Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 16, 2009

Four Seasons Lodge; Valentino, the Last Emperor

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

I only decided to see “Four Seasons Lodge”, now playing at the IFC Center in New York, because it was filmed at a bungalow colony in Ellenville, New York, just 10 miles from my home town. As a relic of a once thriving tourist industry geared to New York Jews, the lodge had the potential to stir up old memories like the madeiline dipped into a cup of tea in Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”.

I was far less interested in the fact that the lodgers were all holocaust survivors. I feared that the movie would exploit the sentimentality that comes naturally to this topic, and even worse that it would serve the interests of what Norman Finkelstein calls “the holocaust industry”. As it turned out, not only did it avoid these tendencies but amounted to one of the most moving documentaries I have seen this year and give it my strongest recommendation.

In 1980, a group of holocaust survivors bought a bungalow colony out of a sense of community not that much different from other colonies in the Borscht Belt going back to the 1930s when Communists, Socialists, vegetarians, etc. set up their own resorts on what we would called an “affinity group” basis in the 1960s.

All of the lodgers are in the eighties and nineties and are dealing with the infirmities of old age and the bitter memories of their internments at Auschwitz and other death camps. This does not prevent them from having a grand old time on their summer vacation and for these Jews this especially means 8 course meals with lots of herring and schnapps. The movie does not dwell on the misery of their youth and spends the bulk of its time showing them enjoying themselves thoroughly even as they realize that they don’t have much time left on earth. When they are not eating, drinking, playing cards and bickering with each other (we Jews call it kvetching), they are recounting what it was like to be in a death camp. One man says that he was determined to live no matter what, even if it meant eating grass. He had to tell the world what had happened.

The big question facing them is whether the colony can go on. We learn at the beginning of the film that they have sold it and that this might be their last vacation in the Catskills. Two men, both survivors, have been maintaining the grounds since 1980 and simply are not robust enough to do the necessary work. While they consider it a burden, other old-timers are distraught at losing the lodge and are pushing to nullify the sale.

I could not help but be reminded of another documentary about old folks and their ties to an institution. “Sunset Story” (http://www.sunsetstory.com/) dealt with a retirement home in Los Angeles that was set up for elderly leftists. Like the Four Seasons Lodge, their lodging, called Sunset Hall, was about to close. No matter now infirm the characters in either film, they retain the spunk of their youth. In order to stand up to the Mengeles of the world, you need a strong spirit. While Joe McCarthy and his ilk were pale imitations of the Nazis, you certainly had to have a “survivor” mentality to stick to your radical beliefs over the decades in the U.S.A.

The movie was directed by N.Y. Times reporter Andrew Jacobs, who met the Four Seasons Lodge denizens during his time reporting from the Catskills in 2005. I have vivid memories of his writing from this period, which was the newspaper of record at its best. An article on orthodox Jewish youth hanging out a local bowling alley from my youth and a more recently constructed Wal-Mart and acting—within obvious limits—like teenagers from time immemorial was exceptional reporting:

With the sun safely beneath the horizon, Yudi Kaufman and Yoel Hillelsohn put on their long-sleeve Oxford shirts, jumped into Mr. Kaufman’s Toyota Scion and cranked up the Yeshiva Boys Choir. By midnight, having picked up three friends at far-flung bungalow colonies, they headed to Wal-Mart in Monticello, its parking lot already crammed with baby carriages, camp vans and packs of teenagers practicing blowing smoke rings in the amber glare of the overhead lights. For many people, however, shopping was not on the agenda.

“This is the place to be,” said Mr. Kaufman, 19, as he and his friends languidly roamed the aisles looking for familiar faces, the fringes of each one’s tallit, a garment signifying religious devotion, dangling at his hips. “Everyone who’s anyone is up in the mountains, and at some point, they’re coming through Wal-Mart.”

Finally, it should be mentioned that Jacobs enlisted the participation of Albert Maysles, one of the U.S.’s greatest documentary film makers. Born in 1926, he is about the same age as the subjects of the movie and clearly sensitive to their feelings as anybody in their twilight years would have to be.

****

I ordered the 2008 documentary “Valentino: the Last Emperor” from Netflix, hoping that it might be half as good as the 2007 “Lagerfeld Confidential”. It turned out that my anticipations were on the money. It was half as good, but still very much worth watching.

Now you might be asking yourself at this point why an “unrepentant Marxist” would have any interest in haut couture fashion, unless you have stopped asking yourself such questions after my rave review of a movie about aging heavy metal musicians. I guess I have a weakness for Marx’s favorite motto, taken from the Roman playwright Terence: “I consider nothing human alien to me.”

There, of course, is also the factor that my wife is a fashionista herself, an enthusiasm of long standing sharpened by her job as an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. We both enjoy Project Runway, a cable reality show that pits one aspiring designer against another and even find time for the fashion shows that air on WNYE on Friday and Saturday nights. The sight of 5’10” models strutting down the runway with trance music throbbing in the background is an acquired taste, I admit, but we find it more interesting than situation comedies to say the least.

Beyond the entertainment value, the careers of Valentino and Lagerfeld, both of whom are considered throwbacks to the day when luxury goods were hand-crafted in Paris or Rome workshops and outside the sphere of globalization, illustrate some very interesting points about the nature of commodities. I won’t rehash them here but urge you to read my review of the Lagerfeld documentary.

Valentino Garavani was born in 1932 and became one of the fashion industry’s top designers in the 1950s. The movie is a chronicle of his last year before retirement, when his company would become absorbed by one of the huge multinationals that now dominate the luxury goods industry. In one scene, as he strolls along arm-in-arm with Lagerfeld at a display of his gowns at a French museum that is the scene of a spectacular retirement party, they realize that when they are gone there will be nothing but “rags”. As Valentino puts it toward the end of the film, “Après moi, le déluge”.

But above all, this documentary is a love story about two men, Valentino and his business partner Giancarlo Giammetti who have been together since 1960 when they met on the Via Veneto in Rome. For those of you, either straight or gay, who have grown weary of weepy Hollywood movies about doomed gay men like the characters in “Brokeback Mountain” or “Philadelphia” (played by straights), this movie is the perfect antidote. This is a story about a couple of homosexuals who have enjoyed each other’s company for close to forty years and allows us to enter their domestic lives without the lurid perspective so necessary, it would seem, for commercial acceptance—not to speak of the bigots of the world who hate the idea that same-sexers can lead happy lives just like the rest of us. Or be as miserable for that matter.

November 14, 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:51 pm

If I tell you that one of the best movies in 2009 was a documentary that followed a couple of 50-year-old heavy metal musicians from Canada on a depressing, poorly attended European tour, your first reaction might be to write this off to Proyect’s idiosyncratic tastes. But I am not the only one that feels this way. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote:

The most stirring release of the year thus far is a documentary. No surprise in that, given the current state of feature films, or in the fact that “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” is a documentary about a heavy-metal band. But this film is about a failed heavy-metal band, which sounds about as purposeful as a vegan shark.

If this documentary sounds a bit like the mockumentary “Spinal Tap” at first blush, that perception is only heightened when you discover that the drummer is named Robb Reiner, separated by only one letter from “Spinal Tap” director Rob Reiner. Even though there are a number of funny scenes in “Anvil”, the name of the film taken from the band’s name, this is not a comedy. It is about the Quixotic attempt of drummer Reiner and lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow to make it big in the world of arena rock.

It is not as if they are coming totally out of left field. The movie begins with a number of the top names in heavy metal paying tribute to Anvil, who started playing in 1978 and were considered a seminal band. Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer, says that without Anvil there would be no Metallica.

The movie begins with “Lips” Kudlow on his day job delivering food for a school lunch program. We also see Reiner breaking up concrete slabs with a jackhammer. He supports himself through two gigs, as a housing contractor and as a jeweler. He picked up the latter trade from his father, a Hungarian Jew who survived Auschwitz. Both of these men come out of the small, immigrant Jewish community in Toronto and live there as solid citizens with families, even if their appearance sets them apart. “Lips” has stringy long hair down to his shoulders, but you cannot miss the bald spot at the top of his head. Reiner always has a cap on his head, like Carlos Santana. We surmise that it is to cover a bald spot as well, in both cases.

