Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 21, 2017

Taxi Searchers

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

I had never made the connection between John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” but found myself saying “of course” after Stewart pointed out that both involve anti-heroes trying to “rescue” women who don’t really feel any such need. Another important insight found in Taxi Searchers is their proximity in time to two important reversals of imperial fortune. Ford’s film was made just two years after the French were defeated in Vietnam and Scorsese’s came out just a year after the Vietnamese kicked the imperialists out once again.

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July 20, 2017

Midnight Return

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 11:00 pm

Opening at the Laemmle theater in Los Angeles tomorrow, “Midnight Return” is a documentary about the narrative film “Midnight Express” that came out in 1978 and which was based on the actual escape from a Turkish prison by Billy Hayes, a hash smuggler. I saw the film that year and was shocked by the brutality of prison life, the sadism of everybody involved in the judicial and penal system, and walked out of the theater persuaded—like most people—that the Turks were monsters.

Writer-director has a lengthy background in soap operas, something that might have habituated her to extract the maximum amount of melodrama in tale that needs none. It is a remarkable tale of how an American hippie from Long Island was arrested in the Istanbul airport with 4.4 pounds of hashish taped to his midsection in October, 1970. At the time, Istanbul, like Kabul, was a magnet for many people my age who were looking to elevate themselves spiritually either with or without drugs. Most people left Istanbul with a gram or two of hashish but Billy Hayes clearly hoped to make a living out of drug dealing for the time being. What he didn’t anticipate was stepped up security for terrorism, which was triggered by the PLFP’s hijacking of a jumbo jet a month earlier. When he was being patted down by airport security, they immediately concluded that he was packing explosives rather than hashish.

Hayes was sentenced to four years in prison but three weeks before his release, the high court in Ankara reviewed his case and decided to re-sentence the 27-year old kid to life in prison. Even before his escape, Hayes had become a cause célèbre internationally with the NY Times publishing a lengthy article about the need to be wary of repressive drug laws overseas.

Once he learned that he would have to spend the rest of his life in prison, Hayes began plotting his escape from an island prison that was as isolated as Alcatraz. In a daring “midnight express”, he commandeered a rowboat and fled to safety across the border into Greece.

Once back in the USA, he was approached by publishers to tell his story but they considered such a blockbuster that the contract stipulated a 3-month schedule. It was clear that they saw a movie deal in the works. They were correct. Just after they were finished, they were approached by British producer David Puttnam of “Chariots of Fire” fame and fellow British director Alan Parker, who had a previous career in advertising.

They hired an American named Oliver Stone to write the script, his first major job that led to an academy award and the launching of his career in Hollywood. While his screenplay was intensely dramatic, it was also a racist hatchet job on the Turks that will remind you of how Arabs have been portrayed in more recent films. Besides making every single Turk look like a fat, sadistic misanthrope, Stone introduced fictional elements that made an already sensational story go into orbit. Instead of writing a climax that portrayed Hayes’s quite dramatic escape on a rowboat, he had him killing a guard and running off unnoticed. It seems that the producer was okay with this since his budget would not accommodate filming on the open waters. One of the signature moments of the film has Hayes denouncing the Turks after the life sentence had been handed down. Played by Brad Davis, his character calls the Turkish nation a bunch of pigs.

Stone, who certainly knows how to write starkly dramatic confrontations between good and evil in films such as “Platoon”, never thought much about the consequences of his script. Interviewed for the film, he says he regrets the consequences on Turkish society (tourism went into steep decline after the film was released) but—shrugging his shoulders—said it “was only a movie”.

That didn’t sit right with the real William Hayes who felt guilty about the demonization of the Turks and sought ways to become reconciled. Eventually, he made it back to Turkey and tried to set things right—thus the title of the film “Midnight Return”.

There are some problems with the film as might be expected from a first-time director but the story itself compensates for that. Angelenos, put this one down on your calendar.

 

Clancy Sigal (1926-2017)

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

I just learned on Facebook from Clancy Sigal’s wife Janice that he has died. Born in 1926, he was an important voice of the left and well known to CounterPunch readers for his many contributions over the years.

