Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 16, 2006

Peacock

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 16, 2006

Set in 1976 in some unidentified midsize city, "Peacock" tells the story of three young adult members of the Gao family trying to make their way in post-Cultural Revolution China. This is very much a fleeting moment in time when Chinese society is still marked by the austerity of the Maoist era and when foundational beliefs in communism have all but vanished–soon to be replaced by consumerism.

Structured as a kind of trilogy that puts each child successively into the foreground, it begins with the tale of Weihong (Zhang Jingchu), the daughter and youngest child. Returning home one day on her bicycle, she experiences an almost mystical encounter with a group of male and female paratroopers parachuting into a nearby field. When the parachute strings of the squad leader, a handsome man with a Beijing accent (as the subtitle indicates), gets tangled in her handle-bars, she resolves at that moment to become a paratrooper herself. That decision has more to do with the romance of the uniform, an attraction to the squad leader and the esthetics of the blue silk parachute than it does with the legend of the Red Army. Furthermore, the Beijing accent has a certain cachet for Weihong, which for denizens of her city must have the same class connotations that an Oxbridge accent has for somebody living in the East End of London.

After the Red Army rejects her application, she carries a torch both for the handsome squad leader and the numinous parachute. At home she sews together her own parachute, attaches it to the back of her bike like a kite and rides through the streets until unceremoniously crashing into another bike. While she lies semiconscious on the street, an admirer, whom she has rejected in the past, takes the parachute hostage. He will only release it after she has had sex with him in a nearby forest. In this film, love–like all other ideals–comes in short supply.

With hopes for a career in the military dashed, she settles for more realistic goals that mainly involve leaving her oppressive family household and her job washing bottles. She throws herself at a local party bureaucrat's homely chauffeur and makes him promise to find her another job before they get married.

Her older brother is the overweight Weiguo (Li Feng), whom a childhood illness has left slightly retarded. He is simultaneously tormented by neighborhood bullies and doted upon by their overprotective mother. Weihong and middle brother Weiqiang (Lu Yulai) occupy a middle-ground, alternating between fraternal feelings and impatience with his slowness.

In an odd way, all of the children are preoccupied with the same issues that faced the characters in "Pride and Prejudice," finding a marriage partner: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Unfortunately for Weiguo, he has neither fortune, nor beauty, nor intelligence. But this does not prevent him for aspiring high. In his modest if not impoverished world this means wooing a factory girl he has fallen in love with after spotting her on the street. His doting but realistic mother approaches her on the street with an offer of cash if she comes to dinner. She doesn't have to accept Weiguo's love, since it is obvious that he is no match for her, but she simply has to go through the motions of seriously considering him. The outcome, although ignominious, does not have a lasting impact on Weiguo who faces life with a sunny if somewhat uncomprehending grin.

The last episode is devoted to Weiqiang, who is the most sensitive and intelligent of the three children. He provides the film's narration and probably encapsulates the POV of the film's first time director Changwei Gu and screenwriter Qiang Li, who has written the script for a film now in production titled "The Aunt's Postmodern Life."

Changwei Gu has a long and distinguished career as a cinematographer and has worked both in China and in the West. In an interview with Firecracker, an online publication, he put forward the motivation for making "Peacock":

“I didn’t set out to make a political film. This era is just very familiar to me. It is my generation. The late 70's and early 80's mark the end of the Cultural Revolution and China’s transition from a planned economy to a market economy. In such an era, the value of the individual is often overlooked. I wanted to make a film about individual lower class people in China. This family is like 1.2 billion others. They are not heroes, or celebrities. People are not normally interested in these lives, but I believe they have the capacity to be beautiful too.”

Full: http://www.firecracker-media.com/issue04/interview02.shtml

He has succeeded beyond all expectations. One of the great things about contemporary Chinese film is its ability to dramatize the lives of such ordinary people. In the face of a society that worships material success and ever increasingly the cultural values of the West, including those displayed in Hollywood film, it is gratifying to see this spark of humanity still glowing.

"Peacock" was the opening feature in this year's Asian Film Festival in New York City. I am grateful to Grady Hendrix of Subway Cinema, one of the main organizers of the festival, for making screeners of festival films available to me. I plan to review them over the next week or so while the festival is in progress. Schedule information is at: http://www.subwaycinema.com/frames/nyaff06films.htm. I strongly urge New Yorkers to check out these films, since they are far more interesting than anything you can find at the local Cineplex.

 

June 14, 2006

Dick Howard: Turncoat

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 5:51 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 14, 2006

For those who keep track of the Cruise Missile left, the online magazine Democratiya might be familiar. It involves the same cast of characters that crop up in the Euston Manifesto, the Henry Jackson Society, Dissent Magazine, etc. Most of the contributors to Democratiya are run-of-the-mill ideologues like Marko Attila Hoare and Harry Hatchett of the infamous Harry's Place blog, but I was somewhat surprised to discover that Dick Howard has an article in the latest issue titled "Marxist Misunderstandings: Perry Anderson and French Politics" that finds the NLR editor insufficiently "anti-totalitarian", a complaint ubiquitous to these circles.

Dick Howard, as it turns out, was a Marxist in good standing once upon a time. He, like fellow turncoat Norm Geras, seems to have had some kind of affinity for Rosa Luxemburg based on the evidence of having edited a Monthly Review collection of her political writings in 1971. This, of course, was when he was a young radical and before he had become all comfy and neutered in academia. He is now a Distinguished (ahem) Professor in Philosophy at Stony Brook.

If poor Rosa Luxemburg knew that people like Geras and Dick Howard had earned their credentials in the left-academy through her good name, she'd probably spin so rapidly in her grave that a generator attached to her toe would be able to satisfy the electrical power needs of Baghdad for the next couple of years.

Although I have not had the pleasure to read the Anderson article on some specialist concerns about French history that Howard is so hot and bothered about, it appears that its true function is to allow Howard to use it as a convenient peg to hang a red-baiting attack on:

I had come to London fresh from the May 1968 'events' (as the French, in the good Marxist tradition, are want to call experiences that don't fit the given historical paradigm). Anderson had just returned from that workers' paradise, Enver Hoxha's Albania. He had been one of the first westerners to gain admission to Albania, the only ally of China's ill-named 'Cultural Revolution', about which New Left Review was wildly enthusiastic. The details of our encounter are not important (I don't remember them, nor, I imagine, does he). What counts is the symbolism: two paradigms, one trying to understand the new, in this case, a mutation of a democratic republic to what I would later come to call a republican democracy, the other seeking to restructure an old paradigm, the dream of a socialist society in which unity would replace division, the individual finding the meaning of life in a social calling.

