Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 4, 2014

Particle Fever; The Iran Job

Filed under: Film,Iran,sports — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

“Particle Fever” would be compelling enough in its own right as a you-are-there documentary that follows the leading scientists of the Large Hadron Collider project as they move inexorably toward the experiments that will reveal whether the Higgs Boson (the God particle) exists or not. But when you factor in that the film was produced and directed by nuclear physicists with uncanny filmmaking abilities, including a knack for including graphics and animation that makes the most fearsomely abstract things concrete, you are in for a rare film-going experience, as exciting in its own way as the class trip I took to the Hayden Planetarium when I was in junior high school.

A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.

The film explains that there are two kinds of physicists, theoretical and experimental. Both came together to make the Hadron Collision work. The collider itself is one of the greatest engineering feats of modern history, consisting of a seventeen mile magnetized tunnel in a seven-story building beneath the ground in Switzerland that is designed to hurl subatomic particles through the tunnel in opposite directions like greyhounds on performance enhancing drugs until a switch is turned on to make them collide in four separate locations in the tunnel to be examined by high-powered computers networked around the world.

The film consists largely of physicists at work either in the US or in Switzerland putting the finishing touches on the eagerly awaited experiments and explaining to laypeople like us in the movie theater what it is they are trying to accomplish. Their sense of excitement is infectious, especially so from Monica Dunford, a startlingly young woman who works on the experimental side. You see her with a hardhat on her head tightening bolts and connecting wires on the mammoth collider in the final stages before countdown. When she is not at work, she is off running marathons or mountain climbing. Leave your stereotypes of nerds at the door. All of the principals are exceedingly well adjusted and don’t take themselves too seriously.

One of the key interviewees is David Kaplan, a 56-year-old theoretical physicist who held research positions at the U. of Chicago and Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center. He looks about 30 years younger and wears his hair in a ponytail. He is also the producer of the film.

The director is Mark Levinson who has a PhD in particle physics from U. Cal Berkeley. He was the producer/director/writer of a narrative film titled “Prisoner of Time”, about the lives of dissident artists after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As compelling as the interviews are, the film reaches an even higher level with the graphics and animation developed by MK12, a studio that did the FX for “Stranger than Fiction”, a comedy starring Will Farrell. Their talents are served better here.

When asked how he made the transition from particle physics to filmmaking, Levinson replied in a way that reminds us of how inadequate CP Snow’s notion of “Two Cultures” was:

The transition actually seemed remarkably straightforward to me. What entranced me about physics was the profound beauty and elegance of the theories, and the magic and mystery in the fact that abstract symbols encoded deep truths about the universe. I made the transition to film when I recognized an alternate avenue for exploring the world around us, in the human dimension, that also seemed mysterious and magical. For many years, I harbored the hope that I could find some project that could weave together the two seemingly disparate strands of my life. The start-up of the Large Hadron Collider provided the perfect combination of both a profound scientific and human endeavor. One of the characters in Particle Fever speculates, “Why do we do science? Why do we do art? It is the things that are not directly necessary for survival that make us human.”

“Particle Fever” opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York.

Like “Particle Fever”, “The Iran Job” benefits from an appealing protagonist—in this case a 28-year-old journeyman (as he frankly describes himself) basketball player from the Virgin Islands named Kevin Sheppard who was not good enough to make to the NBA but good enough to work professionally overseas, including Iran.

He has signed a contract to play for Shiraz AS for one year on a tryout basis. If he produces results, they will renew his contract. Since American basketball players are so highly regarded, they will pay him double the going rate. He and a 7-foot Serbian named Zoran “Z” Milicic, hired to play center, are the maximum number of foreign players allowed on Iranian professional basketball teams.

The style of “The Iran Job” is almost DIY and consists mostly of the filmmakers following Sheppard around as he practices, leads the team as a point guard as they advance their way toward the playoffs, and develops a friendship with three young Iranian women who chafe at the restrictions put on them by a paternalistic clerical state. When they are sitting around Sheppard’s apartment making small talk and teasing each other, the women have to go to the bathroom and hide whenever there is a knock on the door since they might be arrested for un-Islamic behavior. When they drive around with him, they risk getting busted by the morality police who have the power to investigate whether they are up to no good. They also had to put up with a temporary ban on women attending sporting events. No wonder the three women became activists in the Green Movement.

Throughout it all, Sheppard remains an extremely likable and self-effacing character, exchanging high fives with a merchant who says he likes Black people and used to smoke pot when he lived in the US. Without being prompted, the merchant breaks into “’Everythings Gonna Be Alright”—a Bob Marley song.

The film is an eloquent statement about the need to stop demonizing Iranians and to finally put an end to a system that is as restrictive toward women in its way as foot binding. During one of their bull sessions, one of the women insists that Islam has nothing to do with keeping women in their place. It is a clerical dictatorship speaking in the name of Islam that is at fault.

As an indication of what a gifted filmmaker is capable of, director Till Schauder (his wife Sara Nodjoumi, an Iranian-American, produced) told Indiewire how he filmed under obviously difficult conditions:

Journalist visas were denied so we had to shoot under the radar. We decided it was safer for me to go on my own, entering as a German tourist. I packed an HDV camera – small enough for an unassuming backpack. If I got into trouble I could say I’m just a tourist filming the sites. I used that line a few times until (before the presidential election) I was detained. Shooting like this was challenging. I didn’t have the best equipment, nor a crew. But it was a blessing in disguise, and crucial for building trust and intimacy with the film’s subjects.

It is so interesting that someone who has something to say can be ten times as interesting using a camera that probably cost less than one minutes worth of production on some of the offal that earned prizes on Sunday night at the Academy Awards.

“The Iran Job” is available from http://www.filmmovement.com, the Netflix for the cognoscenti.

February 14, 2014

Ted Rall on Michael Sam

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

February 13, 2014

Good commentary on Michael Sam

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 8:29 am

December 25, 2013

42; The Jackie Robinson Story

Filed under: Film,sports — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Since I am disdainful of worshipful biopics to begin with, my expectations for “42” were even lower than they were for “Philomena”. I was also annoyed with the oversaturated commercials for the movie that left you with the impression that it would be shallow entertainment at best. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised.

Although the film has flaws (how could it be otherwise given its Hollywood origins?), it was a serious attempt to dramatize Jackie Robinson’s epic struggle to integrate professional baseball with solid performances all-round, especially from Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodger general manager who decided to break the color barrier. As I will get into later, Dave Zirin is quite right in pointing out how the film left out the broader civil rights movement within the post-WWII historical context. But if you are a leftist parent with young kids, the film is great family entertainment and an opportunity to refer them to books or films about the civil rights movement. That’s what commie parents are for, after all. Just don’t overdo it!

The film was directed and written by Brian Helgeland, who has functioned mostly as a writer during a 25 year Hollywood career. Most of his films have been junk like “Salt”, the 2010 spy movie starring Angelina Jolie that was deemed rotten by 38 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics.

