December 25, 2013
December 24, 2013
Among the many major studio DVD screeners I received in November as a NYFCO member, “Philomena” was a low priority item. I could not imagine nominating this as a best film of 2013 based on the previews I had seen in the theaters. It starred Judi Dench as an elderly Irish woman named Philomena Lee trying to find a son she had put up for adoption 50 years earlier, aided by a British reporter covering her story.
Indeed, as the film started I identified completely with the reporter who told Philomena’s daughter who he meets at a cocktail party that he did not cover “human interest” stories. Also, he was going to be busy writing a history of Russia—my kind of guy.
It is only after Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) sits down with Philomena and begins to flesh out her story do we discover that she was one of thousands of young women victimized by the Catholic Church in Ireland that turned them into virtual slaves in laundries run out of their convents, in her case a place called Roscrea. This was the plot of Peter Mullan’s 2003 “The Magdelene Sisters”, a film I never saw but had vivid memories of the reviews depicting a chamber of horrors.
Roscrea was what they called a Magdalene Asylum, not a mental institution but what Americans would call a reformatory for Catholic girls. The crime was not robbery or auto theft but having an out of wedlock child, prostitution, or promiscuity.
Funded by the Guardian newspaper that initially considered this only a “human interest” story, Martin and Philomena fly to Washington in search of her son not knowing exactly what to expect. Maybe he was dead? Maybe he came back from Vietnam without his legs? Those were the thoughts gnawing away at Philomena.
“Philomena” is at once a detective story and a powerful indictment of the Catholic Church that forced Philomena to give up her out-of-wedlock son for adoption when she was slaving away as a laundress. The church does everything it can to prevent her from finding out the whereabouts of her son and it is up to Martin to use his investigative reporting skills to track him down.
The film is based on a true story. Martin Sixsmith wrote “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” in 2009, a story he first covered for the Guardian in 2006:
A little later I met Philomena herself. She told me she had given birth in a country convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary on 5 July 1952. She was 18 when she met a young man who bought her a toffee apple on a warm autumn evening at the county fair. “I had just left convent school,” she said with an air of wistful regret. “I went in there when my mother died, when I was six and a half, and I left at 18 not knowing a thing about the facts of life. I didn’t know where babies came from … “
When her pregnancy became obvious, her family had Philomena “put away” with the nuns. After her baby, Anthony, was born, the mother superior threatened Philomena with damnation if ever she breathed a word about her “guilty secret”. Terrified, she kept it quiet for more than half a century. “All my life I couldn’t tell anyone. We were so browbeaten, it was such a sin. It was an awful thing to have a baby out of wedlock … Over the years I would say ‘I will tell them, I will tell them’ but it was so ingrained deep down in my heart that I mustn’t tell anybody, that I never did.”
I was intrigued to know why the nuns had been so insistent on the importance of silence and secrecy. The answer, almost certainly, lay in what had happened next.
Philomena was one of thousands of Irish women sent to convents in the 1950s and 60s, taken away from their homes and families because the Catholic church said single mothers were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their children.
If I had seen “Philomena” in advance of our awards meeting, I surely would have nominated it for the best film of 2013. I could spend thousands of words extolling its merits but will only mention the most important. If the best screenplays rest on a foundation of powerful characters, such as is the case for all literature going back to Sophocles, then “Philomena” is successful beyond all expectations. Martin was raised as a Catholic but now considers religion to be humbug, especially a Catholic Church that exploited teenaged women and robbed them of their babies. Despite what the Church did to her, Philomena remains a devout Catholic and even puts a St. Christopher’s Medal on the dashboard of Martin’s car to “protect him”. Although Martin is often unsparingly cutting when it comes to Philomena’s superstitions, in this instance he only uses facial expressions to register his annoyance. The pairing of these two is as memorable a play on religious and psychological differences as any film I have seen since “The African Queen” in the mid-1950s. As was the case with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, Coogan and Dench evolve into a couple deeply committed to each others’ cause even as they quarrel to the semi-bitter end.
In addition to his nonpareil performance as Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan also wrote the screenplay in partnership with Jeff Pope who has written exclusively for television in the past. Nothing in their careers would have foreshadowed such brilliant writing. Coogan is best known as a stand-up comedian whose own Catholic upbringing in a working class Irish family surely helped him to develop Philomena’s character. The only brush with politics was his activism against the Murdoch press when he discovered that he was a victim of phone hacking. Like the character he plays, Coogan is now an atheist.
Veteran British director Stephen Frears, who directed “Philomena”, also directed “The Queen” in 2006, a film I nominated as best of the year back then. This is British filmmaking at its best and I strongly encourage you to see the film the first chance you get. It is playing at better theaters everywhere, as they say.
A couple of hours after watching “Philomena”, I decided to watch “The Magdelene Sisters” for the first time on Amazon.com streaming (it is also on Youtube as indicated above). Although there are scenes of the young Philomena working in the laundry and being mistreated by the nuns, nothing prepares you for the sadism on display in Peter Mullan’s film that matches “12 Years a Slave” in many ways. That is no accident since the young women who worked in convent laundries were slaves for all practical purposes. Not only did they not get paid; they were beaten mercilessly for the slightest offense. Failed escape attempts brought on especially brutal reprisals.
The film is focused on three young women who were sent to a Magdalene Asylum (in 1964 for various offenses but all related to challenging Catholic sexual norms. Instead of punishing the young man who raped Margaret at a wedding party, she instead gets sent away. As the film progresses, you cannot escape feeling that women have it better in Saudi Arabia than they did in Ireland in the 1950s and early 60s.
Except for Margaret, who is rebellious from beginning to end like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”, all the other girls are unflinchingly devout just as Philomena was. This lends to a sadomasochistic relationship between nun and ward that is all the more obvious when a particularly nasty piece of work has the girls strip naked and evaluates them as to who has the biggest breasts.
I understand that the new pope has said some pretty decent things about poor people, etc. but my reaction to this film was boiling rage and fantasies about blowing up the Vatican.
Director Peter Mullan is a most interesting filmmaker. Born in 1959, Mullan studied economic history and drama at the University of Glasgow. Wikipedia states:
A Marxist, he was a leading figure in the left-wing theatre movement which blossomed in Scotland during the Conservative Thatcher government, including stints in the 7:84 and Wildcat Theatre companies. A passionate critic of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, he told The Guardian “the TUC and the Labour Party sold us [the working class] out big style, unashamedly so”. Mullan took part in a 2005 occupation of the Glasgow offices of the UK Immigration Service, protesting the UKIS’s “dawn raid” tactics when deporting failed asylum seekers.
In January 2009, Mullan joined other actors in protesting the BBC’s refusal to screen a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza. They told BBC director general Mark Thompson: “Like millions of others, we are absolutely appalled at the decision to refuse to broadcast the appeal. We will never work for the BBC again unless this disgraceful decision is reversed. We will urge others from our profession and beyond to do likewise.”
In 2011 the Irish government convened a committee to investigate the abuses at the Magdalene Asylums. The report authored by Senator Martin McAleese claimed that there was no sexual or physical abuse, contrary to Mullan’s screenplay.
