Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 25, 2016

Samuel Farber: avoid Che Guevara, he is not good for you

Filed under: cuba,Samuel Farber Cubanology — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

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Is there a more unctuous Pecksniff on the American left than Samuel Farber? I’d be hard-pressed to name one.

In an article for Jacobin, which is rapidly adopting many of the colors of the “socialism from below” part of the left that measures revolutions against its own lofty standards and invariably gives them a failing grade, Farber warns radical youth against Che Guevara like some parents warned against smoking marijuana in the early 60s—it was not good for you..

You can practically figure out what will be in Farber’s rancid article without going past the title:

Assessing Che
Che Guevara was an honest and committed revolutionary. But he never embraced socialism in its most democratic essence.

How generous of Farber to find Che “honest and committed”. But the poor thing never “embraced socialism” as presumably Farber did many years ago when he belonged to YPSL. Embracing socialism, as we all know, rather than Cuban petty-bourgeois authoritarianism is an acid test for the left. Very few souls have been pure enough to pass the test but Farber, Tim Wolforth, and James Robertson were among those who stood up for genuine Cuban socialism when a repressive, petite-bourgeois, anti-proletarian regime was making life hell for the workers.

The point of Farber’s article is to wake up the left to the fact that “Che Guevara’s politics had far more in common with the politics of the Castro brothers than many of his current admirers would care to admit.” Well, gee, I don’t know how to put this but most leftists who are ready to trash Fidel and Raul are just as ready to trash Che.

Farber’s case for seeing Che as an enemy of the vaunted “socialism from below” is consistent with his shabby record of either bending the truth or simply writing lies.

He starts off by saying that “he shared with them a revolutionary politics from above that allowed him to retain, along with the Castros, the political control and initiative on the island, based on a monolithic conception of a type of socialism immune to any democratic control and initiative from below.”

I always get a chuckle when I read Farber about the need for democratic control. This is a guy, after all, who viewed the Cuban CP as more in the socialist tradition than the July 26th movement, not being bothered apparently that the CP urged a vote for Batista in the 1930s. But the Stalinists can be forgiven because their party was the  “only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist” in contrast to the July 26th movement that was “antitheoretical” and “antiprogrammatic”:

Last but not least, the PSP [Popular Socialist Party, the pro-Kremlin official party] was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted to the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

–Samuel Farber, “The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 1983

So that’s what “embracing socialism” means, voting for Batista and being “theoretical”. What a joke.

Moving right along, Farber contends that a sign of Che bureaucratic/centralist tendencies was his response to a difficult situation in the Congo. Che supposedly had a panacea: the creation of a “vanguard Communist Party that would singlehandedly lead a revolution” in the Congo even though he believed that it lacked “any of the necessary conditions for socialist revolution.” So what kind of asshole would be for the creation of a vanguard party in a country that could never have a revolution to begin with? Farber helps us out by linking to an excerpt from Che’s Congo Diary, which appeared in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/aug/12/cuba.artsandhumanities. I defy you to find a single word about building vanguard parties. In fact, the excerpt is mostly a cautionary note about expecting too much out of a badly divided country and insisting on the need for practical assistance such as doctors and technicians. Does Farber expect people reading his idiotic article not to bother to check his sources? Maybe Jacobin can hire a good fact-checker so that the unwary reader does not waste his time on such shoddy journalism.

Farber does credit Che with being a radical egalitarian unlike the Castro brothers. So what made him a good guy at least on this count? It can be explained by his “bohemian upbringing” in Argentina. I don’t have a clue what Farber is talking about here. Jon Lee Anderson’s fairly decent biography does not yield a portrait of a guy walking around in sandals reading Rimbaud. Instead Che is seen as a deeply idealistic student who chooses to become a doctor so he can help the poor. Maybe because Che and a friend went “on the road” in Latin America on a beat-up old motorcycle, this is supposed to evoke Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. But if you read “Motorcycle Diaries”, the thing that stands out is his outrage over the suffering of the poor, especially the Indians. Che Guevara was no “bohemian”. He was an embryonic revolutionary.

This alleged bohemianism apparently went hand in hand with asceticism, according to Farber (as if potheads in the early 60s weren’t fond of a pint of cherry vanilla ice cream when they were feeling kind of groovy.) So ascetic was Che that he believed that the Cubans could be “educated” to live without the boob tube according to Farber’s latest book “The Politics of Che Guevara”, which is now available from Haymarket. Since the Vietnamese were building socialism without TV’s, why couldn’t Cuba? After consulting this book on Google, I could find no reference to Che’s actual words, only Farber’s extrapolation thereof from what seems like an off-the-cuff observation. You would have to search in vain to find any extended analysis that Che made about consumer goods. His main emphasis was not on living like monks but in avoiding the competition and materialism that exists in bourgeois society. All you need to do is read “Socialism and Man in Cuba” to see that the question of consumer goods is not even posed. In fact, Farber seems to grasp this in referring to his “hyper-voluntarism that expressed itself both in politics and in economic policy through his stress on moral incentives and creating a ‘New Man’ who was totally dedicated to society and oblivious to his individual fulfillment.” For that matter, you can find the same sort of revolutionary zeal in the USSR in the early years (or the French revolution for that matter) not that this would make any difference to Farber who looks just as much askance at Bolshevik rule as he does the Cuban CP.

Farber ends his article with a bouquet of platitudes:

Socialism: because the true liberation of working people can only be attained when both the economy and the polity come under the control of the women and men who through their work make social existence possible. Democracy: because majority rule and respect for minority rights and civil liberties is the only way that working people can in fact, and not in theory alone, control their destiny. Revolution: because even the most welcome, authentic reforms cannot bring about true emancipation and liberation.

You can obviously say that the USSR also failed to achieve socialism. Indeed, the entire history of the revolutionary movement since the time of Karl Marx has been marked by failure. While everybody is for the economy and the polity coming “under the control of the women and men who through their work make social existence possible”, the challenge for the left is how to bring that about.

Cuba has failed to satisfy these benchmarks for a variety of reasons. To start with, an “open society” would have been exploited by its enemies to destroy the revolution in its infancy. How do I know that? Because I saw it happen in Nicaragua where the government following Cuban advice to avoid their own excesses gave the USA the opening it needed to pour millions of dollars into the counter-revolutionary press and parties. When Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in 1861, he was facing far less of a threat than Cuba did 100 years later. Does that matter to Farber? Certainly not. He has one yardstick for Cuba and another for the rest of the world.

The other problem is that the Castro brothers and Che Guevara were men of their times. In the late 50s when they went into the mountains to launch a guerrilla war in combination with the student and trade union movement in the cities, the USSR was at the height of its prestige globally. The Russians had defeated Hitler, were providing aid to nationalist movements around the world (even if often ineffectively), and were making great industrial and scientific progress. The Cubans were likely to be influenced by ideology that diffused outwards from the Kremlin, as was obvious with Fidel’s highly critical support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The kind of people who sounded like Sam Farber in Cuba were affiliated with J. Posadas’s Fourth International. Posadas had all of the same ideas as Sam Farber and Cubans were free to read them in the Posadista bookshop, which for some reason avoided being shut down by the dictatorship. Posadas advocated a working class revolution that most certainly conformed to Farber’s strict guidelines of “socialism from below”. He also had some other odd ideas that Farber probably would have had problems with, such as advocating a first strike nuclear attack by the USSR so that socialism could emerge out of the radioactive ashes.

Fortunately, the Castro brothers steered clear of the Posadas bookstore even if it meant disappointing Sam Farber.