What works best in “42” is the fairly detailed and thoughtful accounts of what went on in the locker rooms and on the field, something that was entirely missing from “The Jackie Robinson Story” discussed below. For someone my age, who collected baseball cards obsessively in the mid-50s and practically memorized the Baseball Encyclopedia, it is really a delight to see the baseball players of that wonderful period brought to life with both their flaws and their virtues. The film depicts a petition campaign to get Robinson off the team organized by Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Dixie Walker, who as his name implies, was a racist. It also shows the role played by Pee Wee Reese, the shortstop from Kentucky who originally lined up with Walker. It was only his fierce desire to compete that made him overcome his bigotry. Once he got to know Robinson as a teammate and a human being, his feelings grew even warmer—so much so that at a time when Robinson was putting up with the worst racist taunts, he made sure to be seen with his arm draped around Robinson’s shoulder at the beginning of a game in Pittsburgh.

But the most dramatic moments involved Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman baiting Jackie Robinson when he arrives for the first time in the “city of brotherly love”. Chapman’s taunts can be heard throughout the stadium, calling Robinson a “nigger” and a “monkey”. At the end of the game, reporters ask Chapman to explain his behavior. He defends himself by saying that this goes on all the time in baseball. Joe DiMaggio was called a “wop” and Hank Greenberg a “kike” from the sidelines. Robinson finally put a cork in Chapman’s mouth by hitting a game-winning home run.

Allan Barra, a left-leaning sportswriter like Zirin, interviewed Alabama native Ben Chapman back in April 2013 for the Atlantic Monthly. While Chapman apparently is no longer quite the bigot he was back in the 1950s, he continues to explain his behavior in terms of how people describe Howard Stern: an equal opportunity offender. But Barra explains how some people were more equal than others:

In one of the most intense scenes in the film 42, the story of Jackie Robinson that first season when he broke the color barrier, Chapman’s abuse of Robinson is recreated with chilling effect. What hit me like a fastball to the side of the head, though, was the next scene where reporters grill Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk): The movie Chapman defends his behavior in almost exactly the same way the real Ben Chapman did to me.

It was then I realized that for more than three decades Chapman must have been telling reporters the same things he had told me.

Over the years, retired players and sportswriters I’ve talked to have confirmed that, yes, baseball banter was pretty harsh back then and ethnic slurs and insults were a big part of Depression-era and post-World War II baseball. They did say those things to DiMaggio and Greenberg, and, yes, a lot of northern players did harass southern boys mercilessly. (Sample: Ed Walsh, born and raised in Pennsylvania, loved to yell at. Georgia-born Ty Cobb, “Cobb, I hear you’re from Royston, where men are men and sheep are nervous!”)

But as Lester Rodney—”Press Box Red,” who wrote about sports for the Communist paper The Daily Worker—once told me, “That Chapman, he was something special. He could taunt with a viciousness that would have made Ty Cobb blush.” As Rodney pointed out, DiMaggio and Greenberg could give it right back, but Robinson wasn’t allowed to: “Jackie had promised Branch Rickey that in his first season he wouldn’t fight back.”

Dave Zirin’s problems with “42” are of course right on the money:

Early in the film, Jackie Robinson, played by newcomer Chadwick Boseman, says, “I don’t think it matters what I believe. Only what I do.” Unfortunately that quote is like a guiding compass for all that follows. The filmmakers don’t seem to care what Robinson—a deeply political human being—believed either. Instead 42 rests on the classical Hollywood formula of “Heroic individual sees obstacle. Obstacle is overcome. The End.” That works for Die Hard or American Pie. It doesn’t work for a story about an individual deeply immersed and affected by the grand social movements and events of his time. Jackie Robinson’s experience was shaped by the Dixiecrats who ruled his Georgia birthplace, the mass struggles of the 1930s, World War II, the anti-communist witch-hunts and later the Civil Rights and Black Freedom struggles. To tell his tale as one of individual triumph through his singular greatness is to not tell the story at all.

Considering all this, it is somewhat surprising that Zirin did not mention Lester Rodney in his article. The film includes Black sportswriter Lester Mitchell (Andre Holland) as a major character. Shown throughout the film pecking away at a portable typewriter in the stands, he finally explains that he is a victim of segregation as well. Black sports writers were not allowed in the white-only press box. Mitchell is key character in the film. But it would have been even better if Rodney had been included as well.

The aforementioned Barra, who used to write for the Village Voice when it was readable, did a memorable interview with Lester Rodney in 2003 that is fortunately still online. The paper might be crap but the archives are a gold mine:

The Best Red Sportswriter
Commie Columnist Lester Rodney’s Fight for Jackie Robinson
By Allen Barra Tuesday, Oct 14 2003

For nearly a quarter of a century, Lester Rodney was the sports columnist and sports editor for The Daily Worker, the largest and most influential Communist newspaper in the U.S. For more than a decade he was one of the leading agitators for the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. In the 1940s, he became an intriguing footnote to the signing of Jackie Robinson and other black ballplayers.

Thanks to the publication of Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports (Temple University Press) by Irwin Silber, Rodney’s story becomes much more than a footnote, and his role as one of the key figures in the most important era in baseball history is established. Rodney, now 92, spoke to us from his home in the Bay Area.

VV: For decades you were an outsider. Now I see on the Internet that your story is available online at Wal-Mart.

LR: I never thought I’d live to see that.

VV: Who do you like in the Series this year?

LR: Well, how can I not root for the Cubs? The Red Sox created a lot of their own misery over the last 50 years with their racial policy.

VV: I know. They passed up a chance to sign Willie Mays. Instead of “the Curse of the Bambino,” they ought to call it “the Curse of Willie Mays.”

LR: I think when you get away from the Eastern seaboard, the Cubs are a much more interesting story. You gotta root for Dusty Baker.

VV: The last time the Cubs were in the World Series was 1945, and about 10 days after it was over, you received a telegram from a friend saying that Branch Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson.

LR: Yeah, I was a sergeant in the army serving in the Pacific, and a friend sent me a telegram saying, “You did it!” I didn’t do it, of course. Many people did it. But I have to admit that it was one of the proudest days of my life.

VV: You were one of the leading agitators with your open letters to Commissioner [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis—

LR: A blatant racist. The baseball owners of that period couldn’t have picked a more appropriate man to represent their policies. He simply kept denying that there was a color barrier. I would write stories with headlines like “Can You Read, Judge Landis?” and “Can You Hear, Judge Landis?” I know we got to him. The Daily Worker didn’t have a big circulation, but we got noticed, and what we wrote was read by people in baseball and by other journalists. We had an advantage over the black press of the period, whom most sportswriters could simply ignore because their work wasn’t seen by many white people.

VV: I can’t imagine what it must have been like getting the players, the owners, and other journalists to accept you. How often did the issue of Communism come up?

LR: To tell you the truth, not very often. I think some players just thought it was a trade union paper or something.

VV: But why did the owners give you access?

LR: Hey, I was helping to bring some business in. (Laughs.) They were capitalists, they wanted to sell tickets. They didn’t care whom they sold the tickets to.

VV: What about the other journalists?

LR: It took a while for them to accept me, but once I did it I got along pretty well with most of them.

VV: One of the things I liked about Press Box Red is that you get to see a side of some people that you might never see anywhere else.

