Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2009

Yanomami science wars, part 2

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

The Cast of Characters

As I read through the mind-blowing account of the principal characters in the Yanomami dispute in Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, it began at first to remind me of Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, with Napoleon Chagnon as a stand in for Marlin Brando. But then I realized that it bore a more striking resemblance to Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, another tale of madness in the Amazon rainforest that some critics cite as a major influence on Coppola’s movie.

Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, is a conquistador who leads his soldiers deeper into the jungle trying to find El Dorado, the lost city of gold. At the end, monkeys surround him as he hacks through the underbrush in a futile quest. Chagnon was not looking for gold, but Indian behavior that would validate his Hobbesian thesis about the cruelty of primitive society. In the end, Chagnon was just as isolated as Aguirre, relying on the support of his acolytes in the academy.

In this post I want to introduce you to the cast of characters that figure in this bizarre drama, starting with Napoleon Chagnon. In subsequent posts, having a firm idea of the players will help you navigate through what will be unchartered territory for most of you, just as it was for me before starting this research project.

The Chagnon camp

1. Napoleon Chagnon

Born in 1938, Chagnon was a 26-year-old undergraduate at the University of Michigan who was approached by a professor named James Neel, a long-time expert in the field of genetics, to collect blood samples from Indians living in the Amazon rainforest. Neel would fund the anthropology student’s research while he collected blood.

His research turned into a dissertation titled “Yanomamö Warfare, Social Organization and Marriage Alliances” that made all the points he would become famous for. Although one cannot assume that his research was in some way directly related to the divisions in American society over the Vietnam war, it could not help but be influenced by the protests occurring everywhere, including the U. of Michigan.

In 1984, a graduate student asked Chagnon if there were any pacifist Yanomami. He replied, “You mean cowards? I don’t go to the Amazon to study cowards”. During the 1960s when so many left-leaning students were struggling to create a society based on peace and equality, Chagnon’s research could only serve to reinforce the idea that society was hierarchically structured and violent by nature.  The Yanomami wars over women were a case in point. To the victors belonged the spoils, namely the successful spread of one’s genes.

In 1976, when Chagnon was at the pinnacle of his fame and power, he received a $260,000 grant (equivalent to one million today) from the National Science Foundation to study mortality and divorce in Yanomami-land.  He hired a graduate student named Kenneth Good, who would become an authority on the Indians in his own right in the future. The two men soon became drinking buddies even though Chagnon made him uncomfortable. Tierney writes:

One of the graduate students was Kenneth Good. Until then, Good had been a good friend and protégé of Chagnon’s. They got to know each other at Penn State University, where Good was Chagnon’s drinking buddy. “We used to go down to bars and drink together,” Good recalled. “It was an embarrassment, but I did it because he was going to be my chair. He was the type of guy who had German shepherd attack dogs, and he’d have people come over to his house in the afternoon and he’d have the students dress up in padded suits and have the dogs attack them. Oh, yes. They’d have to put out an arm or a leg and the dog would attack. Students could get injured. And he used to like taking the attack dogs—whose names were Gus and Parma—into bars so he could corner big, 200-pound-plus weightlifter types.

To prepare his students to deal with the Yanomami’s supposed extreme violence, Chagnon obtained extra-strength chemical mace from the Pittsburgh Police Department (which Good re-labeled “Center County Dog Repellent” in order to pass customs). Chagnon also armed Good with a double-barreled Winchester shotgun.

Apparently Chagnon brought his machismo ways with him into the rainforest, which he thought crucial to showing the warlike Indians who was boss. He made a prominent display of the shotguns he brought with him and occasionally fired a pistol in the air to cow the supposedly bellicose Indians.

He also sought to become a dominant figure within their society by adopting their clothing (or lack of) and rituals. Pablo Mejìa, a Yanomami fluent in Spanish, first met Chagnon when he was 12 years old. This is how he described Chagnon to Tierney:

I was in Momaribowei-teri. That’s the first village where Chagnon arrived after he established himself at Bisaasi-teri. He thought he would become a sorcerer [brujo]. In order to be a sorcerer, he asked the other brujos to teach him. When he arrived at the village, he had his bird feathers adorning his arms. He had red onoto dye paint all over his body. He used a loincloth like the Yanomami. He sang with the chant of his shamanism and took yopo [a powerful hallucinogen used by Yanomami shamans that alters vision and self-awareness]. He took a lot of yopo. I was terrified of him. He always fired off his pistol when he entered the village, to prove that he was fiercer than the Yanomami. Everybody was afraid of him because no one had ever seen a nabah [white man, outsider] acting as a shaman. He would, say, ask, ‘Who was your dead father?’ He said to my brother Samuel, who was the headman, ‘What is your mother’s name?’ My brother answered, ‘I don’t want to say her name. We Yanomami do not speak our names.’ Shaki [Chagnon] answered, ‘It doesn’t matter. If you tell me, I’ll pay you.’ So, although they didn’t want to, people sold their names. Everyone cried, but they spoke them. It was very sad. I remember well because I was about ten or twelve years old. That’s how things were with Shaki. He said, ‘I want to be a shaman who works only for your village. Go ahead and teach me.’ He would say this to the old ones, the shamans. But they were afraid. Later he went to Mishimishi, where they taught him. Shaki had his own shaman circuit. He would say, ‘I am the cacique of all the Yanomami.’ He played everything, risked everything. I’m not the only one who heard—everyone heard him. He can’t deny it. When he would come to our village, all the children would run into the forest screaming with fear. I’ve never seen anything like it.

2. James Neel

Beginning with his research into the effects of radiation on its victims in Hiroshima  and Nagasaki, Neel made a career out of the study of genes. He died at the age of 85 in 2000, just before he got dragged into the controversy over the Yanomami.

Neel had become fixated on the Yanomami who because of their isolation from other gene pools were seen as ideal specimens. He believed that they enjoyed a high standard of living by world standards, especially caloric intake. Hence, their proclivity for war making could not be explained in terms of resource scarcity, a traditional cause of war in indigenous societies.

Neel’s interest in genetics was not just academic. He was a latter-day adherent to  eugenics, a racist “science” that took social Darwinism—the precursor to sociobiology—to its extreme. Tierney writes:

Neel was obviously not afraid of being called a eugenicist; the title of his autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool, is a good definition of one. Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, founded eugenics in the 1880s. It became a political-scientific movement to weed out undesirable traits from the gene pool, and encourage desirable ones. Eugenicists led campaigns for mass sterilization of the unfit. Neel had a career-changing moment when he visited the Eugenics Records Office in New York in 1942 and realized how much work it would take him to make eugenics a true science.

In Michigan, Neel campaigned for statewide screening of defective fetuses and did a cost-benefit analysis showing how much money each abortion would save the state ($75,000). Where Neel differed from most people, and most scientists, was his belief that fetuses with some easily curable defects should be aborted—because they would ultimately run down the gene pool by passing on the undesirable trait. Like Galton, Neel stood in self-confessed “awe” of the process of evolution, and horror of modern society’s attenuation of competition. Galton preached a crusade to promote Social Darwinism and went as far as suggesting that “a missionary society” be founded “with an enthusiasm to improve the race.” In some respects Neel’s Department of Human Genetics became this missionary society.

But while European eugenicists saw northern blonds as the pinnacle of creation, Neel felt a romantic attraction to tribal societies. By 1957, he had begun speculating that primitive tribes optimized selective breeding. In 1962, he visited Brazil’s Xavante tribe, where he had an almost conversion experience while hearing their shamans chant around night fires. “Suddenly the thought came to me that I was witness to a scene which, in one variation or another, had characterized our ancestors for the past several million years. The sudden realization of this contact with the thread of evolution resulted in another of those very emotional professional moments; this time I could feel the hair on the nape of my neck stirring. . . .”

In Neel’s world, as opposed to the racists who would tend to put indigenous peoples at the bottom of the totem pole, the Yanomami were superior because they lived by stricter Darwinian laws than the more effete modern societies that did not fully exploit the “genetic potential” of each citizen. In an article titled “On Being Headman”, Neel wrote:

I believe we will agree that there is scant prospect of our engineering an early return to Yanomama population structure– small demes, living of course in twentieth-century comfort, in which a generally acknowledged headman of superior attributes enjoys a well-defined reproductive advantage. Since there is little prospect society will ask us to remake it with these or other extensive eugenic measures, there really are available only two practical (i.e., socially acceptable) courses of eugenic action for the immediate future. The first is an increasing concern with the provision of genetic services designed to decrease the transmission of genes causing disease…The second eugenic measure which geneticists can facilitate is a concern with measures which influence human mutation rates…

3. Charles Brewer-Carìas

As hard as it may be to believe, Brewer-Carìas is even more outlandish than Chagnon. In a movie, Dennis Hopper could play Brewer-Carìas while Gary Busey would be a good Chagnon before the actor suffered brain damage from a motorcycle accident.. Who knows. Maybe the brain damage would have helped the performance.

As an amateur botanist and explorer, a member of a wealthy Venezuelan family, and a government official from 1979 to 1982, he was uniquely positioned to facilitate Chagnon’s forays into the Amazon. Charlie Brewer, as he was better known, was profiled in an August 28, 2006 NY Times article that stated:

His English grandfather, Mathias Brewer, came to Venezuela by way of St. Thomas, then a Danish possession, and served for decades as Britain’s vice consul in La Guaira, a port near Caracas. His mother’s family descends from a Spanish general dispatched by Madrid in the early 19th century in an effort to reassert control over Simón Bolívar’s rebels.

“We were counterrevolutionaries, of course,” said Mr. Brewer-Carías, who speaks English with a slight Spanish accent. “I am for an oligarchy, an oligarchy of the well prepared.”

His brother Allan R. Brewer-Carías, a noted legal scholar according to the Times, went into exile in 2005, accused of helping to draft the decree used to overthrow Hugo Chávez in April 2002. He was seen in “The Revolution Will not be Televised” explaining why the Venezuelan constitution was no longer valid.   Perhaps he was called in as an outside consultant to advise the Honduran military. He is now an adjunct professor in the law school at Columbia University of all places.

Allan’s brother Charlie also had a thing about overthrowing governments. At one point he organized a paramilitary that he led in an incursion into Guyana. After Guyana put its army on alert, the invaders withdrew and Brewer got fired from his ministry of youth job. He sent videotape to the Pentagon trying to make the case that Guyana was infested with Marxists.

Charlie Brewer was as macho as Chagnon, even more so possibly. He was the inventor of a “Survival Knife” that can be purchased on the Internet in various places and used to carry a handgun with him to the gym. His explanation: “Everyone out there wants to kill me.” While Chagnon was into attack dogs, Brewer kept hawks in a cage at his house and liked to feed them chickens in order to impress houseguests. When Chagnon got together with Brewer, it was a match made in heaven.

