Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2007

Raining Stones

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

Bob and Tommy rustling sheep

Now available in DVD from Koch-Lorber, Ken Loach’s “Raining Stones” is a reminder of how powerful he can be when he focuses on the lives of ordinary working people trapped in poverty. Nobody can gainsay the importance of films such as “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, “Land and Freedom,” and “Carla’s Song” that deal with civil war in Ireland, Spain and Nicaragua respectively. But when he turns his attention to people treading water in contemporary Great Britain, there is more opportunity for humor and depth of characterization.

In “Raining Stones,” Loach could have hardly selected a more mundane subject, namely the stubborn and ultimately foolish determination of a chronically unemployed Irish Catholic father to scrape up money for his daughter’s communion dress. When the film begins, Bob (Bruce Jones) and his good friend Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson), also unemployed and Irish Catholic, are somewhere in the northern English countryside trying mostly unsuccessfully to rustle sheep. When they finally bag one and bring it to the local butcher, they discover that it is mutton from an older sheep–an unmarketable meat for the most part. The butcher buys part of it and they try to peddle the rest at a local pub. When they take a break and order a couple of pints, they notice a poster on the wall asking for contributions to help out an injured man. The dialog between Bob, Tommy and the barmaid captures both the plight of the people depicted in the film as well as their attempts to cope with their situation through humor.

Bob: (pointing to the man in the poster) How’s that Joe Young going on?

Barmaid: Aye, you know he fell off the bloody roof.

Tommy: I know. And he wasn’t even employed bloody legally, was he.

Bob: That means he won’t get a penny back.

Barmaid: Joking aside, we’re having a bit of a collection. See if we can send him to Lourdes.

Tommy: Did you hear about the kid from Liverpool in the bloody wheelchair they took to Lourdes? They got him to the water’s edge and he couldn’t get in ’cause his legs was twisted, so they had to hire a little crane and pick him and the wheelchair up over the water and submerge him. And when he came out, they all had a look at his legs, and his legs was still twisted, but the wheelchair had new tires on it.

“Raining Stones” gets its name from the words spoken to Bob by his father-in-law, a Labour Party functionary who works in the local Council office: “For the working class, it is always raining stones–seven days a week.” As a socialist and an atheist, the father-in-law can’t understand why Bob wants to spend good money that he doesn’t even have on a communion dress. But for somebody with so little of worth in his meager existence, the sight of his daughter walking down the church aisle is enough to justify any sacrifice. His daughter loves the idea of a beautiful new dress but can’t quite figure out the meaning of the ritual. The idea of drinking Christ’s blood does not make sense to her at all, no matter how hard her dad tries to explain it.

Since Ken Loach is very sophisticated politically, I can easily imagine him making a political point about Great Britain going backwards in time to the early days of capitalism, when sheep rustling by newly dispossessed peasants was just one among many tactics for survival. Additionally, Bob’s wife decides to apply for a job sewing garments at home–the kind of piecework done by working people in the early days of manufacturing. The contractor supplies the material and sub-par wages and she supplies the tools (a sewing machine) and labor. In keeping with the general misfortune of Bob’s family, her sewing is deemed inadequate by the contractor and she is fired before she starts.

The plot of the film revolves around Bob’s attempts to come up with the funds in an area where jobs are in short supply. In keeping with the distorted character of the new British economy, he finally lands a job as a bouncer in a disco but is fired the first night on the job after he beats up a drug dealer who has hired Tommy’s daughter to peddle at the club. In an earlier scene, she has told Tommy that she is working in a department store and gives him money for beer and cigarettes. He probably sensed that she was up to no good but lacked the courage to confront her. Bob did have that courage but not the good sense to pick a cause he could not possibly win.

Jim Allen

“Raining Stones” is the finest Ken Loach film I have seen. It was written by Jim Allen, who also wrote “Land and Freedom.” Jim Allen, a member of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labor League, died in 1999 at the age of 73. The following is from a World Socialist Website obituary. As should be obvious, the issues dealt with in “Raining Stones” was very close to his heart:

The internationally renowned socialist playwright Jim Allen died on June 24, 1999. He became ill last Christmas and in February inoperable cancer was diagnosed.

Allen is a key figure in British theatre, television and film, best known for his long collaboration with director Ken Loach. He was born in the Miles Platting area of Manchester on October 7, 1926, the second child of Kitty and Jack Allen, Catholics of Irish descent. His father was a labourer who couldn’t find work during the depression. Jim attended a series of Catholic schools, moving from one to another without his parents’ knowledge. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was 13 years of age. He decided he had had enough of formal education, left school a year early and got a job in a wire factory. Again he didn’t tell his parents.

He had a series of jobs before being called up into the army in 1944, at the age of 18. He joined the Seaforth Highlanders and served with the British occupation forces in Germany. Allen was imprisoned for fighting outside a public house. It was there that a fellow inmate first roused his interest in politics.

Once released, Allen read voraciously— The Communist Manifesto and other works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. He became passionately interested in the writings of Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Jack London—especially his book People of the Abyss.