Although I never met Clancy in person and regret not having done so, I considered him a real friend like others I have met and communicated with through email and Facebook. It was Clancy who initiated contact with me 14 years ago over a cringe-worthy matter. I had written a hatchet job on a film titled “Frida” about the artist Frida Kahlo that must have gotten under the screenwriter’s skin:

When I write film reviews, I try to apply the dictum of my late father who used to say, “If you can’t say something good about a person, say nothing at all.” I made an exception last week for “The Quiet American”, which I regarded as a disappointment both in terms as an adaptation of Greene’s novel and the novel itself.

Now I turn to an all-out disaster, although like “The Quiet American” it received rather favorable reviews when it came out. “Frida” is a really stupid biopic based on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and feminist icon who was married to Diego Rivera, the famed muralist. Since it touches on modern art and includes Leon Trotsky as a character, two subjects close to my heart, it is necessary for me to address the profound injustice done to them and to the rather interesting personality of Kahlo herself, who is reduced in this film to a cursing, drinking and brawling eccentric whose motivations seem driven more by her sexual/reproductive organs than her brain.

The screenwriter was Clancy Sigal.

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July 19, 2017

The Fencer

Filed under: Film,sports,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, “The Fencer” is an Estonian-language film made in 2015 by Finns that tells the story of a fencing instructor named Endel Nelis who led an underdog team of children to victory in a competition held in Leningrad in the early 50s. In doing so, he took considerable risks since he had been drafted into the Estonian contingent of the Nazi army after Hitler invaded Estonia. Torn between self-preservation and dedication to his students, he chooses them. There was a real person named Endel Nelis who died in 1993 but the film’s plot takes liberties with his story. There is no evidence that he was wanted by the KGB even though Estonians paid dearly for being dragooned into Hitler’s killing machine. While the film has a fictional narrative, there is a larger truth about the USSR and Estonia that I will address after saying a few words about this altogether stirring film.

As a genre, “The Fencer” has a lot in common with both documentary and narrative films I have seen about kids from poverty-stricken circumstances winning chess tournaments, especially “Dark Horse” that came out the same year as “The Fencer”. “Dark Horse”, a New Zealand film, was about a troubled Maori man named Genesis Potini who trained Maori children to compete and win in chess tournaments against children from elite schools. “The Fencer” will also remind you of “The Karate Kid” since fencing and karate are both one-on-one combat sports.

However, the focus is mostly on Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) who has arrived in the poor and rural village of Haapsalu, Estonia from Leningrad in order to avoid detection by the Soviet police. He interviews with the principal of the local school for a sports instructor position that he hardly looks forward to. The gym lacks equipment and the children are not very athletic. In an early scene, 1 out of 5 boys run around vaulting equipment rather than leap over it. When Nelis decides to take them out skiing, the principal informs him that the skis are currently being used at a military base for training.

Missing the fencing competition he excelled at in Leningrad, he begins working out with a fencing foil on his own in the school’s gym in his spare time only to be discovered by a pre-teen girl named Marta who becomes totally fixated on his balletic moves.

Can you teach me to do that, she asks. Finally discovering something that might motivate his students, Nelis begins a fencing class that starts out on the most elementary basis. The children are lined up like they were recruits in basic training and put through the abc’s of fencing—except without a weapon. Once he realizes that they are determined to become fencers, he takes them into a nearby forest where they cut down branches that are the length of a fencing foil and equips them with an ersatz handle.

The film includes a romance between Nelis and the school librarian who stands behind his work, even though that puts her at odds with the principal who regards fencing as “feudal”. In a PTA type meeting, he urges the parents to support his decision to drop the program using Stalinist rhetoric about the “needs of the proletariat”. The grandfather of Nelis’s star student stands up to remind him that Karl Marx was a fencer when young.

“The Fencer” is an old-fashioned film with a script that borders on the melodramatic. What makes it compelling is the performances by the leading characters and enough of the actual art of fencing to carry you along. In plucky underdog films such as this, you can surely expect a happy ending.