I for one find it hard to believe that nuns did not resort to corporal punishment, especially in light of the fact that Philomena and the women dramatized in Mullan’s films remained devout Catholics despite what happened to them. As is so often the case in child abuse by a priest or a parent, the victim is reluctant to testify against an authority figure.
While it is understandable why the Catholic Church would rally around McAleese’s report, it is a bit harder to figure out why Brendan O’Neill, a long time member of Frank Furedi’s Spiked Online group, would make common cause with the clergy. Here’s O’Neill in the Telegraph:
In the Irish mind, and in the minds of everyone else who has seen or read one of the many films, plays and books about the Magdalene laundries, these were horrific institutions brimming with violence and overseen by sadistic, pervy nuns. Yet the McAleese Report found not a single incident of sexual abuse by a nun in a Magdalene laundry. Not one. Also, the vast majority of its interviewees said they were never physically punished in the laundries. As one woman said, “It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns… I was not touched by any nun and I never saw anyone touched.” The small number of cases of corporal punishment reported to McAleese consisted of the kind of thing that happened in many normal schools in the 1960s, 70s and 80s: being caned on the legs or rapped on the knuckles. The authors of the McAleese Report, having like the rest of us imbibed the popular image of the Magdalene laundries as nun-run concentration camps, seem to have been taken aback by “the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns”.
Apparently the free-spirited libertarians at Spiked have been evolving toward a rapprochement with the Vatican for some time, after the fashion of Obama conducting secret talks with Iran when the “anti-imperialist” left was expecting him to bomb it. How someone who used to call himself a Marxist would be oblivious to the sort of repression embodied in the Magdelene Asylums is a profound mystery. Even if not a single blow had been administered, it is a crime against humanity to jail young women for promiscuity or having babies out of wedlock.
Back in 2010 Spiked leader Frank Furedi wrote an article titled “Crusade against the pope: an Inquisition-in-Reverse” that argued against the proposition: “The pope’s criticism of contraception is denounced because it encourages unprotected sex, leading to the spread of AIDS. In other words, Catholicism represents a health problem; it leads to the moral pollution of the innocent.”
Well, yeah, I thought everybody knew that.
Is it possible that Spiked is trying to line up some funding from the Vatican? I know that it costs a bundle to maintain a staff of people in a bunch of think-tanks promoting a corporate agenda, but surely there are better sources than the Vatican. Somebody should give Frank Furedi the Koch brothers’ phone number.
October 7, 2013
You believe in heaven and hell?
Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?
Does that mean I’m not going?
[Laughing.] Unfortunately not!
Wait, to heaven or hell?
It doesn’t mean you’re not going to hell, just because you don’t believe in it. That’s Catholic doctrine! Everyone is going one place or the other.
But you don’t have to be a Catholic to get into heaven? Or believe in it?
Of course not!
Oh. So you don’t know where I’m going. Thank God.
I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that’s what the pope meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?” He may have recanted and had severe penance just before he died. Who knows?
Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.
Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.
Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism?“
February 28, 2012
Within the past week or so, I have seen two movies on Netflix streaming that remind me why I like “foreign” films. It has nothing to do with being a snob—even though I confess to being one from time to time. It has more to do with a need to be entertained. A few weeks ago, I got this comment from Ben Courtice under my review of The Forgotten Space, a Marxist documentary I compared favorably to “escapist trash”:
I actually have a preference for one piece of escapist crap after another – I spend my days as an activist wading through torrents of information about how the world is going to shit – but this sounds really good! Thanks I’ll look out for it.
I told Ben that I might have something to say about “Woman in Black”, “Chronicle”, and “The Grey”, three films I saw at my local Cineplex, but simply lacked the motivation to follow through since despite being watchable, they were just not good enough to qualify as “escapist” fare.
Interestingly enough, the European films reviewed below pay homage to Hollywood “escapist trash”, perhaps demonstrating that other countries can take our own designs and improve upon them, like the latest Chinese consumer electronics.
(Sorry, English-subtitled trailer for Antibodies not available.)
The first is a German film made in 2005 titled Antibodies that might be described as a shameless rip-off of Silence of the Lambs.
The two main characters are a serial killer named Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke) and a part-time cop from the boondocks named Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Möhring) who comes to the big city where Engel is being jailed in order to determine whether he killed a teenage girl in his tiny farming village. All of Engel’s victims were boys so there was some question in Martens’s mind whether she was one of his victims.
Engel enjoys taunting Martens through the bars of his cell, in the same way that Hannibal Lechter taunted Agent Starling, another cop from the boondocks. Engel insists that he is not the girl’s killer and teases Martens with insinuations that the cop might be hiding something, very possibly some dark secret about his sexual impulses. Since Martens is a pious, if not downright prudish, Catholic, he dismisses Engel’s insinuations and presses on with his interrogation.
When he returns home, Martens finds himself at odds with his fellow villagers who resent his ongoing investigations of a homegrown murderer, not Engel. The most violently opposed to the investigation, which includes a blood test for a DNA sample to compare with the semen-soiled underpants of the young victim, is his father-in-law who shoots Martens’s dog in an opening scene when they are out deer-hunting.
The village is a reminder of how backward rural society is in Germany, especially in Catholic villages. The sexual repression is thick enough to cut with a knife. Director/screenwriter Christian Alvart is clearly tuned in to the same morbidity found in Michael Haneke’s 2009 The White Ribbon, a film focused on the rural social base of an incipient Nazi movement. In my review I noted:
Beneath the Baron is the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who is enough to turn anybody into an atheist. A rigidly authoritarian figure, especially to his own children, he decides to tie his teenaged son’s hands to the bed each night to prevent him from masturbating. The name of the movie originates from his decision to force his children to wear white ribbons as a reminder of their sins.
While the last thing in the world I would want to do is disclose the powerful ending of this film, I can say that it casts the small-town cop and his teenage son in a modern version of the biblical tale of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son, in order to demonstrate his faith. I always found this story that formed the core of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling about as effective an argument against religion as can be found.
The other film is Evil, a 2003 Swedish work directed by Mikael Håfström and based on the semi-autobiographical novel Ondskan written by Jan Guillou, a long-time leftist like the late Stieg Larsson.
The main character is Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), a 15 year old who lives with his mother and his sadistic stepfather who beats him over the slightest infraction. Not being able to strike back at the man, Erik takes it out on his schoolmates who are never able to match his fighting skills and–more importantly—his blind rage.
Hoping that a change of scenery might calm him down, his mother sends him to Stjärnsberg, a boarding school that is about as rigidly class-stratified as feudal India. Greeted by Otto Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgård), a self-described nobleman in the senior class, Erik learns the rules of the game. If he stays out of trouble, he will eventually become a senior and enjoy all the privileges that go with that status. Silverhielm also clues him on the social make-up of the school. There are aristocrats like him, students from wealthy backgrounds, and ordinary folk whose parents manage to scrape together the money to send them to Stjärnsberg. That last category describes Erik, whose mother sold family heirlooms to raise the tuition money.
