Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 1, 2014

Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive 2014 Human Rights Documentary Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Stalinism,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Last night I saw “Red Father” and “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” at the Institute Cervantes in New York, two of the entries in “Impugning Impunity”, theAbraham Lincoln Brigades Archive (ALBA) Human Rights Documentary Film Festival that ends today. Based on the quality of what I saw yesterday, you might want to take advantage of today’s screening of documentaries on the impact of Israeli occupation on Bedouins and on the activist break-in at FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971 that led to the exposure of the Cointelpro. Scheduling information is here: http://www.alba-valb.org/programs/human-rights-film-festival/

It is no secret that the  ALBA, like most projects with such a provenance, has a solid base of support in the Communist Party and its periphery. As I gazed about the audience waiting for “Red Father” to begin, I felt young again by comparison. The average age appeared to be about 75 and most probably went through the experience at one time or another of selling the Daily Worker.

Despite this, Tova Beck-Friedman’s film was a searching examination of what it meant to be a life-long Communist and not at all an exercise in feel-good nostalgia like the documentaries “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight” that featured Spanish Civil War veterans like Bill Bailey. As much as I loved those films, I was glad to see the CP rendered accurately, warts and all.

“Red Father”, however, did not demonize the CP. In its portrait of Bernard Ades (pronounced ay-dis), a Jew from a wealthy family who grew up in Baltimore and joined the party shortly after the Great Depression began, was simultaneously the best and the worst of his generation. A man of extraordinary principle and courage, he became an attorney dedicated to defending the African-American poor against a racist judicial system, including its ultimate weapon, the lynch mob.

This article from the November 28, 1931 newsweekly “The African-American” documents the case that is at the heart of “Red Father” and shows him demonstrating the mettle that convinced many Black Americans that the CP was their best friend in the struggle against racism.

Screen shot 2014-10-01 at 1.43.52 PM

Seven years later he ended up fighting in Spain against Franco’s counter-revolutionary army, once again showing great courage and dedication to the cause.

Throughout the 1930s, the party was at its height. If you didn’t bother paying close attention to the Trotskyist press, the USSR and its allies could easily be seen as the saviors of humanity. Indeed, it was exactly such a messianic belief that led party members like Bernard Ades to stick with the party until the bitter end, even after it became common knowledge that Jews were victims of discrimination in Russia and that the “socialism” being built had little to do with the democratic aspirations of the communist movement through most of its history.

As a sympathizer of the CP and a member of a youth group in its periphery, Ben Ades’s daughter Janet, who is featured prominently in the film and who spoke during a Q&A after its screening, had the misfortune to get romantically entwined with a comrade who had visited Hungary shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1956 and was shocked to see elementary socialist principles trampled underfoot. When Janet began repeating what she heard from her boyfriend, her father was chagrined enough to enroll her in a study group that was meant to cure her of bad ideas.

In the Q&A, Janet Ades was crystal-clear about her respect for her father’s dedication and for the need for social justice. What she would not accept, however, was the CP’s military like discipline that forced its members to go along with every twist and turn, always accepting the Kremlin’s word as if it were the Vatican. Indeed, like all members of religious sects, the practice of shunning was used to enforce a monolithic culture.

She added that it was not just the CP that had such a suffocating atmosphere. She alluded to a young man she met in a hospital once whose first name was Karl. Out of curiosity, she asked if he was named after Karl Marx. He laughed and said yes, proceeding to tell her his life story. His father was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Utah who had made a mistake like hers taking up the cause of Hungarian workers. She did not mention what got Karl’s father shunned, but eventually he left the movement in disgust. I commented from the floor that I probably knew his father since he was one of hundreds who had to put up with shunning in the SWP, a party that was created as an alternative to the “bad” CP.

