Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 9, 2008

Blast of Silence

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:33 pm

For anybody passionate about film, especially nuggets from the past, I cannot recommend Dave Kehr’s weekly new DVD’s column in the N.Y. Times highly enough. On April 15th, Kehr reported on the new release of an obscure 1961 film noir called “Blast of Silence”:

Blast of Silence,” coming out Tuesday in a very good edition from the Criterion Collection, stands out even in this field for its elemental style and relentlessly bleak vision. A late film noir shot with hardly a trace of the Expressionist distortions that initially defined the genre, Mr. Baron’s terse, 77-minute feature describes a few days in the life of a seasoned hit man, played with few surface signs of emotion by Mr. Baron himself.

An expert imported from Cleveland, Frank (Baby Boy) Bono has been assigned to eliminate a “second-string syndicate boss with too much ambition.” An easy assignment, but one that will require him to spend a few days in New York during the Christmas season, just enough time to fall in love, or something like it, with the sister (Molly McCarthy) of a half-forgotten acquaintance. This is a disturbing development for Frankie, whose hands sweat uncontrollably when he’s around other people.

Mr. Baron’s stripped-down visuals are complemented by an almost continuous voice-over narration, composed under a pseudonym (“Mel Davenport”) by the blacklisted writer Waldo Salt (“Midnight Cowboy”) and read (with no credit at all) by the blacklisted actor Lionel Stander: “You were born with hate, and anger built it. Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream. And then you knew you were alive.”

This curious mode of address – the second person accusative? – places the viewer in Frankie’s uncomfortable skin, cornering us into taking the side of this faceless, largely passive psychopath as he drifts along to his noir-mandated doom.

But for all of its pulp poetry – the picture begins in a railroad tunnel, transformed by the narration into a birth canal that will blast the silently screaming Frankie into the harsh reality of Penn Station – the film retains a down-and-dirty, documentary aspect. The studiously gray, unglamorous views of 1961 Manhattan – St. Marks Place, where Frankie takes a room at the Valencia Hotel; the blanked-out East 30s, where Frankie’s mark has a girlfriend stashed in a walk-up apartment – are worth the price of admission alone. Here’s what was being left out of those Madison Avenue melodramas and Park Avenue romances of the period.

This just about sums up everything I would have written about “Blast of Silence” after watching a Netflix rental, but I do have a few other things to add.

The film score, which alternated between Stan Kenton type riffs and art movie atonality, was composed by Meyer Kupferman who died at the age of 77 in 2003. The N.Y. Times obituary notes:

Mr. Kupferman embraced virtually every form available to contemporary composers, writing 12 symphonies, nine ballets and seven operas, along with electronic pieces, works that combine taped sounds and live instruments and soundtrack music for films. He composed 10 concertos, dozens of picturesque orchestral works and more than 200 chamber and solo works.

He was omnivorous stylistically, too, a quality he traced back to childhood memories of his father’s singing Yiddish and Romanian songs to him, which he would imitate on the clarinet, an instrument that he also used to imitate solos in the big band jazz he heard on the radio.

Suffice it to say that Kupferman was at the top of his game when he wrote the score for “Blast of Silence”.

Watching “Blast of Silence” brought me back to my own youth in 1961, when I walked the same streets in New York that the hit man anti-hero walks. This is a city that I loved just as much as Allen Baron did. For both of us, the city was a symbol of the artistic and cultural ferment that was beginning to eat away at the repressive 1950s. In the documentary that accompanies “Blast of Silence”, Baron explains hiring Stander as a way to save money since a blacklistee could be hired on the cheap.

Although Baron does not discuss politics, my guess is that he instinctively knew that people like Stander and screenwriter Waldo Salt would make it a better film since the Hollywood left had been long associated with the film noir genre. When watching the “Trumbo” documentary the other night, I was surprised to learn that Dalton Trumbo wrote “Gun Crazy”, a 1950 noir that like “Blast of Silence” has dramatic power despite some mustiness. The steering wheels of the cars in either movie are enormous, almost like that on the Queen Mary.

Ironically, one of the most unintentionally comical moments in “Blast of Silence” stems from Baron’s attempt to capture what was the “leading edge” of that time, namely the bongo-playing beatnik. Frank “Baby Boy” Bono has entered the Village Gate, just one of the artifacts of 1961 that no longer exists, in order to check out one of the customers, a man he is under contract to kill. As Bono sits at the bar sizing up his prey, a beatnik nightclub singer, played by someone named Dean Sheldon, is on the bandstand performing “Dressed in Black”, followed by “Torrid Town”. You can watch this scene here. You will be left speechless.

May 8, 2008

Trumbo

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:40 pm

Dalton Trumbo

Scheduled for theatrical release in NYC and LA on June 27th, Peter Askin’s “Trumbo” is based on the stage play by the famous blacklistee’s son Christopher Trumbo. Dalton Trumbo’s struggle against the witch hunt would be compelling enough in itself, but the film has a more general appeal as a study of one of the most complex and interesting personalities to have ever worked in Hollywood. While Trumbo could be gracious and charming to a fault, he also had his prickly side especially when he felt that his rights were being challenged.

