Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 18, 2010

Islamic Center developer won’t back down

Filed under: Islam — louisproyect @ 1:31 pm

August 16, 2010

Woman Rebel

Filed under: Nepal — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

“Woman Rebel” will be shown on HBO—of all places—on August 18 at 8pm and repeated on August 26 at 11:45am. This 45 minute documentary on “Silu”, a battalion commander of the Nepalese Maoist guerrillas, is a reminder that other television networks have stepped in to fill the void created by PBS after the Bush administration turned it into an arm of the “war on terror”. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, shows like Frontline and POV continue to serve the war aims of an out of control national security state.

HBO, the home of Tony Soprano and Larry David, has shown its mettle by airing a sympathetic documentary about one of the world’s least covered liberation movements. Even for an unrepentant Marxist like me, this glimpse into the motives and personality of a woman warrior was eye-opening. Except for the written word, my only exposure to the Nepalese freedom-fighters has been an altogether charming rendition of The Internationale on Youtube.

Silu was born Uma Bhujel into a desperately poor farming family in the Gorkha District, where her father worked the fields of a rich landlord. Her sister Kumari was married off at the age of 12 to a man who beat her constantly. After finding life intolerable, she went off into the woods and hung herself. Uma joined the Maoists at the age of 18 and rose to the level of commander. After the Maoists entered the peaceful and legal political arena, she became a representative to the constituent assembly.

She tells her story in a soft-spoken and undramatic fashion, allowing the power of her story itself to draw the listener in. In some ways, she reminds me very much of Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan indigenous peasant leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

While Silu was fighting to topple the monarchy, her brother was serving in the Royal Army. Her brother, mother and father are interviewed as well. One of the most affecting moments in the film involves Silu telling the interviewer what she would have done if she had come face to face with her brother in combat. It takes three cuts for her to compose herself sufficiently to say that she would have had to follow her party’s agenda, even if that meant fratricide. Considering what happened to her sister, it is understandable why Maoist rebels, including the forty percent of the ranks who were women, would not let anything get in their way.

Kudos to HBO for scheduling this hard-hitting documentary and kudos as well to director Kiran Deol, a young female film-maker who demonstrates once again that the greatest drama today is found in real-life rather than in fiction.

August 15, 2010

I read some Marx (and I liked it)

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

August 14, 2010

On the Road with Austin and Santino

Filed under: Gay,television — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Like Vanity Fair’s estimable James Wolcott, I am a fan of On the Road with Austin and Santino, a new Lifetime cable show about a couple of fashion designers who go around the country making couture type clothing for plain janes:

The pleasantest surprise of the television year so far is Lifetime’s underhyped and unheralded On the Road with Austin and Santino, teaming two of the most memorable, personality-plus designers from Project Runway, a creative odd couple that make for a terrific matched set. Outfitted in perfect little outfits, Austin Scarlett, diminutive and fey, looks as if he could be the guidance counselor from Glee’s long lost brother, the one who taught her everything she knows about pastels and jewelry selection; Santino Rice, tall, husky-voiced, and spaniel-eyed, has a more loping presence and loose, layered look. But both are quick-witted and droll, and make a helluva comedy duo as they tool around the country in this fashion-makeover road movie on the installment plan. (Santino at least resembles a road warrior behind the steering wheel–to many of the locals, Austin looks as if he landed from Venus.)

The last episode, which can be seen in its entirety here, was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

It is not just the women who accept the two designers with open arms. Alesha’s husband and her father, who look like they could be cast as Klan members, are thrilled to see them working on Alesha’s gown. The other residents of the small town also give them the red carpet treatment. This is not what we would expect in an ostensibly homophobic small town, needless to say. Whether or not this generous and tolerant behavior was staged or not can of course not be determined, although I am inclined to believe that it was genuine. Admittedly, when you are being filmed you tend to be on your best behavior.