I am not sure where or when this eye-opening documentary will be shown again but will make sure to let you know about it in advance. Educational institutions can purchase it from Dark Hollow films for the customarily prohibitive price. http://www.darkhollowfilms.com/our-films

Finally, I recommend Dan La Botz’s article on the film that appeared on New Politics.  Dan concludes and I concur:

This well-done documentary will be of particular interest to those who want to better understand the history of the Communist Party of the United States and international Communism, as well as to those interested in American Jewry. As a teacher of college courses in American History, I would certainly use it in my upper division classes. The film which is being independently distributed will be shown in the fall at the University of Minnesota Law School and to the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and in the week of November 10 at Baruch College of Performing Arts.

Pankaja Brooke’s “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” also deserves the widest viewing. Brooke went to Vietnam and interviewed a group of Vietnam veterans to returned there to atone for their misdeeds by getting involved in various projects that benefit a country still feeling the lingering effects of a genocidal war.

I was shocked to discover that over 100,000 people died as a result of stepping on unexploded landmines and bombs left over from a brutal war, also that over 3 million have suffered birth defects or illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange. To her credit, Brooke spent time visiting clinics and orphanages devoted to caring for Agent Orange victims, whose care and treatment costs an economically devastated nation millions of dollars each year. If there was any justice, the USA should have paid reparations for the damage it did to people and to precious resources.

Fortunately, Brooke’s documentary can be seen on Vimeo and I recommend it strongly:

https://vimeo.com/88987769

As a group, the Vietnam veterans—all about my age—show America at its best, just as Bernard Ades’s service in the cause of the Spanish Republic did. Next year I will be posting an announcement about the next ALBA film festival. The people who put it together should be commended for fighting the good fight as well. My recommendation is to visit their website (http://www.alba-valb.org/) and stay informed about this excellent resource for human rights and social justice.

 

January 30, 2012

Vietnam: An American Holocaust

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Among the handful of blogs I have bookmarked and visit each day is Clay Claiborne’s at Daily Kos. I first got wind of Claiborne’s penetrating analysis when he began taking exception to an “anti-imperialism”  that sided with Qaddafi’s troops against the revolutionary people. I was staggered by the force of his arguments and his willingness to swim against the stream. You can get a flavor of his take on things by reading his latest post on Libya titled “The Current Situation in Libya“, dated January 13th:

Another thing that is becoming clear now is just how little real support Qaddafi had. While there was that one sneak attack against an oil terminal while Qaddafi was still alive, there has been nothing since. The guerilla war by Qaddafi supporters against the revolution has simply failed to materialize, and while wavers of the green flag still have had some freedom to demonstrate openly, as this video illustrates, there just haven’t been very many of them.

For a few days, those nostalgic for Qaddafi took heart at news that a revolt against the government-backed militia in Bani Walid took place under the toppled regime’s green flag but eventually it turned out that there was no support for Qaddafi, even in his erstwhile stronghold. Apparently, the real base of support is among Western leftists who resent those Libyans who had the impudence to rise up and defeat the dictator who worked with the CIA and killed 2000 prisoners at Abu Salim in one fell swoop.

I had always noticed Clay’s description of himself as a filmmaker on his blog profile but had not given it any thought until a comrade urged me to look at his documentary titled “Vietnam: An American Holocaust” that is for sale on his website. I had a chance to view it recently and want to second my comrade’s recommendation. This is a very powerful retelling of the genuinely anti-imperialist narrative of the war in Vietnam and very much worth purchasing for those of a certain age like me who became radicalized in the 1960s by this horrible war as well as by young activists today.

Narrated by Martin Sheen, a long-time progressive activist who played a deranged special forces combatant in “Apocalypse Now”, the film is a shocking reminder of what a criminal enterprise the war on Vietnam was. Using archival footage of madmen like Curtis LeMay, rank-and-file soldiers who turned against the war, and the Vietnamese themselves, it explains why so many young people became enemies of a socio-economic system that could spawn such cruelty. Among the archival footage is Dwight Eisenhower explaining why we were in Vietnam:

If Indochina goes, several things happen right away. The Malayan peninsula, the last little bit of the end hanging on down there, would be scarcely defensible–and tin and tungsten that we so greatly value from that area would cease coming. But all India would be outflanked. Burma would certainly, in its weakened condition, be no defense. Now, India is surrounded on that side by the Communist empire. Iran on its left is in a weakened condition. I believe I read in the paper this morning that Mossadegh’s move toward getting rid of his parliament has been supported and of course he was in that move supported by the Tudeh, which is the Communist Party of Iran.

