Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 21, 2011

Harold Camping and Jack Barnes

Filed under: religion,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:34 pm

I’m probably one of the few people on the left who actually used to not only listen to Harold Camping on the radio but actually enjoyed it. I am in the habit of listening to all sorts of esoteric radio programs late at night, particularly those that feature religious fundamentalists who take phone calls. A typical Camping moment would involve a caller asking him how to interpret some bit of scripture. Almost inevitably Camping would see it as supporting his hardline theory of predestination. God had already determined who would be saved and who would be damned and it seemed to have little to do with how you led your life. So you might as well go out and enjoy your whisky at the roadhouse rather than work with lepers. I am sure that the True Believers would insist that this was not what they meant, but that’s the way it always sounded to me.

The main thing I liked about Camping was his deep baritone voice and his rather old-fashioned enunciation. It was like listening to a character in an early 1930s movie. When he didn’t have me chuckling about hellfire and brimstone, he had me drifting off to sleep through his mellifluous and soporofic tones.

Camping, of course, has been in the news lately with his predictions about the world coming to an end. He made the same kind of prediction back in 1994 that Mother Nature ignored. At the age of 90 I doubt if he has any future in the apocalypse business.

I was on the Internet back in 1994 when he made his last prediction. Around that time I posted something about it that I can’t find now but I am pretty sure it refers to the same scholarly study about this business that Alexander Cockburn referred to on Counterpunch:

It’s a safe bet that Camping and his disciples will be saying on May 22 that his math was merely a year or two off, and the end is still nigh. His congregation will have its faith fortified. Membership will probably increase, as it did after the failure of Camping’s last prediction of the Second Coming, which he scheduled for September 6, 1994.

Sociologists call the phenomenon of increased commitment to a batty theory, at the very hour of its destruction by external evidence, “cognitive dissonance.” The theory was developed by three sociologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, who infiltrated a group headed by Dorothy Martin of Chicago who had received messages from the Planet Clarion that the world was scheduled for destruction by flood in the predawn hours of December 21, 1954. A flying saucer would save the group, whose members had abandoned, often at considerable expense and upheaval, all terrestrial commitments, pending transfer to Clarion.

The sociologists theorized that, when neither spaceship nor flood materialized, the group’s best strategy to avoid public humiliation would be to dismiss the failure of the prophesied events as due to minor miscalculations and then to proselytize vigorously, advertising a re-dated flood and interplanetary rescue. Dissonance between nutty theory and reality would be diminished amid growing popularity of the nutty theory. Anyone following the growth of the Christian religion in its early decades, or the Lesser of Two Evils crowd advocating support of a Democratic candidate, will recognize the dynamics.

Back in 1994 I was still in the throes of my SWP post-traumatic stress and tended to talk about this cult more than I do today. I am quite sure that I read about the “cognitive dissonance” theory back then and drew upon it to comment on the SWP that was just as batty in its own way as Dorothy Martin’s flying saucer cult. I can understand Cockburn’s reference to the Lesser of Two Evils cult but demur on one key point. That cult never put the kinds of demands on the faithful that the SWP did. Being a Progressive for Obama might require you to vote on election day while being in the SWP required you to donate $50 per week to the party and sell totally worthless newspapers in front of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in Houston, Texas. That’s some difference.

Like Harold Camping or Dorothy Martin, party leader Jack Barnes never skipped a beat when one of his millenarian predictions did not pan out. In 1979, the epoch of disco dancing and cocaine, he told his followers that proletarian revolution was imminent. When it turned out that the 80s were a time of political retreat for the working class and the left, he simply wrote off his predictions as being based on “slight miscalculations” and plunged ahead with new end-of-capitalism scenarios. As it turned out, the only that came to an end is his own sorry cult.

May 20, 2011

Encounters with Louis R. Proyect

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

Now that I have reached old age, I find myself in a strange place with respect to my relatives both on my mother and father’s side. When I was young, I had no interest in contacting any of them. Now in the winter of my life, I yearn for some kind of connection, knowing full well that it is unachievable. Fortunately, my wife’s relatives in Turkey have a warmth and openness that, except for my mother, did not exist among blood relatives.

My grandfather Louis Proyect is the bald one

On the maternal side, the only surviving relative is a cousin who I never really knew and who I have no way of contacting. It is not much better on the paternal side. I particularly grieve being cut off by my cousin Joel who I visited in both a Connecticut and Pennsylvania prison during his 4 year mandatory minimum term for growing marijuana on his upstate property. About a year before my mother died and long after Joel had been released, I called him up to get some advice on work I was doing on her house. He was so cold and hostile to me over the phone that I wondered what the problem was. I subsequently learned from my mother that Joel was angry at me for not having lent him some 30 or 40 thousand dollars to make a down payment on his house that had been seized by the government. Even though I was working for Goldman-Sachs at the time, I couldn’t put that kind of money together. As it turned out, he got the money he needed by doing legal work for a fellow white collar prisoner.

This is not the first time that money issues had led to a feud on my father’s side of my family. My father had a brother named Mike who was the oldest among eight children. During WWII all the brothers except Mike went into the army or navy while he stayed home running a lumber company that he inherited from my grandfather Louis, who died during the war and after whom I am named.

Apparently Mike made a fortune in the black market during the war while my father Jack was dodging bullets in the Battle of the Bulge. (I have no idea how Mike avoided military duty.) When my father got back to Woodridge, our little village in the Catskills, he discovered that Mike was refusing to chip in for my grandmother’s living expenses. I have also been told that his siblings suspected him of forging my grandfather’s will so that he would end up with the lumber yard, my grandfather’s most lucrative business, while the other brothers were left with small shops, in my father’s case a fruit store.

Tensions finally boiled over to the point where my father drove over to Mike’s lumber yard where a shouting match led to a bloody fist fight that the cops had to break up. Since my father boxed in the army, I suspect that Mike got the worse of it.

My father Jack Proyect (l) with a fellow GI

From that day forward, Mike never spoke to my father or any of his other brothers or sisters.

On January 26th 1945 I–Louis Nelson Proyect–was born. About a week later Mike’s son Louis Reynolds Proyect came into the world. It is not unusual for Jewish sons to be named after a deceased grandparent but it is unusual for there to be multiple occurrences. I suppose that this might have happened because there were no open lines of communication between Mike and Jack, even before their legendary brawl.

When we were toddlers, we had nicknames to distinguish us. I was “cho-cho” and he was “da-da”. Don’t ask me how we ended up with these names but we didn’t enjoy hearing them after we reached the age of 7 or so.

In class, our teachers used to refer to us as Louis N. and Louis R. Despite our feuding fathers, we became very good friends. While he was a so-so student, Cousin Louis had a quick wit and a lively personality. As kids with “maverick” personalities, we liked to hold ourselves above the other students who we regarded as “boobs” and “conformists” in H.L. Mencken terms.

In 1960 we decided that we were opposed to John F. Kennedy, mostly because the other students were for him. To be really different, we decided to back Barry Goldwater who was running against Nixon in the primaries. Eventually, what started out as a joke became serious. I read William F. Buckley’s “Up from Liberalism” and became converted to the conservative cause. Louis and I started a Young Americans for Freedom chapter, with only two members of course. Cousin Louis had a material incentive to be a conservative. His father was getting richer and richer each year and had become a typical Republican. Louis R. understood the class advantages of being a right-winger while I was just being callow.