You know the drill. Just make an amalgam between Noam Chomsky and Pol Pot or Perry Anderson and Enver Hoxha and you demonstrate your bona fides to polite liberal public opinion of the sort Dissent Magazine caters to. (Have you heard that Dissent and Commentary are planning to merge? The new journal will be called Dysentery.)

The hatred for the NLR is almost palpable in these circles, by the way. Just look at turncoat Fred Halliday's fulminations against Tariq Ali in Salmagundi and it is enough to make you want to shell out $52 for a subscription. I guess the reason that people like Dick Howard, Fred Halliday and Norm Geras are so bilious about the journal is that it reminds them of their youth. Too bad they can't turn back the clock and relive life as a member of the Labour Party or the Democratic Party rather than be tainted with all that socialism nonsense.

Howard, like Geras and Christopher Hitchens, seems to be just another 'leftist' who made a mad dash to the right after September 11th, 2001. In an article on his web page at Stony Brook titled "After September 11th: Chances for a Left Foreign Policy," he makes the case for forging a united front with the Bush administration framed in terms of Democratic Party centrism, with a truly disgusting abuse of Marxist jargon. It starts as follows:

A leftist (or “progressive”) American intellectual is expected to criticize his government. That seems to be the reason that many Europeans were astonished, for example, to find the name of a Socialist intellectual like Michael Walzer co-existing peacefully with people of rather different convictions on petitions supporting the Bush administration response to September 11th. And when the progressive American speaks foreign tongues, it is expected that he will go on to deplore American isolationism–or unilateralism, or both, as sins of equal evil. He will be expected, in short, to be more European than the Europeans. Hence, let me say at the outset, in French, that “tout comprendre n’est pas tout pardonner.” And let me explain myself by adding, in German, a sort of Feuerbachian Umkehrung of Marx’s famous 11th Thesis: “Die Politiker haben die Welt nur verändern wollen, es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verstehen.”

The 11th Thesis is best known to us in the English translation: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." If poor Karl Marx knew that he was being quoted in order to justify a "war on terror" that would lead to hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, torture, kidnapping, suspension of civil liberties and press censorship, he'd probably join Rosa Luxemburg in a spinning contest.

June 12, 2006

Cuba, Columbia and Vaclav Havel

Filed under: Academia,antiwar,cuba — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Just received in an end of year update from my boss, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University:

PRESIDENT VÁCLAV HAVEL RESIDENCY

Hosting significant world leaders in programs that allow us to connect knowledge across academic, cultural, and national boundaries is now a regular part of our campus life. Next semester, we will have one of the truly transformational leaders of our time join us for a more extended exchange with Columbia students and faculty. This coming October, Václav Havel­the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic­will take up an 8-week residency at Columbia. A poet, playwright, and champion of humanistic values, President Havel embodies the convergence of the arts and humanities with civic leadership, and we are honored to have him be part of our academic community. It is especially notable that one of President Havel’s plays will be on the syllabus in Literature and the Humanities, and he himself will deliver the class-wide lecture as part of the Core Curriculum. In addition to working closely with the College and the faculty in the Core, Gregory Mosher and the Columbia University Arts Initiative are collaborating with colleagues at the School of the Arts, SIPA, and across the University on this remarkable endeavor, and we expect many more details to come into focus as President Havel’s visit draws closer.

===

http://havanajournal.com/politics/entry/the-discreet-terror-of-fidel-castro-vaclav-havel/

The discreet terror of Fidel Castro – Vaclav Havel

Three years ago the EU imposed sanctions on Castro’s government, but these were soon undermined by cowardly accommodation. There are more opportunities, however, for Europe to show political responsibility.

By Vaclav Havel and others

This spring marks the third anniversary of the wave of repression in which Fidel Castro’s regime arrested and handed down long sentences to 75 leading Cuban dissidents. Soon afterward, many friends and I formed the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba.

The bravery of those who found their social conscience, overcame fear and stood up to communist dictatorship remains fresh in my memory. It reminds me of the jingle of keys that rang out on Prague’s Wenceslas Square­and later around the rest of what was then Czechoslovakia­in the autumn of 1989.

(clip)

===

Lee Bollinger remarks at this year's commencement:

Oswaldo Payá Citation

I am supposed to have the duty of presenting Oswaldo Payá, to whom the Trustees have awarded an honorary doctor of laws. Unfortunately, his chair here is empty. Mr. Paya could not join us on this occasion because the Government of Cuba has not granted him an exit visa to be here. We were prepared to confer the degree, but Mr. Paya has written us to ask that Columbia's leadership allow him to receive the degree in person when he is free to travel. We all look forward to that day. For the present, this is what we would have read to you about him:

Engineer, journalist, activist, tireless campaigner for human rights and advocate for the people of Cuba, you represent the aspirations of millions around the world yearning for freedom and democracy. Based on the Cuban constitution itself, your Varela Project­a peaceful civic initiative to gather signatures across Cuba for the establishment of a free and democratic citizenry — is a model of civic activism. At great personal sacrifice and despite nearly constant surveillance and harassment, you have remained committed to nonviolent dissidence and political change. You embody a life of principle in practice and we are proud to celebrate your extraordinary dedication to peaceful, democratic values by conferring on you the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa.

===

July 29, 2002

The Censors Go Global

From Havel to Ashcroft, Baja to Reno

by Dave Marsh

The Czech Republic just passed a law giving anyone "promoting drugs" up to five years in prison. So much for the Velvet Revolution. Pathetically ineffectual President Vaclav Havel, a leader of the Velvet Revolution, is currently hospitalized. But when two dozen Czech artists turned themselves to the Prague cops on July 2, ratting themselves out by handing over "incriminating" CDs, Havel was on the street. He offered no support to the critics of this regime.

