Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2020

Pecksniff and the Harper’s Open Letter

Filed under: Harper's Open Letter — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Although I have run into very few supporters of the Harper’s Open Letter on Facebook and even less on Marxmail, I was still trying to figure out why there were any. The consensus was that no matter how hypocritical the signers were, it was still necessary to defend free speech. You’d have to wonder what people would make of an open letter in defense of world peace that was signed by Henry Kissinger, John Bolton, George W. Bush, and Madeline Albright. After all, it can’t hurt. Right?

My guess is that most people would not support the letter because the reputation of the four named above precedes them. On the other hand, the Harper’s letter has some good people signing it like Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem. Maybe, that was all it took for someone posting their endorsement of the letter on FB, where superficiality reigns supreme.

From what I have seen, the main explanation for such gullibility is a lack of familiarity with some truly awful signers who have the same relationship to liberal principles that Henry Kissinger has to world peace. For a professor who has been steeped in his or her narrow scholarly bailiwick for their entire career, it might be understandable that the lofty sentiments expressed in the letter might take precedence over the signatures of people who showed contempt for them in practice. It could also be a function of youthfulness. Some people in their 20s might not have any clue what George Packer represents except being the author of a biography of Richard Holbrooke that got mixed reviews.

I belong to neither category. I am neither a cloistered professor, nor am I young. Over the past thirty years since I got on the Internet at Columbia University, my exposure to a variety of Pecksniffian figures has made my antenna highly sensitized to their pretensions. If the term Pecksniffian does not ring a bell, it comes from Charles Dickens’s “Martin Chuzzlewit”. A character named Sam Pecksniff is a greedy architect who pays his staff about the same that Scrooge paid Cratchit, and, even worse, passes their work off as his own. This is how Dickens characterized Pecksniff:

His very throat was moral. You saw a good deal of it. You looked over a very low fence of white cravat (whereof no man had ever beheld the tie for he fastened it behind), and there it lay, a valley between two jutting heights of collar, serene and whiskerless before you. It seemed to say, on the part of Mr Pecksniff, ‘There is no deception, ladies and gentlemen, all is peace, a holy calm pervades me.’ So did his hair, just grizzled with an iron-grey which was all brushed off his forehead, and stood bolt upright, or slightly drooped in kindred action with his heavy eyelids. So did his person, which was sleek though free from corpulency. So did his manner, which was soft and oily. In a word, even his plain black suit, and state of widower and dangling double eye-glass, all tended to the same purpose, and cried aloud, ‘Behold the moral Pecksniff!’

If I had more time, I’d like to prepare a much longer dossier than this but if by some chance you still take the open letter seriously, you should at least consider the records of some of the worst signers. You have to keep in mind, after all, that ignorance is not a defense in the court of law, nor in the moral judgements of the left.

Martin Amis—Best friend of Christopher Hitchens who shared his Islamophobia. In a 2007 interview, he said, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.”

Anne Applebaum—This historian and journalist is an unreconstructed cold warrior. In her review of Robert Harvey’s “Comrades: the Rise and Fall of World Communism”, she begins: “Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural.” Salvador Allende? Murderous communist leader? WTF?

Roger Berkowitz—He’s a Bard College professor that runs the Hannah Arendt Center. He wrote an article that charged Occupy Wall Street with racism since Atlanta protesters refused to allow Congressman John Lewis to speak. As you can see, he was on the lookout for cancel culture before the term existed. As it happens, the protesters were in no mood to listen to any Democrats, especially one who used his civil rights credentials to legitimize his corporate connections.

Paul Berman—During the war against Nicaragua, Berman used to write a weekly column in the Village Voice that frequently called for the overthrow of the Sandinistas. When Adam Hochschild instructed Michael Moore to publish a Berman article in Mother Jones, Moore refused and then got fired. Cancel culture strikes again. Later on, Berman became a supporter of the invasion of Iraq and wrote a book titled Terror and Liberalism that was a polite version of what Martin Amis said.

David Bromwich—Highly acclaimed Yale professor who spent much of the last 8 years defending Bashar al-Assad in various high-toned magazines.

Ian Buruma—Another Bard professor of ill-repute. He was fired as editor of the New York Review of books after publishing an article by the Canadian talk show host Jian Ghomeshi, who had been acquitted in 2016 of one count of choking and four counts of sexual assault. Over twenty women complained either to the police or the media. When asked why he decided to publish the article, Buruma said, “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”

Todd Gitlin—He chastised radicals in 1968 for not supporting Hubert Humphrey and had a particular animus toward Ralph Nader for running as a Green and then as an independent.

Malcolm Gladwell—He is a New Yorker magazine contributor. In “Talking to Strangers”, he argues that Sandra Bland, a young black woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail after a pointless traffic infraction, was the victim of a “failure to communicate”. Racism wasn’t to blame. Instead, since she and the policeman were strangers to each other, they couldn’t bridge a social divide.

Adam Hochschild—Fired Michael Moore for refusing to publish Paul Berman (see above.)

Michael Ignatieff—He was one of the most vociferous supporters of the invasion of Iraq in 2002. His 2003 book Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, argued that America had to create a “humanitarian empire” through military force.