I should mention that Rick Perlstein interviewed me and Doug Henwood for his book on the conservative youth movement titled “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus”. I don’t know about Doug, but my rightwing rebellion was not that much different from what Charles Bukowski did when he told his fellow high school students in the late 30s that he admired Hitler. He was only interested in pissing people off. Trust me, telling the sons and daughters of Jewish FDR voters in 1960 that you were for Goldwater had the same effect.

After I went off to Bard in 1961, I pretty much lost touch with Louis R. Finally, in 1968, just after I joined the SWP, he got in touch to meet for dinner in Greenwich Village. He was going to St. John’s Law School at the time, after having graduated Syracuse University. Unlike me, Louis R. still stuck to his conservative principles—so much so that we ended up arguing about Vietnam rather than discuss old times. When we ready to head our separate ways back home, he told me that that he hated Communism so much that he was thinking about joining the FBI after he got his law degree. He probably would have been pleased to learn that I was the victim of an FBI Cointelpro operation to get me fired at Met Life a few months after our meeting. That was the last time I ever saw my cousin.

In the late 80s a woman named Nina Proekt called me out of the blue. She wondered if we were related since her father seemed to recall that his father had some relatives named Proyect. After consulting my father’s relatives upstate (he had died in 1970), we discovered that the Proekts were mishpocheh, the Yiddish word for family.

We organized a family reunion upstate that was pretty nice. Needless to say, the conversation revolved around pretty trivial stuff but I was happy to feel some connection to my father’s side of the family. In the past, I was much closer to my mother’s. I was especially pleased to learn that a Russian relative of the Proekts had been a fighter pilot during WWII and had died in combat against the Nazi invaders.

Of course, my uncle Mike did not show up even though he was invited. I did take the opportunity to survey my aunts and uncles on Mike, who I had never spent five minutes talking to. I should add that this was true for my own father as well, who never bonded with me. Who can blame him, I guess. My aunt Becky had a great story. When Mike was a student at Columbia University in the 1930s (he was obviously a lot smarter than my father), he had a part-time job in a Kosher slaughterhouse cutting the throats of chickens. Before going to class, he had to bathe first to get the blood off. Not quite the Columbia University student of today.

My curiosity piqued by what I heard from Becky, I called Mike up and asked if I could come over and do some oral history with a tape recorder. I especially wanted to find out more about my grandfather and namesake Louis Proyect. Mike refused to meet but did continue speaking with me on the phone for about a half hour. Two stories will stick with me forever. He said that my grandfather, who built hotels as part of his business empire, used to come back with his all-Russian construction crew to his farmhouse when work was done on Sunday. There they would take out their instruments—tuba, balalaika, etc.–and play Russian dance music, drink Schnapps and eat herring.

The other story had to do with Mike’s break with Judaism. He used to accompany my grandfather to synagogue each and every Saturday but noticed that a number of men who he saw dovening (praying) were playing Pinochle for money in the afternoon, a violation of the Sabbath. When my grandfather could not account for this hypocrisy, Mike told him that he was done with religion.

Unlike me, my cousin Louis was not forced into taking Hebrew lessons. Since he was not going to be bar mitzvahed, there was no use for the torture that the characters in “A Serious Man” and I had to endure. Not only did his father defy the mores of our small town on this question, he created an even bigger controversy when he returned from Europe on a summer vacation in 1960 with a gift for my cousin, a Mercedes Benz 190SL Roadster. This was the first German car seen in a village that was 80 percent Jewish and still had bitter memories of Nazi death camps.

A few months ago I learned that my high school class was having its 50th anniversary reunion. An email went out to those of us who were still alive and who were using a computer. One of the addressees was my cousin Louis who I emailed, “How are you doing?” Surely he would not be holding a grudge after nearly a half-century? He did not write back.

Out of curiosity, I did some online research to piece together what he had done with his life. Not surprisingly he had gone to work on Wall Street as a lawyer for an investment company. Around twenty years ago I ran into someone at the last high school reunion and asked if he had heard anything about my cousin. He replied that all he knew is that he had married a religious Jew. That surprised me but what surprised me even more was the fact that Louis had become religious himself.

After retiring from Wall Street, he and his wife Fredi moved to Santa Fe, Mexico where his older stepbrother, another Wall Street lawyer, lived. There Louis got involved with Beit Tikva, a Reform Synagogue just like the one my mother belonged to in upstate NY. For a period of years in the 1980s, my mother would mail me books with titles like “The Meaning of Reform Judaism” and articles from the ADL or AIPAC. I put up with it because she was my mother, just as she put up with my anti-Zionism. Blood is thicker than ideology.

I was puzzled by this turn of events. I can see my cousin marrying a religious woman but why in the world would he be wasting his time praising god on Saturday mornings when that time could be better spent playing golf? When I sent news about my cousin’s conversion to a high school classmate who was avoiding the reunion like me, he sent back a one word comment that summed things up: Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff had secular Jewish parents like Louis R.’s, but became an orthodox Jew in high school as a way of protesting the trend toward secularism and liberal values in American society that had been strengthened by the 1960s. Sitting in a synagogue on Saturday morning must have been a way for my cousin to affirm traditional values. If you are going to vote Republican, you might as well waste time praying to god.

Louis eventually moved to a neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Florida that likely contained many of Bernie Madoff’s victims. I don’t have a picture of my cousin but his son Andrew who was president of the Republican club at Colgate looks just like him:

The Richard L. Stone ’81 Civic Freedom Awards were presented by Professor Kraynak at commencement 2005 to Andrew Proyect (l) and David Peters (r)

They received the award from “The Center for Freedom and Western Civilization at Colgate University” to recognize students who “have made outstanding contributions to promoting the ideals of freedom and Western civilization.” Andrew Proyect got his for being president of the College Republicans, and David Peters for his participation in the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School while attending Colgate and his commissioning as a second lieutenant in the US Marines.


After doing my research on cousin Louis, it became obvious why he did not write back. Like me, his life was committed to a certain ideology: survival of the fittest. As America’s Jews become more and more differentiated by ideology, they will begin to lose the sense of a common ethnic identity—not to speak of a shared sense of family as in this particular instance.

I feel connected to all of these people, from my uncle Mike to my cousins Louis and Joel, who loom large in my psyche even though we are not on speaking terms. In digging through the attic of my memory that contains the detritus of my conventional childhood and my revolutionary adulthood, these personalities remained preserved in Proustian fashion. As they take on a greater definition through the miracle of the pixel and TCP/IP, just as they did a century ago with the fountain pen or the typewriter, something like permanence will be achieved. Blogging might never achieve the elevated status of “Remembrance of Things Past” but they will certainly help me sort out and make sense of the various strands of an uncommon life.

May 19, 2011

The Big Uneasy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

Best known as a comic actor, and especially for his performance as a maladroit heavy metal musician in the mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap”, Harry Shearer is also one of the entertainment industry’s most trenchant social critics. Sometimes he combines comedy and social criticism in the same package. His radio show “Le Show” (is this where Stephen Colbert got the inspiration for the French pronunciation of his last name?) is archived at http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/ls and will introduce you to his sharply honed satire.

As a part-time resident of New Orleans, Shearer was understandably traumatized by the Hurricane Katrina flooding and began blogging about it on Huffington Post a while back. On August 29, 2010 he filed an item titled President Obama Speaks to New Orleans From Planet Zarg that pretty much sums up the subject of his powerful documentary “The Big Uneasy” that opens tomorrow at Cinema Village in New York (screening information for other cities is at http://thebiguneasy.com/showtimes.php):

Sorry, can’t be sure that’s the planet he’s living on, but this intelligent, well-informed man surely can’t be living on this orb. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to start off his speech at Xavier University Sunday afternoon with this reprise of his town-hall remarks here last October:

“It was a natural disaster but also a manmade catastrophe; a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women, and children abandoned and alone.”