Though he had experience of the brutality of the church when he was beaten as a child for not going to mass, Allen did not reject Catholicism until he was in his twenties. He broke with religion when he realised that it was a barrier preventing him from educating himself. From then on he hated the church, which he saw as tyrannical and oppressive.

 

August 9, 2007

Zebraman

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

Made in 2004 and opening at Two Boots Theater in New York on August 15th, “Zebraman” is Takashi Miike’s 64th film. For those who are not familiar with his work, he can best be described as the Japanese second cousin to Tim Burton, David Lynch, John Waters and David Cronenberg. Stylistically, Miike movies are a mixture of surrealism and farce, while thematically they often touch upon horror, sexual obsession, gangster vendettas, and titanic clashes between super-heroes and super-villains. If you love Merchant-Ivory films, you will hate Takashi Miike. Fortunately, I hate Merchant-Ivory.

Like Miike’s “The Great Yokai War,” “Zebraman” tells a story of a crusade against Evil Creatures trying to destroy Mankind. While the former film borrowed from manga (comic books), the latter is inspired by Saturday morning super-hero adventure shows. The hero of “The Great Yokai War” was Tadashi, a 10 year old boy who has been chosen to become the Kirin Rider, a warrior that will save mankind from the forces of darkness led by the wizard Kato. “Zebraman” is a wimpy elementary school teacher who fantasizes about being the hero of a Japanese television series that was cancelled in 1978 after 7 episodes. Dressed in a black-and-white striped costume, Zebraman delivers lethal kicks to the bad guys in a style reminiscent of Power Rangers and similar shows. With its affectionate high camp, Miike’s incorporation of faux footage from this television show is a high point of the film.

Steeped in a fantasy world, the high school teacher Ichikawa (Sho Alakawa) spends all his free time in the confines of his bedroom leaping about in a Zebraman costume that he stitched together himself. Fending off imaginary villains gives him a sense of power that he can never realize in his real life. He is bullied by the principal and other teachers, while his son gets bullied by other students for having a wimpy dad. Meanwhile, Ichikawa’s wife is having an affair that she hardly bothers to conceal, while his teenage daughter has liaisons with middle-age perverts she meets on the Internet.

Ichikawa’s sole consolation is the friendship he strikes up with a new transfer student, a boy named Asano who is a paraplegic. Like Ichikawa, Asano is a huge fan of Zebraman and they spend time together surfing the Internet looking for material on the super-hero.

One night Ichikawa works up the courage to descend into the streets in his Zebraman costume, not sure of what he will find. He does not know that the government has dispatched a top-secret research team into his neighborhood to investigate reports of green monsters from outer space that have been killing local residents. When Ichikawa hears a woman screaming, he runs to her rescue and discovers that he has super-powers himself. He destroys the evil green monster through a combination of karate-like blows that were Zebraman specialties, especially with his hoof-like boots. He announces each blow with terms drawn from the TV show like “Spinning tornado head smash” or “Fist lighting bolt from the sky”. Just by coincidence (and in keeping with the conventions of Saturday morning children’s TV), Asano discovers Ichikawa/Zebraman in the act of vanquishing the space alien. Afterwards, Asano gets drawn more and more into the new Zebraman’s crusade until the apocalyptic conclusion to the film when he is rescued by his hero.

Although “Zebraman” is a children’s film, it is much more. There is playfulness at work that will remind you of Tim Burton at his best. In films such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or “Pee-Wee’s Great Adventure”, the juvenilia conceals dark obsessions out of Krafft-Ebbing. If anything, Tashiko Miike is Tim Burton’s master on that score.

Born in 1960, Miike studied directing from the great master Imamura Shohei who died in May, 2006. Despite his affinity for pop culture, Miike is obviously knowledgeable about art film and talented enough to make such films if he so decided. Clearly he does what he does because it is more fun, as it is for us.

Youtube clip from the climax of “Zebraman”

August 8, 2007

More on Gregory Clark

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

Tyler Cowan: agrees with Gregory Clark that working class
shiftlessness is the cause of poverty

Thanks to Phil Gasper for alerting me to another NY Times article (“ECONOMIC SCENE: What Makes a Nation Wealthy? Maybe It’s the Working Stiff“) in praise of Gregory Clark’s sociobiological bullshit. Dated November 2, 2006, it was written by Tyler Cowan, an economist at George Mason University.

Cowan believes that institutional changes will not make a difference as long as workers remain shiftless.

Professor Clark’s pessimistic view is that most forms of policy advice or financial aid do not solve the problem of economic development. Unless the quality of labor rises, those would-be remedies are addressing symptoms, not causes.

To make sure there is no doubt about what “the quality of labor” means, Cowan writes:

According to Professor Clark, the relative advantage of a highly disciplined and properly acculturated work force is greater for the more complex production processes of the modern world. Low morale and lax discipline will curtail simple factory production but the problem is far worse as production and management become more complex.

With all these shiftless natives lolling about on the factory floor, it will be impossible for most of the Third World to catch up. Foreign aid is a waste of money since the work force lacks the proper breeding to help it keep up to snuff.