Laura Kipnis—She was a FB friend I had to let go because she kept trolling me. She is also celebrated some for writing articles claiming that date rape incidents on college campuses were overblown and for criticizing Ian Buruma’s firing.

Nicholas Lemann—Dean emeritus of the Columbia Journalism School who derided net-based citizen journalism in a New Yorker article.

Mark Lilla—Another Columbia professor. His claim to fame is writing a book urging the Democrats to dump “identity politics”. Katherine Franke, a Columbia law professor compared Lilla to David Duke and charged him with “underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as the lives that matter most in the U.S.” Maybe he signed the letter because she “canceled” him.

Yascha Mounk—He teaches at Johns Hopkins and is best-known for his book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It that some regard as a swipe at “cancel culture”. He has created a website devoted to these ideas called Persuasion. The New Republic that published an excellent article critiquing this trend even before the Harper’s open letter appeared also published one that asked whether his website was “obsessed with cancel culture.”

Cary Nelson—Nelson is a professor emeritus at the U. of Illinois. In 2013, its board of trustees sent Steven Salaita a letter stating they were hiring him for a job teaching American Indian studies. Behind the scenes, Nelson and major donors connected to the Israel lobby had already begun a campaign to persuade the board to rescind the offer because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. He had already resigned a tenured position when the board caved into Zionist pressures. That left Salaita unemployed. Today he drives a school bus and will likely never teach again.

George Packer—Like Paul Berman and Michael Ignatieff, this New Yorker magazine writer was gung-ho for the invasion of Iraq.

Steven Pinker—Pinker is arguably the worst person who signed the letter. My interest in him was focused on his reactionary sociobiological theories that I described as a mixture of Hobbes and Pangloss. I also recommend a new Jacobin article titled “It’s Official — Steven Pinker Is Full of Shit”. I guess Jacobin was guilty of cancel culture.

Michael Walzer—Despite being a social democrat and long-time Dissent Magazine contributor (or maybe because he was so connected), he was another supporter of the invasion of Iraq but argued more Talmudically than the others.

Sean Wilentz—Like Walzer, he has been associated with Dissent for decades. Recently, he has been leading the charge alongside the WSWS sectarians against Project 1619. (Some people commenting on the Harper’s letter question its timing, as it implicitly connects all of the tumult about white bias in the media as cancel culture.) He also hates radical history, both Howard Zinn’s, and the film that Oliver Stone made with Peter Kuznick.

 

July 11, 2020

Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

Medusa, one of the three monstrous Gorgons, generally described as winged human females with living venomous snakes in place of hair.

Steven Pinker, Harvard professor with venomous ideas about pre-capitalist society.

 

July 10, 2020

Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic

Filed under: Counterpunch,cruise missile left,repression — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 10, 2020

Cary Nelson, who signed Harper’s letter against cancel culture, also canceled Steven Salaita

You can imagine my chagrin when I discovered that Harper’s, a magazine that I have subscribed to since the early 80s, provided a platform for “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The open letter was a denunciation of “cancel culture” in the name of liberal values as if angry Tweets by mostly powerless young people had anything to do with state-sponsored censorship. Although I will say more about how and why this letter materialized, it is worth pointing out that one of its signatories is Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus at the U. of Illinois. In 2013, the board of trustees sent Steven Salaita a letter stating they were hiring him for a job teaching American Indian studies. Behind the scenes, Nelson and major donors connected to the Israel lobby had already begun a campaign to persuade the board to rescind the offer because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. He had already resigned a tenured position when the board caved into Zionist pressures. That left Salaita unemployed. Today he drives a school bus and will likely never teach again.

Continue reading

July 6, 2020

Walter Benn Michaels: the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism

Filed under: affirmative action,class-reductionism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Walter Benn Michaels

After posting a critique of Adolph Reed Jr.’s class-reductionism, the aggrieved professor emeritus who has written for Harpers, the Atlantic, the Nation, the NY Times, the Washington Post, and countless other peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed magazines over the years felt the need to chew me out on my insignificant, little blog. His invective-filled comment charged me with racism. On top of that, just two days ago, I made the mistake of posting a link on Facebook to an article I wrote in 2016 critiquing Reed for endorsing Hillary Clinton in the DP primary. And for that transgression, Todd Cronan, one of his sycophants, repeated the charge, “Your fixation suggests you might be a racist.” Fixation? I’ve only roasted Max Blumenthal 10 times more often.

Cronan is the editor of nonsite.org (don’t ask me what that means), a peer-reviewed journal out of Emory University, where Cronan is a tenured art historian. So, what prompted someone regarded as one of America’s leading African-American Marxists, and a professor at a prestigious university regarded as the Harvard of the south, to resort to such a crude and demagogic attack? The answer is simple. Neither is prepared to defend an indefensible idea, namely that BLM is anti-leftist.

While Reed and Cedric Johnson have been critiqued on this blog over the past month or so for their class-reductionism, they are not nearly so bad as Walter Benn Michaels, a literature professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. (Michaels is white so if he bothers to respond to this article, I trust that he won’t accuse me of anti-Semitism since we are both Jews. I happen to like Jews. I just don’t have much use for self-important academics.)