The Czech law says that anyone who encourages or, supports "the abuse of habit-forming substances other than alcohol through the press, film, radio, television, publicly accessible computer networks, or or in any other comparatively effective way" gets one to five in the slammer. Come to think of it, Havel, dying of lung cancer as the result of very public use of the addictive substance tobacco, probably should turn himself in. He could write his next book on the back of the 6,000 signature petitions handed to him on July 1 by Art Against Censorship, a group that staged a Prague concert against the new law.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/marsh0729.html

===

The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)

January 31, 2003 Friday Final Edition

United behind the U.S.: Eight European leaders back Bush. UN Security Council will lose credibility if it allows Iraq to violate resolution

by: Jose Maria Aznar, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, Silvio Berlusconi, Tony Blair, Peter Medgyessy, Leszek Miller and Anders Fogh Rasmussen

The real bond between the United States and Europe is the values we share: democracy, individual freedom, human rights and the rule of law. These values crossed the Atlantic with those who sailed from Europe to help create the United States. Today, they are under greater threat than ever.

The attacks of Sept. 11 showed just how far terrorists – the enemies of our common values – are prepared to go to destroy them. Those outrages were an attack on all of us. In standing firm in defence of these principles, the governments and people of the United States and Europe have amply demonstrated the strength of their convictions. Today more than ever, the trans-Atlantic bond is a guarantee of our freedom.

We in Europe have a relationship with the United States that has stood the test of time. Thanks in large part to American bravery, generosity and far-sightedness, Europe was set free from the two forms of tyranny that devastated our continent in the 20th century: nazism and communism. Thanks, too, to the continued co-operation between Europe and the United States, we have managed to guarantee peace and freedom on our continent. The trans-Atlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime's persistent attempts to threaten world security.

In today's world, more than ever before, it is vital that we preserve that unity and cohesion. We know that success in the day-to-day battle against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction demands unwavering determination and firm international cohesion on the part of all countries for whom freedom is precious.

The Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction represent a clear threat to world security. This danger has been explicitly recognized by the United Nations. All of us are bound by Security Council Resolution 1441, which was adopted unanimously. We Europeans have since reiterated our backing for Resolution 1441, our wish to pursue the UN route and our support for the Security Council, at the Prague NATO summit and the Copenhagen European Council.

In doing so, we sent a clear, firm and unequivocal message that we would rid the world of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. We must remain united in insisting that his regime is disarmed. The solidarity, cohesion and determination of the international community are our best hope of achieving this peacefully. Our strength lies in unity.

The combination of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism is a threat of incalculable consequences. It is one at which all of us should feel concerned. Resolution 1441 is Saddam Hussein's last chance to disarm using peaceful means. The opportunity to avoid greater confrontation rests with him. Sadly, this week the UN weapons inspectors have confirmed that his long-established pattern of deception, denial and non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions is continuing.

Europe has no quarrel with the Iraqi people. Indeed, they are the first victims of Iraq's current brutal regime. Our goal is to safeguard world peace and security by ensuring that this regime gives up its weapons of mass destruction. Our governments have a common responsibility to face this threat. Failure to do so would be nothing less than negligent to our own citizens and to the wider world.

The United Nations charter charges the Security Council with the task of preserving international peace and security. To do so, the Security Council must maintain its credibility by ensuring full compliance with its resolutions. We cannot allow a dictator to systematically violate those resolutions. If they are not complied with, the Security Council will lose its credibility and world peace will suffer as a result.

We are confident that the Security Council will face up to its responsibilities.

Jose Maria Aznar, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, Silvio Berlusconi, Tony Blair, Peter Medgyessy, Leszek Miller and Anders Fogh Rasmussen are, respectively, prime ministers of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Britain, Hungary, Poland and Denmark. Vaclav Havel is president of the Czech Republic.

This article first appeared in the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal.

 

 

Kurt Andersen weighs in on Vietnam and Iraq

Filed under: antiwar,media — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 12, 2006

In 1986 Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen founded a satirical magazine called Spy that took a no-holds-barred attitude toward the rich and the powerful. After the magazine went under, both made career shifts that landed them editorial positions at celebrity-worshipping magazines of exactly the kind that Spy excoriated. Carter runs Vanity Fair, whose latest issue has an exclusive on Greenwich, Connecticut’s new rich: “Viewed from above, the sprawl that is the Cohen estate resembles Buckingham Palace, or Windsor Castle. Even people unfazed by luxury are startled by the excess. One billionaire, whose name I’ve promised not to reveal here, said his jaw dropped the first time he visited.” Just the kind of journalism that the world has been waiting for.

Meanwhile, Andersen is a columnist at New York Magazine, a citadel of middle-class appetites. If you want to find out where to get a bargain on Gucci handbags, New York is just for you. I like to check in on the magazine’s website in the largely vain hope that I might find an interesting film review, but also–largely out of a morbid interest in the art of selling out–to check up on what the ex-bad boy Kurt Andersen now has to say.

Kurt Anderson

Graydon Carter

In an article describing their drift, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post had the following to say:

One sign of the times: While Spy frequently ridiculed zillionaire Donald Trump as a “thick-fingered vulgarian,” Carter was among the glitterati at Trump’s wedding to Marla Maples — and put the newlyweds on the cover of Vanity Fair’s March issue.

In the latest issue of New York Magazine, Mr. Andersen weighs in on the differences between Vietnam and Iraq, a subject of some interest to me since the Irish BBC once interviewed me on the topic (the ingrates never sent me the $100 emolument they promised.) The article is titled “The Vietnam Obsession It’s the analogy that won’t quit–and won’t fly, either. But could Iraq end up like Vietnam? We should be so lucky.”

It seems that Mr. Andersen has hopes that after 30 years Iraq could also become a source of cheap labor like Vietnam: “In fact, if during the next three decades Iraq itself follows a course something like that of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam–that is, if it becomes an authoritarian country run by our nominal enemies yet stable, peaceful, prosperous, and apparently happy–we should count ourselves extremely fortunate indeed.” (So, of course, does Thomas Friedman.)