But the biggest controversy surrounding Brewer had to do with his encroachment into Indian territories in order to mine for gold and tin. While trying to develop the image of a friend of the Indian, he was working overtime to poison their rivers. At the very time the plight of the Indians was becoming a cause célèbre of human rights groups around the world Brewer was using his influence in the upper rungs of Venezuelan society and the state to pursue his dirty profits.

Brewer set up a strip mining operation near Pemon Indian land in Venezuela that left their waters polluted and their hillsides stripped of trees. Not only was it against the law, it was contrary to Brewer’s claim that he was a conservationist. Apparently the only thing he was interested in conserving was profits.

Just around the time that Brewer began his mining operations, legislation was proposed to grant the Yanomami some kind of autonomy that would have prevented their lands from suffering the same fate as the Pemon. Brewer denounced the plans bitterly which he described as the results of a conspiracy involving a sociologist named Estaban Monsoyi and Muhammed Gadhafi.

All the while that Brewer was undermining Indian sovereignty, he was cultivating important international scientific institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Museum of Natural History, and the Royal Geographic Society, flying in their staff members to give them guided tours of the rainforest. Tierney writes:

Meanwhile he kept expanding his gold-mining ventures relentlessly. In 1984 the Venezuelan National Guard caught Brewer mining along the Lower Ventauri River in an area where commercial activity was banned. El Diario de Caracas reported that “the ex-minister…was arrested together with other people by the National Guard troops at Kanaripò, because he didn’t have the necessary permits to travel in that area, where—in addition to gold—he was also commercializing and exporting fauna and other species without authorization.”

Well, Brewer was being honest when he told the NY Times that “we were counterrevolutionaries”.

The anti-Chagnon camp

1. Jacques Lizot

Lizot (l) and Chagnon (r) before their split

If some anthropologists liken the Yanomami to chimpanzees fighting with each other to achieve dominance over females, then at least one might have saw them as a much more peaceful and even sexually egalitarian society that was consistent with the Bonobo chimps. Among the Bonobos, tensions are released through sex, including homosexual practices. Although he never likened the Yanomami to Bonobos, this was implicitly the view of Jacques Lizot, a gay anthropologist from France and student of Claude Lévi-Strauss who became Chagnon’s greatest professional adversary in the science wars.

Like many other scientists, Claude Lévi-Strauss was attracted to the Amazon rainforest since it provided an ideal laboratory setting to test out his theory. He thought that the indigenous peoples could illustrate universal social structures that would crop up in more advanced societies.

He recruited Jacques Lizot to study the Yanomami as part of a large expedition in 1968. He arrived on the same cargo-laden airplane as Napoleon Chagnon and Timothy Asch, a documentary film-maker whose collaborations with Chagnon have been viewed by legions of anthropology students (this is the topic of my next post.)

Lizot was so bisexually predatory, exchanging trade goods like machetes for sex, that he got the nickname Bosinawarewa from the Indians, a word meaning anus/vagina devourer. Eventually he settled into a homosexual routine that made the Indians wary. But with his access to trade goods, Lizot was eventually able to become the master of a village in the same fashion as Chagnon. Both Chagnon and Lizot viewed the Salesian missionaries who were also trying to establish a beachhead in the rainforest as rivals.

Tierney quotes anthropologist Kenneth Good, who had no use for either Chagnon or Lizot, on how Lizot held sway in the village of Tayari-teri that he ruled like a scene out of “Heart of Darkness”. He had a retinue of young men who attended to his every need in exchange for spaghetti dinners, a welcome break one supposes from the steady diet of plantains they grew in nearby gardens. They were also paid in cigarettes which Lizot kept in a 30 gallon waterproof drum.

If Chagnon projected his own ideas about aggressiveness on the Yanomami, Lizot tended to find evidence of sexual hunger everywhere he looked. In “Tales of the Yanomami”, Lizot claims that they were ingenious masturbators using everything from holes in the ground to dead animals. He also states that the Indians believe that it is “scandalous” for a boy to perform fellatio on his sister, but there is no shame in “eating the anus” of one’s brother. Missing, of course, from both Chagnon and Lizot’s studies is the independent voice of the Indians themselves. We have to take their word for what goes on in an Indian village. Patrick Tierney offered a contrary view from another scientist:

Alcida Ramos, a Yanomami specialist at the University of Brasilia who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, was the first to politely argue that Lizot’s erotic Yanomami were a projection of his own personality. “Discretion and naturality…are overridden by Lizot’s voyeurism…Having the ever-present narrator hovering over them has the effect of lending the Yanomamo an unreal quality, as if they were characters in a play…” Ramos also ventured that Lizot’s unfettered love stories would elicit “a chuckle of disbelief” from the Yanomami—particularly the passages about achieving orgasm in broad daylight inside the communal shabono [house].

Eventually Chagnon and Lizot would have a confrontation that involved their respective fiefdoms in the Yanomami world. More about that in a subsequent post. There is also an article by Lizot that is a pretty convincing rebuttal to Chagnon’s claims about Yanomami fierceness that I will report on down the road.

2. Patrick Tierney

Despite my political and intellectual animosity toward Jared Diamond, I doubt that I could ever summon up the visceral energy that allowed Tierney to spend 11 years researching a book intended to destroy Napoleon Chagnon’s reputation. It was almost an exercise out of Moby Dick.

If Tierney’s book is intended to debunk the idea that Indians in the Amazon were warlike, his initial scholarly efforts would suggest a similar kind of bias directed against the Aztecs. He was the author of “The Highest Altar: the story of Human Sacrifice”, which he described as a “Chagnonian book”. For those who follow anti-Indian scholarship, the business of Aztec sacrifices is dredged up constantly to make the European invaders less evil by comparison. It is similar to pointed out the alleged destruction of the woolly mammoth by paleo-Indians. Why make a big deal out of the white man’s destruction of the bison in the late 1880s if Indians had done the same thing themselves?

Tierney, a journalist by training, decided to write a book about the gold rush in the Amazon rainforest in the late 1980s. The more he studied the topic, the more disgusted he became with the miners. Eventually he became an activist and helped organized a speaking tour for Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader whom Chagnon labeled a “parrot” of Survival International, the group accused by LM magazine of trying to keep Yanomamis in a zoo.

Shortly after Tierney wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times in 1995 attacking gold mining operations in the rainforest, identifying Charlie Brewer as a prime offender, his ideas about Chagnon were solidifying, eventually leading him to the conclusion that Chagnon should be banned from the territory.

He made an attempt to interview Chagnon at the U. of California Santa Barbara, but Chagnon brushed him off. Eventually he sat down with Tierney and defended his association with Brewer and everything else he was up to but not without displaying a certain “victim” mentality—stating “I’m tired of being a scapegoat.” When “Darkness in El Dorado” appeared in print 5 years later, that would be the beginning of Chagnon’s real woes.

As much of a public service as Tierney’s book is, it has to be stated that it is marred by serious flaws that allowed Chagnon’s defenders to use reverse jiu-jitsu on him. I will take up these flaws in a later post.

July 17, 2009

Letter sent to Goldman Sachs PR chief

Filed under: capitalist pig,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 2:33 pm

Lucas Van Praag

Dear Lucas Van Praag,

I almost feel like a doctor being called in to assist a patient with stage 3 lung cancer, but as a Goldman Sachs alumnus, I feel the call of duty and want to offer my services as a public relations consultant. I have a background eminently suited to the problems you are facing and that no other PR firm can offer. As a Marxist since 1967, including the time spent at Goldman, I am uniquely positioned to sensitize you to the ever growing hostility to corporations, particularly those perceived as operating above the law.

Back when I worked at Goldman, Newsday ran a profile on Nicaragua solidarity activists that mentioned me:

Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.

But don’t let that fool you. I am a revolutionary and have a 400 page FBI file to prove it.

I know that it must be painful to be perceived in these terms, but you have to admit that this is Goldman’s image. As inured as I am to radical critiques of American society, even I was shocked to hear financial analyst Max Keiser tell France 24 TV news that “If Goldman Sachs took Auschwitz public, they would sell shares to their friends and family and say, ‘this concentration camp’s a great business’” and that “The tragedy of 9-11 is that more of these Goldman Sachs bankers didn’t go down, that’s the ultimate tragedy.” When a Wall Street insider like Max Keiser begins to sound like Ward Churchill, let’s face it, you have serious problems on your hands.

Now I have to admit that I was never a big shot at Goldman like Nomi Prins, whose new book “It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street” will likely cause more embarrassment for the firm. I was only a systems analyst hired to convert Goldman from Burroughs to IBM. It did grieve me to leave the firm in 1990 after word got out those older and better-paid employees in information technology would be replaced by younger and cheaper trainees. I know that I could have sued the firm for age discrimination, but I decided to resign instead. I didn’t want to work for people who saw me as a kind of potted plant that could be replaced on a moment’s notice.

Of course, Rick Adam, the partner in charge of IT, should have gotten the axe rather than me since he was a decidedly shady character despite a West Point degree that must have recommended him to the firm.

As you may know, Adam has the reputation of something of a crook. I hope that is not what qualified him to be hired as a partner. He is being pursued now by the town of Pueblo, Colorado that is  seeking $2 million owed them after his aircraft company declared bankruptcy. I imagine that if he was made of true Goldman stuff, Pueblo would be paying him off.

Anyhow, let me get down to brass tacks. It seems to me that Goldman’s problem is that it is too insulated from American public opinion, particularly from its growing left wing, to understand how to improve its image. In a way, you are the Wall Street equivalent of the George W. Bush White House.

I realize from the email I get as a former employee that the firm is involved in various philanthropic and environmental initiatives but that hardly seems adequate to mollifying a rising tide of anger akin to the homeowners being victimized by Lionel Barrymore in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Here’s what you need to do. You have to begin funding radical causes in the U.S. and around the world. Forget about the Bono/Jeffrey Sachs approach. From a PR standpoint, that is like putting iodine on a melanoma. You need to set up a foundation targeting explicitly anti-capitalist ventures.

For example, it would do wonders for your image if you donated 10 million dollars to Hugo Chavéz’s party. Can you imagine the screeching that would be heard from Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh? That would do more to salvage your reputation than double that money spent on the World Wildlife Fund or Meals on Wheels.

There is absolutely nobody in a better position to identify deserving radical causes than me, having been in the trenches of the American left for more than 40 years. Give me a call at Columbia University between 9 and 5 and we can work out the terms of a contract that would be mutually beneficial.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

July 16, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part 1

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

When I first learned about the Jared Diamond/New Yorker scandal a year or so before it went public, the first thing that sprang to mind was another anthropology scandal that broke out in 2000 with the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon”.