Lately, Michaels has entered the fray over BLM just like Reed and Johnson before him. Like Reed, Michaels got a softball interview on a Jacobin podcast conducted by Jennifer Pan. Pan writes for Jacobin but you’d have to read her article on New Republic on “Why Diversity Training Isn’t Enough” to understand why she’d refuse to ask Michaels tough questions. In her article, she takes up “whiteness” studies and particularly a book by Robin DiAngelo titled “White Fragility”. It was already a NY Times best-seller but it went totally viral after the George Floyd protests because it charged white Americans with benefiting from structural racism, a not very controversial analysis in my view. However, when she decided to make an amalgam between DiAngelo, Ted Allen and David Roediger, that seemed kind of nutty. How can you link a pop sociologist with these two Marxists? Pan refers to Cedric Johnson’s dismissal of their work:

From a practical point of view, the political scientist Cedric Johnson has recently argued that whiteness studies promote a fatalistic view of white workers as too hopelessly committed to their racial identity to be won over to a multiracial left coalition. Such a perspective, he writes, inevitably prioritizes reeducating such workers over attempting to organize them.

I guess comrades Johnson and Pan have no idea that Ted Allen worked as a coal miner in West Virginia as a member of the United Mine Workers, serving as an organizer and president of one Local and later a member of another. He also co-developed a trade union organizing program for the Marion County, West Virginia Industrial Union Council, CIO. (From a useful article in Wiki.)

Listening to the 109-minute schmooze-fest between Pan and Michaels was almost as agonizing as listening to Bhaskar Sunkara interviewing Adolph Reed Jr. on another Jacobin podcast. If you need any evidence that Jacobin is deep into class-reductionism, just listen to these podcasts which are as devoid of critical questions as a Charlie Rose interview with Bill Gates.

In preparing a response to Michaels based on this podcast, I found a 2011 interview Sunkara did with Michaels that really needs some commentary. I missed it at the time since I was preoccupied with the Arab Spring but reading it now makes me wonder if Sunkara is even more politically degraded than I ever suspected. He let Michaels off the hook on some really rancid remarks.

Titled “Let Them Eat Diversity”, it gives Michaels a platform to denounce anti-racism as a capitalist plot to exploit immigrant labor at the expense of our good citizens. At the higher tier, it enabled Asians to get positions as doctors and lawyers in the USA. At the lower tier, it enabled Mexicans to fill dirty, low-paying jobs of the sort that has made them victims in the pandemic. In order to get red-blooded Americans to tolerate those flooding into the country, either legally or illegally, it was necessary to promote anti-racism so that Chinese, Indians, or Mexicans wouldn’t be victimized. Human Resource departments were analogous to Pinkerton guards defending scabs.

The agents of this anti-racism plot are HR officers that have seminars on diversity so as to make white people more open to the invasion of our homeland by those bent on stealing our jobs.

You might ask yourself at this point if I am misrepresenting Walter Benn Michaels. Let him speak for himself. Sunkara does offer a featherweight challenge to his narrative about identity politics trumping good old fashioned, virile class politics. Could HR departments really be nipping class-based movements in the bud? This is where Michaels jumps the shark. It seems he sees “neoliberalism” everywhere. In the HR departments. In the radical movement. Nobody seems to be ready to fight it except guess who… The Tea Party. He tells Sunkara:

The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right. It’s a striking fact that what the American Left mainly wants to do is reduce the Tea Party to racists as quickly as humanly possible.  They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say “Yeah, we support the Tea Party” or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough. But you can’t understand the real politics of the Tea Party unless you understand how important their opposition to illegal immigration is. Because who’s for illegal immigration? As far as I know only one set of people is for illegal immigration, I mean you may be [as a Marxist], but as far as I know the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.

Next, Sunkara delicately asks how he felt about The Nation’s Richard Kim referring to his opposition to affirmative action as “Seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment…masquerading as class-consciousness.” To which, Michaels replies, “Are you kidding me, I’ve been called a racist for twenty years.” Maybe so, but at least he can be consoled by the support of Bhaskar Sunkara and Jennifer Pan.

Probably because he has been writing books about topics like “The Beauty of a Social Problem” and writing articles like the kind submitted to the yearly Modern Language Association conferences ever since he became a don in 1974, Michaels sees everything through the prism of the academy. He is so worked up about diversity and affirmative action being a tool for the upward mobility of petty-bourgeois elements, rather than one for the hairy-chested, lunchbox-toting proletariat, that he misses how such programs got started.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would understand why the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism would be get so riled up about the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member. His fiery attacks on privileged blacks like Barack Obama must make him feel like Lenin taking apart Kautsky. Too bad that he didn’t pay attention to what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, had been dropping around the time Sunkara sat down with Michaels. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, painted a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

More to the point, affirmative action had little to do with the academy or becoming a Goldman-Sachs partner when it was first conceived. It was a legal tool made necessary by the racism that had infected the United Steelworkers Union, one of the flagship CIO unions that the Sandernista left and its class-reductionist contingents look back at as if it was the Garden of Eden.