 

May 24, 2016

My Father’s Vietnam

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

Over the years there have been any number of narrative films about Vietnam veterans ranging from the sensationalistic Rambo series to quieter and more serious films like “In Country” or “Coming Home”. As for documentaries, they tend to be made under the impact of the antiwar movement such as “Winter Soldier” or harrowing tales of survival like “Return with Honor” or “Little Dieter Loves to Fly”, both of which are focused on the ordeals of POW’s.

If you’ve seen these sorts of films, you’ll have a little bit of trouble getting the hang of “My Father’s Vietnam”, a documentary that premieres on VOD today, a deceptively modest but powerful work that combines stock footage, family photos and interviews with a number of veterans who were connected in some way with a man named Peter Sorensen whose son Soren directed the film.

The documentary begins with an epigraph drawn from a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925 that “war is…the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” This of course is not only appropriate for the experience the film contemplates but the particular connection made between Peter Sorensen and another soldier named Loring M. Bailey Jr. who was killed by an IED in Vietnam. Sorensen and Bailey, known to his friends as Ring, were white, middle-class and well-educated men who became friends at Officer’s Candidate School after joining the army in 1968 and discovering that they shared a love for Hemingway.

Either of them could have figured out a way to stay out of the military as I and most people from their milieu did but they joined mostly as a way of fulfilling a necessary obligation. Neither were particularly gung-ho but there were factors that likely influenced their decision. Sorensen came from a long line of military men, including the director’s great-grandfather who is seen in a Danish army uniform at the beginning of the film, looking for all the world like a cast member of a 19th century operetta.

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Ring Bailey’s father, who died in 2010 at the age of 96, is interviewed throughout the film. He was a lifelong employee of the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut where he designed warships. Unlike Peter Sorensen, who describes the Vietnam war as imperialist toward the end of the film without using the word, the elder Bailey says nothing about the war itself. His thoughts are riveted on his dead son who was lost to this senseless war at the age of 24 back in 1969. At one point, when you see him with an American flag lapel on his suit jacket, you assume that he was likely part of Nixon’s “silent majority”.

The other figure with a key role in the film is Ring Bailey’s brother-in-law Rik Carlson, who was an SDS member the year that Bailey was killed. He had a beard and shoulder length hair at the time with a willingness to do anything to oppose the war, including risking arrest for putting oil drums in the Connecticut River that were supposed to look like mines just after Nixon mined Haiphong harbor. Despite his hatred for the war, he loved his brother-in-law and remains haunted by his death. Forty-seven years after his death, he can’t help but cry over his loss.

Peter Sorensen is a thoughtful and reflective man whose recollections anchor the film. He had hopes of being a journalist before enlisting and actually realized them in the military after being reassigned to a media unit after writing an article about a battle with the Vietnamese. He tried to arrange a transfer for his friend Ring Bailey who was killed before it could come through. Like Rik Carlson, he can’t get the dead man out of his memory.

Soren Sorenson decided to make the film in order to figure out what made his highly introverted father tick. To some extent, this was a change of personality that followed the trauma of Vietnam. He suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for years without understanding what was bothering him. In being interviewed by his son, he probably experienced a catharsis similar to those who have had successful psychotherapy.

For his part, Soren Sorenson was inspired to make the film to understand what made his self-contained father break down into tears at the Maya Lin Vietnam Memorial in Washington when he accompanied him at the age of 8. It disturbed him to see a strong man sob.

My own father, who died in 1970, was in the thick of the most brutal American campaign in Europe during WWII—the Battle of the Bulge. I could never get him to speak about it and doubt that having a video camera would have made much difference. For him, as it was for most GI’s, the war was such a horror show that he would not want to relive the experience even if only in his mind. He came back from Europe with the hope of enjoying a normal life and a modicum of security. The post-WWII boom fulfilled his wishes up to the point when LBJ escalated the war and turned me into a revolutionary. I sometimes wonder what he would make of the world today, with its ever-increasing insecurity for people like him and its non-stop imperial wars. I suppose he would have remained tight-lipped as ever, the characteristic of a man who simply lacked the perspective to put everything into context. As for me, I have that perspective but would have much preferred to have been untouched by the war that forced me to dig deeply into the question of why it began in the first place. Although Trotsky was misattributed by the wonderful leftwing novelist Alan Furst, I was impacted forever by these words: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

May 23, 2016

Living on $2 per day

Filed under: poverty,racism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

In the latest NY Review of Books, there’s a review of Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” by one Christopher Jencks, a name I am familiar with even though I know next to nothing about his ideas or what he stands for. After reading the review titled “Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer”, I decided to have a closer look.

“$2.00 a Day” has been hailed by most reviewers. For example, William Julius Wilson concluded his NY Times review with this:

This essential book is a call to action, and one hopes it will accomplish what Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” achieved in the 1960s — arousing both the nation’s consciousness and conscience about the plight of a growing number of invisible citizens.

Jencks does appear in places to side with the authors, but in a highly qualified way. Last year he wrote an article in the NY Review claiming that “official” poverty statistics were misleading since they neglected to include food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that can yield a refund for the lower-income families that qualify. For Jencks, this has led to “roughly half the families now counted as officially poor” having “a higher standard of living than families with incomes at the poverty line had in 1969.”

But after reading Edin and Shaefer, Jencks is forced to admit that “the poorest of the poor are also worse off today than they were in 1969.” So, what accounts for the discrepancy?

Much of “$2.00 a Day” is devoted to reporting on the problems faced by poor women with children who used to depend on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) that was abolished by President Clinton in 1996 as part of a “welfare reform” that Hillary Clinton supported at the time and still supports.

AFDC was replaced by something called TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) that allowed states to shaft indigent mothers through a variety of methods, especially the right to reallocate TANF funds to financial aid for college students, etc. Many women give up on TANF because the application process is so discouraging, intentionally so. Jencks recounts what one woman had to put up with:

[Modonna] Harris looked for new jobs, without success. After her unemployment benefits ran out, a friend noticed that Harris had no food in her apartment for herself or her child and persuaded her to apply for TANF. The welfare office opened at 8:30 AM, so Harris showed up at 8:00. At least on that particular day, however, there were only enough appointment slots for applicants who had joined the line in the rain outside the welfare office before 7:30. After waiting most of the day, Harris left without having been given a chance to apply, convinced that TANF would never help her.

This is obviously related to the “discouraged workers” syndrome that led many men and women with good jobs all their life to remain permanently unemployed after losing jobs when they were in their fifties. It was just too demoralizing and pointless to apply for positions that they had no chance of nailing down. As it happens, such people are not considered to be unemployed by government agencies.

Jencks ultimately returns to his food stamp/EITC arguments in order to demonstrate that despite all the difficulties, Modonna Harris was not that bad off since the authors leave that out of the equation. There is another criticism I found positively chilling:

Another concern about Edin and Shaefer’s estimates of extreme poverty in $2.00 a Day is that they include families whose income fell below $2 a day per person for even one month. If a single mother loses her job, has no relatives, no close friends, no romantic partner, and no assets she can sell or borrow against, one month without income can be catastrophic now that TANF is so hard to get. However, a single mother who has just lost her job often has some of those assets, as $2.00 a Day shows. When that is the case, her first month without income does not always mean that her family will go hungry, much less that they will all be put out on the street for not paying the rent. The longer she goes without income, however, the more likely she is to exhaust her relatives’ sympathy, her boyfriend’s willingness to bring over pizza for dinner, or the cash she had left from her EITC refund for her work during the previous year. There is no “one-size-fits-all” rule for deciding how long a family can survive without income, but for some, at least, one month need not be disastrous.