Paradoxically, advances in sanitation and medical care, by saving lives, have driven down well-being for the average person. The population is rising in most of sub-Saharan Africa, but living standards have fallen below hunter-gatherer times and 40 percent below the average British living standard just before the Industrial Revolution. The upshot is this: The problem with foreign aid is not so much corruption but rather that the aid brings some real benefits and enables higher populations.

If money or structural reform is not the answer, is there any hope at all? Clark believes that help is on its way, but not from the usual sources:

It is hard to reshape workplace norms in poor countries, but in the modern world religious and cultural ideas spread with a hitherto unprecedented speed. Perhaps television and missionaries will prove more important for economic development than privatization plans or exchange rate adjustments.

There is no justice in this world, I am afraid. As Doug Henwood pointed out, it is criminal that Ward Churchill got fired while such nonsense is being spewed out.

A little digging will reveal why Tyler Cowan is so gung-ho over Clark’s nonsense. Both have a visceral loathing of working people. Cowan’s employer–George Mason University–is a notorious benefactor of neoconservative causes and Cowan is one of their hired guns. The NY Times refers readers to his website, www.marginalrevolution.com

There you will find a particularly revealing entry from August 7th titled “The Persistence of Poverty.” Commenting on Charles Karelis’s “The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can’t Help the Poor,” Cowan agrees with his fellow rightwing ideologue that the poor are self-destructive:

Poor enough people will accept risk in the downward direction rather than smoothing consumption, so they buy lots of lottery tickets. They also commit more crime, so they can have at least some joyous times, and they take lots of “stupid” chances.

It can make more sense to give money to people on the verge of leaving poverty, rather than people deeply mired in poverty. The former transfer will get people onto “normal” marginal utility curves, but the deeply poor will just squander their new wealth, as it doesn’t much alleviate their unhappiness.

After reading this sort of thing, I feel like taking a strong emetic.

August 7, 2007

The transition to capitalism: is it in our genes?

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

Dr. Gregory Clark: purveyor of sociobiological claptrap

I have begun reading Eric Mielant’s “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West.” The book reminds me that the “transition debate” is not just about dry, academic disputes over whether turnips were more critical to the rise of capitalism than sugar. As should be obvious from the title, “the rise of the west” addresses the question of how Great Britain and then the United States became hegemonic. Bourgeois historians and sociologists prefer to talk about the “internal” factors in Europe–Great Britain in particular–that supposedly led to capitalism. To admit that the rise of the west was accomplished by stepping on the backs of slaves and the corpses of indigenous peoples crosses the boundaries of what is ideologically acceptable, to put it in Chomskyan terms.

In the 19th century, when social Darwinism was at its peak, the rise of the west was explained in terms of the survival of the fittest. There was a certain genius to northern Europe that helped it to dominate the rest of the world. In the 20th century, particularly under the impact of the colonial revolution, it was no longer impossible to be so crass. Instead, there were efforts to be more “scientific”. For example, Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel” in order to show that the Europeans were not more intelligent or creative than those they came to rule, only more resistant to germs. You find a similar approach with Robert Brenner, who tries to prove that an accident of history–namely the rise of lease farming in Great Britain–led to the rise of capitalism and hence the rise of the west.

The latest explanation for the rise of the west is about as “internal” as you can get. As reported in today’s NY Times , Gregory Clark, a historian at U. of California/Davis, says it is all in our genes!

If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people’s behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies, his thesis implies.

Dr. Clark says the middle-class values needed for productivity could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically. But in some passages, he seems to lean toward evolution as the explanation. “Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world,” he writes. And, “The triumph of capitalism in the modern world thus may lie as much in our genes as in ideology or rationality.”

Gosh, some people have all the luck. The British rose to the top of the heap because it was in their genes. In 1994 Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray wrote “The Bell Curve” to demonstrate that genetic differences between Blacks and whites accounted for economic and social inequality. I doubt that Clark is as reactionary as these two bastards, but he does seem to have it in for any attempts at a class analysis of the rise of capitalism. In his review of Michael Perelman’s “The Invention of Capitalism,” Clark dismisses the idea that game laws were used in order to force British peasants off the land:

Exhibit A in Perelman’s indictment of the Classical mob is the case of the Game Laws. The Game Laws banned the landless and small owners in the countryside from taking game animals. Thus in England by the laws of 1670 to take game even on your own land a person had to meet a very substantial property qualification. In both England and Scotland these laws became more severe as the eighteenth century progressed, and more people were convicted under the laws. Why, asks Perelman, did the new capitalist class and their PR agents, the Political Economists, support these feudal restrictions in favor of the country squires? They did so because it took away the sources of support that kept the poor in the countryside from the factory door. They did so because a hunting peasant was an idle peasant and an insolent peasant, not a docile and dependable worker.

(I should mention that Michael’s book is excellent in all respects, but that it too tends to identify primitive accumulation strictly in terms of the “internal” changes taking place in the British countryside. Perhaps he might consider writing a follow up one day that is inspired by the other aspect of primitive accumulation, namely the slave trade and the expropriation and murder of indigenous Americans.)

