Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 18, 2008

Iran, Israel and nuclear holocaust

Filed under: Iran,zionism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

Benny Morris: mad bomber

In today’s N.Y. Times, there is an article that reports on a developing rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran:

The Bush administration is considering establishing an American diplomatic presence in Iran for the first time since relations were severed during the 444-day occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran nearly three decades ago, European and American officials said on Thursday.

The idea would be to establish a so-called interests section, rather than a fully staffed embassy, with American diplomats who could issue visas to Iranians seeking to visit the United States. But the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic rules, cautioned that the idea had not been approved by the White House and could be delayed or blocked by opposition within the administration.

The proposal comes as the White House is adopting new tactics in dealing with Iran. With six months left in office, Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appear to be looking for new ways to reach out to the Iranian people as the administration tries to bring a peaceful resolution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program.

As has frequently been the case in American dealings with Shi’ites in the region, there are contradictions within contradictions. In Iraq, the Shi’ite government has been criticized by Tehran for not opposing U.S. occupation goals strongly enough but this very same government has instructed Washington that it will be necessary to set a date for withdrawal of American troops despite Bush’s objections.

With respect to Iran, a rapprochement would have been categorically excluded by some elements of the radical movement in the U.S. who assume that American power is unlimited. But the U.S. always had implicitly shared goals with Tehran in removing Saddam Hussein and empowering a Shi’ite state. Despite fiery rhetoric directed against Tehran, the Islamic Republic furnished crucial intelligence to the U.S. when war was launched against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In an interview with USA Today on June 9, 2005, Mohsen Rezaie, former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and one of eight candidates in Iran’s June 17 presidential elections, made clear that the U.S. and Iran had common goals in the region despite the foolish prejudices of the hard right:

Q: Should Iran reopen talks with the United States with a view toward re-establishing diplomatic relations?

A: Everything is possible. The American authorities didn’t give Iran a clear proposal, except for Mr. Reagan, who was a brave man, and Mrs. Albright who praised Iran. Other American presidents and American secretaries of State didn’t make a courageous proposal to Iran. If they make a rational offer to Iran, I believe a real transformation will take place in the relations between Iran and America. I believe that the political-security environment that currently exists between Iran and the West must change into a political-economic environment.

Q: What has Iran done to support U.S. security goals in the region, in Afghanistan and Iraq?

A: Iran’s supporters and allies in Afghanistan and Iraq played an important role in the fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and Iran extended to them the necessary assistance. Some Revolutionary Guard commanders which advised the Northern Alliance had a key role in the capture of Kabul. They were special forces for urban warfare and had experience in this field during the Iran-Iraq war. They were very effective and active in giving advice to this group. But American army propaganda quickly claimed most of these achievements in its own name.

Those radicals in the U.S. who gullibly accept Revolutionary Guard rhetoric on its own terms might have some difficulty in digesting Rezaie’s words. This would not be the first time that the left would be behind the curve. After Nixon visited China in 1972, Maoists all across the U.S. were shocked by the spectacle of the American imperialist head of state clinking champagne glasses with Mao Zedong. Of course, there was also a similar bid in 1985 when Oliver North was delegated to seek Iran’s help in arming the Nicaraguan contras, with a key-shaped cake taking the place of vintage champagne.

There are signs that some neoconservatives are unhappy with the administrations “realpolitik” turn. In yesterday’s N.Y. Times, John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the U.N. and long-time rightwing lunatic, demurred: “Just when you think the administration is out of U-turns, they make another one. This is further evidence of the administration’s complete intellectual collapse.”

Shoring up the rightwing challenge are its co-thinkers in Israel, including the former “revisionist” historian Benny Morris who has a truly frightening op-ed piece in today’s N.Y. Times titled in 1984-style “Using Bombs to Stave Off War”. He writes:

Given the fundamentalist, self-sacrificial mindset of the mullahs who run Iran, Israel knows that deterrence may not work as well as it did with the comparatively rational men who ran the Kremlin and White House during the cold war. They are likely to use any bomb they build, both because of ideology and because of fear of Israeli nuclear pre-emption. Thus an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable. The alternative is letting Tehran have its bomb. In either case, a Middle Eastern nuclear holocaust would be in the cards.

Iran’s leaders would do well to rethink their gamble and suspend their nuclear program. Bar this, the best they could hope for is that Israel’s conventional air assault will destroy their nuclear facilities. To be sure, this would mean thousands of Iranian casualties and international humiliation. But the alternative is an Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland. Some Iranians may believe that this is a worthwhile gamble if the prospect is Israel’s demise. But most Iranians probably don’t.

Morris is an apt symbol of Zionist society’s talent for degrading everybody who lives in its midst, including this one time liberal. In the Spring 2004 issue of Middle East Reports (MERIP), editor Joel Beinin reviews Morris career in an article titled “No More Tears: Benny Morris and the Road Back from Liberal Zionism”. He writes:

Morris now provides a moral justification for ethnic cleansing that he did not offer before the second intifada, arguing that “[e]ven the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians.” Native Americans and those with a sounder knowledge of North American history may demur. But in Israel, appeal to the authority of the US is the ultimate clincher in any argument. Yearning for the success of the American example, Morris now criticizes Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister, David Ben-Gurion, for failing to do “a complete job” because “this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country…. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake.” Palestine-Israel might also be quieter today if Hitler had completed his planned genocide of world Jewry. It does not occur to Morris that there might be a parallel between these two historical counterfactuals. The first is in the realm of acceptable speculation; the second is too obviously outrageous to consider.

Morris now embraces the common American post-September 11 view of the Muslim world, arguing that, “There is a deep problem in Islam. It’s a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien…. Therefore, the people we are fighting have no moral inhibitions.” The Palestinians are “serial killers” and “barbarians.” What follows from Morris’ logic is that the Palestinian refugees of 1948 were simply precursors of al-Qaeda who deserved their fate. Further, “if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948…expulsion [of Palestinian-Israelis and West Bankers and Gazans] will be justified.”

After seeing Morris tout the genocide of American Indians as necessary for the creation of a “great American democracy”, one can understand why he would now approve nuking Iran. The ends justify the means. A mushroom cloud over Iran would allow Israel to fulfill its messianic ambitions as the world’s most perfected democracy living in peace with its imperfect neighbor reduced to a radioactive rubble.

July 17, 2008

Anita O’Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 12:42 am

Last night I attended a press screening for “Anita O’Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer”. Like “Tis Autumn: the Search for Jackie Paris”, another jazz documentary, it is a work of love and necessary viewing for anybody who cares about America’s greatest cultural gift to the world. Robbie Cavolina, who co-directed the movie with Ian McCrudden, was Anita O’Day’s manager for the last six years of her life–she died in 2006 at the age of 87.

As was the case with Raymond De Felitta, the young director of the Jackie Paris film, Cavolina and McCrudden were spellbound by a much older artist. They followed O’Day around on her daily rounds, including trips to the race track (like fellow Los Angeleno Charles Bukowski, the singer was heavy into the ponies), and asked her questions about her life and career. The end result was 100 hours of footage that they turned into a truly eye-opening movie about a life in jazz.

Although not as famous as her African-American counterparts Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, Anita O’Day belongs to the pantheon of female jazz singers. Born Anita Colton in Kansas City, Missouri, she took the last name “O’Day” since it was pig latin for “dough”–an item in short supply during the Great Depression. Just like the dance marathon characters in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They”, O’Day participated in 24 hour endurance contests called the Walkathon. As she explains in her memoir “Hard Times, High Times” and also recounts in the documentary, Walkathons were a survival mechanism: “They feed you seven times a day and see that you get free medical care. Even if I don’t win, I ain’t gonna do bad with the money I make dancing, singing and selling pictures of my partner and me.”

O’Day began singing professionally in 1935 at the age of 16, shortly around the time she became the protégé of Dick “Lord” Buckley, the legendary hipster pothead comedian, who she first became acquainted with in Walkathon contests and whom she describes in the memoir as follows:

The self-ordained Lord Buckley…viewed all people as princes and princesses, lords and ladies, counts and countesses. Half-American Indian, half-British, the athletically inclined Buckley would climb the high skeletal structure above the contest floor and clown around, half-stoned, with slips and trips that would have spelled curtains for him if he’d made a miscue. You could only conclude that someone was watching over him. For that I was eventually thankful, because Dick Buckley was very rhythmical and he took an interest in my singing.

Even though O’Day was coming up in the music business when Holiday and Fitzgerald were at the top of their game, she found herself influenced by a singer generally not associated with jazz, namely Martha Raye, who would become the host of a popular TV slapstick comedy show in the fifties. From Raye, she got the idea that she could be a “presentation singer” which meant knowing how to use her body through gestures and dancing.