I lingered for a minute on this sentence realizing that Jencks was trying to minimize the impact of trying to live on $2 per day for a month. This is a Harvard professor who has no idea what kind of suffering that entails. Plus the business about the “romantic partner” and “her boyfriend’s willingness to bring over pizza for dinner” smacks of the welfare investigator’s mentality that was embodied in the Clinton administration’s “welfare reform”.

Wikipedia indicates that Jencks is hardly the sort of person a “liberal” magazine like the NY Review should be calling upon to review such a book:

Jencks was on the dissertation committee of former member of The Heritage Foundation Jason Richwine, who completed his Ph.D. thesis, “I.Q. and Immigration Policy,” at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Widely discredited for the way it linked race to I.Q. levels, the thesis lost Richwine his job at the Foundation. Asked to pass comment on his involvement in what journalist and historian Jon Wiener calls a “travesty,” Jencks replied “Nope. But thanks for asking.”

The dissertation chair was one George Borjas, a conservative economist who writes about immigration for National Review and The Wall Street Journal according to Wiener but he had trouble understanding why Jencks would vote with Borjas on approving a dissertation whose last sentence was: “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”

This perplexed Wiener who described Jencks as “a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?, The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap.”

In 2004, Jencks co-authored an article with Scott Winship for Harvard Magazine titled “Understanding Welfare Reform”. ()  Winship was a Harvard grad student when he wrote this neoliberal article but he continued rightward until he finally settled into a position at the toxic Manhattan Institute where he writes articles like “Inequality Does Not Reduce Prosperity”. Nice.

Winship and Jencks argue that the Clinton abolition of AFDC was not so bad because of the provision of food stamps, EITC and Medicaid. In fact, poor people probably benefited from the changes:

Fast-forward to 2002, when the welfare legislation was set to expire. That year the welfare rolls were less than half their size in 1996. Female-headed families with children were less likely to receive welfare benefits than at any point in at least 40 years. The magnitude of the change surpassed everyone’s predictions. Even more remarkably, however, the official poverty rate among female-headed families with children — based on $14,500 for a woman with two children in 2002 — had fallen from 42 percent to 34 percent during this period. At no time between 1959 (when the Census Bureau first began tabulating such data) and 1996 had this figure dropped below 40 percent. Welfare reform is now widely viewed as one of the greatest successes of contemporary social policy. [emphasis added]

I have to give credit to people like Barbara Ehrenreich and Charles Platt who took minimum wage jobs to be able to write about what life is like when you are poor. This is something that Christopher Jencks obviously would never consider. Let him try to live on $2 for “only a month” and see what it is like.

Although I never did this myself, I got insights on what this meant when I worked for the Department of Welfare in Harlem back in 1968. This and the war in Vietnam was enough to turn me into a revolutionary. Here’s an excerpt from my memoir that is covered under fair usage law that covers this shattering experience:

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May 22, 2016

A guide to classical music programming on the Internet

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

The Sonos Playbar: my salvation from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”

As probably many of you know, I am married to a professor who works in the CUNY system and like all those on the tenure-track is obligated to publish articles or—as they put it—perish. This means that when she is at work on an article in the living room, I cannot play CD’s or listen to the FM on my beloved high-end stereo.

A year or so ago we bought a 40 inch flat-screen Samsung TV for the bedroom that came at a very reasonable price from Best Buy since it was probably toward the end of its market life-cycle. Not long afterwards, I decided to get a Sonos Playbar that replaces the TV speakers with amplified speakers of a much better quality. It costs $700 and is worth every penny since not only is it great-sounding, it is also an Internet streaming device that allows you to listen to Spotify et al but also Radio by Tunein  that gives you access to FM stations all around the world as well as “cloud” based streaming services that are sometimes funded by advertising. Although the Sonos is no competition for my Dahlquist DQ-20 speakers in the living room, they are quite listenable and more importantly don’t interfere with my wife’s research. Needless to say, they will sound a lot better than any speaker that comes with your computer or even those that are sold as a substitute from companies like Logitech.

Before identifying my “bookmarked” Radio by Tunein sources, a few words about the question of classical music programming are in order. One of the reasons I looked forward to having access to Internet-based streaming was the utterly bankrupt nature of WQXR, NYC’s only station devoted to 24/7 classical music programming. I hated it when it was a commercial station laden with Volvo and Heineken ads, but I hated it just as much when it went “non-profit” after being sold to NPR. It has the same annoying commercials every 15 minutes but now they are called “underwriting” spots.

In a perceptive article for the NY Times (the station’s owner before it was bought by NPR) dated September 30, 2009, Daniel Wakin reported on the new WQXR. Right at the top of the article he warned listeners “Don’t expect to hear much vocal music.” Such music obviously is not geared to the sensibilities of what station management views as its ideal audience. Wakin continued:

Tradition, though, appears to top boat-rocking. A mission statement prepared by WQXR’s new programmers said, “There may indeed be times when the more radical and unfamiliar pieces work, but we will not favor them over the work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty and contemplation.”

“Greatness matters,” it added. “Bach trumps Telemann.”

Yeah, well, Bach might be greater than Telemann but if that means the 37th time in a given year there’s a Brandenburg concerto, I’d much rather hear some obscure and “minor” work by Telemann. When you repeat even the greatest composition ad infinitum, the effect is almost as grating as a Trivago commercial.

Wakin continued:

The mission statement proclaims a philosophy of “the right music at the right time.”

“Monday morning, when you’re trying to get your kids to school, you won’t hear the large choral works,” said Limor Tomer, the executive producer for music.

The programmers also provided a sample list of “core composers” and the works that would most likely play on the radio versus the Internet. They stressed that the list was but a guideline.

Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner were there. So were Copland, Janacek, Gershwin, Satie, Sibelius and the ever-popular Vivaldi. Mahler was missing.

Schubert symphonies were deemed radio-worthy but not the piano trios or songs, which were reserved for Q2. Radio received Ravel orchestra music but not solo piano works; Sibelius’s symphonies but not his tone poems; Janacek chamber works but not operas; Brahms symphonies but not choral works; Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos but not the late piano sonatas, songs or chamber works.

Vivaldi had sweeping approval. Except for “shorter sacred works.”

Right, the “ever-popular” Vivaldi who had “sweeping approval”. Except for me who upon hearing “Four Seasons” feels like a prisoner in Abu Ghraib having Billy Joel blasted into his cell 24 hours a day.

Probably the best take on this kind of shitty programming can be found on Radio Survivor, the website of Matthew Lasar and two other editors who are committed to the idea of radio as a source of stimulating cultural material, both classical and popular:

I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.

The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.

I should add that WQXR does have a redeeming feature. It created an Internet-only auxiliary that is sort of its ghetto for interesting music. It is first rate and earns a spot on my recommended Internet sources. In fact, Lasar salutes it in the very article where he blasts WQXR for programming music for the work cubicle:

Hallowed New York City classical radio station WQXR’s “Q2” channel is now well over three years old. I am a big fan of the service. It is one of the few places in the classical music radiosphere in the United States where you can consistently listen to a high quality stream of contemporary classical music on a 24/7 basis. Let me dispense with my mixed feelings about classical radio in general before getting to the unqualified praise section of this post.

Q2 has a variety of program hosts, all of whom are passionate and expert about 20th and 21st century classical music. My favorite show is The Brothers Balliett, identical twin composers and performers who say that they “work tirelessly to one-up each other. This drive creates a self-fueling passion to write the best work, listen to the best music, and learn as much as possible.” I strongly recommend reading their “ten point manifesto,” which begins with “We are the Brothers Balliett” and ends with “We believe in the groove.” Then there is “Sample Rate,” which explores “adventurous sonic manipulations,” and “Hammered,” a show dedicated to keyboard music.

