Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 2, 2009

American Casino; The Most Dangerous Man in America

Filed under: antiwar,Film,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

This month has been a very good one for leftist documentaries. Joining “The Cove” and “Crude” are two  films at the Film Forum, a prime location for bold independent fare. The first is “American Casino”, which opens today. Directed by Andrew Cockburn (Alexander’s brother) and his wife Leslie, this amounts to a film version of Matt Taibbi’s hard-hitting Rolling Stone article on the subprime meltdown but without the gonzo flourishes. This will be followed by “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” that opens on the 16th. Both movies are outstanding.

For those who ever been mystified by what the terms collateralized debt obligation or credit default swaps mean (including me most of the time), “The American Casino” will bring you up to speed. Calling upon industry experts like Professor Michael Greenberger, who was the Director of Trading and Markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Clinton, we find out that they are nothing more than crap games, hence the movie’s title. In one scene Greenberger sits at a computer terminal clinically dissecting a securitized mortgage courtesy as if it were a poorly executed counterfeit thousand dollar bill.

We also meet a former big shot at Bear Stearns, who is seen only in shadow. As a designer of the Byzantine financial products that brought his own company and the rest of Wall Street into the toilet, he must be taken at his word when he described the investments as “fourth dimensional”, adding that “the banks did not really care” whether subprime loans could be paid off. Given his rueful tone, you get the feeling that you are listening to somebody who ran a child prostitution ring.

After meeting the crooks who ran the gambling casino, we meet their victims. The Cockburns introduce us to three homeowners in Baltimore, where a virtual conspiracy by major banks like Wells Fargo lured the unsuspecting African-American to take out loans that they had no chance of repaying. We meet Denzel Mitchell, a social studies teacher with a special interest in human rights, packing up his books and his children’s toys after his house has been foreclosed. In his case, as is the case of all the other interviewees, we are dealing with a swindle. Unscrupulous mortgage brokers and bankers lied to people with good credit ratings in order to harvest fat fees. One woman, a therapist, shows up at her mortgage broker’s office with a check for most of the latest month’s payment but is refused.

One can only wonder if the election of an African-American president has helped to keep the lid on the housing crisis. Unlike the early 1930s, there have been far fewer angry protests at the doorsteps of people being evicted. Although the movie focuses exclusively on Bush’s role, attention must be paid to the failure of the new administration in keeping people in their homes. Even Jesse Jackson, who has never met a Democratic President he didn’t like, is starting to grumble. After seeing a new surge of foreclosures and a continued tilt toward the big banks rather than working class homeowners, he decided to lead a prayer vigil at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta. Unfortunately, it did not occur to him to mount a militant mass demonstration. That would be so 1960s.

Speaking of the 1960s, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” is the one to see if you are interested in the period. I have been trying to persuade myself to see Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” but not doing a very good job of it since my nostalgia preferences tend toward sticking a thumb in the eye of the national security state rather than LSD.

This movie belongs on the same shelf as “An Unreasonable Man” and “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train” that celebrate the life and activism of Ralph Nader and Howard Zinn respectively. It is no accident that Zinn is one of the primary interviewees in the Ellsberg documentary since they have such strong affinities and actually were co-conspirators in the raucous Mayday Demonstrations of 1971. Seeing the enthusiasm and youthful demeanor of Ellsberg, now 78, and the 87 year old Zinn, you can only be left with the conclusion that radical politics is the best way to live long and prosper.

I suppose that most people know what made Ellsberg appear as the “most dangerous man in America”, in Henry Kissinger’s words, but it is worth mentioning that he “stole” a top-secret report on the Vietnam War that had been drafted by the Rand Corporation on request from the Pentagon in order to inform them what was really going on in the rebellious nation. As is so often the case, such truths were not to be squandered on the American people who might have gotten even more worked up than they were after learning that the Pentagon Papers implicitly described an imperialist adventure with no redeeming social or political or economic value. Indeed, Ellsberg, the Rand employee charged with the responsibility of overseeing the project, after realizing that this would be the effect, decided to make them available to the public.

Ellsberg did not wake up one morning in 1969 and decide to pull this off. He had been slowly evolving toward that position and was finally convinced of its necessity after seeing the failure of government officials to bring peace despite the campaign rhetoric. In other words, he was like many Democrats who hoped that Obama would finally pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and hoped further that he would stay out of Afghanistan, despite campaign statements to the contrary (this was less a case of hope than faith.)