Ring Lardner, Jr., his friend and fellow-member of the Hollywood Ten, eulogized Trumbo this way:

At rare intervals, there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all . . . who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.

As a long time critic of the generally crappy state of Hollywood movies today, I have pinned the blame on a general decline in screenwriting, which I attribute to the dumbing down effect of television on our culture. As movies become more and more like television shows, the race to the bottom accelerates. After I’ve seen a Judd Apatow film, I get the distinct impression that he never read a book after graduating college. Maybe not even when he was in college.

By contrast, Dalton Trumbo was a man of letters and in a distinctly old fashion way, a letter writer. Like the 19th century novelists whose letters matched their public work in intelligence and creativity, Trumbo was one our great letter writers. “Trumbo” is structured around a series of dramatic readings of Trumbo’s letters, with a number of more enlightened actors taking turns, from Michael Douglas to David Strathairn. Both of these actors are in their element. Douglas is a long-time partisan of left-liberal causes, while Strathairn obviously became familiar with the witch-hunt during the filming of “Goodbye and Good Luck”. Playing Edward R. Murrow, he assumed the role of one of the few powerful figures in media who was willing to stand up to McCarthy.

The movie also includes interviews with Dalton Trumbo, his son Christopher, and a number of people who were impacted by the blacklist, including Walter Bernstein who wrote the screenplay for “The Front”. Like the characters in Bernstein’s movie, Trumbo relied on “fronts” to get any work at all during the blacklist. These people, who were sympathetic to Trumbo’s plight even if they might have not shared his radical politics, got the on-screen credit while Trumbo got the cash. Even though this permitted him to support his family, he was always angry about the power that the studios and the witch-hunters had over him.

While the red-baiters were generally associated with the right wing of the Republican Party, liberals occasionally got into the act. My first exposure to Trumbo’s brilliance as a letter writer was in 1970, when I read the famous exchange between Trumbo and Steve Allen that had been reprinted in the January edition of Esquire Magazine. Titled “The Happy Jack Fish Hatchery Papers”, it grows out of Allen’s open letter to the committee to elect Tom Bradley, an African-American who was running for Mayor in Los Angeles. Allen, who had formerly been the host of the Tonight show on NBC, stated that he would have to have his name removed from the invitation letter to a fundraising party at Trumbo’s house since Trumbo had at one time been associated with “totalitarianism.” Here is one of Trumbo’s replies to Steve Allen:

Miss Betty Drew June 2, 1969
Secretary to Mr. Steve Allen
Encino, California

Miss Brew:

Thanks for informing me of Mr. Allen’s absence from the city and his intention to answer my letters when he returns. I must tell you, however, that from my point of view his Indianapolis and Northern California commitments have not come at a convenient time.

He won’t believe this (at first I didn’t either) but Sunday evening Mrs. Trumbo and I were invited to dine person to person and face to face with he-knows-who in the house of a mutual friend. Knowing how gross an abuse of free speech and assembly my presence at such an affair would constitute, dreading the impact of a second apostolic interdiction while not yet fully recovered from the first, I heard a voice remarkably like my own begging off with the idiot’s excuse that we were departing the city Friday noon for a Mexican holiday which hadn’t entered my mind until that moment.

Since a chap in my position has to be even more scrupulous with the truth than Caesar with his wife’s, or vice versa, there was nothing for it but to transmute my lie into its opposite by immediate proclamation of a southbound hegira to begin no later than Friday noon, June 6, 1969.

Mrs. Trumbo, I’m sorry to report, didn’t take the news at all well. For some years she has been doing whatever she can for a group of young preteenage and hopefully prepregnant sub-Aquarians who foregather throughout the mating season (June 1 through August 31) each Saturday afternoon at Happy Jack’s Fish Hatcheries, 8041 North San Gabriel Canyon Road in Azusa, where they receive much enlightenment from pisciculture in general, and in particular from unblinking observation of the relatively chaste tech­niques which characterize the breeding habits of even the most concupiscent among the fishes.

At their last meeting (end of August, 1968), in a somewhat rowdy but nonetheless moving demonstration of gratitude and loyalty, the youngsters unanimously chose Mrs. Trumbo to be Vice-Den Mother for their 1969 season which begins, as anyone with a calendar at hand can see, on Saturday next.

I had written for the occasion a rather stirring First Inaugural Address (based in part on Mr. Allen’s Epistle to the Thespians) which can be rattled off in just under forty-seven crackling minutes; and Mrs. Trumbo, having memorized and come to believe it, thought poorly of a command holiday which was bound to spoil what she has lately taken to calling-sentimentally, perhaps, but not unjustifiably-her Vice-Den Mother’s Day among the pisciculturians.