As these program descriptions suggest, Q2 plays avant-garde content, but not too much. Lots of wonderful tonal music pervades the stream. Right now the station is broadcasting its “new music countdown.” Q2 listeners were asked to send in their favorite compositions of the last 100 years. They were broadcast through the weekend and into this week. Here are the last ten compositions played (last time I checked):

Kaija Saariaho – L’amour de loin

Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 7

Igor Stravinsky – L’histoire du Soldat

Edgard Varese – Poeme Electronique

John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Edgard Varese – Ionisation

Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Solo Voices

Alban Berg – Lyric Suite

John Adams – The Chairman Dances

György Ligeti – Atmospheres

Béla Bartók – String Quartet No. 6

Any radio station that plays a Bartok string quartet deserves our unwavering support.

My recommendations come in two parts. The first are FM stations that before Radio by Tunein could only be heard on a conventional radio. This means that if you wanted to hear BBC Radio 3, you had to go over to London. I should add that I am not including it because in my view, it is not that much different from WQXR. While including much more vocal music, it has a tendency to keep selections to within 15 minutes or so. This means you will only hear an excerpt from a Handel opera rather than the whole thing. Finally, there are some conventional stations like WQXR that offer a streaming service as mentioned in the article above. This means that they can be heard on the Internet but not on a radio. As a bonus, these auxiliary services tend to use HD audio, which sound really good over something like the Sonos. They will be indicated below in italics.

The second part are “cloud” stations, which means that they are fairly automated without any on-air hosts. So you don’t get anybody putting the work into context but at the same time benefit from the absence of the sort of banal chatter that plagues WQXR and—to be honest—BBC Radio 3 as well.

FM Stations:

  1. WHRB: Harvard University’s station. It has jazz programming but the classical programming is dominant. Very original and often very challenging music as you might expect from a prestigious Ivy League school.
  2. WWFM: This is owned and operated by Mercer County Community College in New Jersey and features a lot of syndicated programming but of a very high quality, including for example Bill McGlaughlin, whose shows originate on Chicago’s WFMT. WFMT is much more famous than WWFM but I prefer this rather obscure but essential station near Princeton, NJ.
  3. KQAC: This is a nonprofit station in Portland that thankfully is not affiliated with NPR, which tends to the overly familiar despite its nominally nonprofit status. To give you an idea of the sort of thing you might hear, they are playing a Mozart symphony this afternoon but it is number 4 rather than the overexposed number 40.
  4. Toscana Classical Network FM 93.1: From Italy, of course. Can’t tell you much about the station except that the music is outstanding.
  5. WQXR-Q2: Described above.
  6. WTSU-HD2: This is the streaming service of Troy University in Georgia. This is a bare-bones operation that does not even offer a playlist on the website but the music is damned good.
  7. WGBH Early Music: WGBH is Boston’s classical music station and overrated like Chicago’s WFMT. Its main value is providing this streaming service that consists of an archive of live performances of early music originally heard on the station. Most of it is baroque and earlier but they do feature the occasional rarity from Schubert as I am listening to now.

Cloud-based programming:

  1. Ancient FM: Commercial-free programming of music from the renaissance and earlier. Just fabulous if your tastes like mine run toward Jannequin and Hildegarde of Bingen.
  2. Audiophile Baroque: Superb programming from Greece of all places, without any commercials. Considering the nation’s economic situation, this is a miracle.
  3. Twentysound: Devoted to 20th century music but with qualifications as the website puts it: “twentysound is an internet radio channel dedicated to classical music from the 20th and 21st century, focussing on those composers who have carefully developed the great traditions of the 18th and 19th century instead of following radical musical ideologies like twelve tone theory and serialism.” That’s okay with me since I prefer my Webern in very small doses.
  4. Venice Classical Music: From Italy, of course. Music spanning the ages with an emphasis on the unfamiliar, in particular Italian composers. Right now it is playing a Locatelli flute sonata. Yummy!

May 21, 2016

Bernie Sanders announces plans for a new left party

Filed under: Bernie Sanders — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm

Bernie_Sanders_Arrested_1963_Chicago_Tribune

Sanders being arrested at a 1963 anti-segregation protest in Chicago. He was later found guilty of resisting arrest and charged $25. (From Wikipedia)

(This is a thought experiment based on some of the discussion taking place around the need for the Sanders campaign to “continue the struggle” after Clinton becomes the Democratic Party candidate for president.)

My fellow Americans, it is always difficult to admit you are wrong especially when you are a Senator. But the refusal of the convention to approve or even consider reforms that will make the Democratic Party more attractive to voters leaves me with no alternative but to begin the difficult but necessary task of building a new party that not only embraces such reforms but fights for them in municipal, state and national elections. It was my hope that the Democrats could return to the values of the New Deal and the New Society but in the final analysis they insisted on defending the values of Wall Street banks. If they refuse to stand up for the middle class, we have no alternative except to make a stand for the overwhelming majority of Americans who survive from paycheck to paycheck.

The fact that over 4 out of 10 voters agreed with me on the need for a $15 minimum wage, single-payer health insurance, breaking up the largest banks and an end to fracking shows that a basis for a new party exists, one that is not afraid to take on the special interests on Wall Street and that is willing to fight for the right of middle class Americans to enjoy job security, good health and a better future for their children. These were rights that were once at the core of the Democratic Party, the ones that FDR named as the Four Freedoms. If the party has abandoned its core beliefs, then it is up to us to reclaim them in the name of fairness and decency.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12557

May 20, 2016

Almost Holy

Filed under: Film,religion,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

Opening today at the Village East in New York is “Almost Holy”, a documentary about a Ukrainian pastor named Gennadiy Mokhnenko who created the Pilgrim Republic, a home for drug addicted street kids in Mariupol in 1998. Mokhneko is a larger than life character with an absolute conviction that he is doing the right thing even if it involves what amounts to vigilantism. When he goes into a pharmacy that has been selling opiates to children and reads the pharmacist the riot act, you tend to view him in a positive light especially in a society like Ukraine where the cops are frequently nothing but criminals themselves. Although Jesus Christ was only a figure of legend, it is remarkable to see a contemporary Christian trying to emulate that side of the son of god who drove the money changers from the temple.

The film is also of interest as a running commentary on the civil war in Ukraine as Mokhnenko has to dodge rockets and artillery attacks to continue with his mission, which mostly consists of going into what amounts to the Ninth Circle of hell to reach 13 to 17-year-old boys and girls who are living in abandoned buildings or shacks with needle tracks running down their arms and nothing to live for until their next fix. Mokhnenko lays it on the line: Come with him to the Pilgrim Republic if they want to live. Oddly enough, it evokes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line in Terminator 2 especially since Gennadiy Mokhnenko looks like he is carved out of granite.

The film is a good companion piece to “The Tribe” that I reviewed almost a year ago. Like “Almost Holy”, it was set in a home for Ukrainian society’s marginalized youth—in this instance deaf teenagers who were trapped into gang life and prostitution by the men who ran the institution. Although it would have been obvious to anybody following the recent history of Ukraine, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiiy made it explicit in the press notes:

A boarding school is better than just a school because it is a closed system, which––like a prison––can be perceived to be a metaphor of the state even if that isn’t the intention. The Tribe is, to a certain extent, a metaphor of the arrangement of the Ukrainian state, at least the pre-revolutionary Ukraine. And the arrangement of the state of Ukraine was based on the principle of a Mafiosi group.