NAACP leader Herbert Hill cited an open letter written by a Black member of the union to I.W. Abel, the USW president at the union’s 1968 convention:

The time has come for black workers to speak and act for ourselves. We make no apologies for the fact that we as black workers and loyal trade unionists now act on our own behalf. Furthermore we are fully prepared to do so…Blacks were in the forefront during the formation of this union 25 years ago. Through the acceptance of crumbs down through the years instead of our just desserts, we now find ourselves hindmost…

Problems were deepest in the south where Blacks were confined to menial positions in steel mills. White workers got used to viewing them as inferior. When you enforce racial equality on the job, attitudes tend to change in accordance with the reality that Blacks are just as good as whites at a job, even better.

Tired of being relegated to second-class citizenship in steel mills as janitors and other menial positions, Blacks supported affirmative action that would afford them preferential treatment to make up for discrimination endured in the past. About the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel (one of the Little Steel companies and long shut down), Herbert Hill wrote:

[I]n steel manufacturing, in the building trades, on the railroads, and in virtually every other industry, a clear distinction exists between desirable jobs and those that are not. An extensive body of law based on many court cases supports this. Federal courts have analyzed in great detail and described in various industries the jobs that have higher pay, that involve less dangerous and cleaner work, and that provide opportunity for advancement, comparing them with jobs that are more dangerous, that provide lower pay, and little or no opportunity for advancement. In the racialized steel industry labor force there was no ambiguity between “white men’s jobs” and “nigger jobs.” In his opinion in the Bethlehem Lackawanna case, a federal Judge made a clear distinction between desirable and not desirable jobs. This was how affirmative action became the law of the land, not by co-opting black college graduates into Wall Street jobs but by allowing blacks to have access to well-paying and desirable jobs in factories.

In 1979 Brian Weber, a white worker employed by Kaiser aluminum, sued the USW for violating his civil rights. It seems that the union had complied with an affirmative action program that allowed Blacks and whites into a training program on a one-to-one basis even though there were far more white employees (as you might expect in Louisiana).

From that point on, affirmative action has been a lot like abortion rights. Republicans push to get rid of it and Democrats put up a feeble defense. With Jacobin authors trash-talking about diversity and affirmative action, they hardly act in the interests of black working people.

A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and a refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.

July 3, 2020

Following the money is not a useful guide for understanding mass movements

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 3, 2020

Over the past fifty-three years as a socialist, I have seen repeated calls for purifying the left of capitalist influences, both governmental and corporate. The latest flare-up was a Jacobin article titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class” by Cedric Johnson, a black African American studies professor. Just as Deep Throat advised Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Johnson followed the money:

While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.

These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability. Most of the young people organizing the protests hardly seemed to be cooptation-bait as indicated by a New York Magazine interview with the female, teenage organizers of a Louisville protest that drew 10,000:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

Continue reading

July 2, 2020

The World Socialist Web Site and the toppled Washington and Jefferson statues

Filed under: indigenous,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

There was a time when I kept closer track of the World Socialist Web Site, when Syria and Ukraine were on the front burner politically. As apologists for Assad and Putin’s genocidal-like war in Syria, their talking points filtered out into the “anti-imperialist” left.

As for Ukraine, I got into a series of exchanges with their cult leader Joseph North back in 2015 when WSWS began running hysterical articles about nuclear war about to break out over Ukraine. I had written an article titled “Is the U.S. contemplating a nuclear attack on Russia?” that questioned their reliability as journalists and, more importantly, their grasp of geopolitics. Like many who make a hodge-podge of conspiracy-mongering and Marxism, they always see world events in apocalyptic terms, mostly as a way of generating website traffic.

According to Alexa, wsws.org is rated 13,097 in global internet engagement, which is extraordinarily high. For comparison’s sake CounterPunch is rated 47,413. The interesting thing is the Socialist Equality Party’s inability to turn those page reads into raising its profile on the left. Because of its cultish demeanor and its chicken-little hysterics, there’s little chance that a 21-year old young radical is going to join.

It’s only gain lately has been to line up a group of septuagenarian history professors in their crusade against Project 1619 that began as a special issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It included an article by chief editor Nikole Hannah-Jones that charged Lincoln with viewing free black people as a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. This got under the skin of both WSWS and the historians who saw the USA as a model of revolutionary democracy, unlike, for example, Gerald Horne who argued that 1776 was an attempt to preserve slavery.

I weighed in on the Project 1619 debates in February but had little to say until now. Only recently has WSWS shown up on my radar screen when someone on the Facebook Leftist Trainspotters group posted a link to an article that was positively livid over the threats to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Grant monuments arising during the George Floyd protests. I would have advised young activists to leave Lincoln and Grant alone (not that they would pay me much attention) but I’d be happy to take a sledge hammer to Washington and Jefferson myself.

The article’s treatment of Washington sounds like something that would have shown up in my social studies textbook in 1959:

George Washington was the commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolution (1775-1783), in which the 13 colonies asserted their independence from their British colonial masters. Washington, in a decision that electrified the world, left behind his military post and returned to private life, helping to institute in practice the separation of the civilian from military power in the republic.