Clark’s general perspective is that before capitalism mankind lived in an undifferentiated mass of squalor and hunger. Malthusian law dictated that for every advance in farming technology (including the agrarian revolution’s turnip), there was an increase in population that always outstripped the food supply. It was only with the advent of the industrial revolution that the supply finally could exceed the demand. This thesis requires Clark to reject out of hand the notion that peasants could have been better off in some ways under feudalism than they were under capitalism. While Perelman never romanticized life under capitalism, he certainly made the case that it was better to be a self-husbanding farmer with hundreds of religious holidays in the medieval period than it was to be a starving landless peasant roaming the British countryside in search of work.

Unfortunately, the NY Times article is so poorly written that it is hard to determine what Clark’s thesis is all about down to its squalid core, but I will attempt a running commentary on the ideas and the personalities referred to therein.

To start with, Clark is at odds with the Brennerite insistence that British agricultural breakthroughs created a fat and happy work force up to the task of running the new machines of the 19th century. Apparently, these British workers were just as hungry as the French, although according to some accounts they would at least have enough tea and sugar to get them through the day–like Bolivian miners dependent on their coca. The NY Times states:

This income was pitifully low in terms of the amount of wheat it could buy. By 1790, the average person’s consumption in England was still just 2,322 calories a day, with the poor eating a mere 1,508. Living hunter-gatherer societies enjoy diets of 2,300 calories or more.

“Primitive man ate well compared with one of the richest societies in the world in 1800,” Dr. Clark observes.

Of course, Great Britain was busily at work destroying hunter-gatherer societies so as to make the British dining table more ample, but that is obviously a topic that neither Clark nor the NY Times is interested in pursuing.

When the topic turns to “survival of the fittest”, either Clark’s explanation is incoherent or the NY Times reporter was drunk when he gave his version of it:

In support of the disease-resistance idea, cities like London were so filthy and disease ridden that a third of their populations died off every generation, and the losses were restored by immigrants from the countryside. That suggested to Dr. Clark that the surviving population of England might be the descendants of peasants.

A way to test the idea, he realized, was through analysis of ancient wills, which might reveal a connection between wealth and the number of progeny. The wills did that, , but in quite the opposite direction to what he had expected.

Generation after generation, the rich had more surviving children than the poor, his research showed. That meant there must have been constant downward social mobility as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. “The modern population of the English is largely descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” he concluded.

I honestly can’t figure out what Clark was trying to say, except that the average British citizen of today is descended from the aristocracy. Is this supposed to be a key to success? I don’t think so, based on the evidence of a recent Radar Online article:

The 7th Earl of Lucan (Richard John Bingham) 1934 – ? Lord Lucan appeared to be the epitome of an upright British aristocrat, what with his family home in Westminster, regal bearing, and sexy mustache. The dashing fellow also had a taste for speed boats and gambling, and after a particularly successful run in the casinos gained him both a sizable sum and the nickname “Lucky,” he dropped his other career pursuits to become a professional gambler. He ended up having a rough go of it and eventually found himself living the life of a drunken, debt-ridden, wife-beating gambler. Perhaps in an effort to reduce his expenses and secure sole custody of his children, he hatched a plot to kill his mentally fragile wife. But Lucky Lord Lucan, a direct descendant of the man responsible for the famously doomed “Charge of the Light Brigade” somehow botched the job, brutally killing his children’s nanny instead of his wife. Lucan has not been seen since that night in 1974, and his whereabouts remains the subject of much speculation.

Clark also makes the startling discovery that the industrial revolution came about because the British were thrifty: “Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving.” Impulsive, violent and leisure loving? I would love to see the good professor’s scholarly citations for this. What was he reading to come up with this conclusion? It sounds like the sort of thing that you hear about the Black community in the pages of the National Review today.

More nonsense follows. Clark says that the Industrial Revolution did not occur first in China or Japan. Why? Because the richer classes “were surprisingly unfertile” and couldn’t bequeath their “good” genes on the rest of society. How this crap gets taken seriously in the academy is beyond me. As Doug Henwood just observed on the LBO Talk mailing list, “How can anyone take seriously a purported evolutionary change that happens over the course of a couple of hundred years? If Ward Chuchill had written something so ridiculous, he’d have gotten fired.”

The article concludes with verdicts from three big name scholars. Kenneth L. Pomeranz, the author of “The Great Divergence,” a book that tries to explain China’s lagging behind Great Britain in terms of a lack of coal rather than cojones, says that Clark’s argument “is significantly weaker, and maybe just not necessary, if you can trace the changes in the institutions.” Weaker? How about just plain idiotic.

Robert Brenner says that Dr. Clark’s idea of genes for capitalist behavior was “quite a speculative leap.” Indeed, so was the Bell Curve.

Sam Bowles, a Santa Fe economist who had morphed from a kind of weak tea Marxism into mainstream liberalism, says that he was “not averse to the idea” that genetic transmission of capitalist values is important, but that the evidence for it was not yet there. “It’s just that we don’t have any idea what it is, and everything we look at ends up being awfully small.” So, apparently, are the brains of big-time academics.