Note that the “manmade catastrophe” and “breakdown” are linked only to the response to the flooding of New Orleans, not the cause, as if this intelligent, well-informed man is unaware that two separate, independent forensic engineering investigations of the disaster, conducted over a period of a year or more, agreed on this conclusion (in the words of UC Berkeley’s ILIT report): the flooding of New Orleans was “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl”.

My guess is that Shearer was trying to avoid losing his gig at the HuffingtonPost (unpaid?) by referring to Obama as “intelligent” and “well-informed” because the level of anger he has reached over the New Orleans flooding would have produced a much less charitable characterization otherwise. Indeed, his documentary eschews comedy and goes straight for the jugular. There is no attempt to interject himself as a whimsical Michael Moore type. Instead, he narrates a straightforward investigative journalism type work that is heavily reliant on interviews with the scientists and civil engineers whose decision to become whistle-blowers put them on a collision path with some of America’s most powerful and most self-serving institutions.

The three heroes of “The Big Uneasy” are Ivor van Heerden, who was director of a hurricane research center at LSU, Robert Bea, a civil engineer at U. Cal Berkeley, and Maria Garzino, an engineer who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. They all risked their reputations and their careers by speaking out against the pattern of neglect—especially at the hands of Garzino’s employer—that led to the flooding. As the report that Bea supervised points out, this was “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl”.

Watching the film is almost like being on a jury. As the evidence mounts, especially through the use of aerial footage of New Orleans, you can only vote to convict. The guilty parties are a dysfunctional Army Corps of Engineers that is only too anxious to do the bidding of powerful politicians and the politicians themselves who put the short-term commercial gains of their major contributors over the needs of the average citizen.

Van Heerden was the first to figure out that the flooding was not the result of the levees being too short or vulnerable to a storm of the kind that only comes along in a 150 years or so (not that this would be any excuse.) The flooding occurred because the foundations of the levees were in soil that was far too sandy and hence too weak. If they had been rooted in the denser soil some feet below, they would have withstood the flooding. Instead they gave way in a number of spots like doors that had been ripped from their hinges by a battering ram.

You might think that LSU, Van Heerden’s employer, would have been proud to have someone like that on the faculty. Given the university’s connection to powerful forces in New Orleans society, LSU decided to silence the whistle-blower by firing him. An op-ed piece at The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which has been doing some excellent investigative reporting on the Katrina disaster in its own right, depicted Van Heerden as a victim of injustice:

In the days immediately after Katrina, the world thought New Orleans had been ravaged by a huge storm simply too large for the high-tech flood protection system built at great cost by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And according to some members of Congress and many media commentators, that’s just what we deserved for living here, below sea level.

In fact, that was the official story being put out by the corps.

But about a week after the storm, as van Heerden and engineers on his staff began inspecting the deadly breaches in that system, the story began to change. They were expecting to see evidence of over-topping, signs Katrina was just too big for the system, the very scenario the center had predicted the day before the storm came ashore.

What they found was something else: Signs of catastrophic engineering failures.

In other words, the floodwalls and levees failed not because they were too small, but because they had been either poorly designed, poorly built — or both.

The world’s media immediately gravitated to van Heerden not just because this was shocking news, but also because it came from a hurricane expert with a staff of geotechnical engineers qualified in the science of flood protection.

And he was the only person from this area even talking about the issue.

Incredibly, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans — the two political entities most grievously damaged by the disaster — showed no inclination to launch their own investigations. They were content to leave the examination of the tragedy to the same outfit that built the system in the first place: the Corps of Engineers.

Thankfully, van Heerden wouldn’t let this happen. He put together a group of engineers and scientists from LSU and the private sector and convinced the state attorney general and the Department of Transportation and Development to give “Team Louisiana” official status.

You’d think the university would take pride in one of its own leading such important work. Just the opposite happened.

From the start, van Heerden was pressured by LSU administrators to go easy. At one point he was issued a gag order. It seemed the more problems Team Louisiana uncovered, the more intense the sniping from Baton Rouge.

Some of that was due to classic campus politics: jealousies, rivalries and professional disputes. Some of it was self-inflicted; even van Heerden’s admirers admitted he could be difficult to work with, due to an often uncompromising style and a penchant for going public with results before final drafts were approved.

But van Heerden’s real danger to LSU was his threat to funding.

The federal government is the largest source of research funding for universities, and LSU was lining up tens of millions of dollars for coastal and wetlands work — much of which might be partnered with the corps. Having one of its professors lobbing bombs at the feds made some at the university fear for the LSU pocketbook.

That’s why members of Team Louisiana, as well as researchers from other universities, were warned to shut up or risk their careers. Fortunately for all of us they decided their ethics — as professors, engineers and citizens — compelled them to continue to work for the public good.

“The Big Uneasy” describes a criminal pattern of behavior consistent with the BP spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In each case, you get failures of oversight that are directly related to the incestuous relationship between the government and the captains of industry who use their influence to bend the rules in their favor. The overwhelming majority of society, the tax-paying and hard-working citizens, ends up getting screwed each time either from flooded homes, the destruction of marine life and the livelihoods associated with it, or nuclear radiation.

If Shearer’s film is meant to honor whistle-blowers, one cannot feel too hopeful about the political climate that is being fostered by the current occupant of the White House. In an article titled “The Secret Sharer” by Jane Mayer that appears in the latest New Yorker, we learn that Barack Obama and the LSU top brass probably see things eye-to-eye:

When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.”

One imagines that the only way we will be able to protect ourselves from corporate malfeasance in the long run is not to vote “the lesser evil” into power but by destroying the profit system that makes such malfeasance possible.

Crashing the Jewish National Fund

Filed under: zionism — louisproyect @ 1:50 pm

May 17, 2011

Choreography by Jean-Luc Godard

Filed under: dance,Film — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Much cooler than John Travolta and Uma Thurman

George Soros contributes $60 million to Bard College colonial ventures

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm
NY Times May 16, 2011

$60 Million Gift to Bolster Bard College’s Global Work


Bard College, a small liberal arts institution in the Hudson Valley, has received a $60 million gift from the Open Society Foundations in recognition of its global involvement, which includes programs in New Orleans, Nicaragua and Russia, officials are to announce on Tuesday.

The gift from Open Society, which George Soros created in the 1980s to foster democracies around the world, will help the college bring its disparate programs under a new umbrella, the Bard College Center for Civic Engagement, and assure their continuing operation and growth.

“We decided to create an institutional culture of serious, thoughtful and nonpartisan engagement in the world,” said Leon Botstein, Bard’s longtime president. “Bard has really taken seriously all of the John Dewey arguments about the relationship between education and democracy. It can’t be done merely through the curriculum.”

The $60 million grant is enormous for Bard, which has a relatively small endowment of $200 million. It requires the college to raise an additional $120 million from other donors, though the Soros money will begin to flow before that goal is met.

Dr. Botstein has had a close relationship with Mr. Soros for years, serving on boards of the Open Society Foundations and as chairman of the Central European University in Budapest, which Mr. Soros established.

“As a general rule I do not support higher education in the United States,” Mr. Soros said in a statement. “This grant represents a departure that will help Bard in its efforts to transform liberal education and bolster critical thinking worldwide.”