Although Andersen is far too much the urban sophisticate to put things in the same way as Sean Hannity, the message amounts to basically the same thing:

In Vietnam we were fighting on behalf of not-so-good-guys against not-so-bad-guys. In Iraq, we really are fighting on the side of the majority of the people (and their not-so-bad-guy leaders) against bad guys. Back then, we fought to prevent a regional domino effect of communist overthrow; in Iraq, we started fighting to provoke a regional domino effect of democratic overthrow. But the fact that this time we are fighting on morally high(er) ground–for bigger stakes against no remotely noble enemies–probably makes the hell-bent, largely avoidable Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld mismanagement of Iraq more egregious than the Johnson-McNamara-Nixon conduct of the war in Vietnam.

This heavily qualified exercise in obfuscation could be rendered more simply as the following: “Iraq, unlike Vietnam, is a just war. And it is really too bad that the Bush administration screwed things up so badly.”

Besides questions of winnability, Andersen seems interested in the public mood. “But otherwise . . . how many of us care passionately about the war? How much does it color American life and culture? Compared with Vietnam, the fundamental apathy on all sides is remarkable.”

Mr. Andersen attributes this to the fact that this is a lower-intensity war: “Twenty-four Iraqis died in Haditha, while at My Lai several hundred civilians were murdered.” Of course, there was even less militancy throughout the 1980s when low-intensity warfare was occurring throughout Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. As somebody who visited Nicaragua during this period, I was always reminded of how a mother felt after her son had been killed by the contras. From her perspective, the war was always highly intense.

Of course, some of the apathy might be as well attributed to the failure of the news media to do its job. Mr. Andersen informs us that the antiwar protests in New York City have not been so large lately. Maybe if his editor assigned somebody to write about them, they would be larger. I certainly do understand that this might take away from valuable space now being allotted to matters such as “Will Sudoku Kill the Crossword Puzzle?” or “Cheating at the Montauk Shark-Fishing Tournament?”

For Mr. Andersen, the basic difference between the 1960s and now has a lot to do with the American people, and students in particular, becoming more apathetic, a theme that Time Magazine revisited all through the 1980s and 90s. Our former Spy opines, “And in a way that the sixties were precisely not, this is also an Age of Whatever. Thus the Iraq war, even if it ends badly, will cause no great disillusionment about America’s heroic white-hat nobility–you can’t lose your virginity twice.”

I imagine that Mr. Andersen is quite the expert on losing one’s virginity, given his peregrinations throughout the rather mercenary world of commercial media. As it turns out, he was fired from New York Magazine in 1994 for being, according to Mr. Andersen’s blog, “too annoying in its coverage of the then-owner’s business and social and political associates.” Knowing full well how expensive NY can be and what it means to be out of a job, I can certainly understand Mr. Andersen’s decision to no longer annoy anybody else in positions of power.

 

June 10, 2006

When I may have worked for the mob

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 10, 2006

Like others, I occasionally use google to find out what old classmates, comrades, etc. are up to. Recently I found myself wondering whatever happened to some of the people I used to work for as a consultant, which in the programming business is just a fancy word for day labor. In 1987, shortly after returning from a couple of weeks in Nicaragua with a Tecnica delegation, I went to work at Goldman-Sachs under the auspices of Asbach Consulting. The president of the company was one Frank Viggiano, who someone alleges to be connected to the mafia:

“This is the dirty little secret of the IT business! If you examine message 60 of this forum on the 1706 issue. I will most definitely attest that mob connections present in some of the large technical services firms some of which have been IBM vendor’s for professional services! Talk with owners of Sharp Decisions, Aetea former owner of Spectrum Concepts about Frank Viggiano former head of the Manhattan Data Processing Mgt Assoc, or inquire with Senior Members of the New York City ICCA www.icca.org. I myself have been offered cement shoes just to provide consulting services Feel free to have IBM examine all the messages presented here!”

http://www.h1bvisasucks.com/H1BDiscussions_issue_job.htm

I have no idea whether this is true or not. But back in 1987, some of the consultants at Goldman used to wonder if Viggiano was some kind of gangster since he looked the part. With his oily hair, trenchcoat and frequent outbursts of profanity, he came across much more as a character from “The Sopranos” than the corporate world. Before Asbach placed me at Goldman, I went out to be presented to AT&T in New Jersey by one of Frank’s salesmen. He drove a Cadillac Coupe Deville, which struck me as an odd car for someone in the consulting business to drive.  Or perhaps I was allowing my imagination to run wild.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, computer consulting was a highly profitable and expanding business in NYC and other large cities. This was when mainframe systems were still being developed at brokerage houses, insurance companies, banks, etc. The demand for experienced programmers far exceeded the supply, especially to fill projects that were temporary in nature. Why add permanent workers when you could bring in a consulting company? A good programmer could make up to $750 a day and specialists over a thousand. The broker who supplied the worker could get paid the same amount everyday the programmer was on billing. If you had 300 programmers, like Asbach did, the profits could be enormous especially since the overhead was negligible.

Asbach Consulting is long gone, as are most of the outfits that used to flourish in NYC. Nowadays, consulting tends to be handled by mega-firms like Accenture that operates at Columbia University under the direction of Robert Kasdin, who came to Columbia from U. of Michigan with President Lee Bollinger. Accenture used to be the consulting wing of Arthur Anderson but changed the name to put some space between itself and the stench generated from Enron.

I first ran into Arthur Anderson when I was at Goldman-Sachs. They had been brought in by the Vice President of Information Systems, who used to work for them. Whether there was some kind of nepotism going on, I couldn’t say. Arthur Anderson advised Goldman to get rid of all the relatively well-paid veterans like myself and replace them with younger and cheaper trainees. Some things have evidently not changed:

November 22, 2004 (Computerworld) — Richard Walstrom said that he sensed something was wrong during a job fair in May, when he saw some of his IT co-workers who had also recently been told by Best Buy Co. that they were losing their jobs.

“There were a high percentage of people with gray hair,” said Walstrom, who’s 57. “It was a lot of us. I didn’t really realize what had happened until you look around and say, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ “

Walstrom was one of 44 former Best Buy IT workers who filed a class-action lawsuit last Wednesday claiming that the Richfield, Minn.-based electronics retailer engaged in a pattern of age discrimination in terminating their jobs. The plaintiffs range from 40 to 71 years old, and their average age is 51, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

The charges relate to layoffs that were announced in April, when Best Buy said it planned to outsource its IT operations to Accenture Ltd. , and to a smaller round of cuts that took place in October 2003.