The two men are quite candid about their situation. They know that they are competing in a young man’s world. They recognize that age is creeping up on them, if not having already cast them aside. But they still think of themselves as they were in their twenties, playing before thousands of adoring, head banging teenagers. We see concert footage from the 80s, with “Lips” wearing an S&M harness over a bare chest and playing his guitar with a dildo. Their only goal in life is to play before such audiences once again and to make a hit record. They did make a dozen records during their prime but none of them sold very well. Their obscurity is more a function of poor management than a lack of talent.

You find yourself identifying deeply with these two unlikely characters because of their idealism. They believe in their art and nothing else will satisfy them. If bourgeois society is mostly about succumbing to market forces, these two middle-aged Jews are testimony to the power of art, which alongside politics is the only way of expressing one’s individuality in a mammon-worshipping society.

Sacha Gervasi, a British citizen who had been a teen fan of the band in the early 80s, directed the movie. He is best known for his screenwriting work, including Stephen Spielberg’s 2004 “The Terminal”. Unlike most screenwriters who come out of television or film school, Gervasi had an academic background. He majored in history at King’s College and then became an assistant to Britain’s poet laureate Ted Hughes. Afterwards, he worked on the Samuel Beckett archives. So, despite being an Anvil fan, he was not the typical beer-guzzling metalhead. Of even greater interest to me is the fact that he is the son of the late Sean Gervasi, the author of one the most important anti-imperialist analyses of the Balkans War to this date.

Their story resonated with me on a couple of levels. In 1967 I was working for the welfare department in New York when I received the case of Jonathan Jones Jr., a jazz drummer who had just come out of a drug rehab program and who was the son of the legendary jazz drummer in Count Basie’s band, Jo Jones. I got his drums out of hock and began to attend gigs, which were generally as poorly attended as those of Anvil’s on their misbegotten European tour. One night Jonathan told me that he booked a gig in Newark at a bar owned and generally populated by mafia gangsters, all of whom apparently dug jazz. The piano player working with him that night was none other than Duke Jordan, who used to play with Charlie Parker in the 1940s and 50s and who wrote the standard “Jordu”. During a break, I asked Jonathan what Duke was doing besides playing jazz. He told me that he drove a school bus in Brooklyn since there was no way to make a proper living as a jazz musician unless you were in the very top ranks. While I don’t consider Anvil to be in the same league as Duke Jordan, all of these musicians believed in their art and would do anything to further its cause.

I also could not help but feel a certain affinity with the two musicians who insisted on staying true to their youthful idealism despite looking a bit foolish in the process. A bit younger than me, they came out of the same cultural cauldron for when you stop and think about it the 1960s was responsible for my outlandish Marxist beliefs and their “outlaw” music. Like them, I will continue on my Quixotic way since the thought of blending in with mainstream society is too scary and depressing to consider.

Communist Manifesto in cartoon format

Filed under: Film,socialism — louisproyect @ 1:24 pm

Hat tip to Socialist Unity.

 

November 13, 2009

Magnolia movies-2009

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

Around this time of year I get screeners from Hollywood film companies to view in conjunction with the New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) awards meeting in December. Generally, the most interesting are those from Magnolia Pictures, whose CEO is Mark Cuban.

Despite the last name (originally Chabenisky), Cuban is a Jew and an interesting character to say the least. He sold a website featuring live webcasts of basketball games to Yahoo in 1998 for $6 billion dollars just before the dot.com crash. He then went on to buy the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and is also involved in various online, cable TV and film businesses. Like a lot of the other nouveau riche including the character who runs Whole Foods, he is a libertarian and donated thousands of dollars to Republican Senator Orrin Hatch’s election campaign. But he also has a rugged individualist streak which in his film business is manifested by the production of “Redacted”, Brian De Palma’s unwatchable movie about American soldiers raping and killing a 14 year old Iraqi girl, based on an actual incident. He also produced “The War Within”, which made an attempt to understand the motivations of a Pakistani suicide bomber, thus prompting the outrage of Frontpage magazine and other ultraright forums.

With that kind of mindset, it is not that surprising that the 8 movies I received from Magnolia were envelope-pushing attempts to one degree or another. Unfortunately, the results were mixed, to say the least. Here are brief takes on them, with links to longer reviews for those I found outstanding.

(Titles in red are available from Netflix.)

1. Two Lovers:


This was directed by James Gray, who despite his last name is a Russian Jew like Cuban. He grew up in Queens, New York and developed a fascination with the Russian-Jewish neighborhood in Brighton Beach, inspiring his first movie “Little Odessa” in 1994. I found “Little Odessa”, a tale about a hit man suffering from weltschmerz, so pretentious that I walked out after 15 minutes. Also set in Brighton Beach, “Two Lovers” is something of an improvement but not by much. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a Russian Jew, suffering an even deeper case of weltschmerz, who develops relationships with a woman from the neighborhood with his own ethnic background as well as with a gentile woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow (in Yiddish, referred to as a shiksah.) One reviewer referred to this as an “Annie Hall” without the comedy. I would only add without the intelligence as well. I was at first surprised to see Phoenix cast as a Jew, but in fact he is half-Jewish, as is Paltrow.

2. Outrage

This is a first-rate documentary on homophobic politicians, nearly all Republicans, who are also closeted gays. A driving force behind “outing” such politicians, as well as an articulate voice for why such exposures are not invasions of privacy, is Michael Rogers who figures prominently in the film. Check his website at http://www.blogactive.com/ for the latest dirt on dirty politicians.

3. The Girlfriend Experience

A surprisingly good movie from Steven Soderbergh reviewed here.

4. Food, Inc.

A hard-hitting documentary reviewed here.

5. Humpday


This is a mumblecore movie. For background on mumblecore, read my review of “Beeswax”, my first exposure to the genre that Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called “compulsive navel-gazing”. “Humpday” is about two heterosexual men who are old friends and who, on a dare, decide to make a gay porn movie with each other. One, who is married and seemingly conventional, decides to go through with it to show that he is still something of a bohemian. The other is an unmarried world traveler who has just returned from Chiapas where he was making “art with the natives”. When I heard these words coming out of the character’s mouth, it was all I could to turn the stupid movie off. As it turns out, there was another mumblecore movie about two such men where the sexual liaison was implicit and far better. See “Old Joy” for a much more intelligent take on men trying to navigate between marriage and freedom. Then again, if you want the most inspired take of all, read Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”:

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-

6. World’s Greatest Dad


Written and directed by erstwhile standup comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, best known for his bizarre, high-pitched onstage delivery (what else would you expect from a 1980s comic?), this is a black comedy about a dysfunctional two-member family. The dad, played decently by Robin Williams believe it or not, is a high-school literature teacher who writes novels that end up with rejection slips. His son is a totally obnoxious sixteen-year-old at the same school who accidentally asphyxiates himself while masturbating (the same fate that befell David Carradine). This leads the father to write a suicide note blaming loneliness rather than horniness on the death. The note is so well-received by the student body that regarded the boy as a creep in life that Williams decides to write a journal in his son’s name as well. When publishers approach him to turn it into a book, with attendant benefits such as being flown into appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, etc., Williams has to make a decision. The movie is essentially one joke repeated over and over again. That being said, it is better than the latest crap coming out of the Judd Apatow factory.

7. The Burning Plain

A sodden mess written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga, the Mexican screenwriter responsible for “Amores perros” and “Babel”. Since this is Arriaga’s first directing job and I advise him to put the blame on his screenwriter for writing such a lead-footed melodrama. It is about a white woman named Gina (Kim Basinger) having an extramarital affair with a Mexican laborer (Joaquim de Almeida). When Gina’s daughter finds out about the affair, she burns down the trailer while the two are inside. And, of all things, her next life-altering experience is an affair with the son of the dead man’s son, which results in the birth of a daughter she abandons in Mexico. Most of the movie consists of the characters in ripped bodice poses, both men and women. “Amores perros” was an okay movie but one that charms less upon repeated viewings, as I’ve discovered. “Babel” was a sodden mess from top to bottom that the mainstream critics gushed over. No wonder Arriaga was encouraged to repeat the formulae that made that movie so unwatchable.