Ethics, however, is ethics, and my honor, when it comes to a showdown, invariably takes precedence over hers. Result: we depart Los Angeles International Airport on Western Airlines’ Flight Number 601 on Friday, June 6, 1969, for Mexico City, where we shall be met by chartered car, driven forthwith to Cuernavaca, and lodged at Privada de Humboldt 92. Our mailing address, however, will be Apartado 1292, Cuernavaca, Morelos, etc. We can be reached by telephone almost daily between the hours of three and six-thirty A.M., central standard time, at Cuernavaca 2-31-38.

And why, do you ask, have we been put to all this hurly and scurly and involuntary aggravating unexpected burly? Because I, in Sunday’s moment of mistruth, had no stern critic at hand to straighten my morals and narrow the range of my political and social pretensions. So much for NCLers who rush off to rival Communists for the political affections of the masses without preschooling their own acolytes in the mysteries of honest unilateral action.

Most respectfully, Dalton Trumbo

P.S. The Ninth Earl has somehow leapt to the untidy conclusion that Burt Lancaster is under house arrest as a carrier of Huntington’s chorea. Although I have done everything in my poor power to explain that no man on earth can carry a pestilence like H’s c (he has to haul it), I might just as well have spent my time hollering down some neighbor’s empty grain barrel. He has filed an emergency application with the Chula Vista branch of Travelers Aid for immediate transport to the Control Institute in Oman and Muscat, and compels his entire household, including two of the most dejected old family retainers you’ve ever seen, to wallow with him thrice daily in tubs of boiling Lysol hugely adulterated with white lye, sheep dip, and magnums of granulated loblolly flambe en brochette.

Raw-wise, the skins around that house have passed the point of no return, and for some reason I can’t fathom old Linster has tried four nights running to deposit the whole begrutten mess (the Sixth Earl married a Scotswoman described by a contemporary as “begrutten of face, large of wen and warp but small woof) at rnv doorstep. For all his breeding, which I am told has been prodigious the big L shows every sign of becoming, as we say in my middle-class but hopeful precinct, just one more unwanted and ungrateful anguis in herba.

cc: Mr. Eason Monroe, Mr. Tom Bradley, Mr. Burt Lancaster, Mr George Plimpton, The Hon. Mr. Lyndon B. Johnson, The Ninth Earl of Linster, Estate of Harold Bell Wright, Mr. Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, Mr. Gus Hall, The Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, Al-Ibrahim Institute for Control of Huntington’s Chorea, Princess Conchita Pignatelli, Estate of Miss Brenda Holton, Happy Jack Fish Hatcheries

Look for “Trumbo” when it arrives on June 27th in NYC and LA, and in theaters nationally soon afterwards. It is great stuff.

May 7, 2008

Was Enron “Green”?

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

Generally I don’t have much to say about Spiked online nowadays since the ex-members of the Revolutionary Communist Party in Great Britain have pretty much severed all their connections to the left. Although they are somewhat coy about their ideology, the impartial observer can recognize it immediately as libertarianism but without the bellicose foreign policy associated with today’s Ayn Rand supporters.

There are a few exceptions, however-most notably James Heartfield who wrote an interesting review of Rick Kuhn’s Isaac Deutscher Prize-winning biography of Henryk Grossman, a Marxist economist who had a significant influence on the RCP in the 1980s.

Apparently James has a new book out. Titled “Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance“, it contains the kind of tirades that are the stock-in-trade of Spiked online. But where most contributors to Spiked frame their arguments in nebulous terms of “progress” and “human development”, James is more comfortable invoking Karl Marx-even if he neglects those aspects of Marx’s writings that would clash with Spike’s editorial slant. I am of course referring to Marx’s deep concern about soil fertility, which was to the 19th century what climate change is today.

While I doubt that I will have either the time or the interest to read James’s book, I was motivated to write something about an excerpt that appears on the Metamute website. I don’t know much about this Zine, except that it seems to attract bright young things from the leftwing of the academy.

James’s article is titled “Manufactured Scarcity – The Profits of Deindustrialisation.” It is focused on “Green Capitalists” and Enron in particular. The editors introduce it as follows:

‘Green capitalism’: a new paradigm of sustainable production or a license to shut down plants and print money? James Heartfield looks at the case of influential pioneer in increasing profits by cutting output, Enron

This piqued my interest. Was Enron truly “Green”? Of course, it is difficult to find a corporation today that does not have Green pretensions. In my critique of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, I debunked his reference to Chevron as “Green” based on the energy company’s contributions to the following distinctly anti-environmentalist outfits, as documented in Josh Karliner’s indispensable “The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization.”:

1. Citizens for the Environment: advocates strict deregulation as a solution to environmental problems.

2. Oregonians for Food and Shelter: a pro-pesticide lobby.

3. Global Climate Coalition: global warming skeptics.

4. Pacific Legal Foundation: files court challenges to clean water, hazardous waste and wetlands protection laws.

5. National Wetlands Coalition: should probably be called National Anti-wetlands Coalition since its main goal is remove obstacles to oil drilling in their midst.