Whatever the case, it dawned on me how gratifying the show was when compared to the truly odious last movie by Sasha Baron Cohen that basically followed the same format as this TV show, but to the opposite effect. The gay fashionista Bruno played by Cohen went to the same kinds of small towns in order to catch locals in some kind of homophobic outrage. When Bruno goes out hunting with some men who look and dress like those in Antler, he tries to shock them into bad behavior by provoking them with outlandish sexual advances. To their credit, they largely remain unprovoked. The real lesson of Borat and Bruno, when you really get down to it, is how generally open-minded Americans are despite this British snob’s attempts to convey the opposite.

All this brings to mind Alexander Cockburn’s recent column about how fed up he is with gay marriage:

I’m for anything that upsets the applecart but why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about. Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of “equality” as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged.

To buttress his case, he followed up with a letter from a gay activist that stated:

As you might know, only 15 per cent of LGBT are in a relationship circumstance where they would marry.  Yet this issue has dominated LGBT activism for the past two decades. Along with gays in the military, which served 1.5 per cent of LGBT, these two conservative issues have crowded out progress on consensus economic issues, housing and job discrimination protections, which would appear to be in the interests of the vast majority, those of us who must compete for housing and employment.

That being said, the activist also told Cockburn that he’s “probably gonna tie the knot in the future when it becomes legal again.” He also thought that:

The issue of marriage is just a vehicle. The payload is the state ending discrimination in all of its practices. It is disgusting to me that marriage ended up getting us here, but I think that I can see daylight through Kennedy.

In other words, gay marriage might involve belief in a reactionary institution (I am married myself, for what that’s worth) but it is a means to a liberatory end.

To some extent, Cockburn’s complaint and that of some gay ultralefts is a kind of counter-cultural time machine journey back to 1971 or so when radicalism and life style were inextricably linked, especially in New Left circles. For gays, this translated into rejection of all aspects of bourgeois society, especially its sexual mores. What a disappointment it must be to them to see so many gays jumping on the bandwagon of an institution that symbolizes bourgeois society. Like pressing for the rights of gays to join the military or become Protestant ministers, this would appear to be a wholesale rejection of “militancy”.

Perhaps the same thing could be said about the civil rights movement of the 1950s that focused so much on African-Americans not being discriminated against. By the 60s the Black movement had reversed course and worried less about discrimination and more about the possibility of becoming separated from a decadent bourgeois white society.

History played a trick when it came to gays. Rather than moving from anti-discrimination to militancy (except for the rather modest efforts of the Mattachine Society), it went from the militancy of the early 70s to something much more like an “integrationist” movement today. It is too bad that some on the left cannot accept the movement on its own terms.

Oddly enough, Counterpunch has published far more articles in defense of gay marriage than Cockburn’s contrarian pieces, a sign of the publication’s health, I would say. If only the “vanguard” press could live up to this example, we’d all be better off. Here’s one item to consider:

On a swing through Baton Rouge, Louisiana last week, John F. Kerry made it crystal clear that he doesn’t care much for gay marriage. The intolerant senator scoffed at reporters when asked whether or not he supported the inclusion of a same-sex marriage plank in the Massachusetts Democratic platform. Kerry answered by saying that such a statement does not represent the views held by most party members, including himself.

“I’m opposed to it being in a platform. I think it’s a mistake,” Kerry huffed, “I think it’s the wrong thing, and I’m not sure it reflects the broad view of the Democratic Party in our state … I’m opposed to gay marriage.”

The senator, who flip-flopped his way through a self-defeating campaign in 2004, can’t get his act together — yet he is still setting himself up for another run in 2008. Supporting gay marriage amounts to electoral death, or so claims Kerry. He must think inflating his political status is more important than standing up for equality.

Indeed Kerry’s statement is the kind of veiled hate speech we were hearing from racist Democrats down South during the civil rights struggles. Fortunately, Dems in Massachusetts aren’t buying Kerry’s line, as they are planning to vote in favor of putting a same-sex marriage plank in their platform later this month. In fact, Kerry is behind the times, as his state’s Supreme Court legalized gay marriage back in May of 2004.