Tierney’s book was an attack primarily on Napoleon Chagnon who was a leading expert on the Yanomami Indians in the Amazon rain forest, based primarily in Venezuela. Chagnon’s book on the Yanomami, until the most recent editions, was subtitled “The Fierce People”. He had developed the thesis that warfare between various Yanomami villages was endemic and that it was caused by rivalry over access to females. In a kind of survival of the fittest, the most aggressive Yanomami warriors had the greatest possibility of propagating their genes.

For those who have watched documentaries on the chimpanzees on National Geographic documentaries, you will make the connection immediately. For Chagnon, there is little difference between men and animals when it comes to the all-important question of survival. In 1979 Chagnon and William Irons co-edited a book titled “Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior” that coincided with the emergence of sociobiology as the latest trend in the sciences harking back to social Darwinism. Grasping his affinity with Napoleon Chagnon, E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, wrote a fawning introduction to Chagnon’s “Yanomami: The Last Days of Eden”, a popular adaptation of his original study, a book that has become the best-selling anthropology text of all time after Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa”. Ironically, both Mead and Chagnon’s have been viewed as responsible for one-sided portrayals of their subjects flowing from their respective ideological biases. Mead sought evidence, even falsified, to support her thesis that Samoan adolescents were sexually liberated while Chagnon was only interested in data to help his argument that the Yanomami were bellicose, even to the point of staging ax fights for a movie that the participants were paid for in advance, like Hollywood extras.

Diamond and Chagnon cooked the books to demonstrate that the Papua New Guinea highland tribesmen and Yanomami Indians were warlike in exactly the same way that George W. Bush got us into war in Iraq. The weapons of mass destruction were non-existent, just as the mass killings were in PNG and the Amazon rain forests.

The idea that communal societies such as the Yanomami are more violent than those based on class ownership of the means of production is at the very heart of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology as it is called nowadays). In an article that appears in the current issue of Greater Good Magazine,  Stephen Pinker makes the argument that tribal warfare was far more horrific than anything experienced in the 20th century:

Our seemingly troubled times are routinely contrasted with idyllic images of hunter-gatherer societies, which allegedly lived in a state of harmony with nature and each other. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like, for example, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that “war is not an instinct but an invention.”

But now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, that statement might seem hallucinatory or even obscene. But if we consider the evidence, we find that the decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon: We can see the decline over millennia, centuries, decades, and years. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers—which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago—he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. If the death rate of tribal warfare had prevailed in the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million, horrible as that is.

Pinker has been one of the most prominent figures associated with evolutionary psychology since the publication of “The Language Instinct” in 1994. In 1997 Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article in the New York Review titled “Darwinian Fundamentalism”  that took on Daniel Dennett, one of Pinker’s co-thinkers. Dennett wrote a letter to the magazine defending his approach, as did Pinker and a group of fellow evolutionary psychologists in a subsequent issue. Gould responded to all of them, who were no doubt irked by Gould’s observation that:

Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection—the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent, he understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.

In this light, especially given history’s tendency to recycle great issues, I am amused by an irony that has recently ensnared evolutionary theory. A movement of strict constructionism, a self-styled form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields, from the English biological heartland of John Maynard Smith to the uncompromising ideology (albeit in graceful prose) of his compatriot Richard Dawkins, to the equally narrow and more ponderous writing of the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (who entitled his latest book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). Moreover, a larger group of strict constructionists are now engaged in an almost mordantly self-conscious effort to “revolutionize” the study of human behavior along a Darwinian straight and narrow under the name of “evolutionary psychology.”

Jared Diamond makes an identical argument to Pinker’s in his book “The Third Chimpanzee”, even going as so far as to accuse the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall as prototypical Nazis. In the infamous New Yorker article, he states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.” So violent were the PNG tribesmen that when the British colonizers arrived, they supposedly were grateful for being delivered finally from bloody Hatfield-McCoy feuding that never came to end. At least that’s Diamond’s argument.

I first became interested in the Yanomami in 1996 after an article appeared in Living Marxism, the magazine better known by its initials LM. Its hostility to human rights groups defending the Indians was so disturbing to me that I resolved to dig into the question of Marxism’s relationship to indigenous peoples in order to see why they had gone so wrong. LM was put out of business in a libel trial in Great Britain which victimized them for one of the few progressive stands they took—namely debunking the claims about concentration camps in Bosnia that were made an excuse for NATO intervention. After LM folded, the group evolved in a libertarian direction and in its latest permutation—Spiked Online—makes no pretense to Marxist politics.

After the libel suit, the magazine’s archives became unavailable but the article by Ann Bradley (a pen name for Ann Furedi, who was married to the LM leader) can be read on the alt.politics.socialism.trotsky newsgroup, courtesy of one of its members at the time, one Justin Flude.

Bradley writes:

I think Fiona Watson, Survival’s Brazil campaign officer, has got one hell of a cheek to write disapprovingly that ‘sadly not all Yanomami groups have been able to resist encroaching white society’. Why exactly is she so horrified that in one area ‘some of the Yanomami have slung their hammocks around the stilts supporting the abandoned [government agency] post’? Perhaps it makes it harder for her to get picturesque photos. Fiona believes we should protect the Yanomami from the advances of civilisation by declaring their lands a national park where their culture could be preserved. It sounds like a human zoo to me.

The hard truth is that, whether we value them or not, you can’t preserve cultures in the way that you can preserve jam. The Yanomami, even if they wish to, cannot remain isolated from the world system. Even if they have no interest in going into the developed world, the developed world will come to them.

Already capitalist development is having its effect on tribal people. Over the last 20 years an increasing number of gold and tin miners have moved into Yanomami’s lands bringing diseases and infections to which they have no immunity. Waste from the mining processes have poisoned the water supplies and the noise and disruption of the mining itself has scared away the animals which the tribal peoples hunt.

This article gives backhanded support to incursions into Yanomami territory even though it gives lip-service to the idea that gold and tin mining are wreaking havoc. At the time such an article was written, Survival International and other such groups were in the forefront of defending the right of the Yanomami to live as they please. Ann Furedi’s article would serve as fodder for those who believed in the forced assimilation of the Yanomami and the opening up of their territory for capitalist development. In the grotesque misuse of the Communist Manifesto that LM specialized in, all corporate assaults on native peoples and the environment were seen as essential to ushering in the benefits of civilization. In a nutshell, it was Kautskyite stagism adapted to the sensibilities of the British yuppie left of the 1990s.

As we shall see, Chagnon’s “fierce people” notions had something of the same effect. Just around the time that gold and tin mining interests were targeting Yanomami lands, articles in the mass media influenced by Chagnon’s scholarly articles served to undermine Indian sovereignty. Why bother to defend Yanomami rights when they were so bloodthirsty?

A 1976 article in Time Magazine titled “Manly or Beastly”  put it this way:

Implied in Chagnon’s findings so far is a notion startling to traditional anthropology: the rather horrifying Yãnomamõ culture makes some sense in terms of animal behavior. Chagnon argues that Yãnomamõ structures closely parallel those of many primates in breeding patterns, competition for females and recognition of relatives. Like baboon troops, Yãnomamõ villages tend to split into two after they reach a certain size.

This kind of disgusting racism gave implicit support to the idea that the Yanomami had to be treated as wild animals.

Over the next week or so I am going to be blogging in some depth about the issues raised by Patrick Tierney’s book but for those who are interested in them but want to be spared the time and expense of reading “Darkness in El Dorado”, I can strongly recommend an article by Tierney that appeared in the November 6, 2000 New Yorker Magazine that was the opening salvo in a bitter war among those pro and anti-Chagnon. Although the article is behind a subscriber’s firewall, you can read it in its entirety on the W.H. Norton website, the publishers of his book.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

The New Yorker, November 6, 2000

Did Napoleon Chagnon’s expeditions harm one of the world’s most vulnerable tribes?


In November, 1964, Napoleon A. Chagnon, a twenty-six-year-old American anthropology graduate student, arrived in a small jungle village in Venezuela, to study one of the most remote tribes on earth–the Yanomami Indians. At the time, the boundaries between Venezuela and Brazil were still uncertain. The upper Orinoco, with its tumultuous rapids and impassable waterfalls, had frustrated conquistadores since the sixteenth century, making its mountain redoubts a perfect blank slate for the dream of El Dorado and other fantasies about the New World. The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who visited the area at the turn of the nineteenth century, wrote, “Above the Great Cataracts of the Orinoco a mythical land begins . . . the soil of fable and fairy vision.” The Yanomami themselves were rumored, by other tribes and by the earliest explorers, to be “wild” and dangerous–so dangerous that, in 1920, one of the first Americans to encounter them, the geographer Hamilton Rice, opened fire with a machine gun, fearing that the Yanomami were cannibals. Four years later, Rice met the Yanomami again and wrote that they “are not the fierce and intractable people that legends ascribe them to be, but for the most part poor, under-sized, inoffensive creatures who eke out a miserable existence.”

The reality that Chagnon encountered was, in many ways, stranger than anything previously imagined. In “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” which was published in 1968, Chagnon gave both a harrowing account of a prehistoric tribe and a sobering assessment of what life was like for people whom he later referred to as “our contemporary ancestors.” “The Fierce People” eventually became one of the most widely read ethnographical books of all time, selling almost a million copies in the United States alone. Buttressed by subsequent films about the Yanomami made by Chagnon and a documentary filmmaker, Timothy Asch, the book became a standard text in anthropology classes worldwide, and it has gone through five revised editions, the last one in 1997.

“The Fierce People” was written with the verve of an adventure story but was grounded in extensive empirical research. The book opens with this description of Chagnon and an American missionary named James Barker, stumbling into a Yanomami village:

I . . . gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. . . . I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. . . . What sort of a welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you?

By 1968, Chagnon had spent nineteen months with the Yanomami. During this time, as he writes, he “acquired some proficiency in their language and, up to a point, submerged myself in their culture and their way of life.” He studied the Yanomami in a broad variety of aspects, from their travel habits to their technology, use of hallucinogens, agriculture, intellectual life, social and political structures, patterns of settlement, division of labor, marriage practices, trading, and feasting. What was most striking about them was, he wrote, “the importance of aggression in their culture.” The Yanomami, he concluded, lived in a “state of chronic warfare”:

I had the opportunity to witness a good many incidents that expressed individual vindictiveness on the one hand and collective bellicosity on the other. These ranged in seriousness from the ordinary incidents of wife beating and chest pounding to dueling and organized raiding by parties that set out with the intention of ambushing and killing men from enemy villages.

Between 1968 and 1972, Chagnon made five more expeditions into Yanomami country, exploring increasingly remote villages. In a 1974 book, “Studying the Yanomamö,” and in subsequent editions of his first book, he describes surviving a murder attempt by his hosts–whom he frightens off with a flashlight–and a close encounter with a jaguar, which sniffs him in his hammock. Despite repeated death threats, he pushes on into uncharted territory, where he discovers an isolated group, whose members he calls “the Fiercer People.” Abandoned by a Yanomami guide, he hollows out a log canoe and returns downriver.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, anthropologists had been inspired to venture farther and farther afield in search of “pure” people, uncontaminated by the Industrial Revolution. In the nineteen-twenties, Margaret Mead went to the South Pacific and wrote her best-seller “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Mead described native life in idyllic terms that spoke to the war-weary mood of the time, while overlooking some of the less pleasant aspects of Samoan life, such as the high incidence of violent rape.