6. Mountain States Legal Foundation: founded by batty former Interior Secretary James Watt.

Ultimately, corporations like Enron and Chevron will spend all sorts of money on advertising and bribes to groups like World Wildlife Fund, upon whose board Diamond sits, in order to fool people into thinking that they are “Green”. That does not mean that we have to take them at their word. We should also of course take note that the six aforementioned groups are exactly the kind whose ideas are reflected in the pages of Spiked online.

According to James, Enron’s “Green” credentials were based on, among other things, its Climate Protection Award from the EPA in 1998. Since the environmental policies of the Clinton-Gore administration are viewed by most radicals as being worse than the Bush administration that preceded it, one can only wonder why this award proves that Enron was Green. If Enron gave itself an award, would anybody take that seriously? Given the cozy relationship between Enron and both bourgeois parties, the EPA award amounted to just about the same thing.

James’s main complaint is that Enron put a damper on production in compliance with Green thinking, while at the same time it boosted profits. He refers to this as “manufactured scarcity”, which took the form of “clean energy” and California’s “Negawatt Revolution”. Here’s how it worked, according to James:

Chief Executive Kenneth Lay turned Enron from a company that made its money generating power into one that made its money trading finance. Whatever else it was doing, there was no denying that Enron was cutting back its own CO2 emissions and getting rich doing it. One company memo stated that the Kyoto treaty ‘would do more to promote Enron’s business than will almost any other regulatory initiative’.

This is true as far as it goes. Enron pushed for adoption of the Kyoto Treaty since it mandated a switch from coal-burning plants to natural gas, which Enron-essentially an energy broker-supplied. However, being in favor of natural gas does not really make you “Green”, especially in light of the following:

Of Enron Corp’s many political maneuvers in Washington before its fall into bankruptcy, winning the promise of federal financing for a 390-mile pipeline from Bolivia to Brazil through the Chiquitano Dry Tropical Forest may have the most enduring consequences.

Enron built the natural-gas pipeline directly through South America’s largest remaining undeveloped swath of dry tropical forest, a region rich with endangered wildlife and plants.

The pipeline, completed late last year, and its service roads have opened the forest to the kind of damage environmental groups had predicted: Poachers travel service roads to log old-growth trees. Hunters prey on wild game and cattle graze illegally. An abandoned gold mine reopened and its workers camp along the pipeline right-of-way.

–Washington Post, May 6, 2002

James continues:

Amory Lovins’ negawatt revolution in California was Enron’s wet dream. Having shut down its own generation capacity, PG&E was at the mercy of Enron’s market manipulation. Buying surplus electricity on the open market PG&E was royally fleeced, losing $12 billion. Utility bills rose by nine times. Enron took advantage of the restricted market and cut electricity to California. They even invented reasons to take power plants offline while California was blacked out. Enron official joked that they were stealing one million dollars a day from California. The PG&E that Lovins held up as a model went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the state of California.

More than anything, Enron was about deregulation, a word that does not appear once in James’s article. Enron was supposedly an alternative to traditional public utilities, using the marketplace to satisfy demands for electricity. It manipulated the supply in order to drive up prices. If it used environmental rhetoric to mask its true intentions, one should not blame environmentalism for this. We must blame capitalism.

For an alternative analysis of Enron’s “environmentalism”, one can turn to the Center for Media and Democracy, also known as PRWatch. In a 2003 article titled “How Environmentalists Sold Out to Help Enron“, the excellent Sharon Beder detailed how mainstream environmentalists, not much different from Jared Diamond, sold out to the thieves at Enron.

According to Beder, the Natural Resources Defense Council was the main culprit.

NRDC received $3.1 million from the Energy Foundation between 1991 and 1997 and $1.13 million from the Pew Foundation between 1993 and 1995. Both foundations were set up with corporate money made in oil and other industries. These foundations dominated the funding for activist groups, ensuring that their lobbying on energy issues took a pro-business, pro-deregulation and pro-private utility stance. According to Ralph Nader, “the network of funders has become a network of enforcers. And these guys are all on a first-name basis with these corporate [utility] executives.” The Energy Foundation ran conferences where environmentalists and consumer activists could hob nob with utility executives and get on their wavelength.

Now the best way to describe the collusion between PG&E and NRDC is anti-environmentalist. No matter the utility company’s advertising on television, which stressed “Conversations with the Earth” and “Smarter Energy for a Better World”, it was nothing but PR. This, I should add, is a matter that Spiked online has some familiarity with as an occasional co-sponsor of hi-falutin’ conferences with Hill and Knowlton, the sleaziest PR firm in the world best known for its campaign in the first Gulf War around Kuwaiti babies being thrown on a cold hospital floor by Iraqi troops.

NRDC was a key player in pushing for deregulation in California during the 1990s. Supposedly, the profit motive would persuade utility companies to expand production. The deregulation bill that the California legislature passed included some sops to the Green movement like a small budget for energy efficiency. But mostly it was in keeping with assaults on public ownership occurring everywhere in the world.