For years, Bard, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., has steadily expanded its academic programs in the United States and abroad. Some programs were begun by faculty members, others by former students; they were institutionalized by the college.

A former student created the Bard Prison Initiative, which brings degree-granting courses into five New York correctional facilities; a professor developed a dual-degree program in liberal arts with St. Petersburg State University in Russia.

Closer to its Hudson Valley campus, the college operates public high schools in Manhattan, Queens and Newark that incorporate college-level coursework. In New Orleans, about 10 percent of high school juniors and seniors take college-level courses through a Bard program created by former students.

Other service-learning projects and education programs are in Nicaragua, the West Bank, Kyrgyzstan and South Africa. “We don’t go where it’s beneficial for Bard; we go where we see a need,” said a college spokesman, Mark Primoff.

* * *

(written in 2000)

Bard College

I just returned from Bard College, where graduation ceremonies for the class of 2000 and a reunion for my graduating class of 1965 were held.

Bard is an interesting institution. Along with Black Mountain College, Bennington, Antioch and Goddard, the school was seen as an experiment in progressive educational philosophy. These schools either involved ambitious, but largely unsuccessful, work-study programs or in the case of Black Mountain expected students to work on the upkeep of the college itself, through gardening for food served in the cafeteria, etc. John Dewey’s progressivism was a strong element mixed with New Deal idealism.

All of these schools went through big financial crises at one point or another and one, Black Mountain– the eagle of the lot–succumbed in the 1950s. Even in its grave, the school was seen as one of the great cultural influences of the 20th century, either through the literary journal edited by faculty member and dean Charles Olsen, or through art classes taught by well-known modernists such as Joseph Albers.

The others hit a brick wall in the 1960s and 70s as American society entered a post-affluence period when the realities of the job market militated against the kind of intellectual hothouse atmosphere of a place like Bard or Bennington. The schools were forced to become more competitive and the financial and curricular restructuring was often quite painful, as indicated in an article about Bennington in today’s NY Times:

Founded in 1932 as a women’s college challenging educational orthodoxy, the upstart developed a history of innovation, a tradition of teacher-practitioners — often cutting-edge figures in art, drama, dance and literature — working in close relationship with their student-apprentices and, in recent decades, academic politics of exceeding viciousness.

But with the college having fallen on hard times by 1994, its niche nibbled away by changes in the Ivy League and other institutions, its student body reduced in quantity and quality, some of its faculty lapsing toward mediocrity and its finances in peril, the trustees, the administration and the faculty came up with a restructuring plan called the Symposium after a two-year agonizing reappraisal.

A third of the faculty — 26 of 79 professors — was fired in a single stroke in 1994.

Bard solved its financial crisis in a less extreme fashion. When Leon Botstein assumed the presidency of the college in 1975 at the age of 28, the youngest such office-holder in the United States, he elected to curb the “excesses” of the old Bard and to restyle the school as a competitive liberal arts college in the mode of Swarthmore, Haverford or Reed. He has been eminently successful. One out of 10 applications are approved today, while back in 1961, when I was a freshman, the ratio was something like 1 out of 3.

Despite Bard’s mediocre reputation, it was an important institution. From 1933-44, it added distinguished European emigres, in flight from fascist Europe, to the faculty. Among them were painter Stefan Hirsch, political editor Felix Hirsch, violinist Emil Hauser of the Budapest String Quartet, philosopher Heinrich Bluecher, economist Adolf Sturmthal, and philosopher Werner Wolff.

Botstein is a well-respected public figure, whose musings appear regularly on the NY Times op-ed page, including a piece on standardized testing today (5/28), to which he is opposed. He is also a mediocre symphony orchestra conductor, who compensates for lackluster performances with his dedication to neglected composers, including Schoenberg about whom Botstein has recently edited a collection of essays.

But Botstein’s real gift is for fund-raising, about whose propriety I have had occasion to take exception to. Botstein has a tremendous affinity for hooking up with very wealthy but very compromised figures, a failing that remains lost on most Bard graduates except the occasionally disgruntled Marxist like myself.

In 1987 I received a mailing from the alumnus office crowing about Botstein’s new appointees to the Board of Trustees. One was Asher Edelman, a leveraged buyout artist and Bard Graduate, whose sleazy behavior served as the inspiration for the Gordon Gecko character in “Wall Street”. Edelman’s takeovers often resulted in the permanent unemployment of “excess” workers. The other appointee was Martin Peretz, the editor of New Republic who used the formerly liberal magazine to stump for contra funding. Since I was heavily involved with sending volunteers to Nicaragua, I blew my stack and wrote Botstein a heavily sarcastic letter congratulating him for sniffing out rich scumbags who would help him balance the school’s books.

Apparently Botstein doesn’t enjoy being criticized in this fashion. He sent me a long angry reply defending his actions. In a way it is easy to understand Botstein’s self-righteousness. In his own eyes, he must appear practically a Bolshevik. After all, didn’t he set up an Alger Hiss chair at Bard (of course, taking the big money connected to the position) and give well-known Marxist and Green activist Joel Kovel the job? In a characteristically Botsteinian gesture, he also set up a Henry R. Luce chair for faculty at Bard at the same time. Critics, according to a NY Times Magazine profile (Oct. 4, 1992) “see the incongruity as opportunism; he sees the essence of free inquiry.” His growled at the interviewer, “People have so little tolerance for dissent. What happened to free thought? Individual ideas? What happened to Thoreau? What happened to this tradition in America?” You’re either for ‘em or agin ‘em. What are we discussing, subtle issues with a meat cleaver?”

Continuing in this vein, Botstein co-opted multimillionaire investor and liberal Leon Levy to set up an Economics Institute at the College, where PEN-L’er Matt Forstater used to work. Levy writes occasionally for the centrist periodical “New York Review of Books,” where his preoccupations about income inequality and “irrational exuberance” on Wall Street serve the same kind of faux progressivist agenda that Felix Rohatyn’s articles used to in the 1980s.

About 5 years ago a trade union organizer wrote to PEN-L asking if there were any Bard College graduates on the list. It seemed that the Levy offspring were owners of an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan whose waiters were attempting to win bargaining recognition. The organizer needed an alumni directory so that letters informing them about the situation could be sent out. It gave me sheer pleasure to send said directory to the union as well as to learn that the administration went ballistic over the “misappropriation” of school property.

In the 1990s Botstein’s recruitment efforts turned up another Golden Goose in the person of Susan Soros, Mrs. George. The Soroses are not to be trifled with, as seen by this London Times May 8, 1991 piece:

A CHAUFFEUR-BUTLER and his cook-housekeeper wife yesterday won their claim for compensation for wrongful dismissal against a multi-millionaire philanthropist whose wife dismissed them without warning.

Susan Soros, the American wife of George Soros, a Hungarian expatriate who is chairman of the Quantum Fund of New York, had told an industrial tribunal in London that Patrick Davison and his wife Nicki had turned her London home into an ‘uninhabitable battlefield’ when she brought a cordon bleu chef from New York.

She said that arguments between her South American chef and the Davisons had kept her awake at night, and that the Davisons had refused to give the chef money to buy ingredients or to show her the food shops.

Yesterday the tribunal unanimously decided that they preferred the Davisons’ evidence to that of Mrs Soros, who they concluded had no legitimate grounds for dismissing the couple.

1991 was a bad year for Susan Soros. Not only did her kitchen staff get uppity, she was turned down for the job of director of graduate education at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. So with $20 million of her husband’s money, she started her own school at 18 West 86th Street. Naturally, she couldn’t get away with calling it the Susan Soros Museum, but Botstein suggested that calling it the Bard College Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts might work. One can only assume that such a generous gesture has benefited Bard College in ways that transcend art.