“The Fierce People” was the product of a different period. Chagnon, who was born in 1938, had spent an austere childhood in small-town, rural Michigan; his father was an undertaker, and he was the second of twelve children. He earned his doctorate in anthropology at the University of Michigan, and obtained a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the Yanomami. “The Fierce People” was published at the height of the Vietnam War, when violence was the subject of national debate, and it became, in effect, the ethnographic text for the sixties. In 1997, Chagnon told an interviewer for the Los Angeles Times that he had written about the Yanomami in reaction to the “garbage” he had learned in graduate school about “noble savages.

Read full article

July 13, 2009


Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 5:20 pm

While by no means a masterpiece, I can recommend “Valkyrie”, a conventional Hollywood treatment of the General’s plot to kill Hitler. This is now the fourth movie that I have seen about the German resistance to Hitler. White Rose and Sophie Scholl, two German films about the underground student movement against Hitler, are outstanding.  So is Restless Conscience, a documentary about the General’s plot that would be a good companion piece to “Valkyrie” and which unfortunately is not yet available from Netflix. If you have more than the routine interest in the topic, as I do, you might want to buy Restless Conscience from Amazon.com. It is $36 but well worth the money.

Since “Valkyrie” starred Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who planted the bomb intended to kill Hitler, I expected the movie to be something like the latest installment in Mission Impossible with von Stauffenberg up to all sorts of deeds of derring-do.

To my surprise, the movie is a sober, understated straightforward account of the failed plot with a minimum of melodrama. There is even little in the way of personal interaction between von Stauffenberg and his wife Nina, played by Carice van Houten. One of the great things about Restless Conscience was its interview with Nina von Stauffenberg who died at the age of 92 not long after the movie was made.

Co-written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, the script makes a point of steering clear of trying to characterize Claus von Stauffenberg’s motives—something that they admit having trouble figuring out. Unlike the students or Christian activists involved in the struggle against Hitler, he is probably somebody who would have been more than happy to see WWII fought on the same basis as WWI. He only turned against Hitler when it became obvious that the ambitions of the 3rd Reich would lead to the complete ruin of the nation. It is also possible, although more difficult to make a case for, that he was appalled by the treatment of Jews and Russians. Giving the Nazi officers the benefit of a doubt, we can accept the premise that the aristocratic elements of the German bourgeoisie were never quite happy with a psychopath like Hitler in power, especially when he could not deliver the goods.

In one key scene, after Tom Cruise is arresting various loyalists to Hitler, he shouts out words to the effect that the plotters were restoring Hitler’s Germany to its former glory. It was not clear whether these words were intended to divide the loyalists or as an expression of von Stauffenberg’s true beliefs.

The movie was dogged by controversy from the moment that Tom Cruise was named to play von Stauffenberg. Apparently Scientology is much less popular in Germany than it is in Hollywood. Initially Germany banned the film crew from using German military facilities as a backdrop for various scenes.

While the movie can best be described as workmanlike—almost plodding in its adherence to strict chronological detailing of the conspiracy—it compels your attention strictly through its subject matter. For those who reject the Goldhagen thesis that the German nation, to a person, was demonically committed to Hitler’s insane project, the movie is a reminder that men and women of good will existed, just as they have existed in nearly 8 years of the “war on terror”.

“Valkyrie” is available from Netflix and well worth watching.


NY Times, July 16, 2009

High-Born Prussians Who Defied Their Origin


BERLIN — Monday is the anniversary of the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Hitler, and services will be held here, as they are every year, where the conspirators were executed. Among those remembered, Count Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg may not ring many bells these days outside Germany, or even inside it. Others came to be famously associated with the plot. But as the German historian Hans Mommsen wrote, “Schulenburg was the inner driving force of the conspiracy.”

Schulenburg’s sister, Countess Elisabeth von der Schulenburg — Tisa, as she was called — was an artist. They constituted an extraordinary pairing.

The Schulenburgs were a very old, very high Prussian clan, staunchly Nazi, and as such a reminder of the complexity of families, not least German ones, aristocratic or otherwise. Their story is a cautionary tale about judging history, or a people, any people, in black and white.

Tisa’s sculptures and drawings can bring to mind the work of Käthe Kollwitz or Otto Dix. Pictures she drew about the Holocaust are among the first by a German. Charismatic, liberated, uncompromising and fearless, she thrived before and after the war in the circles of Henry Moore and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Oskar Kokoschka. A convert to socialism as a very young woman, she found a calling teaching art among the coal miners in Britain, to which she moved in 1933 with her first husband, Fritz Hess, who, to her family’s horror, was a Jew.

Read full article

July 12, 2009

Obama’s Ghana speech

Filed under: Africa,Obama — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Hawking Obama t-shirts in Ghana

In the same fashion that was on display in his Cairo speech, Obama understood how to use words in Ghana that would make him appear as transcending colonialism, almost like the second coming of Franz Fanon.

He alluded to his Kenyan grandfather:

My grandfather was a cook for the British in Kenya, and though he was a respected elder in his village, his employers called him “boy” for much of his life. He was on the periphery of Kenya’s liberation struggles, but he was still imprisoned briefly during repressive times. In his life, colonialism wasn’t simply the creation of unnatural borders or unfair terms of trade — it was something experienced personally, day after day, year after year.

He even had the nerve to invoke Martin Luther King Jr., who regrettably is not alive today to be leading Detroit auto workers in protest against the vicious onslaught organized by America’s first Black president:

Fifty-two years ago, the eyes of the world were on Ghana. And a young preacher named Martin Luther King traveled here, to Accra, to watch the Union Jack come down and the Ghanaian flag go up. This was before the march on Washington or the success of the civil rights movement in my country. Dr. King was asked how he felt while watching the birth of a nation. And he said: “It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice.”

Obama’s knack for using such phraseology was what of course helped him sucker the Nation Magazine and the housebroken 60s radical left into backing his presidential bid. That is why in a sense it was a waste of time for Hugo Chavéz to present Obama with a Galeano book. He had probably read it and books like it as a young man in order to mine them for the telling phrase that could be used before a left-leaning audience. If any good came out of the Chavéz gift, it was putting Monthly Review books in the black for a year.

Once you penetrate through the verbiage, however, you discover that Obama’s recommendations for Africa are practically the same as those offered in books like Robert Guest’s “A Shackled Continent” or Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid”. Such books attribute Africa’s “backwardness” to internal failings of leadership. A lack of democracy and endemic corruption hold Africa back, not imperialism. Here’s how Obama puts it:

In many places, the hope of my father’s generation gave way to cynicism, even despair. Now, it’s easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many.

It was exceedingly clever for Obama to bring up the case of Zimbabwe since it cannot be denied that Mugabe has been responsible for much of the country’s ruin but the lion’s share of the responsibility falls on Great Britain that has punished the people of Zimbabwe for Mugabe’s sins. More to the point, Mugabe brought down the wrath of Great Britain for moving against the white agrarian gentry more than anything else. Crying crocodile tears over Mugabe’s repression, Great Britain found it easy to ignore far worse offenses to democracy in Nigeria where British-owned oil companies like Shell conspired with the generals to kill Ken Saro-Wiwa. If the generals threw out Shell, you can bet that sanctions of the most extreme sort would be imposed on Nigeria.

The reference to Kenya ignores the main cause of poverty there and that is the role of the country as an exporter of agricultural commodities to the Western marketplace like tea, coffee and cotton. Even if corruption were cleaned up tomorrow, the country would still be miserable. If Obama was truly concerned about Kenyan poverty, the first thing he would do is abolish the IMF and World Bank. Pambazuka News reported:

Kenya’s health care crisis has been 20 years in the making. Its dimensions are spelled out in the 2004 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) – a government document written in consultation with the IMF and World Bank and approved by both bodies’ boards. Life expectancy declined from 57 in 1986 to 47 in 2000; infant mortality increased from 62 per thousand in 1993 to 78 per thousand in 2003; and under-five mortality rose from 96 per thousand births to 114 per thousand in the same period. The percentage of children with stunted growth increased from 29% in 1993 to 31% in 2003, and the percentage of Kenya’s children who are fully-vaccinated dropped from 79% in 1993 to 52% in 2003.

Why this deterioration? As in most African countries, Kenya’s health care system was hit hard by the “structural adjustment” policies imposed by the IMF and World Bank as conditions on loans and as prerequisites for getting IFI approval of the country’s economic policies. Those policies were introduced in the 1980s, and have left a lasting mark on Kenya’s health. As usual with such programs, the emphasis was on cutting budget expenditures. As a result, local health clinics and dispensaries had fewer supplies and medicines, and user fees became more common. The public hospitals saw their standard of care deteriorate, increasing pressure on the largest public facility, Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. As a consequence, that hospital, once the leading health facility in East Africa, began, like so many other African hospitals, to ask patients’ families to provide outside food, medicine, and medical supplies. Most beds at Kenyatta and the regional and local hospitals accommodated two patients. Professional staff have taken jobs – some part-time, some full-time, at private healthcare facilities, or migrated to Europe or North America in search of better pay.

Given Obama’s willingness to “play ball” with Republicans in the U.S. over health care, including the ditching of a “public option”, one doubts that he would shed a tear over the disasters taking place in Kenya. After all, if the IMF and World Bank cannot rely on prompt debt repayment, the whole system might collapse taking American investors and their Kenyan stooges down the toilet with them.

This week Obama asked for an additional $108 billion for the IMF, all in the name of rescuing the world economy. It goes without saying that the same criterion being applied inside American borders is being applied overseas. Rescue the banks and hospitals and schools be damned.

As opposed to basket cases like Zimbabwe and Kenya, Obama sees great signs of hope in a democratic and increasingly prosperous Ghana:

Now, we know that’s also not the whole story. Here in Ghana, you show us a face of Africa that is too often overlooked by a world that sees only tragedy or a need for charity. The people of Ghana have worked hard to put democracy on a firmer footing, with repeated peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections. And by the way, can I say that for that the minority deserves as much credit as the majority. And with improved governance and an emerging civil society, Ghana’s economy has shown impressive rates of growth.