LR: That’s true. I saw some sides of ballplayers that others didn’t because they weren’t asking them the same questions I was. Joe DiMaggio, for instance. It stirred up a lot of fuss when DiMaggio was honest enough to admit to me that Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher he ever saw. That took guts, and it was honest. I had a lot of respect for Joe back then. He changed when the aura of superstardom overcame him, but he had a decency in him that you didn’t see in too many guys. Leo Durocher, too. Leo was very open in his praise of black ballplayers. You heard a lot of stuff about Leo, both good and bad. I think it’s all true. But somewhere it’s got to go on the ledger that he helped integration.

Read full

There are two good things that you can say about “The Jackie Robinson Story”. Number one, it is free:

The second thing, more importantly, is that you see Jackie Robinson playing himself on and off the field. There are very few opportunities for young people today to see baseball during its golden age nowadays and moreover to see one of its all-time greats. That being said, the film is poorly written, directed, and acted but a must-see for a chance to see the thirty-one-year old Jackie Robinson swinging a bat and stealing bases.

At the very moment that “42” was showing in Cineplexes all around the country, newspapers were reporting on the vanishing African-American presence in baseball today, not a function of de jure segregation but of the de facto segregation that rules today. If you’ve seen my review of a documentary on the NCAA, you’ll recall that “amateur” college athletics was designed originally to keep working class kids out of sports like football, which during Teddy Roosevelt’s time was white only. That only changed when colleges figured out that championship football and baseball teams could generate millions. And the only way to win championships was by recruiting Black players and giving them scholarships. Those scholarships were still one-sided since the school paid pennies in exchange for receiving millions from ticket sales, TV rights, and merchandise franchising.

Apparently, baseball remains a preserve for the lily-white as explained in an April 10, 2013 NY Times article titled “Looking Into the Decline in African-American Players”. In 1970 Black players (including Black Latinos) constituted 27 percent on baseball rosters; now it is 8.5 percent. This explains why:

LaTroy Hawkins, the veteran reliever for the Mets, said Monday that baseball in the United States had become a game for the rich. Hawkins, who is African-American, said the main problem was that N.C.A.A. Division I baseball programs offered so few scholarships compared with other sports.

Top-level college football programs offer 85 scholarships, all full rides. Division I basketball programs offer 13 full scholarships, also full rides. Division I baseball programs offer 11.7 scholarships, but those are often divided among many players.

“Kids in the inner city play basketball and football, because they give out full scholarships and parents don’t have to worry about anything,” Hawkins said. “In baseball they give out quarter scholarships. That’s what needs to change.

“In the inner city, you need to get a scholarship because most families can’t afford to send a kid to school, especially when you’ve got more than one. You need to get a scholarship, and baseball doesn’t provide that luxury.”

Hawkins also noted that, well before college, specializing in baseball can mean expensive travel teams and a year-round commitment.

“I played 17 games in high school; I’d have gotten burned out with that much baseball,” Hawkins, a native of Gary, Ind., said of today’s schedules. “But that’s what it requires now, because if you don’t, all the kids that don’t live in the inner city and live in the affluent neighborhoods, they’re getting ahead of you. You might be a better athlete than they are, but as far as a skilled player, you can’t keep up with that.”

November 15, 2013

Bullying in the National Football League

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

As a sports fan since a young age, I enjoy listening to sports talk radio shows on WFAN and ESPN. Since October 30th the phone lines have been burning up over the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito controversy. These are two offensive linemen (in Incognito’s case, a double entendre) from the Miami Dolphins National Football League team who are antagonists in “hazing” incidents that left Martin on leave for what amounted to a mental breakdown and Incognito suspended for role as chief hazer. Commentators have also referred to the actions as “bullying”, something that appeared confusing at first since Martin is 6’5” tall and 312 pounds. I was bullied in high school but I was shorter and weaker than the boys who bullied me. How does someone who makes a living colliding with other huge men become a victim of “bullying”?

There is also some question as to whether the term hazing applies since Martin is a second year player. Rookies are routinely harassed in institutions like private schools, fraternities, sports teams, and the military but once you have gotten past the first year, you are off the hook.

There is a marked contrast in identity. Both of Jonathan Martin’s parents are Harvard graduates with law degrees. The dad is a Cal State professor and the mom an attorney for Toyota. Their son could have easily gotten into Harvard but preferred to enroll at Stanford (a top school with a top athletics program) in order to pursue his ambitions as a football player while studying the classics.

Incognito was asked by the coach to “toughen” Martin up. Ordinarily when a football player is not playing up to expectations, he is supposed to go through some drills to improve his game, like blocking a dummy or running wind sprints. In this instance, “toughening” him up meant harassing him day and night. The first report on the “toughening up” campaign was reported on NBC Sports on October 30:

Glazer said Martin had an incident in the team cafeteria this week in which teammates jokingly said they wouldn’t sit with him, and that Martin’s reaction to the joke was that he “flipped out, smashed a food tray on the ground, took off, and they haven’t seen him since.”

You’ll note the “jokingly” thrown in here as if to say it was all in good humor, and the obfuscation as to whether they actually got up from the table when he sat down or just “jokingly” threatened to do so. The Glazer referred to here is Jay Glazer, a reporter who is close friends with and mixed martial arts trainer for Incognito. Just recently Glazer did an interview with Incognito that was anything but probing.

In the days following this initial report, much more information came out that painted an incriminating portrait of Incognito as an abusive twitterer and someone who left crazed and violent phone and text messages:

Hey, wassup, you half-nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] shit in your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you

When Martin’s agent went to the team’s general manager, one Jeff Ireland, to complain about the mistreatment, Ireland’s response was to urge Martin to “punch” Incognito. This is the same general manager who asked a potential draftee in 2010 whether his mother was a prostitute just because she had spent some time in jail for selling drugs.

With management like this, it is no wonder that they would not only put Incognito in charge of “toughening” Martin up. His teammates were just as derelict as management, voting him onto the team’s leadership council in utter disregard of his long record as a miscreant. He was kicked off the team at University of Nebraska for various offenses both against opposing teams and his own, so egregious that he was sent to the Menninger Clinic for anger management treatment. He then transferred to the University of Oregon where he was kicked off the team a week after joining it. Once he turned pro, he went from team to team, always being forced to move on for the same kind of problems. In 2009, NFL players picked him as the dirtiest player in the league.

Since Jonathan Martin has not given an interview since taking his leave, we do not know his side of the story. In his interview with Glazer, Incognito argues that he was Martin’s most reliable ally on the team, which speaks more about the horrors he faced than anything else.

It does raise the question, however, why it might have been possible for Martin to put up with such abuse as long as he did. My own experience with bullying in high school tells me that you often put up with it in order to be accepted. When your ego structure has not been fully developed, you feel much more of a need to be approved by your peers, even if they have a sadistic need to humiliate and beat you. From what I have seen of Richie Incognito, it appears that he never grew up. Furthermore, despite Jonathan Martin’s blue chip upbringing and Stanford degree, he still felt the need to be “part of the crowd”. Maybe now that he is outside the sport he will find a different crowd not fueled by testosterone and volcanic fits of rage.