Erik is escorted to his dormitory room where he meets his new roommate Pierre Tanguy (Henrik Lundström), the bookish and physically ungifted son of a Swiss diplomat. As the two take an immediate liking to each other (the case of opposites attracting each other), Pierre makes sure to warn him about student life at the school. If you keep a low profile, you will do okay. If you get noticed, especially by the upperclassmen, you will have big problems.
In one of Erik’s first classes, he is introduced to the school’s Nazi in residence who lectures the students about racial differences. The Nordic race is handsome and physically powerful. The further south you go, the weaker the specimen. He has Erik and Pierre stand up in front of the class to demonstrate the racial differences, much to their chagrin.
At lunch the next day, Erik gets an introduction to the kind of hazing that is universally accepted there, just as it is in fraternities and private schools worldwide. In a school like Silverhielm, it is not just about social acceptance. It is about inculcating the kind of deference to authority that serve as a lubricant in the machinery of the military and the corporation. When a student sitting at his table uses the word “crap” in a sentence, an upperclassmen calls him over to receive punishment (cursing is strictly prohibited, as is smoking), which consists of being smacked on the head with a butter knife. It is much more painful than it sounds.
A few moments later, Erik makes the same infraction. But when he is ordered to receive his punishment, he refuses. Like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and countless other memorable characters in prison and sadistic private school movies made in Hollywood, Erik is a stubborn nonconformist. He is also like James Dean, a “rebel without a cause”. Just to make sure that the audience makes this specific connection, Erik and Pierre confess their love of this quintessential 1950s rebellious youth movie in the course of sharing enthusiasms. As will be instantly recognizable, the two boys are stand-in’s for the James Dean and Sal Mineo characters in Nicholas Ray’s classic.
The plot revolves around the clash between the upperclassmen and Erik who refuses to bend to their will. No matter how much they escalate their harassment and physical abuse, he refuses to fight. He understands that if he gets expelled from Stjärnsberg, he will not be able to get into college.
Evil was nominated for best foreign film of the year at the Academy Awards in 2003, but the novelist upon whose book the film was based on was not permitted into the United States since he is listed as a terrorist by the State Department.
I strongly recommend a look at the wiki on Jan Guillou that leads off as follows:
Jan Oskar Sverre Lucien Henri Guillou (Swedish pronunciation: [jɑːn ɡɪjuː]; born 17 January 1944) is a Swedish author and journalist. Among his books are a series of spy fiction novels about a spy named Carl Hamilton, and a trilogy of historical fiction novels about a Knight Templar, Arn Magnusson. He is the owner of one of the largest publishing companies in Sweden, Piratförlaget (English: Pirate Publishing), together with Liza Marklund and his wife, publisher Ann-Marie Skarp.
Guillou’s fame in Sweden was established during his time as an investigative journalist. In 1973, he and co-reporter Peter Bratt exposed a secret intelligence organization in Sweden, Informationsbyrån (IB). He is still active within journalism as a column writer for the Swedish evening tabloid Aftonbladet.
In October 2009, the tabloid Expressen accused Guillou of having been active as an agent of the Soviet spy organization KGB between 1967 and 1972. Jan Guillou confirmed he had a series of contacts with KGB representatives during this period, he also admits to having received payments from KGB, but maintains that his purpose was to collect information for his journalistic work. The accusation was based on documents released from the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) and interviews with former KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky. In a later trial Expressen denied having accused Guillou of having been a Soviet spy, claiming that this was a false interpretation of its headlines and reporting.
In 1973, Folket i Bild/Kulturfront, a left-wing magazine, published a series of articles written by Guillou and Peter Bratt, revealing a Swedish secret intelligence agency called Informationsbyrån (“The Information Bureau” or IB for short). The articles, based on information initially furnished by former IB employee Håkan Isacson, described the IB as a secret organization that gathered information on Swedish communists and others deemed to be “security risks”. The organization operated outside of the framework of the defense and ordinary intelligence, and was invisible in terms of state budget allocations. The articles in Folket i Bild/Kulturfront accused the IB staff of being engaged in alleged murder, break-ins, wiretapping against foreign embassies in Sweden and spying abroad.
The exposure of the IB in the magazine, which included headshots with names and social security numbers of some of the alleged staff published under the headline “Spies”, led to a major domestic political scandal known as the “IB affair” (IB-affären). The activities ascribed to this secret outfit and its alleged ties to the Swedish Social Democratic Party were denied by Prime Minister Olof Palme, Defense Minister Sven Andersson and the chief of the Swedish defence forces, Stig Synnergren. However, later investigations by various journalists and by a public commissions, as well as autobiographies by the persons involved, have confirmed some of the activities described by Bratt and Guillou. In 2002, the public commission published a 3,000 page report where research about the IB-affair was included.
Guillou, Peter Bratt and Håkan Isacson were all arrested, tried in camera and convicted of espionage. According to Bratt, the verdict required some stretching of established judicial practice on the part of the court since none of them were accused of having acted in collusion with a foreign power. After one appeal Guillou’s sentence was lessened from one year to 10 months. Guillou and Bratt served part of their sentence in solitary cells. Guillou was kept first at Långholmen Prison in central Stockholm and later at Österåker Prison north of the capital.
Like Stieg Larssen, Guillou has devoted much of his journalist career to exposing the ultraright in Sweden. When my wife and I began watching Evil through our beloved, new Roku box, she was puzzled at first by the scene in the classroom where the Nazi professor was spouting his nonsense. “How can that be in a social democratic country”, she asked.
That was how it appeared generally, but I reminded her of the Dragon Tattoo novels that revealed the underbelly of Swedish society. Although I made a mental note to myself to do some research on Swedish fascism in the Columbia Library after reading the first two books in Larsson’s trilogy, I never got around to it. As is usually the case with me, research topics vie for my attention. Maybe after I retire, I will have the time to give them all the attention they deserve. Before that glorious day arrives, however, I hope to have more to say on the topic of the Swedish fascist movements.
December 26, 2011
Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights
2010 December 1
by J.A. Myerson
OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?
And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?
Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.
December 12, 2011
December 3, 2011
Like most people, before 2007 I only knew Sikhs by their appearance—and particularly the physically imposing men with their turbans and beards. But in May of that year, I saw something that turned me around–Shonali Bose’s “Amu”, a dramatization of what amounted to genocide in India in 1984.
In the press notes for the film, Shonali wrote:
Such a history cannot be buried and forgotten. Young people cannot make their future or understand their present without knowing the past. Today, twenty-two years after an elected government massacred its own people in full view of the world, no one has been punished. And as a result, the cycle of violence has continued against other communities. What kind of political system is this in which those in power can get away with such crimes again and again? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists with as they walk down a railway track into the future. This is why I made Amu. So that people all over the world will ask the question.
Now, four years later, I return to the Sikh struggle once again through the prism of film.
On October 14th I attended the opening night of the Sikh Film Festival in New York and saw two documentaries that went to the heart of the problems facing this 25 million strong religious group, three-quarters of whom live in Punjab, India, as well as other South Asians suffering from economic oppression.
