Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 24, 2015

New Directors/New Films 2015

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

Although this article will review only three of the offerings from the 2015 New Directors/New Films Festival, a yearly event co-produced by the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center, I strongly urge New Yorkers to check the full schedule at http://newdirectors.org/. Those who appreciate my aesthetic and political judgment can rest assured that the festival will connect you with today’s filmmaking vanguard. The festival began last Wednesday and runs through Sunday. The three films considered in this article will be showing later this week and epitomize exactly what I am looking for in cinema. Combining politics with art, they are a reminder of what good filmmaking is all about in an age of declining standards.

“Line of Credit”, which plays at MOMA on Thursday at 8:45pm, is now the fourth film I have seen made by a Georgian director and proof once again that this beleaguered former Soviet republic is producing some leading edge films even if it is falling apart economically and socially.

Of course, it might be the case that there is an inversely proportional relationship between the economic health of a society and the quality of films, with the USA demonstrating that economic power is not conducive to making quality films. By the same token, a Georgian (or Palestinian or Kurdish, etc.) director feels a certain urgency about his country’s fate that rules out escapist fantasies.

Like the Dardenne brothers’ brilliant “Two Days, One Night”, “Line of Credit” is a film with a repeating motif from beginning to end. In their film, it is scene after scene in which the leading character, a woman factory worker, tries to persuade former fellow workers to forsake their yearly bonus in exchange for gettng her job back and escaping economic ruin.

In “Line of Credit”, we see Nino, an attractive fortyish woman played by Nino Kasradze who appears in every scene, on a non-stop search for money to keep a roof over her family’s head and creditors at bay. A series of bad investment decisions exacerbated by the war with separatists and the general economic collapse in Georgia have left her hanging by a thread. The film—literally—consists of her making trips to pawn shops or used jewelry stores, etc. where she is unloading one precious family possession or another in order to pay off a loan shark breathing down her neck, gas bills, her best friend’s cancer treatments, her daughter’s tuition at a private school (she can ill afford to begin with) and the like.

The “drama”, such as it is, is exactly that faced by other Georgians, Greeks, the Irish, Spaniards, and millions of Americans—namely how to survive in a world in which one is forced to live on credit. As grim as this sounds, the film is enlivened by sardonic wit of the kind that I have learned to appreciate in Georgian film. In one scene, a French tourist who has missed the tour bus in Tbilisi, stops in at Nino’s tiny bake shop that has been bereft of customers for months. To demonstrate the Georgian propensity for hospitality, she not only treats the Frenchman to free pastries but rushes home to bring back a bottle of Georgian brandy to accompany the pastries. Part of her motivation in doing so is to get drunk, a way to anesthetize herself against the stress brought on by financial insecurity.

In this scene, her waitress, who has joined in the festivities, recounts a national legend about Georgia’s place in the world. After God created Earth, he assigned various peoples territories but the Georgians forgot to show up at the ceremony since they were off somewhere having a party. When they finally came to meet with the deity, he told them that the lands had already been meted out. But since he loved the Georgians so much, he would give them his own land—namely the beautiful Georgia of today. The joke of course is that it is much more like hell.

In a very intelligent storytelling approach, director Salome Alexi decided to make Nino and her family people from the upper ranks of the middle class with absolutely no social consciousness. Their main desire is not to eliminate the system that has put them on the edge of the cliff but to restore their privileges, an impossibility given the realities of Georgian life. When Nino gets a second mortgage on her house, she uses part of the proceeds to buy a new pocketbook—the last thing on earth she needs but an apt symbol of the consumerism that seduces Georgians even today.

The film ends on the consequences of her supposed salvation—the second mortgage. The collapse of the mortgage loan industry in Georgia and the terrible social consequences led Salome Alexi to make this darkly comic and politically insightful film. Highly recommended.

Playing Saturday, 3:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, “The Great Man” is a French film directed by Sarah Leonor that is both an examination of racist immigration policies—a theme also found in a number of the films shown at the Socially Relevant Film Festival—and the age-old personal drama of father-and-son relationships.

The film begins with Markov and Hamilton on patrol in Afghanistan as members of the French Foreign Legion. We learn from a voice-over that the two are best friends as well as brothers-in-arms for the past five years. Near a riverbank, the Taliban ambushes the two and Hamilton falls to the ground badly wounded. Markov chooses friendship over duty and piggybacks Hamilton to safety but only after leaving his weapon behind, a major offense in the French Foreign Legion, so much so that he is discharged without the benefit of achieving French citizenship—the only reason he ever enlisted to begin with.

We next see Markov in Paris where he has returned to civilian life. It turns out that he is a Chechen named Mourad Massaev and that he hopes to sink roots in France despite being undocumented. His first step toward normalcy is getting an apartment and picking up his ten-year-old son Khadji from the Chechen women who have been looking after him while Mourad was in the military. Khadji’s initial reaction to being reunited with dad is anger, a child’s natural reaction to being abandoned (his mother—a Russian—stayed behind.) Mourad explains to him that he had no choice. The war in Chechnya forced the family to break up and he wanted to make a new start.

Casting for Mourad and Khadji was just one among many strong elements of this powerful film with Surho Sugaipov, who fled Grozny in 1999, playing the father and Ramzan Idiev playing the son, a member of a family that escaped from Grozny five years later. Needless to say, the dialog between the two actors had a conviction wrought by a common lived experience.

After setting up a household in the new apartment, we find Khadji ensconced in a red pup tent in the middle of the living room floor—a canny maneuver by Mourad to give his son a sense of both having his own space and the possible benefits of having a veteran of the Foreign Legion for a father. Next on dad’s agenda is meeting up with Hamilton at a veteran’s hospital where he is undergoing physical therapy. Over dinner one night, Mourad tells Hamilton that he is having trouble finding work because he is not a French citizen. Since Hamilton knows that being a legionnaire veteran qualifies you for citizenship, he asks him why five years of service did not qualify. Obviously concerned that his friend would feel guilty for forcing him for leaving his weapon behind, Mourad replies that his service was apparently inadequate in French eyes without going into any further detail.

Hamilton has the solution. He gives Mourad his identity card that was issued to Michaël Hernandez, his real name. Like Mourad, “Hamilton” is also a stranger in a strange land. He is also a bit like Khadji, having been brought up by foster parents until he found his only true home—the Foreign Legion.

As fate would have it, Hamilton and Khadji come together in unforeseen and tragic circumstances. As a surrogate father, Hamilton is ill equipped to look after a ten-year-old boy especially since his only goal is to finish his physical therapy and get back into uniform. With a shared experience of being abandoned as children, Hamilton and Khadji would have the potential for bonding even if there are obstacles in their path, not the least of which is the cruelty of the French immigration authorities who are determined to send Khadji back to Grozny.

Sarah Leonor has made an exceptionally sensitive film demonstrating how sentiment differs from sentimentality, the stock in trade of Hollywood films exploiting father-and-son relationships such as Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy” or Mark Ruffalo’s “The Kids are All Right”. At the risk of sounding like the typical critic churning out hype, I’d say that comparison here is much more with Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid”, the gold standard for an adult looking after an abandoned child.