At yesterday’s commencement, Susan Soros was on hand to present an honorary degree to Ludmila A. Verbitskaya, the first female rector of the State University of St. Petersburg in Russia. Ms. Verbitskaya profusely thanked Botstein for all the help Bard College had made available in the transformation of her institution into one befitting Russia’s new ‘open society’. The Open Society Foundation, as should be well-known at this point, was established by George Soros to foster support for free market fundamentalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Its victory has ensured that a generation of Russian youth will never enjoy a college education and will likely end up marginalized as alcoholics, drug addicts or prostitutes.

In his commencement address, Botstein urged the class of 2000 to eschew the kind of greed and cynicism that pervaded American society in recent years. I sat there marveling at his breathtaking inability to understand himself and his social role. Do such movers and shakers really take themselves seriously? Perhaps Bard would have been better off with a dreamer and visionary like Charles Olsen in charge. It might have died in the 1970s, but it would have been honored for a glorious lifetime of service to education and humanity.

May 16, 2011

Cornel West sizes up Barack Obama

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West says. “It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that’s true for a white brother. When you get a white brother who meets a free, independent black man, they got to be mature to really embrace fully what the brother is saying to them. It’s a tension, given the history. It can be overcome. Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.

“He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want,” he says. “He’s got two homes. He has got his family and whatever challenges go on there, and this other home. Larry Summers blows his mind because he’s so smart. He’s got Establishment connections. He’s embracing me. It is this smartness, this truncated brilliance, that titillates and stimulates brother Barack and makes him feel at home. That is very sad for me.

read full interview

Are we threatened by “21st Century Fascism”?

Filed under: Fascism — louisproyect @ 5:51 pm

William I. Robinson

At the very least, William I. Robinson’s article “The Crisis of Global Capitalism and the Specter of 21st Century Fascism” has the merit of seeking to make a clear distinction between what took place in the 20s and 30s and what might be happening now, even if it ultimately fails:

A 21st fascism would not look like 20th century fascism. Among other things, the ability of dominant groups to control and manipulate space and to exercise an unprecedented control over the mass media, the means of communication and the production of symbolic, images, and messages, means that repression can be more selective (as we see, e.g., in Mexico or Colombia), and also organized juridically so that mass “legal” incarceration takes the place of concentration camps. Moreover, the ability of economic power to determine electoral outcomes allows for 21st century fascism to emerge without a necessary rupture in electoral cycles and a constitutional order.

This is certainly a step forward from the sort of thing I have been hearing for the past 40 years or so when politicians like Richard Nixon were being described as fascists getting ready to crush the left. Oddly enough, Democratic Party presidents were never described in such terms. To Robinson’s credit, he has tried to theorize a new type of fascism that owes little to the kind of hysteria found in the pages of CPUSA publications that was mostly intended into motivate a vote for the Democrats.

Despite my disagreements with Robinson over this matter, I should state that I have the highest regard for him as both an intellectual and a revolutionary journalist. Back in the late 1980s, Nicaragua solidarity activists relied on his Guardian articles (the defunct America radical weekly, not the British newspaper) co-written with Ken Norsworthy. He was a member of Union of Nicaraguan Journalists (past member and officer 1984-1990).

Back in 2009 Robinson became a target of the Israel lobby after an email he wrote to his class at U. Cal Santa Barbara compared Israeli treatment of Gaza to the Nazis. Frankly, I find this analysis rather emotionally engaging even if I am dubious about it politically.

The major emphasis in Robinson’s article is on what he perceives as an intractable and systemic economic crisis, one that he likens to the Great Depression:

This is not a cyclical but a structural crisis – a restructuring crisis, such as we had in the 1970s, and before that, in the 1930s – that has the potential to become a systemic crisis, depending on how social agents respond to the crisis and on a host of unknown contingencies. A restructuring crisis means that the only way out of crisis is to restructure the system, whereas a systemic crisis is one in which only a change in the system itself will resolve the crisis. Times of crisis are times of rapid social change, when collective agency and contingency come into play more than in times of equilibrium in a system.

Despite his attempt to ground his analysis in 21st century realities, he cannot avoid analogizing to the 20th. In characterizing the Obama administration as “a Weimar Republic in the United States”, he suggests that history might repeat itself in Hitlerian fashion. Robinson is not the first highly respected thinker to invoke the Weimar Republic. Last April, when Chris Hedges interviewed Noam Chomsky for Truthdig, the two concurred that the USA was like the doomed German republic. Chomsky said:

It is very similar to late Weimar Germany. The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.

My response to Chomsky focused on the economic differences:

To start with, the economic situation during the late Weimar Republic was far worse than today in the U.S. In 1932, there were 5 million unemployed German workers out of a total population of 66 million, an unemployment rate of 30 percent–twice what we are suffering in the U.S. today. Also, keep in mind that unemployment insurance, which had been introduced in Germany in 1927, was the victim of fiscal austerity after the 1929 market crash. All public funding was suspended, which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and fewer benefits for the unemployed.

To Robinson’s credit, the economic analysis is far more engaged with current day realities than most comparisons with the 1930s. He highlights three developments:

1. Militarized accumulation: He states that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “generate enormous profits for an ever-expanding military-prison-industrial-security-financial complex.”

2. Raiding and sacking of public budgets: “Transnational capital uses its financial power to take control of state finances and to impose further austerity on the working majority, resulting in ever greater social inequality and hardship.”

3. Financial speculation: The collapse of 2008 marked the culmination of years of speculation in much the same way that 1929 did. Although he does not specifically to Black Friday, it is clear that he conceives of the subprime meltdown as a turning point in the capitalist system’s ability to function normally.

One of course might question whether the analogy with 1929 makes as much sense as would one with the 1890s when both the U.S. and Britain were deep into Empire-building. In a period of rampant social Darwinism, speculators such as J.P. Morgan virtually ran the government—regardless of whether a Republic or Democratic occupied the White House. You also had state and municipal governments that did little to assist the unemployed or the poor, as a visit to New York’s Lower East Side or London’s East End would attest. Finally, you had war after war. Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Sudan, China, and Egypt all experienced the sting of gunboat diplomacy.

Indeed, if you pay close attention to the words of Tea Party politicians and the hired guns of the Heritage Foundation, you will see that their model is not Nazi Germany but Grover Cleveland’s America. Of course, we should never forget that Cleveland, an enemy of trade unions and an arch-imperialist, was a Democrat just like his protégé in the White House today.

Robinson’s invocation of the Weimar precedent is not that far from Chomsky’s:

Obama’s campaign tapped into and helped expand mass mobilization and popular aspirations for change not seen in many years in the United States. The Obama project co-opted that brewing storm from below, channeled it into the electoral campaign and then betrayed those aspirations, as the Democratic Party effectively demobilized the insurgency from below with more passive revolution.

In this sense, the Obama project weakened the popular and left response from below to the crisis, which opened space for the right-wing response to the crisis – for a project of 21st century fascism – to become insurgent. Obama’s administration appears in this way appears as a Weimar republic. Although the social democrats were in power during the Weimar republic of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s they did not pursue a leftist response to the crisis but rather sidelined the militant trade unions, communists and socialists, and progressively pandered to capital and the right before turning over power to the Nazis in 1933.