This, of course, is entirely the right tack to take. Hearkening back to Lenin’s “What is to be Done”, it puts the premium on standing up for the rights of a persecuted minority without trying to gainsay the goal being pursued. In illustrating how a “vanguard” functions, Lenin referred to the German social democracy:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

If Lenin advocated that socialists fight for the right of a “bourgeois progressive” to take office in Germany, why is so difficult for some on the left to see gay marriage in the same terms?

Logo, a polling company subsidiary of MTV, asked young gays about their hopes. It found the following:

For one thing, younger gays now expect to stay put: no more running away to be gay. Rather than heading to big cities where gays are more readily accepted, young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America.

That means younger gays fully anticipate, and demand, acceptance from their local communities. At the same time, younger gays don’t see a great need to depart from most cultural norms as expressed by their heterosexual peers; while wishing to be open and honest about their core identities, young gays also wish for the support and purpose of family.

The expectation of a spouse and children is common among younger gays, whereas the research indicated that only about a third of gays 35 and older shared that same desire. Overall, gays polled by the study said their top priority was marriage equality, followed by the environment, health care, and the economy.

Get that? Young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America. They also said their top priority was marriage equality.

All in all, On the Road with Austin and Santino is an expression of these hopes and dreams. Gay youth want to be accepted on their own terms, even in such a place as Antler, Oklahoma. The desire to express one’s sexual identity without negative consequences is entirely normal. The United States is headed inexorably toward significant demographic changes that will help to undermine the reactionary prejudices of many white males living both in places like Antler and in New York City where gay-bashing still takes place. Socialists have an obligation to strengthen every initiative that moves us away from the prejudices that have taken the lives of Blacks, Latinos and gays. Part of this is fighting for gay marriage, a change that would make gay people and straights equal in the eyes of society, whether or not one or another reactionary has endorsed this demand. As is always the case, socialists should not put a minus where the ruling class—or elements of it—put a plus. As Leon Trotsky once said, we have to learn to think.

August 12, 2010

Steven Seagal raps it down

Filed under: oil — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

August 10, 2010

Neshoba: the Price of Freedom

Filed under: Film,racism,repression — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

“Neshoba: the Price of Freedom”, the powerful documentary opening at the Cinema Village on Friday in NY and at the Laemmle Music Hall in LA on September 10th, gets its title from the Mississippi County where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were slain in 1964. Chaney was an African-American from Mississippi while the other two men were New York Jews. There was evidence that Chaney was tortured and then buried alive in the earthen dam where all three were eventually discovered.

Forty years later Micki Dickoff was approached by Ben Chaney, James’s younger brother, about making a movie about what happened in 1964 and about the new trial that was taking place in Philadelphia, the seat of Neshoba County. Unlike its Greek etymological origins, this sleepy town was anything but a place of brotherly love. Dickoff saw the need to move ahead rapidly on the project since Andrew Goodman’s mother, then 88 and in failing health, was still alive as was Fannie Lee Chaney, James’s mother. The Philadelphia Coalition, a group of white and black local citizens, was pressing for justice in the case (the original trial in 1967 had resulted in very light sentences) and national attention was riveted on the efforts to retry one of the few surviving killers, a long-time Klan member named Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen who owned a saw-mill and a part-time pastor in a Baptist Church. He was 80 years old  when he finally stood trial.

The contrast between the two camps could not be sharper. Killen and his local supporters are not shy about voicing their resentment toward the “coloreds”, the Jews, the Communists, the media and anybody else who questioned their right to murder three people in cold blood. The two mothers and their local allies speak passionately about the need for justice in the case, something that won’t bring their children back but that would vindicate their sacrifices.

The final third of the movie was filmed in the courtroom, where we see arguments for punishing the unrepentant Edgar Ray Killen. Local racists rally at the courthouse, including a Klansman. Unlike the case in 1964, Mississippi politicians were disavowing their racist past. At a rally organized by the Philadelphia Coalition, Governor Haley Barbour mouths all sorts of pious sentiments about the need to “move forward”, but this is the same guy who is a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a neo-Confederate group that fights to preserve the Rebel flag on statehouses and other racist causes.