“Los Hongos” (fungi) is the first Colombian film I have seen. Directed and written by Oscar Ruiz Navia, it is a study of the underground graffiti artist scene in Cali. The two main characters are in their late teens, one from a white, middle-class family named Calvin (Jovan Alexis Marquinez); the other is his best friend Jovan (Jovan Alexis Marquinez), an Afro-Colombian from a poor family that fled the civil war raging in the countryside. To his peers in the graffiti community Jovan is better known as Ras Skate.

The lingering effects of “La Violencia” are present in Calvin’s world as well. When he joins his father at a local hangout, he observes him from afar arguing politics with his cronies about the upcoming mayoral campaign that he casts doubt on since both candidates are tied in to the ongoing civil wars. He reminds them that Karl Marx was right when he said that we had to rely on the power of the masses. Calvin’s grandmother also has memories of the decades long war since she used to hide a rebel from the death squads in her village.

For Jovan and Calvin’s generation, the Colombia civil war has little resonance. What matters most to them is the anarchy of the graffiti artists, the punk rockers, and underground radio broadcasters who constitute Cali’s pole of resistance. Getting their information from the Internet rather than Marxist pamphlets, the two young men are determined to paint a graffiti that incorporates a veiled woman they saw in Tahrir Square who said, “We are no longer afraid”. As such, they were benefiting from a benign globalization that connects graffiti artists in Cali with the young people who fought against the Mubarak dictatorship.

“Los Hongos” does not have much of a plot. The film is structured as a series of incidents where we see Jovan and Calvin doing what comes naturally: painting on a wall, going to a punk rock concert, hanging out with young women, smoking a joint, skateboarding, riding a bike, etc. Despite my strong preference for storytelling, I found the film altogether engaging because it showed me a side of Latin American reality I was utterly unfamiliar with. The film has an energy and flair that is commensurate with its theme. It plays 9:30pm at the MOMA on Saturday night.

March 23, 2015

The assassination of Matiullah Khan

Filed under: Afghanistan — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

By an eerie coincidence, the very day I was writing my review of Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living”, the N.Y. Times reported on the assassination of a warlord who figured prominently in his book. The Times might be good at reporting the facts but they tend to be disjointed. The article below quotes Anand on why Matiullah was killed but fails to place him into the broader context of Afghan politics. The passage from “No Good Men Among the Living” that follows the NY Times article will give you a better idea of how people “succeed” in Afghanistan, which is the same way that Tony Soprano succeeded but with the added complication of overlapping with some progressive steps forward, including his support for Heela’s candidacy as the first female senator in Afghanistan. If you’ve read my CounterPunch review of “No Good Men Among the Living”, you’ll recall that she was a courageous woman who defied paternalistic oppression—thus antagonizing both the Taliban and the miserable warlords like Matiullah Khan who they sought to overthrow.

Matiullah Khan in 2010. He was killed in Kabul on Wednesday after a person approached him and detonated a suicide vest. CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times
 KABUL, Afghanistan — Matiullah Khan, whose rise from local militia commander to powerful regional police chief left him one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in southern Afghanistan, was killed on Wednesday in a targeted suicide bombing in Kabul, officials said on Thursday.

From his beginnings as an illiterate highway patrol commander in Oruzgan Province, Mr. Khan started a militia operation that made millions of dollars securing military coalition supply convoys through a decade of war and turmoil. He obtained so much influence during his years as a private commander that even before 2011, when he was anointed police chief of Oruzgan by President Hamid Karzai, who hailed from his Popalzai tribe, he could freely appoint government officials in the province.

The Afghan government remained silent about Mr. Khan’s death on Wednesday night and through much of Thursday, referring all questions to the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, who did not respond to requests for comment. Accounts of Mr. Khan’s killing obtained from members of Parliament and other officials varied, though Mr. Khan was said to be in Kabul on official business, staying at a downtown hotel, the Safi Landmark.

Around 8 p.m., he was walking in the streets of Kabul’s Police District 6 when a person wearing a burqa approached and detonated a suicide vest, according to a senior Afghan security official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing investigation. Officials who saw Mr. Khan’s body said his chest had been wounded by shrapnel.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday afternoon, a seeming insurgent success after trying to kill Mr. Khan at least six other times. Still, while the attack bore all the hallmarks of an insurgent hit job, some warned that Mr. Khan had numerous rivals within the government.

An outpouring of condolences followed news of Mr. Khan’s death, even from people who in the past might have criticized his heavy-handed influence.

Dost Mohammad Nayab, the spokesman for the governor of Oruzgan, said it “will take 14 years to fill the gap he leaves behind.” Hajji Mohammad Essa, an elder in Tirin Kot, said, “He was like a mountain for us.”

For years, Mr. Khan enjoyed unparalleled influence in Oruzgan, where he gained a reputation as a fierce enemy of the Taliban. Villagers and elders came to ask his assistance or seek his guidance.

He became a classic symbol of the American-backed strongman turned government official, a hallmark of the long war in Afghanistan.

Like his counterpart in Kandahar Province, Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, who is widely accused of human rights abuses and running illicit businesses, Mr. Khan enjoyed the support of coalition military officials, who found him an indispensable ally in their fight against the Taliban.

“He was representative of a new breed of warlords,” said Anand Gopal, the author of the book “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.” “These are people entirely created by the international presence.”

read full article

Anand Gopal, “No Good Men Among the Living”, pp. 252-257:

In rural Afghanistan, people discuss roads the way we discuss the weather—before they head out for work or at the mosque or in the market. On any given day, highways are prone to sudden tempests of violence between the warring sides. They can be rendered impassable by roadside bombs, or impromptu insurgent checkpoints, or trigger-happy American convoys. (“We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” US war commander General Stanley McChrystal commented in 2010, “and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat.”) Next week’s travel can be as unpredictable as next week’s skies.

If the roads attracted so much violence, it was because without them there could be no resupplying of American bases, and therefore no American mission. And with no American mission, there would have been no Matiullah Khan, no meshr [leader]. But what exactly was he the leader of? By 2009, he had become the most powerful person in Uruzgan Province and one of Washington’s closest allies—all without holding a government position.

In the summer of 2011, I rented a car in Kandahar city and set out for Uruzgan to learn who exactly Matiullah was. I started on the city’s out-skirts, in a mud-sodden field filled with eighteen-wheelers, sixteen-wheelers, cabs with two trailers, Indian-made trucks festooned with ruby-colored mirrors and dangling metallic tassels—all of them bearing fuel or other crucial cargo for US troops, and all waiting to travel the eighty treacherous miles north to Tirin Kot. Just a few years earlier, the truckers told me, such a trip would have been a probable death sentence. The route was then under Taliban control, so trucks often ended up as charred heaps, dotting the roadside like signposts in some ravaged alien land. Drivers were losing their heads and the American base in Tirin Kot was being starved of supplies. “If you ask me what I worry about at night,” said American general Duncan J. McNabb, “it is the fact that our supply chain is always under attack.” As the insurgency grew stronger in 2006-7, and the Americans sent in more troops, requiring more supplies, the problem only multiplied. The Kandahar-Tirin Kot road became one of the most dangerous highways in the world. But everything changed in 2008, when an illiterate militiaman began organizing his cousins and friends to protect the trucks. His name was Matiullah.