As someone who had just finished a survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, I found myself wondering about the historical backdrop for the film. As I had mentioned in my review of “Katyn”, how was it possible for the USSR to organize the execution of 22,000 Polish officers for the crime of being officers? By the same token, what kind of justice is it to put men in concentration camps who had been forced to fight on the side of the Nazis? In a key scene between Nelis and his librarian lover, he tells her that he managed to flee from the army not long after being drafted without being caught. The other men in the unit, who were friends and neighbors from Estonia, were not so lucky. They were apprehended and killed.

According to Wikipedia, the majority of Estonian men volunteered to join the Nazi military and comprised a 70,000 strong force. An Estonian Legion was led by Franz Augsberger, a high-ranking German SS commander. In a key battle between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Battle of Narwa in January, 1944, Estonian soldiers were key to holding off the Red Army. Soviet scorched earth tactics helped to keep Estonia in the Nazi camp. Two months later, Soviet bombers attacked the capital city of Tallinn and left 40 percent of the homes burned to the ground.

If your knowledge of Estonia is based on these bare facts, you would tend to regard its citizens as a reactionary mob despite what is depicted in “The Fencer”. Indeed, whenever I heard about Estonia in the 1960s, it was always written off as hotbed of fascism in the same way as Ukraine, another Nazi ally supposedly. But like Ukraine, Estonia was not reflexively predisposed to anti-Communism. In some ways, writing Estonians off as “bad seeds” reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s argument that Germans were innately anti-Semitic.

Like Poland, Estonia was ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After forcing the Estonian government to accept Soviet military bases and 25,000 soldiers on its soil, the country quickly came under total Soviet control when an additional 90,000 Soviet soldiers were sent in as reinforcements. A puppet government was installed and a Red flag replaced the Estonian flag over the nation’s capital. Shortly afterwards, tribunals were set up to try “enemies of the people” against a backdrop of demonstration elections that recorded a 92.8% preference for the Communist Party, the only one on the ballot of course. Economically, the country was transformed overnight. Everything, including small shops, was nationalized and trade with the West came to an end.

During the first year of Soviet occupation over 8,000 people, including most of the country’s leading politicians and military officers, were arrested and 2,200 of those arrested were executed on the spot in Estonia. The rest were sent to prison camps in the USSR, from which very few returned. 8,000 doesn’t sound like very much but in 1939 Estonia had a population of 1,122,000, just a bit larger than San Jose, California. Can you imagine the trauma suffered by such a city if 8,000 of its residents were killed for no other reasons than being “enemies of the people”? Or think of it this way, if Estonia had a population as large as that of the USA’s today, the proportionate number of victims would have been 2,400,000.

Considering the fact that the Nazis had never killed a single Estonian until it invaded the country on its way to the USSR, it is understandable why many young men who were politically naïve might have seen them as the lesser evil.

Last Thursday, RT.com published an article titled “‘Perversion of history’: Russian officials blast NATO film glorifying Nazi collaborators” that attacked an 8-minute film produced by NATO about the Forest Brothers, a Baltic-wide guerrilla movement that fought alongside the Nazis against the Red Army. Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova wrote: “Don’t remain indifferent, this is a perversion of history that NATO knowingly spreads in order to undermine the outcome of the Nuremberg Tribunal and it must be cut short!” She also correctly stated that many of the Forest Brothers were former Nazi collaborators and members of the Baltic Waffen SS.

The problem with much of RT.com reporting is that it operates in a time-tunnel that begins with, for example, Nazi alliances with Estonian nationalists but not with the secret protocols that gave the USSR free rein to seize control of Estonia and murder tens of thousands of its citizens only because it saw that as necessary for securing a buffer against the West, which at that time did not include Adolf Hitler.

As difficult as it is for some people on the left to understand, the best defense of the USSR was working-class solidarity across borders, not the Metternichian foreign policy of Stalin in the past and of Putin’s Russia today. After WWII, Stalin retained control of the Baltic States with the full approval of the USA but as the Cold War began, they began to be courted by the CIA as possible allies. Instead of maintaining its domination of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Kremlin should have granted them the right to self-determination and offered them total political and economic support as independent states. That, in fact, was the original policy of the Soviet Union even though it is virtually unknown to people who rely on RT.com.