8. Bronson

A major disappointment. Directed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who brought us the incomparable Pusher trilogy about the dregs of Copenhagen society, this is a character study of a British psychopath named Michael Peterson who spent 34 years in prison (he is still there), 30 of them in solitary confinement. He calls himself Charlie Bronson in homage to the American b-movie actor who practically defined what it means to be a tough buy. An attempt is made to make him interesting in a kind of Jean Genet fashion, but mostly you are left wondering why you spent $10 or so watching a violent prisoner who lives for the day when he can get naked and fight prison guards six at a time. I wasted nearly two hours trying to figure out why I wasting my time at no expense other than my customary irritation at crappy movies.

November 12, 2009

Cuba and Eritrea: setting the record straight

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

Johnny Sanchez

A guest post by Johnny Sanchez

(Read interview with Sanchez here.)

****

There is an old Jewish proverb that says: “A half-truth is a whole lie.”

I recently came across an article written by Sam Farber entitled “Contradictions of Cuba’s foreign policy” that appears in the ISO newspaper. I found this article fascinating because it went on to claim how self-interested Castro is and, because of such, Cuba therefore has no real relationship to true revolution.

Farber declares that “while it is true that Cuba has followed a consistent policy of opposition to U.S.-sponsored imperialism, it has not followed that policy towards other imperialist aggressors. In fact, the Cuban government has taken the side of oppressor states on various occasions…. [and] also supported the suppression of the Eritrean national movement in the 1970’s.” Farber then asks: “How can we explain the contradictory policies of Cuba regarding the right of nations to self-determination?”

I was genuinely intrigued by Farber’s questions and comments because A) I love to learn about history and B) I visited Cuba and found myself inspired by its people and the Cuban nation – so much so that while in Cuba I better understood the meaning of Frederick Douglass’ quote “without struggle there is no progress”. So, naturally, I was inclined to question Farber’s article because I wanted to understand his point of view.

So, what did I do? I found a book that supports Sam Farber’s claims in regards to Cuba’s policy, but more specifically in relation to Eritrea’s independence movement. Further, to keep objectivity -with my limitations and all, I questioned what I found in that book as much as I could. The book in question is Eritrea: a Pawn in World Politics written by Okbazghi Yohannes.

In the book, Yohannes comments that in 1966 “Cuba had warmly embraced Eritrean nationalism as an indigenously authentic and internationally credible movement”. He then writes that some Eritrean guerillas received their drilling in Cuba and also states that Castro’s advocacy for Eritrea’s inclusion in the nonaligned movement helped Eritreans obtain their anti-imperialist credentials. In addition, Yohannes says, that Cuban propaganda organs gave ample coverage and analysis to the Eritrean movement. He says that, “Cuba’s public affirmation of the justness of the Eritrean and Somali struggles represented an open repudiation of Ethiopia’s imperial acquisition”. This affirmation was justified on the basis of the principle of national self-determination for the Eritreans, and the Cubans placed such support within the context of “proletarian internationalism”.

But he then goes on to claim that although, at first, Castro characterized the Eritrean struggle against Ethiopian as positive that he later changed his mind. He accuses Castro, of being an opportunist who did a full about face against Eritrean Liberation and even went as far as saying that Castro categorized their movement as similar to the southern secessionism in the United States during the Civil War.

The problem with this analysis is that Yohannnes has no direct quotes from Castro that support this ‘about face’ claim… nor does he give a date as to when Castro said any of this. All I am supposed to do is just trust that Castro said this somewhere -at sometime.

He then uses the February 1977 trip of Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, a high-ranking Cuban Military official, to Ethiopia as evidence that Cuba struck military plans to defend Ethiopia against Eritrean Independence. Although, in the same sentence, he admits that the real reason for Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez’s 1977 trip was not clear. This only leaves one obvious answer; Yohnnes can’t make claims of a Castro about face if he doesn’t have clear evidence of why Arnaldo went to Ethiopia, and much less if he can’t find a direct quote from Castro against Eritrea.

Yohannes then relates that in December of 1977 Cuban troops were airlifted from Havana, Angola and the Congo to Ethiopia and that by April 1978 the number of Cuban troops deployed to the Horn reached 17,000.

Still, Yohannes never bothers to relate how big the Horn is: Answer: The coastline of the Horn is bigger than the Eastern United States -actually, a whole lot bigger! In other words, that would be like directly blaming US Military Personal stationed in Key West for Canada’s successful suppression of Québec’s Independence Movement.

Yohannes also states that 3,000 soldiers had been airlifted to Asmara where they immediately began probing the operational strength of the Eritrean guerillas in the vicinity. – But what does he mean by the phrase ‘probing the operational strength of the Eritrean guerillas in the vicinity’? That can mean anything! It can even mean they were there to help the Eritrean guerillas. In other words, he never explains what ‘probing’ means. He just throws terms around to vaguely convey any ideas he wants to promote.

But this is where his biggest blunder is: he goes on to say that in 1980 there were at least 3,500 Cubans in Eritrea fighting alongside the Ethiopians and that Cuba’s involvement in the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict is “certainly dubious and even unconscionable”. He asks, why was Cuba willing to support the Eritrean’s desire for independence early on but not why later on? He then says that an objective analysis can help probe this question and his eventual conclusion is similar to Sam Farber’s accusations, that Castro is opportunistic and not interested in anyone but his own selfish needs.

Well, I agree with him in one thing, we do need to have objective analysis. But my idea of an objective analysis means looking at the whole story, and not just half of it, so that we may question everything. So, since I don’t see him doing that, let me pick up where I feel he left off and try to be objective. For starters, I will cite a report by the US on Cuba because, as we know, the US government has nothing pretty to report when it comes to Cuba. So, let’s start with an official US Intelligence report on Cuba to see where it goes; and rest assured that US reports do not try to favor Cuba or Castro in a positive light.

I have obtained materials from the US Department of State entitled “Cuban support for terrorism and insurgency in the Western Hemisphere”. As you see, even the title is not positive for Cuba because it claims Cuba’s support of terrorism. To continue, Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Enders originally presented the data on these materials as testimony on March 12th, 1982. This was, of course, during the height of the Cold War -when the US kept stealthy watch of Cuba’s military actions. This data was later presented again by Powell Allen Moore in front of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, Committee on the Judiciary, on July 21st 1982. Powell Allen Moore was the Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations in the 1980’s (aka Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs) and US Senator for Alabama Jeremiah Denton, a former Navy Admiral, was the Chairman of the Committee.

The data on this report is very thorough and it asks the following question:

What is the status of the discipline, morale and effectiveness of the Cuban troops in Angola and Ethiopia? Have there been defections and desertions from the ranks? The Cubans have said that the first military contingents to reach Angola were elite Ministry of Interior Units. What has become of these units? Please furnish the subcommittee with the Department’s complete assessment of Cuban involvement, military and otherwise, in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Zaire and Ethiopia. Please give a separate answer to each country.”

That was just question 12 on the report, and as you can see it is not a short one. The whole compiled Intel and data is even longer. The details gathered are very specific and breaks down Cuba’s military activities and actions in each country cited above. Since the focus of this article is Ethiopia and Eritrea then I’ll relate all the materials gathered on Cuba’s actions concerning that area only, and as reported to the US Department of State:

On the question of Ethiopia and Eritrea the report states:

There are now between 11,000 -13,000 Cuban military personnel in Ethiopia. The military presence is down from a high of about 17,000 troops in early 1978, when Cuban forces played a decisive role in the successful Ogaden campaign. After completion of these operations, Chairman Mengistu tried to persuade Havana to help Ethiopia with the fighting taking place in Eritrea. Castro refused, partly because he wanted no further casualties and partly because he believed the political costs would be too heavy and cause friction with Cuba’s radical Arab allies. (Havana also had had ties with the Eritrean Liberation Front for many years.) The Cuban military presence was reduced in late 1978 and remains at about 11,000 -13,000 today. Cuban forces do not see much action now, play mainly support and logistic-support roles and remain in garrisons most of the time.