His off-the-field problems were just as serious.  In 2012 a drunken Richie Incognito stuck a gulf club into the crotch of a 34-year-old African-American female volunteer and then emptied a bottle of water in her face according to a police report. This is just what you would expect from a character that called for a team meeting in a strip club.

One might reasonably assume that Incognito is a racist based on the “half-nigger” tweet and the abuse of the Black volunteer but it is a bit more complicated than that. There is no apparent racial division on the team, with Black players considering him an “honorary Black man” according to the Miami Herald.  Furthermore, one of Incognito’s most diehard supporters is a Mike Pouncey, an African-American who plays center on the offensive line (his job is to hike the football to the quarterback), who apparently does not hold Incognito’s reference to him as a “nigger” in the Youtube clip against him. Pouncey has stated that he “loves” and “respects” Incognito.

We have to take into account, however, that Pouncey might not be the best judge of character since he is a close friend of Aaron Hernandez, the New England tight end that is awaiting trial on the murder of his sister’s fiancé. He is expected to testify in a grand jury on Hernandez’s illegal gun trafficking, transactions he was supposedly well aware of. Here is Maurkice Pouncey (r), also a pro football player, and his twin brother Mike (l) wearing “Free [Aaron] Hernandez” caps.

The brothers, who played with Hernandez at the U. of Florida, were with him at a Gainesville nightclub in 2007 on the night of a shooting that left two men seriously wounded. Hernandez was not charged at the time but cops are now looking at the possibility of adding this charge to the one for murder.

Pro football is continuously being roiled by controversies such as this for a good reason. The sport is simply a modern version of the gladiator games that were a hallmark of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. If the goal is not necessarily to kill your opponent, it is certainly implicitly a goal to maim them. That is why Incognito was drafted by a number of teams. His brand of aggression was considered key to a team’s success. One wonders whether Martin had any concerns as a classics student about what it meant to be a modern-day gladiator. That’s a question I would love to pose to him. Edward Gibbon, the author of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, wrote that “History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” Doesn’t that apply to American history as well?

The owners and the NFL officialdom will most certainly draft new rules against hazing but they do not really speak to the essence of the sport that values victory using any means at one’s disposal, just as is the case in warfare. Not too long ago, the NFL had to deal with the bountygate scandal. Gregg Williams, the defensive coach for the New Orleans Saints paid bonuses to any player who would inflict an injury on an opposing player severe enough to make him leave the game. In a rant to his team before a game with the San Francisco 49’ers, Williams told him to aim for wide receiver Kyle Williams’s head and “the body will follow”, an especially ominous statement given the 49er player’s history of concussions.

The NFL is also embroiled in scandals over its refusal to investigate the epidemic of  Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, ALS, and early Alzheimer’s among players who suffered repeated concussions, the latest of which is Dallas Cowboy’s running back hall of famer Tony Dorsett. ESPN reported:

Two weeks ago, upon arriving in California for his evaluation and brain scan at UCLA, Dorsett described to “Outside the Lines” the symptoms that compelled him to seek testing: memory loss, depression and thoughts of suicide.

The former Cowboys running back, now 59, said that when he took his Oct. 21 flight from Dallas to Los Angeles for testing, he repeatedly struggled to remember why he was aboard the plane and where he was going. Such episodes, he said, are commonplace when he travels.

Dorsett said he also gets lost when he drives his two youngest daughters, ages 15 and 10, to their soccer and volleyball games.

“I’ve got to take them to places that I’ve been going to for many, many, many years, and then I don’t know how to get there,” he said.

It is entirely conceivable that fear of concussion might dry up the well upon which professional football relies, at least among the more privileged players like Jonathan Martin not willing to exchange their brains for a hefty salary. Football might evolve into a sport like boxing in which the only participants are from the most poverty-stricken.

Like warfare, football always seems to find a way to survive. In 2011 Harper Collins published “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football”, written by John J. Miller. Miller, a rightwing slug from National Review, portrayed Roosevelt as a savior of a sport that had not yet become professional, even though it was arguably a lot more brutal. A Wall Street Journal review ties the book to current events:

Today a major problem is concussions. One study sponsored by the NFL found that professional veterans over the age of 50 are five times as likely as the general population to suffer from dementia. Those numbers are bad, but consider the situation in 1905, when 18 people died on the gridiron. Back then, foes likened the game to gladiatorial combat in Roman amphitheaters and launched a crusade. Led by Harvard President Charles Eliot and joined by the Nation magazine and muckraking journalists, Progressive-era prohibitionists wanted to sack the increasingly popular sport.

At one point, Harvard actually quit playing the game. So did Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, the University of California and several smaller colleges. Following the 1897 death of Richard Von Gammon, a fullback at the University of Georgia, the Georgia state legislature voted to ban football. The governor vetoed the bill, but only after hearing from Gammon’s mother, who urged him not to outlaw a sport that her son had loved.

Harvard’s Eliot was adamant. No honorable sport, he wrote in a 1905 report, embraces “the barbarous ethics of warfare.”

Roosevelt had little patience for such talk. “Harvard will be doing the baby act if she takes any such foolish course as President Eliot advises,” he wrote. Elsewhere, he worried about producing “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men.”

As is the case today, football was a vital part of a culture of Empire. In Roosevelt’s day, it was gunboat diplomacy; now we have drone diplomacy. If you have the stomach to watch the pregame ceremonies of a Super Bowl, you will be struck by the salutes to the troops, the overhead flights of jet fighters, the American flags, and all the rest. It is our version of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies.

On August 4, 2013, Michael Perelman posted an excerpt from his latest book titled “The Matrix: The Intersection of War, Economic Theory, and the Economy” on his blog that has a chapter titled “Muscular Christianity and Football” that you can read it in its entirety here. The first paragraph referring to a problem with “softness” might tell you that as long as there is capitalism and imperialism, there will always be professional football and the Richie Incognito’s who serve as its gladiators:

In the late nineteenth century, a fear about the softness of American society raised doubts about the capacity of the United States to carry out its imperial destiny.  This problem was associated with the final settlement of the frontier.  As important as the development of open space was to the expansion of the territory of the United States, the completion of the continental expansion brought an attendant fear that traditional masculinity was on the wane and would bring about a withering of the individual and the national body.  This fear spread to the church as well, where the result was thought to be a moral softening (Miller 2011, p. 38).  To make matters worse, waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were flooding American cities with foreign cultures.  This concern became so pressing that talk of “race suicide” became common.

August 6, 2013

Art Donovan, a Behemoth of Modesty, Dies at 89

Filed under: obituary,sports — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

NY Times August 5, 2013

Art Donovan, a Behemoth of Modesty, Dies at 89

By

Art Donovan, a 300-pound tackle for the Baltimore Colts whose nimble brutality helped propel him to the Hall of Fame and his team to two championships in the 1950s, and whose humor-laced tales about himself and the game won him an equal helping of celebrity, died on Sunday in Baltimore. He was 89.

The Baltimore Ravens, the city’s current football team, announced the death.

