no other reason than he avoids the circumlocutions typical of the op-ed writer. In a piece titled Occupy Wall Street movement has hit a wall, Milbank makes an amalgam between Van Jones and Robert Borosage’s Take Back the American Dream Conference and the sans culottes movement that raised hell on Wall Street and dozens of other cities last year. It is understandable why he would confuse the two, since in his eyes Van Jones is “far left”. When I noticed that, I dashed off a letter to Milbank:

Dana, you have to get out more. Jones is an old-fashioned liberal, like George McGovern. I, on the other hand, am a far leftist. I would like to see the publishers of the Washington Post stripped of their assets and put in prison for their role in backing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. You should be spared, of course, after undergoing ideological rectification.

Borosage, like Jones, has attempted to co-opt the Occupy movement as this excerpt from Milbank’s article makes clear:

Robert Borosage, whose Campaign for America’s Future puts on the annual conference, encouraged the activists to take the long view, likening their position to that of progressives in the late 19th century. “Now we are back to that same kind of inequality, that same kind of robber-baron money politics,” Borosage said from a stage festooned with the words “99% Power” and other slogans. “And what’s exciting is we’ve seen the first stirrings in Wisconsin and Ohio and Occupy Wall Street, which spread across the country like wildfire.”

The Wisconsin drubbing was a “stirring”? And Occupy Wall Street? It did spread — but the fire quickly died.

Nelini Stamp, an Occupy leader, spoke at one of the sessions about how the movement went from a day in September when “all of a sudden something happened” to the “dismantling of the parks, city by city.” Stamp described the events of the fall as “a moment in time, and that moment sparked a movement.”

One imagines that Stamp felt an affinity with Van Jones and Robert Borosage based on her affiliation with the Working Families Party in NY that is 3rd party in name only. In the last election, it unfortunately used its ballot line for the dreadful Andrew Cuomo, who can best be described as Scott Walker Lite.

Milbank is something of a cynic so it is difficult to figure out whether he is lamenting over the ostensible collapse of Occupy or gloating over it. Despite his past employment in the bourgeois press, or perhaps because of it, Chris Hedges is just the opposite of Milbank. He wears his heart on his sleeve nowadays and we are all the better for it.

Hedges is a regular contributor to Truthdig.com, a website founded by Robert Scheer, who like Hedges, was once employed by the bourgeois media—in his case the LA Times. Hedges’s article is titled “Occupy Will Be Back” and uses his own words to approximate what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Here’s Hedges:

Our dying corporate class, corrupt, engorged on obscene profits and indifferent to human suffering, is the guarantee that the mass movement will expand and flourish. No one knows when. No one knows how. The future movement may not resemble Occupy. It may not even bear the name Occupy. But it will come. I have seen this before. And we should use this time to prepare, to educate ourselves about the best ways to fight back, to learn from our mistakes, as many Occupiers are doing in New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and other cities. There are dark and turbulent days ahead. There are powerful and frightening forces of hate, backed by corporate money, that will seek to hijack public rage and frustration to create a culture of fear. It is not certain we will win. But it is certain this is not over.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. Having lived through the 1950s and 60s, when the American economy was expanding at an unprecedented rate, I saw the ability of the American ruling class to maintain its hegemonic status. There were challenges from African-Americans but a combination of repression and crumbs from the table appeared to remove that threat, just as an end to the war in Vietnam and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion acted as a pressure valve to release steam from the system.

Things are different now. Today’s NY Times reported on the desperation that many long-term unemployed are facing:

Sam Chea, 38, who lives in Oakland and works nights delivering pizzas for Domino’s, said that he had been feeling the pinch at grocery stores, and worried that his lack of a college education was making it harder for him to find decent work. The other day he went to the nearby city of El Cerrito to apply for a second job at Nation’s Giant Hamburgers, a regional chain.

“I’ll be more secure with another job,” he said. “It’s scary. I don’t have an education, and I’m worried about my rent.”

“Everything’s gone up. Rent went up, gas went up, food went up, milk went up, cheeseburgers went up, even cigarettes went up,” said Mr. Chea, who had stopped at the barbershop to spiff up before his job interview. “I’m used to getting a haircut for $6 or $7, but they charged me $9. Even haircuts have gone up.”