August 6, 2007

Varieties of recantation

Filed under: cruise missile left,Iraq — louisproyect @ 4:41 pm

Yesterday the NY Times Magazine ran something of a mea culpa by Michael Ignatieff, a regular contributor to the magazine in whose pages he had stumped for the war in Iraq. Based on the title of the article–“Getting Iraq Wrong“–one might surmise that he has had a change of heart. However, the “wrong” is a reference to how the war was carried out, not whether it was wrong on principle. A recent documentary titled “No End in Sight” encapsulates this outlook.

Another NY Times Magazine regular also recanted a while back. David Rieff, son of Susan Sontag, seemed to have people like Ignatieff in mind in his 2006 Nation Magazine review of Larry Diamond’s “Squandered Victory” and David L. Phillips’s “Losing Iraq”, two books that tried to figure out what went wrong in Iraq. Needless to say, if the invasion of Iraq had proceeded as smoothly as the invasions of Panama or Grenada, such books would have never been written. In the final paragraph of his review, Rieff challenges the right of the US to act as the world’s policeman:

The contributions both Diamond and Phillips make to understanding what has taken place in Iraq are considerable. But there is a sense in which one of their most important contributions is inadvertent. For both their books illustrate and exemplify the extraordinary consensus about the duty to intervene that has arisen over the course of the post-cold war world. We have not yet begun to pay the price for this–not because we do it ineptly but rather because it rarely seems possible except on the far fringes of the political right and left, what with the “historic compromise” between the Bush Administration and the human rights movement over humanitarian intervention, if not over torture, rendition, the Patriot Act and myriad other issues, to have a serious conversation about whether the United States has any business trying to create democracies by force of arms. Instead, the consensus not just of these two writers and activists but of the great and the good from the Kennedy School of Government, to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to the thirty-eighth floor of the UN, to 10 Downing Street seems to be that we–whether the “we” in question proves to be the United States, the UN or that mythical entity, the international community–must learn to do this sort of thing better, more effectively, perhaps more humanely. It is not only L. Paul Bremer who suffers from hubris.

David Rieff

The other intellectual, loosely speaking, who decided that the war has gone wrong is Johann Hari, the baby-faced British journalist who has been involved in a major dust-up with fellow British journalist Nick Cohen, who like Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens, still insists that the war was a good thing.

Although Hari has more in common with Ignatieff than he does with Rieff, he is really good at puncturing the pretensions of the “decent left,” a function no doubt of his having gone through that experience. In his review of Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left,” an obnoxious defense of human rights imperialism, Hari hones in on Cohen’s posturing:

But the pro-war left also looked to a left-wing tradition that had fallen dormant: “they argued for a self-consciously 1930s Victor Lazlo left rather than a 1960s flower-power one. Quoting Orwell, they called for a left that is aware there are enemies that may need to be fought rather than hugged into submission.”

Somehow the notion of pampered journalists like Cohen or Hitchens risking their lives like the characters in “Casablanca,” or like Orwell who dodged fascist bullets in Spain, is enough to make one laugh out loud, which was Hari’s obvious intention. Cohen and Hitchens have far more in common with NY Times reporter Frank L. Kluckhohn, who served up encomiums to the fascist dictator in the 1930s than they do with Orwell.

Johann Hari

For Hari, any comparisons between Orwell and Cohen are meretricious:

Cohen, ostentatious claimer of George Orwell’s mantle, has forgotten the quality that made Orwell great – the power to face inconvenient truths. He simply averts his gaze from the burning vistas of Iraq that contradict his thesis, turning towards George Galloway to give him another well-deserved – but increasingly irrelevant – spit in the face.

Leaving aside the question of Orwell’s more dubious aspects, which included snitching on British reds, Hari’s contemptuous reference to Galloway betrays a hostility to the left that is found in the very book he is dismissing. His main complaint with Cohen is not so much that he opposes the radical movement, but that he does so ineffectively. This was the main complaint that cold war liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had against Senator Joe McCarthy. If you were going to fight the subversives, you had to do it intelligently.

Hari’s review contains a swipe at Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb, who occupies a place in the decent left’s world that is almost as notorious as Galloway’s. Hari writes:

One of the most popular left-wing blogs in Britain, Lenin’s Tomb, goes further, viciously scorning Muslims who fight back against Islamic fundamentalism. Even though it is written by an atheist writer who enjoys alcohol, female company and free speech, it has ridiculed Muslim women who attend freedom of speech rallies as “Uncle Toms”, and condemned Muslims who have “comfortable upper-middle class” lives because they aren’t “interested in subjecting [themselves] to the ascetic demands of religion.” Cohen’s thesis applies with laser-accuracy to these parts of the left, and it is here that his critique is most powerful: they have indeed become reflexive defenders of the far right.