It was patrician members of the White Citizen’s Council like Haley Barbour who while repudiating violence on a pro forma basis in 1964 worked hand in glove with terrorists like Preacher Killen. One of the more shocking revelations in the movie is a television interview with a White Citizen’s Council supporter named Henry Garrett, who is identified as a member of the faculty at Columbia University, my long-time employer. After scraping myself off the floor, I found a wiki on Garret that revealed the following:

Henry Edward Garrett (27 January 1894 – 26 June 1973) was an American psychologist and segregationist. Garrett was President of the American Psychological Association in 1946 and Chair of Psychology at Columbia University from 1941 to 1955. After he left Columbia, he taught at the University of Virginia, where his racial ideas were supported by the dominant state political leadership represented by Senator Harry F. Byrd, who promoted Massive Resistance to school integration.

A.S. Winston chronicles Garrett’s involvement in the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics (IAAEE), the journal Mankind Quarterly, the neofascist Northern League, and the ultra-right wing political group, the Liberty Lobby.

In the 1950s Garrett helped organize an international group of scholars dedicated to preventing race mixing, preserving segregation, and promoting the principles of early 20th century eugenics and “race hygiene.” Garrett was a strong opponent of the 1954 United States Supreme Court’s desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which he predicted would lead to “total demoralization and then disorganization in that order.”

He is credited with coining the term equalitarian dogma in 1961 to describe the by then mainstream view that there were no race differences in intelligence, or if there were, they were purely the result of environmental factors. He accused the Jews of spreading the dogma, and wrote that most Jewish organizations “belligerently support the equalitarian dogma which they accept as having been ‘scientifically’ proven” (Garrett, 1961).

He wrote in the White Citizens’ Council monthly journal The Citizen, “Despite glamorized accounts to the contrary, the history of Black Africa over the past 5,000 years is largely a blank,” and, “The crime record of the Negro in the United States is little short of scandalous” (Garrett 1968).

Garrett served as a Director of the Pioneer Fund in 1972–1973.

When an institution like Columbia University could have positioned itself as a beacon of liberal values in the 1950s, while having such a racist and neo-fascist running a department, you really have to wonder the school deserved such a reputation. Of course, this is the same university that was in bed with Nazi officials in the 1930s.

Finally, it must be stated that not every rightwing politician made the effort to distance himself from the 1964 murders. Ronald Reagan, the saint of the Republican Party that Barack Obama has lauded as returning the USA “to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing”, made a trip to the Neshoba County Fair in 1980, a place that the film describes as off-limits to blacks unless they were working for a white concessionaire. In that speech, Reagan said:

I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

With a virtual White Citizen’s Council member like Reagan running for president in 1980, no wonder people like Edgar Ray Killen felt emboldened to tell the makers of “Neshoba: the Price of Freedom” that the three civil rights workers had it coming to them.

August 9, 2010

Tony Judt: an appreciation

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left,middle east,swans — louisproyect @ 1:07 pm

(Swans – August 9, 2010)   Tony Judt, a courageous and principled social democratic intellectual, died on August 6th after a two year struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Despite being almost totally paralyzed in his last few months of life, he continued to write about his illness and political beliefs, which had been growing more and more critical of American capitalism and the Zionism of his youth.

In his next to last essay that appeared in the New York Review, Judt referred to the final stages of his paralysis that would effectively rob him of his ability to communicate with the world — his voice:

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts — the view from inside is as rich as ever — but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing.

Now that he is gone it is appropriate to assess the legacy of “the view from inside” that Judt externalized over a lifetime of writing.