Perhaps Obama got all worked up over Ghana after reading an April 24, 2001 Tom Friedman article titled “Protesting for Whom?” that scolded anti-globalization activists and that claimed that Africans favored globalization—the more the better. He cited Ghana as an example of the kind of success free capitalist trade offers:

Ghana, like so many African countries, has largely lived off aid and the export of raw materials. But for the first time it is developing an information sector to do data processing for American Express and Aetna, which is providing jobs that pay much higher than average Ghanaian salaries. “People here want into the global marketplace; they know it’s the only way out of poverty,” says George Apenteng, director of Ghana’s Institute for Economic Affairs. “But people here are also worried they won’t be able to compete and that [Western] markets aren’t as open to what we can sell, like agriculture, as ours are to what they sell.”

If Ghana is the best that Africa can do, then this continent’s version of “Slumdog Millionaire” would be a lot grimmer than anything seen in the movie based in a Mumbai call center. A recent UNICEF report noted:

With more than two decades of progressive, peaceful and democratic political stability, as well as a robust and growing economy, Ghana has emerged as a leader in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Yet, despite Ghana’s relative prosperity, poverty remains pervasive in the country’s three northern regions, which now account for half of Ghana’s population living under the poverty line.  This situation was exacerbated by a recent energy crisis coupled with a humanitarian emergency caused by a combination of severe rains and overflowing rivers.

One third of rural populations lack access to safe drinking water, and only 11 per cent have adequate sanitation. Guinea worm, a parasitic infection largely attributable to drinking unsafe water, continues to plague Ghana which reported more cases of Guinea worm than any other country in 2004.

While parroting the Obama/Friedman line about Ghana’s “success story”, the July 11th Toronto Globe and Mail issued these warnings:

Despite its progress, Ghana is still ranked only 142 of the 179 countries in the UN human development index, which measures quality of life. Some Ghanaians are so poor that they turn to desperate measures. Just last week, when a Ghana International Airlines plane landed at Gatwick Airport near London, the undercarriage contained the dead body of a man who had apparently risked his life to flee the country. He perished at high altitude.

Ghana has been fortunate that its major export commodities, gold and cocoa, have been immune to the global financial crisis. But many people are excluded from this export-driven growth. Inflation is high, and Ghana’s currency has plunged in the past year.

“It looked like Ghana had turned the corner, but it’s a fragile model,” says Yao Graham, co-ordinator of Third World Network-Africa, a research and advocacy group in Ghana. “Many enterprises have collapsed, and there are loads of young people who can’t get a job, while the rich are living in compounds with barbed wire and guard dogs.”

How odd that Obama can hold up Ghana as a symbol of success when it ranks 142 in the UN HDI index. By comparison, Cuba ranks 51st and is grouped with the highest tier of industrial nations. (Iceland was number one in the world until it fell off the map during the financial crisis, an argument against integration in the world capitalist economy if there ever was one.) Cuba achieved this rank despite having no access to the IMF or World Bank (or because of). It was also forced to spend a disproportionate share of its national income on defense, a function of being under the gun of Uncle Sam. It was also still recovering from the loss of its main trading partner, the USSR.

It is understandable why Obama would be reluctant to allow Americans to visit Cuba. Some might come back with an unaccountable admiration for a planned economy that places its emphasis on human need rather than private profit. This might lead them to question a government that subsidizes the IMF with an extra $108 billion and forks over $533 billion to the Pentagon, not to speak of the entire miserable system that Obama goes around the world huckstering for.

July 11, 2009

Samuel Farber’s latest folly

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Samuel Farber

The latest issue of Against the Current (http://www.solidarity-us.org/atc/current) has a colloquium on Cuba occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the revolution. As might be expected, they have an offering from Sam Farber who is on the editorial board and a self-styled Cubanologist. Farber has been a frequent contributor to ATC and to ISO journals, as well as the author of a couple of books on Cuba. In my opinion, his ideologically-loaded agenda and scholarly lapses tarnish the reputation of any journal that publishes him, but after all we are living in a free country.

His latest article titled “Political Controls from Above” (http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/2274) incorporates all his crappy tendencies and unfortunately requires me to take time from my busy schedule to rebut.

About half of the article is devoted to complaints about Cuban cultural practices, including the banning of the Beatles music in the 1960s. This is blamed on Stalinism but a more accurate analysis would base itself on trying to understand Cuban society in terms of a country trying to define itself culturally after so many years of colonialism. In the Soviet Union in the 1920s the government promoted art that reflected the revolutionary zeitgeist. Soviet art academies probably did not foster the development of figurative art that would have been considered decadent. That is what happens in revolutions. They are subject to excess, including on the cultural front.

However, in the 1930s Soviet culture was heavily controlled by Stalin who had the final word on what went into a movie. Some of the great experimental artists of the 1920s no longer were able to work after socialist realism became imposed on the country. Nothing like this happened in Cuba on the scale indicated by Farber. For a more nuanced take on Cuban excesses in this period, I can recommend Nelson Valdes’s article “Cuba, the Beatles and Historical Context“. He writes:

The escalation of the war in Vietnam (1965), the rift between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (1963-1966) did not leave much room for music appreciation with help from Liverpool. Moreover, American teenagers were becoming a mass market for “I Saw Her Standing There” while in Havana people discussed how to take a country out of underdevelopment. Then there was also the problem of defeating 600 guerrilla groups armed by the Central Intelligence Agency and operating in the Escambray Mountains. In New York DJs spoke of “Golden Hits” but in the Dominican Republic US Marines were landing and hitting towns with their overwhelming fire power. And the US air force had just begun bombing North Vietnam.

Cubans were baffled when the Queen of England appointed the Beatles “Members of the Order of the British Empire” circa June 1965; by then Che had begun the efforts to spark continental revolutions in Africa and Latin America began to confront a wave of military coup d’etats.

In those days, the Americans certainly could not lecture the Cubans about matters of music appreciation. When the Beatles finally began to address the necessity of giving “peace a chance” [a Plastic One Band project] and even criticized US policy in Southeast Asia, criticism of them began in the United States. When Lennon made the passing remark that they were more popular than Jesus, the Bible belt reacted. Radio stations classified the Beatles as anti-American and a boycott ensued. The Beatles had to choose between sales and political convictions. They ended up apologizing for their views on politics and religion to the American rightwing. The Cubans found the whole matter disconcerting.

Granted, by 1966, the Beatles had turned against US interventionism. The Beatles were not a phenomenon that had a popular impact on Cuba, then. Yet, Silvio Rodríguez in the late 1960s had a TV program called ‘Mientras Tanto’ where he actually defended the Beatles’ music and songs. Silvio was criticized and lost his TV spot.

The Beatles’ transcendentalism and Eastern mysticism (circa 1968) alienated Cuban radicals and revolutionaries as well. However, Cuban musicians were impressed by their freedom of composition. But in those days, Cubans had more serious concerns than imagining a yellow submarine when the real ones were just 12 miles away, and the only “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” they knew were the U-2s and Blackbirds that entered their air space in order to clock the Cuban Air command and control structures.

Whatever excesses existed 40 years ago, nobody can accuse Cuban culture of being regimented. The Beatles have been given their place in history and Cuban movies are often cutting edge critiques of government insensitivity. The problem with Farber is that this world is of little interest to him. He is much happier mining ancient Cuban history for blemishes that support his ideological agenda, which can best be described as socialist utopianism. This is not utopian socialism but a belief based on the idea that the obligation of socialists is to conceive of a kind of ideal world that by ritual incantation in the pages of magazines can somehow be realized by divine inspiration.

Farber is past master at making such allegations that later turn out to be unfounded. In 2003, he gave an interview to New Politics in which he made the startling revelation that Cuban dissidents were being put in mental hospitals, just like in the USSR. After doing some research on this question, I discovered that the sole reference to such a thing in Lexis-Nexis was to a Milagro Cruz Cano who had indeed spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.

It turns out that Cano was a guitar-playing religious zealot who hooked up with the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez after leaving Cuba. The first article that turned up in Lexis-Nexis hardly reveals her as a fighter for democracy:

Milagro Cruz Cano a blind worshipper who plays her guitar outside tourist hotels, said her instrument had been taken away by police. Last Saturday, she said, someone with an authoritative voice approached her outside a hotel and said, “Enjoy this until the pope goes, because we’ll take it out on you after he leaves.”

(USA Today, January 26, 1998)

I don’t know how quite to put this, but playing a guitar in front of tourist hotels is not quite the sort of thing that got Grigorenko tossed into a psychiatric hospital.

Another article was hardly likely to make this case either:

A few blocks from where the cameras wait and the people chant, Milagros Cruz Cano, a blind 32-year-old exile, has been living in a tent on the street, existing on Gatorade and water.

Until the moment she was finally banished from Cuba 10 months ago, she believed her daughter, who is now 9 years old, would be allowed to come with her.

“When I told my daughter that they allowed me to take my two dogs, but not her,” Milagros explained through a translator, my daughter, she say, “Mama, put me in the cage and dress me as a dog, so I can be with you. Please, Mama, do not leave me.”

(The Boston Herald April 6, 2000)

But if you go to the Amnesty International website and enter “Cuba” and “psychiatric” in their search field, you will find nothing except a reference to the unfortunate Ms. Milagros.

One of the most telling allegations was about the Cuban Stalinist Anibal Escalante who Farber describes as being victimized solely over his critique of Cuban economic policy:

Among countless repressive incidents of that period was the purge, for the second time, of the old Stalinist Aníbal Escalante who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1968 for organizing what was really a discussion group. His so-called “microfaction” had been meeting to analyze the shortcomings of the Cuban economy from an orthodox Soviet perspective and was friendly with a number of Soviet block diplomats.

Now this is ancient history but it is worth reviewing. Farber’s reference to Escalante being “friendly with a number of Soviet block diplomats” does not even scratch the surface.

Perhaps the most authoritative study of Castro’s Cuba is Tad Szulc’s “Fidel: a critical portrait”, a 685 page work with 13 pages worth of footnotes by the liberal NY Times reporter. In 1985 Szulc interviewed Fabio Grobart, the head of the Historical Institute of the Marxist-Leninist Institute in Cuba, and found his account of the Escalante affair credible.

Grobart stated that the Escalante group operated as a faction hostile to the Cuban government and sought to ingratiate himself to the Kremlin in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. This was a period in which Cuba was poised to break openly with the USSR. Castro, while endorsing the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, had offered a critique of the Soviet bureaucracy that could have been written by a Trotskyist. He had also issued a strong condemnation of pro-Soviet parties in Latin America that had opposed the rural guerrilla warfare orientation. So sharp were the differences that Cuba had refused to send a delegation to a conference in Bucharest in 1968 convened to deal with the Sino-Soviet split, something that Szulc regarded as a “slap in the face to the Soviets”. This led to strained economic relations between the two countries in which there was a substantial drop in trade. On February 2nd 1968 Granma announced that “no one can call us a satellite state and that is the reason we are respected in the world.” For its part Pravda responded by denouncing “reactionaries who follow the writings of men who call for revolutionary changes in the entire social system”, a clear rebuke to Fidel Castro.