This knack soon made her a natural for performing as a lead singer with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman’s former drummer who had launched his own big band with the same combination of musicianship and showmanship that O’Day sought to achieve. She described Krupa this way:

Gene was as magnetic as a movie star, filled with wild exuberance as his raven-colored hair, flashing brown eyes and black suit contrasted with the snow-white marine pearl drums that surrounded him. His gum-chewing, facial gymnastics, tossing of broken sticks to the audience and general flamboyance visually complemented the Krupa sound that incorporated rolls, flams and paradiddles that reverberated throughout the theater.

As implied by the title of her memoir, O’Day experienced over 20 years of substance abuse, both heroin and alcohol. The movie mercifully allocates much less time to these matters than the memoir. Too often jazz movies have played up the suffering of jazz artists at the expense of their musical contributions, from Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” to Bertrand Tavernier’s “Round Midnight”. Cavolina and McCrudden focus on the great times that O’Day spent on the stage at places like the Newport Music Festival rather than in jail or hospitals, an altogether wise decision.

In addition to the great material featuring the always charming and loquacious Anita O’Day, they interview some of jazz’s top critics and musicians, from Phil Schaap to Annie Ross. The interviews are conducted at a very high level but don’t leave those with a casual knowledge of jazz in the dark.

One of the more interesting technical revelations in the movie is how O’Day achieved her uniquely vibrato-less delivery. It had everything to do with a mishap when she had her tonsils taken out:

I took whatever I could use from wherever I could find it. The thing that bugged me was that I couldn’t take more because I had a very little tone. I might never have figured out the reason but Al [Lyons, a friend] did When he asked why I didn’t have a uvula, I thought he was talking dirty. How should I know a uvula is a small tongue hanging down where the roof of the mouth meets the throat? When most people sing, they used the vibrations of the uvula to produce tone. I finally found I hadn’t had a uvula since I was seven when a careless doctor sliced it off while he was removing my tonsils

So I can’t get a sound with the air back there because there is nothing to vibrate it. That’s the reason I got into singing eighth and sixteenth rather than quarter notes Instead of singing, “Laaaaaaaaa,” I’d sing “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la, etc., to keep it moving. People would hear me and say, There she goes again, but necessity explains my style. Whether June Christy and Chris Connor had the same doctor and lost their uvulas too, I don’t know, but they push that tone forward.

“Anita O’Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer” opens at Cinema Village on August 15th. Put it down on your calendar now since it is one of the finest jazz documentaries to have ever come along.

Movie website: http://www.anitaodaydoc.com/

July 15, 2008

The New Yorker cover cartoon of the Obamas

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

As many of you probably know, the New Yorker Magazine has generated a huge uproar over the cover of its latest issue which depicts Barack Obama dressed up as a Muslim fist-bumping his wife who has a machine gun on her back and a bushy Angela Davis type afro. An American flag is burning in a fireplace underneath a portrait of Osama Bin Laden. Here’s one fairly typical response from the liberal left, Don Hazen the publisher of Alternet:

New Yorker magazine hits the newsstands today with a shocking cover — a caricature of Barack and Michelle Obama depicting the presidential candidate in a turban, fist-bumping his wife who has a machine gun slung over her shoulder, while the American flag burns in the fireplace. The cover is shocking in that it depicts the Obamas in bizarre, caricatured images and associations that reflect the very stereotypes with which the conservatives, particularly Fox News, have been trying to frame both the Obamas. Thus, instead of satire, the cover becomes a political poster for conservatives to reinforce their messages. Sen. Obama was shown the cover image by a reporter covering the campaign on Sunday, and while seemingly taken aback, he declined to comment.

Predictably, centrist opinion has urged Hazen and other complainers to lighten up since it was clearly a joke. For example, Slate Magazine chided the left as follows:

Calling on the press to protect the common man from the potential corruptions of satire is a strange, paternalistic assignment for any journalist to give his peers, but that appears to be what The New Yorker’s detractors desire. I don’t know whether to be crushed by that realization or elated by the notion that one of the most elite journals in the land has faith that Joe Sixpack can figure out a damned picture for himself.

Meanwhile, David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, tried to explain himself in an interview with Huffington Post, another outraged liberal-left outlet:

Q: Prior to greenlighting the cover, did you consider that it might be co-opted by Obama opponents as anti-Obama propaganda? If so, did that possibility give you pause?

A: It always occurs to you that things will be misinterpreted or taken out of context — that’s not unusual. But I think that’s the case of all political satire, whether it’s Art Spiegelman or Thomas Nast or Herb Block or Jon Stewart. I bet there are people who watch Stephen Colbert and think he’s a conservative commentator, or maybe they did at first….a lot of people when they first saw Colbert said, “What is this?” What he was doing was turning things on [their] head.

Missing from much of the discussion has been the magazine’s politics which Hazen accepts as “liberal” based on the title of his article: “The Bad Frame: Why Are the New Yorker, Salon and Other Liberal Media Doing the Right’s Dirty Work?” The complaint with Salon has to do with an article they wrote “Barack is a Muslim and other stories” that depicted him as a paper cut-out doll next to Muslim garb.

While Salon is arguably part of the “liberal media”, it is much harder to make that case for the New Yorker. Indeed, as Daniel Lazare pointed out in a May 15 2003 Nation Magazine article titled “The New Yorker Goes to War”, there was little to distinguish it from Fox News and the Murdoch press when it came to the “war on terror”:

The New Yorker has not been the only publication to fall into line behind the Bush Administration’s war drive, but for a number of reasons its performance seems especially disappointing. One reason has to do with the magazine’s track record. One doesn’t have to be a William Shawn devotee to agree that the magazine has published some astonishing journalism over the years–Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Jonathan Schell’s pieces on Vietnam and Pauline Kael’s wonderful demolition job on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to name just a few. During the Vietnam War, it was one of the few mainstream publications to try to unmask the sordid reality behind the brass’s regular 5 o’clock press briefings. And if it published too many long and hyperfactual stories in the 1980s about wheat or geology, at least it preferred being trivial and obscure to the glories of being a team player in Washington, which is a moral stance of a sort.

Though its style may have been genteel, The New Yorker succeeded in challenging middle-class sensibilities more often than any number of scruffier publications. Another reason to mourn the magazine’s lack of resistance is that it represents an opportunity lost. Just as the magazine helped middle-class opinion to coalesce against US intervention in Vietnam, it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at stake in the Middle East. Rather than unveil the reality behind a spurious War on Terrorism, though, The New Yorker helped obscure it by painting Bush’s crusade as a natural and inevitable response to the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack and, as a consequence, useless to oppose. Instead of encouraging opposition, it helped defuse it. From shocking the bourgeoisie, it has moved on to placating it at a time when it has rarely been more dangerous and bellicose.

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown’s irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick’s 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile’s ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.

Perhaps the only link with the magazine’s liberal past has been Seymour Hersh who has written very good articles exposing the Bush administration. He can best be described as their token investigative, left-of-center journalist but all the others are card-carrying centrists or worse. But even Hersh was initially not immune to the war fever gripping the magazine as Lazare pointed out:

A month later, the magazine published an investigative report by Seymour Hersh blaming a Pentagon culture of “political correctness” for the failure to assassinate Mullah Muhammad Omar. According to Hersh, military personnel could have taken the Taliban leader out with a Hellfire missile strike once a Predator drone got him in its sights. But they were blocked by overscrupulous higher-ups who “want you to kill the guy, but not the guy next to him,” as one of his sources in the military put it. It was a form of legal squeamishness, apparently, that the Pentagon would soon overcome. Two months later Hersh explored the growing neocon push for an invasion of Iraq. But rather than ask why the United States was targeting Saddam despite a lack of evidence tying him to 9/11, Hersh confined himself to the purely practical question of whether the hawks could pull it off. “The issue is not how nice it would be to get rid of Saddam,” he quoted one former Defense Department official as saying. “The problem is feasibility.” If the United States could do it, in other words, it should.

One cannot help but suspect that if a powerful insurgency had not arisen Hersh would have taken the trouble to begin writing attacks on administration policy. Like so many others, he seemed to have decided to become a critic only after the government failed to accomplish its goals. In this respect, he is not qualitatively different from fellow New Yorker columnist George Packer, the notorious cruise missile liberal, who has “recanted” on his support for the war.

Lost in the shuffle over the magazine cover has been its original purpose, namely to accompany a 15,000 word article by Ryan Lizza titled “Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama”. It is mostly concerned with Obama’s Machiavellian tactics as an up-and-coming politician that contains no new insights, although plenty of reportorial detail such as the following:

In electoral politics, operating in the world as it is means raising money. Obama expanded the reach of his fund-raising. Every network that he penetrated brought him access to another. Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s daughter, who runs Playboy Enterprises from the fifteenth floor of a lakefront building, explained how it worked. Hefner is a member of a group called Ladies Who Lunch—nineteen Chicago women, most of them wealthy, who see themselves as talent scouts and angel investors for up-and-coming liberal candidates and activists. They interview prospects over a meal, often in a private dining room at the Arts Club of Chicago. Obama’s friend Bettylu Saltzman, a Ladies Who Lunch member, introduced Obama to the group when he was preparing his Senate run. Hefner, who declined to support Obama in 2000, was ready to help him when he came calling in 2002.