Apparently, the West has still not gotten used to Iran breaking free from the rule of its oil companies as the threats over its right to develop nuclear power continue to mount day by day.

The film would be ideal for high school and college classes as an introduction to a war that still exercises a kind of restraint on American power referred to as the “Vietnam syndrome”. Indeed, it was the war in Iraq that inspired Clay to make the film since it was obvious at the time that the war would take a terrible toll on all its victims, the GI’s falling victim to IED’s as well as the Iraqis facing a new holocaust.

In exercising my usual due diligence in finding out about a film’s director, I discovered a fascinating interview with Clay Claiborne, who is an African-American and three years younger than me. You can both listen to it and read the transcript at the American Lives web pages at the U. of Washington in St. Louis, a school that Clay attended in the 1960s.  Like so many of us whose lives were torn apart by the war in Vietnam, Clay was very much a man of his times.

Asked about some of his “extra-curricular” activities, Clay answered:

I was around, now, I was in St. Louis from the fall of ’66 when I came to school here as a freshman until August of 1970. I was, I did four months in St. Louis County Jail for a demonstration against ROTC, and they paroled me to New Jersey. So, in fact, there was gonna to be a party for me at Left Bank Bookstore when I got out, but when I got out, they took me straight to the airport and put me on a plane, like I was Public Enemy Number One. I couldn’t be trusted loose in Missouri, you know, even for an afternoon. And the attitude in New Jersey was quite different. In New Jersey, my parole officer looked at my record and he said, “You’re a political prisoner. This would have never happened in New Jersey”, you know and he completely left me alone. The only thing I had to see him for was permission to come back to St. Louis, which I did a couple of times under the eyes of the Red Squad. And then a couple years later, I think ’73, ’74, I came back to St. Louis in, no, that was actually 1972, I came back to St. Louis, but by that time, my political work had almost entirely gravitated off campus. Still with a lot of the same people that are here, we formed the Worker Unity Organization and put out a newspaper called On the Line. I worked in ACF, the American Car and Foundry, a boxcar factory. I don’t know if it’s still here or not, was active in the union organization.

I read this and smile. When I reflect on the deeply evil deeds of the men running the American government during the Vietnam War, anybody being described as “public enemy number one” deserves a badge of honor. Like the young people in Germany who formed the White Rose resistance to Hitler during WWII, those who resisted the war in Vietnam constituted the country’s real democratic values. Given the continued willingness of American imperialism to wage war across the planet without even any pretenses of maintaining a “guns and butter” regime, a film like “Vietnam: An American Holocaust” is a very useful reminder of what our fight is all about.

April 9, 2009

Rescue Dawn

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Out of curiosity, I watched Werner Herzog’s 2006 movie “Rescue Dawn” on Showtime the other night. This is a movie based on Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s escape from a Laotian prison camp in 1966 that I could not help but lump in with similar efforts involving Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris. Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but I then watched Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Dieter Dengler Needs to Fly” on Neflix online (my first stab at this-not bad all in all), his first stab at glorifying a killer in uniform.

As many of you probably know, Werner Herzog has an attraction to the grotesque that is only exceeded by David Lynch’s. Additionally, both have questionable politics. Lynch was a Reaganite, but it is difficult to detect any kind of political statement in his movies. For his part, Herzog claims to be above politics but when it comes to the wars in Nicaragua and Vietnam, his films clearly had a rightwing tilt even if they are couched in his peculiar aesthetic.

“Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is a fairly worshipful view of the German child who decided to become a pilot after watching an American fighter pilot coming in to blast his home town in Germany in 1945. It is clear that Dengler has his priorities screwed up. Most children would be horrified by such a sight, but he was transfixed so much so that he came to the U.S. as a teenager to join the air force, as war-ravaged Germany had not yet created its own.