Before Ellsberg had become a cautious dove believing that Nixon might deliver the goods, he was a gung-ho former Marine who led combat missions in Vietnam while not having official military status. In other words, he was not that different from the Blackwater contractors.

But mounting human suffering on both sides (obviously worse for the Vietnamese) finally persuaded him that drastic action was necessary. His girl friend Patricia Marx, a committed peace activist and soon to be his wife, helped him make that decision in a way that approximates Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata”. In other words, no peace activism, no sex.

After Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the N.Y. Times, the FBI sought his arrest. After eluding them for a while, he was arrested and charged with “theft” of government property. Other charges were added, including conspiracy. If convicted, he faced a sentence of up to 115 years. When Nixon offered the judge presiding over the trial the directorship of the FBI as a bribe, the judge declared a mistrial. Nixon was not done with his skullduggery, however. He convened a group of operatives to be led by a character named Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent and third-rate novelist, to bust into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find damaging information on the peace activist. This is the same gang that would break into the Democratic Party’s offices at the Watergate Hotel, thus leading to Nixon’s resignation and the end of the Vietnam War 9 months later. So it would not be that much of an exaggeration to say that Ellsberg’s courageous and principal stance played a major role in ending the Vietnam War.

As I pondered over that question as the movie was winding down, a light bulb went on over my head. The truth is that Ellsberg never would have taken such radical steps if there had not been massive antiwar demonstrations for the preceding three years. Those demonstrations, derided by SDS ultraleftists as being safe and predictable, were just the kind of thing that could persuade a fence-setting Ellsberg to go over to our side. Or to persuade GI’s that they would be supported if they decided to organize antiwar meetings on base.

Furthermore, the failure of a new Daniel Ellsberg to step forward with a new version of the Pentagon Papers geared to Iraq and Afghanistan can only be understood as the failure of our movement to keep the pressure on Washington with massive and sustained protests. Perhaps the willingness of Barack Obama to commit our country to a new Vietnam in Afghanistan is just what we need to shake our movement out of our doldrums. In any case, go see this excellent documentary to get an idea of how powerful dissent can be in times of war in the America of 1969.

10 Comments »

  1. On NPR today, it said bailed out banking executives, made 40% more $$, than bankers who didn’t need bailout.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 2, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  2. Yes, these both look great, thanks again.

    D Now! had the Cockburns on today to discuss their film: here ’tis. They said the NYer did a positive review of it, oddly enough.

    Comment by macon d — September 2, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  3. […] in select theaters on September 4, distributed by Argot Pictures. In the documentary, filmmaker Leslie Cockburn shows how Wall Street gambled with their client’s investments — and […]

    Pingback by Dear Kitty. Some blog :: Films about the US economic crisis :: September :: 2009 — September 3, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  4. “One can only wonder if the election of an African-American president has helped to keep the lid on the housing crisis?” At this point, one can do more than wonder, as Obama, ably assisted by the leadership of the mainstream liberal-left and “progressive” milleau has kept a lid on any and every movement as he bails out the banks, escalates imperialism’s wars and make’s sure that national health care never sees the light of day. Of course, that is precisely why the majority of the ruling class jumped on board Barack’s bandwagon to begin with. Mike Davis provides a more detailed take on this on the ISO’s website. Can you imagine if Bush or McCain were carrying out such an anti-working class agenda; Leslie Cagan and Co. would be hitting the streets big time. Now some of the same people who were raving against “Bush’s wars” are actually in favor of Obama’s! Not exactly the kind of radicals who were around in “the early 1930s.” Hell, most of them make Norman Thomas look like a flaming ultra-leftist. But that’s what happens when class struggle politics are discarded as being old-fashioned and out-of-date by the “left” while the ruling class never stops carrying out its own class struggle.

    Comment by MN Roy — September 3, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

  5. I’m a conservative who came across your site while doing research, and though, as you would expect, I disagree with a most of your conclusions, I enjoy the intellectual rigor of serious Marxists, as serious thinking is rare anywhere on the political spectrum.

    The whole Ellsberg break-in is one of the most bizarre–inexplicable, really–events in the whole nuttiness of Watergate. That Ellsberg would be a priority for Nixon made no sense whatsoever; after all, The Pentagon Papers detailed the Democratic party’s failures in Viet Nam, not those of the Republicans. To the contrary, Ellsberg’s expose was to the benefit of Nixon, who, as you state, hoped that Nixon would get the US out of Viet Nam. In fact, Barry Goldwater publicly praised the Pentagon Papers, because they proved that LBJ had planned before the 1964 election to massively increase American troops in Viet Nam in 1965, all the while running against Goldwater as the peace candidate.