Richard, who is probably the world’s leading expert on the “decent left” and who was considering writing a book for a top-notch radical publishing house (that unfortunately likes to rob its authors blind), responded to Hari thusly:

I don’t viciously scorn Muslims who fight back against “Islamic fundamentalism”, because that can be a very good thing to do. I do viciously scorn all those who misrepresent and vilify Islam in the service of imperialism, because that is a bad and wicked thing to do. I don’t condemn Muslims who live comfortable upper middle class lives and aren’t interested in the ascetic demands of religion. I mentioned in this post about the neocon American Islamic Congress that one member of it was probably of that ilk, but I did not and do not think that being in that position merits special criticism. What I did think at the time, and what I still think now, is that “being determines consciousness”, and that one’s class perspective is likely to regulate one’s political purview.

Lenin’s Tomb also responds to Ignatieff’s recantation today:

In fact, Ignatieff shows no sign of understanding why he was wrong. He says that he “let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror?” Which is to claim that Iraqis have proven themselves to be incapable of self-government and should be ruled through terror – an appropriate conclusion from the Wilsonian airhead. Almost 90% of the essay isn’t about Iraq, of course: it is an extended, self-serving rumination on the nature of politics and the political career. He even hints that he may not be entirely sincere about anything he says: “Nothing is personal in politics, because politics is theater. It is part of the job to pretend to have emotions that you do not actually feel.” But nevertheless, he is “worthy of trust” because he has not had a “charmed life” like the American president, and is a man of sorrow “acquainted with grief, as the prophet Isaiah says”. Isaiah did indeed say this (53:3) – about the Messiah. What exactly is Ignatieff trying to tell us?

Now the longest in American history, the war in Iraq has long lost any support based on the original justification of “spreading democracy” except among the most hardened ideologues, including Bush, Cheney and Christopher Hitchens who at least has the excuse of being drunk most of the time.

The ground has shifted perceptibly among ruling class opinion. There is no longer a gung-ho attitude but a kind of “white man’s burden” that is often expressed in terms of “you break it, you fix it.” Immediate withdrawal is opposed because it will lead to greater chaos, etc. Not two years ago, you could hear this argument from the likes of Juan Cole who advocated high altitude bombing of the insurgents in Iraq to keep them at bay. Nowadays, you will find this sentiment expressed in the pages of the Washington Times rather than in any respectable liberal journal.

It is difficult to anticipate how this war will finally come to an end, with a whimper or a bang. Meanwhile, the economic contradictions of late capitalism in the US continue unabated with Wall Street openly worried about the consequences of the unfolding credit crunch. The Soviet Union went through major structural changes partially under the impact of its adventure in Afghanistan. Let’s hope that US imperialism will also be forced to go through some wrenching changes under the blows of the heroic Iraqi resistance, even when its political goals are often clouded in obscurity. What remains clear, however, is that US imperialism must be resisted whatever the character of the resistance. As Leon Trotsky once remarked:

Of course, we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia… When war is involved, for us it is not a question of who is ‘better’, the Negus or Mussolini; rather, it is a question of the relationship of classes and the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism.

August 4, 2007

The Jews and the Baha’i in Iran

Filed under: Iran,religion — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

Would he have been an unperson in Iran?

There’s an article in the August 3rd Counterpunch by Jonathan Cook that makes a number of excellent points about the status of Jews in Iran. Since the neoconservatives in Washington and their Zionist allies represent Ahmadinejad as the Hitler of today (taking over Saddam’s job) in order to make the case for war, it is imperative that the truth come out.

To Cook’s credit, he makes no attempt to whitewash the Iranian government:

As one of several non-Muslim minorities in Iran, Jews there suffer discrimination, but they are certainly no worse off than the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel — and far better off than Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Iranian Jews have little influence on decision-making and are not allowed to hold senior posts in the army or bureaucracy.

Despite these limitations, Jews enjoy a fairly trouble-free existence in Iran. Cook writes:

They have an elected representative in parliament, they practice their religion openly in synagogues, their charities are funded by the Jewish diaspora, and they can travel freely, including to Israel. In Tehran there are six kosher butchers and about 30 synagogues. Ahmadinejad’s office recently made a donation to a Jewish hospital in Tehran.

These points are absolutely necessary to be made, but there are still some troubling aspects to the status of Jews in Iran, no doubt reflected by emigration statistics. In 1979, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran but today there are only 20,000. That is a mass exodus that needs to be analyzed. To some extent, it can be explained by the privileged material status of Jews, who were primarily bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. Like many other Iranians, particularly those with ties to the Shah, the felt that their class interests were being threatened and emigrated to Israel or to the United States, where many settled in Los Angeles, along with tens of thousands of non-Jewish Iranians.

Cook refers to Zionist conspiracies to recruit Jews in the Middle East as agent provocateurs. The goal was to create a backlash that would result in forcing Jews out of their native countries and flight to Israel:

Even more notoriously, Israel went to greater lengths to ensure the exit of the Arab world’s largest Jewish population, in Iraq. In 1950 a series of bombs targeted on Jews in Baghdad forced a rapid exodus of some 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel, convinced that Arab extremists were behind the attacks. Only later did it emerge that the bombs had been planted by members of the Zionist underground, supported by the Israeli government.