Not long ago, Hefner and I talked in her office; we were seated at a granite table strewn with copies of Playboy. “I was very proud to be able to introduce him during the Senate race to a lot of people who have turned out to be important and valuable to him, not just here but in New York and L.A.,” Hefner explained. She mentioned Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist, and Norman Lear, the television producer. “I try and think about people who I think should know him.”

That just about sums up the Democratic Party today: Christie Hefner, Thomas Friedman and Norman Lear. Go, Ralph Nader!

July 11, 2008

Political economy of the sell-out

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Professor emeritus Carrol Cox of the University of Illinois has described the notion of Democratic Party “sell-out” as follows: “Talk of sell-out is a perfect illustration of my image yesterday of the DP as an abusive husband whose wife keeps thinking that isn’t really him, that he really loves her but is not true to himself.” This is pretty close to my analogy, which is that of a father who sexually abuses his children. In either case, there will be a tendency to deny that the problem exists. For people who become radicalized, myself included, there is a kind of epiphany that the husband or father is a criminal and not somebody deserving of support. Once that happens, you can’t go home again.

Since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, we have been going through a kind of quadrennial ritual in which the Democratic candidate is supported as a “lesser evil” rather than as a positive good, such as was the case with George McGovern in 1972. To show how far things have come, try to imagine Barack Obama saying anything remotely similar about Iraq that McGovern said about Vietnam in his acceptance speech to the 1972 convention:

I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day.

There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North.

And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong.

And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.

After McGovern lost to Nixon, the Democrats never nominated a candidate capable of making such a speech. While McGovern was best known as a Vietnam “dove”, he was also committed to the New Deal type reforms of the Johnson administration whose war he had vehemently opposed.

McGovern proposed 2.5 million public-service jobs in 1972, as well as slashing the Pentagon’s budget by $32 billion. Sigh. Those were the days.

So entrenched were New Deal values that McGovern’s loss to Nixon was not seen as a mandate to carry out Thatcher/Reagan style cuts on the welfare state. If anything, the U.S. has not seen a Democratic presidential candidate in recent years about whom the following could be said:

During Nixon’s six years in office, social spending (adjusted for inflation) doubled. Nixon instituted vast new regulatory bodies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission, among many others. Nixon issued the executive orders creating the affirmative action system in federal hiring, and Nixon appointees on the Supreme Court wrote the opinions forcing affirmative action upon the private sector.

The Financial Post (Toronto, Canada), April 23, 1994

During Nixon’s presidency, powerful economic forces were unleashed that would convince the American ruling class that another approach was necessary. Anything that smacked of the New Deal would have to disappear. Under the rubric of “neoliberalism”, the clock would have to be turned back to pre-New Deal days. However, it was not Reagan who introduced this new policy but the Democrat Jimmy Carter in the same manner that Truman introduced the first McCarthyite legislation, not the Republicans.

Basically the Carter presidency, which was a rejection of traditional New Deal type values, was defended on the basis that McGovernite type liberalism had led to a debacle. Since Democrats have been defeated by Republicans despite retaining Carter’s neoliberalism, one wonders whether a desire to win elections has anything to do with a new, more conservative, economic policy. I would argue that the shift has more to do with the abc’s of Marxist economics than winning elections. Put simply, the shift to the right reflects the need to compete with reinvigorated German and Japanese capitalist economies. From the early 1970s onwards, the American capitalist class has slashed wages and social spending in order to convert the mode of production into a more ruthless engine of profit-production.

In 1976, in naming Carter as Man of the Year, Time Magazine used language that sounds strikingly similar to that is being used to describe Obama today:

On the other side, moderates and conservatives seemed reassured, pleased by the very acts that unsettled Ralph Nader and Gloria Steinem. Particularly on Wall Street, bankers and businessmen were heartened by Carter’s selection of well-known Democratic moderates to the top economic jobs. Says Dallas Oilman Ray Hunt, son of the late archconservative H.L. Hunt: “If Carter is willing to take the flack, he can accomplish more than any Republican on business questions, just like Johnson, the Southerner, accomplished a lot on civil rights, and Nixon the conservative, accomplished a lot in dealing with the Communists.”

The actions of the Democratic President-elect have not alarmed Ronald Reagan. “Sometimes,” he concedes, “I’ve heard some familiar-sounding phrases.” But, he adds, “I don’t know what to think. I’m just waiting to see which Carter stands up.” It is conceivable that Carter will be able to rise above the conventional left-right categories, somewhat like California’s Governor Jerry Brown, and run a pragmatic Administration with a liberal-conservative mix. But the burden of proof is very much on him.

When Carter adopted a “pragmatic Administration with a liberal-conservative mix”, he understood that this was necessary in order to confront increased international competition. A “lean and mean” approach was required in both government and private industry. U.S. imports of Japanese cars rose from 381,338 in 1970 to 1.1 million in 1976, and to just under 2 million in 1980. Japan’s share of the U.S. new car market rose from about 9% in 1976 to approximately 22% in 1980. This phenomenon, and others like it, was more responsible for a more “pragmatic” Carter presidency than any desire to win elections. The immediate need was to liquidate unprofitable automobile plants-hence the look of Detroit in the years that followed-and to curb the power of the UAW and other industrial unions.

When Carter ran for re-election in 1980 against Ronald Reagan, he won 49 electoral votes as opposed to Reagan’s 489. Declaring that it was “morning in America” once again, Reagan convinced the American people that it was possible to turn the clock back to the 1950s when Japanese automobiles were nothing but a curiosity on the American highways. When I entered Bard College in 1961, there was not a single one. It was no accident that when we graduated 4 years later, jobs were as plentiful as low-hanging fruit. Reagan’s promises were of course just as empty as his acting performances in the B movies that he starred in.

In 1984, the Democrats ran Walter Mondale, Carter’s vice-president, against the “gipper”, which was pretty much the same thing as if they had run Carter again. The best thing that could be said about Mondale is that he was not as bad as Reagan. In 1984, the big issue that Mondale decided to run on was the budget deficit that had ballooned for pretty much the same reason as under George W. Bush, profligate military spending. While it would have made sense to cut the military budget drastically, Mondale decided not to antagonize his backers in the AFL-CIO bureaucracy who were as hawkish as Reagan on stopping Communism, as well as eager to see jobs for their members at Boeing and other such companies.

Mondale received significant financial support from Wall Street investment banks like Goldman Sachs that depended on wealthy investors who worried that deficit-fuelled inflation would jeopardize long-term bonds that depend on fiscal restraint. To accommodate Wall Street, Mondale took aim at social spending rather than the Pentagon. When voters were offered a choice between a Republican imitator and a real Republican, naturally they went with the latter.

There was an alternative to Mondale in 1984, at least in the Democratic Party primary. Jesse Jackson ran as a “Rainbow” candidate defending traditional New Deal values and confronting the business-as-usual politics of both Mondale and Reagan. For radicals like me, the Jackson campaign presented a real challenge. It was understandable that some would back Jackson enthusiastically since his campaign seemed poised to break out of the boundaries of the Democratic Party if it refused to honor the values that it traditionally stood for. In this respect, the Jackson campaign resembled Upton Sinclair’s run for the office of Governor of California in 1934 as an EPIC (End Poverty in California) Democratic candidate. Such campaigns might represent embryonic formations of a new party in the womb of the old party and tactical flexibility is required. Unfortunately, Jackson turned out to be the same-old, same-old but he still has enough of the 1984 spirit to understand that Obama and Mondale are cut from the same cloth whatever its color.

In the July 21-28 1984 issue of the Nation Magazine, Alexander Cockburn and Andrew Kopkind (he died of cancer in 1994, at the age of 59) summed up the Mondale campaign in pretty much the way that radicals are summing things up today. Supporting Jackson, they wrote of Mondale:

Quickly the dark motif of Campaign ’84 changed from Anybody but Reagan to Anybody but Jackson. Once again, racism destroyed the promise of a populist, progressive, internationalist coalition within the Democratic Party.

As had to happen, Anybody became Walter Mondale, and he arrived promoting a platform as immoderate and regressive as any to be found in the Democratic Party archives since John W. Davis’s unremembered candidacy of 1924. With substantive objections only from Jackson’s underrepresented contingent, the party’s preconvention committees adopted policies and accepted planks that contained the essential elements of Reaganism: continued military expansion, support for Reagan’s allies in Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East, further degradation of the welfare system, denial of black demands for equity and unqualified submission to the imperatives of the corporate system.