Havana would like to increase its civilian role in Ethiopia, mainly to earn hard currency, but so far these efforts have been unsuccessful. There are several hundred (perhaps 600 ­700) Cuban civilians in Ethiopia.

Even the US Department, a sworn enemy of Cuba and invested on making them look bad, reported in 1982, Castro refused Mengistu’s request to help Ethiopia with the fighting taking place in Eritrea. The report clearly states Cuba played a decisive role in the Ogaden campaign but when it comes to Eritrea – Castro refused and Cuban forces mostly remain in garrisons.

How come Sam Farber and Okbazghi Yohannes can’t quote actual Intel reports? How come they don’t investigate their accusations further?

As a matter of fact, all they had to do was go into the ‘Country Studies Series by Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress’ to get more information on this. Even the Library of Congress says that “Although there is some disagreement, most military observers believe that Cuba refused to participate in the operation in Eritrea because Castro considered the Eritrean conflict an internal war rather than a case of external aggression.”

Instead, Farber and Yohannes want me take them at their word, their own individual assertions, and want me to accept these personal claims that since Cuba had troops in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia then it must mean Cuba purposefully and intentionally suppressed the Eritrea Independence Movement. This is like believing that because the US Army has invaded Iraq then it must be successfully suppressing forces of Al-Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan –so much for that argument. Hasn’t Sam Farber learned yet that apples and oranges don’t compare as neatly as we’d like them to?

Even Jorge I. Dominguez in the book To Make a World Safe for a Revolution, who Farber quotes in his own article Contradictions of Cuba’s Foreign Policy, wrote “Cuba was able to assure African countries that its commitment [to Ethiopia] was confined to a specific task.” Mr. Dominguez then opines that, although Cuba did confine its task to Ogaden, Cuba unwittingly aided Ethiopia in suppressing Eritrean independence because Ethiopia was able to send troops to Eritrea while Cuba fought for them in the Ogaden against the Somali invasion. Dominguez does not accuse Castro of purposefully suppressing Eritrean Independence – where as Farber does do that in his ISO article and conveniently leaves out the part of Dominguez’s writings that say Cuba assured African countries that its commitment [to Ethiopia] was confined to a specific task. Yohaness and Farber only use what they want and, sadly, ignore the whole story.

Still, if one argues that because Cuba sent troops to the Ogaden it unknowingly and unwittingly supported Ethiopia against Eritrea Independence then we must then ask what would have resulted if the opposite had occurred? Meaning, what if Cuba had not supported Ethiopia in its fight against Somalia’s invasion? Would it then mean Eritrean independence would have been easier?

So, let’s really objectively ask that question and, to really delve into it, let’s look at all the players and honestly find what could’ve occurred if Cuba had not gotten involved.

The Ogaden War was a conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia in the late 1970’s over the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. By 1980, the United States had officially adopted Somalia as a Cold War client state in exchange for use of Somali bases, and as a way to exert political influence upon the region of the Horn. Interestingly, however, Ethiopia at one point had been backed by the USA. But, please, don’t take my word for it… let’s look at the full scale of chronological events from sources who can better verify the events.

David A. Korn, United States Ambassador to Togo and US diplomat who spent 37 months in Ethiopia, wrote a book titled Ethiopia, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

Mr. Korn writes that the Ethiopians asked the US for support since threats from Somalia were growing. But although the US had big investments in Ethiopia, it was reluctant to give any further military support and aid since the pains of Vietnam were still fresh.

Eventually, the pleas for help from Ethiopia grew louder and hit world center stage. Therefore, the US decided to supply Ethiopia with about $180 Million in aid between 1974-1977. Interestingly though (during the time the US was enjoying relations with Ethiopia) Cuba and the USSR were slowly building strong relations with Ethiopia; and all of this occurred while Somalia, Cuba and the Soviet Union were still close allies.

It gets even more complicated and, as Mr. Korn notes, things got heated in Ethiopia with both the USSR and the US there at the same time so “Washington decided to make a public move” and by the end of 1977, the US decided to give no further aid, both financial and military wise, to Ethiopia.

The reason for cutting off support to Ethiopia, the US claimed, was because Ethiopia had violated human rights. So, while the US cut support to Ethiopia, Cuba and the USSR maintained closed ties to both Ethiopia and Somalia -but this posed a problem for them.

Mr. Korn relates that: “As the Soviets publicly embraced Ethiopia, they began to consider what to do about the dilemma that this posed for their relations with Somalia”, since Somalia kept expressing aggression towards Ethiopia and wanted control of the Ogaden.

This is where Cuba steps in hoping to create an accord which prompted Castro to try his hand at a peaceful solution and, as Mr. Korn describes, “in mid-march of 1977, surprise visits to Ethiopia and Somalia by Fidel Castro and a secret meeting between Mengistu (of Ethiopia) and Siad Barre (of Somalia) in Aden. There the Cuban [leader] proposed to the Ethiopian and Somali leaders that they should burry the differences between their countries in a federation together with South Yemen, in which the Ogaden and Eritrea would enjoy a status of autonomy. Notice how it states that Castro was thinking of Eritrean autonomy in this peaceful accord. But the attempt at peace was in vain.

Aggressions between both African nations grew and many people demanded that the US take a side and that the USSR, along with Cuba, also choose a side. So, in the midst of this, Somalia started to put its feelers out to Washington in hopes of getting any kind of support there. By this point, Ethiopia terminated its relations with the USA, since no further aid was coming from there. But, Cuba and the USSR still kept ties with Somalia.

And in response, “As early as March 1977 Vice President Mondale sent Carter a memorandum advocating rapprochement with Somali”, former Ambassador Korn also tells that “On June 16th, of that year, Carter received a visit from Somali Ambassador Addou” and the Somali expressed that if Somalia got American support they “would shift allegiance from the Soviets to the United States.” Korn tells that Carter had hesitations. Still, Carter expressed support for Somalia if it was ‘genuinely’ threatened by Ethiopia.

The Somalis took advantage of Carter’s support on the basis of defense and, on July 9th, the Somali Embassy in Washington created a long list of military equipment that was desired from the United States. On July 15th Carter approved a decision ‘in principle’ to help meet Somalia’s ‘defensive requirements’ -Korn relates all of this based on his expertise and years of relationships in Washington.

The Somalis welcomed the support and on July 25th Washington announced it. Barely a week later, Somalia forces were operating in the Ogaden and the Carter administration found itself in a conflict. Although, at this point, the US had yet to give Somalia a blank check – so to avoid any further conflicts, the US stopped further support of Somalia until 1982 where the US decided to clearly give Somalia official military and financial aid.

Regardless, the damage was done by 1977 since Somali forces swept into Ethiopia by then -and though the US had not sent them military aid yet it had publicly announced support of Somalia. Korn clarifies that if the US really wanted to avoid any blunders: “the United States should have taken this into account in its dealings with [Somalia].”

Still, the US did gain something out of this ‘blunder’ and that was military intelligence, which Korn well describes: ‘US Intelligence on the Somali invasion of Ethiopia was very good. When the Somalis invaded, the United States knew almost exactly where they were, when, and how they got there.” This is where we see that, though reluctant at first, the US did eventually find a reason for formalizing aid to Somalia. Through this, we see the US became a player in the Horn because it gained strategic military Intel in the region.

Korn tells of Dr. Kevin Cahill, an American who was a personal physician to Somalia’s President, and says that “Dr. Cahill alleged he was told in the spring of 1977 by a State Department Official that the United States was ‘not averse to further guerrilla pressure in the Ogaden.” Mr. Korn explains that “Dr. Cahill was a frequent caller at the offices of the White House Domestic Staff.” He further explains that Dr. Cahill “meticulously avoided officials of the NSC and the State Department who had responsibility for the Horn of Africa”. Why would a physician avoid public officials so meticulously? Personally, I think that tells a lot about the back door dealings the United States prefers.

