Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 21, 2009

7 movies from the NY Asian Film Festival 2009

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

This is a follow-up to my initial post on the New York Asian Film Festival, which included a review of a pre-festival screening of “High Noon”, a Hong Kong movie about disaffected teenagers. The festival began officially last night and I strongly urge people in the Greater New York area to try to make it as many screenings as possible since on the evidence of the 7 movies below you will simply not find anything better—starting with Woody Allen’s latest flop.

Unfortunately, only three of the movies discussed below have youtube clips with English subtitles. I do include still photos for the others to convey some sense of what these altogether marvelous films are about. I should add that if you do want to see the youtube clips sans subtitles, you can. All are available through youtube searches.

1. “When the Full Moon Rises” (Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang, Malaysia, 2008)

Remember “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, the TV show from the mid-70s that featured Darren McGavin as a reporter for a National Enquirer type tabloid? In each episode McGavin as Carl Kolchak tracked down one mysterious killing or another, inevitably involving some supernatural creature or another—from an abominable snowman to vampires. By many accounts, this show was the inspiration for “X Files”.

This Malaysian flick (the first I have ever seen) was directed by Mamat Khalid and stars Rosyam Nor as Saleh, a reporter in the Kolchak mold. But rather than playing it straight, Khalid made a movie that borrows liberally from Leslie Nielsen movies like “The Naked Gun”. Nor bumbles from one scene to another, having little clue about what is going on about him.

Set in 1956, on the eve of Malaysian independence, Saleh stumbles into a vast conspiracy of Communists who seem to style themselves as Nazis, ghosts, were-tigers, vampires and midget gangsters. The plot is almost incidental to the movie, which is much more about genre-subversion. Mamat Khalid is a huge fan of cheesy 1950s movies in Malaysia (apparently it was a thriving industry) and has created a pastiche that both honors and pokes fun at the past. The movie’s style is one part Tim Burton and one part Charles Ludlum’s Theater of the Ridiculous. Any attempt on my part to analyze the movie would prove futile, except to say that it is a pie in the face to conventional nationalist mythology.

2. Dachimawa Lee (South Korea, 2008)

This is very much in the spirit of the flick above. Dachimawa Lee is a comic version of the Korean version of James Bond anti-Communist movies of the 70s and 80s. Like Saleh the reporter and Inspector Clouseau, superspy Dachimawa Lee often creates havoc no matter his best intentions. The plot revolves around Lee tracking down Japanese spies who have stolen a Golden Buddha. But as was the case with “When the Full Moon Rises”, the real purpose of the movie is to set up one comic scene after another and to mock nationalist mythology, all of which involve a running sight gag—namely lead actor Lim Won-Hie’s baby face. It is rather like casting Lou Costello as James Bond.

3. Breathless (Ddongpari, South Korea, 2009)

This is a powerful study of a loan shark enforcer who despite his sadism and his misogyny emerges in the end as a sympathetic character, at least within the context of a society that accepts such behavior as normal.

Yang Ik-June, who directed, wrote and played the thuggish anti-hero Sang-Hoon, touches raw nerves in this his debut film. As a young boy, Sang-Hoon witnessed the killing of his mother by his father who has just been released from prison after 16 years.. This brutal act has done nothing except make Sang-Hoon eager to brutalize the rest of the world, including his father. In the very first scene, a man is beating his girlfriend on the street. Without a word, Sang-Hoon drags the man away and beats him to a bloody pulp. When he is finished, he begins slapping the woman around. Clearly, social improvement was not on his mind when he stepped in.

A day later he crosses path with a high school girl who calls him to order for spitting on the ground, a little too close to her feet. This prompts Sang-Hoon to punch her in the face. Yeon-Hee (Kim Gol-Bi) is no pushover and demands restitution from Sang-Hoon, who lives by his own warped code. Her insistence, however, impresses him and the two rapidly become companions even if much of their conversation consists of him calling her a cunt and her calling him a gangster scumbag.

Yeon-Hee developed her own callousness living with an abusive brother who aspires to be a gangster himself. As it turns out, he eventually lands a job as Sang-Hoon’s trainee and puts up with daily beatings for not being tough enough with the hapless souls from whom they extract repayment.

As is the case with the best Korean movies, the personal becomes the political. Sang-Hoon’s is the prototypical Korean male, even though his toughness is exaggerated for effect. Director/writer Yang Ik-June is really interested in diagnosing a deep-seated malaise through the film medium. Unlike “The Raging Bull”, which this film bears some resemblance to in its relentless brutality, this is more than just the portrait of an individual. In an interview with Twitch magazine, Yang tried to put the domestic violence that occurs throughout the film in a broader context:

As for domestic violence, the ones who commit that are always the fathers, as you can see in the movie. And there is a reason for that: in the past Korea was colonized very often, it was also invaded very often, so the economic situation in Korea was very hard, very difficult. And so the fathers, who were responsible for the family, they did not have an attitude of good behavior or love towards the family. What they were thinking was: “I need to earn money, so that my family can live good”. So there is a difference between that. Instead of love for the family they want to earn money. Because they are so obsessed with earning money they drag their family with violence towards that goal, instead of going there together. And that is where all that domestic violence comes from.

4. Equation of Love and Death (Li Mi de caixiang, China, 2008)

This movie should appeal to the audiences who go for the “coincidence” movies like “Amores Perros”, “Crash”, “Babel”, et al. As is the case in this genre that has gone viral in international film circles, the major characters bump into each other to life-altering effect. And as is the case with the rise of China economically, this particular film not only competes with the Western product but also exceeds them handsomely.

The main character is Zhou Xun, a young female cabdriver whose boyfriend disappeared years earlier and whose memory still haunts her. In the beginning of the movie, she runs into two poor and desperate peasants trying to make their way home. They are not above robbing her to pay for their airfare back to the rural village that they have not seen in practically as many years as she has been separated from her boyfriend.

In a scene that evokes the crashes in Paul Haggis’s dreadful movie “Crash”, Zhou Xun and the two desperados come together in a highway accident that sets the gears of the movie into motion.

What makes Equation of Love and Death far more interesting than its Hollywood counterparts is its relentless energy and brilliant acting. Of particular note is the performance of the two captors played by Wang Baoqiang and Wang Hanyui, who effectively stand in for the hundreds of millions of farmers and temporary workers screwed over by the Chinese capitalist system. Wang Baoqiang might be familiar to those who have seen “Blind Shaft”, another Chinese movie about super-exploited workers in the coalfields. Wang Baoqiang plays a hapless peasant desperate for work that is victimized by a couple of con artists promising work. He is outstanding in both films.

5. Plastic City (Dangkou, Hong Kong, 2008)

This has a most unusual setting for a Hong Kong crime movie, namely São Paulo, Brazil. This joint Hong Kong-Brazil production tells the story of a crime boss involved in counterfeit goods trafficking, a far cry from the drugs or professional assassination angle these movies rely on so often. It is also a male bonding movie with the older crime boss Yuda (Anthony Wong) relying on a young and handsome Japanese man named Kirin (Joe Odagiri). Their relationship is like father and son, but has homoerotic overtones as well.