He was a man of humble origins who, unlike Jan Muhammad and other Soviet-era mujahedeen warlords, made himself entirely in the shadow of twenty-first-century American power. In the 1990s, he was operating a taxi on the Kandahar-Tirin Kot highway, occasionally moonlighting as a driver for Taliban commanders. He may have been poor, unschooled, and seemingly without political ambition, but as a member of the Popalzai tribe and a nephew of JMK, a world of opportunities opened up for him in the wake of the US invasion. He joined Karzai’s 2001 campaign to capture Uruzgan, and by the following year ha had worked his way into his uncle’s militia, commanding an elite Taliban-hunting unit. With no actual Taliban around, however, this effectively meant life as a hit man knocking off JMK’s rivals. Soon he was providing security for the perimeter of the main US base in Tirin Kot and accompanying American special forces missions. In 2007, he was appointed to head a short-lived highway police force, and when it was disbanded a few months later, he appropriated its guns and trucks and continued to patrol the Kandahar-Tirin Kot highway on a fee-for-service basis. In no time, he was supplying heavily armed men—most of them relatives or fellow tribesmen—to protect trucks hauling American sup-plies into Tirin Kot. The Taliban proved no match.

It was noon at the truck depot when we spotted the seemingly unending stream of desert beige Ford pickups heading toward us, Afghan flags whipping in the wind. Some had Matiullah’s image pasted decal-style to their cab windows, but most were unmarked. The supply trucks fell into place behind them, and we were off. The convoy drove along a canal as wide as the highway itself, its waters shimmering a brilliant cerulean blue against the dull brown scrubland rolling away into the distance. An hour into the trip, we passed through the shadow of a massive concrete dam. It was here that Jason Amerine’s unit had called in the wrong coordinates almost ten years earlier, bombing themselves and nearly killing Karzai.

Farther north, the mud houses and rutted dirt paths by the roadside disappeared and we were in open country, with barren slopes and a naked, treeless horizon. Perched here and there on the slopes were small teams of Matiullah’s gunmen, part of a private army thousands strong financed through his contracting business. For every truck escorted, he charged the Americans $1,000 to $2,000. With hundreds of trucks heading for the US base in Tirin Kot weekly, he was pulling in millions of dollars a month—in a country where the average income is a few hundred dollars a year. You could not move a truck into Uruzgan without his permission. “No one leaves without paying,” said Rashid Popal, another trucking contractor. “Matiullah will kill anyone on this highway, Taliban or not.” When another private security company, the Australian firm Compass, once attempted to escort US supplies up the highway, they were met by a hundred or so of Matiullah’s heavily armed men, who demanded $2,000 to $3,000 per truck for “passing rights.” The exchange grew so heated that the US military was called in. Eventually a settlement was negotiated and the trucks were allowed to pass, but the message was clear enough: Matiullah Khan owned the highway.

Our convoy passed through a defile that opened onto the earthen bowl where Mullah Manan’s forces had battled Jason Amerine’s Green Berets for control of Uruzgan. We arrived in Tirin Kot as dusk fell, with-out a shot fired en route, without encountering a single roadside bomb or illegal checkpoint. American officials believe that Matiullah’s success hinges in part on a protection racket, in which he pays off certain Tali-ban commanders not to disturb his convoys—meaning that the United States, by hiring Matiullah, is indirectly paying its enemies.

Under Matiullah Khan, Tirin Kot was a changed town. Using his windfall funds he gobbled up real estate, elbowing aside his exiled uncle as the major landowner in the area. He leased bases to the Americans and financed bazaar shops. Soon, just about every business transaction of note in the city required his imprimatur. “Nothing happens in Tirin Kot without him,” Hajji Shirin Dil, a wholesaler from Kabul, told me. “You can’t make a single dollar without his permission, without giving him a cut.”

With Jan Muhammad in Kabul, Matiullah quickly monopolized the political scene as well. Yet he was eager to distance himself from his uncle’s ruinous regime. JMK’s excesses had eventually turned the Dutch’ and other NATO allies against him, and Matiullah was keen to keep in the foreigners’ good graces. He built schools, established radio stations erected mosques, sent poor children to university in Kabul, settled Ian disputes, and protected widows like Heela. Through his militias and construction companies, he also provided jobs for thousands.

As with his uncle, however, governance was a sideline to Matiullah’ principal occupation: fighting “terror,” with no holds barred. When roadside bomb once went off near his convoy, killing one of his me Matiullah leapt out of his vehicle in a rage and grabbed a bystander—shopkeeper in the wrong place at the wrong time. Matiullah tied him the rear bumper of his pickup truck and drove around town. When t body was returned to the family, it was barely recognizable. In anoth village, Matiullah captured a suspected Talib (who, locals claim, was actually just a poor farmer) and took an already radical measure emasculation—chopping off his beard—a step farther: he smashed the man’s chin. And in yet another incident, Matiullah’s men attacked a madrassa suspected of being a center of Taliban influence. Dozens were taken hostage and executed, most of them young boys.


March 22, 2015

The Tecnica video is back online

Filed under: Film,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 8:06 pm

In July 2008 I digitized a video about Tecnica from VHS and posted it to Google/Video. This was before Google bought Youtube and when it was a reasonable alternative for longer videos like “Tecnica—at Work in Nicaragua”, which ran for 20 minutes.

I just took a look at my posting of the Google video on my blog that month and was pleased to see the late Roger Burbach’s comment:


Great article and video. You captured the spirit of the 80s in Nicaragua and among those internationalistas to went to participate in a dream.

Drop me a note.

Roger Burbach

I was not so pleased, however, to have learned a few months ago that the video had disappeared. A bit of research turned up the following on Wikipedia:

On April 15, 2011, Google announced via email that after April 29 they would no longer allow playback of content hosted on their service, but reversed the decision one week later to provide users with greater support for migration to YouTube. Google Video was shut down and replaced by Google Videos on August 20, 2012. The remaining Google Videos content was automatically moved to YouTube.

Well, I never got any fucking email from fucking Google because I did not have a Gmail account at the time. Or maybe I had a Gmail account and they never bothered to contact me. In the meantime I had disposed of the VHS tape and was now shit out of luck. Email to the few Tecnica returned volunteers I had contact with turned up nothing.

Searching around desperately, I discovered that a copy of the tape was in the University of Wisconsin’s historical archives for Tecnica—I guess a cardboard box sitting somewhere for people doing research on Nicaragua. I called them up to see if they could send me a copy but was upset to learn from the first person I spoke to that they did not do such things. When I remonstrated with the person about how we had risked our lives in volunteering in Nicaragua (Ben Linder was not a volunteer but our volunteers completed his project), she turned me over to the head librarian who was kind enough to have a DVD made. This is the finished product, hopefully something that will not get lost in a corporate black hole again.