Harpreet Kaur’s “A Little Revolution: A Story of Suicides and Dreams” featured the director in her campaign to win justice for the surviving family members of Punjabi peasants who have killed themselves out of desperation. Like so many peasants in India, Sikh and non-Sikh, the industrial transformation of Indian farming has condemned many to crushing debts.
Obviously related to the first documentary in terms of its economic focus, Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Agatha Maciaszek’s “The Ulysses” tells the story of Bangladeshi undocumented workers who are living in limbo. Deceived into thinking that they were destined for Europe and gainful employment, they are stranded in Ceuta, Morocco, a European enclave, where they construct a shanty-town and look after each other’s needs.
It is an obvious testimony to the ecumenical character of Sikh society that a film featuring the plight of non-Sikh peoples is featured on opening night.
Arguably, the Sikh religion is rooted in the same kind of belief in social equality that marked the early days of Christianity, long before that religion became associated with imperial power and intolerance. In Purnima Dhavan’s “When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799”, a book that can be read in part on Google, we learn:
The creation of the Khalsa [initiated Sikh] is important for many reasons. Its foundational texts questioned every facet of the social and political hierarchies that dominated peasant life in the seventeenth century. Other than challenging the moral right of the Mughal emperor to rule, Khalsa Sikhs, who were among the first to describe appropriate Khalsa practices, also questioned the hierarchies of caste and inherited privilege that dominated their world.
In one of the talks given at opening night of the Sikh Film Festival, a Sikh leader gave a brief overview of this formative period that involved some legendary battles of vastly outnumbered Sikh fighters against the Mughal army. Unlike the Old Testament, these heroic encounters were true and did not involve divine intervention. In point of fact, the Sikh religion has little use for such deus ex machina miracles or any other superstitions, as the Sikh wiki points out:
Superstitions and rituals should not be observed or followed, including pilgrimages, fasting and ritual purification; circumcision; idols & grave worship…
Sikhism does not have priests, they were abolished by Guru Gobind Singh (the 10th Guru of Sikhism). The only position he left was a Granthi to look after the Guru Granth Sahib, any Sikh is free to become Granthi or read from the Guru Granth Sahib.
Over centuries, and largely driven by a need to defend themselves against those who would crush their religion, Sikh men became accomplished fighters and actually built up a sizable empire of their own that straddled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India.
Eventually the Sikhs encountered an enemy army that they could not vanquish, namely the British colonists of the mid-19th century who fought two wars of subjugation that eventually led to the loss of Sikh power in Punjab. Once they were conquered, the Sikh warriors were heavily recruited into the British army because of their fighting skills.
While much of Karl Marx’s writings on India is problematic, relying on specious secondary sources, his 1858 Tribune article on “The Revolt in India” is worth noting:
A conspiracy to murder their officers and to rise against the British has been discovered among several Sikh regiments at Dera Ismael Khan. How far this conspiracy was ramified, we cannot tell. Perhaps it was merely a local affair, arising among a peculiar class of Sikhs; but we are not in a position to assert this. At all events, this is a highly dangerous symptom. There are now nearly 100,000 Sikhs in the British service, and we have heard how saucy they are; they fight, they say, to-day for the British, but may fight to-morrow against them, as it may please God. Brave, passionate, fickle, they are even more subject to sudden and unexpected impulses than other Orientals. If mutiny should break out in earnest among them, then would the British indeed have hard work to keep their own. The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India; they have formed a comparatively powerful empire; they are of a peculiar sect of Brahminism, and hate both Hindoos and Mussulmans.
As I said, Marx did not get everything right. Although I am no expert on the Sikh religion, the idea that they are a “sect of Brahmanism” sounds wrong. But from what I have been reading lately, the notion that “The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India” seems indisputable.
Indeed, Marx was right on this. As the fight for Indian independence grew apace, the Sikhs became vanguard fighters. Launched in part to break the hold of corrupt Mahants (custodians) over Sikh Temples, who were often in fact not even Sikhs, it turned into a fight against the British who propped up the Mahants in their typically colonizing mode of operation.
Agnes Smedley wrote an article for the July 2, 1924 Nation Magazine titled “The Akali Movement—An Heroic Epic”. These are the concluding paragraphs:
According to the official statement of the S. G. P. Committee, published throughout the Indian press, the massacre at the Gangsar shrine in Jaito was deliberately prepared by the British Government. In the immediate vicinity of the shrine, declared the committee, and concealed behind some buildings, the authorities erected a special barbed-wire in-closure to serve as a trap into which the Akalis were to be driven and beaten. The scene leading to the temple looked like a European battlefield. The road leading to the shrine was inclosed by a barbed-wire barricade on the one side and on the other bullock carts chained together. Behind the carts, villagers, armed with clubs and drunk with liquor which had been freely supplied them, were stationed in three rows. According to the statement of Pundit Malaviya, organizer and founder of the great Benares Hindu University, in a speech before the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi, and according to the statement issued by the S. G. P. Committee, these villagers had been recruited from the surrounding villages, one from each family, on the threat of confiscation of land and expulsion from the state of any family which did not send one representative. A platoon of infantry, two detachments of cavalry, and sappers and miners were ready to receive the Jatha. Lewis guns were fixed at various places. And, more significant still, a, trench had been dug around the temple, filled with water, and then strewn with grass and twigs to give it a deceptive appearance.
The Jatha realized its fate as it approached, but it was under a sacred pledge. In a calm and devotional mood, and singing hymns, it advanced. The English commander gave a signal with a flag, and fire was opened. The Akalis did not waver, but marched forward, with hands upraised and with voices raised in a mighty religious hymn. As their comrades fell about them they picked them up and marched on. Realizing that to stop them meant to kill the last man, the cavalry surrounded them. Some thirty Sikh women in the procession, one whose baby was killed in her arms, attended the wounded; upon their refusal to withdraw they were lashed and beaten. The dead and wounded lay for twenty-four hours without any medical assistance. Some of the dead bodies were piled on pyres, drenched with kerosene oil, and burned. Others were finally loaded on carts like so many sacks of grain, and taken to the fort where the prisoners were detained.
Since the Jaito massacre five more Jathas of 500 have reached Jaito, only to be arrested. As they leave Amritsar on their long march the streets and housetops are jammed with people crying “Sat Sri Akal.” Each night they rest and educate the peasants. Crowds of people wait for hours along the routes, ready to offer them, free of all charge, food and drink.
The Akali epic is not yet ended. It has again raised India from the depression which followed Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest. It has ceased to be purely one of religious reform. It is a social and political movement led by men who prefer martyrdom to surrender. Almost every Sikh now claims the honor of being an Akali, a name drawn from the deep wells of Sikh persecution which means one who is pure in spirit, “the Deathless.”
Last Thursday I attended a press screening for “I am Singh” that opened yesterday at Big Cinemas in NY, a theater specializing in Asian films. This is a film that dramatizes the struggle against racist attacks on both Sikhs and Muslims that took place in the aftermath of 9/11.