Over the past couple of years, Accenture has been widely viewed as pushing through the same kinds of changes at Columbia that were seen at Goldman and Best Buy. After fleeing Goldman in 1989 before the axe would fall, the last thing I anticipated after working for Columbia over the past 15 years is facing the kinds of pressures described by Louis Uchitelle in “The Disposable American”. The lesson? Between the open crooks in the mafia and the “legitimate” business world, there’s not much to choose between.

Woody Guthrie, “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd”:

If you’ll gather ’round me, children,
A story I will tell
‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw,
Oklahoma knew him well.

It was in the town of Shawnee,
A Saturday afternoon,
His wife beside him in his wagon
As into town they rode.

There a deputy sheriff approached him
In a manner rather rude,
Vulgar words of anger,
An’ his wife she overheard.

Pretty Boy grabbed a log chain,
And the deputy grabbed his gun;
In the fight that followed
He laid that deputy down.

Then he took to the trees and timber
To live a life of shame;
Every crime in Oklahoma
Was added to his name.

But a many a starving farmer
The same old story told
How the outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little homes.

Others tell you ’bout a stranger
That come to beg a meal,
Underneath his napkin
Left a thousand dollar bill.

It was in Oklahoma City,
It was on a Christmas Day,
There was a whole car load of groceries
Come with a note to say:

Well, you say that I’m an outlaw,
You say that I’m a thief.
Here’s a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

 

Daughter of Keltoum

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 2:49 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 10, 2006

As part of First Run Features Global Film Initiative, "Daughter of Keltoum" is a worthy if far from perfect entry by Algerian film-maker Mehdi Charef, who has lived in France since the age of 10. It is an exploration of the class and gender oppression facing the Kabyle peoples, the Algerian branch of the Berber nationality that lives primarily in the mountainous region of the north.

It is focused on the relationship between Rallia (Cylia Malki), a 19 year old Kabyle who was adopted by Swiss parents as an infant, and her aunt Nedjma (Baya Belal). Rallia has returned to the village where she was born in search of her mother, who is now working as a hotel maid in a distant city. She is also in search of answers to the question of why her mother gave her up.

If Rallia does not understand why, the viewer certainly will. This is a land of grinding poverty, where women are treated as beast of burden. Nejma is in awe of Switzerland where water is readily available from a tap. In her village, she fills up plastic tanks from a remote well and trudges back several times a day. Nejma, who appears to have been driven half-mad by poverty, has very few pleasures in life other than a occasional visit from Rallia's mother, who brings candy and trinkets for the family. In a nearby abandoned religious shrine, Nejma has constructed her own altar out of empty cigarette packs and other colorful but worthless items found on the road beneath the village.

After spending a week or so with Nejma and her grandfather in the desolate but beautiful mountains that her aunt describes as a "hellhole," Rallia decides to go to the city in search of her mother, with the hapless Nejma in tow. "Daughter of Keltoum" at this point turns into a road movie approximating "Thelma and Louise." As the two women hitch their way toward the city, they run into a number of villainous male characters who whatever their differences all seem to share a deep-rooted misogyny.

Also, unlike "Thelma and Louise," the two women never really form an emotional bond since it is obvious that director Charef, working from his own screenplay, has utterly lost belief that any good can come out of modern-day Algeria. This very bleak scenario robs the film of any potential satisfying resolution since the characters have no insight into their misery.

Mehdi Charef's father left for France to work in road construction and his children grew up in the slums surrounding Paris that exploded recently. He trained as a mechanic, and worked in a factory until his first novel "Tea in the Harem" was published in 1983. He later adapted his novel into a feature film with the collaboration of Costa-Gavras.

Although "Daughter of Keltoum" makes no effort to explain the roots of Kabyle oppression, it at least has the merit of presenting the stark truth about how they live. Filmed in Tunisia, presumably dictated by Algerian refusal to allow such a film to be made, "Daughter of Keltoum" is a visually stunning work that has nuggets of intense drama, especially between the two main characters. Perhaps, it was inevitable that the film avoided any sort of conventional happy end because that would not be true to Charef's pessimistic vision.

Algeria has come a long way from the hopeful note that "Battle of Algiers" concludes with. This is a society torn apart by civil war and economic misery. The Kabyles were among the most self-sacrificing fighters in the war for independence but are now the most alienated from the government. A new civil war has pitted this non-Arab people against the central authority and a permanent peace remains doubtful.

In a Boston Globe article from June 8, 2003, Adam Shatz, the book review editor of the Nation Magazine who has written frequently about Algeria, had the following to say:

For several decades, the Algerian government has dealt with the Berbers, the descendants of Algeria's original inhabitants, the way most postcolonial governments in the Middle East and North Africa have dealt with ethnic and religious minorities-by attempting to buy them off, and when that has failed, by the blunt force of repression, in the hope that over time they would assimilate into the majority.

To be fair, the Algerians in power have never been as brutal toward the Berbers as the Iraqis and the Turks have been toward the Kurds, perhaps because many of Algeria's politicians are themselves assimilated Berbers. But today, it's clear that those politicians have been just as successful in encouraging the very resistance they hoped to calm. In the mountainous region of Greater Kabylia, the cradle of Berber Algeria, a full-scale revolt against the Algerian regime and its Arab nationalist ideology has been underway for the past two years: The repressed has returned, with a vengeance.

Ever since the late 19th century, Kabyles have been renowned for their military valor. But despite Berber fighters' disproportionate sacrifices in the revolution against French rule, the National Liberation Front (FLN)-the leading party in the national struggle against French authority-defined Algeria as a homogenous, Arab-Muslim state upon winning independence in 1962. It made standard Arabic mandatory in education, even though the language is spoken by few Algerians, most of whom use a North African dialect. The FLN also broke up Berber cultural meetings and frowned upon the use of the Berber tongue Tamazight as a threat to national unity.