Now, Iran’s Jews may find themselves treated in much the same manner — as simple human fodder. Stories are growing of Israel exploiting the free movement between Iran and Israel enjoyed by Iranian Jews and their Israeli relatives to carry out spying operations on Iran’s nuclear program. Such reports have come from sources such as the American journalist Seymour Hersh, citing US government officials.

It would be an acid test for the Islamic Republic to be able to determine where such threats were real or bogus. Unfortunately, there was evidence in 1999 that it could not. On June 10, 1999, Counterpunch regular Patrick Cockburn reported in The Independent:

The arrest of two Jews in Iran accused of selling alcohol to Muslims has turned into an international dispute over alleged spying, involving Israel and the United States.

Under interrogation, and probable torture, after their arrest in Shiraz three months ago, the two men implicated 11 other Jews, religious leaders and teachers, who were accused last weekend of spying for the Israelis and Americans.

It should be mentioned that Shiraz had historically been a center of wine-making in Iran, with Jews playing a key role in production and sales. The famous shiraz or syrah grape can now be found everywhere in the world. Additionally, Jews are allowed to use wine in Iran, as part of their ceremonies. Whatever the circumstances in Shiraz, it seems doubtful that two men who were caught selling booze to Muslims would also be involved in an espionage ring as Jews are carefully monitored in Iran for exactly this kind of activity

Four days later Cockburn reported that the arrests were probably an attempt by hard-liners to scuttle reformist efforts to improve relations with the US. This is a repeating theme in Iranian politics, as evidenced by recent arrests of “George Soros operatives”, etc. While there certainly are efforts always afoot to create a fifth column in Iran, the regime has lots of trouble making its own case before public opinion. The arrest of Haleh Esfandiari, a 67 year old scholar, was particularly counter-productive based on the presence of such names on a petition demanding her release:

Juan R. Cole, University of Michigan
Valentine Moghadam, Purdue University
Tariq Ramadan, Oxford University
Ervand Abrahamian, City University of New York
Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Eventually an Iranian appeals court showed some leniency. Asher Zadmehr, a university teacher, had his sentence cut from 13 to seven years, while Hamid Tefilin, a shopkeeper, had his reduced from 13 to nine. The other eight men were left with reduced jail terms ranging from two to eight years.

Despite this, or perhaps because of this, many Iranian Jews decided it was time to leave the country. A combination of judicial repression and a worsening economy was sufficient to generate a new exodus, even though by all accounts Jews did not face the kind of systematic violence that another religious minority faced. Unlike the Jews and the Zoroastrians, the Baha’i sect was considered fair game.

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini was interviewed by James Cockcroft in the pages of Seven Days, a radical magazine:

Cockroft: Will there be either religious or political freedom for the Bahá’ís under the Islamic government?

Khomeini: They are a political faction; they are harmful. They will not be accepted.

Cockroft: How about their freedom of religion – religious practice?

Khomeini: No.

I first encountered the Baha’i in the early 1980s when I discovered that my barber was a member of the sect, which emerged in 19th century Persia. It was basically a kind of reformist initiative within Islam that corresponded to Reform Judaism or any of a number of Christian sects that embraced enlightenment values. The founder of the religion claimed he was the Mahdi and thus had equal status to the Prophet Muhammad with the power to abrogate Islamic law. This was not likely to endear you to the Muslim clerics who had a hearty appetite for martyring the Baha’is. When the Islamic Republic was created in 1979, it provided a legal sanction for bloody repression.

While the Baha’i do not have anything like an official clergy, they do elect a National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) and Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSA). In November 1979, the secretary of the NSA in Iran was kidnapped and never seen again. In August 1980 all nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly were arrested while meeting at a private home. After they were replaced by a new NSA, they too were arrested by the Iranian authorities and executed without a trial on December 27, 1981.

Over the next 3 years many more Baha’i leaders were arrested and executed. Finally, under pressure from human rights organizations around the world, the Iranian government modified its approach. Instead of using extra-legal violence, there would be stepped up efforts to punish the Baha’is economically and to deny them influence in universities and elsewhere. This is not to say that repression has ceased to exist. Last year 54 Baha’is in Shiraz were arrested for the crime of organizing a community service project that no doubt included propagation of their beliefs. That is what religious people do, after all.

Back in the 1980s, when I went to Baha’i services in New York about every 2 or 3 months, I came away very impressed with their beliefs–all except of course their silly notion that there was some kind of deity controlling the destiny of humanity and the world. There were a number of exemplary figures who had become members of the sect, largely on the basis of their 19th century humanitarian principles. Among them were jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and poet Ogden Nash of purple cow fame. The Diz, who believed in world peace and traveled to Cuba on numerous occasions, described his beliefs as follows:

Every age in music is important. Equally as important as the previous one, and is as important as the one that’s coming after that. The same thing with religion you know, like when religion reveals itself. God has got it set up now. His education of mankind is through these prophets, and each one’s supposed to come for a specific age, so they just keep coming, and after his is over another one takes their place. That’s what the Baha’is teach you. They got a really intelligent way, looking at God’s work on the planet. So I believe that music is the same, too. Messengers come to the music and after their influence starts waning, another one comes with a new idea, and he has a lot of followers.