As I have stated often to the point of becoming tedious, it makes little sense to talk about fascism without reference to the “disease” it was meant to cure, namely proletarian revolution. In Spain, Italy and Germany in the 20s and 30s there were massive revolutionary parties that fought pitched battles with the cops and the army. The social and political crisis was so deep that the ruling class made a pact with the devil. It backed an Adolph Hitler as a last resort against their sworn enemies in the trade unions and socialist parties. Who are the enemies of big business today? A Rich Trumka whose most “rebellious” gesture is being interviewed by Rachel Maddow? And what kind of “popular and left response” has the ruling class shaking in its boots? In the 2008 elections, Gloria La Riva of the Party for Socialism and Liberation received 7,333 votes. By comparison, the Communist Party of Germany got 14.5 percent of the vote in 1932. What’s more important, however, is that the CP had the ability to call workers out on a general strike and often exercised that option, often to the point of engaging in open fighting with the cops and the army. Of course, the militancy did not compensate for a suicidal ultraleft policy that equated the SP to the Nazis, a topic for another article.

Turning now to Robinson’s characterization of “21st Century Fascism”, we have to respect the seriousness of his effort even if we reserve the right to disagree with him. He enumerates six features:

1. The fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power. This is a reference to the Tea Party being funded by ultraright billionaires, etc. While it is certainly true that German big business, particularly in heavy industry, backed Hitler’s storm troopers, there is little evidence today that the Tea Party is involved in the kind of violent attacks on the left and the trade union movement that took place in the 1920s. As odious as they are, they are primarily a bloc of voters who seek to elect politicians committed to turning back the clock to 1890, not 1933.

2. Militarization and extreme masculinization. Robinson worries about the top brass becoming more involved in policy making. There is something to be said for this, but one wonders if this is something that can be linked to fascism. Going back again to the 1890s, the German state was dominated by the military but it followed bourgeois democratic norms, which is to say that it harassed the socialists, embarked on a colonization program, etc. Perhaps the more things change the more they stay the same.

3. A scapegoat which serves to displace and redirect social tensions and contradictions. This is a reference to the crackdown on “illegal immigrants”. One has to note that the movement for immigrant rights developed a powerful momentum before Obama’s election but has maintained a much lower profile since then. Unfortunately, this appears to be a product of ideological confusion over having a Democrat in the White House rather than fascist terror.

4. A mass social base. Robinson alleges that a social base is being “organised among sectors of the white working class that historically enjoyed racial caste privilege and that have been experiencing displacement and experiencing rapid downward mobility as neo-liberalism comes to the US – while they are losing the security and stability they enjoyed in the previous Fordist-Keynesian epoch of national capitalism.” This is a most intriguing proposition. I look forward to Robinson’s documentation in support of that.

5. A fanatical millennial ideology involving race/culture supremacy embracing an idealised and mythical past, and a racist mobilisation against scapegoats. This sounds pretty much like a permanent leitmotif of American society going back at least to the Know-Nothing Party but then again what do I know?

6. A charismatic leadership. Robinson admits that this has been “largely missing” in the U.S. but points to figures such as Sarah Palin and Glen Beck as harbingers. One can only wonder if this article was written before Fox TV booted Beck for low ratings.

There certainly will be a fascist threat in the future in the U.S. since the objective conditions will force more and more workers to emulate the vanguard (I use this term in the true sense and not as the nutty Marxist-Leninists use it) that emerged in Wisconsin. As attacks on the trade unions escalate, working people will be forced to organize themselves and to escalate their militancy. The fact that the cops refused to crack down on the protesters indicates that this movement will have the capacity in the future to paralyze the forces of repression. In such an event, the state will be forced to call upon the dregs of American society. This will be a lumpen element that has little in common with the couch potato fans of Glen Beck who go to Tea Party rallies. The American fascist movement will recruit the same sort of people who joined the KKK, except that the appeal will be on the basis of defending the American “way of life” rather than Dixie. You will also see the coffers of the Koch Brothers opening up to such scum. In a time of rising unemployment, there will be plenty of lumpen types who would be happy to break up a meeting in exchange for a couple of hundred dollars.

When that time comes, we will certainly respond to the call issued by Robinson in the final paragraph of his article:

The counterweight to 21st century fascism must be a coordinated fight-back by the global working class. The only real solution to the crisis of global capitalism is a massive redistribution of wealth and power – downward towards the poor majority of humanity. And the only way such redistribution can come about is through mass transnational struggle from below.

May 13, 2011

Burma Soldier; City of Life and Death

Filed under: Asia,Film,militarism — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

Two films have come my way recently that deal in their own way with the systematic brutality of modern armies. “Burma Soldier”, an HBO Documentary that airs on Wednesday May 18, tells the story of Myo Myint who joined the Burmese army in 1979 at the age of 16 and trained as specialist clearing landmines. An attack by Burmese insurgents severely injured Myint, leaving him without a leg, an arm and most of the fingers on the hand of the remaining arm. What he lost physically was offset by a political and spiritual transformation that turned him into a pro-democracy activist. Not only is “Burma Soldier” a stirring portrait of one man’s struggle against physical and political adversity, it is an excellent introduction to the country’s history. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York, “City of Life and Death” is a fictional account of the so-called Rape of Nanking, the Japanese army’s assault on China’s capital city in 1937 based on Iris Chang’s 1997 best-seller. I can recommend it but with major qualifications.

Even before his calamitous injuries, Myint began to question the cruel and anti-democratic role of the military. To start with, the dominant Burma nationality sought to impose itself on other ethnic groups in the same fashion as the Turks over the Kurds, or the Chinese over the Tibetans. The military that had seized power in 1962 sought to forcibly assimilate the “lesser” nationalities into its own warped vision of Burmese identity in accordance with the arrogant “modernizing” vision of both British colonialism and the “socialist” powers that forgot that there is no socialism without democracy.

He saw countless acts of brutality when on duty. Women, especially from the non-Burma nationalities, were forced to work as porters and even to walk in front of the soldiers in mine-infested terrain. Insurgent captives were routinely tortured. Myint recounts one incident in which a knife was plunged through the cheeks of a man during the course of an interrogation.

As you watch “Burma Soldier”, you cannot help but be reminded of the unfolding drama in the Middle East as one self-described “socialist” or “radical” government seeks to impose itself on a restive population. It is useful to remember that the brutal and corrupt Burmese military that has as dominant a role in the national economy as is the case in China or once was the case in Turkey.

General Ne Win, who came to a power in a 1962 coup, proposed a “Burmese Way to Socialism” that blended Marxist verbiage with outright nonsense. For example, the film describes his 1988 fiscal measures, taken on the advice of an astrologer. Win devalued the currency according to a formula: any monies divisible by the number nine were now invalid. So devastating were consequences for the poor and the working class that the seeds for today’s pro-democracy movement were implanted. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the main reason the Burmese people want the right to elect their own leaders freely is because that is a way to address economic exploitation, even that which occurs in the name of socialism. As a tarnished symbol of a degraded system, General Ne Win had much in common with Libya’s Qaddafi. Win claimed that his socialist system would mix Marxism and Buddhism, while Qaddafi’s recipe included Islam instead of Buddhism. In either case, you ended up with a despotic system that sparked a wholesale revolt.

After leaving the army, Myint embarked on an intellectual journey that led him to read a wide variety of philosophical and political books. He came to the conclusion that the system had to be transformed. He became an activist and took part in demonstrations following the 1988 economic restructuring. He also started a secret library of banned books. When he was arrested at a rally, he told the judge at his trial that “I don’t believe in the military regime”. That act of defiance led to a 15 year prison sentence.