Yuda and Kirin have rivals in the counterfeit goods business, as might be expected. They are also pressured and extorted simultaneously by crooked cops. Although I expected the movie to unfold according to the conventions of Hong Kong crime movies, it took on the character of a magical realist novel before long including a confrontation with an albino tiger in the rainforest.

6. Ip Man (Hong Kong, 2008)

An “old school” martial arts movie based loosely (very) on the life of  Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee in Kung Fu. As might be expected, the movie involves one choreographed fight scene between Ip Man (Donny Yen) and the bad guys after another. In keeping with the proud traditions of both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, the fighting is pretty close to the real thing.

As it happens, the bad guys are Japanese soldiers who are occupying China during WWII. The movie makes no attempt to render them as complex characters and they serve mainly as punching bags for Ip Man, who seems capable of ridding China of its occupiers all on his own.

If you are looking for shaded characterization and subtle dialog, look elsewhere. But if you are looking for the exciting, kinetic action that put Hong Kong cinema on the map, this is a must-see.

7. Warlords (Tau ming chong, Hong Kong, 2007)

This is a historical drama based loosely (very, once again) on the Taiping Rebellion with superstars Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro in the leading roles. As the movie begins, General Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) finds himself the sole and bloodied survivor of a battle between the Taiping rebels (who had been led by a man claiming to be related to Jesus Christ) and the Qing army that Pang served in.

After being nursed to health by Lian (Jinglei Xu), a peasant girl that he becomes intimate with, Pang moves on to a nearby village where he tries to blend in with the local population that is being victimized by a bandit gang led by Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Drawing upon his tested combat skills, Pang confronts Er-Hu and spares his life just when he has his sword at the bandit’s throat. Impressed with Pang’s prowess, Er-Hu invites him to join his gang. In no time at all, Pang becomes co-equal with the two bandit leaders as the three embark on a series of confrontations with the imperial army.

Showing his strategic acumen, Pang suggest to his two comrades that they enter the imperial army as a group so they can get their hands on rifles, which were essential to further success. In those days, soldiers were often rewarded with spoils of a vanquished city rather than wages so being properly equipped was a sine qua non.

As the three warlords become ever more powerful, Pang succumbs to hubris and begins to identify more and more with the royal family. When it becomes necessary to slaughter 4000 soldiers who have surrendered, Pang does not hesitate. This act of cruelty costs him the friendship of Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang who had long given up their bandit ways under Pang’s guidance. When they remind him of how he has forsaken his principles, he replies that the ends justify the means which for him is defeating the enemies of the throne.

Although the movie is first-rate entertainment, I was disappointed in its utter lack of interest in the historical context and which even the usually sagacious Subway Cinema, the organizers of the film festival, refer to as “an insane putsch led by a warlord claiming to be Jesus’ younger brother and it resulted in 20 million deaths.”

Despite the strange religious beliefs of the top Taiping rebel, farmlands under his control were seized from the feudal overlords and distributed to the peasants. He also banned foot binding and declared equality of the sexes. It also sought to eliminate class distinctions and in so doing was hailed by Mao Zedung as a forerunner to the revolution he led.

One of these days, a movie might be made that is sympathetic to the Taiping rebellion (if one has not been made already.) Now that’s one I’d pay good money for!

June 19, 2009

My Life as a Jew

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

I had been planning to say a few words about growing up as a Jew somewhere along the line but did not feel any particular urgency. However, the attack on the Holocaust Museum, the entrapment of a group of African-Americans into a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx, as well as the steady drumbeat against Iran for being “anti-Semitic” prompted me to put the topic on the front burner. As will be obvious, what I have to say is much more autobiographical than my usual posts, but in a roundabout way it will deal with more general questions about the Jewish race and religion since my experience was fairly typical, both in terms of becoming a Jew and eventually renouncing my ties to the religion.

As I have mentioned here before, I have collaborated with a couple of people with extensive backgrounds in comic books on a project about my life that by necessity leaves out a lot of details. Since the person who initially suggested the project to me was particularly interested in my growing up as a Jew in the Catskill Mountains in the 1950s, it was regrettable that space considerations forced us to leave out a lot. Who knows, perhaps I might work on a full-length word-only version before my time on earth is up.

My home town was Woodridge, NY, a village of about 500 people in the heart of the Borscht Belt, a resort area with hundreds of hotels, both large and small, as well as what were called bungalow colonies. (The word bungalow derives from “Bengali”, and was used to describe a type of single-story house that originated in India.) Bungalows were cabins that were rented from Memorial Day to Labor Day by working class Jewish families fleeing the sweltering heat of Bronx or Brooklyn tenements, with the husband generally coming up on weekends or a week or so during the summer. These men, mostly WWII veterans, were barbers, waiters, cabdrivers, garment cutters, etc. When their kids grew up and became college educated, they stopped going up to the Catskills. This was partly a result of upward mobility and a move to the suburbs, as well assimilation. The ultra-Jewish character of the Borscht Belt left the new generation cold. Nowadays, the hotels are in ruins and have inspired one photographer to chronicle the passing of an era:

An abandoned bungalow from Vanishing Catskills website

My father owned a fruit and vegetable store that catered to the summer trade and supplemented his income by selling fish as well in the winter. I began working in his store during the summer in 1959 or so. This was still at a time when the older vacationers spoke Yiddish exclusively. They have all died off long ago and the only people still speaking the language today are Hasidic Jews who strive to replicate the shtetl (small town) life in 19th century Eastern Europe and Russia. I enjoy the guttural, sing-song quality of the language and listen to Hasidic rabbis on AM radio when I get a chance, even though I don’t understand much of what they are saying.

This is what they sound like:


And here’s Isaac Bashevis Singer receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978 and making the case for Yiddish:

My parents sent me to Hebrew school in order to prepare me for my bar mitzvah. The goal was never to learn what the words meant but only to be prepared to pronounce words on a page with some degree of accuracy. After I gave my “speech” in Hebrew at the local synagogue in 1958, my Hebrew school days were behind me—thank god.

About a month after the bar mitzvah, my father proposed that I begin going to morning minyan, a service that required at least 10 men to proceed (minyan is Hebrew for count). Since he was an intimidating figure, I had to do what he asked.

This meant getting up a half hour earlier each morning and trudging down to the synagogue where I joined anywhere from 10 to 15 men in their 30s to 70s. After donning prayer shawls and putting on tefillin, they recited prayers at a blue streak while bobbing their head and shoulders up and down and from right to left—this was called davening, or praying.

It was the first time in my life that I put on tefillin, an act that reminded me of a junky tying a belt around his arm before shooting up. Here’s a demo:

As much as I hated getting up a half-hour early, I hated this meaningless ritual even more. About 3 or 4 days into morning services, I told my father that I didn’t want to go any more. Although I did not feel particularly guilty about “dropping out”, I got into the habit of crossing to the opposite side of the street when I saw the rabbi approaching. I did not want to look him in the eyes. My memory of this experience has steeled me against the kind of sentimentalizing of religion that has spread among certain sectors of the left, largely under the impact of political Islam’s growing influence. When parents pressure their children into going to a mosque, a church or a synagogue, that’s the first step in turning them into obedient servants to authority.