Are these people for real? George Washington owned more than 100 slaves and signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which authorized the capture of runaways in free states and criminalized coming to their aid. When one of his slaves, a woman named Ona Maria Judge, escaped, he made every effort to re-enslave her, even if he had to break the law.

This is not to speak of Washington’s genocidal assault on the Mohawks who had fought with the British in 1776, mostly because the colonists were aggressively seizing Indian land with Washington’s approval. Washington gave the marching orders to his underling General John Sullivan, who was in charge of Indian removal: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

Their encomium to Thomas Jefferson is even more bizarre:

Thomas Jefferson was the author of what is arguably the most famous revolutionary sentence in world history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” That declaration has been inscribed on the banner of every fight for equality ever since 1776. When Jefferson formulated it, he was crystalizing a new way of thinking based on the principle of natural human equality. The rest of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence spells out in searing language the natural right of people to revolution.

This is a throwback to the turn the CP took under Earl Browder, who once said, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”. Under his leadership, the party created the Jefferson School in New York to train cadres. One can understand why the muddleheaded Stalinists would take this approach but what does this have to do with a group that claims to have inherited the mantle of Leon Trotsky?

Compared to Jefferson, Washington was mere piker with his 100 slaves. Jefferson had six times as many on his Monticello plantation. One of them was Sally Hemings, a slave that bore six children to Jefferson. When he was a 44-year old widower, he began screwing her (maybe even raping) during his post as minister to France. She was 14 at the time. Nice.

Like Washington, Jefferson was just as vicious toward native peoples. As president, Jefferson believed that land in the west had to come under white ownership. In 1776, he was growing frustrated with the inability of the colonists to bring the Cherokees under control. He wrote, “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.”

As the newly formed United States began to expand westward, they ran into resistance from the Shawnee and other tribes in the Great Lakes region. He invited their leaders to Washington in 1809 and warned that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.” Showing the kind of racist arrogance that typifies treatment of native peoples, he added, “In time you will be as we are. You will become one people with us; your blood will mix with ours, and will spread with ours over this great land.” The blood was not mixed with the whites, however. It was scattered on the soil as the genocide began.

If war on the Indians marked the beginning of internal colonizing, it was manifest destiny that served as the foundation for the USA becoming one of the world’s greatest imperial powers. In a letter to James Monroe, Jefferson wrote about how this glorious new democratic republic could transform the entire western hemisphere, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.” Yes, that southern continent. From the seizure of Texas and other Mexican land in 1845, US domination proceeded across the entire southern continent.

WSWS also credits Jefferson with inspiring the Haitian revolution, as if this was some kind of proof that he had no imperial designs on the southern continent. “The American Revolution delivered a powerful impulse in that direction that led to the French Revolution of 1789 and the greatest slave revolt in history, the Haitian Revolution of 1791, in which slaves liberated themselves and threw off French colonial domination.”

The facts on Haiti and Jefferson are not quite what you get from these great American patriots at WSWS. As president, Jefferson encouraged Haitian independence from France, but refused to recognize the new black republic and even embargoed trade with it. Jefferson’s attitude toward Haiti was a variation on Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik. If Haiti threw out the French, that was good for American interests as well as British. On the other hand, Haiti’s independence as an emancipated new society might pose a threat to southern slaveowners so you could not go overboard with that democracy stuff. In a meeting with the British, Jefferson thought it was a good idea to prevent the freed slaves from having “any Kind of Navigation whatsoever or to furnish them with any Species of Arms or Ammunition.”

The Haitian revolution scared the hell out of the plantation-owners. While Jefferson had given lip-service to abolitionism, he shared their worries about armed black people who might be able to topple slavery in other places like Brazil or Cuba. This was a real fear over an 19th century domino effect.

In Tim Matthewson’s article “Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti” that appeared in the March 1996 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, he describes Jefferson’s realignment with the slavocracy:

During the debates over the Haitian trade, Jefferson acknowledged a significant shift in his attitude toward slavery. He abandoned optimism about emancipation. “I have long time given up the expectation of an early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us,” he wrote to William Burwell. Never abandoning the general goal of emancipation, his letter marked an increasingly pessimistic trend in his thoughts on slavery. In a man of such sanguine temperament, this shift suggested the transmutation of the post-Revolutionary South associated with the expansion of slavery and the southern reaction to the Dominguan revolution. Since the 1780s, he had publicly favored the exclusion of slavery from the West, but in 1804 he had expressed no objection to the extension of slavery into Louisiana and the southwest. His shift acknowledged that the die had been cast and the future had been sealed, perhaps for generations, and it also suggested that his commitment to emancipation had been reduced to a theoretical concern.

My only question is whether the geniuses at WSWS knew this and still decided to write a puff-piece about Jefferson or perhaps they were just ignorant. In either case, they don’t seem equipped to lead Americans to socialism or even lecture young activists about which statues they shouldn’t take down.