In “Almost Holy”, the children are victims more of neglect than direct exploitation by Fagin like characters. They have run away from impossible situations at home, usually the result of having alcoholic and abusive parents. Indeed, the social portrait that emerges is the same as Russia during Yeltsin’s rule when Jeffrey Sachs’s shock therapy was destroying the economy and driving millions of Russians into drug and alcohol addiction. Now that Sachs has recast himself as an “anti-imperialist”, he would obviously side with the Russian special forces that were bombing Mariupol when the film was being made. In a CNBC article, he justified Russian intervention in the Ukraine using the favorite talking point of the “realists” like Stephen F. Cohen or John Mearsheimer:

Some claim that each country has the “right” to choose its own military alliance: that this is simply Ukraine’s choice to make. Yet the U.S. has never allowed its own neighbors like Cuba (or Nicaragua, Granada, and several others) to choose their own alliances. To claim to Russia that Ukraine’s membership in NATO is Ukraine’s decision alone is the beam in the eye of the West.

So there we have it. If it was all right for the USA to blockade Cuba, it was also all right for Russia to launch a separatist war.

Apart from what it says about life in Ukraine, the film is documentary at its finest. Director Steve Hoover starts with a compelling main character, something that is essential to the success of most documentaries, and uses the camera and film score to sustain your attention for the film’s entire 100 minutes. This is a morality tale that will force many of my readers, who like me tend to be atheists and skeptical of organized religion except for the Latin American liberation theology current, to engage with a personality who in many ways has more in common with the Christian right in the USA. Gennadiy Mokhnenko is not a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church but a Protestant sect. For that matter, he doesn’t appear to be functioning as a pastor but much more as a kind of community activist. It should also be understood that he is an anti-Communist, endorsing at one point the trashing of a Lenin statue. As the son of factory workers, he probably came to resent not only the social distinctions of Stalinist society but its failure to at least satisfy the needs of the population as it reached its terminal stages in the 1980s.

In doing some background research on the director, I discovered that I had reviewed his last documentary, which was titled “Blood Brother” and had a main character resembling Gennadiy Mokhnenko:

When I first heard that the documentary “Blood Brother” was about a young American going to India to work with HIV-positive orphans, the first thing that entered my mind was “another Mother Teresa”. The only question is what would motivate someone to take what amounted to a vow of poverty and devote himself to people he barely knew and who were in such desperate straits. Was it religion? Was it a kind of AIDS activism that was prevalent in the USA during the early years of the outbreak?

It turns out that the protagonist, a lean and handsome youth named Rocky Braat who grew up in Pittsburgh, remained as much of a mystery as the film ended as when it began. This, however, is what makes it appealing. You are both impressed with his dedication but at a loss to figure out what makes him tick. In an age when people his age are desperate to find a job—any job—it is a mystery (in the original sense) as to why Rocky would reject that path and choose to live a Christ-like existence. As the press notes state: “Rocky endures a daily diet of rice, a rat infested hut, visa problems.”

Upon further investigation, I discovered what motivated Hoover to make “Blood Brother” and why that troubled some critics. It turned out that Braat and Hoover were both members of the evangelical Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, which is part of the International Churches of Christ. This is a church that deploys missionaries and proselytizes for beliefs that are probably not that far from Gennadiy Mokhnenko’s. Although it has no connections to the rightwing fundamentalists who follow politicians like Ted Cruz, it is not exactly an institution that most film critics would feel sympathy for.

Writing for PBS’s POV blog, Tom Roston offered a carefully nuanced assessment of “Blood Brother” and its ties to the International Churches of Christ:

Hoover says he did not have a Christian agenda making the film. It’s up to you if you want to connect the dots the way I have. But, I should add, these questions become more pointed when you remember that the credits direct viewers to the charity LIGHT. Is there an appropriate amount information provided by Hoover’s documentary, or even on LIGHT’s website, to make an informed decision to donate? Presidential candidate Barack Obama had to answer for his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He confronted those issues and was able to move on — and get elected. Hoover might not want us to go there, but I think this is the price of membership in his church.

I hope three things come from me raising this issue. One, that we can have a constructive discussion about when and whether a filmmaker’s personal life is relevant to a discussion about his or her film. Two, if Hoover puts himself in his next film, about a rogue Ukrainian priest who goes to extreme measures to get drug-addicted youth off the streets, that he considers acknowledging his past doing similar work and mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story. And, third, that Blood Brother gets that Oscar nomination. Hoover is a good filmmaker and Blood Brother‘s cause, as it is presented in the film, is more than just.

Keeping this background in mind, it is appropriate to quote Steve Hoover from the film’s press notes as to “mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story.” It is also a fascinating account of what it meant for Americans to make a film in a war-torn nation:

The journey of this film began in 2012 when some of my co-workers were commissioned to do a promotional video in Ukraine. While in Mariupol, they met Gennadiy Mokhnenko and spent a few days with him. After listening to his stories and witnessing his amorphous work, they returned with enthusiasm and proposed doing a feature length non-fiction film on Gennadiy. I wasn’t interested in the idea until they shared raw footage with me and further explained some of the context. I was struck by the character of Gennadiy.

Once in Ukraine, we encountered many challenges, the most obvious being that we don’t speak Russian. With the exception of the main subject’s broken English, almost all of the dialogue was Russian. While shooting, we relied heavily on a translator, observation and the main subjects’ limited explanations of events. We had four cameras; two of them were constantly rolling. We committed to filming everything we possibly could, which made for a difficult but rewarding post process.

My life has changed radically throughout the making of this film. Formerly, I was Christian, or I at least identified as one, but I no longer am. There’s a lot to the story. I was raised in a religiously apathetic, broken, Catholic family. I converted to a nondenominational church in college. To me, faith was a solution to the existential confusion I found myself in after a long, overindulgence in psychotropic drugs, which spanned my adolescence. As a teenager, I was obsessed with hallucinating and the drugs were boundless. The faith eventually helped me to pull myself together, giving me guidance, discipline and a moral framework, all of which I didn’t really have beforehand. It also dispelled an attraction I had to heroin. I had never used heroin, but I was always seduced by the idea and a step away from it, along with several friends who came to die from overdoses. My college roommate at the time was dealing and coaxing me with free dope. He has since overdosed and died.

Gennadiy’s former work with drug addled street kids in Ukraine struck a chord with my darker past. Had I been born in Mariupol, Gennadiy would have had me by the collar. I found deeper interest however, not in the kids I empathized with, but in a character I didn’t understand. The story could have gone in many different directions.

Eventually, I found myself standing in a van while our crew was being attacked by an angry Pro-Russian mob in Ukraine. I was both terrified and calm. I knew that if we made it out of the situation, my life would change – this time in a different way. Up until that point, for several years I had resisted coming to terms with the fact that my beliefs had changed. My cultural liberalism didn’t align with the faith, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze it in. I had grown weary of the behavior and practices of the church that I was a part of and increasingly uncomfortable with the social pressures that some of the members were asserting on me.

The van broke through the mob and after a short car chase, I found myself resolute. I would embrace my worldview and move on. I spent the remainder of the year, mostly alone with the edit. Working on the edit of the film was a means of catharsis for me.

Though the making of this film had a distinctive effect on my life personally, this is definitely not a call to action film; if anything, it’s more of a portrait. It is something to look at, reflect on and discuss. In light of current events, I hope it gives people a reason to research the conflict in Ukraine. Although this film isn’t designed to be a political tool, it has obvious relevance to the turmoil between the EU, Russia and Ukraine and offers some context. The film could develop additional relevance as the conflict progresses.