None of this is acknowledged in Samuel Farber’s highly selective reading of Cuban history. But perhaps more to the point it demonstrates once again that Farber has a soft spot in his heart for Cuban Stalinism, something that seems to have eluded his “socialism from below” friends in Solidarity and the ISO. In the Vol. 18, No. 1 1983 edition of Latin American Research Review, Farber has an article titled “The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?” that is positively glowing over the CP, especially in comparison to the Castroites:

Last but not least, the PSP [Popular Socialist Party, the pro-Kremlin official party] was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted to the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

While I can understand why some people can go positively weak in the knees over being in the presence of groups that “stress a systematic ideology”, I for one am more inclined to agree with Karl Marx who told Bracke that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” I think that is doubly true when it comes to the activity of the PSP.

During the 1930s the PSP supported Fulgencio Batista about whom secretary-general Blas Roca said “When Batista found the path to democracy, the party helped him.” Batista returned the favor and enjoyed a close relationship to the party. Two Communists became part of Batista’s cabinet in 1942. This was all part of the Popular Front strategy that we assumed people like Samuel Farber would have a dim view of. Or maybe dimwitted…

Batista left office in 1944 but returned as a dictator in 1952. While opposing the takeover, the PSP continued to operate as a reform-oriented housebroken opposition party. It reserved most of its zeal to be used against the youthful guerrillas led by Fidel Castro who were described as “putschists” after the 1953 attack on the Moncada.

Finally, just a word about Farber’s defense of the 75 “dissidents” who were found guilty of being on the American payroll:

Moreover, this situation should not be judged in isolation from the overall context of the Cuban state monopolizing the means of publication and broadcasting. In addition to lacking any legitimate avenue to express their ideas, dissidents are routinely denied educational opportunities and fired from their state jobs, which constitute the great majority of available jobs in Cuba. This situation will lead many of them to the unfortunate conclusion that the enemy of their enemy is their friend, if not to become outright supporters of the United States, and thus make them willing to receive financial aid from the U.S. government.

I find this line of reasoning to be disingenuous in the extreme. People in Cuba come to the American consulate in Cuba not because it is their last resort but because they have given up on Cuba. Try to put yourself in a Cuban’s shoes. The United States has invaded your country, forced dictators on it, likely used chemical and biological weapons, bombed movie theaters, blown up civilian airliners, and made repeated assassination attempts on your president. I would as soon go to the American consulate as voted for Bush in the last election. Samuel Farber, who was born in Cuba himself, seems to have allowed his enmity for Fidel Castro to override all objectivity. I can understand why somebody with such a background would end up this way, but it is incomprehensible to me why the people at Against the Current and the ISO would continue to treat him as an unbiased source. Very regrettable indeed.

July 10, 2009

MRZine and Sex Change Operations in Iran

Filed under: Gay,Iran — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

Iranian transsexuals

Despite aspiring to speak for the Iranian left, which in its view is reducible to Ahmadinejad and the forces that support him, MRZine has come under attack again and again by the Iranian left, both in exile and in Iran itself. The pro-Ahmadinejad tilt is mainly the contribution of the editor Yoshie Furuhashi who became converted to the Ahmadinejad cause before assuming control of the online publication at the time of its launching exactly 4 years ago.

To some extent comrade Furuhashi’s attachment to Ahmadinejad transcends politics, as indicated by this comment she made on Doug Henwood’s listserv a month after MRZine debuted.

Today is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inauguration. Rostam Pourzal made a tough deadline and delivered a great article in time for it. Now, it’s featured on the homepage of, together with (what I think of as) a handsome photo of Ahmadinejad.

Like Furuhashi, Rostam Pourzal is an unabashed supporter of Ahmadinejad. In June of 2006, he wrote an article for MRZine defending the Iranian government’s crackdown on International Woman’s Day on the basis that no women were beaten–only arrested. He cites a correspondent from Tehran who was an eyewitness:

In [sic] two different occasions, I saw two groups of protesters, each about four or five, who were arrested and driven away in vans. In one occasion, a woman protestor who was resisting arrest was treated roughly by a female officer, but I saw no beatings, and no use of batons and gas against the protestors.

This is most reassuring that there were only arrests and rough treatment. I can see Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff smiling benignly from their clouds in Marxist heaven over this revelation.

Pourzal’s article was so outrageous that it prompted an open letter by members of the Iranian left in exile that posed the question:

Let us assume for a moment that the report in the email received by Pourzal is correct, and that the demonstrators were not hit by batons but by flowers. Shouldn’t one consider any effort by the state to stop a peaceful demonstration by women in a park an act of aggression? Isn’t this unnecessary violence?

With the political crisis developing in Iran since the elections, MRZine has effectively functioned as a propaganda arm of the Iranian government, even more openly than in the past. If you read the comments at the bottom of the offending articles, you will find Iranian leftists expressing their outrage but none supporting the editorial position of the zine. This is typical:

I live in tehran and for the last 30 years I have felt the brutal and fascist nature of Islamic state. Is MR in supporting position of Islamic state? My comrades brutally sentenced by Islamic State, some times for translating MR materials! I don’t konow why you are not supporting Iranian Left? and Are you supporting a Fascist-Islamist regime?!!

farhang | 06.22.09 – 2:59 pm | #

Today, there’s a very useful article by Saeed Rahnema, a Professor of Political Science at York University in Canada, on Znet titled “The Tragedy of the Left’s Discourse on Iran” that hones in on MRZine:

The most bizarre case is the on-line journal MRZine, the offshoot of Monthly Review, which in some instances even publicized the propaganda of the Basij (Islamic militia) hooligans and criminals. The website has given ample room to pro-Islamist contributors; while they can hardly be considered to be on the left, their words are appreciated by the leftists editing the site. One writer claims that the battle in Iran is about “welfare reform and private property rights,” and that Ahmadinejad “has enraged the managerial class,” as he is “the least enthusiastic about neo-liberal reforms demanded by Iran’s corporate interests,” and that he is under attack by “Iran’s fiscal conservative candidates.” The author conveniently fails to mention that there are also much “corporate interests” controlled by Ahmadinejad’s friends and allies in the Islamic Guards and his conservative cleric supporters, and that he has staunchly followed “privatization” policies by handing over state holdings to his cronies.

During the 1979 revolution, the late Tudeh Party, under the direction of the Soviet Union, was unsuccessfully digging deep and looking hard for “non-capitalists” among the Islamic regime’s elements to follow a “non-capitalist path” and a “socialist orientation.” Now it seems that MRZine magazine is beginning a new excavation for such a breed among Islamists, not understanding that all factions of the Islamic regime have always been staunch capitalists.

While it is tempting to look at the MRZine editor’s passion for Ahmadinejad in psychological terms, it is more profitable to approach it politically. To begin with, it must be stated that Comrade Furuhashi likely turned her attention to Iran because she had become frustrated with the slow pace of politics in the U.S. After a brief experience with the antiwar movement and membership in Solidarity, she found to her dismay that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were continuing despite her best effort. And even bigger pill to swallow was the fact that American workers continued to remain politically passive. I can commiserate with her after spending the past 42 years of my life banging my head against the wall trying to foment a socialist revolution in the U.S. That being said, I’d prefer to take up bird-watching rather than propagandize for Ahmadinejad.

For those trying to get a handle on MRZine’s editorial direction, it must be stated that the pro-Ahmadinejad tilt is likely inspired by the line of two Marcyite groups, the Workers World Party and a recent split that goes by the name of Party of Socialism and Liberation. It should be said that these two groups are indistinguishable politically and probably split over who would run the show, an outcome generally associated with the corporate world rather than Marxism-Leninism. The term Marcyite is a reference to the founder of Workers World Party, one Sam Marcy who split with the American SWP over its support for the Hungarian revolution in 1956 preferring to back Soviet tanks.

The two strands come together in an MRZine article titled “An Open Letter to the Anti-War Movement: How Should We React to the Events in Iran?” by Phil Wilayto that has all the earmarks of a Workers World piece. Although Wilayto represents himself as an independent, he did write for their newspaper in the past. The MRZine article has the Workers World/PSL approach down pat. You dredge up some evidence that imperialism is opposed to some government and then work overtime to prettify it, whether it is run by Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. Here’s a sample of his mechanical approach:

This is from a June 25 story in USA Today: “The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, records and interviews show, continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President [George W.] Bush.”

That story, published 13 days after the Iranian elections, explains that the U.S. Agency for International Development, which reports to the U.S. secretary of state, had for the last year been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to “promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran.”

Pretty clearly, that’s internal interference. After all, imagine how Americans would have reacted if Iran had allocated millions of dollars to “promote democracy” in Florida after George W. Bush stole the 2000 presidential election?

Speaking only for myself, I don’t allow U.S. support for dissident movements to guide my thinking on various governments. The U.S. backed Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and I opposed the Soviet government nonetheless. But in the case of Cuba, I support the government and oppose the dissidents. If this is too complicated for others to understand, I recommend a remedial course in Marxist dialectics.

Wilayto also adopts a stratagem that is found in Workers World articles when dealing with characters like Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. The author finds evidence to make them look irresistible. In the case of Ahmadinejad, this most frequently takes the form of hailing his populist measures that benefit the poor. This we are led to understand trumps democratic rights, a kind of paternalism generally associated with Stalinism of the 1940s and 50s.

It is a bit more difficult to put a spin on the question of personal freedom, especially when it comes to women and gays. Ahmadinejad has a most unusual position on the latter, stating to a Columbia University audience:

In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you we have it.

Wilayto implicitly tries to finesse this question by referring to Iran’s generosity in enabling sex change operations:

Subsidies for food, housing, gas, public transportation, airline seats, movies, arts, books, fertilizers, vacations, and sex change operations. (That’s right. Iran has the highest number of sex changes operations of any country except Thailand. Subsidized by the government.)

This enthusiasm for subsidized sex change operations has been expressed by Furuhashi and the Workers World Party in the past as well. On her blog, Furuhashi calls attention to “Changing Sex, Changing Islam” and finds encouragement in a newspaper article that states:

One early campaigner for transsexual rights is Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who was formerly a man known as Fereydoon. Before the revolution, under the shah, he had longed to become a woman but could not afford surgery. Furthermore, he wanted religious guidance. In 1978, he wrote to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the leader of the revolution but was still in exile, explaining his situation.

The ayatollah replied that his case was different from that of a homosexual and therefore he had his blessing.

Workers World is even more breathless in an article that warns gay activists to stop protesting the treatment of same sexers in Iran:

Today, Tehran offers more rights to transsexuals than any other government on the planet, including low-cost government loans for surgery and free hormones. Khomeini made the initial decision and it has since been reconfirmed by many other Iranian clerics.