Ironically, the same myopia that prevented James Heartfield from understanding the importance of deregulation in the California/Enron fiasco also prevents him from understanding the situation in South Africa:

California’s ‘negawatt revolution’ is only one of the more extreme versions of the way that green priorities work in tandem with profiting by manufacturing scarcity. South African radical Dominic Tweedie argues that recent electricity blackouts there happened because of ‘a campaign to impose artificial scarcity’. The failure to build power stations to meet the growing demand from South Africa’s black townships was not recognised as a problem by activists there because they bought into the green prejudice that social aspirations could be met by redistribution alone, at the expense of increased output. Now supply companies are hiking up prices to the people who can least afford them.

To be sure, South Africa’s power company (ESKOM) was manipulating supplies in order to enjoy super-profits just like Enron, but the primary problem facing poor Blacks is privatization, a phenomenon that goes hand in hand with deregulation. When ESKOM began putting power meters in the slums of Soweto, the understandable reaction was to use direct action to challenge and remove them. To raise the slogan “Build More Power Stations Now!” might appeal to the libertarians grouped around Spiked online but would have little traction in the townships.

Finally, a word about the conclusion to James’s article. He writes:

Setting caps on energy production, industrial output, car transport and house-building in the name of saving the environment all have the effect of damaging people’s standard of living. But as we have seen, that does not stop individual businesses from making big profits out of those caps. Trading in carbon rights, making windmills, carbon offsetting schemes, and organic food are all ways of making profits out of artificial limits set upon growth.

When I read something like this from somebody who obviously has an excellent grasp of Henryk Grossman’s economic theory, I can only shake my head in wonderment. “Growth” is not something that happens by removing environmental limits, like a cork from a bottle. Growth occurs as part of the business cycle as Grossman explains in chapter two of “The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System”. During the 1930s, there was no growth because the capitalist system had entered a monumental crisis that no amount of Keynesian fiddling could resolve. It took WWII to bring prosperity.

Today, the world is facing what some experts regard as the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. It is quite sad to see somebody obviously so well trained in Marxist economics, as James Heartfield clearly is, to be wasting his time and our time shadow-boxing with “Green Capitalists”. Today, it takes real audacity to challenge liberal and conservative orthodoxy alike and proclaim that nothing less than socialist revolution can resolve both stagnation and ecological degradation. It is too bad that some comrades no longer have the will to challenge the system. Let us hope that as the crisis deepens, some of them will be inspired to respond to 21st century capitalism in its dotage, a threat to civilization potentially greater than fascism in the 1930s.

May 3, 2008

Hunter Bear on John Gregory Bourke

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:42 pm

That’s an excellent commentary/post, Louis, undergirded by your obvious empathy with Indian people and foundationed by your awareness of the essential issues characterizing the always-continuing Native American struggle.

Bourke was one of many who, from close and reasonably egalitarian relationships with the Native people, was obviously able to overcome much of their Anglo ethnocentrism and their initial adversarial stance; and who came to recognize the admirable complexities of the tribal cultures.  John Clum, who lived from the early 1850s to close to the time I was born, was another.  He put in a good stint as Indian Agent on the San Carlos [Apache] reservation — before moving on to become mayor of Tombstone.

The forerunners of Bourke and Clum and many others of that epoch were, of course, the intrepid Jesuit missionaries, from the 1600s onward, who often spent the whole of their working lives within Native tribal settings — and who came to very much appreciate the great vitality of the Indian cultures and who duly recorded much of great anthropological and historical value.  The Jesuits were very open to the Vatican-labeled “error” of syncretism — the blending of various Native theologies with Catholicism.

And then, of course, there were a great many French fur trappers and Scottish traders who, marrying into various tribes, frequently became thoroughly “Indianized.”  And there were many African Americans who found refuge with a number of the Indian nations — and not always in the South. A prominent figure in the foreign affairs of the Akwesasne Mohawks was Colonel Louis Cook, half Abenaki and half Black.

If all of those epochs, including our contemporary one, were characterized by considerable tension and uncertainty, Bourke’s times certainly were high on that mark.

A very old family friend of ours, Juan Carillo of Laguna, N.M., was a nephew of Geronimo.  If he were still with us, he’d be much interested in Bourke and his observations and reflections.

Despite the countless vicissitudes, Indian tribes and cultures and people have survived very well, always have and always will. The Sierra Madre Occidental still has, within its vastness, a number of descendants of Geronimo’s band who fled into Mexico.  About the time I was born, a number of them crossed the border into Arizona [by horseback, of course], and burned three small towns. [Then they returned, intact, into the Sierra Madre.]

I’ve always been somewhat saddened by the fact that I wasn’t on the scene to watch that encouraging and pleasant foray.

Thanks again, Louis, for that fine commentary/post.