For more information on the Baha’is, go to the Baha’i library that includes the above excerpt from a Dizzy Gillespie biography.

August 3, 2007

Ratatouille

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

The kitchen grew dirtier and the rats bolder, though we trapped a few of them. Looking round that filthy room, with raw meat lying among refuse on the floor, and cold, clotted saucepans sprawling everywhere, and the sink blocked and coated with grease, I used to wonder whether there could be a restaurant in the world as bad as ours. But the other three all said that they had been in dirtier places. Jules took a positive pleasure in seeings things dirty. In the afternoon, when he had not much to do, he used to stand in the kitchen doorway jeering at us for working too hard:

‘Fool! Why do you wash that plate? Wipe it on your trousers. Who cares about the customers? THEY don’t know what’s going on. What is restaurant work? You are carving a chicken and it falls on the floor. You apologize, you bow, you go out; and in five minutes you come back by another door— with the same chicken. That is restaurant work,’ etc.

–George Orwell, “Down and Out in London and Paris”

I had high expectations for Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille” based on his first animated film “The Iron Giant.” Both films, while being marketed to children, are clearly adult entertainment as well. “The Iron Giant” is a brilliant science fiction exercise set in the 1950s. When an immense robot from outer space descends upon a small New England town, he is befriended by a small boy who just sees him as a big toy. Meanwhile, the army wants to destroy what they perceive as a Soviet weapon.

Once again in keeping with the “outsider” motif of the first film, the alien is a lowly rat who is adopted by the garbage sweeper Linguini in one of Paris’s most illustrious kitchens that has fallen upon hard times after the death of the owner and master chef Gusteau. The rat Remy discovered in the countryside that he had special gifts. Not only could he understand the words of human beings, he could also outdo them on one of the oldest skills associated with homo sapiens, namely cooking. After the spirit of the dead chef Gusteau becomes a kind of Jiminy Cricket to him (this is a Disney film after all), he finds his way through sheer happenstance to the famous kitchen where he stumbles across Linguini experimenting with some soup. When the soup turns out to be foul-tasting, Remy comes to the rescue by throwing in just the right combination of spices, cream and herbs to turn it into a masterpiece. The people who eat the soup that night rave about it to their friends and soon new customers are demanding the soup themselves.

This leads to a partnership between Linguini and Remy. The rat is kept hidden in Linguini’s toque and gives him directions as to which ingredients to use by pulling his hair. A little to the left will cause Linguini to reach for the oregano, a little to the right and he adds a dash of pepper. Initially it takes time for man and rat to get coordinated, thus leading to the kind of missteps suffered by Steve Martin when his body is occupied by Lily Tomlin’s ghost in the comedy “All of Me.”

The theme of a young animal refusing to abide by the expectations of his peers and family is a common one in children’s films, either animated or not. In “Babe,” a young pig decides that he really wants to herd sheep. In “Happy Feet,” the young penguin cannot sing like other penguins but can tap dance. These recent films can be traced back to the Disney classics of the 1940s and 50s in which an ugly duckling becomes a swan, an elephant discovers he can fly and Pinocchio the puppet becomes a human being. In many ways, the acceptance of Remy into the human family generates the same kind of happiness as the Pinocchio tale.

Bird wrote the screenplay for his film and it couldn’t be topped. The same thing is true for the animation which is as rich as anything I have seen in recent years, competing with the best of Japanese anime. He also gets inspired performances out of the actors, especially Lou Romano, a Pixar Production worker, as Remy.

The director had the brilliant inspiration to represent his rats in two modes, cutting seamlessly between each one. The rats are seen most often standing on their hind legs in a cuddly, anthropomorphic style familiar to those who grew up watching Mickey Mouse movies, but when unfamiliar and hostile humans enter the room, they scuttle across the floor on all fours looking exactly like the real thing. Bird has exactly the right instincts on this. He wants you to love these creatures, even though they are repellent.

As is the case in Orwell’s Paris, the kitchen is very much class-stratified with Linguini on the lowest rung of the ladder. Above him is the female cook Colette, who admonishes Linguini about screwing up in the kitchen once he has been assigned to work under her direction. She says that the restaurant business makes it difficult for women to rise to the top and she doesn’t want him jeopardizing her career. After the death of Gusteau, the business is now being run by Skinner, whose only interest is in making lots of money. He intends to market crappy frozen food under the Gusteau imprint in keeping with the globalization attack on the world’s food that French farmer Jose Bove resisted through an assault on a half-completed McDonalds.

The film will be a real treat for children and adults alike, especially any who like myself have spent time in the kitchen trying to whip something together out of a Jacque Pepin cookbook. Unlike Remy the rat, I couldn’t improvise to save my life. In fact my real joy of cooking consists of following instructions, something that my computer programming background has prepared me for.

In some ways, “Ratatouille” reaches you on almost instinctual level. Most people have a primeval hatred and fear of rats, while well-cooked food touches the deepest pleasure principle as much as sex, and even more so in some ways. (Don’t ask me to elaborate.) It is this combination of opposed principles and their dialectical resolution at the end of the film that make “Ratatouille” one for the ages.

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