Yesterday I inadvertently omitted Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic Party presidential candidate, from my “Political economy of the sell-out” article. This addendum on the quintessential “technocratic” neoliberal candidate is necessary since he encapsulates the post-New Deal values that pervade the party today. Dukakis was very much into the policy prescriptions of economists Lester Thurow and Robert Reich, who unlike the Republicans, believed that the government should play a strong role in guiding the economy. Unlike traditional New Dealers, however, this meant influencing the direction of Fortune 100 companies rather than expanding social welfare.

In the May 16, 1987 issue of the Nation Magazine, Andrew Kopkind neatly eviscerated the Democratic candidate’s record in a fashion that has sadly disappeared from its pages. The article, titled “Have We Seen the Future”, begins as follows:

The miracle in Massachusetts has transformed society in ways that Governor Michael Dukakis hardly imagined when he began praying and planning for economic intervention just a decade ago. McDonald’s and Burger King are locked in a furious bidding war for entry-level employees, optimistically termed semiskilled; in some franchises the offered wage is up to $6.25 an hour. As a result, socially useful but unprofitable operations, such as day-care centers, which rely on the kindness of poorly paid workers, can’t find help.

At the same time, a successful workfare program, which provides the service sector with welfare mothers, has so softened support for the welfare system that a state court recently declared the Dukakis administration derelict in its duty to provide public assistance above the poverty line; the Governor is appealing the decision. Nor is there any continuing public day care, well-staffed or not, for the children of workfare or the other offspring of the miracle.

Meanwhile, fathers all over the state are feeding tuna fish sandwiches and fried hamburgers to their kids for stand-up kitchen dinners every night, while their absent wives juggle jobs, meetings and exercise sessions just to keep abreast of prosperity and progress in the nation’s premier postindustrial culture. The unintended consequences of miracles sometimes make the truly devout wish their prayers had never been answered.

Dukakis became the candidate because he epitomized the “post-industrial” outlook of Democratic Party policy mavens who had figured out that their rust-belt social base of blue-collar trade unionists was no longer useful. As governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis viewed the closing of textile mills as a necessary stage in the evolution of a new type of economy that would prioritize high tech companies along Route 128 that ringed Boston, as well as the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate).

Kopkind continued:

“Economists talk about the ‘invisible hand’ guiding the economy,’’ Teresa Amott, an economist and welfare advocate at the University of Massachusetts, explained, “but here we had an invisible foot.” Mass emigration was proceeding apace; the population was plummeting; the birth rate was among the lowest in the nation; and economic growth was only a quarter of the U.S. average. Grumbling grew to a deafening roar. The corporate community was on a tear after a decade of defensiveness. Its counterattack on the self-doubting and fatigued forces of the 1960s“the consumer movement, environmentalism, redistributive politics, welfare advocacy, programmatic liberalism-fmed on every affront to the privilege of the business class. Every mention of a tax rise brought threats of retaliatory relocation; every new idea or policy proposal was subverted with predictions of job loss.

Dukakis began his term as a target of corporate terrorism, and, in the hearts and minds of the business community, he never moved from the enemy camp. But in the opinion of his liberal supporters he surrendered almost as the first volleys were fired. In 1975 he froze the budget, which in effect cut social programs and welfare benefits. The Freeze of ’75 was another kind of model: the first neoliberal game plan for an America of declining expectations. Tens of thousands of poor people were taken off the state Medicaid program. Hospital and mental health services were cut. Grants to towns and cities were slashed, projects abandoned, aid denied. Dukakis seemed bent on pleasing the business elite. He supported the oil companies who wanted to drill off the Georges Bank; he would not oppose plans for the Seabrook nuclear power plant in nearby New Hampshire; and he was “careless,” as an early supporter told me, about eastern Massachusetts’ biggest nuclear facility, at Plymouth, which has turned into a bigger lemon.

For those at the bottom, Dukakis only offered a training program called the Employment and Choices Program that supposedly would convert an unemployed textile worker or welfare mother into a more marketable source of labor power. But Amott revealed to Kopkind that 40 percent of the women in the program went back to welfare within a year. Of course, Bill Clinton made sure that they no longer had that option after he became president.

I can continue discussing the Clinton, Kerry and Obama campaigns but this territory is presumably drearily familiar to all of you so I will end here.

July 10, 2008

Eight Miles High

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

As a luridly cartoonish but entertaining biopic of Uschi Obermaier, a German Playboy model who dabbled in radical politics in the 1960s before embarking on a hippy voyage to India on a luxury version of a VW Microbus, “Eight Miles High” passed the Proyect 10-minute endurance trial with flying colors.

It is somewhat difficult to figure out whether screenwriters Olaf Kraemer and Achim Bornhak want us to take Uschi (Natalia Avelon) seriously or not, since she comes across as a combination of Terry Southern’s Candy (a send-up of Voltaire’s “Candide” featuring a sexually exploited naïf) and an R. Crumb character. In a way, it doesn’t matter since the movie can be accepted on its own terms as a jaundiced nostalgia trip down 60s memory lane, whose principal characters are monumentally shallow.

The film begins in 1968 with a 22 year old Uschi Obermaier playing rock-and-roll at full blast in her bedroom. When her mother and father demand that she turn the music down and become more “respectable”, she storms out of the apartment in their small Bavarian village and begins hitching a ride to Munich where she intends to launch a modeling career. She is picked up by a VW bus full of hippies who begin to clue her in on the New Age that is rapidly approaching.

Once the VW arrives in Munich, she follows them to the loft where Kommune 1 made its headquarters, a group which appears to have had much in common with our “Yippies”. They are in a middle of a press conference when Uschi arrives, with the Kommune members mostly naked-a sign of their rejection of bourgeois norms. Leader Rainer Langhans (Matthias Schweighofer) answers a “straight” reporter’s questions with playfully “subversive” answers in the patented Bob Dylan/Beatles style. A wiki article on the group explains:

Langhans, Teufel and the others wore long hair, beaded necklaces, army jackets or Mao suits at the urging of the women of the commune. Soon, they were paid for interviews and photographs. A sign hung plainly in the hallway of their apartment: “First pay up, then speak”.

Almost immediately, Uschi and Rainer become a couple-at least as far as that is possible in a commune dedicated to free love. In their loft, a space donated by writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, there are no walls and people have sex in full view of others. When Uschi objects to Rainer screwing another woman in front of her, he lectures her about being politically incorrect, as if she had crossed a picket line.

The Kommunards have ceaseless discussions about the need for revolution, but appear clueless about how to connect with a serious movement that can challenge the German ruling class. Mostly, revolution involves personal transformation such as walking around naked or having multiple sex partners, all in an effort to fight the “fascism” of nuclear families or conventional life as a heterosexual couple. Even though I had little connection to this kind of cultural rebellion at the time, I am aware that such sentiments were quite pervasive, even penetrating the small, stodgy world of American Trotskyism that I inhabited. In 1971, as challenges to bourgeois sexual morality were at an all-time height, it was virtually unheard of for Trotskyists to get married. One married couple in Houston accepted under the terms of a grandfather clause made a point of maintaining an “open marriage”. Somehow the arrangement struck me as not that different than the one depicted in John Updike’s “Couples”, a novel about wife-swapping in the suburbs of Boston.

Uschi soon discovers that the Kommune members were too far into politics for her own needs, which revolved mostly around her desire to be an emancipated woman. A connection made with the Rolling Stones through a possible free concert to benefit “the movement” soon leads to friendship with Mick Jagger and an affair with Keith Richards. Richards (David Scheller) appears as a slouching, drug-addled slug with whom she makes love in hotels across Europe. One imagines that this portrait is accurate enough, although hardly enough to sustain any real interest in the musician other than as a comic figure.

Uschi’s modeling career continues to flourish and eventually she attracts the attention of one Dieter Bockhorn (David Scheller), a self-styled world traveler who has just spent a year in Africa and whom she finds irresistible. One supposes that after Keith Richards, this king of Hamburg’s red light district is a natural follow-up who has just returned to Germany with a pet chimpanzee named Cheetah whose diapers she is expected to change. Her refusal to do so is proof of her proto-feminist values. Some women fought for abortion rights back then and others refused to change chimpanzee diapers. That’s one of the lessons of a movie filled to the brim with found humor.

Dieter and Uschi decide to leave Germany and make a “truth-seeking” voyage to the East as was the custom of the times. An old friend from the U.S., who I visited in Austria around the same time as the couple went on their trek in a luxury-appointed bus, regaled me with stories of his trip to Afghanistan where he apparently spent most of his time smoking hashish in mountain villages. One can understand the allure of such counter-cultural escapades, especially since they didn’t involve selling sectarian newspapers at factory gates on a chilly morning.