Donovan was an All-Pro defensive tackle, played in five Pro Bowls and in 1968 became the first Colt and the first pure defensive lineman inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. A 12-year National Football League veteran, he was one of the Colts’ “Magnificent Seven,” led by quarterback Johnny Unitas, who together helped make the 1958 league championship showdown against the Giants at Yankee Stadium the greatest game ever played, in the opinion of many football historians.

The Colts won the game, 23-17, on a Unitas-led drive in the league’s first sudden-death overtime championship game. A national television audience of 40 million watched the game as it spilled into the night. Suddenly, baseball was no longer America’s indisputable national sport.

Other members of the Magnificent Seven may have been better known than Donovan: Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Jim Parker, Gino Marchetti and Coach Weeb Ewbank. But Donovan’s smack-down belligerence, coupled with astounding agility for a 6-foot-3, 300-pound behemoth, was at the center of the Colts’ effort. Donovan made a key tackle to help set up their final drive. But always self-deprecating, he volunteered in his autobiography that at another point in the game, he had ended up flat on his back.

Donovan practically made a second career of talking, and joking, about his weight and his battles to reduce it, gamely using his nickname in the title of his autobiography, “Fatso: Football When Men Were Really Men” (1987). In the book, he wrote that he was a light eater.

“I never started eating until it was light,” he said.

He barely hid his distaste for calisthenics: he said he did 13 push-ups in 13 years of training camps.

Donovan became a darling of late-night talk shows. Promoting his book on “Late Night with David Letterman,” he confessed that he had not exactly read it but knew most of the stories. Mr. Letterman asked if he would recommend it. “I don’t know, I guess so,” Donovan responded.

Despite his modesty, his peers were quick to praise him. He was in the sixth class admitted to the Hall of Fame, vaulting over a backlog of players going back to the 1920s waiting to get in. One opponent, Stan Jones, a Chicago Bears lineman, likened his agility to a matador’s. Ewbank said nobody could fool Donovan twice with the same play. Buzz Nutter, a Colts center who played with him, said, “One man alone could not knock Artie off his feet.”

Donovan came from a blue-collar era of football, played, he said, by “oversized coal miners and West Texas psychopaths.” He wondered how today’s players deal with continual meetings and films and dietitians — all of which he experienced as little as possible. He thought hot dogs and cheeseburgers and full-contact practices twice a day were good enough.

He played much of his career without a face mask, prompting a writer to observe that he had more stitches than a football. Donovan spoke warmly of the time Norm Van Brocklin, a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles, was tired of his pass rush and threw a bullet pass right into his unprotected face.

“I couldn’t believe he’d just waste a play like that,” Donovan wrote. “I guess he was mad. You have to respect a guy like that.”

Arthur James Donovan Jr. was born, weighing 17 pounds, on June 5, 1924, in the Bronx. His grandfather, Mike Donovan, was a world middleweight champion and taught boxing to Theodore Roosevelt. His father, Arthur Sr., was a boxing referee who officiated at 14 heavyweight title bouts, most involving Joe Louis. Both father and grandfather are in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Art Donovan Jr. attended Notre Dame for a year before enlisting in the Marines and fighting in the South Pacific. He was the first professional football player to be admitted to the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.

After his discharge, he was a standout player at Boston College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. The Giants, his favorite team, tried to draft him as a junior and even sent him money, but he remained in college and was drafted by the Colts in 1950, signing a contract for $4,500. He was 26, having delayed his career for military service.

The Colts franchise at the time was dissolved in 1951, and Donovan was picked up by the Cleveland Browns before being injured in a scrimmage. He was soon traded to the New York Yankees football club, which moved to Dallas and became the Texans in 1952. A year later, the franchise moved to Baltimore as a new version of the Colts.

In 1959, the Colts reprised their 1958 title victory over the Giants by defeating them again for the championship. He retired from football in 1962 after the Colts cut him from the squad a few weeks into training camp. His top salary in the game was $22,000.

He later owned liquor stores and the Valley Country Club in Baltimore and was a popular sports commentator on local radio. Mike Preston, a columnist for The Baltimore Sun, wrote of Donovan on Monday, “He drank Schlitz beer and burped on the airwaves.”

Donovan is survived by his wife, the former Dorothy Schaech; his daughters Kelly Donovan-Mazzulli, Debbie Donovan Smith, Christine Donovan and Mary Donovan O’Hern; his son, Arthur III; his sister, Joan Elizabeth Donovan; and seven grandchildren.

“Take me for what I am,” Donovan once said. “I’m a nobody, like you or anyone else. I was lucky enough to play football, and everyone liked me. That’s it.”

Frank Litsky contributed reporting.

July 20, 2013

Young woman plays with the big boys in Central Park baseball

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

As I mentioned some time ago, I like to take in an inning of baseball or so when I run in Central Park on the weekend. I generally prefer the games involving men over 21 or so since their skill level is qualitatively higher than the high school kids who play there as well. There’s nothing like standing right behind the catcher and watching a capable pitcher throwing a ball at 85 miles per hour or so.

Today when I stopped in the park, the catcher on the field was quite a bit smaller than most and wore a pony tail, which in itself might not have meant that much. Lots of Latino players are smaller than Anglos but make up for it in toughness. I watched the catcher throw the ball to the second baseman on an attempted steal but he was off by a second or so, which is fairly typical in these games. But when he asked the ump how many outs there were, I was shocked to discover that the he was a she unless the he had a very feminine voice. After the side was retired, the catcher returned to the bench with the rest of the players and took off his mask. He was a she, no doubt about it.

I went up to her and struck up a conversation. Her name was Hera and she had been playing baseball for 13 years. She loved playing catcher because she liked working with pitchers. She also found no resistance to her being on the team. When I got home, I googled “Hera” and “baseball catcher”. This is what came up from the New York Daily News:

High School

Baruch College Campus HS catcher Hera Andre-Bergmann feels right at home behind the plate

By / DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Friday, October 21, 2011, 12:05 PM
Hera Andre-Bergmann will be lone girl in Saturday's PSAL Senior Baseball Showcase.

Howard Simmons/News

Hera Andre-Bergmann will be lone girl in Saturday’s PSAL Senior Baseball Showcase.

You don’t ask a tough ballplayer about such trivial matters as a little injury – even an ailment that requires 14 stitches to repair.

Joe Bergmann learned that lesson two years back when his daughter, Hera Andre-Bergmann, opened a deep gash on her thigh while trying to block home plate during a nasty collision with a baserunner.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hera – then a sophomore at Baruch College Campus HS in Manhattan – told her dad after she was treated at Roosevelt Hospital. “The son of a (gun) was out at home.”

Joe nearly flew off the couch on Wednesday while recounting the story in their apartment near Times Square. Hera, sitting a few feet away, mustered a small smile.

“That’s her,” he said. “She’s tough.”

For the past two seasons, Bergmann has occupied a unique position in high school sports: baseball catcher. She may be the only girl to start on her school’s varsity team, and she’s most certainly the only girl to don knee pads and a mask.

In recent years, girls across the country have been gravitating toward such traditionally male-dominated sports as wrestling, football and ice hockey, but the notion of a girl playing baseball hasn’t received similar attention.