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

–V.I. Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”

 

 

July 18, 2017

The origins of the North Star

Filed under: North Star — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Fox News: fair and balanced

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

July 17, 2017

George Romero (1940-2017): zombie politics

Filed under: Film,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

When “Night of the Living Dead” premiered in 1968, antiwar activists and socialists like me saw it mostly as escapist fun—a film like “The Wild Bunch” that would get our minds off the war and the difficulties of building the left in the USA. It was to the credit of documentary filmmaker Rob Kuhns to have discovered how close George Romero was to us politically. His “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Amazon video, connects his film to the political climate in the USA in a break with the zombie genre.

Before Romero’s film, the zombie was featured in movies set in Haiti or some other Caribbean Island far removed from reality. It was Romero’s breakthrough to make the film unrelentingly realistic, including scenes of zombies eating entrails or lurching toward their prey in that characteristic gait. Also, unlike the traditional zombie movie set in Haiti, Romero made a movie about a society in advanced disintegration fully aware that it reflected what was happening in the streets of Newark or Detroit.

Romero got his start making commercials in the Pittsburgh area. Even then he was willing to push the envelope, making the first beer commercial actually showing people guzzling down a drink. After he worked on a film that showed Mr. Rogers, the benign host of a PBS children’s show, getting ready for a tonsillectomy, he was inspired to do a zombie movie since Mr. Rogers’s procedure struck him as gruesome rather than reassuring. Before going down that road, Romero considered doing an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring”. Fortunately, he saw that as unmarketable and moved onto a more feasible project that would make his mark as a director.

Romero is the star of Kuhn’s film, a likeably self-effacing and witty figure. He talks about how the film was cast, drawing from local personalities including many of the clients of his advertising agency who worked for free and had a blast doing so.

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as Rick Grimes, the sheriff in “Walking Dead”, but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre. In the final scene Jones’s character is killed by a police-led posse that is as not that much different from vigilante squad just as the case today with an epidemic of cop killings.

After making a series of likable but inconsequential films for the next 37 years, Romero returned once again to the zombie genre with a film that I regard as his best and most political. As a blend of horror movie escapism and social commentary, his 2005 “Land of the Dead” succeeded wildly. (Available for $2.99 on Youtube linked above.) Romero audaciously used the conflict between the living and the ‘undead’ as a metaphor for the contradictions of late capitalist America but with sympathies for the zombie rather than those who were “protecting” private property.

The living dwell in a gated and heavily fortified city that is patrolled by centurions who have not earned the right to permanent residence there themselves. The centurions occasionally organize themselves into death squads and make forays into zombie territory where they kill at random and retrieve canned goods and booze for the consumption needs of the urban population. The shops in zombie territory are still staffed by the “stenches” who once worked there but who have only dim memories of their old occupations. An undead gas station attendant might hold up a nozzle but is clueless as to which end of the car it goes into; an undead gardener aimlessly pushes a lawnmower in circles in the middle of the street at midnight, and so on. These are lost souls who no longer fit into the commodity-producing scheme of things. What is worse, they subsist on eating the flesh of the living.

It is no accident that the city featured in the film is none other than Pittsburgh, director George Romero’s home town. This once bustling headquarters of America’s most powerful and prosperous steel companies was one of the first casualties of deindustrialization. It has been transformed into a citadel for service industries staffed by the college educated. The older, run-down working class sections of town that are home to unemployable steelworkers and other blue-collar workers made redundant by the “economic miracle” could easily have served as on-location settings for the zombie strongholds in “Land of the Dead.” (For economic reasons, however, most of the film was shot in Canada.)

Pittsburgh is ruled by Kaufman, a cynical capitalist played by Dennis Hopper. From a high-rise named “Fiddler’s Green” that dominates the city, he spies on the activities of the city’s population through television monitors. If anybody steps out of line, they will be picked up by the centurions, murdered and then dumped into zombie territory. This Pittsburgh has a lot in common with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” another rigidly divided class society.