In my recent post on the rascally Walter Russell Mead, someone commented that the left is too old to make an impact. I understand that if I am typical of the left (at the age of 67), this is a real problem. But another commenter wrote a rejoinder that is in line with Hedges’s piece and Marx’s before him:

You are obviously not in touch with the contemporary US revolutionary left, made up almost entirely of people under 35 — in other words, the generation subjected to one of the most radical periods of transferring social costs onto the backs of the working class. Our generation faces a situation of despair, ruin, indebtedness, political nihilism, old-folks-cynicism, mainstream political cretinism, and no future. You would benefit greatly by contacting the student, youth, people of color, and young working class movement in your local city. What you might find is in fact a vibrant undercurrent of dignity facing a situation that your generation, weaned on the massive capitalist high growth of the 50s, did not have to contend with. The “humble folks of the working class” are the young black, brown, yellow, red, and white youth on your streets today. Go meet them – they’re everywhere.

In my view, the Occupy movement has played a most useful role whatever its current status. At a moment when the Obama White House had much of the soft left in a state of suspended animation, they burst on the scene and demonstrated through their action that there had been no change and that they, to paraphrase Dante, had seen the words written large: “Abandon all hope all ye who live in the U.S. and are not hedge fund managers.”

Like the Zapatistas, who also defied the neoliberal “end of history” consensus like a lightning bolt out of the blue, these scruffy and more often than not organized anarchists (yes, I know, that is a paradox) raised such a ruckus that politics in America went through a sea change. They raised awareness that working people were being screwed and inspired hundreds of thousands to join them in protests against an unjust system.

I thought of the Occupy movement when I attended the Silent March against Stop and Frisk on Fifth Avenue last Sunday. This was a demonstration that really captured the militancy and spirit of unity that could be seen during the best of the Occupy protests.

You can get a flavor of the demonstration from this brief clip taken on my brand-new JVC professional camcorder whose myriad buttons and menus confuses even a geek like me. Look in particular for the women marching in the name of their beautician’s school!

For a report on the march that I couldn’t begin to top, I recommend Gary Lapon’s article  in Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization (not to be confused with the moribund sect of the same name led by Jack Barnes.)

According to the NAACP, the march was silent “as an illustration of both the tragedy and serious threat that stop-and-frisk and other forms of racial profiling present to our society. The silent march was first used in 1917 by the NAACP–then just eight years old–to draw attention to race riots that tore through communities in East St. Louis, Illinois, and build national opposition to lynching.”

Participants in the demonstration explained how this has become a civil rights issue of today. “I’ve been stopped and frisked for a case of mistaken identity,” said Justin, a high school senior in Brooklyn. “The cops stopped and searched me without a warrant, without anything–and they just said, ‘Mistaken identity.’” As Justin continued:

It’s getting crazy. My little brother just got stopped the other day for no reason…He’s only 11, but he’s a big kid, so they thought he was older, and they searched him. He was scared, he went home crying to my mother. People are scared to come out of their home thinking they’ll be searched by the cops. It shouldn’t be like that.

Dina Adams of the legal aid group Bronx Defenders said she had a lot of personal experience with stop-and-frisk. “I have three teenage sons, and so this is a battle that I go through three times as hard,” she said. “It impacted [my middle son] so much that where his schooling and everything–his whole life, seemed to have gone upside down.”

“The NYPD has too much power,” Adams said. “They need to stop focusing on Blacks and Latinos, stop focusing on our youth, stop screwing their lives up.”

As I have said in the past, it would be useful if socialist groups rethink what it means to have a “program”, too often an assemblage of doctrinal tenets held on disputed points going back at least a hundred years and calculated to distinguish the group’s “brand” from others on the left. Why not adopt a much simpler program based on Dina Adams’s words: “Stop screwing up our lives”.

Yes, youth will be heard.

While Obama has gotten pats on the back from the liberal left on his decision to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, it would be more accurate to say that he made this decision more on the basis of stopping the blows raining down on his back, head, and shoulders from young activists tired of dealing with the immigration cops that he had sent after them.

The NY Times reported on June 17:

In recent weeks, the White House faced intense pressure from some of its closest allies — their voices often raised in frustration — to provide some relief for immigrant communities. The urging came from Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the top two Democrats in the Senate, and the Hispanic caucus in the House of Representatives, as well as Latino and immigrant leaders across the country.

Bleak figures reported early this month by the Department of Homeland Security showed that a yearlong program designed to shift enforcement away from illegal immigrants who pose no security risk was not producing results, with only about 500 young students nationwide spared from deportation.

And last week, students without immigration papers started a campaign of sit-ins and hunger strikes at Obama campaign offices in more than a dozen cities, saying that despite his promises, the president was continuing to deport immigrants like them.

I’d like to think that those sit-ins and hunger strikes were ignited not only by Obama’s reactionary nativist policies but by the example last year of young people putting their bodies on the line.