June 30, 2020

Eating Up Easter

Filed under: Ecology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Available today on Music Box Virtual Cinema, “Eating Up Easter” documents the difficult balancing act that the Rapanui people have to carry out on Easter Island. They live 2,500 miles from Chile and walk a tightrope with their culture on one side and global capitalism on the other. Capitalism makes the tourist industry possible, allowing them to enjoy a higher standard of living than other Chileans (Chile annexed the island in 1877), but that also poses real threats to their culture, both through the trash that tourists leave on the island and the rampant consumerism new-found wealth brings. For those who have been following Cuba’s opening up to the tourist industry ever since the “special period”, the mixed blessings will be obvious.

Directed by the Rapanui husband-and-wife team of Sergio and Elena Rapu, the film features native peoples who are highly representative of the island’s trajectory. His father Sergio senior was a college-educated archaeologist and Rapanui’s first native governor. He decided to push strongly for integration with Chile and making the island “successful” economically. Part of that meant his abandoning archaeology and becoming a real estate developer. We see him supervising the construction of the first shopping mall on the island

We also meet Enrique Icke and Mahani Teave, a young husband and wife who see music as a way of preserving their culture. Enrique is also a trained engineer and anxious to solve the island’s environmental challenges, part of which entails building a music school with recycled material like beer bottles and automobile tires.

Finally, the most compelling character is a septuagenarian native woman called Mama Piru who is fiercely committed to Green values. Like Honduras’s Berta Cáceres, she won’t take no for an answer when it comes to ecological sustainability. Unlike the martyred Cáceres, the threat she faces is not assassination but being overwhelmed by capital’s power to transform “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions.” That was how Marx put it in “The Communist Manifesto”. Unfortunately, some Marxists today view that as progressive per se when in fact a return to “ancient and venerable” practices carried out by precapitalist societies must be considered especially when it comes to respect for Mother Nature.

In 1993, the Rapanui people became integrated into capitalist property relations in the most unexpected manner. Kevin Costner came to Easter Island with a massive production crew to make “Rapa-Nui”, a film that required practically every islander to be used as an extra. At $40 a day, they hit the jackpot.

The film depicts the islanders as victims of their own anti-environmentalist practices, with deforestation resulting from the building of the huge statues called moai. The only criticism I have of the film is the directors’ failure to counter this oft-cited explanation of how Easter Island became a case study in not respecting Mother Nature.

In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you get the same version of the island’s decline as in Costner’s idiotic film but without the soundtrack and cinematic panache.

One of the more impressive record-correcting exercises of the mainstream account of Easter Island is Terry L. Hunt and Carl P. Lipo’s Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, and the Myth of “Ecocide”. In Collapse, Diamond judged Easter Island as one of the more egregious examples of “ecocide” in human history, a product of the folly of the island’s rulers whose decision to construct huge statues led to deforestation and collapse. By chopping down huge palm trees that were used to transport the stones used in statue construction, the islanders were effectively sealing their doom. Not only did the settlers chop down trees, they hunted the native fauna to extinction. The net result was a loss of habitat that led to a steep population decline.

Diamond was not the first observer to call attention to deforestation on Easter Island. In 1786, a French explorer named La Pérouse also attributed the loss of habitat to the “imprudence of their ancestors for their present unfortunate situation.”

Referring to research about Easter Island by scientists equipped with the latest technologies, the authors maintain that the deforestation had nothing to do with transporting statues. Instead, it was an accident of nature related to the arrival of rats in the canoes of the earliest settlers. Given the lack of native predators, the rats had a field day and consumed the palm nuts until the trees were no longer reproducing themselves at a sustainable rate. The settlers also chopped down trees to make a space for agriculture, but the idea that giant statues had anything to do with the island’s collapse is a fiction in keeping with Costner’s film.

Unfortunately, Diamond is much more interested in ecocide than genocide. If people interested him half as much as palm trees, he might have said a word or two about the precipitous decline in population that occurred after the island was discovered by Europeans in 1722. Indeed, despite deforestation there is evidence that the island’s population grew between 1250 and 1650, the period when deforestation was taking place — leaving aside the question of its cause. As was the case when Europeans arrived in the New World, a native population was unable to resist diseases such as smallpox and died in massive numbers. Of course, Diamond would approach such a disaster with his customary Olympian detachment and write it off as an accident of history.

“Eating Up Easter” is a beautiful and thought-provoking film. The islanders are wrestling with the same contradictions as the rest of the planet. At one point, Enrique Icke has a conversation with an environmental consultant who scoffs at the idea that the Green renewal projects on Rapanui are of much use to countries with five million people. (Rapanui has 7,750 citizens.) Enrique defends the tiny islands role as an example of what can be done once the entire society is behind a Green transformation. Seen as a laboratory for the projects this planet much undertake for its survival, the example set by the people of “Eating Up Easter” is a good place to start.

June 27, 2020

Chris Maisano’s class-reductionism apologetics

Filed under: class-reductionism,DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Chris Maisano

On June 23rd, Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times’s rightwing opinion writers, came out with a piece titled “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders” that saw him as being out-of-step with the BLM protests over George Floyd’s murder. Perhaps as a result of reading Adolph Reed Jr. or Cedric Johnson’s class-reductionist articles, Douthat smeared BLM as a corporate tool:

The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians, as Crenshaw puts it, in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts.