While the film was in development, I was told by different establishments that there was some controversy surrounding the film. Some felt the portrayal of Gennadiy was too objective and people wanted to know “how the director felt about him.” Some liked Gennadiy, while others were disapproving. I believe Gennadiy is confounding, so I wasn’t comfortable telling people how to think and feel about him. I wanted to show the complicated nature of this character and the world he lives in.

How the Syrian Revolution has transformed me

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011. The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one an…

Source: How the Syrian Revolution has transformed me

May 18, 2016

Socialism in the borscht belt

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

From pages 89-93 of Catskill Culture:

In the Catskills, comics often made jokes about college activists, and the guests seemed to share negative opinions about those antiwar groups, such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The hotels openly opposed unionization of their staff and certainly didn’t treat the lowest levels of the workers very well. Guests were very concerned with upward mobility, a logical desire given their Eastern European background.

Altogether, that made the Mountains seem conservative to me. By age sixteen, a junior in high school, I was very involved in civil rights and antiwar activities at home in North Miami Beach and, and by college I was a full-time activist. But I always felt like I had to keep my mouth shut about this during the Catskill summers. The few conversations I ever ever had about politics made me look like a far-left outsider. Thus, I was completely shocked at the age of seventeen to be introduced to the wonderful political ballads of Phil Ochs by a dining room colleague who brought a portable stereo to the Karmel Hotel’s staff quarters. (Ochs was one of the best known political folk singers in the 1960s.) Yet, overall, I experienced the Catskills as an encapsulated world that the activist 1960s had not yet captured. Certainly my radical friends were not even considering working summers in a place like the Catskills.

By the early 1970s, my mother was working at Chait’s Hotel in Accord, where political discussion was common, and she very much liked that atmosphere. I then realized that there was a leftist tradition in the Mountains, and my current process of revisiting the Catskills’ legacy has shown that radicalism was an important, even though small, part of Catskill culture. As early as the first two decades of the century, Workmen’s Circle chapters were significant components in the life of Jewish farmers and other residents, bringing a combination of socialism, union organizing, Yiddish culture, and benevolent association. In the 1930s, when some Jews believed in the Soviet Union’s plans for a Birobidjan homeland for the Jews, camps in the Catskills were organizing training centers for that effort. My mother toyed with the idea of going to Birobidjan, but my father talked her out of it.

The fervor of the 1930s was so strong that politics made its way even into hotels that were not expressly radical. A waiter who worked at the Huntington Lakeside told me how political entertainment might crop up in the 1930s: One of his guests was the famous Yiddish actor Mikhl Rosenberg, who organized a costume ball where he dressed the waiter up as Trotsky, and they lampooned the Moscow show trials of 1936. One man who worked a variety of jobs for seventy years recalls his own activism:

In 1934, we had a young Jewish group that studied Marxism. We had classes; we had a dramatic class. The girls and boys from Monticello [were] a very nice bunch. We had dances. And came May Day, we had a May Day demonstration. We had a speaker on the corner with an American flag. There was almost a riot there. The police department came out, the fire department came out, [and] the American Legion. Some guy threw a tomato. They thought the speaker picked up the flag to ward it off, but he didn’t. They hit the flag [with the tomato] and it bounced off and hit him in the face. Well, there was a trial in the fall, and our lawyers made monkeys out of them and threw it out of court.

Three years later when this man was attempting to organize waiters at the Flagler, he found it hard to sign up union members because a floating work force typically didn’t return the next year to the same hotel—”I had my head cracked a couple of times.”

In her memoir of hotel ownership and local life, Cissie Blumberg [LP: a close friend of my mother] notes that the town of Woodridge donated an ambulance to the Spanish Loyalists in the 1930s. She and her husband raised money for the Progressive Party’s 1948 campaign to elect Henry Wallace as President, and they organized “Farmers for Wallace” and “Women for Wallace.” In the antiwar 1960s, they ran up against roadblocks in organizing a meeting featuring Dr. Benjamin Spock when officials wouldn’t provide a public building to hold the meeting. I heard from others that Green Acres made a point of hiring blacklisted entertainers such as Zero Mostel. A son of chicken farmers told me about how his parents were active in the American Labor Party (ALP). His father ran for state assembly in 1950, and his mother spoke and leafleted, sometimes with his help—”They were part of an identifiable left-wing group in the community.” The ALP fought against the cold war mentality, racism, and anti-Semitism, and it ran candidates for local and state elections, supported the 1948 Wallace campaign, and raised support and money for the Rosenbergs. (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as “atom spies.” Widely understood as a frame-up of political activists, the Rosenberg case was a touchstone of McCarthyist repression on the one hand and progressive politics on the other.) The son adds, “One of the most memorable and important activities that I remember was organizing the black laundry workers at the Sullivan County Steam Laundry” to help them win improvements in their working conditions. One retired farmer, still living on the same farm his father started in 1904, remembers a red-baiting attempt by the local Liberal Party to defeat him when he ran for the board of the fire insurance cooperative.

When people think about leftist resorts, three names typically come to mind: Maud’s Summer Ray, Chester’s Zunbarg, and Arrowhead Lodge. At Maud’s Summer Ray in the years before World War II, most guests were leftists. Their numbers included socialists, communists, and Trotskyists, though the communists predominated, at least as measured by the sales of newspapers: the Communist Party’s Yiddish Freiheit (Freedom) was the top seller as a veteran guest of Maud’s told mc. Chester’s Zunbarg had leftist entertainers such as Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Woodie Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Leon Bibb, Ossie Davis and Rubie Dee. Moreover, W.E.B. Dubois even lectured in the Catskills.

Henry Foner speaks of working in the band at the Arrowhead Lodge, which was affiliated with the leftist Jefferson School, an adult noncredit school in New York City. Indeed, the Jefferson School handled all of the Arrowhead’s reservations and supplied political lecturers twice a week. This was very helpful all around: “For the hotel it was great because they were filled throughout the summer. For the Jefferson School it was good because they were getting a percentage of the take. For us it was good because a new crowd was coming up each week so we didn’t have to worry about repeating material.” At this time, the Rapp-Coudert Commission, a New York State forerunner of the McCarthy committee, forced the firing of about fifty teachers from city colleges and public schools. Foner remembers that:

Leonard Lyons, who was a columnist in the [New York] Post, wrote a piece in which he said, “Some of the teachers suspended from City College are forming an orchestra and they are calling it ‘Suspended Swing.” So we called our orchestra “Suspended Swing.” We printed cards and that’s how we were known—The Foner Brothers and Their Suspended Swing Orchestra.

As Foner recalls, they had a busy schedule:

While we were up there in ’47, my brother, Moe [Foner], was the education director for the Department Store Union, and he got the no-tion, based on “Pins and Needles” [a very successful musical comedy created by the ILGWU], that it was time to do another musical comedy for the unions. So Norman Franklin and I were commissioned to write “Thursdays ‘Til Nine.” So we used that summer—since we were writing material, we were able to try it out during the summer—and we wrote a full-scale musical comedy. The performers were all workers of the Department Store Union. Irving Berlin came to the opening.

Like any Catskill hotel, Arrowhead had weekly campfires, but in this case they sang union songs and Spanish Civil War songs. Though the resort was quite leftist, it still could attract talent that was not expressly political. Foner continues:

I had been teaching at Tilden High School with Sam Levinson, so we convinced the owner of Arrowhead that she should hire Sam Levinson as the MC [in 1941]. It was a very successful summer, and as a result, Sam became well known, and from that year on he began to go up to the country and to take a bungalow and go out to perform at the hotels throughout the Catskills.