Early last December, I traveled east from Algiers to Tizi Ouzou, Kabylia's largest city and the center of Berber unrest. A two-hour drive and a world away from the capital, Tizi Ouzou is a filthy, sullen town. The roads are barely paved, weeds shoot out of empty lots, and the state appears to be on holiday. All the signs are in French and Tamazight; whatever Arabic there was has been effaced by protestors. Grim, Soviet-style high-rises are scrawled with graffiti hailing the "aarsh" (literally, "tribes" in Tamazight), village committees that have undergone a revival in the last few years. (Belad Abrika, the committee movement's charismatic leader, is a hirsute young man who would not look out of place at a Phish concert. Two years ago this spring, Tizi Ouzou erupted after an 18-year-old man named Massinissa Guermah died in the custody of the gendarmes. Within days, Guermah's death had touched off protests throughout Kabylia. Enraged youths took to the streets to denounce "hogra"-Algerian argot for humiliation by the state-and called for the removal of the gendarmes, whose presence here is deeply resented, all the more so because few of them are native to the area. But the chants soon came to embrace a wide, albeit confused set of demands that ranged from democracy (a yearning expressed by many Algerians) to regional autonomy for Kabylia, a distinctly more controversial proposition. Although it began peacefully enough, the "Kabyle Spring" degenerated into rioting and looting. The gendarmes fought back with live ammunition, killing nearly 100 unarmed Kabyles in a period of 60 days.

For an artist's version of this reality, I recommend "Daughter of Keltoum".

 

June 8, 2006

The NY Observer weighs in on antiwar strategy

Filed under: antiwar,media,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 8, 2006

The NY Observer is a salmon-colored weekly devoted mostly to reports on million dollar real estate transactions and gossip about powerful media and political personalities. It was launched by tycoon Arthur Carter in the 1980s after he got bored publishing the Nation Magazine. Politically, it can be described as falling within the dreary parameters of 'smart' but banal liberalism of the kind found in salon.com, the Village Voice, the American Prospect, etc. Without Carter's millions, it certainly would have gone under long ago. He seems driven by the same mixture of vanity and influence-peddling found in Murdoch's NY Post, but on a much smaller–if not infinitesimal–scale.

In the current issue, there's an article on the antiwar movement ("Where Have All the Marchers Gone? They Feel Very Futile") by one Sheelah Kolhatkar, who will write about anything assigned to her apparently:

As one of the few women on Wall Street selling oil and gambling stocks at a mid-sized shop in the late 1970's, Lee Hennessee, a belle from North Carolina, noticed that her best customers were hedge-fund pioneers-ruthless men like Julian Robertson and Michael Steinhardt, who moved fast and bought stock in bulk. Ms. Hennessee jumped ship and went on to start one of the first hedge-fund consulting companies, the Hennessee Group, and has been tracking the ballooning industry ever since…

(NY Observer, "Hedge-Fund Frolic: Where There's Cash", April 5, 2004)

Just the sort of thing that would prepare you for sorting out various strategies for ending the occupation of Iraq.

Kolhatkar begins her piece by calling on the Village Voice's authority on the futility of mass demonstrations:

On April 29, over 300,000 people gathered (depending on who you ask) at 22nd Street and Broadway to begin New York’s latest large-scale march in protest of the war in Iraq…

The next day, they can hardly have been surprised that the protest didn’t rate an A1 treatment from The New York Times.

But more galling was the reaction of New York’s oldest lefty newspaper, The Village Voice.

In an article headlined “How to Kill a War in 10 Not-So-Easy Steps,” the newspaper founded by Norman Mailer in 1955 wagged a patronizing finger at the organizers, then archly offered suggestions from lobbyists and consultants on how to actually end a war.

Not, it seems, by protesting.

It seems rather quaint to dub the Village Voice as "lefty" but I suppose from the perspective of Carter's high-Episcopalian, Park Avenue liberalism, the term might make sense. Then again, to the John Birch Society, Eisenhower was a Communist.

According to Kolhatkar, there's a "certain sluggish, defeatist feeling" in the antiwar movement, UFPJ in particular. Bill Dobbs, who served for three years as the media coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, confesses to her that "The peace movement’s floundering." He adds, "People really have to sharply focus on why Congress is allowing Bush to continue this war."

If it seems a stretch to view the Village Voice as "lefty", then Kolhatkar throws all journalistic caution to the wind by describing the ponderous, red-baiter Todd Gitlin as another "lefty":

“Movements tend to thrive when some critical mass of people have reason to believe that their activities are actually going to have an impact on policy,” the old-school lefty, 60’s protest leader and Columbia professor Todd Gitlin said. “And they don’t think there’s one chance in a billion that demonstrations will change the mind–if that’s the right word–George Bush, so there’s a sense of futility as well as uncertainty.”

This, of course, is not a new position for Gitlin who never forgave SDS'ers for not voting for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. If this is supposed to be "old school lefty", then poor Abby Hoffman must be spinning in his grave.

Kolhatkar has ideas about what antiwar activists should be doing and it is definitely not marching in the streets by the hundreds of thousands:

Last week, for example, demonstrators gathered at 14 Congressional offices around the state of New Hampshire, reading the names of soldiers who’ve perished in Iraq. The whole operation involved around 50 people, according to the Associated Press, and six of them were arrested for refusing to leave Representative Jeb Bradley’s office. But so far, nothing like that has unfolded in New York.

I hate to sound like a dogmatic Marxist, but this does not strike me as the kind of manifestation of social power that can change society. One might be better off writing letters to people like Jeb Bradley, pleading with them to be nice, and sealing it with a kiss.

Mostly, Kolhatkar's article is a barely clever push for the sort of dead-end reformism that moveon.org specializes in. Moveon.org's director Tom Matzzie is quoted as saying, “the theory our members share when they join with us is that they’re going to create change in an election.” Evidently, this is Kolhatkar's agenda as well:

They are mostly focused on the election in 2006, he [Matzzie] said, and nudging the House of Representatives into Democratic Party hands is the critical end goal. Which is offering a delicious hint of hope. “Six months from now, you could be heading into a Congress where some of the most powerful chairmen are staunch opponents of the war,” Mr. Matzzie said, citing the anti-war Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha and the primary in Connecticut, where Ned Lamont is challenging the hawkish Joe Lieberman for his Senate seat. “That would be as big, or bigger, than we’d be able to win on any weekend protest right now.”