Bergmann, 17, routinely absorbs collisions, calls pitches and controls baserunners with a strong throwing arm. Saturday, she will participate in the PSAL’s annual Senior Fall Baseball Showcase at MCU Park in Coney Island, a platform to give players exposure to college coaches and pro scouts. Bergmann is expected to be the only girl participating.

“When you’re practicing, you’re not seen,” she said. “So it’s good to be able to show off what you’ve been working on.”

Bergmann is relaxed and reserved. Her father says she badly wants to fit into the fabric of the city’s baseball community without calling too much attention to herself.

“It’s important for me to be seen as just another player,” she said. “I want to let my play speak for itself.”

That’s not to suggest that Bergmann is bashful about her role with the Blue Devils, who went 1-10 last spring in the PSAL Manhattan “B” South.

She changes into her uniform alongside her teammates in the dugout and has repeatedly declined invitations from the school’s softball coach, always answering with the same response: “I don’t play softball.”

She never considered switching to softball, even though her chances of winning a scholarship in that sport would be exponentially greater.

“I don’t play for a scholarship,” Bergmann said quickly, minutes before she would trek to a private coaching session with Gabe Diaz, who coaches the N.Y. Gothams travel team. “I play because I love the game.”

Howard Soskind, Baruch’s athletic director and new baseball coach, had to petition the PSAL to allow Bergmann to try out for the baseball team as a freshman. She gained approval but failed to crack the team, reaching the varsity as a sophomore. “I worked hard to get better,” she said. “And they couldn’t deny me.”

Bergmann won the starting catcher’s position last season, but struggled while playing through a nagging shoulder injury that hampered her throwing and contributed to her difficulties at the plate. In eight games, Bergmann batted .083, although her on-base percentage was a respectable .353.

At tomorrow’s showcase, the 5-2, 147-pound senior will try to establish her standing among the city’s top players while trying to determine whether it’s possible for her to continue playing after high school.”I wanted to give her an opportunity for this,” said Soskind, who nominated Bergmann and Baruch pitcher Charles Porcaro for the showcase. “It was an easy call to make. It wasn’t like I picked her because she’s a girl. She was deserving of it.”

Bergmann, who also plays goalie on the girls soccer team, displays an intensity that has helped her to convince both her teammates and opponents that she belongs.

“She’s amazing,” said Elvis Valdez, the coach at divisional rival Health Profession/Human Services HS.

“When we first saw her, my players were concerned with hurting her or hitting her with a pitch, but she’s a true warrior, the way she plays, how she handles herself. Now, they accept her on the field as an equal. I applaud what she’s doing.”

July 13, 2013

Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag; Breakaway

Filed under: Film,Sikhs,sports — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Ever seeing “Amu” six years ago, the narrative film based on the 1984 Sikh massacres in India, I have made a point of attending screenings for any film dealing with the Sikhs. As a dramatic subject entailing both human and social dimensions of enormous weight, I can’t imagine any other people better suited for cinematic treatment. As the quintessential underdog from their inception as one of the world’s latest major religions, the Sikhs have been in a constant struggle to defend their rights and their identity against intolerant and more powerful social forces—starting with India’s Moghul rulers in the fifteenth century. As was the case with Christianity in its earliest phases, the Sikh religion was opposed to an unjust social order and ready to suffer martyrdom on behalf of its values. That struggle continues to this day.

The two films under consideration here have athlete protagonists. “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” (Run, Milkha, Run) is inspired by the true-life achievements of runner Milkha Singh. Known as “The Flying Sikh”, Singh (still alive at the age of 77) represented India in the 1960 Rome Olympics as well as many Commonwealth games. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who appeared at a press screening on Wednesday, stated he was not seeking to make a biopic. Since the film is solidly within the Bollywood genre, it is hard to imagine it ever conforming to biopic literalism. As I will explain momentarily, Bollywood films operate within a totally artificial and completely romantic framework—hence their enormous appeal to this critic.

Made in 2011, “Breakaway” is a Canadian film about an all-Sikh ice hockey team. While not so nearly as realized artistically as “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag”, it is definitely worth watching on Netflix streaming.

“Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” opened yesterday at 10 theaters in Greater New York. For Manhattanites, the AMC 25 Theater on 234 West 42nd Street is the place to go. Since the publicist has advised me that it will be opening at over 120 theaters nationwide, my advice is to check your local listings if you want to spend three hours entertained and enlightened to the max.

Like so many sports movies based on historical figures, including the recent one about Jackie Robinson, this is essentially a tale about overcoming adversity. Milkha Singh was 12 years old when India was partitioned in 1947 and had the misfortune to be living with his parents and fellow Sikh villagers in the newly created state of Pakistan. When the Muslims told them that they had to convert to Islam in order to retain ownership of their land, the elders decided to stay and fight no matter how outnumbered they were. In one of the films most gripping scenes, you can see the men holding up their ceremonial swords and daggers, invoking the one-sided Battle of Chamkaur of 1705 in which 40 Sikhs went up against a million man Moghul army. As was the case earlier in history, all of the men in Milkha’s village were killed, as were the women and children. He narrowly escaped with his life.

When he ended up in a refugee camp in India on his own, he was only able to survive by joining a gang and becoming a petty thief. Fleeing from rival gangs and the cops sharpened his innate running skills.

In an effort to straighten out his life and provide for the woman he seeks to wed, Milkha joins the army. In basic training, after he comes in first in a 5-mile race, an officer recruits him to the track team. In a meet held at a nearby city, he wanders into a trophy room where he spies a blazer that belongs to a local champion runner. While innocently trying it on for size, the runner and his posse happen upon him. Convinced that he intended to steal it, they beat him into a pulp. This does not prevent him from facing the runner in a competition and besting him by at least 20 feet.

If you’ve seen “Chariots of Fire”, much of “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” will ring a bell. However, compared to the prosaic PBS Masterpiece Theater esthetic of “Chariots of Fire”, “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” soars like an eagle, especially in the song-and-dance scenes that will bring a smile to the face of all but the most cynical and jaded film viewer. In one of my favorite, Milkha’s comrades in the military get news that he has broken the 400-meter record. Their reaction is to begin dancing with each other in complete abandon, hands lifted to heaven. Wonderful.

Some notes about the principals of this remarkable film are in order. 50-year old director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra competed as a swimmer in the 1982 Asian Games so he understands the big-time competition scene from the inside. After starting out as a vacuum cleaner salesman, he ended up filming TV commercials just like Ridley Scott. From there, it was straight on to Bollywood. Besides making films, he is an outspoken critic of India’s grade-driven education system. If you’ve seen the satire “Three Idiots”, you will be familiar with how this ludicrous system works.

Although he is 39 years old, Farhan Akhtar is utterly convincing in his role as the young Milkha Singh. Like the director, Akhtar does not shy away from making statements about Indian society. In 2007, he directed “Positive”, a 12 minute short about HIV/AIDS in India. According to Wikipedia, he stated: “Just as a social stigma, many people believe that an HIV patient should be isolated. They also have certain misconceptions about dealing with the disease. And since India has a lot of joint families; it becomes very important for them to understand the value of support to the person who has acquired this disease. This is exactly what Positive talks about.” Akhtar also founded Men Against Rape and Discrimination in 2013, not long after a Mumbai lawyer was raped and then killed by her home watchman.