For us, being Jewish meant going to services on high holy days and keeping kosher. My father, however, was not above selling lobsters out of a freezer in the back of his store. His regular customers would come into the store and whisper to him that they needed a couple of lobster tails, which he would bring from the back in plain paper bags. It was like running a speakeasy.

Leviticus 11:9-12 in the Old Testament says: “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.” Pork is an abomination as well. So where does that put all the bible-thumping homophobes in the U.S.? If you are going to rid gay people from the human race, doesn’t that mean setting up picket lines at Red Lobster as well? Inquiring minds want to know.

I really never gave much thought to religion, but I could not get past two problems with Judaism even at an early age. First, what kind of God was it that only related to an ethnic group? If you weren’t a Jew, were you practicing a false religion that would condemn you to burn in hell? But the Jews, unlike the Christians, never seemed interested in converting the goyim, our derogatory term for non-Jews. In fact we Jews had a kind of racial pride that would stand in the way of recruiting people who did not have Jewish blood flowing in their veins. My parents spoke about those who had a goyishe kopf, or gentile brains. This usually boiled down to drinking too much, gambling or getting poor grades in school. Who would want to convert such people? Of course, that’s the driving force behind evangelical Christianity—something that is utterly lacking in the clubbish faith of my forefathers.

The other problem was God’s omnipotence. If this angry and vengeful God could wipe out Egyptians by the boatload, why did he stand by while Nazis killed 6 million people who prayed to him without fail? I used to test this belief out on high holy days as I sat on the hard bench in my synagogue while everybody around me was praying like it was going out of style. The words would form in my brain: “God, fuck you. If you hear me, then go ahead and strike me with lightning.” Amazingly enough, nothing ever happened.

My last hurrah as an observant Jew occurred in my Freshman year at Bard College where I attended Friday night services led by Eugen Kullman, a religion professor but not an ordained rabbi. These were mainly homilies delivered in accordance with the Reform Jewish principles that this German Jew adhered to. German Jews tended to Enlightenment beliefs, while their Eastern European brethren oriented to the ecstatic and the supernatural, especially in the Hasidic sects.

Kullman was an extraordinary teacher, so much so that I decided to major in religion. Ironically, my decision was partially influenced by my growing interest in exactly those forms of spirituality that went against the rationalist grain of Reform Judaism. Given the pervasive influence of the beat poets at the time, it was not unusual for somebody like me to have had a fascination with Kabbalah, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Gnosticism and other beliefs that found their way into the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Robert Kelly et al. In the early 60s, the only way for many young people to rebel against materialism was through mysticism, especially when it was spurred by experiments with LSD and peyote, which were just becoming popular. I was a pothead, but anxious to give these drugs a shot the first chance I got, which was a year after graduating Bard.

Kullman was especially hostile to Kabbalah, which he regarded as something akin to astrology or other forms of superstition. Not long after I graduated Bard, Kullman moved on to Middlebury College where he had a distinguished career. They created an archive of his writings, as well as photos of him in the classroom. The one below was taken in 1971 and his appearance had not changed much since his time at Bard:

In the course of looking through the Middlebury archives, I discovered that despite his High German rationalism, Kullman must have certainly had a feel for the mysticism that beckoned me since he included Herman Hesse as one of his closest friends. Here is the introduction to the letter which can be read in its original German at https://segue.middlebury.edu/view/html/site/kullmann-archives/node/798464

On November 14, 1946 Eugen wrote a letter to congratulate his friend Hermann Hesse on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.  As Eugen writes here, he learned of Hesse’s honor in a newscast on a Yiddish radio station, to which he listened from time to time.

For many undergraduates, Siddhartha—a Hesse novel based on the life of the Buddha—was essential reading. A paragraph on its final page captured the yearnings of a seventeen-year-old like me:

He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha, instead he saw other faces, many, a long sequence, a flowing river of faces, of hundreds, of thousands, which all came and disappeared, and yet all seemed to be there simultaneously, which all constantly changed and renewed themselves, and which were still all Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, a carp, with an infinitely painfully opened mouth, the face of a dying fish, with fading eyes—he saw the face of a new-born child, red and full of wrinkles, distorted from crying—he saw the face of a murderer, he saw him plunging a knife into the body of another person—he saw, in the same second, this criminal in bondage, kneeling and his head being chopped off by the executioner with one blow of his sword—he saw the bodies of men and women, naked in positions and cramps of frenzied love—he saw corpses stretched out, motionless, cold, void— he saw the heads of animals, of boars, of crocodiles, of elephants, of bulls, of birds—he saw gods, saw Krishna, saw Agni—he saw all of these figures and faces in a thousand relationships with one another, each one helping the other, loving it, hating it, destroying it, giving re-birth to it, each one was a will to die, a passionately painful confession of transitoriness, and yet none of them died, each one only transformed, was always re-born, received evermore a new face, without any time having passed between the one and the other face—and all of these figures and faces rested, flowed, generated themselves, floated along and merged with each other, and they were all constantly covered by something thin, without individuality of its own, but yet existing, like a thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, a shell or mold or mask of water, and this mask was smiling, and this mask was Siddhartha’s smiling face, which he, Govinda, in this very same moment touched with his lips.

By 1965, I had pretty much lost interest in mysticism and had become increasingly alarmed by the war in Vietnam especially since I was eligible for the draft. Within a year or so, I was politicized and ready to join the left. In some of my early discussions with the Trotskyists I had begun to hang out with, the subject of Israel inevitably came up.

I had not given much thought to the Jewish state since the 1950s but had always considered it “progressive”, if not socialist—at least in terms of my underdeveloped way of understanding the world. Everybody in my village was a Zionist and you could spot a Blue Box for the Jewish National Fund in just about every shop in Woodridge, including my dad’s. When the box was filled with dollar bills and small change, it would be turned over to Hadassah, the woman’s Zionist group that my mom was deeply involved with. We all thought that the money was being used to plant trees and help turn the desert into a garden. Thoughts about the displaced Palestinians never entered our mind.

If they did, perhaps we would have felt justified in their displacement since only 10 years had elapsed since the end of WWII and the memories of the concentration camps were still vivid. During the summer, some of the Jews who vacationed in the Borscht Belt were referred to as “the immigrants” and many had numbers tattooed on their forearm. There was still deep animosity toward the Germans, so much so that nobody would be caught dead buying German goods, especially the cars.

My uncle Mike broke the embargo in 1960 when he brought a Mercedes Benz roadster back from Germany as a gift to my cousin Louis (we were both named after our grandfather.) This was one more reason for my father to hate Mike, who he accused of forging my grandfather’s will in order to inherit the lumber yard—the most lucrative of his many businesses. My father ended up with a measly fruit store, another uncle ended up with a fish store, etc. At some point the friction between my father and my uncle Mike grew so deep that they had a huge fist fight that the cops had to break up. Since my father boxed in the army, my uncle Mike probably got the worst of it.