The title of this film is almost the same as “I am Sikh” since the name Singh, which means lion, is automatically given to Sikh boys just as Kaur (princess) is given to girls. The main character is Ranveer Singh (Gulzar Chahal) who is summoned to Los Angeles from India by his mother. In the parking lot of their restaurant, skinheads have attacked his father and two older brothers. After accusing them of being behind the 9/11 attack, they begin beating them with baseball clubs. The father is in a hospital, one brother is dead, and the other is in jail falsely accused of attacking his own relatives. In this film, the Los Angeles police department is depicted as riddled with racists. No, it is not a documentary.
After Ranveer comes to Los Angeles to investigate, he finds two allies in the fight to achieve justice. One is a barrel-chested long-time Sikh member of the police force who is fired for refusing to remove his turban while on duty (played by Bollywood veteran Puneet Issar, the film’s director). The other is a Muslim from Pakistan who witnessed the skinhead attack and was also falsely accused of being a 9/11 plotter simply because his father had the same name as someone who sold a cell phone to Mohamed Atta. Once again, I have to remind you that this is not a documentary.
For those who have never seen a Bollywood film, be prepared. The actors act in a way that is a throwback to cinema’s early days, long before there was such a thing as “method acting”—something that probably never made much of a dent in Indian film to begin with. People went to movies in order to enjoy something that was about as far from “natural” as could be expected. Think of Kabuki and you get an idea of the stylized manner of Bollywood that I personally enjoy immensely.
At the press screening, there were a number of my film critic colleagues who were guffawing at the histrionic delivery of some of the actors. I had to restrain myself from going over to one of the louder ones and giving them a piece of my mind. The provincialism of some New Yorkers can be shocking.
I can recommend “I am Singh” as a powerful statement of Sikh resistance to attempts to scapegoat them. That people can be beaten or killed for simply wearing a turban is a threat to some of our most basic rights as Americans, rights that were not handed down by the rich and the powerful but won through struggle. (The Sikh community, including youth who are involved with The Sikh Activist Network, is carrying out the social struggle depicted in “I am Singh” in real life. )
Finally, the song-and-dance numbers in “I am Singh” are about as breathtaking as in any Bollywood movie I have ever seen. Trust me, unless you have seen 6’5” Sikh men dancing with swords, you haven’t seen nothin’ Here’s a clip from the movie’s official website that will give you an idea of the treat that awaits you.
October 24, 2011
Back in 1987, when I was working at Goldman-Sachs, I sat next to a consultant named Barbara who had the loveliest violet eyes. I think she was attracted to me as well but I could never warm up to her since her values clashed with mine.
No, she was not a Republican. She was a “New Age” person who had been through the 60s counter-culture, eventually becoming a computer programmer just like me. But her real ambition was to start a business treating people with the Feldenkreis Method, a kind of low-key physical and mental exercise that was supposed to deliver health and happiness. I went to one of her evening workshops once and found it pointless, preferring to remain my neurotic, snarling anti-capitalist self.
But the real stumbling block was her often-stated desire to find a husband and move to Mamaroneck, a wealthy Westchester suburb. How had a 1960s free spirit become so bourgeois? That was a question that preoccupied me at the time.
I thought about Barbara while watching the extended segment on Steve Jobs last night on “Sixty Minutes” featuring Walter Isaacson, his authorized biographer. Isaacson went on at length about the “New Age” aspects of Jobs’s personality that were critical to his success in the business world.
Isaacson harps on Jobs’s long hair and his aversion to taking baths, a sure sign of his being “hip”, I suppose. But it was his trip to India, his Zen Buddhism, and most of all his use of LSD that made him atypical of the Silicon Valley world.
He goes on to explain that if you dig a little deeper, it was exactly those things that made Apple the big success that it was and is. The Zen Buddhism supposedly made him attuned to a kind of elegant minimalism that characterized all of his products, to the point of making him averse to on-off power switches.
The LSD was the big thing, however. It “opened his mind” in a way that he never thought possible. While not quite a prophet of the drug as Timothy Leary, Jobs is on record as stating that Bill Gates would have been much more successful if he had dropped acid himself.
I for one do not see any big contradiction between becoming a vicious captain of industry (Apple is the second most valuable corporation in the world, next to Exxon-Mobil) and embracing all of these “New Age” insights.
Despite beat poet Allan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder’s Zen training, as well as that of countless 1950s and 60s bohemians, the actual history of the religion (broadly defined) is one that includes exactly the kind of martial attitude that made Jobs into the top dog he was at the time of his death.
That is what you learn from reading Bryan Victoria’s “Zen War Stories”, a book that reviewer Stephen Heine described in the following terms:
Brian Victoria’s work, following on the heels of the highly acclaimed but also highly provocative Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1997), continues his withering attack on the embracing of wartime ideology by leading Zen masters and practitioners in Japan. Victoria seeks to show that the attitude characteristic of numerous examples of prominent Zen monks and scholars was not a matter of only benignly resisting, or even of passively accepting, the rhetoric of Imperial Way Buddhism by clergy who were pressured and powerless to stand up to the authorities. Nor was it an example of innocently recognizing historical and ideological affinities between Zen monastic discipline and military training.
On the contrary, the Zen masters discussed here eagerly and enthusiastically endorsed some of the most excessive and reprehensible aspects of imperial ideology in the name of a corrupted vision of spiritual realization as a tool to spread the doctrine of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. They also used Zen wedded to hypernationalism and imperialism as a tool to misread the historical records of their own tradition and to help transport Japanese supremacy to China and Korea, while refusing to acknowledge or repent for their actions with the defeat of Japan. This outlook also infected numerous politicians and military figures who turned to Buddhism as a way of explaining away or masking their roles leading up to, as well as during and after World War II.
In part 1 of Zen War Stories Victoria documents several masters who have become icons in the West for their apparent adherence to Zen tradition linked with an ability to address contemporary culture. After showing in chapter 4 that Omori Sogen, praised for his prowess in swordsmanship and other arts, had a fascistic, “Mr. Hyde” side as manifested in the founding in 1932 of the Kinno Ishin Domei (League for Loyalty to the Emperor and the Restoration), Victoria turns to the case of Yasutani Haku’un. In chapter 5, “Zen Master Dogen Goes to War,” we find that Yasutani, known as the teacher of Philip Kapleau and inspiration for The Three Pillars of Zen, wanted to smash all universities for being traitors. He was a fanatical militarist who “transformed the life and thought of Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253), the thirteenth-century founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, into a propaganda tool for Japanese militarism” (p. 68).
In particular, Yasutani tried to argue that Dogen’s famed pilgrimage to Song China in 1223 was triggered not by a longing for Buddhist Dharma but by disgust with the new Shogunate and infatuation with preserving the Imperial House. According to Victoria, Yasutani’s corrupted spirituality did not end with a support for militarism. He was also even more “ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semitic” (p. 68) than his teacher Harada Daiun Sogaku, whose “most memorable wartime quote is: ‘[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of enlightenment]” (pp. 66-67).