The press notes indicate that the couple’s trip “took place in a positive period of time…since the Shah was still ruling in Iran and Afghanistan wasn’t a war zone yet.” Yeah, things became a real bummer afterwards.

You can get a sense of Uschi’s values from the press notes’ recounting of difficulties the film crew had with Customs in India:

They also had 34 crates full of props shipped over from Germany. Customs happened to spot check the one box that contained the 40-year old leopard skins that belonged to Uschi, which prompted all 34 crates to be seized. The crew had unknowingly violated a US law about endangered species and the member who was in charge of customs was arrested-all this two days before the shoot was supposed to start.

I don’t know. Anybody who collects leopard skins is not exactly the kind of person I’d want to hang out with. Watching a movie about such a person showing them in an unsparing manner is another story altogether. My recommendation to New Yorkers is to check out the film which opens at the Cinema Village tomorrow. You’ll be far more entertained than by the blockbuster crap coming out of Hollywood. That’s a promise.

July 9, 2008

A Man Named Pearl

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

In 1976, Pearl Fryar, an African-American, moved to Bishopville, South Carolina to take a job with a factory that made soda cans. This was a step up from the sharecropping livelihood his father pursued in North Carolina. In keeping with his new, better-paying job, Fryar (a man-named after his uncle), tried to buy a house in a nice neighborhood that turned out to be all-white. After his real estate agent discovered that he was not welcome because “Black people don’t keep up their yards”, Pearl decided to buy a house in a Black neighborhood.

Still stung by the bigotry of the white homeowners, he decided to show them up by becoming the first African-American to win Bishopville’s “Yard of the Month Award”. After watching a 15-minute video on the art of topiary at a local plant nursery, Pearl decided that he could do that himself. Not long after he sculpted his initial garden topiary on his front lawn, he received the coveted award. It didn’t stop there. For the rest of his life, until the present day, he has become one of America’s most highly regarded artists in the field without any formal training in topiary or horticulture.

Not only are his sculpted trees and bushes considered museum quality, he has amazed horticulturists with his ability to make just about anything grow, including Douglas Firs that are supposedly limited to cold, Northern regions. He is also an astounding miracle-worker with plants and trees that were thrown into the garbage at the local nursery, restoring their vitality through his own organic gardening methods. The 3 ½ acres around his house, which have become a nationally-recognized park, are a home to birds and butterflies that would ordinarily shun chemically treated greenery.

His life and work are celebrated in an inspiring documentary titled “A Man Named Pearl” that opens in NYC on July 18 at the Angelika Film Center and in L.A. on July 25 at the Music Hall, One Colorado, Town Center and other theaters.

Watching this movie, directed by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson, will drive home the point that racism not only victimizes Black people but society as a whole when it condemns millions of people to a marginal existence as peon labor. Through his own fierce energy, pride and artistic inspiration, Pearl carved out a place for himself in America’s artistic pantheon. He reaches ordinary people, who visit his gardens by the thousands each year, as well as elite critics and curators who regard him as one of the country’s best self-taught artists. He has exhibited at the South Carolina State Museum as well as at Spoleto, Italy.

How many potential artists are out there who have Pearl’s talents but not his almost superhuman determination to create such ambitious works? How many scientists or doctors are we lacking because of a racist system that condemns people of color to second-class citizenship? After a 12 hour shift at the can factory, he would come home to work on his garden under spotlights. I spent 3 hours as a spot welder one morning in Kansas City factory in 1978 and that left me practically unconscious.

This March 10, 2005 article on Pearl Fryar is worth reading in its entirety to get an idea of the background of this unique human being.

Towering Ambition Gets Loose in the Yard


IT’S not hard to find Pearl Fryar’s house. You drive down a road on the outskirts of Bishopville, S.C., with brick suburban houses on either side. Mr. Fryar’s house, where he lives with his wife, Metra, and son, Patrick, is the one on the left sitting at the center of the intergalatic chess set of carved bushes, 5, 15 and 30 feet tall. The house number, 145, is carved bushes too, set at the edge of the front lawn.

”I’ve done things that I look at, and it’s like, oh, I tell you, man, this thing come from somewhere else,” Mr. Fryar said two weeks ago at his dining room table with Mrs. Fryar.

Mr. Fryar, 65, is a retired maintenance engineer and a self-taught topiary artist. He works with a gas-powered hedge trimmer that has double moving blades. He began the three acres of abstract yews, hollies, firs, oaks and pines that is the Fryars’ yard roughly 25 years ago in an act of frustration.

”I realized I was not going to accomplish what I really wanted to do in my job,” Mr. Fryar said of his work for the Rexam Beverage Can Americas company in the late 1970’s. ”I wanted to be a plant manager. The reason I didn’t think it was going to happen was because of the situation that the South was in at that time. It had not changed that much.”

Asked if he felt he was not considered for the position because he was black, Mr. Fryar hesitated. Mrs. Fryar, also 65, answered for him.

”Yes,” she said.

Greg Brooke, a spokesman for Rexam, said yesterday that decisions about promotion were based on performance only.

”Our people are given equal opportunity to develop,” Mr. Brooke said.

On a drive to Coker College in Hartsville where Mr. Fryar is working with the students in the art department to create small sculpture gardens with topiary, Mr. Fryar said that as a child living in Clinton, N.C., in the 1940’s he had witnessed lynchings. His parents, sharecroppers, would routinely instruct him how to stay out of trouble by being inconspicuous.

Taught to be invisible growing up, Mr. Fryar decided one day in his adult life, at home in Bishopville, to be as visible as possible. He walked into his front yard and cut up a holly bush.

”I thought he had lost it,” Mrs. Fryar said at the dining table.

”According to the book I would have thrown it out, but I didn’t know anything about the book,” Mr. Fryar said of the bush. ”I didn’t even know what topiary was.”

Two years later, content with how the experiment was developing, he cut up everything else in the yard. He also started to train his plants using pantyhose, coat hangers and PVC pipe to bind and direct them.

Believing his ambition blocked in one direction at his job, Mr. Fryar encouraged his personal pursuits in a different, unlikely direction, which assumed a wondrous shape, a decision that also describes the basic technique for creating topiary. After a 12-hour shift at the factory, Mr. Fryar, who retired three years ago, would work through the night and into the morning in his yard, under spotlights.

”You tell me I couldn’t do one thing, I’m going to prove to you I can do another thing,” he said, estimating that a third of the topiaries were created from weakly or misshapen shrubs that the local nursery put out for discard. ”Love, Peace & Goodwill” were dug into the lawn in large, neat block letters as a closing statement to the garden, which Mr. Fryar said he has finished.

Now internationally known in the garden world as well as in the art world, Mr. Fryar said he starts with an idea in his mind’s eye and begins to grow it, realizing most of his pieces, which are all abstract, in five to seven years. He doesn’t put designs on paper. His favorite artist is Picasso. There are 150 topiaries on the Fryars’ lot, comprising 400 plants and including several years of Christmas trees arranged in a kind of living timeline to one side of the house.

Asked how he determines when a topiary is finished, Mr. Fryar replied, ”When I can’t get to the top of it.”

Mr. Fryar’s first ambition, and first recognition, as a gardener was a local ”Yard of the Month” award in the early 1980’s. He has exhibited work at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, as part of a show on self-taught artists, and at Spoleto, the annual art festival in Charleston, as part of a special commission. Rosemary Verey, the queen of English gardeners, visited Mr. Fryar at home twice, but she died in 2001 before he could accept her invitation to walk the royal grounds with Prince Charles.

Tour buses and the odd wandering group are now a part of the Fryars’ routine at home. At the suggestion of a friend they have put up a donation box by the driveway and printed brochures. Mr. Fryar said that on one occasion someone left $5,000 in the box.

”You don’t know how many people come out here to see how bad it is,” he said of his critics. Neighbors, who Mrs. Fryar said were not particularly pleased by the topiary garden when it began to appear, have now begun to emulate it. Stray forms have cropped up in yards down the road, as though the Fryars’ bushes were escaping.

Mr. and Mrs. Fryar met in the seventh grade in Clinton.

”She was a grade ahead of me,” Mr. Fryar said, clarifying. ”So that mean that I was really uptown, because I’m able to handle a lady that’s probably a little smarter than I am.”

Mrs. Fryar burst into mad giggles.

”I kind of felt that there was something special there,” she said. After 10 years of dating, Mr. Fryar proposed.

”I had given him a week, without his knowledge,” Mrs. Fryar recalled. ”I was fixing to break it off. I figure he’s never going to ask me to marry him, so we’ll just forget this.” Three days short of her deadline, he asked.

”That really messed up my plans,” Mrs. Fryar said.

The Fryars lived in Elmhurst, Queens, and Atlanta before moving to South Carolina in 1976 to be closer to family. Their only child, Patrick, now 36, a computer operator at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, is not interested in the topiary garden, they said, which leaves its future in some question. Mr. Fryar has donated or sold a handful of pieces, for prices as high as $35,000, to museums and collectors, though he said that he has also refused offers on topiaries that are focal to the vision of his garden.