Another radical hotel lasted a shorter time. The Fur Worker’s Resort, later called White Lake Lodge, started in 1949. As the education director of the Furrier’s Union, Henry Foner therefore worked at that hotel, too:

It was [union president Ben] Gold’s ambition to have a resort that the fur workers would be able to come to when they were on vacation. The best-laid plans of mice and men . . . the busiest season for fur workers is the summer, and why it didn’t occur to him I don’t know, but workers’ vacations were in the wintertime. So it became a resort for the progressive movement. Howard Fast came up regularly and would lecture.

The hotel probably lost money each season. In 1955, the Furrier’s Union merged with the Meat Cutters and they decided to stop operating the resort. It was bought and became a Jewish camp, Camp Hi-Li. But this radicalism was atypical. Harvey Jacobs’s novel, Summer on a Mountain of Spices, offers a dramatic portrayal of the loneliness of Catskill political activists in the late 1940s and 1950s, including a trip across the Hudson to Peekskill to the famous 1949 Paul Robeson concert, where the singer and his audience were stoned—while state and local police looked on with encouragement before arresting them. Paul Robeson was a frequent visitor at the Fur Worker’s Resort, and many people staying there went to Peekskill to support the concert and protect Robeson. Radical politics was a minority perspective, even in the turbulent 1960s; resorts just couldn’t provide a fertile location for this, being too busy providing entertainment that was geared to take people’s minds off such troubles. Indeed, Mountain comics frequently used social activists and hippies as a convenient butt for humor.

 

May 17, 2016

Was Saudi Arabia behind 9/11?

Filed under: Saudi Arabia,September 11 — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

Last month there was extensive media coverage about the still classified 28 pages of an intelligence report that reputedly establishes Saudi support for the 9/11 attack. One of the report’s co-authors is a retired Democratic Party Senator from Florida named Bob Graham who has been fighting to get the pages released. His efforts dovetail with the legal action mounted by the families of 9/11 victims to force Saudi Arabia to pay damages.

The FBI has denied any such connection, something that Graham views as a virtual cover-up since according to him the agency suppressed the results of an investigation of a Saudi family in Sarasota, Florida that revealed multiple contacts between it and the hijackers training nearby until the family fled just before 9/11.

For a number of years, this type of claim has been made by Zacarias Moussaoui, a self-described but unlikely member of the 9/11 conspiracy who is serving 6 concurrent life sentences. In an article on Graham, the NY Times refers to Moussaoui’s concurrence with Graham but without providing crucial background that might shed light on his credibility—or incredibility more accurately. In his trial, he claimed that he and shoe-bomber Richard Reid were supposed to fly an airliner into the White House on 9/11 but then later testified that he had no role in the 9/11 attacks. He said that he was being held in reserve for a future attack. Since he flunked out of flight school and was regarded by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as unreliable, it doubtful that he ever had any role to play. Psychiatrists testifying for the defense concluded that he was paranoid schizophrenic, a diagnosis that jibes with his complaint that his lawyers were plotting to kill him.

In a story about the 28 pages on CBS’s Sixty Minutes, Tim Roemer, a former Democratic Congressman from Indiana, took part in a joint interview with Graham. For the two ex-pols, the connections between Saudi government officials living in the USA and 9/11 hijackers was undeniable:

During their first days in L.A., witnesses place the two future hijackers at the King Fahd mosque in the company of Fahad al-Thumairy, a diplomat at the Saudi consulate known to hold extremist views. Later, 9/11 investigators would find him deceptive and suspicious and in 2003, he would be denied reentry to the United States for having suspected ties to terrorist activity.

Tim Roemer: This is a very interesting person in the whole 9/11 episode of who might’ve helped whom– in Los Angeles and San Diego, with two terrorists who didn’t know their way around.

Phone records show that Thumairy was also in regular contact with this man: Omar al-Bayoumi, a mysterious Saudi who became the hijackers biggest benefactor. He was a ghost employee with a no-show job at a Saudi aviation contractor outside Los Angeles while drawing a paycheck from the Saudi government.

Steve Kroft: You believe Bayoumi was a Saudi agent?

Bob Graham: Yes, and–

Steve Kroft: What makes you believe that?

Bob Graham: –well, for one thing, he’d been listed even before 9/11 in FBI files as being a Saudi agent.

On the morning of February 1, 2000, Bayoumi went to the office of the Saudi consulate where Thumairy worked. He then proceeded to have lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant on Venice Boulevard where he later claimed he just happened to make the acquaintance of the two future hijackers.

Tim Roemer: Hazmi and Mihdhar magically run into Bayoumi in a restaurant that Bayoumi claims is a coincidence and in one of the biggest cities in the United States.

Steve Kroft: And he decides to befriend them.

Tim Roemer: He decides to not only befriend them but then to help them move to San Diego and get residence.

In San Diego, Bayoumi found them a place to live in his own apartment complex, advanced them the security deposit and cosigned the lease. He even threw them a party and introduced them to other Muslims who would help the hijackers obtain government IDs and enroll in English classes and flight schools. There’s no evidence that Bayoumi or Thumairy knew what the future hijackers were up to, and it is possible that they were just trying to help fellow Muslims.

For some on the left, allegations of Saudi state-level participation in 9/11 serves as another brick in the foundation to support the notion not only of Saudi Arabia being bent on the destruction of the cornerstones of American imperialism—the WTC and the Pentagon—but American complicity in what amounts to a willful act of self-immolation. You can count on the WSWS.org to make such an argument in an article on Bob Graham:

Graham’s language is significant, since it could suggest not only official Saudi support to the hijackers during their months in the US—the focus of the “60 Minutes” report—but support to the hijackers by other individuals or other agencies, including the US government itself. It was reported after 9/11 that the lead hijacker, Mohammed Atta, was well known to the US government, and had been under surveillance during his residence in Germany before he came to the United States to get flight training.

Two other hijackers, the San Diego-based Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, were also known to the US government. The CIA had observed them participating in an al Qaeda planning meeting in 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and placed them on a “watch list” for FBI monitoring if they came to the United States. Nonetheless, under circumstances that have never been clarified, the two men were allowed to enter the United States on January 15, 2000, landing at Los Angeles International Airport, eventually going to San Diego where they attended flight training school, preparing for their role as pilots of hijacked planes on September 11, 2001.

The distance between this analysis and that of the 9/11 Truther movement can be measured in millimeters. If the USA connived to open doors for men bent on its destruction, why wouldn’t it send in operatives to prepare a planned detonation of the twin towers or fire a missile at the Pentagon? If the ruling class was so desperate to launch a new war in the Middle East based on a “false flag”, why not?

The guilt of the Saudi government has been accepted by much of the conspiracy-minded left for obvious reasons. Osama bin-Laden admitted he was behind it and 15 out of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia just like him. Isn’t that proof enough? As so many guests on the Bill Maher or Jon Stewart show used to put it, we should have invaded Saudi Arabia rather than Iraq.

If you buy into this, it is probably a good idea to gloss over the long-standing relationship between the ruling class of the USA and the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia has been staunchly opposed to radical movements in the Middle East and supportive of stability in the West, where much of its oil wealth was invested. It supported the first Gulf War and has provided an open door to the construction of American military bases. In 2010 the USA signed a 60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, not exactly consistent with reports that they might be used to destroy American assets both economic and personal.

In fact, it makes no sense at all, especially in light of al Qaeda’s hostility to the monarchy. Indeed, one of the reasons bin-Laden gave for the 9/11 attack was the presence of American troops on the land where Muhammad was born.