One thing is clear, and as Korn relates “The Somalis had been preparing to seize the Ogaden for years.” Of course, the Somali’s sought support (even if only verbal) to back their invasion and this is where the US, even if reluctant at first, becomes a player.

As we know, Somalia invaded Ethiopia and their advances were stopped by the USSR and Cuba (not by the US) and Korn expresses a personal view here: ‘So long as they were defending Ethiopia’s territorial integrity from Somali invasion, the Ethiopians and the Soviets [along with the Cubans] had the moral and political high ground.”

On October 19th, Korn describes, “the Soviet Ambassador in Addis Ababa issued a statement, quickly broadcast by Ethiopian radio, announcing ‘officially and formally’ that ‘the Soviet Union has stopped arms supplies to Somalia.” Of course the Somalis were outraged and, from here on, relations became strained and Somalia ordered all Soviets and Cubans to leave and on November 13th, 1977 Siad Barre officially announced his break of relations with Cuba and the USSR.

The Cubans were very successful in stopping the Somali invasion and the Somali attack collapsed in March 1978. Right after this collapse, the US was sceptical about giving any more support, verbal or otherwise, to Somalia until two major events occurred – the Iranian Hostage Crisis (November 1979) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1980).

These events prompted the well-known ‘Carter Doctrine’ that formalized military bases in Somalia, all in the name of security. In August of 1980 the US signed an official agreement with Somalia allowing US access to air and port facilities (most notably at Berbera – just north of the Ogaden) and from that moment on Somalia clearly received $65 million in military aid over three years. By 1982, US support to Somalia increased.

In the summer of 1982 the US sent ammunitions, arms, air defense equipment and transport, and communications and engineering supplies to Somalia in support of its war against Ethiopia. As The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (a group dedicated to news and analysis from and about the Middle East and U.S. policy in there) reported on February 7, 1983: “The U.S. justified last summer’s emergency arms shipments on the grounds that Somalia was not doing the attacking, but was being attacked.”

Consequently, due to this military defense aid, the Horn becomes a region where a war can break out again – backed with official US support now and in the name of defense. So, Cuba clearly keeps a military presence to suppress any further invasions by Somalia.

Seeing how the chronological events unfolded and how the US eventually gave military aid to Somalia, we can conclude that had Cuba had not kept a presence in the Ogaden Ethiopia might have fallen. Further, if Somalia’s invasion had ever been successful would they allow Eritrea to be independent afterwards? Can we accept that a Somali invasion would have favored Eritrean freedom while Castro only wanted to purposefully stall it?

I hope it’s obvious to you, as it is to me, that had Somalia been successful in invading Ethiopia their hunger for control of the Horn would not have stopped there but continued.

As well, after 1980, if Cuba had immediately left Ethiopia, can we naively believe that Somalia would not try to re-invade?

Still, to keep objective, and if you are the kind of person who wishes to argue that if, after 1980, had Somalia re-invaded Ethiopia with US support (the Carter Doctrine) that America would have spread freedom to Eritrea because that is America’s goal -freedom.

Well, to go back to reports Based on the Country Studies Series by the Federal Research Division of the Library of CongressA large Cuban contingent, believed to number 12,000, remained in Ethiopia after the Ogaden War. However, by mid 1984 Havana had reduced its troop strength in Ethiopia to approximately 3,000. In 1988 a Cuban brigade, equipped with tanks and APC’s, was stationed in Dire Dawa to guard the road and railroad between Ethiopia and Djibouti, following attacks by Somali-supported rebels.

It is evident that after 1980 Somalia kept finding ways to invade Ethiopia and Cuba kept guarding. I don’t think that a Somalia invasion of Ethiopia, even with US support, would have brought freedom to Eritrea. I say that because I assume we all know to well the US’s suppression of left wing progressive movements based in Africa, Latin America and Asia

– and all while, many times, supporting right wing suppressive movements.

But in case you are not sure what I mean, and to keep questioning, I will quote a document created in 1966 (slightly over a decade before the Ogaden War) by the US Government. This document was entitled The Tricontinental Conference of African, Asian, and Latin American Peoples -A Staff Study. This ‘staff study’ was prepared for the Subcommittee in charge of investigating the Administration of Internal Security Act and other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate. Again, this ‘study’ was printed in 1966 and it discusses The Tricontinental Conference that took place in Cuba in that same year.

This ‘staff study’ reports the following:

An event of outstanding importance to the Free World took place in Havana on January 3 of this year. The Cuban capital was the site of what was probably the most powerful gathering of pro-Communist, anti-American forces in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

In other words, the ‘study’ states that an event occurred in Cuba that the ‘free world’ must keep an eye on because it is pro-Communist, anti-American and very powerful. The ‘study’ continues:

The first Tricontinental Conference of African, Asian, and Latin American Peoples, as it was called, was convened in the Hall of the Ambassadors at the once-swank Habana Libre Hotel (formerly the Havana Hilton Hotel) in Havana, Cuba. In all, there were 83 groups from countries on three continents-reportedly represented by approximately 513 delegates, 64 observers and 77 invited guests. These groups included 27 Latin American delegations.

Asian countries were represented by 197 delegates, while African countries had 150, and the 27 Latin American groups comprised 165 delegates.

The ‘study’ then goes on to give its opinion on Cuba, Communism and the people present… it’s rather lengthy so I will spare you. But the most interesting part is where the following opinion is shared:

The gravity of the threat posed by the Tricontinental Conference is the subject of a recent study prepared by the Special Consultative Committee on Security of the Organization of American States at its sixth regular meeting. Its study concluded:

That the so-called first Afro-Asian-Latin American Peoples’ Solidarity Conference constitutes a positive threat to the free peoples of the world, and, on the hemisphere level, represents the most dangerous and serious threat that international communism has yet made against the inter-American system. It is necessary and urgent, for the purpose of adequately defending democracy:

a. That the [proven] intervention of communism in the internal affairs of the American Republics be considered as aggression, since it constitutes a threat to the security of the hemisphere.

b. That the American governments define their position regarding the present treatment of every kind to be given to communism, and that they consequently adopt coordinated measures that will lead to the common goals.

In other words, the ‘study’ concludes that the gathering of the people of color through out the world (note: this is not a report on European peoples), and which occurred in Cuba, constitutes the most positive threat yet made against the inter-American system.

In other words, whenever people of color gather to discuss their needs and independence, especially in Cuba, then it is a threat to American society. This is a fascinating ‘study’ but, please, let’s continues our questioning of things before we reach any conclusions.

This gathering was also labeled an aggression since it poses a threat to the hemisphere. Based on that supposed aggression, the American government a) must make its position clear and b) adapt coordinated measures to reach its goals. Fascinating word: goals.

What are these goals? In case the reader needs this spelled out, and in hopes of objective analysis, but to also keep this short: I highly recommend the book “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent”. It spells out what these goals are and how it is the US maintains security in Latin America, but more so, what that actually means for all people of color who seek independence, progress and social reform.

So, to continue and taking the above into consideration, Farber ignores the counter argument that had Cuba NOT fought Somalia in the Ogaden -then Eritrean independence may not be a reality today because if the US had claimed more control in that region (via the Carter Doctrine) you can bet that the continued existence of any Eritrean liberation (whether by the ELF or EPLF) and their fight for Independence would’ve been harder.

Case in point, since Somalia lost in the Ogaden, therefore, the US could only exert influence within a limited area of the Horn region. So much so, that in 1993 Eritrea was able to successfully free itself from Ethiopian rule and today it is an independent nation.

As we know, Eritrea is independent of Ethiopia today. So, why can’t Farber or Yohannes accept that since Cuba helped stop a Somali invasion it made it easier for Eritrea to eventually gain independence? Instead, they both just seem intent on avoiding the whole story, the complex possibilities of it all and only tell us a small portion of the events.

Sadly many left-wing socialist organizations also simply take Sam Faber at his word… such as the ISO… and never challenge or even bother to question claims against Cuba and, instead, it seems as if they rather cut down Cuba’s positive accomplishments rather then acknowledge them.