    Not that Nixon liked it. He and other memebers of the administration made their disgust clear, but, and this is critical, Nixon didn’t know what the burglars were doing until after the election. Furthermore, in the detailed histories of Watergate, the push for going after Ellsberg came from the, er, “former” CIA operatives, not the Nixon people. The Pentagon Papers began being published in June, 1971, while the break-in occured in September, after the story was fully out and the scandal publicized. The Nixon administration was already going after Ellsberg in the courts. What possible benefit would there have been that was worth the bother?

    Just to add to the fun, Hunt’s and Ellsberg’s movements mirror the other’s: Hunt’s retirment from the CIA is approved by Director Helms on Friday, April 10th, 1970; Ellsberg resigns from Rand right after the weekend, on Monday, April 13th, 1970…(spare you some details about Ellsberg and Hunt’s respective careers “consulting” for agencies they had supposedly retired from)..the next summer, on Wednesday, June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court refuses to block publication of the entire Pentagon Papers (excerpts had already been in the newspapers), the day after next, Friday, July 2, Director Helms begins pushing the White House to hire Hunt. A few weeks later, they’re already preparing to go after Ellsberg.

    Of course, it wouldn’t be Hunt’s first job in the White House. In 1964, Hunt worked for LBJ, using planted bugs to spy on the Goldwater campaign: http://www.archive.org/stream/finalreportofsel02unit/finalreportofsel02unit_djvu.txt. Also in the report are the details of a young Johnson aide using the FBI to investigate Goldwater staff (and Martin Luther King) in 1964, and other Republicans in 1968. The aide’s name: Bill Moyers. But I digress.

    The question is, “Who is Daniel Ellsberg?” How did he get away with stealing 7,000 pages of top secret files? Come on… Not, may I emphasize, that I’m not thrilled that he did so!

    There was all kinds of spying going on. Even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Tom Moorer, had an agent stealing Al Haig and Henry Kissinger’s documents. The spy was an enlisted Yeoman, not an officer or trained spy. Since the operation was discovered, I guess Admiral Moorer could have used someone more experiences, such as say, Bob Woodward. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Woodward had retired from his job as a Communications Duty Officer to then-Chief of Naval Operations Moorer at least several months before.

    Again, I digress (maybe), but Watergate is like that.

    Comment by Joe Y — September 3, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

  6. Empire is a bi-partisan endeavor.

    Neither party has anything to gain when intramural hostilities subvert the corporate agenda.

    Comment by Glenn Fritz — September 4, 2009 @ 2:24 am

  7. […] This month has been a very good one for leftist documentaries. Joining “The Cove” and “Crude” are two more films at the Film Forum. The first is “American Casino”, which opens today. Directed by Andrew Cockburn (Alexander’s brother) and his wife Leslie, this amounts to a film version of Matt Taibbi’s hard-hitting Rolling Stone article on the subprime meltdown but without the gonzo flourishes. This will be followed by “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” that opens on the 16th. Both movies are outstanding. Read full review: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/american-casino-the-most-dangerous-man-in-america/ […]

    Pingback by GPJA Newsletter #298 « GPJA's Blog — September 4, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

  8. […] This month has been a very good one for leftist documentaries. Joining “The Cove” and “Crude” are two more films at the Film Forum. The first is “American Casino”, which opens today. Directed by Andrew Cockburn (Alexander’s brother) and his wife Leslie, this amounts to a film version of Matt Taibbi’s hard-hitting Rolling Stone article on the subprime meltdown but without the gonzo flourishes. This will be followed by “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers” that opens on the 16th. Both movies are outstanding. Read full review: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/american-casino-the-most-dangerous-man-in-america/ […]

    Pingback by GPJA no. 298: Sunday Cuba forum and Sri Lanka protest « GPJA's Blog — September 4, 2009 @ 11:39 pm

  9. […] Moore for his steadfast dedication to the underdog. Except for Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s American Casino, a documentary that covers pretty much the same terrain as Moore but without his impish humor, […]

    Pingback by Capitalism: a Love Story « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 25, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  10. […] as Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story” and Leslie Cockburn’s “American Casino“  but with a lot more power and authority. Despite its necessary deep burrowing into how […]

    Pingback by Inside Job « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 24, 2010 @ 5:57 pm


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