About 10 years ago I made an effort to interview my aunts and uncles about my grandfather who died a year or so before I was born. He seemed like a larger-than-life character and I had little knowledge about him except that he was something of an entrepreneur while serving as president of the Workman’s Circle, a Jewish/Socialist benevolent society formed in 1900 and that is still in operation. My friend Paul Buhle is an occasional featured speaker at their New York headquarters.

I called my uncle Mike who was in his late 80s by this point and he refused to see me. Thank goodness, he was not above filling in some details over the phone that helped me understand what my grandfather was like, and just as importantly, what Mike was like.

He said that my grandfather Louis, who built hotels among his other pursuits, had a construction gang of gentile Russian workers who always showed up at his house on Saturday where they drank home-made schnapps and played brass instruments on the front lawn. If I ever had the time and the motivation to write a novel about the Catskill Mountains that I have kicked around for the longest time, this scene would be included.

Mike also described his own break with Judaism. I can’t remember whether this was in response to my own question or something he volunteered on his own. Just as my father forced me to go to minyan, my uncle Mike was forced to go to services on Saturday. But one day he spotted a synagogue elder playing cards in a luncheonette in town, something that was strictly forbidden. Even though he was only 10 years old or so, he confronted my grandfather with the hypocrisy of the elder and announced that he would no longer go to synagogue. Apparently, my grandfather was so impressed with Mike’s independence that he caved in to his demand.

A shochet at work

I don’t know much else about Mike (or my grandfather for that matter) but I do know that he went to Columbia University in the 1930s while working part time as a shochet in local slaughterhouses. A shochet had the job of killing chickens according to Jewish dietary laws. There was a slaughterhouse in the back of my father’s store in the 50s and I used to while away many afternoons watching these guys in action. It must have exacted quite a bit of cognitive dissonance to spend a morning slitting the necks of chickens and then go up to 116th street for a class on American history.

Nowadays my Jewishness consists almost exclusively in my sense of humor and general sensibility. I dumped the religion by the time I was 16 and the Zionism about 5 years later. Although I am an extreme case, my own experience is not that different from most men and women my age who are fairly well-assimilated to American society.

Hysteria over the Holocaust Museum shootings and whatever has popped out of Ahmadinejad’s mouth lately tends to be restricted to Zionist and observant circles which are becoming more and more equivalent nowadays. With every passing day, the kind of fervor that attached itself to the Zionist cause decreases especially in the face of an ever-increasing Likudist brutality. Despite the determination of the Israeli state to wipe out every vestige of “rootless cosmopolitanism”, including the lingua franca that allowed Jews everywhere to communicate with each other, the deeper roots of this culture persist in diverse forms such as popular culture or the serious novel. Ultimately, Jewishness will be divided against itself, with Israel being a kind of litmus test. Remaining true to Judaism will involve taking a stand against the Jewish state itself.

Chevy Chase and Cola Turka

Filed under: comedy,Turkey — louisproyect @ 1:58 am

June 18, 2009

The Double Standard

Filed under: imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 4:10 pm

Obama removes gold chain, a gift of the Saudi monarch, for safekeeping

NY Times Editorial, June 15, 2009
Neither Real Nor Free

There is no transparency or accountability in Iran, so we may never know for sure what happened in the presidential election last week. But given the government’s even more than usually thuggish reaction, it certainly looks like fraud.

SAUDI ARABIA

Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 2009
Obama praises ‘wisdom’ of Saudi King

US President Barack Obama has praised the “wisdom” of Saudi King Abdullah, saying he has travelled to the birthplace of Islam to seek counsel before his keenly awaited speech to the Muslim world.

The king hosted Obama at his farm outside Riyadh on Wednesday, after the presidential motorcade drove up to the property along a drive lined by Saudi guards on horseback.

“This is my first visit to Saudi Arabia, but I’ve had several conversations with His Majesty,” Obama said.

“I’ve been struck by his wisdom and his graciousness,” Obama said, praising the long friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the regional economic and political powerhouse.

****

The New York Times, May 20, 2009
Saudi Arabia Delays Local Voting by 2 Years, in a Setback to Electoral Democracy
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN; Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.

Saudi Arabia’s brief and limited experiment with electoral democracy has suffered another setback with an announcement that the royal family has decided to postpone local council elections by at least two years.

The Council of Ministers, which is led by King Abdullah, made the announcement on Monday. It phrased the decision in positive terms, saying the government had ”extended the mandate” of the sitting councils by two years so that it could prepare changes to the law to ”expand the participation of citizens in the management of local affairs.”

But the decision delayed what was to have been the kingdom’s second round of national elections, and its small, frustrated community of human-rights and democracy activists immediately lamented the decision as another blow.

”I consider the decision a delay in a reform process that we were supposed to believe really began when we started this process of elections,” said Hatoon al-Fasi, assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University.

Saudi Arabia held its first nationwide elections in 2005 for the newly created local councils, the kingdom’s first step in decades toward limited popular democracy. The 2005 election allowed men, but not women, to vote for half the representatives to 178 municipal councils. The other half were appointed.

EGYPT

BBC May 10, 2009
Egyptian TV interviews US ambassador on ties, Mideast

US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey has described Egypt as an important country in the Middle East. In an interview with the Egyptian state-run Nile News TV on 10 May, Scobey said Egypt was on top of the countries that had achieved political reforms over the past years. Egypt will continue playing a major role in the region in order to encourage and spread peace and stability, she said. We cannot make progress in the Middle East peace process without Egypt’s role, she asserted.

On the Egyptian-US ties, the ambassador said that the ties are strong in spite of some difference in viewpoints. The USA looks forward to boosting its ties with Egypt, she said.

****

The Irish Times, May 12, 2005
New election rules for Egypt effectively ban independent parties

Lawmakers have voted to change the constitution to allow Egypt’s first competitive presidential election but have imposed complex rules that critics say will keep power squarely in the hands of President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling party.

The restrictions disappointed pro-democracy advocates who had hoped lawmakers would make good on Mr Mubarak’s promise to hold a free and fair vote this autumn.

Under the constitutional amendment, passed on Tuesday, independents will be effectively banned from seeking the presidency. Government-sanctioned opposition parties will face complex obstacles in nominating a candidate.

Egyptian voters will be asked to approve the constitutional change in a referendum expected to be held before the end of the month.

Although Mr Mubarak will be forced for the first time to run for office if he wants to keep his job, the guidelines leave ample room for him and his party to determine which candidates will run in future elections.

“It means there is no change in the system,” said Mohamed Sayyed Said, an analyst at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Most people say, ‘Why bother? Why did the president propose the amendment?’ He gave with the right hand, and they took away with the left hand.”