But an alternative interpretation begins to make sense if you look beneath the surface. Bin-Laden and the 15 hijackers might have been Saudi but their roots were in the Yemeni tribe that has been brutally oppressed by the Saudi monarchy since the early 20th century.

The Arabian Peninsula was home to two major tribes historically, the Adnan who lived in the north and became the rulers of contemporary Saudi Arabia, and the Qahtani who dwelled in the south and are now referred to as Yemenis. Bin-Laden was a Qahtani descendant as were every single one of the Saudi hijackers. Furthermore, most of the initial cadre of al Qaeda were Yemenis from the Asir region of Saudi Arabia that borders Yemen and was Qahtani homeland. Like Texas, this was a piece of foreign territory that a more powerful nationality was able to conquer and absorb.

If you have trouble with the word tribe, it is simply a synonym for the more anthropologically precise “segmentary lineage” term that is defined in Wikipedia as:

A simple, non-anthropologist’s explanation is that the close family is the smallest and closest segment, and will generally stand with each other. That family is also a part of a larger segment of more distant cousins and their families, who will stand with each other when attacked by outsiders. They are then part of larger segments with the same characteristics. Basically, if there is a conflict between brothers, it will be settled among all the brothers, and cousins will not take sides. If the conflict is between cousins, then brothers on one side will align against brothers on the other side. However, if the conflict is between a member of a tribe and a non-member, then the entire tribe including distant cousins could mobilize against the outsider and his or her allies. This tiered mobilization is traditionally expressed e.g. in the Bedouin saying: “Me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.”

In 1906 the Asiris formed a state under the leadership of Muhammad al-Idrisi, the great-grandson of a revered Sufi scholar known for his skillful debates against Wahhabists from the north. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of WWI, al-Idrisi cast his lot with the British who he hoped could guarantee the sovereignty of his people. Instead the British chose alignment with Saudi Arabia that had became a state in 1932. Did this have something to do with the fact that the north had oil and the south virtually none? Do I have to ask?

Deciding that Asir must become part of Saudi Arabia, its monarch Ibn Saud went to war and was victorious. Some historians believe that as many as 400,000 Asiris and other tribesmen died as a result of Ibn Saud’s onslaught.

Once the Asiris were brought under Riyadh’s thumb, a process of forced assimilation took place with Wahhabi beliefs being forced down the throats of people whose customs could not be more remote from the austere but mammon-worshipping norms of the north. Qahtani tribesmen wore garments that amounted to skirts, revealing much of their legs. They were known as the “flower men” and frankly could pass for people walking around Haight-Ashbury in 1969.

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As for the women, they liked to dress in colorful clothes and shunned the veil. Their elaborate headdresses were customarily bedecked with coins and jewelry.

To consolidate its grip on a people that obviously resented being forced into the Wahhabist mold, the Saudis constructed Highway 15 that would be the backbone of an economic-military presence in its newly acquired territory. It would have air bases, missile sites and garrison outposts just like the Alamo. Guess who got the job of building Highway 15. Osama bin-Laden’s father. That project and others in Saudi Arabia generated billions for the family but did little to mollify his son. Even though the Asiris appeared to have been reengineered as Wahhabi robots, they harbored resentment against American presence in the region as well as the ostentation of the Saudi ruling class. From its inception, the Qahtani tribe had preferred a simple life and tribal camaraderie. Bin-Laden might not have had flowers in his hair but there were aspects of Saudi society he found deeply objectionable, in fact far more irritating than the reputed “Western” values like Madonna videos he supposedly reviled.

In order to understand the clash between the Asiris and the royal family, as well as to help debunk the outlandish claim that top Saudi government officials were involved with 9/11, you have to read Akbar Ahmad’s “The Thistle and the Drone” that I reviewed for Critical Muslim two years ago. Ahmad lays out the social divide between the descendants of the Adnan and the Qahtani:

Muhammad [bin-Laden] had come to feel at home in Asir. He loved its tribes, its ways, its history, and its cultural ambiance. One of his favorite wives was from Asir. In turn, the tribes of Asir accepted Muhammad as one of their own. Not only was he a fellow Yemeni, but they were won over by his easy charm as he held court sitting in a large white canvas tent with brightly colored cushions and carpets covering the floor. Muhammad received tribesmen who would petition him to settle disputes or for other assistance. He had become more than a mere construction worker. He had become their sheikh. The tribes would respond with loyalty when Muhammad’s son Osama would come to them for support. Twelve of the 9/11 hijackers were from towns along Highway 15.

While the oil boom made the Saudi royal family and its supporters very rich, little was done for the people of Asir. The large, extravagantly built holiday villas owned by the Saudi elite in Asir seemed to add nothing but salt to their wounds. In 1980 the poverty-stricken province had only 535 hospital beds for a population of about 700,000. Besides, given their religious background and its emphasis on austerity, the Yemenis disapproved of the Saudis’ arrogance and vulgar displays of wealth. Poor Yemeni tribesmen desperate for work looked for jobs in the Saudi cities. Typically, they could only find employment in the military or as cooks, gardeners, or drivers. After the kingdom began to invite immigrant workers from the Philippines and India, the Yemenis could not even obtain those menial positions. Their resentment against the Saudi centers of power remained a constant undercurrent of Asir society.

Eventually the grievances against the ruling family reached a critical mass and led to open revolts. A cleric from Asir named Juhayman al-Otaybi led the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in December-January 1979 that was directed both against infidelity to Islam and the worship of riches in the country’s top echelons.

Finally, despite the emphasis on radical Islam versus the civilized world, a more plausible explanation for the violent clashes taking place around the world is not that different from that between tribes and civilization more generally. Indeed, Islam does not have to enter the picture as the British conquest of Ireland might indicate.

For Osama bin-Laden, the loyalty to Qahtani values might trump his Wahhabi beliefs. Indeed, if you take a close look at his statements around 9/11, there is a tribal element that stands out as Murad Batal al-Shishani pointed out in a March 4, 2010 Jamestown Foundation article:

A focus on tribes in Yemen has been a main reason behind al-Qaeda’s success in finding a safe haven there.  Abu Musab al-Suri, the first to see Yemen’s potential as a safe haven for the jihadist movement, has said that the main reason for considering Yemen a stronghold for jihadis is the tribal nature of its people and the solidarity between tribes. [3]. It was for similar reasons that Osama bin Laden addressed the southern tribes of Saudi Arabia in 2004, specifically in Asir province (which borders Yemen), naming the tribes and encouraging them to fight in Iraq. “Oh heroes of Asir and champions of Hashed, Madhaj, and Bakeel, do not stop your supplies to assist your brothers in the land of Mesopotamia [i.e. Iraq]. The war there is still raging and its fire spreading.” [4]

Abdul-Ilah al-Sha’e, a Yemeni journalist, confirms that al-Qaeda has succeeded in building an alliance with the tribal system in Yemen because the country has not been “tamed” or “civilized” like other countries.  Tribes are still in control and thus it was easy to build alliances with them. [5] Abdul-Illah said that al-Qaeda wanted to recruit young people who were not afraid of death and found these young people in Yemen’s tribal and Bedouin societies, where acts of revenge and battles between tribes are still dominant, given the absence of state institutions (al-Jazeera.net, January 21).

 

Talks from the book launch meeting for Khiyana

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:22 pm

Talks by three of the contributors to Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, which has a chapter by me as well. I still have some copies of the book that I will be happy to send you for $15, plus mailing. That will allow you to avoid dealing with the Dark Empire, ie. Amazon.com. Contact me at lnp3@panix.com for more information.

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