The LSD story is even more against the grain of the New Age love-in sensibility. For the full story you need to read Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond”, all of which can be read here. Like Zen Buddhism, LSD fit in well with the designs of the national security state that started off experimenting with it as a way to drug enemy armies into mass confusion and helplessness.
But it became even more important as a way to disorient America’s enemies within during the Vietnam War, namely that sector of the left that was open to the idea that LSD was as necessary in transforming the individual as radical politics was in transforming society.
I particularly recommend the chapter on “The Great LSD Conspiracy” that includes these revealing paragraphs:
Nearly a decade before Kesey was introduced to psychedelics as part of a government-funded drug study in Palo Alto, the CIA embarked upon a major effort to develop LSD into an effective mind control weapon. The CIA’s behavior modification programs were geared toward domestic as well as foreign populations; targets included selected individuals and large groups of people. But in what way could LSD be utilized to manipulate an individual, let alone a subculture or a social movement? LSD is not a habit-forming substance like heroin, which transforms whole communities and turns urban slums into terrains of human bondage. Whereas opiates elicit a predictable response, both pharmacologically and socially, this is not necessarily the case with psychedelics. The efficacy of acid as an instrument of social control is therefore a rather tenuous proposition.
The CIA came to terms with this fundamental truth about LSD only after years of intense experimentation. At first CIA researchers viewed LSD as a substance that produced a specific reaction (anxiety), but subsequent studies revealed that “set and setting” were important factors in determining its effects. This finding made the drug less reliable as a cloak-and-dagger weapon, and the CIA utilized LSD in actual operations — as an aid to interrogation and a discrediting agent — only on a limited basis during the Cold War. By the mid-1960s the Agency had virtually phased out its in-house acid tests in favor of more powerful chemicals such as BZ and related derivatives, which were shown to be more effective as incapacitants. But that did not mean the CIA had lost all interest in LSD. Instead the emphasis shifted to broader questions related to the social and political impact of the drug. A number of CIA-connected think tanks began to examine the relationship between the grassroots psychedelic scene and the New Left.
An accurate investigation would have shown that sizable amounts of street acid first appeared around college campuses and bohemian enclaves in 1965. This was an exceptionally creative period marked by a new assertiveness among young people. LSD accentuated a spirit of rebellion and helped to catalyze the expectations of many onto greatly expanded vistas. The social environment in which drugs were taken fostered an outlaw consciousness that was intrinsic to the development of the entire youth culture, while the use of drugs encouraged a generalizing of discontent that had significant political ramifications. The very expression of youth revolt was influenced and enhanced by the chemical mind-changers. LSD and marijuana formed the armature of a many-sided rebellion whose tentacles reached to the heights of ego-dissolving delirium, a rebellion as much concerned with the sexual and spiritual as with anything tradition ally political. It was a moment of great anticipation, and those who marched in that great Dionysian rap dance were confident that if they put their feet down on history, then history would surely budge.
But the mood had changed dramatically by the end of the decade, and the political fortunes of the New Left quickly plummeted. There were many reasons for this, not the least of which involved covert intervention by the CIA, FBI, and other spy agencies. The internecine conflicts that tore the Movement apart were fomented in part by government subversion. But such interference would have been far less effective if not for the innate vulnerability of the New Left, which emphasized both individual and social transformation as if they were two faces of an integral cultural transition, a rite of passage between a death and a difficult birth. “We had come to a curious place together, all of us,” recalls Michael Rossman.
As politics grew cultural, we realized that deeper forces were involved than had yet been named, or attended to deliberately. We were adrift in questions and potentials. The organizational disintegration of the Movement as a political body was an outer emblem of conceptual incoherence, the inability to synthesize an adequate frame of understanding (and program) to embody all that we had come to realize was essential for the transformation we sought.
An autopsy of the youth movement would show that death resulted from a variety of ills, some self-inflicted, others induced from without. There was the paramilitary bug that came in like the plague after Chicago, a bug transmitted by provocateurs and other government geeks who were welcomed by the Movement’s own incendiaries. A vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent ensued, while domestic violence played on the TV news as a nightly counterpoint to the appalling horror of Vietnam. It was the war, more than anything else, that drove activists to the brink of desperation. If not for the war, the legions of antiauthoritarian youth would never have endured the totalitarian style of the dogmatic crazies and the militant crazies who combined to blow the whole thing apart.
“What subverted the sixties decade,” according to Murray Bookchin, “was precisely the percolation of traditional radical myths, political styles, a sense of urgency, and above all, a heightened metabolism so destructive in its effects that it loosened the very roots of ‘the movement’ even as it fostered its rank growth.” In this respect the widespread use of LSD contributed significantly to the demise of the New Left, for it heightened the metabolism of the body politic and accelerated all the changes going on — positive and negative, in all their contradictions. In its hyped-up condition the New Left managed to dethrone one president and prevent another from unleashing a nuclear attack on North Vietnam. These were mighty accomplishments, to be sure, but the Movement burnt itself out in the process. It never mastered its own intensity; nor could it stay the course and keep on a sensible political track.
Now of course Steve Jobs never had any radical politics to begin with. His use of LSD was different from that of the Weathermen who took it in order to get them even more fucked up than they were. By 1970 a deep streak of nihilism had impacted the left making people like Mark Rudd look just six degrees of separation from Charles Manson.
For budding entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, the drug probably had something of the same benefit as EST therapy had for others. If you wanted to succeed in business in the post-60s era, I suppose that some kind of rocket fuel was necessary. The old-fashioned Max Weber Protestant Ethic was inadequate for a changing world.
Back in 1967 when I applied for membership in the SWP, I understood that I had to stop taking illegal drugs. That was not much of a problem for me since I had grown bored with marijuana—a drug that I had loved when I first began using it in 1961. I had only taken LSD a couple of times. I had no idea why people like Timothy Leary or Steve Jobs could view it as some kind of mind-transforming breakthrough.
The second time I took it was at my neighbor Chip’s apartment on West 92nd Street, just a few months before joining the SWP. I was sitting on the sofa waiting for the drug to take effect when I noticed a painting on the wall that had a fish jumping out of the water—literally jumping out of the water. I smiled at Chip and asked him to open his hands which were clasped on his lap. I thought he was playing a joke. He had some sort of remote control device that made the battery-powered painting “come alive”, the kind of novelty that you might have picked up on 42nd Street. At least that’s what I thought at the time. When he opened his hands, I was stunned to see no such device and even more stunned to see hallucinogenic images all across the wall and ceiling. For about an hour and a half, I sat there enjoying my own private version of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” until the drug worked itself through my bloodstream.
As a tool that would help me see the world in new ways, I have to confess—unrepentant Marxist that I am—that it was Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” that did the trick for me instead.
August 30, 2011
On August 20 the New York Times reported on the freeing of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three. Imprisoned seventeen years ago for allegedly murdering three young boys in a satanic ritual, their freedom was won through DNA evidence as is so often the case nowadays. The article mentions a 1996 documentary about their case that led to a national campaign to win their release:
An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention.
Benefit concerts were held, books were written, a follow-up documentary was made and a movement to free the “West Memphis Three” grew in size and intensity, drawing those intrigued by the case and those who saw a kinship with the men at the heart of it.