I mention the ISO, in particular, because they’ve gained a lot of respect but when it comes to Farber they’ve dropped the ball since they print much of what he writes without always fact checking the whole story. If the ISO had done their homework on these half-truths then they would’ve found out that Cuba and Eritrea had good relations before the1980’s, during the 1980’s and after the 1980’s.

But, rather than just make my own claims about Cuban and Eritrean relations, I’ll simply cite an official statement. In a bulletin dated March 17th, 2007, and published on the official website of the EMBASSY OF THE STATE OF ERITREA in SOUTH AFRICA (http://www.eritreaembassy.co.za/Embassy%20Bulletin/March%2015%202007.htm), the Eritrean government states the following in regards to cooperation between Cuba and Eritrea: “ Eritrean-Cuban relations and cooperation has registered satisfactory achievement and represents an exemplary development.”

Strange, no mention of any Cuban betrayals or even about-faces, past or present.

All I ask of Yohannes and Farber is for them to tell the whole story and not just what they want to tell. Otherwise, it just looks like ‘hate’. So I ask the reader, the ISO and its members, Sam Farber, and also of Yohannes to keep objective analysis and avoid any demonization since that is the best commitment to keeping the whole truth alive.

Does that mean Cuba is free of criticism? Of course not! My point is, we have an obligation to tell the whole truth and not half of it. Otherwise, we create lies and there’s no better way to promote hate than with lies. The ISO must fact-check everything, even an article written by one of its friends: Sam Farber. Otherwise, they’ll come across like just ‘hating’ on Cuba and, as you know, hatred and revolution do not go hand in hand.

Like I said, Cuba is not perfect. But there is a difference between objectively critiquing a country’s policies and between helping to demonize it by leaving out the whole story.

So, please, remember the old Yiddish proverb: “A half-truth is a whole lie.”

November 11, 2009

Turkish Cowboys

Filed under: music,Turkey — louisproyect @ 8:18 pm

I have been working on a post about Turkish pop music on Youtube but can’t resist giving you this coming attraction from Grup Vitamin whose brilliant leader Gökhan Semiz died in an automobile accident in 1998. Here’s some background on the band in delightful broken English from a native Turk:

Grup VitaminGrup Vitamin albumsGrup Vitamin tracksGrup Vitamin lyrics

A Turkish band founded by Gökhan Semiz.

Gökhan Semiz was born 12 Jan, 1969 in İstanbul.

He first fell in love with the music of Barış Manço (also take a role in his music video) and then karaoke his songs. Not too later, he tried to play guitar, and listened Erkin Koray and Cem Karaca.

After all red heavy metal. The trip started with Metallica and Iron Maiden then became a Judas Priest and Dio fan. He founded a cover band named Blasphemous. They made their own songs (some of them is funny ones) and played in Gulhane.

In university he choose to have musical education.

He was writing some funny notes and bringing them into lyrics. He shared this with his friends and try to make a melody on them.

He was playing them himself, using an electrorhytm instrument, an electric guitar.

At that time it all was to make fun, but then things became serious and they made their first album Bol Vitamin.
In 1998 he died in an car accident that his friend was driving drunk.

The band chose oftenly to make parodies of popular Turkish/English songs (including “Can’t Touch This” of MC Hammer and “Day-O” of BeetleJuice soundtrack) with funny lyrics. Some of their songs criticized the government using humor (like “Saskin Demokrat”) while the others made fun of Turkish people who were in-between modernism and conservatism (like “Turkish Cowboys” and “Ellere Var Da Bize Yok Mu”).

November 10, 2009

The Good Soldier

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

With the massacre at Fort Hood and reports that President Obama is about to approve the sending of 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, “The Good Soldier” arrives at movie theaters in the nick of time. What is needed desperately right now is a shot in the arm for the antiwar movement and this deeply moving documentary about the conversion of five soldiers to the cause of peace supplies it in spades.

It opens tomorrow at the Village East Theater in NYC tomorrow and elsewhere around the country soon thereafter. Check http://www.thegoodsoldier.com/ for screening information.

Covering some of the same territory as the 2006 “The Ground Truth”, including one of its principals—the remarkable Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey, “The Good Soldier” is distinguished by its ability to evoke the often painful stories out of the five veterans to maximum effect. While not quite dealing with the same subject matter of Ford Maddox Ford’s 1915 novel with which it shares its title, this documentary directed by the wife and husband Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys could have begun with the same words that open Ford’s novel: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Unlike the Ford novel, however, this story ends happily as the five soldiers unburden themselves from their guilt and join the antiwar movement as an act of salvation both for them and for humanity.

The veterans come from different generations and conflicts. With the exception of the Korean War, every slaughter starting with WWII is represented.

Two of the soldiers are white North Carolinians and when we first see them on camera, they appear the most unlikely antiwarriors possible. Chief Warrant Officer Perry Parks, who bears a spooky resemblance to Lee Harvey Oswald, flew helicopters in Vietnam. Accompanied by stock footage from the war, he talks about killing civilians from his helicopter gunship. During his second tour of duty, he decides that the antiwar movement was in the right and changes course completely. He becomes a hippie and roams around the country. Paradoxically, he reenlists only because he needs the money training soldiers how to fly helicopters. Today he is very involved in a small Pentecostal church in Rockingham, North Carolina where he tries to convince fellow parishioners to oppose the war in Iraq. Listening to him describe his newfound pacifist beliefs in a deep drawl makes you feel that anything is possible.

Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey is cut from the same cloth as Parks. He tells us that he was born in a trailer park and became a gung-ho Marine, working as a recruiter for a number of years. In the 2003 invasion, he had a mental breakdown in the field and fought for and won an honorable discharge. He was represented by Gary Myers, one of the lawyers in the My Lai trials. We see Massey as he goes from one antiwar rally to another. In perhaps the most inspiring moment in the entire film, we see him on his own picketing a Marine recruitment station with a sign denouncing the war. This activism, ironically enough, was spurred by the traumas of being a “good soldier”. Now he is a “good soldier” fighting for peace. He explains:

We were on the outskirts of the Baghdad stadium, and there was an incident with a red Kia. They didn’t stop at the checkpoint, so we lit them up. I’m pulling the trigger as fast as I can, three victims were expiring rapidly… There was one man sobbing, ‘Why did you kill my brother? We’re not terrorists!’ I just wanted to close my ears each time he said it. It was being permanently burned into my brain. I lost it. The night before that – that was the last night I got a good night’s sleep.

The corpsman came over and dumped the bodies by the side of the road. I wish I could take that day back. I’d give anything. My CO (commanding officer) asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘It was a bad day; we killed a lot of innocent civilians.‘ He replied, ‘No, today has been a good day.’ I thought to myself, buddy boy, you’re in a world of shit now.

Imagine, being married for eleven years and it’s your anniversary and your spouse rolls over and says Happy Anniversary, but there’s something I have to confess to you. I have never loved you. Everything has been a lie. I just used you and by the way, the kids aren’t even yours either. That’s how I felt – betrayed by the Marine Corps.

This is the second movie co-directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys. Their first, made in 1997, was “Riding the Rails”,  a superlative study of teenage hoboes during the Great Depression now available from Netflix.

Their work reminds me once again that the strength of the progressive movement in the United States should not be calculated simply on the basis of how many people belong to nominally left organizations. The dedication of talented directors like Lovell and Uys to put their time and energy into projects like this that might not have any immediate prospects of making them rich is proof that the sea change that began in the 1960s is still with us. It has impacted the GI’s who have become peace advocates, the documentary film makers who are inspired to tell their stories, and hopefully the millions of Americans who will rededicate themselves to fighting an escalation in Afghanistan. As the directors state in the press notes:

The simple revelations of their soldiers’ hearts, the wetness of their eyes, the emotion of the music that says what they cannot, the pauses and quietness, even the absence of narration pull at the psyche and whisper, “Does it really have to be this way?”

It does not really have to be this way, as long as we fight to prevent it.

November 9, 2009

George Packer-Mark Danner pissing contest

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

George Packer

Mark Danner

Before getting into the details of this feud between two very unsavory characters taking place in the Sunday NY Times Book Review, it would be useful to put that section of the paper into some kind of context. For years now, it has been the practice of the Sunday review to assign right-leaning characters to write hostile reviews of left-leaning authors, while at the same time it will never, for example, invite a Noam Chomsky to review a Paul Berman book.