Members of the Garden Conservancy, a national preservation group, have visited Bishopville. William Noble, director of preservation projects, said the conservancy is intrigued by Mr. Fryar and his creation and is looking at the situation and the feasibility of being of help.

Mr. Fryar said he would like to see the plot preserved as a work of art but was philosophic about the likelihood that it might not be. He compared it to ”The Gates,” the installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude being dismantled in Central Park after several weeks on view. The Fryars saw it on a trip to New York in February.

”You accept the fact: it’s not put there to be forever,” Mr. Fryar said, as though speaking of his own place on earth.

Asked how he came to called Pearl, he added: ”Oh that’s easy. I was named after my uncle.”

Pearl Fryar’s Garden website (with slideshow): http://www.fryarstopiaries.com/

July 8, 2008

Full Battle Rattle

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

It’s too bad that Jean Baudrillard died since he would have had a field day with “Full Battle Rattle”, a documentary about a billion-dollar simulation of Iraqi villages constructed by the U.S. military to train its occupying forces at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert. The movie premieres at Film Forum in New York tomorrow and can best be described as unintentional satire.

In 1991 Baudrillard described the first Gulf War as existing more as media images (simulacra) than as actual combat. Simulacra would just about sum up the subject of Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s movie whose poster advertises it as “Fake Town, Real War”.

Gerber and Moss made the wise decision not to editorialize but to allow the events to unfold in classic cinéma vérité fashion. After convincing the military that they were serious film-makers and not bomb-throwing anarchists, the two directors were allowed to film inside Medina Wasl, one of the fake villages constructed by the army. Along with the other villages, it has a staff of Iraqi émigrés who seem motivated by a mixture of pro-American zeal and a desire for a quick buck. In other words, they are like their opportunist countrymen who have no problems working for the occupying forces. Other than the fact that they speak Arabic and once lived in Iraq, they are much more like average Americans. For example, the “Deputy Mayor” of Medina Wasl has a regular job as a liquor store clerk and two young women dressed in caftans and head covering would appear more comfortable in designer jeans.

The performances do not stop there. Jihadist raids on Medina Wasl are carried out by American soldiers in costume. When instructed by an officer in charge of the simulation to shout out something in Arabic during an attack, the grunt demurs—he doesn’t know a single word in Arabic. The officer tells him to fake it, to just say something (that sounded to my ears) like “Blubba, hushamusha, bubul, mgugul.” A New York Times article written by the hawkish Dexter Filkins and John F. Burns on Fort Irwin on May 1, 2006 notes: “The insurgents even get acting lessons, coached by Carl Weathers, best known for his portrayal of the boxer Apollo Creed in the ‘Rocky’ films.” It shows.

Since this action and many others are intended to be reviewed by the troops in training, there is always a camera crew taping them. Standing above them all and orchestrating the mayhem is a commanding officer who fancies himself a latter-day Stephen Spielberg. When one grunt, who is playing an Iraqi shot by a jihadi, puts out his hands to soften a fall to the ground after the fake bullet is fired into his skull, the director bawls him out. Since his fall was not “realistic”, he orders a second take.

Throughout the film, the military brass keeps explaining why the simulation is necessary. It was 2006 when attacks on the American military were at an all-time high. In order to decrease the number of attacks, the GI’s were supposed to go through training to make them less hateful to the local population. In an odd way the officers sound a bit like what you hear from “diversity training” managers at big corporations–as if the problems of Iraq can be reduced to communication techniques.

As such, the military simulations can be grouped with other “soft cop” follies churned up by an intractable imperialist war, including the placement of anthropologists in the field whose training will allow them supposedly to open up lines of communication between the army and the restless natives. Ultimately, the solution that seems to be working–at least for the time being–is to simply pay off the Sunni insurgents to the tune of $800,000 a day not to attack US forces.

Filkins and Gordon also note:

At a recent classroom seminar on counterinsurgency at Fort Leavenworth, about 25 Army majors discussed the conduct of the French in the Algerian War of 1954 to 1962. The French, who were trying to hold their colony, lost to the Algerian resistance, even after some French officers endorsed the use of torture to extract intelligence from the insurgents.

In a vigorous classroom debate, the Army majors discussed how and why the French lost. Iraq came up often; four of the majors had already served there and a half-dozen others were scheduled to be deployed there at the end of the academic year. One of the lessons, for instance, is that torture does not work, because of the resentment it generates among the civilian population. The widespread abuse of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, some of it apparently with official approval, did not come up in class. ”Is it applicable to Iraq?” Maj. Sean Smith, a member of the class, said afterward. ”That’s why we do that in every class.”

As long as the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military continues to back torture and as long as a supine Democratic “opposition” continues to allow him to get his way, I doubt that the training at Fort Irwin will have any impact. And as I watch Barack Obama’s latest gyrations, I am afraid that a new president will make no difference either.

Official Website

July 5, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:18 pm

For people who have been following my movie reviews over the years, you will be aware that I have little patience for shitty films. In a number of instances, I will write reviews based on the ten minutes I was able to bear of nonsense such as “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Knocked Up”. I would of course be walking out of many more movies if I did this for a living. Unlike my professional colleagues in New York Film Critics Online, I am not forced to sit through “The Love Guru”, “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” or any other big-budget crapola that an editor would assign me to watch, a fate that for me approximates Christopher Hitchen’s 11 second experiment in water-boarding.

That being said, I have to admit that “Kabluey”, a small-budget premier undertaking by Writer/Director/Lead Actor Scott Prendergast, passed muster since I watched the DVD screener to its conclusion. It passed the ten minute test with flying colors.

In the opening scenes of “Kabluey”, we meet Leslie (Lisa Kudrow), the mother of two out-of-control young boys, whose National Guardsman husband is off in Iraq. Her mother advises her to invite her brother-in-law Salman to stay with her and look after the boys until her husband returns from Iraq. There is no attempt to explain why an American would have such a name, par for the course where many such touches serve to demonstrate the kind of “quirkiness” that independent comedies are expected to deliver.

Salman is the quintessential loser. He has just been fired from his job in a Pip photocopy shop because of an inexplicable compulsion to laminate everything that is brought to the store, including resumes. Now jobless and homeless, as well as being single, he is obviously available for babysitting chores with Leslie and her two brats.

The kids take an instant disliking to their uncle and torment him mercilessly, including pouring scouring powder into his mouth when he is asleep. Salman responds to them with the kind of deadpan stoicism patented by Steve Carrell, a comic actor who crops up frequently in these sorts of sadistic comedies.

A week or so after settling in at Leslie’s, who treats him almost as cruelly as her kids, she suggests that he apply for a job that has opened up at her company, a dot com that is on the verge of bankruptcy. The job involves wearing a padded blue suit and handing out leaflets advertising vacant office space in the company’s headquarters, which is in plentiful supply. The company’s logo is a blue man, hence the costume.

Much of the action in this film consists of Salman standing on the side of a country road surrounded by corn fields under a burning Texas sun trying futilely to interest the drivers of passing cars in taking a leaflet. One driver in a beat-up sedan, who lost her job from Salman’s employer, tries to run him down. There are some genuinely funny moments on the country road such as the time that members of a highway cleanup crew take pity on him and offer a beer. Salman reaches for the beer from a zippered opening in the anus of the blue costume.

Sight gags such as this compensate for character underdevelopment and weak dialog. Essentially, they are a throwback to the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton who also bore the brunt of mistreatment from a host of cruel bosses, cops and other miscreants.

The film also succeeds in capturing the marginal existence of economic underachievers in a time of diminished expectations. The fact that Salman seems reconciled to living from day to day without any grand hopes reflects current day realities in the U.S., including that of the director and lead actor himself.

Like Salman, Scott Pendergrast stayed with his sister-in-law when her husband was in Iraq. The press notes explain:

“She would sit every night, in a depressed fog, staring at the TV news with wide eyes and nervously watching for my brother’s face while I tried to feed their little monsters some dinner,” remembers Prendergast. “It was a horrible few months and after a while I got to thinking: how could this be even worse? So the loser in my script got saddled with a huge load of family responsibility and it clicked.”

Prendergast also found the inspiration for the title “Kabluey” from his surroundings at the time.

“My life was falling apart when I started writing the script and so was my sister-in-law’s,” he says. “Everything had gone ‘kabluey!’ for us. It seemed like a good idea to make the sad mascot’s name a cartoon word. And that it should stand for failure, an explosion, things falling apart. Everything in the world of the movie is supposed to be failing, falling apart.”

I recommend “Kabluey” pretty much on the basis that there are far worse ways to spend an evening at a movie theater this summer.