March 21, 2015

The Rise and the Fall of the Borscht Belt

Filed under: Catskills,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

A while back FB friend Maxene Diamond Spindell, who posts a lot of interesting material to the Memories of the Catskills group, posted a ten minute excerpt from Peter Davis’s “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, a documentary made in 1986 that I saw when it first came out. Since I have my own “The Unrepentant Marxist Returns to the Catskills” video in the works, I was very interested to see the whole film and perhaps include some footage under the fair use provision.

As it turns out the film was not available from all the usual sources either online or as a DVD. Taking advantage of my retiree benefits from Columbia University, I ordered a VHS through BorrowDirect, an interlibrary service that most universities belong to. After I had the film digitized, I put it up on my Vimeo website for everyone to see. Hopefully I won’t get any intellectual property static over this especially since I emailed Peter Davis a week ago and got no reply.

I appealed to Davis as a fellow leftist. For those in the know, he was one of America’s top leftist documentary filmmakers of the past half-century with films like “Hearts and Minds” to his credit, the definitive Vietnam antiwar film in my view. His last film, “In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid”, was made in 1993.

His leftist orientation can be seen in “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, although not in an obvious way. The film is a mixture of social history and nostalgic entertainment as we see both former vacationers and hotel owners and employees reminiscing about the Borscht Belt in its heyday. For regular readers of my blog, you are probably aware that I grew up in the area and included a good 20 or so pages about my background there in the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar.

As the term borscht implies, the people who worked and stayed in the hotels and bungalow colonies were almost all Jews. The “fall” in the title of Davis’s film refers to the tourist industry collapsing after Jews became wealthier and more assimilated. After moving from the garment industry cutting rooms to accounting firms, they could now afford vacations in Puerto Rico and no longer felt the need to be in a hotel that served kosher food.

My memories include both happy and sad moments. For example, I will never forget the wonderment I felt as a 10-year-old boy watching the Mighty Atom (née Joseph Greenstein) bend an iron bar across his nose at his Paramount Health Farm. On the other hand, I was turned off by the materialism of the hotel owners and small businessmen in the area whose life seemed to revolve around Cadillac convertibles and mink coats for their wives. In a piece about Harvey Pekar’s wonderful memoir “The Quitter”, I described one of those painful (but partly uplifting) moments:

One summer, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my mother wrangled tickets to see the legendary Jewish tenor Richard Tucker perform at the Concord Hotel. She brought me and her mother in the family car, a 1952 Studebaker that not only looked like crap but was burning oil. When we arrived at the entrance to the Concord, the fanciest hotel in the Catskills, you could see a plume of smoke trailing the car for about 50 feet. My mom turned the key over to a valet who I heard make some wisecrack about the jalopy to the other valets. Meanwhile, the guests at the hotel out for an evening stroll in their mink stoles stared at us as if we were from another planet. It did not help that my deaf grandma spoke so loud that you could hear her from the next county. All I wanted to do is put as much distance as I could from these yokels as I could. Now at the age of 64 I feel somehow proud of the fact that appearances meant nothing to my mother. Plus, Richard Tucker was in great form that night.

Within a week or so, I will begin making my own film about the Catskills that will include an interview I did with people at Lansman’s bungalow colony in Hurleyvile, including Maxene. I had found out about the colony in an article in the NY Times about people trying to keep the spirit of the Catskills alive:

Each colony has its own personality. At the woodsy and quiet Buffalo Colony, which has much larger, family-size units, there are gay and straight parents, and biological and adopted children of many races. Lansman’s, an 85-unit colony in Woodbourne, which was bought by former renters from back in its family-owned days, is still mostly Jewish. Stephanie Kreiner, president of the board there, said residents still play mah-jongg and attend Saturday evening entertainment in the casino. Spring Glen Woods, in Ellenville, N.Y., has residents from New Jersey, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. “We want to bring it back to its heyday,” Ms. Schneider said.

It was of extraordinary interest to me that Peter Davis filmed at Lansman’s himself and found the same enchantment there that I did. I hope that in its own modest way my video can be called “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Catskills”.

I say that out of respect for Cissie Blumberg, who owned the Olympic Hotel in Woodridge and hated the term Borscht Belt. Cissie was a die-hard Communist and like many other hotel owners and small businesspeople a product of the Great Depression. Even if the 1950s brought prosperity, these folks remembered what it meant to suffer under capitalism. One of the people I interviewed upstate was a Communist like Cissie and remains political to this day.

In an article I wrote a good fifteen years or so ago titled “Borscht Belt Reds” (it probably should have been titled Catskill Reds!)  that was prompted by a conference held at the Sunny Oaks hotel, one of the first in a series convened by Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Brown University and the son of hotel owners. The article ended:

After the conference was over, I phoned Cissie Blumberg, the author of “Remember the Catskills: Tales of a Recovering Hotelkeeper” and a leftist. Cissie is a woman of strong opinions and was boycotting the Sunny Oaks conference because she thought the term “Borscht Belt” was offensive. She had also had a number of spats with my mother over religious questions. The two wrote for the same local paper and my mother hoped that I would be able to calm her down. This was as much of a chance of me doing this as getting my strongly opinionated mother to calm down.

There’s a chapter in Cissie’s book titled “Just Causes”. She writes:

Not everything [about my father] was controversial or political. He was a prime organizer of the Credit Union, a moving force in the Hotelmen’s Federation, and an acknowledged leader in the Fire Insurance Company as a director and president of the board. He convinced our reluctant neighbors in Lake Huntington to utilize the WPA programs for construction of the first sewer system, and though not religious himself, actively led the small Jewish community in the building of its first synagogue.

I was in grade school when the Civil War broke out in Spain. My father used his talent for oratory on behalf of the Loyalists, long before the world recognized that conflict as the beginning of World War II.

Bob [her brother and my old 9th grade social studies teacher] accompanied him one night to a rally at the Nemerson Hotel in South Fallsburg to raise funds for the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers in Spain. As part of his address, our dad quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s famous words on the people and the Constitution: ‘Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they shall exercise their constitutional rights of amending it, or their revolutionary rights to dismember or overthrow it.’ Suddenly the resort’s casino, in which the meeting was being held, was plunged into darkness by its owner, Mr. Nemerson. ‘Rosenberg is talking Communist propaganda,’ thundered the angry hotel man. ‘But sir, that statement is a quote from Abraham Lincoln,’ replied a helper of my father’s. ‘Oh, Abraham Lincoln?’ The lights came on!”

March 20, 2015


Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

The press notice for “Jauja” that opened today at Lincoln Center Cinema and the IFC gave me the impression that indigenous peoples might have played a major role in this Argentine film directed by Lisandro Alonso, whose work was unfamiliar to me:

Patagonia, 1882: In a remote military outpost, during the so-called Conquest of the Desert, a genocidal campaign is being waged against the indigenous population of the region. Acts of savagery abound on all sides. Captain Gunnar Dinesen has come from Denmark with his 15-year-old daughter, Ingeborg, to take an engineering job with the Argentinian army. Being the only female in the area, Ingeborg creates quite a stir among the men. She falls in love with a young soldier, and one night they run away together. When he wakes up, Captain Dinesen realizes what has happened and decides to venture into enemy territory to find the young couple.