As Ever, Hunter

HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR] Mi’kmaq /St. Francis
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
and Ohkwari’

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And see Forces and Faces Along the Activist Trail:

http://hunterbear.org/forces_and_faces_along_the_trail.htm

John Gregory Bourke and the Apaches

Filed under: indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 12:00 am

Last November, when I trashed “No Country For Old Men“, a Coen brothers movie based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, I wrote the following about another McCarthy novel:

If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:

In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.

Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.

I finally got around to reading “Blood Meridian” about a month ago, but before trashing it I am doing some background reading on the Apache, Comanche and Yuma Indians who all play a significant role in McCarthy’s horrible novel. As I have mentioned previously on my blog, McCarthy has essentially a Hobbesian worldview. Everybody is rotten, both the white death squads that the McCarthy website refers to charitably as “mercenaries” and the Indians that they slaughter.

Reading “Blood Meridian” is an experience that is analogous to reading a novel focused on a band of Nazi stormtroopers assigned to quell the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The author does not hide his animosity toward the Nazis but also finds the Jewish rebels just as repugnant. One imagines that it is possible to write a novel in this country about white Indian-killers and their victims being equally vicious because–as Ward Churchill once pointed out–our Nazis (Kit Carson and company) won their war.

Geronimo, at the age of 76

While I am sure that one can write a compelling novel with Nazi stormtroopers as the major characters, I certainly am not interested in reading it. Cormac McCarthy’s characters are pretty one-dimensional, who function pretty much as killing machines without any inner doubts. His novel has bamboozled some left-leaning Literature professors into thinking that McCarthy has mounted some kind of Marxist critique of the Old West solely on the basis of the unflattering portrait of the white killers. I will have much more to say about this when I post my review of “Blood Meridian” but will say at this point that I would have written a much different novel that would be not only more Marxist but more interesting from a literary standpoint.

My major characters would have not been members of John Glanton’s gang, but men like John Gregory Burke, whose relationship to the Apache Indians was far more complex. His psychological and political conflicts are the very stuff of great literature, as this passage from Richard J. Perry’s “Apache Reservation: Indigenous Peoples and the American State” reveals:

One Man’s View of the Apache: John Gregory Bourke

In the 1870s and 1880s, as the Apache found themselves increasingly enmeshed in the expanding American state, John Gregory Bourke participated in the process. His papers offer a vivid sense of the era. When he participated in Crook’s winter campaign of 1871, apparently he fully accepted the rightness of the forces he represented. Bourke clearly was a man of his times. He had graduated from West Point and was conversant with the thrust of nineteenth-century American social thought. An aspect of this thought was the idea that progress was an inevitable law of nature, and that some human societies had progressed more than others. In the late 1880s he wrote a scholarly treatise discussing Apache practices in terms of cultural evolutionary stages (1892). There was little question in Bourke’s mind that the United States and western Europe represented the epitome of human progress up to that time.

From this perspective, populations like the Apache were different—not because they represented alternative, equivalent varieties of human experience, but because they had not progressed beyond the stages of “savagery” or “barbarism.” In many ways, according to this view, the Apache were something like what Europeans had been in the past. Human progress for the good of all, even for the good of the Apache, required that higher levels of social and cultural development replace savagery. To young John Bourke and other Anglo-Americans of his time, there was no apparent reason to question the idea that the Apache were an anachronistic obstacle to progress whose time had almost ended. Their fierce resistance to a civilized population’s invasion of their territory did little to dispel these assumptions.

But Bourke also had a good deal of intellectual curiosity. As he became more familiar with Apache as individuals and perceived some of the complexities and intricacies of their lives, his respect for them grew. Moreover, he became conscious of a certain irony. The Apache of his acquaintance seemed to fulfill, far more rigorously than most of his own more “advanced” compatriots, many of the ideals that happened to be central to the ideology of his own culture. The Apache did not steal from one another. They scrupulously observed their own complex rules of etiquette, ethics, and religious strictures. They placed great importance on extramarital chastity. They demonstrated their physical courage time and again, and their self-control and endurance were extraordinary. In many ways, Bourke could see some of the highest aspirations of the Victorian character in the qualities of the Apache.

Bourke also came to perceive many of the local Arizona citizenry as a scurrilous, unsavory lot who stood in the way of humane Indian policies. Perhaps the most tragic and poignant phase of the role Bourke played in the unfolding of this chapter in American history had to do with the eventual disposal of the Chiricahua Apache.

Many of the Chiricahua were unhappy at San Carlos, and in 1885 some of them—Geronimo among them—fled the reservation, beginning the last major army campaign against the Apache in the region. Most of the Chiricahua at San Carlos did not join their flight and remained behind. Lieutenant Britton Davis, who had reported to San Carlos in 1882 and participated in the resulting campaign, summarizes it incisively. “In this campaign thirty-five men and eight half-grown or older boys, encumbered with the care and sustenance of 101 women and children, with no base of supplies and no means of Waging war or of obtaining food or transportation other than what they could take from their enemies, maintained themselves for eighteen months, in a country two hundred by four hundred miles in extent, against five thousand troops, regulars and irregulars, five hundred Indian auxiliaries of these troops, and an unknown number of civilians”

Davis notes that the fleeing Apache during this period were known to have killed seventy-five Arizona and New Mexico citizens, twelve White Mountain Apache, two officers, and eight enlisted army troops, and as many as a hundred or more Mexicans. As for the fleeing Apache: “Their losses in killed were six men, two large boys, two women and one child, not one of whom was killed by regular troops [emphasis in the original]. Moreover, one of the boys and two of the men were not killed in open warfare, but were killed by the citizens of the town of Casas Grandes, where they had gone on a peace mission”.