July 4, 2008

Lenin’s “Imperialism” reads like it was written yesterday

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

When I decided to lead a reading group on the classics of Marxism, I was partially motivated to re-examine some books that I hadn’t looked at in over 40 years in some cases. One of them was Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. As somebody who has adopted a less than worshipful stance toward the Marxist classics in recent years, I was ready to encounter all sorts of evidence that something written in 1914 cannot be a guide to our current situation. Leaving aside the big question of inter-imperialist wars, which does seem to be a thing of the past on first blush, I was amazed at how many other observations jibe with articles in the business sections of the major newspapers today devoted to the ongoing financial crisis.

A number of these observations appear in chapter 3 and 4 of Lenin’s book and I expect to run into others as I work my way through it.

For those of you who have received a proper training in ruling class ideology in freshman economics or poli sci, you will surely remember how the teacher “proved” that Karl Marx’s writings were obsolete on the basis that capitalism has become so democratized that the term “ruling class” has no meaning. This democratization is primarily expressed through pension funds, mutual funds, etc. that put the means of production in the hands of ordinary working people.

Back in 1958, when American capitalism enjoyed more of an ideological hegemony than perhaps at any point since WWII, economists and corporate executives spoke about a “people’s capitalism” that had nothing to do with the stereotype of fat cats in top hats found in Marxist literature.

Economist Marcus Nadler wrote:

The economy of the United States is rapidly assuming the character of what may be termed ‘People’s Capitalism,’ under which the production facilities of the nation—notably manufacturing—have come to be increasingly owned by people in the middle and lower income brackets or indirectly by mutual institutions which manage their savings.

Roger Blough, the chairman of U.S. Steel, wrote:

. . . the change that has occurred in the ownership of our larger enterprises. Today fewer businesses—especially our biggest businesses—are owned by a few wealthy individuals or groups, as many were back in the Nineties. They are owned by millions of people in all walks of life. In United States Steel, for example, the owners of our business outnumber the employees by a considerable margin; and no one of them holds as much as three-tenths of one per cent of the outstanding stock.

General Electric, whose television show was hosted by Ronald Reagan, ran an full-page advertisement stating:

People’s Capitalism: The 376,000 owners with savings invested in General Electric are typical of America, where nearly every citizen is a capitalist.

In a pamphlet distributed to its employees, Standard Oil advised them that Karl Marx devised a theory in which “Ownership of the mills, as with ownership of the land, was the key to the future. Ownership should, therefore, be vested not in the hands of the few, but with something he identified as The People.” But today, Karl Marx would be surprised to learn the following:

Yes, the people own the tools of production. … By his own definition, Karl Marx’ prophecy has been realized. . . . How odd to find that it is here, in the capitalism he reviled, that the promise of the tools has been fulfilled.

(The quotes above come from an excellent article refuting “People’s Capitalism” by CP economist Victor Perlo in 1958. Unfortunately, it is only available to those with access to Jstor–like myself.)

Evidently, Lenin had to contend with the same kind of crap in his day as well, as evident from this paragraph in chapter 3, titled “Finance Capital and the Financial Oligarchy”.

As a matter of fact, experience shows that it is sufficient to own 40 per cent of the shares of a company in order to direct its affairs, since in practice a certain number of small, scattered shareholders find it impossible to attend general meetings, etc. The “democratisation” of the ownership of shares, from which the bourgeois sophists and opportunist so-called “Social-Democrats” expect (or say that they expect) the “democratisation of capital”, the strengthening of the role and significance of small scale production, etc., is, in fact, one of the ways of increasing the power of the financial oligarchy. Incidentally, this is why, in the more advanced, or in the older and more “experienced” capitalist countries, the law allows the issue of shares of smaller denomination.

Not only did Lenin debunk the “people’s capitalism” of his day, he also shed light on how large corporations developed a talent for “cooking the books” in Enron/Arthur Anderson fashion. He drew attention to how holding companies were able to pull off all sorts of “shady and dirty tricks to cheat the public”. Citing a German banking review from 1914, he revealed how directors of the Spring Steel Company of Kassel dumped shares in advance of bad news, while covering their tracks through illegal accounting gimmickry.

This typical example of balance-sheet jugglery, quite common in joint-stock companies, explains why their Boards of Directors are willing to undertake risky transactions with a far lighter heart than individual businessmen. Modern methods of drawing up balance-sheets not only make it possible to conceal doubtful undertakings from the ordinary shareholder, but also allow the people most concerned to escape the consequence of unsuccessful speculation by selling their shares in time when the individual businessman risks his own skin in everything he does….

For those who followed the Enron debacle, this might ring a bell:

Among the main prosecution witnesses will be Andy Fastow, Enorn’s former finance director, who has struck a plea- bargain deal with prosecutors, and will serve a reduced jail term in exchange for testifying against his former bosses.

Mr Hueston said Mr Skilling used to hide Enron losses by selling bad assets to a web of companies controlled by Mr Fastow so that they did not appear on Enron’s balance sheet. An alleged handshake agreement between the two ensured Mr Fastow would never lose out. Other tactics included illegal use of company reserves, and misleading treatments of losses from failing divisions.

“I told you the United States would take you inside the doors of Enron to tell you what was really happening. And to do that we must bring you some insiders,” Mr Hueston said. A total of 16 former Enron executives have struck plea-bargain deals.

–Guardian (London), February 1, 2006

We also learn that–surprise, surprise–real estate swindles were taking place in 1914 just as they are today. Lenin writes:

Speculation in land situated in the suburbs of rapidly growing big towns is a particularly profitable operation for finance capital. The monopoly of the banks merges here with the monopoly of ground-rent and with monopoly of the means of communication, since the rise in the price of land and the possibility of selling it profitably in lots, etc., is mainly dependent on good means of communication with the centre of the town; and these means of communication are in the hands of large companies which are connected with these same banks through the holding system and the distribution of seats on the boards.

As a result we get what the German writer, L. Eschwege, a contributor to Die Bank who has made a special study of real estate business and mortgages, etc., calls a “bog”. Frantic speculation in suburban building lots; collapse of building enterprises like the Berlin firm of Boswau and Knauer, which acquired as much as 100 million marks with the help of the “sound and solid” Deutsche Bank—the latter, of course, acting through the holding system, i.e., secretly, behind the scenes—and got out of it with a loss of “only” 12 million marks, then the ruin of small proprietors and of workers who get nothing from the fictitious building firms, fraudulent deals with the “honest” Berlin police and administration for the purpose of gaining control of the issue of cadastral certificates, building licenses, etc., etc.

Frantic speculation in suburban building lots? Sounds rather like what I saw with my own eyes in Houston, Texas in 1973 when every computer programmer was being hustled into putting down $10,000 into some shopping mall investment get-rich-quick scheme. When the Texas economy cooled off, these folks were left holding the bag just as the German workers were in 1914. Plus ça change…plus c’est la même chose.

Turning to chapter 4 titled “Export of Capital”, I was quite surprised to learn that Lenin did not theorize imperialism as exclusively involving investments by “core” countries in the “periphery” in the standard interpretation of Maoists, for example. He did believe that the export of capital was critical to the survival of the latest stage of capitalism, but the target of that export might be just as developed as the country doing the investing. He writes:

The principal spheres of investment of British capital are the British colonies, which are very large also in America (for example, Canada), not to mention Asia, etc. In this case, enormous exports of capital are bound up most closely with vast colonies, of tile importance of which for imperialism I shall speak later. In the case of France the situation is different. French capital exports are invested mainly in Europe, primarily in Russia (at least ten thousand million francs). This is mainly loan capital, government loans, and not capital invested in industrial undertakings. Unlike British colonial imperialism, French imperialism might be termed usury imperialism. In the case of Germany, we have a third type; colonies are inconsiderable, and German capital invested abroad is divided most evenly between Europe and America.

In other words, the core-periphery paradigm familiar to those who have read A.G. Frank might be true or false, but it simply cannot be extracted from Lenin’s work. In a table analyzing capital flows, Lenin demonstrated that the total capital imperialist countries invested twice as much in other imperialist countries than in Africa, Asia and Australia. (I can’t explain why Australia was grouped with Africa and Asia, since it would seem associated more with the developed regions.) This did not undercut his main point, which was that capitalism was forced to expand beyond national borders in pursuit of profits.

I am looking forward to reporting further on Lenin’s relevance to today’s world.

We are Together

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 1:17 am

Although I will have some critical comments to make about the mindset that went into the making of the documentary “We Are Together”, I strongly urge everyone to see this totally affecting documentary now playing at the Cinema Village in New York. It tells the story of an orphanage in South Africa made up of children who have lost parents to the AIDS epidemic. In order to cope with their losses and also to connect to the outside world, they take part in traditional choral singing of the kind that Ladysmith Black Mambazo made famous.