JORDAN

Jordan: Tenth Anniversary of King Abdullah II’s Ascension to the Throne
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
June 8, 2009

I warmly congratulate His Majesty King Abdullah II and the people of Jordan on the tenth anniversary of the King’s ascension to the throne. In April, when the King visited Washington, President Obama praised him for his “excellent leadership internationally,” and his “unmatched friendship with the United States.” His Majesty and I have been close friends for many years and I admire his leadership and efforts toward a more prosperous and peaceful future for Jordanians, and for the people of the region.

The friendship between the United States and Jordan began 60 years ago and has grown and strengthened during the ten years of the King’s reign as he has pursued policies to bring stability, peace, and prosperity to Jordan and the Middle East. The United States extends its best wishes to the King and the Jordanian people on this anniversary and looks forward to our continued fruitful relationship in the years to come.

****

The New York Times, August 1, 2007
Islamic Opposition Group Pulls Out of Elections in Jordan
By HASSAN M. FATTAH; Suha Maayeh contributed reporting.

After months of growing tension with the Jordanian government, the opposition Islamic Action Front abruptly withdrew from nationwide municipal council elections on Tuesday. The group cited voting irregularities in the elections, which were seen as a test for the more politically sensitive parliamentary elections this fall.

The Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and the most influential political opposition group in the country, announced at midday that it was pulling out of the elections. The group said that because of violence and accusations of irregularities, its participation would lend legitimacy to the government’s efforts to weaken it.

”The level of corruption we witnessed made it impossible for us to continue with this election,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, the group’s secretary general. Mr. Rsheid said that although the group had withdrawn, it was not boycotting the political process altogether.

The group charged that soldiers had been bused into contested districts to vote and that they were allowed to cast multiple ballots. It also said government security personnel had intimidated some voters and kept them from reaching the polls.

PAKISTAN

The New York Times, November 4, 1999
Pakistan’s Ruler Rejects Calls for Referendum

Pakistan’s new military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said today that a referendum on his government would be too costly and would divert attention from the reforms he wanted to complete before restoring civilian rule.

The final decision on whether to hold a vote to gauge support for the coup he led on Oct. 12 will be made by the National Security Council, which consists of army officers and civilians who are ruling Pakistan.

“I’m not afraid of it,” General Musharraf told Pakistan’s official news agency. “But the result will be in our favor. The poor nation does not have a choice.”

In an interview with reporters, the general also said he expected a more severe reaction to his takeover from the international community.

“I was surprised,” the news agency quoted him as saying. “The reaction was more mild than I had expected.”

Western nations have been asking for a time frame for a return to democracy in Pakistan, which has been ruled by the army for 25 of its 52-year history. But General Musharraf has refused to give one, saying he has a list of things to accomplish before holding elections.

****

The New York Times, March 26, 2000

Positive Report on Meeting From Pakistan’s President

By BARRY BEARAK

Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, tonight recapped his meeting earlier in the day with President Clinton, and to hear him tell it, he and the American president became fast friends and agreed on most everything.

“I think we got on pretty well together,” the general said with a broad smile, adding that the two leaders discussed their golf game over an amiable lunch. “He told me he is a 12 handicap, and I told him that I would like to challenge him on that.”

Their mutual affection for golf was equaled by their shared detestation for terrorism. “I would say there was no difference of opinion on this issue,” General Musharraf said at a news conference. “He did raise concerns and I totally agreed with him. We ourselves are victims of terrorism and we denounce terrorism in all its forms.”

June 15, 2009

The Woolly Mammoth and the Noble Savage

Filed under: evolutionary psychology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Back in the mid-1990s when I first began writing about American Indians and ecology, I was surprised to see how eager some progressives, and even some Marxists, were to characterize the Indians as just as wasteful as a modern corporation. Talking points included bison being driven off cliffs, as well as the earliest ancestors of modern Indians being responsible for killing off the woolly mammoth and a number of other Pleistocene megafauna.

The extremely distinguished Marxist David Harvey wrote an extremely undistinguished book called “Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference” (nobody is perfect) that included these talking points, including the following:

Archaeological evidence likewise suggests that late ice-age hunting groups hunted many of their prey to extinction while fire must surely rate as one of the most far-reaching agents of ecological transformation ever acquired, allowing very small groups to exercise immense ecosystemic influence.

Harvey’s citation for this is a 1956 article by Carl Sauer, a geographer who has the distinction of being the first to put forward the overkill hypothesis but it is really Paul S. Martin who has become the most prominent defender. Martin, a U. of Arizona geosciences professor emeritus, began writing about Pleistocene extinctions and Clovis people’s sole responsibility for the “blitzkrieg” in 1967.  (The Clovis were “paleo-Indians” named after the archaeological site in New Mexico where a characteristic spear point was discovered.)

Clovis spear head

Unfortunately, very few of Martin’s articles are available online except for those who have access to a research library, as I do. If you want to read a fairly typical example, I would refer you to the March 9, 1973 Science Magazine article titled “The Discovery of America” in which he makes the case that overkill of large herbivore mammals like the mammoth was made possible by the beast’s failure to recognize man as a predator. Once the herbivores became extinct, it was only a matter of time before the carnivores—including the saber-tooth tiger—became extinct as well.

Unlike in the delightfully wacky movie “10,000 B.C.”, which depicted mammoth-hunting as an extremely dangerous rite of passage, Martin’s version of history has Clovis man enjoying carte blanche with his prey:

We need only assume that a relatively innocent prey was suddenly exposed to a new and thoroughly superior predator, a hunter who preferred killing and persisted in killing animals as long as they were available.

In other words, Clovis hunters were the Wehrmacht of their day.

It was clear that Martin viewed the Pleistocene extinctions as the moral equivalent of 20th century warfare. In “Ice Age Behavior” (Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, Oct. 1970) another article also unfortunately not available online, Martin makes an amalgam of the “rape, torture, assassination of Vietnamese” and the overkill that supposedly took place over 10 centuries earlier:

Placed in the perspective of the last million years, it would appear that man’s normal, natural urge to hunt and his prehistoric worship of weapons led via stone age technological innovations to fauna overkill. In our time modern weapons and an ice age temperament remain no less menacing a combination.

Well, this would make for a compelling remake of “Encino Man” directed by Sam Raimi, wouldn’t it? Instead of Brendan Fraser waking up from a block of ice 10,000 years later and being passed off as an Estonian exchange student in high school, Fraser instead becomes a serial killer mutilating kittens and toddlers alike.

For reasons I will explore momentarily, evolutionary psychologists have a strong affinity for this primitive man as psychopathic killer version of history. For example, Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” argues that “evil” is genetically implanted and explains just about every bad thing that happens in history starting with the depredations of primitive man. The book, which can be read on Google has an opening chapter titled “Mother Nature, the bloody bitch” that recoils at the idea of a “noble savage”.  He maintains that homo sapiens has the same bloodthirsty nature as his closest relative the chimpanzee that was revealed by researcher Jane Goodall to be capable of unbelievable and wanton cruelty to rival bands, just like the Bosnian and Serbs presumably. For movie buffs, the famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” when the ape-man discovers that a bone can be used as a club should spring to mind.