Here’s a good look at what they were doing:

April 11, 2011

The Libyan rebels and human rights

Filed under: immigration,Libya,racism — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

On March 31, 2011 Wolfgang Weber published an article entitled,“Libyan rebels massacre black Africans.” The article appeared on numerous websites simultaneously. As the title suggests, Weber alleges that rebel forces have engaged in repeated massacres of black Africans. He provides no footnotes or other citations. He alleges that his primary source of information is an article by the German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn from the March 22, 2011 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. A search of that newspaper’s website yielded no such article, although several other Heinsohn articles on unrelated topics did appear. Nor did repeated google searches  produce evidence of such a Heinsohn article. And I have found no other references to it, which is strange because Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is a world-reknowned newspaper.[xii]

When dealing with difficult subjects like this we need to be careful. We should be open-minded enough to accept facts which may challenge our assumptions. At the same time, it is irresponsible to engage in rumor mongering. From the scattered bits of reliable evidence we can piece together a story that is not pretty. But nor does it confirm the wild allegations promoted on numerous pro-Qaddafi, or anti-rebellion websites.

Like many petro-dictators, Qaddafi has relied on immigrant workers who come to Libya for employment opportunities. They come from eastern and southern Asia, the middle east, and northern Africa. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center estimates that sub-Saharan workers constitute as much as one-third of Libya’s active workforce.[xiii] Estimates vary, however. Precise demographic data is difficult to come by in a police state. Under Qaddafi’s rule immigrant workers had no legal rights and were barred from joining even the legally-constrained trade unions.

As is often the case in countries with large numbers of migrant workers, there have been periodic waves of anti-immigrant violence. Human Rights Watch has tracked cases of mob violence against sub-Saharan Africans in Libya since 2006.[xiv]

The outbreak of civil war in late February had particularly devastating effects on immigrant workers. Entire cities have been vacated. Production in many areas has shut down. HRW reports that thousands of migrants have been attempting to flee Libya since the beginning of the conflict. Those whose home countries have been willing to send rescue ships have been the lucky ones. Many others have been trapped in refugee camps, living in terrible conditions.

Within the camps several sub-Saharan workers have reported being victimized by mob violence. So far the reports do not make clear who the mobs were, or whether they have any connection to the rebel organizations. Nor, from the limited number of reports, can we estimate how many have been killed. [xv]

There is some evidence that some rebel fighters and authorities are guilty of racial profiling and racial violence. Included among the testimony provided to Human Rights Watch are accounts of beatings at the hands of rebel fighters. In reaction to Qaddafi’s widely-reported use of mercenaries from Chad and Niger[xvi], some Black Africans in Benghazi have been arrested on spurious evidence of collaboration with the regime. Again, it is difficult to tell how widespread this is. Most reports refer to a single event in Benghazi involving fewer than ten people. But it would not be surprising if it occurred more frequently, given the chaos of civil war, the primitive character of revolutionary justice in general, and the racial bigotry which is undoubtedly still common-place.

A March 29, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail article provides some details of the above-mentioned events. It also indicates that the human rights situation has improved since mid-March. The TNC has appointed human rights activist Mohamed el-Allagi as its new Minister of Justice and has welcomed the involvement of HRW and the Red Cross to improve its human rights record. Whether this is more PR than reality, and whether el-Allagi will actually have power over anything is yet to be seen.[xvii]

We should be critically open-minded about these events. It may be that some rebel forces have  engaged in reprehensible attacks. And we should have no illusions that a successful revolution will end such attacks, any more than the Egyptian revolution has ended religious or gender violence. What we can say with confidence is that if the Qaddafi regime prevails it will reinstitute all of the racist policies that have made immigrant workers second-class citizens, and created the conditions for racial and ethnic conflicts. If the revolution succeeds, there is at least the possibility of new political forces emerging which can envision a different kind of social order.

read full article

March 25, 2011

Illegal

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

In many ways, the title of the film “Illegal” that opens today at the Cinema Village in New York should be “Nobody is illegal” since this is about as hard-hitting and politically engaged as any movie ever made on the plight of undocumented workers. While Americans might assume that the protagonists are Latinos, who bear the brunt of nativist repression, the film takes place in Belgium and tells the story of Tania, a teacher from Byelorussia who now works cleaning offices at night.