In a way, this makes perfect sense. Ned Lamont is a liberal Connecticut millionaire, just like Arthur Carter. If he is elected, then all that is necessary is to continue electing people to Congress just like him so that in 2 or 3 years the majority will vote for a timetable to get out of Iraq and redeploy the troops to just beyond the borders of Iraq, as John Murtha proposes.

I think Sheelah Kolhatkar should stick to writing about hedge funds. There's far less damage that can be done that way–as opposed to leading people down the blind alley of Democratic Party politics. But with the NY Observer's readership's obvious preference for looking for bargains in East Side townhouses or playing polo in the Hamptons, I doubt if much damage will be done in any case.

June 6, 2006

Nicholas Kristof, Joan Robinson and sweatshops

Filed under: Africa,economics,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

Nicholas Kristof

I imagine that most people who read the NY Times op-ed page–a chore if there ever was one–might not make the connection between the pull-quote that appears in Nicholas Kristof's June 6th defense of sweatshops and the leftwing economist who first articulated it:

"What's worse than being exploited? Not being exploited."

We are speaking here of course of Joan Robinson, whose general political and economic views could not be further apart from Kristof's. In chapter 2 of her "Economic Philosophy," she wrote:"As we see nowadays in South-East Asia or the Caribbean, the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all."

Joan Robinson

The opening sentence of Kristof's op-ed piece is meant to startle the reader:

"Africa desperately needs Western help in the form of schools, clinics and sweatshops."

Touring Namibia in his pith-helmet, Kristof discusses the misfortune of a group of construction workers who cannot get regular work. According to him, "they would vastly prefer steady jobs in, yes, sweatshops."

Well, whatever. Mr. Kristof seems to have a real knack for eliciting the truth out of the natives, namely that they hunger after low-paying jobs for Western corporations. One can't imagine anybody channeling these construction workers better–except Thomas Friedman of course who has never seen a sweatshop he didn't like, as should be obvious from this op-ed piece defending Nike against anti-sweatshop protestors:

Some things are true even though Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike, believes them.

Mr. Knight recently made news by suddenly withdrawing a contemplated $30 million gift to the University of Oregon after the university balked at joining a coalition — the Fair Labor Association (F.L.A.) — that was formed by human rights groups, colleges, the U.S. government and companies such as Nike to alleviate global sweatshop conditions. Oregon opted to join an alternative group being pushed on college campuses, the Worker Rights Consortium (W.R.C.), which also plans to combat sweatshops, but refuses to cooperate with any companies, such as Nike.

The natural assumption is that Mr. Knight is wrong. The truth is, Nike has a shameful past when it comes to tolerating sweatshops. But on the question of how best to remedy those conditions in the future — which Nike has now agreed to do — Mr. Knight is dead right and Oregon wrong.

(NY Times, June 20, 2000)

The infatuation with sweatshops on the NY Times op-ed page even extends to Paul Krugman, the liberal icon who really differs little from Thomas Friedman when it comes to a belief in the benefits of low-wage coolie labor. Basically, Krugman wrote a column identical to Kristof's on April 22, 2001:

There is an old European saying: anyone who is not a socialist before he is 30 has no heart; anyone who is still a socialist after he is 30 has no head. Suitably updated, this applies perfectly to the movement against globalization — the movement that made its big splash in Seattle back in 1999 and is doing its best to disrupt the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City this weekend.

The facts of globalization are not always pretty. If you buy a product made in a third-world country, it was produced by workers who are paid incredibly little by Western standards and probably work under awful conditions. Anyone who is not bothered by those facts, at least some of the time, has no heart.

But that doesn't mean the demonstrators are right. On the contrary: anyone who thinks that the answer to world poverty is simple outrage against global trade has no head — or chooses not to use it. The anti-globalization movement already has a remarkable track record of hurting the very people and causes it claims to champion.

The most spectacular example was last year's election. You might say that because people with no heads indulged their idealism by voting for Ralph Nader, people with no hearts are running the world's most powerful nation.

Even when political action doesn't backfire, when the movement gets what it wants, the effects are often startlingly malign. For example, could anything be worse than having children work in sweatshops? Alas, yes. In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets — and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.

So, you get the picture. It is better to get crumbs from the table than nothing at all. Of course, well-fed bourgeois ideologists like Kristof, Friedman and Krugman could never imagine that there are alternatives to super-exploitation and starvation.

To begin with, Namibia has other sources of wealth besides a pool of cheap labor that a Nike can exploit. It is endowed with many different minerals, including diamonds. That Kristof can omit any reference to these natural resources suggests a combination of ignorance and bad faith.

The Southern African Development Community website informs us: "Namibia produces gem quality diamonds, uranium, copper, lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, antimony, pyrite, silver, gold, semi-precious stones, industrial minerals and dimension stone." Furthermore, "Namibia is one of the largest producers of gem quality diamonds with around 98 percent of production being gem quality." One imagines that diamonds can generate a better standard of living than the wage you get for making athletic shoes for Wal-Mart on an assembly line.

However, it is foreign companies who own the means of production in Namibia, like the South African De Beers Corporation. De Beers's Elizabeth Bay Mine in Namibia produces about 110,000 carats/year. At $300 per carat, that's 33 million dollars a year. Multiply that by all the other mining, copper, uranium, silver and gold operations in Namibia and you are dealing with serious money, much more serious than sewing together play clothes for tots.

To my knowledge, this is Kristof's first foray into Thomas Friedman's territory. He has spent the better part of a year beating the drums for intervention in Darfur, for which he has earned the Pulitzer Prize. Since my employer hands out these prizes each year, I tend to be a bit more jaded. The President of Columbia University is President of the Pulitzer board that also includes such luminaries as Thomas Friedman, who is infamous for having stated that:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist–McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

But one wonders in light of Kristof's hymn to sweatshops whether there might be a connection to Friedman's more openly mercenary understanding of how the dollar and the bullet intersect. Could this insufferable moralizing prig be possibly be more interested in corporate profits than he is in missionary-style rescues?