In late March, 1886, Crook finally was able to negotiate with Geronimo and the other Chiricahua leaders at a place called the Canon de Los Embudos, about twenty-six miles south of the border. The Chiricahua agreed to come in on the condition that, after no more than two years imprisonment, they would be allowed to join their families at Turkey Creek north of San Carlos. Crook left for Fort Bowie at the close of the conference, and the Chiricahua were to follow the next day with the scouts.

That night a local citizen named Bob Tribolett approached the Chiricahua and scouts and sold them sizable quantities of mescal liquor. After getting them drunk, he told them that if they went into Fort Bowie the next day they would be killed. Finding the story plausible, the Chiricahua bolted once again into Mexico. They could not be persuaded to surrender for another couple of months. After Tribolett had gotten them drunk and had told them that the army intended to kill them once they were taken prisoner, Lieutenant Bourke encountered Geronimo and the others. Bourke wrote in his diary that “this incident so alarmed and disgusted me and was so pregnant with significance that I rode up to Genl. Crook and asked him to have Tribollet [sic] killed as a foe to human society, and, said I, if you don’t Genl. Crook it’ll be the biggest mistake of your life”.

There is some reason to suspect that Tribolett was acting on behalf of the infamous Tucson Ring of contractors who profited from the Apache conflict. Several contemporary observers expressed this view, and certainly he served their purposes well. Eventually Tribolett was to die in jail awaiting trial for planning a stagecoach robbery, shot while “trying to escape”.

When the Chiricahua finally agreed to return to San Carlos, they did so with the understanding that they would be allowed to live with their families near Turkey Creek. After General Crook reached this agreement, he learned that the terms would not be honored by the government. President Grover Cleveland insisted on an unconditional surrender. Crook resigned in protest, and General Nelson Miles took over to receive credit, eventually, for “bringing in Geronimo.”

While Geronimo negotiated, Miles already had arrested the peaceful Chiricahua at Fort Apache and sent them on their way to imprisonment in Florida. He promised the others that they could join their families if they surrendered. When they did so, he wrote a carefully worded letter to his superiors giving the impression that he had secured the unconditional surrender of the Chiricahua. All of the Chiricahua were arrested and sent to prison, including the peaceful contingent who never had left the reservation, the scouts who had assisted the army in achieving the surrender of Geronimo’s group, and the two who had risked their lives to make contact with the others.

In 1885, just before their removal, the Indian Rights Association had reported on the Chiricahua who lived at Fort Apache: “[They were] a fine, manly looking set, and did not talk much, but expressed themselves as well pleased with what had been done for them. They said that they wanted to turn their faces in the same way as the whites, to work and make money. The Chiricahuas were kept at San Carlos until the middle of last May. It was a month later by the time they began farming. Since then they have got seventy-five acres under cultivation”.

After their arrest and removal to the East, the Chiricahua men were kept separate from their families for years. Bourke, who had bee present at the negotiations between Crook and Geronimo, was out raged. “Never was there a more striking illustration of the ingratitude of Republics. Never a more cruel outrage perpetrated in the name of a nation affecting to love liberty, honor, and truth”.

In the following years Bourke achieved some renown in eastern intellectual circles as an ethnographer and a student of Apache culture, and he worked strenuously for their humane treatment. He visited the Chiricahua in Florida and lobbied to acquire a more healthful situation for them.

In Florida the government took the Chiricahua children away and sent them to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Of the 107 who went there in 1886, twenty-seven had died within three years. In writing about the situation, Bourke quoted Thomas B. McCaulay in describing the action as “the saddest of all human spectacles—the strength of a great nation exerted without its mercy”. After several relocations, the Chiricahua eventually were moved to Oklahoma. In 1913, long after Bourke’s death, they finally were given the option of moving to the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico. Over a hundred of them chose to do so.

Throughout his life, Bourke accepted the ideology of his own society. Just as he had embraced the idea that the Apache represented a stage of evolution doomed to be replaced by civilization, he felt that civilization entailed a responsibility to invoke humane and refined standards of behavior. To his dismay, he found that his own government and society wanted nothing more than to let the Apache die off and disappear as a problem.