For that matter, “Land of the Dead” has enough cultural references to provide fodder for a dozen MLA panels. For example, you will find suggestions of “Bladerunner,” “Mad Max” or any of a number of other dystopian films.

The film also hearkens back to earlier classics like the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films, mostly in its capacity to make you feel a degree of sympathy for the monster. In “Land of the Dead,” you can’t escape feeling sorry for the flesh-eating zombies who only mount an assault on Pittsburgh after suffering one death squad raid too many. Led by “Big Daddy,” an African-American zombie (played skillfully and solely through grunting or howling by veteran actor Eugene Clarke) who was a pneumatic drill operator in his previous life and who still wears the coveralls of his trade, they lurch toward the city to take revenge. It is to Romero’s credit that he can nearly make you cheer for this uprising of the flesh-eating dispossessed.

The only thing that stands between Pittsburgh and the advancing zombie army is a heavily armed and armored troop carrier nicknamed Dead Reckoning. It bears a strong resemblance to vehicles on the streets of Baghdad today. Dead Reckoning has been commandeered by Cholo (John Leguizamo), a centurion who seeks revenge against Kaufman for not allowing him to buy an apartment in Pittsburgh. As somebody who has spent some time shopping for a co-op in Manhattan, I can identify with this character. Unless Kaufman turns over millions of dollars in ransom to Cholo and his gang, he will open fire on the city.

Kaufman sends Riley (Simon Baker), Dead Reckoning’s former commander, out to thwart Cholo’s plans and to save the city, which is the source of his wealth. Riley has been jailed for interfering in a gladiator type combat between two zombies that has been staged in a Las Vegas-like casino within the city. He, like the GI’s speaking out against the occupation of Iraq today, is one of the few centurions that has not been completely dehumanized by Kaufman’s system. If Riley and his friends are successful, they plan to hightail it to Canada and leave Kaufman’s madness behind. Obviously, such a plan will resonate with any filmgoer who has taken note of our northern neighbor’s more civilized stance on matters such as gay marriage or the war on terror.

In an interview with Los Angeles Weekly, Romero explains the importance of Pittsburgh:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

For George Romero, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” was “a soap opera with a zombie occasionally”. It is hard for me to argue with that especially since I have a soft spot for nighttime soaps like “The Desperate Housewives” or Spanish television’s “Grand Hotel”. As much as I love George Romero, I think that the show is popular because it is both entertaining and because it is socially relevant, just like “Land of the Dead”.

Since its inception, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four the main characters led by ex-cop Rick Grimes try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and their gated community. The miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.

In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.

The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.

Lately life has begun to imitate art as protestors at the G20 Summit in Hamburg took on the appearance of zombies. One of the event organizers, Catalina Lopez, told Reuters TV: “The goal of our performance today is to move the people in their hearts, to give them the motivation to get politically engaged again. We want to create an image, because we believe in the power of images…we want to motivate people to take part. To free themselves from their crusted shells, to take part in the political process.”

While I have to give them credit for inspired political theater, becoming free from “crusted shells” will finally take place not because of their performance but when capitalist society reaches such a unlivable state that people will be forced out of their routine into the streets by the millions as occurred 50 years ago when I entered radical politics.

July 15, 2017

Ben Norton’s transparent alibi

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Initially getting the Syria war wrong, learning from past mistakes, and correcting lies

I have never seen any conflict lied about more than the horrific war in Syria.

Most of the lies have been in the interest of empire. But there has also been a fair share of lying within the camp of those who ostensibly oppose it.

I have been ceaselessly attacked from multiple sides for the evolution of my views on Syria. Some of these attacks have been warranted, I readily concede. Many others have not been.