As it turns out, the Indians only make a brief appearance in a scene approximately twenty minutes into the film. Actually it is only a single Indian who steals Captain Dinesen’s horse and rides off into the Argentine desert laughing triumphantly as he disappears across the horizon.

While the film starts off as if it were an updated version of “The Searchers”, it soon becomes something much more like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” with Captain Dinesen [Vigo Mortensen] squaring off against the Patagonian desert rather than the jungle. Except that no Indians wreak justice on the Danish colonizer as they do in Werner Herzog’s classic, nor does the captain have to deal with resentful underlings who become convinced that his trek is suicidal. Instead, the narrative is much more about someone lost in the desert, evoking films such as Gus Van Zant’s “Gerry” or Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout”.

Until the final fifteen minutes of the film, there is not a single word spoken. If you expect Alonso’s film to be about survival strategies of the kind seen the aforementioned films or those seen in “All is Lost” or “Cast Away”, you will be disappointed.

So without conflict with Indians or Nature, what is the momentum that drives the film forward? The answer to that is to simply go with the flow since Alonso has made a powerful film in which Nature itself is the subject. You see some of the most awe-inspiring landscape that at least to me is worth the price of a ticket. Furthermore, your interest is sustained because you want to know Captain Dinesen’s fate.

What makes it all work is Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen’s novel technique, which is perfectly suited to such a film. He uses a square frame instead of the typical 3×4 ratio most films use. Additionally, he eschews the shallow depth of field that most directors rely on to privilege a character against some backdrop. A shallow depth of field will typically show the actor in sharp relief against a blurry background. Instead, Salminen practically shows a tree a mile in the distance in as much detail as Vigo Mortensen’s face. Salminen has worked most frequently in the past with Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director whose work I have praised in the past but there’s nothing in his past work that has the look of “Jauja”.

Lisandro Alonso is a member of the New Argentine Cinema, which emerged as a reaction to the films of an earlier period that were engaged with the problems of military rule, repression and the like. While no single theme unites their work, film scholars generally agree that an aversion to conventional narrative is widespread.

In Gonzalo Aguilar’s “New Argentine Film: Other Worlds” that can be read on Google books with the usual massive amount of dropped pages, he characterizes Alonso and his peers as breaking with the Argentine films of the 1980s.

Instead of a message to decode, these movies offer us a world: a language, an atmosphere, some characters…a brushstroke—a brushstroke that does not respond to questions formulated insistently beforehand but sketches out its own questioning.

In his chapter titled “The Politics of Indeterminacy: Renouncement and Liberty in a Lisandro Alonso Movie”, he quotes the director: “I don’t want to tell a story. I’m only interested in observing.” That certainly describes “Jauja”. Considering the fact that I am generally averse to films that lack a story (I am moderating a panel on storytelling tomorrow at the Socially Relevant Film Festival for what that’s worth), my rapt attention to “Jauja” probably amounts to a rave review—even if I had no idea what point the director was trying to make.


No Good Men Among the Living

Filed under: Afghanistan,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm


Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living”

Eyes Wide Open in Afghanistan


Combining first-rate investigative reporting and a mastery of New Journalism techniques, Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes” will help you understand the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan as well as introduce you to some of the people whose lives have been torn apart by American occupation. With the same kind of care that a gifted novelist devotes to character development, Gopal renders a Taliban fighter and a husband and wife victimized by Taliban violence in such finely grained detail and psychological depth that you feel as if you have walked in their shoes. This is the result of countless hours that he spent in Afghanistan interviewing his subjects at obvious risk to his life. So committed was Gopal to understanding the human drama in Afghanistan that he learned the Pashtun language before departing for an assignment that would last three years.

Unlike the average journalist who prefers being cocooned in a hotel room with other journalists or embedded with the state power’s military, Gopal has devoted himself to getting the story at the grass roots level, carrying out what might be described as “journalism from below”. I first encountered his reporting in an August 2012 Harper’s magazine article titled “Welcome to Free Syria” that described the flowering of democracy in a poor rural town called Taftanaz, where a farmer’s council had decided that “we have to give to each as he needs.” With all due respect to the Kurds in Rojova, many other Syrians had also been struggling for justice and equality until Baathist violence preempted such a possibility.

read full article

March 18, 2015

Ernie Tate, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

Filed under: antiwar,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

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March 17, 2015

On John Gray’s critique of Steven Pinker

Filed under: sociobiology,war — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

John Gray

John Gray doesn’t care for Steven Pinker’s 2011 “The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes” at all. Who can blame him? It is a sociobiological defense of the state against “primitive” peoples who are made out to be much more violent than the Third Reich.

His first swipe at the book appeared in the September 11, 2011 edition of Prospect Magazine. He took another whack at him in the Guardian on October 15, 2011. The first paragraph was delightfully malicious:

Steven Pinker is one of those wunderkinder that elite US universities seem to specialise in producing. Born in Canada in 1954, he’s currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, but ever since he arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976 he’s been bouncing like a high-IQ tennis ball between Harvard and its prestigious neighbour, MIT (he has professorial chairs at both institutions). By profession he’s an experimental psychologist who began doing research on visual cognition but eventually moved into studying language, especially language acquisition in children. He probably knows more about mankind’s use of verbs, and particularly the distinction between irregular and regular ones, than any other man, living or dead.

I love the “high-IQ tennis ball” bit, don’t you?

But the latest installment has probably gotten more exposure than the first two on the Internet. It appeared once again in the Guardian four days ago and is longer than the first two put together. Since he really has Pinker’s number, I hope it is not the last go-round.

I was intrigued by Gray’s reference to Pinker as a defender of Enlightenment values:

Among the causes of the outbreak of altruism, Pinker and Singer attach particular importance to the ascendancy of Enlightenment thinking. Reviewing Pinker, Singer writes: “During the Enlightenment, in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, an important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, duelling and extreme forms of punishment … Pinker refers to this as ‘the humanitarian revolution’.” Here too Pinker and Singer belong in a contemporary orthodoxy. With other beliefs crumbling, many seek to return to what they piously describe as “Enlightenment values”. But these values were not as unambiguously benign as is nowadays commonly supposed. John Locke denied America’s indigenous peoples any legal claim to the country’s “wild woods and uncultivated wastes”; Voltaire promoted the “pre-Adamite” theory of human development according to which Jews were remnants of an earlier and inferior humanoid species; Kant maintained that Africans were innately inclined to the practice of slavery; the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham developed the project of an ideal penitentiary, the Panopticon, where inmates would be kept in solitary confinement under constant surveillance. None of these views is discussed by Singer or Pinker.

Come to think of it, Vivek Chibber didn’t pay much attention to these views either. I always considered Marx to be a critic of the Enlightenment even though that in stating this I might come across as an unreconstructed subalternist. Those are the breaks, I guess.

Although I have never read Pinker’s book, I am familiar with his arguments, which are closely related to those made by Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon, another couple of sociobiologists who view hunting-and-gathering societies as deeply criminal and homicidal. My own take on Pinker is here: http://louisproyect.org/2011/10/04/steven-pinker-hobbes-pangloss/. And on Jared Diamond here: http://louisproyect.org/2008/11/03/jared-diamond-on-tribal-warfare-in-new-guinea/. And finally on Chagnon there is this: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/22/chagnons-war/.