This was not the first NY Times article that described Sanders as being superseded by these protests. On June 19th, an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” took on the question of class-reductionism frontally:

When Mr. Sanders spoke about racial equality, it was often in the context of economic equality, championing proposals and prescriptions that he believed would improve the lives of all working Americans. He said that policies like single-payer health care would address higher maternal and infant mortality rates in black communities. And he wanted to legalize marijuana and end cash bail, policies he said were aimed in particular at helping black Americans and other people of color.

This is essentially the analysis put forward not only by Sanders but by Reed. Instead of raising race-based demands like defunding the police (which Sanders opposes) or—god forbid—reparations, Sanders, Reed, Sunkara, the Bread and Roses caucus in DSA, and the “democratic socialist” movement in general stresses economic demands to create black-white unity. In fact, this has been the foundation-stone of socialist groups since the time of Debs. Except for a brief period when the CPUSA raised the idea of a Black Belt, the party also envisioned a movement based on economic demands. In the 1930s, this meant getting workers of all races into a CIO union even when FDR was stabbing black people in the back. So irked by charges that FDR was a racist, Reed defended his record in a New Republic article titled “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist”.  Oh, did I mention that the word “lynching” doesn’t appear in the article?

The NAACP had persuaded Democratic Senators Robert Wagner and Edward Costigan to sponsor an anti-lynching bill but it needed FDR’s support. When he met with the two Senators, he said, “Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” FDR was annoyed by these men interfering with his New Deal reforms. He reminded them that if he backed an anti-lynching bill, the Dixiecrats “will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” It also must be said that FDR was every bit of a racist as Teddy Roosevelt, whose statue is finally being removed from the front of the Museum of Natural History. In the chapter on FDR in  Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano”, we get the goods on the “friend of the Negro”:

Roosevelt had few contacts with African Americans beyond the odd jobs done for an elderly widow while a student at Groton. The servants at the Hyde Park estate where he grew up were all English and Irish. When serving in the New York State Senate he scribbled a note in the margin of a speech to remind himself about a “story of a nigger.” Telling jokes about how some “darky” contracted venereal disease was a habit never outgrown. He used the word “nigger” casually in private conversation and correspondence, writing Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of his trip to Jamaica and how “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”

Despite it being obvious that Jacobin was fully behind Sanders’s class-based “socialism” that most black leaders regarded as woefully blinkered, Chris Maisano insisted that Jacobin/DSA was for combining  class and race demands. Like most left groups, the DSA is not into self-criticism. With 70,000 members, they are feeling their oats.

Maisano is astute enough to acknowledge the similarities between what Douthat wrote and what Reed and Cedric Johnson have written in dozens of articles. He even considered the possibility that Douthat was wooing the DSA in the same way that Tucker Carlson has wooed Max Blumenthal (or maybe the other way around in this case.)

Ideologically attuned conservatives like Douthat are surely aware of the seemingly endless conflict between, for lack of better terms, “class-oriented” and “intersectional” conceptions of radical politics. They want to drive a wedge into the new US left and perhaps even win over a segment of the class-oriented left by mimicking some of its vocabulary and concerns.

Maisano clears the air by making the record that when Douthat counterposes demands for “Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats” to demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” the protesters themselves are, by and large, not doing so. This might be true but you better bet your ass that Adolph Reed Jr. and Cedric Johnson are not into demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” Is there anything clearer than their opposition to anti-racism? All you have to do is Google Reed and anti-racism and you come up with something like this:

Notwithstanding its performative evocations of the 1960s Black Power populist “militancy,” this antiracist politics is neither leftist in itself nor particularly compatible with a left politics as conventionally understood. At this political juncture, it is, like bourgeois feminism and other groupist tendencies, an oppositional epicycle within hegemonic neoliberalism, one might say a component of neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness; it is thus in fact fundamentally anti-leftist. [emphasis added.]

Got it? All those mass actions, including one organized by five Louisville teens that produced a rally of 10,000 people, are “anti-leftist”. What a job that Jacobin has on its hands in trying to resolve the contradictions between what Reed writes and Maisano’s hollow attempt to put some distance between him and them. For Christ’s sake, his boss Bashkar Sunkara does an hour and twenty minute interview with Reed on June 10th and the George Floyd protests are not even mentioned.

To give the appearance that he is trying to deal with Reed and Johnson’s class-reductionism, he offers this:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which to reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

I spent a few minutes trying to decipher these two sentences and wondered why Maisano wasn’t more straightforward and capable of writing this instead:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which he or Adolph Reed Jr. reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

The last time anybody wrote something critical of Reed on Jacobin was back in 2016 and that was when the authors Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman were still in the ISO and capable of independent thinking. Now, after having drunk the Sanders Kool-Aid, they’ve seen the light.

Toward the end of his apologetics, Maisano urges patience with these young activists who haven’t been exposed to the brilliance of NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber or neo-Kautskyite legend Eric Blanc:

More important, so long as American police are able to kill and abuse people with impunity, and so long as there are clear racial disparities in police violence — even after accounting for class — it is unrealistic to expect activists with no connection to a severely diminished labor movement to spontaneously link race and class the way socialists might want them to do.