But perhaps no other evolutionary psychologist has embraced the Pleistocene overkill scenario with more relish than Jared Diamond who wrote an entire book—The Third Chimpanzee—making the case that we are nothing much different than these marauding apes.

In chapter 17, “The Golden Age that Never Was”, Diamond begins by scoffing at Rousseau’s noble savage and proceeds to demonstrate that the Maori “exterminated” the moa, a flightless bird that like the mammoth did not understand that man was their enemy. Diamond writes, “Like the naïve animals of the Galapagos Islands today, moas were probably tame enough for a hunter to walk up to one and club it.” It should be pointed out that probably is a word evolutionary psychologists often use when trying to describe events that took place centuries ago. In the absence of hard evidence (how else can it be otherwise), speculation reigns supreme.

In the next chapter Diamond turns his attention to the New World:

Among the startling discoveries about Clovis people is the speed of their spread. All Clovis sites in the U.S. dated by the most advanced radiocarbon techniques were occupied for only a few centuries, in the period just before 11,000 years ago. A human site even at the southern tip of Patagonia is dated at about 10,500 years. Thus, within about a millennium of emerging from the ice-free corridor at Edmonton, humans had spread from coast to coast and over the entire length of the New World.

Equally startling is the rapid transformation of Clovis culture. Around 11,000 years ago Clovis points are abruptly replaced by a smaller, more finely made model now known as Folsom points (after a site near Folsom, New Mexico, where they were first identified). The Folsom points are often found associated with bones of an extinct wide-horned bison, never with the mammoths preferred by Clovis hunters…

It was Paul Martin, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona, who  described  the  dramatic outcome  of hunter-meets-elephant as a “blitzkrieg”. According to his view, the first hunters to emerge from the ice-free corridor at Edmonton thrived and multiplied, because they found an abundance of tame, easy-to-hunt big mammals. As the mammals were killed off in one area, the hunters and their offspring kept fanning out into new areas that still had abundant mammals, and kept exterminating the mammal populations at the front of their advance. By the time the hunters’ front finally reached the south tip of South America, most of the big mammal species of the New World had been exterminated.

Despite Diamond’s characteristically triumphalist tone, scientists are by no means unanimous in accepting Paul Martin’s thesis. A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired a show that put forward a new theory, namely that a comet was responsible for the Pleistocene extinctions–not Clovis hunter. You can watch the show at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/clovis/ as well as review some different points of view in the debate, including those that directly challenge Martin:

But skeptics have asked, Where’s the evidence? Grayson and Meltzer (overchill) have noted that late-Ice Age sites bearing megafaunal remains that show unequivocal sign of slaughter by humans number just 14. Moreover, they stress, only two types of giants were killed at those 14 sites, mammoth and mastodon. There’s no sign that early hunters preyed on giant ground sloths, short-faced bears, or the massive, armadillo-like glyptodonts, for instance. (Forensic studies of a cache of Clovis tools found in 2008 suggest the Clovis people did hunt now-extinct camels and horses.) That’s hardly enough evidence, Grayson and Meltzer argue, to lay blame for a continent’s worth of lost megafauna at the foot of the first Americans.

But for me at least, some of the most compelling political rebuttal to Martin and his followers, including Jared Diamond, comes from Vine Deloria Jr., the American Indian scholar who died in 2005. His “Red Earth, White Lies” is a scholarly and polemical rebuttal of the “overkill” hypothesis that poses questions such as this:

Since most American anthropologists accepted the Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon evolution, the late entrance of man into North America was a given. Clovis-point locations, which incidentally are scattered all over the western United States on the surface as much as buried, and which by the common agreement of scholars date to around 12,000 years ago, then enabled Martin to argue that “the Indians did it” by linking a few sites which had bones of extinct megafauna and were also dated at that time.

The thesis is really applicable only to the herbivores, however, because almost every advocate of the idea cites those locations where mammoth bones are associated with evidence of human activity. From the list above we never hear about the giant rhinoceros, giant beaver, or giant armadillo, nor do the scholars refer to carnivore extinction except by indirection, assuming that the extinction of herbivores doomed meat-eating predators. Can we imagine hungry saber-toothed tigers and other carnivores unable to feed upon the smaller species of deer, moose, and bison when they discovered that the mega-animals had been destroyed?

When the Europeans came to North America the land was filled to overflowing with all manner of edible grazing game. The bison are conservatively estimated at a population of nearly 60 million creatures at the time of discovery. Since no species could evolve in 12,000 years, we must assume that the game animals we see today were here in their present form at the time when Martin suggests the Paleo-Indians were ruthlessly slaughtering the mammoth and mastodon.

So we have actually two questions. Why did the megacarnivores not pounce upon the smaller, weaker herbivores and maintain themselves in grand style? Why did the Paleo-Indian hunters not begin with smaller-sized animals, which would have been easier to kill, less dangerous to be around, and which themselves might be relegated to the fringes of the good grazing places by the larger and certainly more dangerous megaherbivores? Martin made a feeble effort to answer the second question by admitting that “we must beg the question of just how and why prehistoric man obliterated his prey. We may speculate but we cannot determine how moose, elk, and caribou managed to survive while horse, ground sloth, and mastodon did not.” He begged people not to ask him for specifics about the second question and was not even aware of the complexity of the first question.

As is so often the case with indigenous peoples and the scientific community, no matter the best of intentions of the latter, differences over Pleistocene extinctions, Kennewick Man, supposed Anasazi cannibalism, etc. become a political battleground. It does not have to be this way. Around five years ago, I had dinner with Guy Robinson Jr., the son of a radical philosophy professor who was on Marxmail briefly. Both of them had been to Nicaragua on solidarity brigades and both were decidedly anti-capitalist. Guy Jr. was working on a dissertation that tried to prove the Paul Martin hypothesis using fossil evidence in New York State. You can read an article on the Fordham University website about his research. It states:

Choosing his sites carefully, Robinson was able to pump and excavate layers of alluvial mud and examine concentrations of fungal spores called “Sporormiella”  from the dung of the megafauna. He compared these chronologically with the tiny carbon traces left behind from frequent landscape-level fires (signs of encroaching human activity), thus yielding a time frame of human settlement. A tree pollen analysis helped to determine the dates of large-scale climactic changes. His conclusion: human beings were on the move in the continent about 1,000 years before the most dramatic climate swings.

“In North America,” Robinson notes, “it was probably [there’s that probably again!] a combination of the hunting and landscape-level transformation” that did in the megafauna. “But it’s probably not for millennia that we see real agricultural alterations. I think it’s hard to accept that people of Paleolithic times — old stone age people, without metal tools — could have instigated an ecological crisis. It’s a lesson for where we stand now. Although eco-systems can be quite resilient, once they’re put into a state of collapse it’s hard to resist that direction.

In my good-natured (I swear it) discussion with Guy Jr., I raised the American Indian objections to Paul Martin’s research and his use of the term “blitzkrieg” specifically. There was no doubt in my mind that Guy Jr. had zero interest in impugning the reputation of native peoples.