For an answer to this, I'd recommend John Bellamy Foster's article in the current Monthly Review, which does a really good job of describing the emerging strategic interests of US imperialism in Africa–especially in regions that are the focus of Cruise Missile liberals like Kristof. In "A Warning to Africa: The New U.S. Imperial Grand Strategy," Foster writes:

Here the flag is following trade: the major U.S. and Western oil corporations are all scrambling for West African oil and demanding security. The U.S. militarys European Command, the Wall Street Journal reported in its April 25th issue, is also working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to expand the role of U.S. corporations in Africa as part of an integrated U.S. response. In this economic scramble for Africas petroleum resources the old colonial powers, Britain and France, are in competition with the United States. Militarily, however, they are working closely with the United States to secure Western imperial control of the region.

The U.S. military buildup in Africa is frequently justified as necessary both to fight terrorism and to counter growing instability in the oil region of Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2003 Sudan has been torn by civil war and ethnic conflict focused on its southwestern Darfur region (where much of the countrys oil is located), resulting in innumerable human rights violations and mass killings by government-linked militia forces against the population of the region. Attempted coups recently occurred in the new petrostates of Sao Tome and Principe (2003) and Equatorial Guinea (2004). Chad, which is run by a brutally oppressive regime shielded by a security and intelligence apparatus backed by the United States, also experienced an attempted coup in 2004. A successful coup took place in Mauritania in 2005 against U.S.-supported strongman Ely Ould Mohamed Taya. Angola's three-decade-long civil war–instigated and fueled by the United States, which together with South Africa organized the terrorist army under Jonas Savimbis UNITA–lasted until the ceasefire following Savimbi's death in 2002. Nigeria, the regional hegemon, is rife with corruption, revolts, and organized oil theft, with considerable portions of oil production in the Niger Delta region being siphoned off–up to 300,000 barrels a day in early 2004. The rise of armed insurgency in the Niger Delta and the potential of conflict between the Islamic north and non-Islamic south of the country are major U.S. concerns.

Hence there are incessant calls and no lack of seeming justifications for U.S. humanitarian interventions in Africa. The Council on Foreign Relations report "More than Humanitarianism" insists that the United States and its allies must be ready to take appropriate action in Darfur in Sudan including sanctions and, if necessary, military intervention, if the Security Council is blocked from doing so. Meanwhile the notion that the U.S. military might before long need to intervene in Nigeria is being widely floated among pundits and in policy circles. Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jeffrey Taylor wrote in April 2006 that Nigeria has become the largest failed state on earth, and that a further destabilization of that state, or its takeover by radical Islamic forces, would endanger the abundant oil reserves that America has vowed to protect. Should that day come, it would herald a military intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign.

Returning to Joan Robinson, whatever she thought about the need to be exploited, there are still the overarching concerns that she brought to her economic writings and lectures, which–to repeat myself–are about as far from the Nicholas Kristof's of the world as can be imagined. Let's turn to her own words as a reminder of where she stood:

The United States record in Western Asia and Latin America follows the same pattern. The good, well-meaning individuals [like Kristof, giving him the benefit of the doubt] sent out to aid underdeveloped countries are in a false position (as, by the way, many of them admit) because the object of the operation is not to aid the people there to develop, but to keep reactionary governments in power.

(The Chinese Point of View, International Affairs, April 1964)

 

June 2, 2006

The Hollow City

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Like the antique gas-guzzlers that ply the streets of Havana, neorealism–a film style that was fashionable around the same time in history–still chugs along in underdeveloped countries. There is a good reason for this. Like post-war Italy, the economies of Latin America, Africa and Asia breed exactly the same sorts of social contradictions.

Now available in video as part of First Run Features superb Global Initiative series, “The Hollow City” tells the story of a homeless boy named N’Dala (João Roldan) who struggles to survive in the streets of Luanda, Angola in 1991. Made in 2004 by Angolan director Maria João Ganga, it is a welcome addition to African cinema and a measurable sign of cultural progress in a country devastated by civil war and imperialist meddling. It incorporates many of the elements of the neorealist genre, from the use of mostly untrained actors to a plot revolving around the everyday struggle of poor people to survive.

Just after the plane carrying N’Dala and other survivors of an UNITA attack sets down in the Luanda, he breaks away from the Catholic nun looking after him and heads for the street. As he strolls along aimlessly, his sole source of amusement is a toy car attached to a string that he has constructed himself out of tin cans and wire that he drags along. He dreams of returning to the Bie province but events conspire against him.

He is fortunate enough to meet Zé early on. Zé is a few years older than him and wise to the vagaries of the Luanda streets. They take part in a series of escapades that might remind you of Pixote, another Lusophone film. One step ahead of the law, they sell cigarettes on the streets and drink beer at local dancehalls when adults are not watching. Even if they were watching, it is doubtful that would make much difference. Zé’s “godmother” is a prostitute who expects him to perform housework in exchange for a meager allowance. Her boyfriend Joka is a mechanic by day and a burglar by night.

“The Hollow City” is not really plot-driven. Its main satisfaction is watching its young, untrained actors develop a kind of warm and brotherly relationship when everything around them is cold and exploitative. Although the citizens of Luanda pay lip-service to Angola’s revolution (they refer to each other as comrade), this is very much a world in which ideals count for very little.

Marxist scholar Mike Davis has made a breakthrough in trying to understand this new world that he calls “Planet of Slums“:

Likewise Kinshasa, Khartoum, Dar es Salaam, Dhaka and Lima grow prodigiously despite ruined import-substitution industries, shrunken public sectors and downwardly mobile middle classes. The global forces ‘pushing’ people from the countryside—mechanization in Java and India, food imports in Mexico, Haiti and Kenya, civil war and drought throughout Africa, and everywhere the consolidation of small into large holdings and the competition of industrial-scale agribusiness—seem to sustain urbanization even when the ‘pull’ of the city is drastically weakened by debt and depression. At the same time, rapid urban growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency devaluation and state retrenchment has been an inevitable recipe for the mass production of slums. Much of the urban world, as a result, is rushing backwards to the age of Dickens.

Like men and women who created the neorealist films that inspired “The City of God,” director Maria João Ganga seeks to humanize the lives of these slum-dwellers, the wretched of the earth. Despite the grimness of the subject matter, the film is enlivened by African music–including a film score by the great Manu Dibango–and a poet’s eye for the streets and beaches of Luanda.

Highly recommended.

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