The book review section exists as a kind of rightist enclave at the Times, drawing inspiration ideologically from the neoliberal New Republic and neoconservative National Review in roughly equal parts. The current editor is Sam Tannenhaus, who wrote an admiring biography of the McCarthyite stool pigeon Whittaker Chambers. He is now at work on a new biography of the reptilian William F. Buckley. Before Tannenhaus, the review was edited by Mitchel Levitas, the son of Sol Levitas who was editor of the New Leader, a magazine that accepted funding from the CIA.

Levitas, a Russian emigrant and Menshevik, apparently had a big influence on his son who accepted a post on the board of directors of the Tamiment Library at NYU, a first-rate repository of socialist and labor publications. Ostensibly, his tepid social democratic beliefs had recommended him to NYU. But when the Tamiment displayed some sympathy and support for the reputation of Alger Hiss, Levitas blew a gasket, stating: “To have the Hiss banner flown from the Tamiment flagstaff was just an insult.” It was of course a logical transition from bashing Hiss to writing valentines to Whittaker Chambers.

Packer’s review of Danner’s 626 page “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War” appeared in the October 18th Book Review. Here are a few paragraphs that went for the jugular:

Untethering his essayistic ambitions from ground-level journalism does not serve Danner well. A tendency toward inflated writing and overstatement starts to appear: there are too many self­dramatizing turns of phrase, like “The first time I was killed, or nearly so”; too many moments when the writer, confronted with a destroyed city or a bloody mess of dismembered bodies, finds George F. Kennan or Henry James coming to mind.

These literary affectations are heightened by an air of seeing through everything, conveyed in a heavy reliance on scare quotes and knowing titles like “The Real Election” and “Abu Ghraib: Hidden in Plain Sight.” When Haitians lined up to vote amid violence in 1987, Danner interviewed their political leaders and admired their courage; when Iraqis did the same in 2005, he went looking for “the desired symbolic justifications, the capstone in the narrative building already under construction that day.” Danner watches human struggle and misery at such a remove that he can’t resist taking issue with a young Kosovar woman who is quoted in a news article comparing her family’s expulsion from Pristina with the experiences of the Jews in World War II. “Such drawing of half-century-old parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory,” Danner intones. “How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.” Not as comfortable as condescending to a refugee.

This superior stance doesn’t flag even when Danner contradicts himself. He switches, without explanation or loss of confidence, from criticizing to endorsing the first President Bush’s refusal to remove Saddam Hussein at the end of the gulf war; he sounds just as assured deploring the Powell doctrine as enshrining it. Still, when a Red Cross report on torture by the Bush administration falls into Danner’s hands, the result is one of the book’s best essays. A reporter again, with a great find, he can stop pumping up his prose, and the article achieves a powerful equilibrium between fact and voice.

Keep in mind that George Packer was one of a group of high-profile journalists and pseudo-intellectuals of the “left” who beat the war drums to invade Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. In 2005, Packer wrote “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq”, a book that signaled his departure from the pro-war crowd, like a rat deserting a sinking ship. Even as it drew the ineluctable conclusion that the war had been a disaster, it still reserved plenty of venom toward the antiwar movement that Packer had described in the NY Times in December 2002 as follows:

On Oct. 26, tens of thousands of people turned out in San Francisco, Washington and other cities to protest against a war. Other demonstrations are planned for Jan. 18 and 19. By then an invasion could be under way, and if it gets bogged down around Baghdad with heavy American and Iraqi civilian casualties, or if it sets off a chain reaction of regional conflicts, antiwar protests could grow. But this movement has a serious liability, one that will just about guarantee its impotence: it’s controlled by the furthest reaches of the American left. Speakers at the demonstrations voice unnuanced slogans like ”No Sanctions, No Bombing” and ”No Blood for Oil.” As for what should be done to keep this mass murderer and his weapons in check, they have nothing to say at all. This is not a constructive liberal antiwar movement.

It is difficult to figure out why Packer worked himself into such a venomous state, like a Black Mamba snake on steroids, over Danner’s journalism. Since both are establishment figures of the liberal left, Packer on its right extreme and Danner angling to maintain his position on its left flank, you wonder why Packer is given the Noam Chomsky treatment. My guess is that these kinds of big-shot journalists are in some kind of turf battle over who is the most authentic reporter from the hot spots of the world. Keep in mind that Packer spent a fair amount of time in Iraq stalking about in his safari cap, combat vest and cargo pants. How dare Danner usurp his place as interpreter of native grievances?

Danner’s reply to Packer’s review appeared in yesterday’s book review. It breaks all records for length, as far as I can tell. It begins by calling attention to Packer’s hawkish ways:

Controversies flicker past so quickly in our voracious culture that we assume once the shouting has died away the disputes have been put to rest — while beneath the surface, the worst live on. The debate over whether to launch a war against Iraq was one such, and I am afraid the bitterness lingering from it hovers like an invisible toxic cloud over George Packer’s review of my book, “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War” (Oct. 18).

I strongly believed — as I first argued to George, my old New Yorker colleague and friend, in a discussion he and I had at a meeting of a small reading group to which we both belonged in January 2003, shortly before the war — that the invasion would be a catastrophic mistake that would bring in its wake a great deal of sectarian violence and score-­settling. Packer, an ardent supporter of going to war in Iraq, argued that the United States should invade and occupy the country for humanitarian reasons. As the war ground on, he and I rejoined the debate intermittently in a number of forums.

Danner is particularly pained since—after all—he and Packer do see eye to eye on the number one litmus test for NY Review of Books type liberals: the Balkan wars. Danner remonstrates with Packer:

All this is a pity, for Packer and I have a disagreement about America’s war in Iraq that is real and that might have been honestly disclosed and fairly discussed. He comes closest to doing this in his final paragraph, where he begins: “What about Bosnia? This is the war that leads Danner into unacknowledged tangles and reveals the disconnection at the heart of his work.” A more direct way to put this is that George and I both thought the United States should intervene in Bosnia but that I disagreed with him when he argued that our country should invade and occupy Iraq.

There is no “unacknowledged tangle” here. In Bosnia, the United States should have acted to stop genocide, which I witnessed and reported on and which was going on, and on, even while American warplanes patrolled overhead and United States intelligence agencies recorded the “number liquidated” in Serb concentration camps. In Iraq in 2003, there was an autocratic government but no genocide. Indeed, when Saddam Hussein’s army had engaged in mass killing — against the Kurds in 1989 and against the Shiites in 1991 — American officials, who had been supplying Saddam with critical intelligence in 1989 and who commanded a United States Army in Iraq in 1991, had stood aside and done and said nothing.

This is really rich. Mark Danner, Mr. Peace Advocate who goes on Democracy Now and publishes in various leftwing forums like the very worthy Tomdispatch.com, is not opposed to American imperialism in principle but only where it is misplaced. In Bosnia, the U.S. should have “acted”, which meant that it had the right to unleash its bombers on a wicked enemy, just as is taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

Today’s Counterpunch has a terrific article on how Bard College victimized Joel Kovel for his anti-Zionist views. Written by John Halle, who teaches music theory there, it sizes up the faculty most accurately, including Mark Danner who is the Henry Luce Professor of Human Rights, along with fellow NY Review of Books contributor Ian Buruma who once wrote an article explaining suicide bombing in Israel as an act of sexual frustration (no, I am not joking.)

Now it should be understood that before Kovel was given the boot, he was removed as Alger Hiss Professor. His replacement was Jonathan Brent, who Halle describes as a “historian whose work provides a defense of, and has been celebrated by those embracing, the most strident varieties of cold war anti-communism.” This is like Reagan putting an energy industry hack like James A. Watt in charge of the Department of the Interior. Who ever said that college President Botstein lacked imagination and a sense of mischief?

But one has to admit that Danner is a perfect choice for an endowed chair in the name of Henry Luce. Luce founded Time Magazine in 1923 and was one of the Republican Party’s most influential leaders. Later on he launched Fortune and Life magazines.