In the opening moments, we see Tania sitting on a sofa drinking vodka straight from a bottle. It turns out that she is not dissolute, only seeking to dull the pain that awaits her. Once she is sufficiently dosed, she takes a steam iron and proceeds to apply the iron against her fingertips in an attempt to conceal her identity. From this moment onwards, we understand that being deported is a fate worse than hell. The fact that “Illegal” does not spell out what makes her so afraid does not diminish it. All we need to know is that for some people becoming an undocumented worker in another country is a lesser evil, and one necessary to assume.

Tania has a young son named Ivan who she dotes on. She has decorated their modest apartment with banners and tinsel, although he complains that he would rather celebrate with his friends. The next day, Tania and Ivan are confronted outside their building by a couple of cops who demand to see her papers. When she can only show them a health service id, they insist that she bring them back to her apartment where the papers (false, as it turns out) can be found. They are interested in finding out where she got the documents from and will pressure her to name the supplier, a thuggish Russian named Mr. Novak who controls her and her son through his power over her identification papers.

Tania tries to flee the cops who wrestle her to the ground. She cries out to Ivan to run away, which he does with mixed feelings. Now he will be on his own. Like all young men who complain about smother love, he will find it hard to live without her.

She is taken to a detention center where most of the action of this taut and powerful film takes place. It is in many ways a prison genre work, including a food fight done as comic relief, but with the added dimension of being a foreigner. Some of the most interesting scenes involve her in discussions with a female guard who has no enthusiasm for her job but needs the money. Tania develops close ties to another woman from Mali who has been beaten repeatedly for the guards by refusing to voluntarily return to her country. This is the same fate that awaits Tania as well.

In almost a documentary fashion, the film details the dehumanization that all jailed “illegal” immigrants face. In one truly memorable scene, we see Tania being “processed” through an airport building set up exclusively for deportees. After being forced to strip and put up with an invasive search (for god knows what), she is corralled into a tiny and poorly lit cell awaiting being put on a plane destined to Eastern Europe. It is like watching a steer being put through a meat packing house assembly line.

“Illegal” was directed by Oliver Masset-Depasse and stars Anne Coesens as Tania. She is brilliant.

In the press notes, the director is interviewed by Mattieu Recarte who asks:

Tania, the main character, is a Russian “illegal alien,” as the authorities say. Shouldn’t the French title have used the feminine spelling for illegal immigrant?

Masset-Depasse’s reply:

No, because it’s the “System,” a masculine word in French, that I consider “illegal,” not Tania. The administrative detention centers found in our countries, which supposedly respect human rights, are illegal. The vast majority of illegal immigrants held in these centers have had to flee extreme poverty, dictatorship, war etc., and when after an often trying and dangerous journey, they end up in our countries; we welcome them by putting them in prison. They are treated like criminals.

In fact, Belgium has already been convicted four times by the European Court of Human Rights for inhuman or degrading treatment. That shows you to what extent my country lives up to its ideals.

Using a modesty of means, “Illegal” tells a story that is not only dramatically compelling but politically necessary. One would only hope that young American film-makers will follow suit.

October 10, 2010

Bob Dylan’s letter to the INS defending John Lennon

Filed under: immigration,music,repression — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

October 4, 2010

History of the passport system

Filed under: immigration,swans — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Che Guevara's false Uruguayan passport

(Swans – October 4, 2010)   When I learned about the decision by the good folks who publish Swans that they intended to produce a special issue on immigration, I saw this as an opportunity to investigate the origins of the passport and visa system — something I regarded as a recent phenomenon. After reading John Torpey’s very useful The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, I was disappointed to discover that such documents have been around for a very long time in one form or another. Upon further reflection, I might have realized that this was the case since state formations — be they feudal, capitalist, or bureaucratic socialist — have been around for over a millennium. The only exception to this rule has been primitive communal societies or nomadic herders. Ironically, it will be up to an aroused and enlightened humanity to reintroduce communal social forms but based on advanced technology to finally put an end to the dungeon that such papers represent.

It is a sign of how little we have progressed that the Roma being persecuted across Europe today for their refusal to abide by the norms of “citizenship” were being persecuted for the same refusal in the 16th century. A police ordinance from 1548 Prussia stipulated that “gypsies and vagabonds” (Landstreicher) had to be issued passes to travel within the feudal state. Furthermore, in all feudal entities the lower classes needed traveling papers, a way of tying a serf to his lord’s manor.

Despite Britain’s reputation for being freer and more “enlightened,” things were not much different. A 1381 statute prevented anybody but aristocrats from leaving the kingdom. (A point on terminology: passports are required to leave a country; visas are needed to enter one.) Britain also had the same determination to keep the peasant tied to his master’s land. A member of the lower classes could migrate from one part of the kingdom to another only if he had a certificate issued by a court official or a cleric.