The children live at the Agape orphanage, which was founded by Gogo “Grandma” Zodwa. When she was working as an HIV counselor, she found that many of her clients were worried about what would happen to their children when they were gone. So she established Agape to look after these children.

One of these children, a featured singer in the chorus, is a 12 year old girl named Slindile Moya who is really the star of the movie. With a smile that lights up the entire screen when she is on camera, you marvel at her ability to endure such a hard life. Not only has she lost both parents, her brother is sick with AIDS and dies during the movie. During the burial ceremony, Slindile and her siblings, both those living with her at the orphanage and those old enough to look after themselves, console each other with a beautiful hymn about the eternal life to come. Until every human being lives in a world free from poverty and horrible diseases like AIDS, it is understandable that religion will continue to provide solace against a heartless world.

Like an old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie, “We are Together” is about children performing in order to save the day. In movies like “Babes in Arms”, Rooney and Garland put on a show to help their unemployed parents. In “We are Together”, the kids use their singing talents to raise money to replace Agape, which has been destroyed by fire during the filming. A trip to New York puts them in touch with singers Alicia Keys and Paul Simon who perform in a benefit with them. The movie has a happy ending with a new orphanage much larger and better equipped than the original Agape.

Nearly 20 years ago I saw a musical called “Sarafina” on Broadway that featured the same kind of music that you can hear in “We are Together”. “Sarafina” was the name of the main character, a girl about Slindile’s age who took part in the Soweto uprising. The music and the politics were enormously uplifting.

Two years later I found myself in Lusaka, Zambia meeting with leaders of the African National Congress who were still in exile, not including those like Nelson Mandela who were still in prison. One of the leaders we met with was Thabo Mbeki, the current president of South Africa.

Unfortunately, the spirit that animated “Sarafina” soon disappeared from the ANC like air from a punctured balloon. The rebelliousness of the Soweto slums continued as the ANC found ways to maintain the social divisions of the past under a post-apartheid framework. Instead of marching in the streets to demand an end to apartheid, the poor focus on the right to have water to drink and proper medical care, including protection against the ravages of AIDS.

When confronted by the challenge to lift up the poor, Mbeki failed miserably. He was content to open up the doors of the millionaire’s life style to long-time activists in the ANC rather than to break them down entirely as most people expected in 1988.

As disappointing as the ANC has been in reducing inequality, Mbeki’s role in allowing AIDS to maintain its grip on the population has even been worse. For most of his entire presidency, Mbeki was one of the world’s most prominent AIDS denialists. Even when he was forced to back down from this shocking and dangerous stance, he still demonstrates an unwillingness to come to terms with the epidemic. The latest incident involves his firing of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge who spearheaded the HIV/AIDS national strategic plan and who is a member of the South African Communist Party.

Patrick Bond, a South African-based academic and activist, has written eloquently about Mbeki’s mishandling of the AIDS epidemic in a Foreign Policy in Focus article titled “Thabo Mbeki’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development: Breaking or Shining the Chains of Global Apartheid?“:

But the primary contradiction involved the regime in Pretoria. In February 2004, TAC attacked President Thabo Mbeki in the wake of more government prevarication on AIDS treatment. Claiming that Mbeki ‘misrepresented facts and once again caused confusion on HIV/AIDS’ on national television, TAC’s Zackie Achmat accused him of ‘denialism.’ Moreover, Pretoria had originally promised to distribute AIDS medicines to at least 50,000 people within a year, and to reach everyone in need of treatment within five years. Tshabalala-Msimang blamed slow drug procurement – Pretoria’s own fault – and the lack of qualified health personnel. TAC strategist Mark Heywood commented, ‘Many hospitals have the capacity, they just don’t have the medicines.’ The finance ministry also cut the budget dramatically for medicine purchases in February 2004.

At the same time, Tshabalala-Msimang suggested that while HIV-positive people waited for medicines, a diet of lemons, beetroot, (extremely expensive), olive oil and garlic would improve the body’s immune system. A week earlier, the minister had come under fire by the SA Medical Association, whose chairperson Dr Kgosi Letlape accused her of ‘dividing the profession when we have gone to great lengths to unite it.’ The minister unsuccessfully attempted to halt a protest march of 2,000 medics against poor conditions in public health facilities by implying that the demonstrating doctors were white, whereas black medics supported the government.

Now one can’t blame the makers of “We are Together” for ignoring this dimension of the unfolding health tragedy in South Africa, but surely they are obligated to think through the question of whether charity is the answer to the continent’s problems. For every success story like the new Agape orphanage, there are countless other sacrifices at the altar of neoliberalism.

In the concluding credits of “We are Together”, the viewer is advised to support a group called the One Campaign that is involved in a “campaign to make poverty history” as their website states. One is just the latest in a series of campaigns that seeks to raise money from wealthy donors and the average citizen in the West on behalf of the world’s poor, especially in Africa which has excited the interest of celebrities like Bono, Angela Jolie, and Jennifer Anniston.

One is a coalition of some of the world’s largest donor organizations like CARE and Oxfam, as well as major Christian and Jewish social service agencies. It receives major funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some of the Christian groups aligned with the One Campaign are in it to pursue missionary goals, packaging sermons with their food and medicine handouts.

Bill Gates believes that Africa will lift itself up from poverty by using new technology, presumably from Microsoft. On July 11, 2006 he announced some new initiatives with NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, that was largely the brainchild of Thabo Mbeki.

As part of his keynote, Gates also highlighted the necessity for communities to deal with the workplace of the future and the importance of education. Microsoft joined NEPAD’s Information Society Partnership for Africa’s Development (ISPAD) Initiative as a foundation partner and platinum member in December 2003 and is an active participant in the e-Schools Initiative. Microsoft is leading a consortium of industry partners to support 25 schools in eight African countries — Cameroon, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal — with a PC lab per school, software, teacher training, networking, connectivity, maintenance and support.

“This is the first time that African governments, NEPAD and the private sector are cooperating on an ICT project of this scale and scope in the NEPAD framework, developed and driven by Africans, and for African people”, said Dr Henry Chasia, Deputy Executive Chairperson for the NEPAD e-Africa Commission. “This technology will enable young people to tap into the global mainstream of information and knowledge, where they will learn and play, expand their imagination and creativity, collaborate with peers across the African continent and across the world, and generally participate in defining the future of their world.”

Returning once again to Patrick Bond’s article, we find a useful corrective to Bill Gates’s Pollyanna notions of Africa joining the G8 nations aloft on the wings of a Windows Vista operating system.

Thus even though, symptomatically perhaps, power relations are skewed, the driving force of globalization boils down, in Mbeki’s neutral story, to little more than technological determinism. According to NEPAD: “The current economic revolution has, in part, been made possible by advances in information and communications technology (ICT)… We readily admit that globalization is a product of scientific and technological advances, many of which have been market-driven.”

The technology-centric “admission” is fundamentally apolitical and disguises the reality of dramatic changes in class relations, especially the resurgent power of U.S. and EU capital in relation to working classes there and across the world (as reflected in stronger state-corporate “partnerships” and the decline of the social wage during the Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl administrations). Ironically, in contrast, a far more insightful explanation of globalization came from the ruling party of South Africa in October 1998, at a time when it needed to engage in left-wing rhetoric so as to pull its political alliance (with trade unions and communists) together in preparation for a forthcoming national election:

The present crisis is, in fact, a global capitalist crisis, rooted in a classical crisis of overaccumulation and declining profitability. Declining profitability has been a general feature of the most developed economies over the last 25 years. It is precisely declining profitability in the most advanced economies that has spurred the last quarter of a century of intensified globalization. These trends have resulted in the greatly increased dominance (and exponential growth in the sheer quantity) of speculative finance capital, ranging uncontrolled over the globe in pursuit of higher returns.

If this assessment is valid, then in addition to technological change–which facilitated but did not cause or catalyze globalization–the more fundamental factors would include:

* profound changes in the incentive structure of investments, especially the decline in manufacturing profits during the late 1960s and, consequently, the geographical search for new markets and cheaper inputs and a switch by many major firms of productive reinvestment into financial assets;

* institutional factors associated with financial sector deregulation, concentration, and centralization, which permitted banks and other financiers to escape national boundaries and search out far-flung borrowers;

* the decaying power of nation-states and the increased power of the Bretton Woods institutions and trade agencies; and

* shortened investor time horizons.

All of these factors can, and should be, reversed. None are inevitable. Tellingly, none are even mentioned in NEPAD. The analysis, thus, is wanting–and so too are the mildly reformist strategies that Mbeki subsequently endorses.

Notwithstanding these objections to the broader policy issues that frame the human tragedy depicted in “We are Together”, I once again urge you to see the movie at the Cinema Village or order the DVD from the film’s website (as well as the CD that contains the great music you can hear throughout the film).

Official Website: http://wearetogether.org/

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