Yeah, okay. Maybe if Jacobin/DSA cadre had been spending more time getting behind organized anti-racist activism, they’d have been in a better position to “educate” these raw youth. I only hope that they don’t recommend Adolph Reed Jr. to the young’uns. To paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, they might say, “You would not enjoy Adolph Reed Jr. He is fundamentally unsound.

June 26, 2020

The Last Tree, Madagasikara

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 26, 2020

Two new films debut as Virtual Cinema today. Both address the hopes and the suffering of Africans, both in diaspora and on the continent.

“The Last Tree” is a coming-of-age story about Femi, a Nigerian boy growing up in a British housing estate. Despite the word “estate”, these buildings have much in common with housing projects in the USA and Paris’s banlieues. Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire as a result of negligence, was part of a housing estate. Coming-of-age films are not my favorite genre. “The Last Tree” soars above any I have seen since the sixties and is sure to be one of my picks for best films of 2020.

“Madagasikara,” the Malagasy name for Madagascar, documents the struggle for survival in an island nation just 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. This is a country of 26 million people with a per capita GDP of $471 per year, about half of Haiti’s. Although most people are aware of how Haiti became so poor, very little is known about Madagascar’s steep decline. Real income is only a third of what it was fifty years ago and imperialism is to blame.

Continue reading

June 23, 2020

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Peter Medak is an 82-year old director who went through the harrowing experience of working with Peter Sellers in a comedy titled “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” in 1974. Like Ishmael quoting Job in the final page of “Moby Dick”, his latest film about this fiasco could have ended with the same words rolling across the screen before the closing credits: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Titled “The Ghost of Peter Sellers”, Medak’s documentary reunites all the survivors who went through this experience with him. They exchange atrocity tales about working with Sellers on a movie that never should have been made in the first place. Octogenarians like Medak, they bring a wealth of experience about filmmaking over long careers. If “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was a colossal flop, you can credit it with one of its redeeming features. It inspired a documentary that will be of keen interest to anybody who loves film. It will make you appreciate the efforts that go into a film production that is difficult enough in the first place. When your star is a complete madman like Peter Sellers, it turns into a ticking time-bomb.

In 1974, Medak was a relative newcomer to directing films, with four credits to his name, including “The Ruling Class” that is described on the Turner Classic Movies website as a commercial failure that became a cult classic. The words commercial failure do not begin to do justice to “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that never made it into theaters. Columbia shit-canned it after seeing the director’s cut. It was stillborn but should have been aborted after the first week of filming.

The screenplay was written by Spike Milligan, who was Peter Sellers’s partner in a long-running BBC radio show called “The Goon Show” that I used to listen to on WBAI centuries ago when it was still a great radio station. The show incorporated ludicrous plots with surreal humor and bizarre sound effects. It was the inspiration for future comedy shows like Monty Python and Firesign Theater.

The documentary includes many excerpts from “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that strike me as an early attempt at making something like “Pirates of the Caribbean” but with far less success. As the pirate captain, Sellers in a fright wig comes across as if he were performing in one of the more stupid SNL sketches. With Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers having much more leverage on the production than Medak, the whole thing struck me as a vanity project gone very, very wrong. Like the Pequod in “Moby Dick”, the ship featured in “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was doomed from the start.

The portrait of Peter Sellers as an actor and a human being is what makes this film so compelling. As the greatest comic actor of our generation who had the fame and power of Charlie Chaplin in an earlier era, he comes across as a total asshole. When Medak and Sellers first get together in a Mediterranean villa to discuss how they would approach the film, Sellers spots a Who’s Who book on a nearby shelf. He then picks it up and finds entries for the film’s producers who he then orders to be fired. Given his superstar power, he got his way just as he got his way through the entire production, making one bad decision after another.

If his domineering style wasn’t bad enough in itself, it was made worse by his indifference to the film’s outcome. He routinely came late to meetings, antagonized the crew and generally acted more as a saboteur than a team player. In one stunning episode, he feigned a heart attack during a scene so that he could return to England ostensibly for treatment. Medak was shocked to see Sellers on the front page of a British tabloid coming out of a restaurant with Princess Margaret.

Hobbled by a sloppily conceived script, the film encountered insurmountable technical problems based on the misguided attempt to film at sea in an ancient boat that had been retrofitted to look like a 17th century pirate ship. Out on the sea filming the entire day, the crew and the cast were beset by seasickness. Made long before digital cameras were available, the boat had to tow a smaller boat equipped with a generator to power the cameras.

Medak is the star of his own film, using it as a kind of psychotherapy to purge what amounts to a major trauma. With the wisdom of his advanced age and that of the other men and women who worked on the film, he offers an object lesson in the art of filmmaking. While it is easy to understand why you might watch Kurosawa or Godard in film school, this documentary should be must-viewing in film schools across the world. Medak and the production team made this film in order to get paid. Unlike writing a novel or a poem, filmmaking is part business and part art. It was obvious that all the participants were anxious to make this film because Sellers was so bankable. It turned out that he was as bankable as Lehman Brothers in 2008, at least when it came to a misbegotten project like “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”.

The film opened today on Amazon Prime. It will likely be one of my nominations for best documentary of 2020.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.