Jared Diamond is another story altogether. Unlike Guy Robinson Jr., his interest in these matters is highly ideological and this is the way to understand it. Like many of his co-thinkers, there is a need to establish primitive man as primitive in the sense of brutal. When Engels referred to hunting and gathering societies as “primitive”, it was in the technical sense only. Of course, this word and “savage” and “barbarian” had unfortunate connotations no matter the intentions of people such as Engels.

In seeking to destroy the myth of Rousseau’s “noble savage”, they resort to the teachings of a philosopher who predated him by about a century. This is what he wrote:

It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things; that Nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this Inference, made from the Passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by Experience.  Let him therefore consider with himselfe, when taking a journey, he armes himselfe, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there bee Lawes, and publike Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall bee done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his dores; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests.  Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words?  But neither of us accuse mans nature in it.  The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin.  No more are the Actions, that proceed from those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them; which till Lawes be made they cannot know: nor can any Law be made, till they have agreed upon the Person that shall make it.

You might have guessed that these are the words of Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan”. The world of the evolutionary psychologist is dark, evil, and grubby both in the earliest stages of history and in the contemporary world. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about our evolution is that we have drawn on the power of the state to control our worst instincts. As Jared Diamond says in his New Yorker article, the Papuan New Guineans practically got down on their hands and knees to thank the colonizers who finally were able to bring peace and stability to the highlands where tribal wars had left so many dead. So bad was the fighting that Diamond was led to conclude that primitive peoples were more genocidal than the Nazis, if not by absolute numbers killed then by percentage. Of course, given his tendency to make things up, we have no confidence in his assertions.

While I am not qualified to speak with any kind of authority on Pleistocene extinctions, I do want to conclude with some thoughts on how to transcend the noble savage versus Hobbesian jungle dichotomy. Fundamentally, it is a mistake to assume that American Indians developed ecological insights and then went out and acted on those beliefs. This is an idealistic conception that is not very helpful in understanding our past.

A much better approach is to look at things from the angle of modes of production. Put simply, a hunting and gathering society had little need to kill animals except to satisfy such needs as food, clothing and shelter—all of which a bison could supply. Even in cases where there was “overkill”, like driving animals over a cliff, the main goal was to satisfy an immediate need. Once that was accomplished, the community could devote its time to singing, dancing and other forms of recreation that Marshall Sahlins described in terms of Stone Age affluence.

On the other hand, capitalism sees all flora and fauna as input to the commodity production process.  Bison were killed initially in order to supply hides for the European clothing market and later on they were exterminated in order to free up land for cattle ranching. Today vast trawlers scour the ocean to turn the last bluefin tuna into the last sushi special. Meanwhile, American Indians struggle to defend their right to fish for Salmon and whales as part of their traditional way of life. Some ecologists can’t distinguish between the trawler and the Makah motorboat, but that would not be the first time in history that an Indian gets a raw deal.

As socialists, our goal should be to create a world in which the production of what Marx called use values prevails. This means adopting the communal structures of Clovis peoples and their successors but combining it with modern technology. This finally is the only way in which the remaining megafauna can survive, including homo sapiens

June 14, 2009

Bill Maher on Obama

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm

June 12, 2009

2009 New York Asian Film Festival

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm


Last week I mentioned to my wife that very few things keep me committed to the hedge fund manager’s playground that Manhattan has become other than the ethnic restaurants we love exploring and the film festivals that feature the offbeat and the interesting. Despite being a film enthusiast, I have only stepped foot in a neighborhood theater once this year and that was to see Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” (not recommended).

But when I received word a couple of months ago that the yearly New York Asian Film Festival was scheduled to open on June 19th, I felt like a tot awaiting a visit from Santa. I have been covering this festival as a NYFCO critic since it began and it has afforded me some of my greatest film experiences over the past decade.

As you might expect, the festival includes low culture as well as high. To be more exact, the low culture martial arts/gangster movies that Hong Kong pioneered incorporate many high culture aspects, incorporating innovative film techniques and penetrating looks at an Asian society where cops and gangsters often play interchangeable roles.  For those who want a Marxist analysis of this genre, I strongly recommend “City on Fire”, a Verso book written by my friends Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes which can be read online here.

Additionally, the festival screens movies that represent serious efforts to examine the human condition and that are clearly influenced by classic traditions in film going back to Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, not to speak of great American and European film.

Last night I attended a pre-festival screening for “High Noon”, a movie made in Hong Kong last year by a 24-year-old director named Mak Hei-yan who spoke during a q&a session. Mak’s movie utilized a screenplay about teenage angst and rebellion written by Tom Lin that also figured in companion movies made in Taiwan and Mainland China.  Each director took liberties with the script to capture the local conditions where the movie was made. Mak’s movie captures the febrile energy of Hong Kong where at least some young people from the lower classes apparently remain immune to its dubious charms. If her title “High Noon” evokes the 1952 western classic about a sheriff discovering himself under the crucible of an outlaw threat, then the plot and style of “Rebel Without a Cause”, the 1955 movie about teenage angst.

Whether or not Ms. Mak has seen the James Dean vehicle, she has as acted as a medium for its message. Like the U.S. in the 1950s, today’s Hong Kong seems to have lost its moorings despite material abundance.

During the q&a, in response to my question about what social or economic conditions could be driving its youth to self-destructive behavior, Mak stated that they still have hope that friendship and love are possible despite all odds. For someone like me who was about the age of the characters in “High Noon” when “Rebel Without a Cause” was popular, I felt that this dialog between James Dean and his love interest would have fit in with her film:

Judy: I love somebody. All the time I’ve been… I’ve been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody. And it’s so easy. Why is it easy now?

Jim Stark: I don’t know; it is for me, too.

Judy: I love you, Jim. I really mean it.

Jim Stark: Well, I’m glad.

The travails of Mak’s characters are not that different from those that afflict characters in American flicks, including drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and mindless gang violence. But it is what she does with these problems that set her apart from her peers in the West, including the feckless producers of “Juno”, a movie about teen pregnancy that treats it like a lark. Additionally, a key plot element involves one of her male protagonists uploading a video showing him having sex with his girlfriend that eventually becomes viral—to shattering consequences. All of these problems are treated without kid gloves and to greater dramatic impact than what we have become accustomed to from Hollywood.

Beyond her ability to treat the inner lives of her characters with a depth and maturity that belies her own youth, Mak has a flair for the dramatic visual statement that is the mark of a real genius with a camera. In one scene, one of her seven male students and a ketamine addict (a drug originally used by veterinarians but has emerged as a drug of choice at raves) tries to shut himself inside his mother’s vinyl suitcase, a gesture evoking a desire to go back into the womb in some ways. When he proves too large, he begins jumping up and down on it instead. This mad behavior serves to describe his psyche much more dramatically than the words of a social worker or priest, the customary Greek chorus in Hollywood teen angst movies.