The oppressive system in Burma has led to remarkable acts of courage from individuals such as Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest for about the same number of years Myint was in prison. In the 1990 general election, her party won 59% of the votes and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament. The army decided that the people’s will meant nothing and have ruled by terror for more than the past 20 years. One can only hope that the people of Burma will finally prevail since history and the unshakeable will of people like Myo Myint are on their side.

“City of Life and Death” is an unrelenting journey through the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 that some scholars believe resulted in the deaths of as many as 300,000 civilians. Considering that these deaths occurred in the span of weeks rather than years, it has led some to consider it as one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century in terms of the time-frame.

Hewing closely to the findings of Iris Chang, Chinese director Lu Chuan tells a tale of unremitting cruelty that amounts to a holocaust for his own people. Indeed, this story included its own Oskar Schindler, one John Rabe, a German businessman (despite his Anglo-sounding name) that ran Siemen’s branch operation in Nanking, who confronted the Japanese army over its abuses and sought to protect civilians in a Safety Zone that was often disregarded by the occupiers. In one scene, they come into the Safety Zone in order to dragoon 100 Chinese women into working as sex slaves for their troops.

Rabe (John Paisley) has a Chinese male secretary named Tang (played by Fan Wei, a Chinese comedian in a decidedly non-comic role) who like his boss appeals to the dubiously better judgment of the Japanese. In a departure from conventional holocaust type narratives, John Rabe is a member of the Nazi party who uses his ties to Hitler to sway the Japanese military brass. In one of the unfortunately all-too-glaring missteps of this well-intentioned film, there is no attempt to put his humanitarian impulses into any kind of context. We can only surmise that Rabe had an emotional attachment to the Chinese people that stemmed from having living in Nanking since 1909.

As might be expected, Tang is a passive figure who follows Japanese orders in more or less the same way that the Judenrat cooperated with Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, at least until the full horror of Japanese occupation is revealed. In one of the film’s more wrenching scenes, the soldiers hurl his 11 year old daughter through the second story window of an apartment building killing her instantly. Her offense was to try to interfere with a Japanese detachment that was rounding up Chinese women for a “comfort station”, including her mother.

Given the unrelenting procession of horrors that are depicted in this 133 minute film (Chinese captives burned alive, etc.), one might ask what might motivate an audience to remain in its seats until the bitter end, about which there is no doubt from the very beginning.

The NY Times review puts its finger on one of the film’s strengths:

“City of Life and Death” isn’t cathartic: it offers no uplifting moments, just the immodest balm of art. The horrors it represents can be almost too difficult to watch, yet you keep watching because Mr. Lu makes the case that you must. In one awful, surreal interlude, severed male heads swing from rope like ornaments, while in another, Japanese soldiers — having buried some Chinese men alive — stamp down the earth as if planting a crop.

Although I recommend this film with some reservations, I have to wonder about the strange world we are living in when the “immodest balm of art” suffices. Somehow, the visual power of Lu’s film is expected as a pay off when all else fails in terms of our conventional expectations of drama. Shot in black-and-white, it certainly grips your attention with its flair for the macabre.

But despite my admittedly close attention to the gruesome action, I found myself troubled throughout by the film’s lack of context. There is nothing at all to explain why the Japanese occupation was so barbaric. In many ways, the film reminded me of the 1997 “Welcome to Sarajevo” that depicted the Serbs in pretty much the same terms, as demonic forces that killed for the love of killing.

Iris Chang’s book set the tone for the film by adopting the same stance toward the Japanese whose culture apparently set them on the course of a Nanking holocaust in the same way that German culture prepared the extermination of the Jews. Some critics of her books take exception to that view, however. In a 1998 review that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, David M. Kennedy wrote:

Elsewhere Chang serves notice that “this book is not intended as a commentary on the Japanese character,” but then immediately plunges into an exploration of the thousand-year-deep roots of the “Japanese identity”–a bloody business, in her estimation, replete with martial competitions, samurai ethics, and the fearsome warriors’ code of bushido, the clear inference being, despite the disclaimer, that “the path to Nanking” runs through the very marrow of Japanese culture.

In my view, wartime savagery is not the reflection of any national culture but instead the result of indoctrination that young men and women receive when they are drafted or when they enlist during the kind of fervor that arose after 9/11. Military training consists mainly of getting normal people to get used to the idea of killing, a most unnatural form of behavior no matter what a sociobiologist might tell you. It is not in our culture or in our genes. It is rather in the propaganda system of the hegemonic powers and their drill instructors that are carefully selected for their ability to transform ordinary people into killers. For insights into this, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”.

May 9, 2011

Being played for a sucker by Random House

Filed under: capitalist pig,Pekar — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

Chris Schluep, Harvey Pekar's editor

This morning I feel beat to shit.

I woke up at 3am last night and began obsessing for a good two hours over Random House, the scumbag publishers and their editor Chris Schluep who keeps giving me a run-around on the book I did with Harvey Pekar. Harvey always spoke well of Schluep but I can’t help but think of him as a cog in a big machine that I never would have had any dealings with had I not been assured by Pekar that he was under contract for two new books, including the one I was doing with him.

My take on publishing jibes with the one depicted in the movie “Wolf”, starring Jack Nicholson as a top editor who gets shafted by a Rupert Murdoch type media mogul who has just taken over his company. After being bitten by a wolf, Nicholson not only becomes a werewolf, he develops the aggressiveness needed to succeed in the publishing business. In one memorable scene, he pisses on the shoes and pants legs of a rival who has landed his job after the takeover. That, to me, smacked of verisimilitude.

I first got warnings that the book was going to end up shit-canned after seeing an article in the NY Times titled “The Unsettled Afterlife of Harvey Pekar” that dealt with some prospective posthumous projects. It refers to a couple of Random House possibilities, but not mine:

Random House is publishing at least two more of his graphic books: one, called “Huntington, West Virginia, ‘On the Fly,’ ” in which Mr. Pekar reflects on promoting his movie and other books, and a second, written with Ms. Brabner, called “Harvey and Joyce’s Big Book of Marriage.”

Now I can understand why Random House would have prioritized these books since they appeal to his fan base, people who could never get enough of his tales of woe about working as a file clerk or butting heads with the rich and the powerful—like David Letterman. Too bad I don’t know how to draw; otherwise I’d have come up with a comic strip about my own frustrations dealing with a colossus like Random House.

I always felt skeptical about the idea of Random House coming out with a book about my own life. Who in their right mind would spend good money to read about the trials and tribulations of a Marxist activist when there were all sorts of books by celebrities like Bettheny Frankel or Rob Lowe that you could read on the beach?

As it turns out, Pekar decided to do something with me because he was probably tired of writing about himself. Like his earliest collaborator R. Crumb, he was exploring new ways of expressing himself. Crumb eventually wearied of doing comics about his own neurotic sexual and racial obsessions; likewise I am sure with Pekar’s sad sack tales. At least that’s my take. He told me numerous times that he was seeking to become the Studs Terkel of our generation. My story amounted to the sort of thing you can read in “Working” or any of his other “as told to” classics. Too bad that Harvey didn’t live into his nineties like Studs. And too bad for me that I got drawn into a project that had no future after his death.