My emphasis is more on correcting the record on the so-called “savages” than it is on pointing out how barbaric modern civilization really is. Most of Gray’s latest article discusses the monumental scale of modern warfare including the prospect of an all-out nuclear war that will make the notion of steady progress toward peaceful relations among states altogether moot. If an H-bomb is dropped on Harvard, I doubt that Pinker will be in much shape to defend his arguments. Along those lines I did find this historical reference by Gray intriguing:

Discussing the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 in which nuclear war was narrowly averted, Pinker dismisses the view that “the de-escalation was purely a stroke of uncanny good luck”. Instead, he explains the fact that nuclear war was avoided by reference to the superior judgment of Kennedy and Khrushchev, who had “an intuitive grasp of game theory” – an example of increasing rationality in history, Pinker believes. But a disastrous escalation in the crisis may in fact have been prevented only by a Soviet submariner, Vasili Arkhipov, who refused to obey orders from his captain to launch a nuclear torpedo. Had it not been for the accidental presence of a single courageous human being, a nuclear conflagration could have occurred causing fatalities on a vast scale.

Could this be true? I remember being at Bard College in 1962 when the crisis was going on. Students were very worried about nuclear war while I shrugged the whole thing off, largely a function of the existentialist nihilism I picked up after watching Godard films uncritically. Well, I’m glad that Arkhipov kept us all alive, although I do wonder what really happened. From what I know of the USSR, nuclear gamesmanship was not its calling card. Maybe if J. Posadas were in charge, things would have turned out differently. The Trotskyist genius put it this way: “Nuclear war [equals] revolutionary war. It will damage humanity but it will not – it cannot – destroy the level of consciousness reached by it… Humanity will pass quickly through a nuclear war into a new human society – Socialism.”

Toward the end of his article, Gray appears to cast doubt on the prospect of achieving peace (and justice, one surmises) either through the agency of the modern capitalist state as Pinker believes is possible or any other socio-political changes:

Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible.

This sounds a bit like warmed-over Oswald Spengler, a philosopher of history who argued in “The Decline of the West” that the 20th century was headed toward collapse. In the 1950s he was quite trendy. As a high school student and a hardened anti-Communist, Spengler’s doom-and-gloom resonated with my own weltschmerz. Boy, I’m glad I got over that.

Thirteen years ago Gray wrote a book titled “Straw Dogs” where his Spenglerian bent was allowed to fully blossom. The book derives its title from Sam Peckingpah’s 1971 film that pitted a “civilized” Dustin Huffman going medieval on the British working class guys who had raped his wife.

In a review for the Guardian Terry Eagleton showed him no mercy:

John Gray’s political vision has been steadily darkening. Once a swashbuckling free-marketeer, he has, in his recent studies, become increasingly despondent about the state of the world. With the crankish, unbalanced Straw Dogs, he emerges as a full-blooded apocalyptic nihilist. He has passed from Thatcherite zest to virulent misanthropy.

Not that nihilism is a term he would endorse. His book is so remorselessly, monotonously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope. Nihilism for Gray suggests the world needs to be redeemed from meaninglessness, a claim he regards as meaningless. Instead, we must just accept that progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition. Technology cannot be controlled, and human beings are entirely helpless. Political tyrannies will be the norm for the future, if we have any future at all. It isn’t the best motivation for getting out of bed.

Like all tunnel vision, Gray’s extravagant pessimism is lugubriously amusing. As with his great mentor Arthur Schopenhauer, the gloomiest philosopher who ever lived, it takes a degree of heroic perversity to overlook every apparent flicker of human value. Straw Dogs is based on a keen, crucial insight – the fact that if men and women really did behave like wild animals, their existence would be a lot less bloody and precarious than it is. Indeed, one might go further and claim that ethics are an animal affair – a matter of our fleshy, compassionate bodies, not of some high-minded moral law. In believing itself infinitely superior to its fellow creatures, humanity overreaches itself and risks bringing itself to nothing. What the ancient Greeks knew as hubris is shaping up at this moment to maim the people of Iraq.

If Marx was no Enlightenment thinker, at least he had a vision of how war could be ended, namely through the establishment of communism, a system that through the elimination of the profit motive could set the stage for peaceful relations among different peoples.

Gray does not see things that way. In a survey on “Bourgeois pundits consider Marx” written in September 2011, I gave Gray props for acknowledging that Marx was correct in pointing out “how capitalism destroys its own social base” but like everyone else I considered ruled out an alternative to the capitalist system. For Gray, Marx was wrong in his belief that “a popular revolution would occur and bring a communist system into being that would be more productive and far more humane.”

Actually Marx was right. The problem, however, is that these popular revolutions were strangled in their crib almost universally. The contradiction was one that Marx did not fully anticipate, namely that revolutions would occur in countries where the immiseration was deepest and as such would lack the economic power to fend for themselves.

Gray is definitely on the side of the angel as opposed to Pinker’s specious “better angels of our nature” but like most people philosophically disinclined to consider proletarian revolution is almost incapable of seeing an alternative to the present system. It is up to us—the modern day sans culottes—to fight for such alternative.


March 16, 2015

Dan Glazebrook slimes Hamid Dabashi

Filed under: journalism,Libya,mechanical anti-imperialism,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

Hamid Dabashi

Dan Glazebrook

In his Middle East Eye review of Hamid Dabashi’s essay “Can non-Europeans Think?” that appeared on the Al Jazeera website, “anti-imperialist” hack-of-all trades Dan Glazebrook takes the Columbia University professor to task for being connected to the “vested interests” and “ideological priorities of the time” through work that serves to “keep the formal structure of power that privileges [him] intact”. These are words that Dabashi wrote somewhere against the European-dominated academy but that Glazebrook now intends to use against him. Although he tells his readers that they originated in some new book by Dabashi, he does not take the fucking trouble to identify it in his article. That’s some class-A journalism. (We can assume it is “Brown Skin, White Masks”.)

So why does Dabashi, an Iranian by birth and someone often pilloried by the Zionist lobby as an anti-Semite, get slimed as serving imperialism’s interests?

Glazebrook starts off by telling us that Dabashi is guilty of the same kind of sin Marx committed when he wrote for the pro-slavery and big business oriented NY Herald or when Alexander Cockburn wrote for the Wall Street Journal:

Dabashi is featured regularly on CNN and Al-Jazeera, who originally published the vast majority of the articles that make up this book. What is it about what Dabashi is saying that makes his work so attractive to the British imperial relics of the Qatari royal family or the US entertainment conglomerate Time Warner who own his two major publishers?

Anybody who reads this might wonder if we have run into the age-old pot…kettle…black syndrome since the provenance of Middle East Eye is subject to the same sort of “anti-imperialist” finger-pointing (be careful or else you will get poked in your own eye.) Just have a look at an article that appeared in the National titled “Al Jazeera executive helped to launch controversial UK website”. That’s right, conspiracy fans and X-Files devotees. It was an Al Jazeera boss who launched the website that Glazebook’s drivel appeared on:

A senior executive with Qatar’s TV network Al Jazeera was closely involved with setting up the London news website Middle East Eye, some of whose staff have links to organisations sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jonathan Powell, an Al Jazeera employee since 2009, spent several months in the UK working on Middle East Eye, which promised “independently produced news, analysis and opinion” at its launch in April. MEE claims to have “no political master, movement or country”.