“I was kind of going through the same clothing style: long hair, dark clothes,” said Mecinda Smith, 30, one of the hundreds of supporters who had come to the courthouse, holding posters and wearing “Free the WM3” T-shirts.
“We were just trying to stand out and be different,” said Ms. Smith, who was 12 when the murders took place.
Last night I watched it on HBO and like all their documentaries, it can be also bee seen on-demand from Time-Warner or on your computer using HBO Go. Additionally, you can rent it from Netflix, as well as a follow-up documentary made in 1999 titled Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Meanwhile, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which was shown at this year’s New York Film Festival and scheduled for HBO next year, brings the case up to date.
These films were co-directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who also worked on “Brother’s Keeper” together, another film about marginal members of society being accused of a capital crime. In that film, a mentally impaired brother is accused of a mercy killing of his own brother on a dilapidated farm that he shared with another brother. Despite the fact that the three elderly men were reclusive and shabby-looking, this did not prevent their neighbors from pitching in to help them find a lawyer and build solidarity for the accused brother. It is a singularly inspiring film and also available from Netflix, including a streaming version.
Berlinger is also the director of “Crude”, the courageous and radical story of Chevron’s attempt to force the people of Ecuador to accept the toxic waste legacy of Texaco, a company absorbed by Chevron, that has left land and water despoiled and thousands ill. He has been in a running battle with Chevron over the oil company’s demand to see his outtakes as part of a bid to prove that they have no responsibility for the damage.
There is an obvious affinity between the characters in “Brother’s Keeper” and the West Memphis Three. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Jessie Misskelley Jr., who had an IQ of 72 and who was grilled by the cops for 12 hours after being arrested. He was pressured to testify against his two friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, who—like him–came from poor and dysfunctional families. Echols in particular was the easiest to demonize since he listened to heavy metal music, dressed in Goth style and described himself as a Wiccan. In a rural Arkansan town in the early 1990s, this was not the way to endear you to the community, least of all the cops. Like many towns in the Bible Belt, it was also a breeding ground of Baptist churches that took the idea of Satan very literally.
When the local cops could not find the actual killers of the three boys, they victimized Echols and his two friends who they calculated a jury would find guilty just on the basis of their appearance. While Misskelley and Baldwin did not share Echols’s Goth lifestyle, guilt by association could be relied on by local prosecutors. As Echols states in the film, West Memphis was a modern version of Salem, Massachusetts.
With a complete lack of physical evidence, the prosecutor is forced to rely heavily on questions to Echols on the witness stand about his reading habits, particularly the Satanist Aleister Crowley who the youth has actually never read, only heard of. On his Wiccan beliefs, Echols states that he was drawn to them because they stressed the eternal female principle. One can only wonder how he survived growing up to the age of 17 in West Memphis, an ordeal by fire equal in some ways to the next 17 years he would spend in prison.
The Salem-like hysteria that pervaded this trial overlapped with the “repressed memory” sexual abuse cases of the period that were documented in another powerful HBO documentary titled “Capturing the Friedmans”, about a gay computer programming trainer who supposedly sexually abused dozens of his students in his basement classroom on Long Island without them ever telling their parents. Although Satanism was not a factor in the trial, it relied completely on the “repressed memories” of his students who described wild orgies in the basement prompted by the suggestions of the investigators.
The two themes of ritual satanic abuse and repressed memories, however, did come together in the infamous McMartin preschool case of 1983. Young children were pressured into “remembering” that the satanic teachers and care-givers at the school lured them into orgies as wild as that took place in the Friedman basement. The wiki on the McMartin case states:
Some of the accusations were described as “bizarre”, overlapping with accusations that mirrored the just-starting satanic ritual abuse panic. It was alleged that, in addition to having been sexually abused, they saw witches fly, traveled in a hot-air balloon, and were taken through underground tunnels. When shown a series of photographs by Danny Davis, the McMartins’ lawyer, one child identified actor Chuck Norris as one of the abusers.
Some of the abuse was alleged to have occurred in secret tunnels beneath the school. Several investigations turned up evidence of old buildings on the site and other debris from before the school was built, but no evidence of any secret chambers was found. There were claims of orgies at car washes and airports, and of children being flushed down toilets to secret rooms where they would be abused, then cleaned up and presented back to their unsuspecting parents. Some children said they were made to play a game called “Naked Movie Star” in which they were photographed nude. During the trial, testimony from the children stated that the naked movie star game was actually a rhyming taunt used to tease other children—”What you say is what you are, you’re a naked movie star,”—and had nothing to do with having naked pictures taken.
Although I have been harshly critical of Alexander Cockburn in recent years, this Wall Street Journal piece on the McMartin miscarriage of justice reminds me of how his writings back then inspired me to take up the cause of the left after 11 brutal years in a Trotskyist sect:
Wall Street Journal
February 8, 1990
The McMartin Case: Indict the Children, Jail the Parents
Ray Buckey is a man whose life has already been effectively destroyed. The first charge of child abuse against this teacher at the McMartin day-care school in Manhattan Beach, Calif., was laid against him in the summer of 1983. The allegations against him had been extorted from her two-year-old by a mother — now dead — with a history of mental illness who also claimed that an AWOL Marine had sodomized her dog.
It was not long before Ray Buckey had direct experience of the operations of the justice system. The Manhattan Beach Police Department sent a letter to 200 families whose children attended McMartin that read in part, “Any information from your child regarding ever having observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during a nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important.”
By spring 1984, Mr. Buckey, his mother, grandmother, sister and three fellow teachers had been arrested, and the police now claimed no less than 1,200 alleged victims of abuse. Briefly released, Mr. Buckey was rearrested and jailed for five years. On Jan. 18 of this year, after a trial that lasted more than two years and cost $15 million (making it the most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history), a jury acquitted Mr. Buckey and his mother on 52 counts of molestation. On 13 remaining counts of molestation and conspiracy against Mr. Buckey the jury was deadlocked (though it seems a majority was convinced of his innocence) and a mistrial on these counts declared.
Any sane society would have granted the Buckeys peace to recover as best they could from this horrible ordeal. But on Jan. 31, Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner announced that Ray Buckey would be retried on at least some of the 13 counts. The decision came after a period of grotesque agitation by the parents of the supposedly abused McMartin children. They appeared on talk shows, and terrorized the Los Angeles Board of County Supervisors into voting 4 to 1 to urge the district attorney to a new trial. (If he did not, they wanted the board to call upon the state attorney general to take the decision out of Mr. Reiner’s hands.)
Mr. Reiner, who is running for the office of state attorney general this year, has in the recent past lost well-publicized cases. The McMartin verdict was another blow, and he obviously felt he had to put Mr. Buckey back in court or face taunts for being soft on child abusers. Mr. Reiner was also presumably under great pressure from Attorney General John Van de Kamp to retry Mr. Buckey, since Mr. Van de Kamp is running for governor and public sentiment is strongly against the jury’s verdict of Jan. 18. So here are two men with tremendous incentives to put Mr. Buckey back in the dock — in an atmosphere so polluted with hysteria it must be doubtful whether any jury could be assembled to assure Mr. Buckey a fair trial.