In a recent denunciation, the blog Moon of Alabama pilloried me, Max Blumenthal, and Rania Khalek, in one of a slew of nearly identical pieces that have done the same (penned by a motley crew of deranged digital stalkers with a penchant for lying, like serial impersonator Pham Binh, Photoshop-wielding demagogue Louis Proyect, and reactionary conspiracy-monger Barbara McKenzie)…

I admit I was wrong, and it was gradually from 2014 into 2015 that I began to see that. When Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra was openly leading the opposition, and yet Cliffites continued to support it (with Trotskyite writers like Louis Proyect and Michael Karadjis cheering on al-Nusra’s offensives), I was hit with the realization that I had been fooling myself.

Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek came to similar realizations on a similar timeline. The three of us are close friends and colleagues who talk frequently. We discussed the issue at length; our views evolved together organically.

(clip)


What a lying bastard this kid is. I had never met him before August 21, 2015 when he approached me after Patrick Bond’s talk at the Verso office in Brooklyn on Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Accumulation of Capital” to telll me that he agreed completely with my analysis of Syria and Ukraine. He also mentioned that he was about to start a new job at Salon. I told him good luck. So if he had started to “rethink” things as early as 2014, why would he have come up to spend 10 minutes badmouthing exactly what he was already well on the road to becoming, namely a carbon copy of Robert Parry, Patrick L. Smith, Gareth Porter and other tawdry apologists for the Baathist killing machine.

Besides killing and displacing Syrians, the war has taken a toll on leftist journalists. Norton is as slippery as an eel coated in vaseline and will likely end up like David Horowitz. That’s what happens when you begin to write articles relying on the Saudi media for “the truth”.

I figured out that Norton had joined the conspiracist left after reading his Salon articles. In my view, it was cash that made the difference–not having a Road to Damascus conversion after reading some book opposed to Gilbert Achcar or Idrees Ahmad. If you want to understand him politically and psychologically, I’d advise reading Norman Podhoretz’s memoir “Making It”. From my first commentary on the turncoat dated June 18, 2016:

When I visited the Verso office in Brooklyn for a panel discussion on Rosa Luxemburg last August, I ran into someone named Ben Norton who I knew vaguely as a critic of the crude “anti-imperialism” that had swept across the left like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We chatted briefly about our shared political values and his latest career move, which was joining Salon.com as a staff member. I thought this was a welcome addition to a magazine that featured Patrick L. Smith, one of the worst propagandists for the Assad dictatorship to be found anywhere.

I never would have expected that within six months Norton would end up in the Smith/Cockburn/Fisk camp writing articles reinforcing the dominant narrative on the left that the USA was bent on “regime change” and that the Syrian rebels were reactionary jihadists engaged in a proxy war launched by the West against its perceived enemies in the region.

I want to review his journalism since early 2016 as a way of showing how taking the wrong position on Syria inevitably leads to bending the truth, which for a serious-minded journalist is a cardinal sin. Writing for Salon, at least until it remains in business, might pay the rent but what good is that if you lose your soul in the process?

 

UPDATE:

 

Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames: sexist pigs

Filed under: journalism,sexism — louisproyect @ 2:25 pm

When I watched Oliver Stone’s Putin interviews, I was struck by how the two men were bonded by homophobia. I have a strong sense that some on the American left are attracted to Putin because he isn’t into “political correctness”. For example, when the subject of gays in the military came up, Stone asked how he would deal with having to take showers with “them”. Putin smiled and said that he was a judo expert. Does anybody not understand that this meant that he would kick their ass?

I don’t think that Matt Taibbi is the sort of person nowadays who would be drawn to Putin’s backward attitudes but I’ll bet anything that Mark Ames would have gotten a chuckle out of the shower room exchange. Ames is a ubiquitous figure on social media who can be counted on to take Putin’s side on just about every issue, from his intervention Ukraine to blaming a rightwing gay activist for the murderous assault on gays in Chechnya.