The disparity between his state’s ideals and its actions never ceased to plague him. This conflict was manifest late in his life when he led troops against workers in the Chicago Pullman strike of 1894. He was incensed that the striking rabble, many of whom spoke poor English, should challenge a social system in whose ideals he had a faith that apparently was unshakable. At the end of the summer he spent defending Mr. George Mortimer Pullman’s interests against the workers, Bourke left Chicago on the train with his troops. They were required to pay full fare.

Bourke died at the age of forty-nine, apparently from the cumulative effects of a life of physical stress. He had been unable, at last, to convince his government that the Apache he had fought as savages and had come to admire and respect as persons should be treated humanely. But Bourke lived during one of the most corrupt eras in American history. It was a time when collusion between corporate interests and the government was especially brazen, and racism was as American as frock coats and picket fences. For a person who truly believed in the ideals that his culture espoused, such an era must have been intensely frustrating.

May 1, 2008

Marxmail is 10 years old today

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 2:41 pm

This is the tenth anniversary of the Marxism mailing list (also known as Marxmail, the name of the accompanying website) that was launched on May 1, 2008. It started off with about sixty subscribers who were fleeing the Marxism list that preceded it, which had been hijacked by supporters of the Shining Path in Peru, including one Adolfo Olaechea. Adolfo and his co-thinkers soon lost interest in the mailing list and went on to other projects. Adolfo, bless his soul, successfully defended himself recently against trumped up charges of terrorism in Peru and continues to rally people around the Maoist banner.

With all due respect to the Maoist left, it was not the kind of political culture that lent itself to a free and open exchange of ideas. After the Maoist comrades had seized the moderator’s reins, they began expelling people left and right-yours truly was the first to go. Ironically, I had written a defense of the Shining Path a few months before I was booted.

That did not save me from being punished as a “Trotskyite”. Those stormy days of 1998 seem like a century ago, while my genuine Trotskyist past from 1967 to 1978 now seems like a millennium ago. History marches on, to use a cliché.

The Marxism list now has 1103 subscribers. I serve as moderator and Les Schaffer serves as technical moderator. I have had a long and fruitful collaboration with Les whose solid grasp of subscribers’ psychologies, including my own, helps to keep the list on an even keel. To a large extent, my ideas about how to build a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic left are reflected in the way I moderate the list. Most of all, this involves a firm hand when it comes to any attempts to divide the list between ‘Bolsheviks’ and ‘Mensheviks’. Since Internet mailing lists tend to operate as pressure cookers to begin with, the worst thing for a Marxism mailing list would be to artificially raise the temperature. Labeling people as “revisionists” or “reformists” is an invitation to the kinds of flame wars that destroyed the mailing lists that preceded Marxmail.

While the list does not have nearly as many female subscribers that it needs, the global representation is pretty good-including many subscribers from the Third World. On a typical day, there will be posts from subscribers in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Germany, and Great Britain. The political representation is also pretty good, with subscribers reflecting Trotskyist, Communist, state capitalist, and syndicalist traditions.

The mailing list has grown by about 100 new subscribers per year and I expect that it will continue at this rate unless there is a qualitative change in the political situation. If there was a radicalization as deep as that of 1968 (another anniversary now being celebrated) I can easily imagine adding 3 or 4 hundred subscribers per year. Given the economic crisis we are now entering, as well as the prospect of continuing imperialist war and environmental degradation, that could be in the cards.

Nearly 40 years ago, the Trotskyist sect that I belonged to embarked on a major infrastructure expansion campaign in anticipation of the same kind of future radicalization. Members gave millions of dollars to purchase an office building near the Hudson River and an expensive Web Press, which prints on continuous rolls of paper. The offices were seen as necessary to administer an explosive growth in membership and the Web Press would allow the massive circulation of party organs as the radicalization deepened. Although there were opportunities for the group after the 60s radicalization came to an end, they did not understand how to take advantage of them. Instead of growing, they shrank. The building and all the contents, including the Web Press, were sold a couple of years ago.

Although there will obviously always be a need for “dead tree” media such as books and newspapers, the Internet-which is a Web Press after a fashion-is as geared to our epoch as the Gutenberg press was geared to the epoch of peasant revolts. I like to think of the Marxism mailing list as the same kind of investment in infrastructure as the SWP’s office building and Web Press, even though it costs very little. In the coming years and decades, even after my ashes have been scattered in the Hudson River, Marxmail will enable revolutionaries worldwide to exchange information and debate ideas, all through the auspices of a technology that originated in the American military’s research into how state power could be maintained after a nuclear war! Talk about contradictions…

The Marxism list remains grateful to the support of Professor Hans Ehrbar of the University of Utah Economics department, one of the few schools in the country that allows scholarly critiques of the capitalist system to be mounted. Our mailing list operates on a computer that Hans donated and his technical support, along with Les’s, allows our communications to run smoothly.

I would also wish our comrade Doug Henwood well, whose LBO-Talk mailing list was launched on the very same day as Marxmail. Doug was a survivor of the early wild and woolly days of Marxism mailing lists on the Internet as well as senseless provocations from your moderator before I (and Doug) had reached our current Zen-like state of equanimity.

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