Mr Powell is understood to have spent up to six months in London between September last year and February 13 as a launch consultant for Middle East Eye.

The news organisation was created as a company in early December last year, registered to an address in North London.

Its website was registered by Adlin Adnan, a Middle East Eye employee, to a different address in Central London at the end of that month.

Mr Powell has since returned to Doha, assigned to special projects for Al Jazeera’s chairman’s office.

But Dabashi’s real sin is that he has no use for Glazebrook’s idol, the late Muammar Qaddafi:

For a start, whilst he is scathing about the Islamophobia of the Western media, and the warmongering of the US, his most passionate invective is reserved for leaders of third world countries targeted for destruction by imperialism. Thus, in an article written on the eve of the NATO bombardment of Libya, Gaddafi was depicted as the “bastard son of [European colonial] militarism, charlatanism and barefaced barbarity”, a “dying beast”, and – of course! – a “mad colonel”.

In my book, anybody who keeps a scrapbook of Condoleezza Rice photos is pretty off-the-wall but what do I know?

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 2.58.52 PM

In a 2007 interview with al-Jazeera, Qaddafi practically drooled over Rice: “I support my darling black African woman. I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders … Leezza, Leezza, Leezza. … I love her very much. I admire her and I’m proud of her because she’s a black woman of African origin.” I guess there’s some kernel of anti-imperialism buried deep within this bullshit that I will allow Glazebrook to reveal. But for me, it speaks for itself.

Showing his commitment to the “axis of resistance”, Glazebrook denounces Dabashi for showing disloyalty to the new nearly Communist International:

Elsewhere, Dabashi talks of the “murderous ruling regime in Syria” and the “ghastly opportunism of Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran”. Third world leaderships are constantly equated with their imperial attackers – all the better to discourage any kind of solidarity or defence against such attacks. The BRICS countries – Russia and China in particular – are constantly disparaged throughout Dabashi’s writings, for example, and almost always referred to in the same breath as US imperialism.

Yeah, the nerve of Dabashi to refer to the murderous ruling regime in Syria. Everybody knows that those barrel bombs dropped on open-air markets and tenement buildings are just as necessary to destroy the terrorist threat as the bombs dropped over Gaza. Plus how can anybody in their right mind disparage Russia and China? Doesn’t Dabashi realize that Russia is acting in the interests of radicals everywhere by putting Pussy Riot in prison for acting against public decency? Not to speak of China that is ruled by Communists—no matter that its parliament includes 83 billionaires. These are obviously pro-communist billionaires unlike the filthy pro-capitalist billionaires in the USA.

The rest of the article is basically a rewrite of all the garbage that has been written on behalf of Qaddafi and al-Assad for the past four years. It never fails to amaze me how little new information is provided as a stable of horse’s asses basically plagiarize each other. Is there evidence that a low IQ and “anti-imperialist” journalism are organically linked? I am coming around to the conclusion that is probably the case.


The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece titled “Jews and American Popular Culture” that was based on a lecture Paul Buhle gave to the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. As is often the case with Paul’s lectures, it was accompanied by a slide show that prompted this observation:

During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)

This prompted a query from Stanley Krauson: “Does anyone remember the name of Joseph Greenstein’s (The Mighty Atom) bungalow colony?”

I now have an answer to that question that took me eight years to the day to put together. But before I get to that, I should explain that soon after writing the article I shared my memories of the Mighty Atom  with Harvey Pekar, who was a houseguest one evening in 2008. As it turns out, Harvey and Paul had begun collaborating with each other on comic books revolving around Jews and the left, among other topics.

Harvey was very interested in the Mighty Atom story since he had been reading about Jewish professional strong men at the time. (He was an amateur strong man himself with an appetite for brawling in high school seemingly at odds with his shy and retiring demeanor.) He also was fascinated by my recollections of life in the SWP that were pretty atypical. For example, I had a relationship at one point with a woman in the Houston branch who had been a topless dancer.

Harvey was so fascinated by my tales that he gave me a ring and proposed that we do a comic book memoir that would be published by Random House. To make a long and sad story short, he died before the book was published and his widow Joyce Brabner decided to dump the memoir because she did not think it should be part of the Harvey Pekar legacy. She has never admitted as such but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Here is a page devoted to my encounter with the Mighty Atom:

mighty atom

Now, getting to Stanley Krauson’s question, the identity of the Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony can be found in Ed Spielman’s “The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein; Biography of a Superhuman“, a book that I took out from the Columbia Library recently. It was the Panoramic Health Farm, a small colony about a mile from my father’s fruit store. Ironically, although the Mighty Atom sang the praises of vegetables, I wouldn’t go near them. Who knows? Maybe it was a defense mechanism against my father. I should advise you that Spielman’s narrative has a Paul Bunyanesque quality, no doubt a function of his own desire to put together a biography with “wow factor”, plus the Mighty Atom’s (nee Joseph Greenstein) sideshow/circus background leading him to embellish what was likely a remarkable life to begin with. In any case, I did see a man about as old as me at the time bending an iron bar across his nose. You don’t see that every day. Below are passages from Ed Spielman’s book. I am sure that there is more than a grain of truth in these tales.

The Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony:

In the late 1940s, the Atom took savings of $18,000 and founded a health resort where he could put his ideas into action. Where better to advocate health and vitality than in bucolic surroundings, far from the noise and dirt of the city? In upstate Woodridge, New York, he purchased a seventy-acre tract of land with a twenty-three room hotel, four apartments, and two bungalows and established his Panoramic Health Farm. The plan was that he would run the place all summer until Labor Day, when he and Leah would take their traveling lecturemobile south for the winter. Leah had her doubts about an entire hotel being a simple husband-and-wife operation. With his usual enthusiasm, Joe approached the idea as if it were nothing more difficult than a mom-and-pop candy store. He was not to be dissuaded. He put down the cash and took title.

Of panoramic view there was plenty, of water there was none. A week after he took over, the sole spring went dry. The seller (who had paid $7,000 for the place a few years before) had neglected to mention the periodic problem.

After several weeks of carting water from town in barrels and cans, Joe went to the library to research the problem. He found reference to individuals who did nothing more for a living than discover water for such unfortunates as himself. These “dowsers” were supposedly gifted with the ability to sniff out H2O with nothing more than a divining rod.

In Pennsylvania, he found just such a pair of “water smellers.” Dressed in black, and possessed of an appropriately mysterious manner, the pair immediately made him suspicious. Instead of your everyday divining rod, they did their dowsing with an upended pliers. At last, they stopped at a miserable patch of weeds and pronounced with finality that they had found water. As the pliers were jiggling with wild and spastic enthusiasm, he took them at their word. They returned to Pennsylvania, his cash in their pocket.

He called the local well driller, a Sicilian who arrived on the scene with well-founded cynicism, as in the very place where the dowsers had predicted water, he had already dug a dry well for the previous owner.