The psychological squalor is even more disturbing. The McMartin case was but one in nearly 40 episodes across the country between 1983 and 1987 in which prosecutions against teachers or supervisors in day-care centers were prompted by children’s accusations.
Many of these accusations, taken seriously by parents, social workers and the justice system, were of the most fantastic nature. McMartin children said they had been marched to cemeteries to dig up bodies. One child said he had seen his teacher fly. In 1985 children in Pennsylvania said teachers had forced them to have oral sex with a goat. In 1986 children in a preschool in Sequim, Wash., said they had been made to watch animal sacrifice in a graveyard. In Chicago, the kids said they had watched a baby being boiled.
Terrible injustices were done in this extraordinary replay of the 17th-century Salem witch trials. People were tossed into prison for years, on the say-so of infants. In all 50 states children as young as two or three can testify to abuse, without corroboration from adults and without physical evidence. In many states they can make charges without having to endure cross-examination, being bounced up and down on a judge’s knee in private chambers. In some states the charges can merely be repeated as hearsay by adults.
What was the reason for this wave of self-evidently preposterous stories about a satanic network terrorizing infant schools, and other tales of ritual abuse?
Society seems to have a periodic need for witch trials. At the onset of the Reagan era there weren’t really any Communists around to persecute, so the hunt went back to the traditional exorcism of Satan, whose horns and cloven feet assumed the form of the local day-care teacher.
The 1980s also brought the great onslaught against Freud, arguing against Oedipal fantasy and in favor of the reality of physical abuse. These days many people like to claim they were “abused” as a child. It’s a way of absolving yourself for screwing up by shifting the blame to your infancy, when you can’t be blamed for anything. From these gymnastics, by which “therapists” make their money, the adult emerges guilt-free.
Also, the charges were quintessentially Reaganite, in that they took child abuse out of the family, which is where 99% of it occurs, and put it into day-care centers, which in the Schlaflyite scheme of things are abodes of Satan. Again, some parents probably feel a fair amount of guilt for dumping their children in day-care centers anyway, and are obviously ready by way of compensation to support passionately whatever their children may claim. Of course, any considerate parent, social worker or sane therapist (as opposed to the hysterical self-promoters who mostly feature in these cases) would realize that months and years of interrogation and court procedures are the very last things a child needs after a genuine case of abuse. The public investigation and litigation merely magnify the hurt.
The trouble is that these parents now have a huge emotional investment in “the case,” whether it be McMartin or similar episodes. Indeed, in some of these court trials the parents also have a strong material interest, in the form of very substantial awards by insurance companies that cover day-care centers.
So now the McMartin parents can triumphantly torture poor Ray Buckey again, abetted by the cowards and opportunists in the justice system. But if people can be prosecuted on the words of children, then children should take full responsibility for what they are saying. If a child says he saw Ray Buckey kill a horse with a baseball bat (which one did claim) and if this charge is disproved (which it was), then the child should be indicted for perjury, with present prohibition against such infant indictment removed.
If a parent abetted the child in this false accusation, then this parent should be indicted for perjury, too. If the court then establishes that parent and child were lying, at least the parent should suffer the consequences. A few well-publicized sentences of imprisonment of parents (along with “therapists” and social workers, it goes without saying) and we would see a speedy end to these disgusting miscarriages of justice.
May 21, 2011
I’m probably one of the few people on the left who actually used to not only listen to Harold Camping on the radio but actually enjoyed it. I am in the habit of listening to all sorts of esoteric radio programs late at night, particularly those that feature religious fundamentalists who take phone calls. A typical Camping moment would involve a caller asking him how to interpret some bit of scripture. Almost inevitably Camping would see it as supporting his hardline theory of predestination. God had already determined who would be saved and who would be damned and it seemed to have little to do with how you led your life. So you might as well go out and enjoy your whisky at the roadhouse rather than work with lepers. I am sure that the True Believers would insist that this was not what they meant, but that’s the way it always sounded to me.
The main thing I liked about Camping was his deep baritone voice and his rather old-fashioned enunciation. It was like listening to a character in an early 1930s movie. When he didn’t have me chuckling about hellfire and brimstone, he had me drifting off to sleep through his mellifluous and soporofic tones.
Camping, of course, has been in the news lately with his predictions about the world coming to an end. He made the same kind of prediction back in 1994 that Mother Nature ignored. At the age of 90 I doubt if he has any future in the apocalypse business.
I was on the Internet back in 1994 when he made his last prediction. Around that time I posted something about it that I can’t find now but I am pretty sure it refers to the same scholarly study about this business that Alexander Cockburn referred to on Counterpunch:
It’s a safe bet that Camping and his disciples will be saying on May 22 that his math was merely a year or two off, and the end is still nigh. His congregation will have its faith fortified. Membership will probably increase, as it did after the failure of Camping’s last prediction of the Second Coming, which he scheduled for September 6, 1994.
Sociologists call the phenomenon of increased commitment to a batty theory, at the very hour of its destruction by external evidence, “cognitive dissonance.” The theory was developed by three sociologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, who infiltrated a group headed by Dorothy Martin of Chicago who had received messages from the Planet Clarion that the world was scheduled for destruction by flood in the predawn hours of December 21, 1954. A flying saucer would save the group, whose members had abandoned, often at considerable expense and upheaval, all terrestrial commitments, pending transfer to Clarion.
The sociologists theorized that, when neither spaceship nor flood materialized, the group’s best strategy to avoid public humiliation would be to dismiss the failure of the prophesied events as due to minor miscalculations and then to proselytize vigorously, advertising a re-dated flood and interplanetary rescue. Dissonance between nutty theory and reality would be diminished amid growing popularity of the nutty theory. Anyone following the growth of the Christian religion in its early decades, or the Lesser of Two Evils crowd advocating support of a Democratic candidate, will recognize the dynamics.
Back in 1994 I was still in the throes of my SWP post-traumatic stress and tended to talk about this cult more than I do today. I am quite sure that I read about the “cognitive dissonance” theory back then and drew upon it to comment on the SWP that was just as batty in its own way as Dorothy Martin’s flying saucer cult. I can understand Cockburn’s reference to the Lesser of Two Evils cult but demur on one key point. That cult never put the kinds of demands on the faithful that the SWP did. Being a Progressive for Obama might require you to vote on election day while being in the SWP required you to donate $50 per week to the party and sell totally worthless newspapers in front of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in Houston, Texas. That’s some difference.
Like Harold Camping or Dorothy Martin, party leader Jack Barnes never skipped a beat when one of his millenarian predictions did not pan out. In 1979, the epoch of disco dancing and cocaine, he told his followers that proletarian revolution was imminent. When it turned out that the 80s were a time of political retreat for the working class and the left, he simply wrote off his predictions as being based on “slight miscalculations” and plunged ahead with new end-of-capitalism scenarios. As it turned out, the only that came to an end is his own sorry cult.