This credulous support for sex change operations must be challenged and fortunately an excellent documentary on the matter called “Be Like Others” can be seen on Youtube in its entirety. It makes three essential points as it monitors the progress of several men scheduled for sex change operations:

  • They opted for surgery because life for transgender people is a living hell in Iran. Harassment by thugs on the street or potential arrest by the morality police forces them to go through the procedure.
  • After the surgery, they are victimized by their new identity and can not find jobs. One interviewee makes her living as a prostitute utilizing the “Islamic temporary marriage license” to permit her to have sex with a john for about an hour.
  • All suffer serious depression of the kind that causes many transsexuals in Iran to commit suicide.

I urge you to watch the entire movie, starting with part one below:

If you don’t have the time, at least have a look at this article which encapsulates the lessons of the movie quite effectively:

Filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian has long been fascinated by gender issues, so when she read a New York Times story about how the Iranian government was dealing with homosexuality, she was completely transfixed.

Iranian-born herself, the New York-based filmmaker learned that in Iran, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. But the government has provided a way out for the nation’s gays and lesbians: a sex-change operation. Fully paid for by the state, the procedure would allow these people to conform to Iran’s theocratic standards of sexuality.

Eshaghian decided she had to interview some of those involved in this gender-reassignment program. The result is a devastating documentary called Be Like Others. Shot in verité style, the film captures the pain and brutality of a regime that is pushing sex-change operations as the path to a final solution to homosexuality.

What was nearly as surprising as the revelations in the film is the fact that Eshaghian didn’t have to go undercover to get her story.

“It’s a very public phenomenon,” she says. “These sex changes are legal and are endorsed by the leading clerics. It’s embraced. I asked for a press permit before I went. After a month, I was given the OK. Officially, I was allowed to do what I needed to do. It’s not like I was doing a film on nuclear strategy — they don’t see it as an openly political issue. The rest was what you have to do with any documentary: spend a lot of time gaining trust.”

What her film reveals is a culture so steeped in hatred of gays and lesbians that it deems a sex change preferable to simply accepting differences in sexual orientation. The shift in policy came more than two decades ago, when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious decree) declaring sex changes permissible for “diagnosed transsexuals.” Be Like Others introduces us to a number of the people who have been given this label. Some have accepted their fate, and feel the sex change to be a way to avoid further persecution; others are clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but have agreed to it simply because of intense outside pressure. One young woman laments that her boyfriend seems uninterested in her now that she’s no longer a man.

Full article can be read here.

Finally, I advise you to check out the film’s official website here.

July 9, 2009

Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Opening tomorrow at the Quad and Lincoln Plaza theaters in New York City, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is both an affectionate tribute to the first situation comedy on television as well as a rueful look at the McCarthyism that practically destroyed the show. Directed by Aviva Kemper, this is a documentary that will appeal to those with an interest in Jewish popular culture and the American left—in other words, just like the author of this review. But beyond our ranks, I can recommend it as a film that is equal to its subject matter in terms of its universality. Despite its ostensibly narrow focus—the vicissitudes of a very Jewish household in the Bronx—it was one of the most popular radio and television shows of the 30s through the 50s. This was directly attributable to the strength of the scripts written by Gertrude Berg and her performance as Molly Goldberg, the zaftig matriarch.

Born in 1898, Gertrude Berg’s roots were in the Catskill Mountains “borscht belt”, just like mine. Her father owned Fleischmann’s Hotel and she worked as a bookkeeper there in her teens. In a bid to entertain the Jewish guests who stayed there in the summer, she developed a skit based on a character named Maltke Talnitzky, a fiftyish woman who is always bickering with her husband. These skits were the germ of the idea that evolved into her radio and television shows. She eventually married Lewis Berg, a young engineer who she met at the hotel. As the inventor of decaffeinated coffee, he became quite wealthy and encouraged his wife in the arts.

On November 20, 1929 “The Rise of the Goldbergs” debuted on CBS radio and was an instant hit with the American people no matter their ethnicity. It seemed that it didn’t matter what country you came from, everybody knew somebody like Molly Goldberg even if they were named Rosa Cellini or Mary Xenakis. By the 1940s, Gertrude Berg was the best-known woman in the U.S. after Eleanor Roosevelt and also the wealthiest. She was, as the documentary points out, the Oprah of her day with a string of businesses connected to the show. Politically, Berg was a major supporter of the New Deal and the show reflected the populist themes of the day, along with moral exhortations to take part in civic affairs such as buying War Bonds and collecting scrap metal for the war effort. The show was in the forefront denouncing Hitlerism, both in Germany and in its nascent stage in the U.S. where the German-American Bund held mass rallies. At the time, Father Coughlin—the Rush Limbaugh of his day—spoke flatteringly of Hitler on his radio show.

In real life, Gertrude Berg was nothing like the character she played. She came from a wealthy family to begin with and became even wealthier through her show business conquests. During the Great Depression she lived on Park Avenue and probably never set foot in the Bronx. The documentary relates that she would visit the Lower East Side to listen to Jews kibitzing with each other to get inspirations for her next show.

The television show premiered in 1949 just as the Red Scare was taking shape. Celebrities everywhere in Hollywood and on radio or television found their names in Red Channel, a publication that was dedicated to rooting out anybody who had served on a committee to raise funds for the Spanish Popular Front war effort or to defend the Scottsboro boys.

One of them was Philip Loeb, who played Molly Goldberg’s husband Jake. Once CBS and the show’s sponsors got word that Loeb was accused of being a Red, they demanded that Goldberg fire him. She resisted until the very end, but only relented when it became clear that the show would be dropped if Loeb was retained. She did not want to victimize the other people working on the show. Loeb was crushed by this experience and spent the next few years trying in vain to relaunch his career. Eventually he took an overdose of sleeping pills in the Taft Hotel in 1956, an event that was dramatized in Walter Bernstein’s “The Front”—the sole difference being that the Loeb character (played by fellow blacklistee Zero Mostel) jumped out the window rather than taking pills.

Director Aviva Kempner has made other movies about Jews before. Her “Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”, the Detroit Tiger baseball superstar who never played on holy days is excellent, as is her “Partisans of Vilna”, a documentary that leaves the awful “Defiance”, a fictional movie based on the Jewish guerrilla fighters, in the dust. This is a fine addition to her body of work and a must see for New Yorkers starting tomorrow. The film opens in Washington and Los Angeles later this month and national distribution soon afterward. Look for it in your local film news.

Official website

July 7, 2009

Uighur oppression

Filed under: China,Islam,Turkey — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

Uighur woman confronts Chinese cops

My Turkish language professor at Columbia University once made an interesting observation. He said that variations on the Turkish language (Turkic) can be heard from Turkey to China and that he could understand it from country to country if he proceeded eastward. But the further east he went, the harder it would be for him to understand. Azeris would be quite easy to understand; Kazakhs somewhat more difficult; and Uighurs (or Uyghurs) the most difficult of all.

On the Uighur Language website, there’s a comparison between Turkish and Uighur drawn from the Nasreddin folklore, a series of tales about a wise and humorous elder that I had occasion to read in Turkish class. “Bir gun” in Turkish means one day; in Uighur it is “bir kun”. Hoca is Turkish for teacher; in Uighur it is “hoja”, etc.


Bir gun sevmedigi bir komsusu Nasreddin Hoca’nin kapisini caldi; bir gunlugune esegini kendisine vermesini rica etti.


Bir kun yahxikurmeydighan bir hoxnisi Nasirdin Hojaning ixigini urup, exigini bir kunlik otnige berixini soraptu.

Uighur ballad (sounds very Turkish)

During the rise of the Mongols, the Turks, who were also a nomadic people historically, settled into the region that became known as Turkestan. As such, it was a key element in the Silk Road that facilitated trade between Europe and Asia until the end of the 15th century.

This area languished for centuries until competition between China, Russia, and European powers during the 19th century prompted an invasion by the Manchus into East Turkestan with the encouragement of British banks who were participating in the “Great Game”. “Xinjiang” or “Sinkiang”, which means “New Dominion” or “New Territory”, was annexed by the Manchu empire on November 18, 1884.

Meanwhile, Czarist Russia was seizing control over West Turkestan in its own expansionist bid. In their victory over the old regime, the Bolsheviks had to contend with the problem of oppressed nationalities, in particular the Muslim peoples to the south in what had been known as West Turkestan. In a fascinating debate between Lenin and Bukharin in 1919, there are some issues that are relevant to today’s struggles. Bukharin questions the need for self-determination of such peoples, using arguments similar to that of Rosa Luxemburg. Responding to Bukharin’s assertion that “I want to recognise only the right of the working classes to self-determination,” Lenin refers to the Bashkirs, a Turkic people who had petitioned the Soviet government for the right to form an autonomous Soviet Republic.

What, then, can we do in relation to such peoples as the Kirghiz, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Turkmen, who to this day are under the influence of their mullahs? Here, in Russia, the population, having had a long experience of the priests, helped us to overthrow them. But you know how badly the decree on civil marriage is still being put into effect. Can we approach these peoples and tell them that we shall overthrow their exploiters? We cannot do this, because they are entirely subordinated to their mullahs. In such cases we have to wait until the given nation develops, until the differentiation of the proletariat from the bourgeois elements, which is inevitable, has taken place.

Our programme must not speak of the self-determination of the working people, because that would be wrong. It must speak of what actually exists. Since nations are at different stages on the road from medievalism to bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois democracy to proletarian democracy, this thesis of our programme is absolutely correct. With us there have been very many zigzags on this road. Every nation must obtain the right to self-determination, and that will make the self-determination of the working people easier.

As most of you probably know, this policy was reversed within two or three years as Stalin consolidated power and reintroduced the Great Russian chauvinism that made people such as the Bashkirs miserable. Just before his death, he wrote an article that has been described as his testament. It included the following warning:

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

Probably no Turkic people had it worse under Stalinist rule than the Crimean Tatars who were exiled from their homeland as a measure intended supposedly to help the USSR defend itself from the Nazis. Since there was a Tatar Legion in the Nazi army and since some of the Tatar clerics were sympathetic to the Nazis, Stalin decided upon collective punishment. The Soviet government described the forced migration as “humane” but the Wiki on the Tatars claims that 46.3% of the resettled population died of diseases and malnutrition. In other words, they suffered the same fate as Cherokees or Armenians.

In 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, the party press, especially Intercontinental Press that was edited by Joe Hansen (one of Trotsky’s body guards), was taking up the cause of Soviet dissidents, including General Pyotr Grigorenko who was such a forceful defender of Crimean Tatar demands for justice that he had been put in a mental hospital in 1964. You can judge his mental status based on a speech he gave to the Tatars in 1968:

After having lost forty-six percent of their numbers in the forced exile disaster, they began to gather strength and to enter into battle for their own national and human rights. This struggle led to certain successes: the status of exiled deportees was lifted and a political rehabilitation of the people was achieved. True, this rehabilitation was carried out quietly … which in significant degree rendered it valueless. The majority of the Soviet people, who previously had been widely informed that the Crimean Tatars had sold the Crimea, never did learn that this ’sale’ was transparent fabrication. But worst of all, the decree on political rehabilitation… legalized the liquidation of the Crimean Tatar nationality. Now, it appears, there are no Crimean Tatars, there are just Tatars who formerly lived in Crimea.