“High Noon” will be shown again at the film festival. I can only urge New Yorkers to bend every effort to see as many of these movies as they can since they are unique opportunities to get a bird’s eye view of Asian society as well as superb entertainment. Scheduling information is here.

High Noon trailer

Interview with the director

June 11, 2009

Paradise Now

Filed under: Palestine — louisproyect @ 8:23 pm

A Palestinian movie about suicide bombers.

The Socialist Workers Party’s Open Letter to the left

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

In an open letter that appears in the Socialist Workers Party newspaper (the British group, of course, not to be mistaken with the tiny and peculiar American ultraleftist cult), there is a call to unite on the electoral front in response to the election of the fascist BNP’s winning two seats in the European Parliament:

Labour’s vote collapsed to a historic low in last week’s elections as the right made gains. The Tories under David Cameron are now set to win the next general election.

The British National Party (BNP) secured two seats in the European parliament. Never before have fascists achieved such a success in Britain.

The result has sent a shockwave across the labour and anti-fascist movements, and the left.

The meltdown of the Labour vote and the civil war engulfing the party poses a question – where do we go from here?

After discussing the victory of the BNP in terms of the bankruptcy of New Labour, a party that is the class equivalent of the Democratic Party in the U.S. despite its origins in the trade union movement, the SWP issues a challenge to the far left:

Those who campaigned against the BNP in the elections know that when they said to people, “Don’t vote Nazi” they were often then asked who people should vote for.

The fact that there is no single, united left alternative to Labour means there was no clear answer available.

The European election results demonstrate that the left of Labour vote was small, fragmented and dispersed.

The Greens did not make significant gains either. The mass of Labour voters simply did not vote. We cannot afford a repeat of that.

The SWP is all too aware of the differences and difficulties involved in constructing such an alternative.

We do not believe we have all the answers or a perfect prescription for a left wing alternative.

But we do believe we have to urgently start a debate and begin planning to come together to offer such an alternative at the next election, with the awareness that Gordon Brown might not survive his full term.

One simple step would be to convene a conference of all those committed to presenting candidates representing working class interests at the next election.

The SWP is prepared to help initiate such a gathering and to commit its forces to such a project.

We look forward to your response.

Although I am not a British citizen, I would like to offer my response. Far be it from me to issue Leon Trotsky-like pronunciamentos from afar, I have followed the SWP closely enough to offer the comrades some free advice.

To start with, I think it is a step forward to hear things like “We do not believe we have all the answers or a perfect prescription for a left wing alternative.” This is the beginning of wisdom for such groups and bodes well for the future, at least on the verbal level.

In an accompanying article titled “Time to fight back together”, the SWP is even more forthright on the need for unity:

There is a desperate need for an alternative. The absence of a credible left group to vote for means that people remain without a choice when it comes to elections.

Many people wonder why the left can’t unite together to provide a stronger, more credible alternative to the pro-war and neoliberal policies of the major parties.

There is real potential for a united left group to make a real impact—not just by winning votes but also in helping to pull people together to build resistance on the ground.

But here is the problem. The SWP just went through a wrenching experience in building a broad left political party called RESPECT. The resulting split cost it members, influence and the drawing of factional lines in their party. Unless the comrades are willing to reject the methodology that led to this fiasco, I am afraid that they will simply repeat past mistakes.

In order for a united left group party to succeed, it cannot be a “united front” as conceived in the past by party leader Alex Callinicos. I have tried to explain why in articles titled “The SWP, Respect and the united front”  and “The Crisis in Respect”.

Just to recapitulate briefly, a united front was conceived by Lenin as a kind of ad hoc agreement between Communists and social democrats to march together against a common foe, particularly the fascists. In fact, there will be more and more of a need to forge such alliances in light of the success of the BNP.

But Lenin never thought of the united front as an electoral mechanism. He did propose votes for social democratic parties, but that was only a way to get a hearing among rank-and-file members. His main hope was to expose the reformist leaders of such parties, including the Labour Party of the 1920s, in order to win the ranks to Communism.

The SWP never really thought through what this tactic meant when it came to working in a common framework with people like George Galloway who they describe as a reformist. It would also pose problems with how to relate to people in RESPECT, who while not having a background in the admittedly reformist Labour Party like Galloway, had not reached revolutionary socialist conclusions about changing British society. How does one describe them? Revolutionary? Reformist? Or does it really matter?

The point is that such terminology means very little in the current stage of British politics because despite the election of BNP’ers the question of power is not being posed. When someone like George Galloway decides to bolt from Labour, it is the equivalent of Ralph Nader breaking with the Democrats. Leaving aside Nader’s ideology, his act in challenging the two-party system is much more objectively revolutionary than a thousand May Day leaflets from the sectarian universe.

I raise these questions because I see clinging to old habits in the Irish SWP, a group that obviously reflects the thinking of its sister party. In hailing the election to the European parliament of Socialist Party member Joe Higgins (a part of the Ted Grant-spawned Committee for a Workers International, not to be confused with their bitter rivals in the Grantite International Marxist Tendency), the Irish SWP defined its role in relationship to Higgins and the radical movement in somewhat uninspired terms:

The radical left must now enter discussions to form either an alliance or broad radical left party, where different tendencies can co-exist. Previous arguments that such a development might be ‘premature’ make little sense today.

The Socialist Workers Party is already working productively within the People Before Profit Alliance, promoting its own distinctively revolutionary socialist views while working with others on the 90 percent we also agree on. There is absolutely no reason why an alliance of this sort cannot be expanded.

Seemingly unable to break with old habits, the Irish SWP states explicitly what I fear looms implicitly in its sister party’s open letter. When you see a reference to a “broad radical left party, where different tendencies can co-exist”, you get the sinking feeling that they hope for a “united front” of left parties that worked so poorly in RESPECT and elsewhere. Perhaps it is high time that this thinking in terms of “tendencies” (an awful word that reminds me of a psychiatrist’s handbook) is relegated to the dustbin of history especially when the comrades follow up with their desire to promote “their own distinctively revolutionary socialist views”. Unfortunately, this desire to promote such views is depressingly reminiscent of the corporate world’s reliance on special ingredients that make one laxative better than another. For in the final analysis, such “distinctively revolutionary socialist views” more often than not boil down to defining when the USSR became state capitalist or remained a workers state. This is not the proper subject for Marxists today and should be relegated to the back pages of a theoretical quarterly.

What the SWP should consider is a total break with their modus operandi and moving toward the approach of the NPA in France. Initiated by the Trotskyist LCR, the New Anticapitalist Party decided to put aside questions of “distinctively revolutionary socialist views” and emphasize the real questions facing the left in 2009. Hopefully, since the SWP seems to have a good grasp on these questions, they can begin to take the next step and evolve toward a more transparent and open political framework that has the possibility of truly uniting the left. In other words, they should return to the road of V.I. Lenin, the 20th century’s greatest exponent of left unity based on the evidence of 1917.

June 9, 2009

Cocaleros: a documentary about Bolivia

Filed under: Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm
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