Read full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy64.html

May 20, 2010

Second grader challenges White House on immigration

Filed under: immigration — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

May 6, 2010

My pick for best movie of 2010 and I have not even seen it!

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

May 4, 2010

Turkish food, Arizona nativism

Filed under: Ecology,immigration,racism,Turkey,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Just out of curiosity, I went into a grocery store called “Straight from the Market” on First Avenue and Ninety-First Street a week or so ago and was delighted to discover that it was a specialty store owned by Turks and featured goods like simit, a kind of Turkish bagel that is sold on the streets of Istanbul.

Meanwhile, the other night me and the wife went to Marmara, a new restaurant across the street that featured Turkish cuisine. It used to be called Benelli’s, an Italian joint, even though the owners were Turkish and the same people now running Marmara. They figured out that the market for Italian food was saturated. My wife, who is Turkish, generally has little use for Turkish restaurants in New York but was pleased with this one, especially the zucchini pancake called mucver (pronounced mujver) that was on the meze, or appetizer, section of the menu.

Now I don’t give a good god-damn if the people working in the grocery store or the restaurant were “legal” or not. They are not stealing jobs from anybody but helping to keep the cultural diversity of New York intact. For as long as I have lived in New York, this is one of the things that appeals to me most.

I love the fact that I can walk ten blocks north on 3rd Avenue and enter Spanish Harlem with its rich variety of bodegas, Mexican tortilla stands and botanicas. Who in their right mind would want to pressure such people to speak English and open up McDonald’s?

In some ways New York strikes me as a modern-day version of the multi-ethnic cosmopolitan centers of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul ruled over a vast empire but left people to their own devices as long as they provided tribute to the precapitalist ruling families. Columbia University’s Mark Mazower wrote a book in 2004 titled Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 that chronicled the lifestyle of an earlier version of New York. A review that appeared in the October 22, 2004 Independent noted:

Chronicled by Mazower with great erudition and impeccable research, it turns into a mental and moral feast. Salonica’s dramatic life grips us inexorably. We rub shoulders with a host of her peoples – Turks, Greeks, Jews, Macedonians, Slavs, Bulgars, Vlachs, Gypsies and Albanians – and learn about their religions, arts and cultures. We empathise with the terror unleashed by brigands, invaders and plagues. We feel the religious fervour of Greek martyrs, Sufi sheikhs, and the crypto-Jews, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi, “the false Messiah” who converted to Islam…Above all, as Mazower intends, by absorbing the “experiences of Christians, Jews and Muslims within the terms of a single encompassing historical narrative”, we snatch the much-needed hope that cultural and religious co-existence is possible.

That co-existence was generated by Ottoman rule. Today, when much of the Western world yields to Islamophobia, it is imperative to understand, as Mazower brings to light, that true Islam has been a model of tolerance, particularly towards other religions and their worshippers. That Turks, Greeks, Jews and many other Balkan peoples lived in peaceful co-existence for centuries was not an accident, but entirely the result of the tolerance prescribed in the Ottoman Empire’s persuasion of Islam – the Hanafi school of Sunni law.

Ironically, when Turkey became a modern state based on a nationalist ideology, all that was lost. It became illegal to speak Kurdish and the Armenians were annihilated.

At the risk of sounding like Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”, I take a very dim view of Arizona and most of the Southwest. As someone who lived in Houston for three years and witnessed the nativism there, I am not surprised that Texas is considering enacting copy-cat legislation that would turn Mexicans into unpersons.

One would think from the chatter emanating from the punditry that the state was forced to adopt such stringent legislation because of a crime wave that matched Medellin in the 1980s. The facts do not support such hysteria.

In 2008, Phoenix had a population of 1,585,838 and the total number of violent crimes was 659. Meanwhile Indianapolis had a population of 808,329 and reported 1204 violent crimes. So the issue does not seem to be crime per se but the perception that brown-skinned peoples are some kind of foreign body that has to be expelled, just like Jews in Germany in the 1930s.

In some ways, Phoenix is an apt symbol of American capitalism in decline. With its punctured real estate bubble and nostalgia for a white bread America that never really existed, it is the perfect spawning ground for ultraright movements. It is also a place whose long-term environmental sustainability is in doubt.

Arizona’s cities rely on water provided by the Colorado River that was dammed up in the 1930s as part of FDR’s shortsighted project to turn the Southwest into a commercial and industrial powerhouse. Back in 1986, environmentalist Mark Reisner wrote Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water that was turned into a documentary that can now be viewed on Youtube:

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