What steams me up the most is the feeling that I have been ripped off. I spent a good four months writing and rewriting the material that would eventually be illustrated by Summer McClinton, a young and very gifted artist whose work Harvey raved about. Now Random House’s contract was with Harvey and not me obviously. His widow Joyce Brabner and the artist have been paid off, fulfilling Random House’s obligations for a book that is now dead and buried. A year ago Schluep assured me that the book would be published. It turns out he was probably bullshitting me. It would have been better for me not to have been left hanging. When I raised the topic with him again two months ago, he said that a decision had not been made but he would get back to me within the month. Of course, he did not get back to me. Like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf”, he has the power to piss on me metaphorically speaking. I am not under contract and under capitalism that is how things operate, as any lawyer will tell you.

I imagine that Schluep is not comfortable with all this, having assured me a while back that he is “not a scumbag”. I suppose he is not but the company he works for surely is.

In 1998 Random House was taken over by Bertelsmann, a German media company with 103,000 employees. Now Bertelsmann has a most interesting history—just the sort of venue for a memoir by an unrepentant Marxist as the BBC reported on October 8, 2002:

Bertelsmann admits Nazi past

German media giant Bertelsmann has admitted it lied about its Nazi past and that it made big profits during Adolf Hitler’s reign in Germany using Jewish slave labour.

A commission set up by the firm found Bertelsmann rode the rise of the Nazi party to restructure itself from a religious and school book publisher to supply millions of anti-Semitic texts.

The IHC found Bertelsmann had targeted the youth market with its “Exciting Stories” series and the “The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth” annual which pushed its sales up 20 fold.

The IHC said the company’s “legend” that it was a victim of the Nazis was a lie.

The Commission found that Bertelsmann made “indirect” use of Jewish slave labour in Latvia, and Lithuania but not at its German headquarters.

The then head of the company, Heinrich Mohn, also made donations to the SS, Hitler’s special forces and concentration camp guards.

The company had close ties to the Nazi regime, particularly the Propaganda Ministry, and printed 19 million books during World War II, making it the largest publisher for the German army.

Bertelsmann used its “revised” history when it took over the biggest US book publisher Random house in 1998.

Harvey died before I had a chance to share this information with him. As a proud but non-observant Jew, I am sure he would have had a word or two to say about being under contract to a company that used Jewish slave labor.

There were signs that Bertelsmann’s infatuation with Hitler continued well after WWII. In 1983, Stern Magazine, part of the German publisher’s empire, came out with the Hitler Diaries that turned out to be a hoax. A Nation Magazine article dated November 8, 1999 reported:

In 1980 Bertelsmann’s Stern magazine published poems and illustrations supposedly written and drawn by Hitler during World War I under the title “Rhymes by Private First Class H” (“Gereimtes vom Gefreiten H”). Dirk Bavendamm, a 61-year-old German historian who had been instrumental in helping Stern obtain the material, wrote an accompanying article noting that the poems and drawings show Hitler as an ordinary soldier. In one illustration a German soldier gently holds a baby; in another, a soldier helps a mother lying in bed while a baby nestles in a cradle. Subsequently the poems and drawings were determined to be forgeries. (Later, Mohn gave the green light to a Bertelsmann division to purchase the Hitler diaries, by the same forger, which also showed a milder Hitler. They were published in Stern in 1983.)

Bavendamm’s career was not affected. His book Roosevelt’s Way to War (Roosevelts Weg zum Krieg) was published in 1983. Rewriting history, he stated that Roosevelt, not Hitler, had caused World War II. He also wrote that American Jews “controlled most of the media,” and he claimed they gave a false picture of Hitler.

Even if Bertlesmann did not have Nazi skeletons in its closet, its role in turning Random House into another “bottom line” oriented corporation of the sort that has left the USA economically and culturally impoverished was obvious to Andre Schifrin, the founder of the New Press and a sharp critic of the publishing industry. In a February 17, 2003 Nation Magazine article titled “‘Random’ Destruction”, Schifrin commented on the firing of Ann Godoff, the head of Random House whose “mistake was to adhere to the higher standards of Random’s past.”

Bertelsmann sought to turn Random House into something much more commercial in the pursuit of higher profits, pumping out the kind of tripe that can soar to the top of the best-seller list. The NY Times reported that Godoff “considered her unit’s books above the merely commercial popular fiction published by other divisions. She candidly told associates that she felt little personal interest or affinity for commercial romances, thrillers and other page-turners–the meat and potatoes of much of the publishing business.” Hmm. Maybe that was my mistake. I should have put more steamy stuff into the memoir. I did include my romance with a comrade in Houston who had been working as a go-go dancer before I got to town. Harvey told me that I needed to put as much as that stuff in as I could.

In defending itself against charges that it was turning into the publishing counterpart of People Magazine, a Random House spokesman stated “Random House will continue to do many, many books for a niche audience, books that will continue to appeal to the literary critical world.” Sigh, if only that was true. On the other hand, maybe I’ve been selling myself short. They say that the Communist Manifesto became a best-seller in Germany in 2007, around the time that capitalism began its worldwide collapse. Maybe the Bertlesmann CEO decided that it was not in his class interests to publish anything favorable to Marxism, even if it appeared in the style of a Jewish stand-up comedian favored by both Harvey and me.

Ultimately Peter Olson, the guy who ran Bertlesmann’s American operations and who fired Ann Godoff, figured out that it was in his own interest to make Random House follow the short-term dictates of the market. Like so many of the crooks responsible for the collapse of the housing market, mass unemployment, and deepening class inequalities, he figured out what side of the bread was buttered: his own. Schifrin writes:

And there is yet one more factor that cannot be overlooked. Obviously, as the Times and others noted, Olson has “his own targets to meet” His compensation is based on his “success in meeting annual targets each year.” Thus, the personal income of a handful of managers is an essential factor in deciding what the future of American publishing will be.

I suppose I only have myself to blame for getting suckered into this time-wasting business. There’s a mystique about being published that is really quite powerful. It appeals to your sense of vanity in the same way that an appearance on the Letterman show might. If you read Harvey’s account of being in the limelight, however, you will be struck how ambivalent he was. While he hoped to get the word out about his comic books on Late Night, he mostly felt exploited—the butt of Letterman’s frat boy humor.

That’s what happens when you put yourself at the mercy of a powerful corporation. It will find one way or another to fuck you over.

My experiences with print publishing over the years are pretty negative. After submitting a book proposal to an editor at St. Martin’s on Marxism and the American Indian about 12 years ago, I never received a reply. I have to wonder whether editors get some kind of training when they go to work at places like St. Martin’s or Random House on how to make an unheralded writer feel like two cents. It’s about the same story with leftist academic journals that tend to treat you like a dissertation student, subjecting your submission to peer review—as if getting printed in a journal that has a circulation of 2000 is of any importance to me. I get that many visits to my blog every day.

As everybody knows, print publishing is going through a deep crisis. More and more of Harvey’s work began appearing on the Internet through the auspices of The Pekar Project that defines its role this way:

Harvey Pekar’s been mining the mundane for magic for more than 30 years in his autobiographical American Splendor comics. Now he has teamed with SMITH and some remarkable artists to create his first ongoing webcomics series—and some of his jazziest work to date. The new stories will appear every other week, with interviews, creator spotlights, and behind-the-scenes goodies, as well as essays and art from Pekar collaborators and inhabitants of the extended Pekarverse.

Obviously with Harvey’s death, the future of this project is very much in doubt. Clearly, I have the responsibility to make the work I did with him available to the general public on the Web. Ironically, Harvey never used a computer, finding it too confusing. He once told me that Joyce forbade him from using hers. I am quite sure that he would have been gratified to see “The Unrepentant Marxist”, the title of our collaboration, appearing on my blog. After all, that is the title of my blog and the best place for it to appear, all things considered.


Chris Schluep is no longer at Random House.

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