After joining the air force, he learns that his duties will not include learning to fly. Undaunted, he goes to college in order to help smooth the way toward his next bid at flying, this time in the U.S. Navy in 1965 at the start of the Vietnam War. Herzog claims that his movies about Dengler make no political statement because his subject had no intention of getting involved in fighting and assumed that the war would be over in months. Clearly, Herzog had little interest in bothering about ancillary issues such as the right of Vietnam to live in peace since they would only interfere with his mission to make the ultimate adventure story.

In a way, “Rescue Dawn” could never meet the expectations of the typical Chuck Norris fan (like Mike Hucklebee) since it is so imbued with Herzog’s mannerisms and oddball sensibility. Typically, he cast Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler. As a latter-day Anthony Perkins, Bale is the first actor casting actors will call if they are looking to fill the role of some lunatic or other.

Herzog must have decided that he would be right for the role since Bale had lost 63 pounds in order to play the deranged hero of “The Machinist”. In striving for verisimilitude, Herzog had his actors lose weight to play the captive American pilots. The Thai actors playing Air America (the CIA air company, not the liberal radio network) prisoners all had the good sense to maintain proper food intake. Just to show how gung-ho he was for the role, Bale eats live maggots direct from a bowl in one of the movie’s more unpleasant scenes.

Bale has garnered quite a reputation as a madman on the set as well, making him quite a match for Herzog. During the filming of the latest Terminator movie, he threw a tantrum when a lighting technician got on his wrong side.

Perhaps the most off-putting and least realistic aspect of “Rescue Dawn” is the treatment of the captors, who are rendered as over-the-top grotesques. The ringleader has hair down to his shoulders in a look that evokes the villains in Jackie Chan movies from the late ’90s rather than Communist guerrillas. One of his henchmen is a martial arts devotee who periodically flails at unseen enemies for no apparent reason. Another is a perpetually grinning dwarf who seems oblivious to everything, most of all the fact that a war is going on. Like David Lynch, Herzog seems to have a thing for dwarfs. In 1970 he made something called “Even Dwarfs Started Small” that depicted dwarfs in a mental institution run by other dwarfs. Although I have not seen it, it supposedly has a grand climax in which the rebel inmates uproot a palm tree, burn flowers, kill a pig, crucify a monkey and hurl live chickens against the guy in charge. One critic feels that Herzog was trying to make a statement about the 1968 student revolt. Whatever.

In order to increase the alienation effect, Herzog does not bother to use subtitles when the guards are shouting at the prisoners. This means that the audience will not be discomfited by the enemy telling their captors why they are being mistreated. Who would want to hear something like this? “Take that, you killer. Your fucking napalm killed my wife and our five kids.”

Despite his best (or worst, perhaps) intentions, Herzog did not endear himself to people connected to the prisoners, including the brother of prisoner Gene DeBruin. (Dengler died in 2001 so he would not be able to comment.) He set up a website called Rescue Dawn: the Truth that takes exception to his brother being portrayed as “an uncaring, deranged and derelict Charles Manson type entity, devoid of humanity.” What was he expecting? After all, this was not a Chuck Norris movie.

This was not the first time that Herzog cooked up an ostensibly rightwing propaganda piece that was undone by his unwillingness to settle for the pat. In 1984 he made “Ballad of the Little Soldier” on behalf of the Miskito counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua. The movie can be seen on Youtube in five parts and all but the last part consists of Miskitos denouncing the FSLN as a bunch of Communist killers. Herzog made no attempt, of course, to get the other side of the story.

But the last part, an interview with 10 or 11 year old Miskito soldiers in training, undermines any attempt to build blind loyalty to their cause. Their instructor tells Herzog, “This is the best age for training. Their minds are clean, not corrupt yet, we can teach them.” Denis Reichle, Herzog’s co-director who apparently is not as gung-ho as Herzog, tells the instructor: “You mean you can brainwash them.” The instructor replies, “Yes, we can brainwash them and show them the reality of why they are fighting today.”

Coming full circle to the end of WWII, when young Dieter was discovering the need to fly, Reichle tells the camera that the young trainees remind him of the German children who put on Nazi uniforms and carried weapons in the final months of WWII.

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