“Breakaway” is a very old-fashioned movie about a father and son conflict over traditional values, including religion. A Sikh youth loves ice hockey, something his father regards as a waste of time. Its closest relatives are “The Jazz Singer” and “Body and Soul”, two classics involving Jewish households in struggle. In the first, the first “talkie” ever made, Al Jolson pursues a career as a Broadway song and dance man against the wishes of his father, a cantor or liturgical singer. “Body and Soul” is a bit closer to “Breakaway” in spirit since it is the story of a young Jew who enters the boxing ring in order to put food on the table of his widowed mom. A key bit of dialog from the film:

Charlie: Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn. I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!

Mama: I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.

Charlie: You need MONEY to buy a gun!

A more recent inspiration along these lines is “Bend it like Beckham”, about an 18 year old girl who wants to play soccer despite the wishes of her Sikh parents.

The Charlie of “Breakaway” is one Rajveer Singh, a young amateur ice hockey player who is on the same team with other Sikhs who make up in spirit what they lack in skill. (Vijay Virmani, who co-wrote the script, plays Singh.) After goons from a rival team called the Hammerheads push them around early in the film, they call upon Dan Winters (Rob Lowe) who spent a brief time as a pro to sharpen their skills. It might occur to film buffs that “The Karate Kid” is as much of an inspiration as the warhorses mentioned above. Everybody loves a loser who eventually triumphs against all odds.

Ravjeer’s dad owns a trucking business called “The Speedy Singhs” that he is grooming his son to take over one day. For that plan to succeed, the son has to put all that ice hockey nonsense behind him. His father is also disappointed that Ravjeer cut his hair while in high school and stopped wearing a turban. When other kids on the ice always aimed the puck at his turban, he decided that it was more important to be an athlete than a Sikh.

Key to the rise of Ravjeer’s team that now calls itself “The Speedy Singhs” is Dan Winters’s expert coaching as well as the addition of an “enforcer”, a massive Sikh who played ice hockey as a kid.

As they are about to enter a tournament, they get word from the officials that they cannot participate wearing turbans. It is helmets or else. Ravjeer comes up with the perfect solution. He designs and has made hockey helmets that are modeled after those worn by Sikh warriors of the 15th century when they went into battle against the Mughals.

The issue of turbans goes to the very heart of Sikh identity. After 2001, racist Americans began to beat up or harass Sikhs on the assumption that they were Muslims. The most brutal incident occurred only last August when a gunman entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin killing six worshippers.

If they are not dealing with such terror, they are also fighting against the same kinds of discrimination Ravjeer’s team faced in ice hockey competition. If they wore turbans, they would be excluded. Last week the N.Y. Times reported on the obstacles facing Sikhs who are trying to make a career in the military:

The Sikhs of northwestern India have for centuries cherished their rich military history. Wearing long beards and turbans into combat, they have battled Mughals in Punjab, Afghans near the Khyber Pass and Germans in the bloody trenches of the Somme.

But when Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh raised in New Jersey, signed up for the United States Army, that tradition counted for nothing. Before sending him to officer basic training, the Army told him that he would have to give up the basic symbols of his religion: his beard, knee-length hair and turban.

In good Sikh tradition, he resisted. Armed with petitions and Congressional letters, he waged a two-year campaign that in 2009 resulted in the Army granting him a special exception for his unshorn hair, the first such accommodation to a policy established in the 1980s.

Since then, two other Sikhs have won accommodations from the Army. But many others have failed. And so now, as he prepares to leave active duty, Major Kalsi, who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, is waging a new campaign: to rescind those strict rules that he believes have blocked hundreds of Sikhs from joining the military.

“Folks say, ‘If you really want to serve, why don’t you cut your beard?’ ” said Major Kalsi, a doctor who is the medical director of emergency medical services at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. “But asking a person to choose between religion and country, that’s not who we are as a nation. We’re better than that. We can be Sikhs and soldiers at the same time.”

I imagine that some of my lefty friends might have the same reaction they had about gays trying to become soldiers. They sneer at the idea of anybody joining the evil military, obviously forgetting about the efforts of Blacks to eliminate Jim Crow in the services. My attitude is that no job should be reserved exclusively for white Christian men, whether it is the police department, fire department or army. This is essential to any democracy. With American democracy under siege from all quarters, it helps everybody when Sikhs fight for their rights.

Finally, some thoughts on the paradox of Sikhs as military men. While it is true that the British relied on them as crack troops in maintaining colonial law and order, their fearlessness and prowess also became instrumental in getting rid of colonialism.

Recent studies of Indian radical history have convinced me that the story of Sikhs as revolutionary fighters is one of the most underreported stories of the last 100 years. More has to be said about Bhagat Singh, who became the leader of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in the 1920s. After he and another revolutionary threw bombs and leaflets into the British-controlled legislature, he was arrested, tried and sentenced to death in 1931 at the age of 23. Everybody knows about Gandhi but we should know more about Bhagat Singh.

We must also know more about the life of Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, the founder of the Ghadar Party that sought to remove Britain from India by any means necessary, as Malcolm X once put it. As Wikipedia reports, Sohan Singh’s story is also the story of the American left:

Sohan Singh soon found work as a labourer in a timber mill being constructed near the city. In this first decade of the 1900s, the Pacific coast of North America saw large scale Indian immigration. A large proportion of the immigrants were especially from Punjab British India which was facing an economic depression and agrarian unrest. The Canadian government met this influx with a series of legislations aimed at limiting the entry of South Asians into Canada, and restricting the political rights of those already in the country. The Punjabi community had hitherto been an important loyal force for the British Empire and the Commonwealth, and the community had expected, to honour its commitment, equal welcome and rights from the British and commonwealth governments as extended to British and white immigrants. These legislations fed growing discontent, protests and anti-colonial sentiments within the community.

If you find yourself asking why all these Sikh men have the same last name (Singh means lion; women are named Kaur or princess), a Sikh website provides the most revealing answer:

Q: Why do Sikh men have the last name Singh and all women, have the last name Kaur?

A: Singh means a lion and Kaur means a princess. In Sikhism these titles eliminate discrimination based on “family name” (which denotes a specific caste) and reinforces that all humans are sovereigns and equal under God.

This tradition started because through the last name one could distinguish what caste one belongs to. Just by knowing the last name they would say, “Oh, you are the lowest” or “You are the middle” or “You are from high class”. Thus Sikh Gurus eliminated the last name from all the Sikhs so that no one could distinguish the caste and achieved equality for all Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh Ji gave Singh as a last name to all the Sikh men and Kaur to all the Sikh women.

Women were not treated equally before the time of the Sikh Gurus, and so to ensure equality, a movement for women’s liberation was started five hundred years ago with the Sikh faith. The Guru said, “You are my beloved princesses, my daughters. You must be respected. How can this world be without you?” He cautioned men for being rude and bad to women. He said, “Without women this world cannot be. So, give them the rights, and give them equal respect they deserve.” Women are humans and all humans deserve equal rights.