He was also a principal player in the China Lobby that sought to overthrow Communist rule either through subversion or all-out war. His wife Clare Booth Luce was even more reactionary than him and was a major influence on Margaret Thatcher and all the dingbats of today, from Ann Coulter to Laura Ingraham.

He penned an article in 1941 titled “The American Century”, which David Harvey once described as referring to power being global and universal rather than territorially specific. In other words, Luce preferred to talk of an American century rather than an empire even though they amounted to the same thing.

It would be fitting to conclude this piece with an excerpt from CLR James’s 1948 article “Henry Luce and Karl Marx”, something that should demarcate us from the George Packers and Mark Danners of the world. You will note that many of the same anxieties being felt today were around back then, as should be expected from a social system in perpetual crisis:

The Luce publications, Life in particular, constantly betray a dangerous irritation with the American people for refusing to recognize the benefits which capitalism is showering upon them. On Feb, 3, 1947 Life published an editorial on Joshua L. Liebman’s Peace of Mind. Why, it asks, does this book continue in the list of best-sellers? We won the war,the boys are mostly home, everybody has a job. “Yet at one end of the scale citizens are moaning the blues, while at the other end they are reclining on the psychoanalyst’s couch recounting their lives and their loves.”

Life is angry and comes to the conclusion “that what this country really wants is a good kick in the pants.” The people, you see, cannot understand how wrong Marx is Life recommends as an antidote the power of God and the gospels of Jesus. The cure is not interesting – but the diagnosis of the United States is: “A nation so rich in blessings yet gripped with a psychic unhappiness…” Marx wrote many brilliant pages on the “psychic unhappiness” of modern nations. Only he rooted this unhappiness very firmly in the class conflicts and bankruptcy of capitalist society.

But who teaches the American people to doubt capitalism? High on the list are the Luce publications themselves. A March 18, 1948 Life editorial on the Marshall Plan ends: “Let us remember that this is a capitalistic country, that capitalism is neither doomed nor a thing to be ashamed of …”

It appears that the millions who read Life have to be continually reinsured about capitalism and its blessings. Is there then some connection between capitalism and their “psychic unhappiness”? Let us see.

On June 2, 1947 the subtitle of an editorial on the State of the Nation says: “It is Generally OK Don’t let Anybody tell you differently.” But the editorial itself belies the polemical confidence of the title. Life repeats the story of the waitress who plastered the face of her boss with a chocolate pie. It notes that domestic servants, garage mechanics, telephone operators, bell-hops seem to dislike their jobs more obviously than they used to. Is this perhaps “a general sense of frustration” which stems from the high cost of living and expresses itself in lower standards of courtesy? The lightness of tone stops as the editorial ends.

It is fitting and proper for Americans to have a certain amount of uncertainty as they take the stage as protagonists in one of the world’s most crucial epochs. But a people which dreams up more things, makes more things and gives away more things, than any other in history … need not overburden itself with worry and self-doubt.

Final Thoughts on the Kovel Affair

Filed under: Academia,bard college,zionism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Counterpunch, November 9, 2009
Bard and the Lobby
Final Thoughts on the Kovel Affair
By JOHN HALLE

In June of 2007, the left website CounterPunch published a short piece of mine addressing the decision of Depaul University to deny tenure to Prof. Norman Finkelstein. Among the forty-odd emails I received in response was one from Bard Professor Joel Kovel. Having served as a Green Party ward Alderman, I was familiar with Joel’s Green Party activism and had read occasional articles by him over the years. Also, I had just accepted a position at the Bard Conservatory of Music and was looking forward to having at least one other co-worker to compare notes with as we entered the post-Bush era.

I would have been pleased to have had communications from others at Bard but none was forthcoming. Whether this was due to Joel being the only faculty member to read CounterPunch, simple reticence on the part of those who did, or lack of interest in, or lack of sympathy with Finkelstein’s plight, I can’t say. As I recall, I assumed the latter, as this was consistent with a longstanding belief on my part that the reputation of colleges as bastions of left wing thinking is grossly exaggerated, most notably when it comes to the Israel/Palestine question. Nothing in the subsequent years here has given me much cause to revise this presumption, not, to be sure, the Bard community’s response to Joel’s termination, as I will discuss shortly.

Some months after Joel’s email, I had the opportunity to return the favor and to revisit the question of Bard’s general political orientation. Joel’s book “Overcoming Zionism” had been withdrawn by its publisher Pluto Press under pressure from the Israel lobby in what can reasonably be described as the contemporary equivalent of a book burning. Just as he had been the only Bard faculty member to respond to my piece in Counterpunch, so too was I the only member of the Bard community to respond to his request to join the thousands of others who had sent expressions of protest.

When Joel returned to Bard in the fall of 2008, we decided to get together for a weekly meeting which would develop into the eco-socialist lunches, billed in flyers we distributed around campus as an informal discussion of political events from a left perspective, open to all interested students, staff, faculty and community members. Most weeks the group numbered between 8 and 12. Aside from ourselves (and my wife, on occasion) all of the participants would be students. No faculty member attended or expressed any interest in attending or even (with one exception) asked about the group.

While much of the conversation tended to revolve around the Obama campaign and the prospects for an Obama administration, Israel and attitudes towards Israel on the Bard campus were an occasional topic. While no particular consensus was reached, it is fair to say that the administration’s later description of “anti Zionism” as “uncontroversial” would have been greeted with some skepticism by most of those attending.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/halle11092009.html

Deserving a place among philosophers?

Filed under: philosophy,racism — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

Martin Heidegger

NY Times, November 9, 2009
An Ethical Question: Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?
By Patricia Cohen

For decades the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has been the subject of passionate debate. His critique of Western thought and technology has penetrated deeply into architecture, psychology and literary theory and inspired some of the most influential intellectual movements of the 20th century. Yet he was also a fervent Nazi.

Now a soon-to-be published book in English has revived the long-running debate about whether the man can be separated from his philosophy. Drawing on new evidence, the author, Emmanuel Faye, argues fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy. As a result Mr. Faye declares, Heidegger’s works and the many fields built on them need to be re-examined lest they spread sinister ideas as dangerous to modern thought as “the Nazi movement was to the physical existence of the exterminated peoples.”

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/09/books/09philosophy.htm

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David Hume, “Of National Characters”:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

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John Locke, Constitution of Carolina:

“Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute authority over his Negro slaves, of what opinion or Religion so ever.”

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John Stuart Mill, “Considerations on Representative Government?”:

When proper allowance has been made for geographical exigencies, another more purely moral and social consideration offers itself. Experience proves that it is possible for one nationality to merge and be absorbed in another: and when it was originally an inferior and more backward portion of the human race the absorption is greatly to its advantage.

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Immanuel Kant, “From Physical Geography; On Countries That Are Known and Unknown To Europeans; Africa”:

When an Indian sees a European going somewhere, he thinks that he has something to accomplish. When he comes back, he thinks that he has already taken care of his business, but if he sees him going out a third time he thinks that he has lost his mind, as the European is going for a walk for pleasure, which no Indian does; he is only capable of imagining it. Indians are also indecisive, and both traits belong to the nations that live very far north. The weakening of their limbs is supposedly caused by brandy, tobacco, opium and other strong things. From their timidity comes superstition, particularly in regard to magic, and the same with jealousy. Their timidity makes them into slavish underlings when they have kings and evokes an idolatrous reverence in them, just as their laziness moves them rather to run around in the forest and suffer need than to be held to their labors by the orders of their masters.

Montesquieu is correct in his judgment that the weakheartedness that makes death so terrifying to the Indian or the Negro also makes him fear many things other than death that the European can withstand. The Negro slave from Guinea drowns himself if he is to be forced into slavery. The Indian women burn themselves. The Carib commits suicide at the slightest provocation. The Peruvian trembles in the face of an enemy, and when he is led to death, he is ambivalent, as though it means nothing. His awakened imagination, however, also makes him dare to do something, but the heat of the moment is soon past and timidity resumes its old place again…

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Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia:

A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed.It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.

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