Here is an excerpt from a Chicago Reader article about a book they wrote about their time publishing Exile in Russia:

Most notably, the Exile nurtures a peculiarly vicious and schizoid attitude toward women. While Russian women are rhapsodically celebrated as long-legged gazelles with loose morals–“the most physically attractive women on earth, and…usually available to the highest bidder,” expat women are ridiculed at length as “fat-ankled” and defensively sexless. Self-hating geeky American men are encouraged to take advantage of the perception that all Americans are rich and have oodles of condomless sex (sometimes in the ass!) with drunk, nubile dyevushkas. Ex-girlfriends are held up to public ridicule–Ames at one point chronicles his threats to kill a pregnant ex if she won’t have an abortion. The club listings are rated by three factors: how cheap the beer is, how thuggish the crowd is, and how likely an expat male is to score: “Babes with nose-bleeds and their pot-bellied, cell-phone-totin’ sugar dyadyas. One of the highest concentrations of beautiful chicks–and heavily armed men–in the world. (If you have an 8-ball of whiff you’ll get laid.)”

It’s not ironic–Ames and Taibbi explicitly scorn the bourgeois safety net of irony–and it’s not just a rhetorical stance. “You’re always trying to force Masha and Sveta under the table to give you blow jobs,” complains their first business manager, an American woman, in chapter six, “The White God Factor.” “It’s not funny. They don’t think it’s funny.” “But…it is funny,” replies Taibbi. They take particular glee in trashing several former female staff members in print, taking multiple potshots at the aforementioned business manager’s “gorilla ass.” They’re equally nasty to her replacement, who quit in disgust after they went on a four-month “brain-sucking speed binge.”

And Ames’s treatment of Russian teenage girls is documented with frightening glee. In the book he recounts one evening with an expat investment banker pal and what he thought were three 16-year-old girls:

“When I went back into the TV room, Andy pulled me aside with a worried grin on his face. ‘Dude do you realize…do you know how old that Natasha is?’ he said.

“‘Sixteen?’

“‘No! No, she’s fif-teen. Fif-teen.’ Right then my pervometer needle hit the red. I had to have her, even if she was homely.”

After they do it, she tells him she has a three-month-old baby.

“It was hard to imagine that Natasha had squatted out a baby,” Ames writes. “Her cunt was as tight as a cat’s ass….I’d slept with mothers before–they’re a lot wider. Sex with them is like probing a straw in a mildew-lined German beer mug.”

Later he learns that she’s lying–she has no baby, but rather is four months pregnant. After she has an abortion, he writes about her in the Exile, suggesting that she be sterilized and awarded “one of those cheap trophy cups with the inscription ‘World’s Greatest Mom.'”

Ames and Taibbi rationalize their flaming sexism with the argument that part of the whole expatriate experience is to have one’s moral compass come loose. American men have internalized a sexual script that prescribes equality and respect, but “out in Russia,” Ames writes, “you gain a little perspective, which can be dangerous. Deep down, even the most emasculated, wire-rimmed glasses, cigar-smoking and martini-drinking American guy fantasizes about living in a world full of…well, I’ll let you guess: a) self-reliant, androgynous women who are also your friends, b) young, beautiful sluts.”

Needless to say this kind of thing pisses some people off. In early 1998 Ames’s column about Natasha pissed off a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun named Kathy Lally, who lobbied to get an influential Internet newsgroup about Russia to stop posting the Press Review column. This in turn pissed off the Exile boys enough that they decided to give her the treatment. They had a female friend call her and, posing as an anti-Exile sympathizer, ask her to help shut the paper down by giving a statement to FAPSI–Russia’s Federal Agency of Government Communication and Information, an organization analogous to the National Security Agency that, according to Taibbi, has a reputation for being “a reactionary force on par with the old KGB.” They got Lally on tape agreeing to “think about it,” and of course they published the transcript. Upon hearing from a friend that they’d made her cry, Taibbi writes, “Mark and I burst out laughing.

“‘Good!’ I shouted.

“‘Fuck her!’ said Mark.”

July 14, 2017

Saudi Arabia’s snitch pissed off at Jacobin

Filed under: humor,Saudi Arabia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

If I was Norton, I wouldn’t take this lying down. I’d get together with Molly Klein, Jacob Levich and John Steppling to organize a foursome workshop on “Jacobin delenda est” at the next Left Forum.

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