Normally, when a woman would get married, she would take the last name of the family she gets married into. Since Guru eliminated the last name, he said, “You don’t have to take anybody else’s name. You are an individual, you are a princess, and you can keep Kaur as your last name.” It gave women a lot of self-respect.

March 21, 2013

A.J. Ayer confronts Mike Tyson

Filed under: philosophy,sports — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

From Ben Roger’s biography of the analytical philosopher:

It was at another party, given a little later in the year by the highly fashionable clothes designer, Fernando Sanchez, that he had a widely reported encounter. Ayer had always had an ability to pick up unlikely people and at yet another party had befriended Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: ‘Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Ayer stood his ground: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both preeminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.

January 7, 2013

Split Decision

Filed under: cuba,Film,sports — louisproyect @ 5:08 pm

Generally I don’t expect the recipient of one of my nasty and unsolicited emails to respond but Brin-Jonathan Butler took the trouble to write me back after I accused him of being a “rightwing shit”. This was after I spotted a piece by him on Salon.com that described Cuba as “terrifying”. As it turns out, I did not even read the article but was reacting—violently—to the blurb that the editors tacked on to the article: “I came to Havana to film a documentary about a local boxer — and found a country by turns beautiful and terrifying.”

I suppose my only excuse was having fallen into a state of high dudgeon from reading a bunch of affidavits written by Cuba dissidents supposedly subjected to electroshock treatments in the 1980s. They had been collected in 1990 by a Freedom House researcher, who is now with the Defense Department in charge of “atrocity prevention”. Given the number of Pakistani children that have been killed by Predator Drones and the half-century long economic blockade punctuated by sabotage and invasion directed against Cuba, I was feeling more than a bit defensive when it came to attacks on the socialist island’s reputation from any quarter. Although I would readily admit that there have been human rights abuses in Cuba over the years, the affidavits did not pass the smell test.

After upbraiding Brin for ignoring the fact that a CIA-backed terrorist who had blown up a Cuban airliner had been freed from an American jail on a technicality, he wrote me back:

I cited the US courts for releasing and housing the man who blew up that airliner in my piece. Did you note that? And mocked the US for calling Cuba a “state sponsor of terror” despite their position regarding domestic terrorism against Cuba with that airline bomber.

After reading that, I said “oops” to myself and read Brin’s article, something I should have done from the outset. After reading it, I wrote him a note offering an apology—something that eventually led to breakfast with this altogether committed and serious student of Cuban society, and more particularly the role within it of Cuban boxers who have defected to the U.S.

Brin has written three articles for Salon.com, all of which are a cut above the usual fare and that share a focus on the sport of boxing. As a veteran of the “sweet science” who now trains mostly well-heeled clients to supplement the money he makes from writing, Brin writes from hard experience. In addition to an interview with Mike Tyson, his other two articles describe a documentary in progress titled “Split Decision”, a profile of Guillermo Rigondeaux who was one of Cuba’s best fighters before he defected in 2009.

The article that I had not bothered to read had this passage:

Along the Prado they used to sell slaves on the auction block, too. Before Fidel, when segregation was in full swing, the Cuban apartheid meant many clubs and parks still refused black Cubans entry. Famously even Batista, the president of the country before Fidel, was forbidden membership to a country club because he wasn’t white enough.

Maybe this was one of the reasons Guillermo Rigondeaux’s own father, living on a coffee plantation in the east, disowned his son after the first failed attempt at defection in 2007, blaming him for betraying a society that helped so many like their own family climb out of the vicious conditions that existed before the revolution. Or maybe Rigondeaux’s father was another brainwashed Fidelista oblivious to all the failed promises.

And while I know Cuba’s meaning is perpetually up for grabs, whose isn’t?

Now there’s a story really worth telling.

In the course of my conversation over breakfast with Brin, I learned that he had a very strong connection to Cuba through its boxers and that his interest in defectors (reflected deftly in “Split Decision”, the title of his film-in-progress) is very much engaged with perhaps the key question of our epoch, namely the difficulty of reconciling one’s personal and family obligations with broader social and political principles. If there is anything that involves “contradiction”, the nub of Marxist dialectics, it is the decision Cuban boxers must make when faced by the lure of big money in the U.S., even when it entails a break from everything held dear.

The website for “Split Decision” states:

The boxer’s struggle in Cuba is the Cuban struggle. All Cubans struggle from birth and they see the boxer’s struggle as a metaphor for their own.

Fidel Castro banned professional sports in Cuba in 1962. His decree created a difficult choice for boxers—stay in Cuba and fight for national glory or defect to a country where their talents could make them rich. In the 70s Teofilo Stevenson won three Olympic gold medals and turned down five million dollars to defect from Cuba and fight Muhammad Ali, asking those promoters who made the offer, “What’s a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”. In the 90s Felix Savon won another three Olympic gold medals and turned down tens of millions to travel to the US to fight Mike Tyson. What Fidel Castro was trying to use his boxers to prove was not just that his boxers were defeating Americans in the ring, but that Cuba and her system were defeating America itself, most noticeably in their sacrifice of financial reward for service to their country…

February 2009, Rigondeaux risks his life to defect with smugglers via Mexico City, into the waiting arms of Miami exiled-Cuban promoters. A legal battle between his Irish manager Gary Hyde and the Miami promoters begins for control of Rigondeaux’s career before it even has a chance to begin. Rigondeaux’s career stalls as the power struggle over his career persists. He is nearly 30 when the issues are resolved and he finally signs a contract with Bob Arum, the largest boxing promoter in the world.

Rigondeaux discovers that the biggest obstacle to his career’s success lies in the fact that the 95% non-black exiled-Cuban community in Florida offer no support of black Cuban fighters. As Bob Arum points out, “Cuban Olympic champions can’t sell out the front row of a dancehall in Miami.”

Shortly after signing his contract in April of 2010, Rigondeaux is nearly knocked out while sparring in Los Angeles with a very limited youthful amateur. He promptly severs ties with his trainer, Freddie Roach, and returns to Miami. From his corner, Roach chillingly points out, “Someone was exposed here today.” At the most important moment of his life, Rigondeaux stands on the brink of either a championship or total professional and personal collapse. After 6 successful fights, Bob Arum steps forward to offer a contract to Gary Hyde, dangling a title shot. If he wins, the American dream could still come true for Rigondeaux. If he loses, he could become just another defector from Cuba who’s lost everything in search of that dream. Like nearly all the defected Cuban fighters who came before him, the biggest opponent Rigondeaux faces is coping with American life. Every time he steps into battle in an American ring, Rigondeaux wears the flag of the nation he has left behind on his trunks. Just what Cuba he is fighting for remains a mystery.

As a long-time boxing fan and an observer of Cuban society going back to 1962, when most Bard College students including me wondered if we were about to be swallowed by a mushroom cloud, I must say that I am anticipating the completion of this documentary with bated breath. So much so that I am now putting my money where my mouth is and contributing $50 to the film’s completion at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/306344/contributions/new. I strongly urge all my readers to chip in there since I view this project as both a major contribution to educating people about Cuban reality as well as the sort of theme that young filmmakers should be dealing with.

For progress reports on the film, check the website and Brin’s twitter accounts: @BRINICIO and @_SPLITDECISION.

 

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