Some would say—and they did—that the SWP was in a united front with the imperialists since the United States Information Agency had decided to publish a collection of documents written by the dissidents, including Grigorenko. Interestingly enough, they appeared in the journal Problems of Communism that was edited by Abraham Brumberg. Brumberg, who had impeccable anti-Communist credentials, developed some sympathies for the Sandinista revolution and defended Nicaragua against Reagan’s counter-revolutionary intervention throughout the 1980s. For those who think in terms of black-and-white, Brumberg would be too hard to figure out.

For all those leftists who harp on American support for the Iranian reformists as proof of its reactionary character, we can only assume that they would have opposed repatriation of the Crimean Tatars as well. If the USIA took up their cause, that’s all you need to know. In the 30s through the 50s, this kind of knee-jerk support for the Soviet government was the stock in trade of the Communist Parties. It is particularly unfortunate to see people such as James Petras, who were educated in Trotskyist politics in a previous lifetime, making the same kind of rotten arguments today.

As might be expected, the people of East Turkestan were treated just as badly as their brethren under Soviet rule since Mao, for the most part, agreed with Stalin on how to build socialism. Although China had fewer nationalities to forcefully assimilate, it did so with little regard to Lenin’s warnings about avoiding national chauvinism. In China, this was essentially expressed as Han nationalism that was intended to serve as a battering ram against non-Han peoples, first and foremost the Tibetans and the Uighurs.

China decided to swamp the Xinjiang province, the homeland of the Uighurs, with the dominant Han nationality not long after Mao took power. Between 1949 and the mid-80s, more than 5 million Chinese were sent to Xinjiang from eastern China in order to help assimilate the Uighurs, as well as other Turkic peoples including the Kazakhs, Kirghiz and Mongols.

In utter disregard of Lenin’s comment about having patience with people who still follow the lead of their mullahs, China organized a campaign against Islam under the rubric of combating a desire to restore “the old rule by capitalists, feudal lords, slave-owners” in the words of Liu Ke-ping, the Chairman of the Committee of Nationalities of the National People’s Congress. This included a ban on teaching Arabic in Xinjiang schools, a measure that would undercut the study of the Koran but likely to have little effect on the development of communism.

On January 14, 1985 the Washington Post reported:

The assimilation effort reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 when the Arabic alphabet was outlawed in favor of the Latin alphabet, mosques were closed and turned into workshops, Moslem classics were burned, restrictions were imposed on the number of sheep minority peasants could raise, and Han officials delivered speeches in Chinese without providing interpreters.

So much for the Cultural Revolution as returning China to the communist road, unless of course your idea of communism is inspired by Stalin rather than Lenin.

The Post article continues:

In 1981, ethnic tension flared in Kashgar when a young Uighur peasant who was digging a ditch got into a fight with a Han Chinese. Neither was able to speak the other’s language. In a fistfight the Han was beaten by the stronger and bigger Uighur. Angered, the Han went into his store, took out his hunting gun and shot the Uighur.

Not much has changed in Xinjiang apparently. In recent clashes with the Hans, more than 150 people were killed. With a population numbering about 8 million, this would be the equivalent of 6000 killed in the U.S. in a day or two.

As is so often the case today, oppression of Muslim peoples seems to go hand in hand with the need to control petroleum resources. On August 28, 2008 the Financial Times reported:

The increasing importance of the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang autonomous region as a source of the energy and minerals needed to fuel China’s booming eastern cities is raising the stakes for Beijing in its battle against separatists agitating for an independent state.

“The Chinese didn’t want to let Xinjiang be independent before, but after they built all the oilfields, it became absolutely impossible,” said one Muslim resident in Korla, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution by government security agents.

The desert around the city is punctuated every kilometre or two by oil and gas derricks, each of them topped with the red Chinese national flag, an assertion of sovereignty over every inch of the energy-rich ground.

In 2005, Xinjiang’s local government was allotted only Rmb240m ($35m, €24m, £19m) out of the Rmb14.8bn in tax revenue from the petrochemical industries that are based in the region.

In Korla, the oil industry is under the control of a subsidiary of PetroChina, the state-owned energy giant, which answers directly to its head office in Beijing.

“We don’t have the power to tell them to do anything – they only listen to their bosses in Beijing,” said one local government official who asked not to be named.

Many of Korla’s original Uighur residents feel they have missed out altogether on the few benefits that have trickled down to the region from the rapid extraction of its energy resources.

It is no wonder that China put so much pressure on the U.S. government not to release the Uighur men who were kept in Guantanamo after being falsely accused of being Al Qaeda operatives. In the war on terror, which is really after all a war to control oil resources, the U.S. and China clearly see eye to eye.

July 4, 2009

The revolutionary party: moving forward and standing pat

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

As a long-time observer of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (it used to be Party rather than Perspective) in Australia, I was very pleased to see them departing from conventional “Leninist” thinking and announce what amounts to an entirely different approach to the Socialist Alliance, a formation they have been leading for a number of years. Their inspiration is the NPA in France, a broad anti-capitalist formation that was initiated by the LCR, the official section of the Fourth International that has dissolved itself into the NPA.

The DSP lays out its new relationship to the SA in a document approved by their National Committee on June 7th. There is much to appreciate in this document, especially this:

Small socialist organisations operating in relative isolation in the working class movements, or sometimes substantially outside these movements because they are composed almost totally of small groups of “socialist intellectuals” are chronically plagued with what might be called “Marxist” identity politics. That is they are more concerned about “proving” to themselves that they are “real Marxists” than actually applying what Marx, Engels and Lenin taught which is to build real socialist leadership in the working class. In fact, the further away such groups are from that objective, the more loudly they assert their “Marxist” identity. What passes as politics in “the left” as we have it in this country can degenerate to little more than a ridiculous I’m-more-Marxist-than-you pissing competition. We’ve all seen this time and again with various little sects. And we’ve also seen this tendency in our own organisation.

Much of the document takes the side of the NPA in a polemical exchange between NPA leader Francois Sabado and IST/SWP leader Alex Callinicos who while not quite hostile to the NPA’s new approach to party-building is clearly uncomfortable with it. I have commented on the Sabado-Callinicos exchange here.

It should be stressed that the DSP has not yet decided to dissolve itself into the Socialist Alliance, as was the case with the LCR/NPA in France. Given the years of operating on precepts learned from American Trotskyism, it is understandable why they may be moving a bit slower than the LCR which never found James P. Cannon’s ideas that compelling. But the little distance they put between themselves and Cannon’s party building “orthodoxy” was enough to precipitate a faction fight with an “old guard” in the party that was uneasy with the new direction. The comrades in the old guard were able to capitalize on the failure of the Socialist Alliance to live up to its early promise, but I strongly suspect that this failure was attributable to perceptions that it was nothing but a maneuver on the part of the DSP to build its own ranks at the expense of the rest of the left. In other words, the approach was in keeping with the “French turn” mentality of 1930s Trotskyism that always viewed broader formations such as the SP’s as obstacles to revolution, even if they were momentarily part of them. My guess is that if the new approach to the SA incorporates transparency and guilelessness, it could become an important part of the Australian left.

The ambivalence of the British SWP toward the NPA continues. In the latest issue of International Socialism, their quarterly journal, there’s an article by a French co-thinker named Denis Godard that is filled with positive characterizations of the NPA that unfortunately are not matched by an understanding of exactly what the NPA is trying to do.  For Callinicos and Godard, the key distinction is between “revolution” and “reform” and they fret over whether the NPA is sacrificing the revolutionary purity of the LCR in favor—implicitly—of an opportunist desire to grow indiscriminately.  Godard writes:

To read Callinicos is without doubt to see that grasping the nature of reformism—that is, understanding the contradictions that run through class consciousness and understanding the dynamics of its evolution—is for him the most important factor in arming the political revival and defining appropriate strategies and tactics. I share his preoccupation.

I come at things from a different angle. I think that the biggest obstacle facing the left today, at least the revolutionary left, is sectarianism. Callinicos seems to worry that if the NPA is not careful, it will go the same route as the SP’s and the CP’s. Fundamentally, I consider this to be a rather idealistic approach to politics. Reformism is not a function of the ideas in peoples’ heads but rather material forces operating in history, including the privileges enjoyed by parliamentarians and trade union bureaucrats. In other words, the Second International degenerated not because of Bernstein’s ideas but because its leaders had become corrupted by their place in society, which made it natural for them to begin thinking like the class enemy. Material reality determines ideas and not the other way around.

Godard appears to be something of a Gramscian and his discussion of the NPA is couched in terms of a hegemonic struggle, but mixed with Callinicos’s wrongheaded ideas about “united front” electoral initiatives such as the disastrous Respect Party intervention. He is preoccupied with the “communist” struggle to win the workers away from the reformists in a battle for hegemony that must precede the even bigger battle with the capitalist class:

It is in the light of this that we must clarify our conception of the NPA. The issue now for class struggle in France is to rebuild the workers’ movement and enable it to pull behind it “all the oppressed sectors”—to build what some call a “counter-hegemony”. At a time when the developing process of struggle has already begun to see potential leaderships emerge on many battlefronts against the system, the NPA must aim to regroup, coordinate and provide them with a strategy for confronting the ruling class. If it does so, and relies on the dynamic of the struggle to take things forward, it will not only help these new leaderships to overcome the paralysis due to the current domination by the traditional leaderships and their politics, but will also be key to rebuilding the workers’ movement.

It is hard to argue with such a formulation since it is so abstract.

The most worrisome aspect of Godard’s article is its emphasis on the need for “revolutionaries” to keep the NPA honest like a rudder on a boat:

Here we return, as far as revolutionaries in the NPA are concerned, to the role Marx attributed to communists: they are the most resolute when it comes to elaborating and developing an anti-capitalist strategy for the NPA and the most class conscious when it comes to understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of this strategy…

The aim of Marxists revolutionaries must be to work out a strategy among themselves and debate and try to get their strategy accepted within the NPA. They must test it not only against other positions but also in relation to the experience accumulated within the framework of the NPA.

In other words, Godard and his comrades see themselves and anybody else as advanced in their thinking as they are as laying out the “line of march”. They are like the philosopher kings in Plato’s Republic who have seen true reality outside of the cave and assign to themselves the awesome responsibility of communicating that reality to the uninitiated. This, in a nutshell, is the entire basis for sectarianism in left politics, which Trotskyism in its various permutations has perfected into an art form.

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