Now out a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of sham water smellers, and a good chunk of his life’s savings for the health farm itself, Joe nevertheless did not despair. He would find water . . . or throw himself off the nearest bridge. Somehow, a wet death seemed almost pleasant under the circumstances.

He took a large flat rock and a sixteen-pound sledgehammer, placed the rock on the ground in various locations of the property, and smacked it soundly with the hammer. He reasoned that if there were water below somewhere, there might be an underground echo or other indication. He found an area that responded. The more he hit the rock, the more he became convinced that this was the spot. Immediately, he summoned the well driller.

“Here?” The man was not encouraging. “Are you kiddin’? I already drilled right here, too. I didn’t find enough water to rinse out my mouth.”

Joe could not be dissuaded, and after signing a contract guaranteeing payment, he told the man to go to work. The bits were sunk into the ground, and there was nothing. The driller looked at Joe blankly. “Dig deeper,” Joe ordered, and gave him more money. Nothing. “Deeper!” He doled out the cash from the piggy bank.

At last came a gathering gushing sound, and a geyser of water sprayed high into the air coming up at the rate of seventy gallons a minute. The little Sicilian crossed himself.

“How did you know?”

Joe shrugged.

“Mister Atom”—the man pointed heavenward—”you got some-body upstairs.”

With a bit of borrowing and some juggling of finances, Joe fitted a pump on the site, made a small lake, stocked it with fish, and put two boats on it. He enlarged the approach road, constructed another two-story guest house, and built a pool. He was working seventeen hours a day and by now his investment had gotten out of hand, about $55,000 out of hand. He began alternating one week at the Panoramic, one week of pitching night and day to try to pay the previous week’s bills.

The Panoramic Health Farm was no mom-and-pop candy store; the clientele was an eccentric and demanding bunch. For the first time in her life, Leah started visiting doctors. The diagnoses were the same: overwork.

After a decade, rather than have the Panoramic Health Farm kill them, Joe sold out for such a disastrously low figure that he needn’t have drilled for water; he ended taking a bath in his own money. He gladly returned full-time to the life of a pitchman.

In August of 1938, a German Day rally had drawn a turnout of forty thousand wildly cheering spectators for a parade of two thousand uniformed Nazis. Not in Munich but in Yaphank, Long Island. Joe Greenstein’s anti-Nazi battles had begun as soon as Hitler’s supporters had attempted to sink American roots. He had an idea of what was coming. “Throughout time, for the Jews it never changes. Fight to live. There is no alternative.” The Nazi was a creature of the streets, and there Joe lowered himself to meet them.

The Mighty Atom takes on the Nazis:

He revised and augmented his lectures. In addition to his discourse on clean living, he talked of current events. Pinned to his metal-covered board of 2-inch pine was a caricature of a pig wearing a swastika arm band. The head of the pig was that of Adolf Hitler. After a few choice comments about the German in question, the Atom would take a twenty-penny spike in his hand and smack it through the Nazi pig’s heart. The crowd cheered its approval, but certain others didn’t think it quite so funny.

About forty years later, Norman Jacobs, Joe’s son-in-law, remembered an incident of that time. “I was sitting in their Park Place kitchen with my wife Mary and Leah, when we heard a wild commotion outside. We looked out the window to find Pop mixing it up with four men in the alley. I started out the door to help, but Leah ordered me to stay put. ‘Pop will take care of it. But you . . . she warned, ‘if you go out, you’ll get hurt.'”

When the sounds of battle had subsided, the family went into the alleyway where they found the first combatant sprawled unconscious, his arm and leg broken. The second assailant was discovered in a garbage can, head and legs down, having been folded up and deposited like a discarded sandwich, the can cover neatly on top of him. The third man fled. Joe sat atop the fourth bruiser, putting the finishing touches on him.

The Mighty Atom had spent the afternoon making one of his anti-Hitler speeches; the Nazi quartet had followed him home and waylaid him in the alley. “Who are they, Pop?” Leah asked him.

Joe got to his feet, brushed off his pants, and surveyed the men in the alley. “Nobody,” he said.

There were dispiriting moments on mornings when he considered the number of well-organized Nazi goons that he might have to go up against that afternoon. At these times there was a passage in the Bible that revitalized him. His was the same secret weapon with which Joshua and Israel had overcome the terrifying horde arrayed against them:

. . . I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee…

—Exodus XXIII:22: 23

Shortly after a huge Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in February, 1939, the Mighty Atom found himself walking through Manhattan’s Yorkville German section on a business matter. He stopped in his tracks at a sign in bold letters posted on a building’s second floor: “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED!”

He stared at it for a while before inquiring of a passerby, “What the hell is that?” He was informed that a Nazi Bund meeting was being conducted upstairs. He went across the street to a paint store, where with a three-dollar deposit, he rented an 18-foot ladder. Back he came and opened it beneath the sign. Returning across the street, this time to a sporting-goods store, he purchased a Louisville slugger baseball bat—a “Hank Greenberg Model.” He parked it in the doorway beneath the sign.

He went up the ladder, tore the sign down, and tossed it into the gutter. The operation had not gone unnoticed. Several of the Nazis looked out aghast from the second-floor window. The action which followed was in the best tradition of a Popeye cartoon. Before the Atom could climb down from his high perch, the entire Bund assembly had come charging down the stairs into the street.

The Mighty Atom was shaken off his ladder, but he came up bat in hand. They came at him singly and in numbers, frontally and encircling; all to no avail. “It wasn’t a fight,” Joe said later, “it was a pleasure.” He sent eighteen of them to the hospital in various stages of extreme disrepair. He sustained a black eye.

Hauled into court on a charge of aggravated assault, mass mayhem, and so forth, a bedraggled but surprisingly cheerful Joe Greenstein stood meekly and alone before the bench, his only compatriot the “mouse” under his eye. A white-haired judge looked solemnly down as the charge was read. The jurist could hardly believe that the mild, little man before him could have perpetrated such an assault. Then, he surveyed the victims before him, a veritable parade of broken joints, purple contusions, and awkwardly plastered and wired limbs. The battered Aryans filled half the courtroom.

“You mean this little man . . . did that . . . to all of them?” the judge inquired in disbelief.

“Yes, Your Honor,” nodded an eyewitness police sergeant. “Them that ain’t still in the hospital.”

The judge turned his attention to the defendant. “Mr. Greenstein, these are serious charges. Do you have anything to say?”

“Yessir, Judge.” The Atom brightened. “Every time I swung the bat it was a home run!”

Quietly, the judge inquired of the sergeant what had provoked such a clash. “Them’re Nazis, Your Honor,” the officer whispered. “They went after him.”

“NOT GUILTY! CASE DISMISSED!” The judge banged his gavel.

“But, Your Honor . . .” the Bund’s lawyer protested. “I said, case dismissed.” The gavel boomed again with finality, and the judge retired to his chambers.

Photos from Spielman’s book:

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.42 AMThe young Mighty Atom

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.05.11 AMThe Mighty Atom stops an airplane tied to his hair from taking off

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.08 AMThe Mighty Atom pulls a fire engine


Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 11.39.18 AM

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