Judt came of age intellectually as a Cold War intellectual after the fashion of Albert Camus, a natural outcome of his scholarly concentration on French radical politics. As has often been the case, identification with Albert Camus has gone hand in hand with “humanitarian interventions” of the kind supported by other self-styled Camus disciples such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens. In a New York Review piece on Ronald Steel’s Temptations of a Superpower, Judt made the case for war in the Balkans, comparing the Serbs to pre-WWII fascists:

In the Thirties this was preceded by the effective end of the League of Nations on the occasion of its inability to punish or even inhibit Mussolini from his brutal occupation of Abyssinia; today the death toll of the United Nations has perhaps already been rung in Srebrenica and Zepa, where the UN forces first promised security to thousands of refugees, then betrayed them to the Serb forces.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy63.html

August 8, 2010

Hard Times

Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

On July 29th I attended a panel discussion and reception for a show titled “Hard Times” at the Salmagundi Club on 47 Fifth Avenue through an invitation from my old friend Fred Baker, a veteran film maker whose “Lenny Bruce without Tears” is about the best introduction to the groundbreaking comedian.

Fred’s son Garin was one of the artists whose work was being showcased. While I would have attended any art show that old friends and their family had a role in, I was especially eager to see what artists had to say about the Great Recession we are living through. It turns out that they had plenty to say, including Fred Ross—one of the panel discussion participants.

Fred delivered a slashing polemical attack on modernism that made a point that I found hard to disagree with, namely that representational art and representational art alone was capable of commenting on the human condition of the sort we associate with the classic realist novels of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dickens, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck et al. When you stop and think about it, it is virtually impossible to disagree with this. There are lots of things you can say about a Jackson Pollock painting, but everyone would have to agree with the proposition that it can say nothing about unemployment, hunger, homelessness, etc. Of course, some critics would insist that is a good thing. After all, they might be making a point in somewhat more sophisticated terms that was attributed to Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer: “If you want to deliver a message, send a telegram.”

These are points that have interested me for a very long time and that I have written about in the past. Go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture.htm and you will find this:

Art and Revolution: a six part series
Abstract Expressionists

Jackson Pollock
Ben Shahn
Andy Warhol
Trotsky’s theory of art
Clemente, Basquiat, Haring

I brought along my trusty Panasonic camera and put together a Youtube movie featuring some remarks by Fred Ross and interviews with Fred Baker and Garin Baker that I am sure you will find interesting if you have ever grappled with the problem of art and politics.

August 5, 2010

I’ll stick with the swamp

Filed under: sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

With an article titled France: Where is the NPA going? you have to assume that you have entered the rarefied circles of Trotskyism. Of course, if you wanted to establish your orthodoxy at the outset, it would have been better to title the article “Whither the NPA?”

It appears that the French anti-capitalist party launched by the LCR has a lot of Trotskyists upset, in this instance the French co-thinkers of Alan Woods whose website In Defense of Marxism (IDOM) shares the title of the American SWP’s collection of letters and articles written by Trotsky in the Shachtman-Burnham fight. It is there where Trotsky coined the famous phrase “from a scratch to gangrene” that perhaps better than any other words epitomizes the Talmudic sensibilities of this movement. In just about every faction fight that took place in the SWP since Trotsky uttered these words, there is always a dichotomy between the “proletarian” and “petty bourgeois” wing of the party that can implicitly only be resolved through a split, which nips the gangrene in the bud. This purification process kept being repeated over and over in the Trotskyist movement until you ended up with a myriad of rival Fourth Internationals. Fortunately, history has moved forward to the point when most sensible Marxist activists appear ready to drop this self-defeating ritualistic methodology.

The attack on the NPA appeared in La Riposte which describes itself as “the left wing of the French Communist Party”. As you might be aware, the current led by Alan Woods has long been associated with deep entryism in the British Labour Party. I suppose that the group around La Riposte has adapted that strategy to French conditions.

For La Riposte, the NPA amounts to what orthodox Trotskyists tend to call a “swamp”, even though they don’t use this hoary epithet. But the characterization is quite familiar to those of us who have traveled in such circles:

The NPA [New Anti-Capitalist Party] counts in its ranks a certain number of revolutionary activists who seriously struggle against the capitalist class and want to finish with Capitalism. But these elements are increasingly isolated inside their own party. The NPA differs from the LCR [Revolutionary Communist League which later became the NPA together with other forces] by the fact that it is much more heterogeneous, politically speaking.

Heterogeneity! Ah, the danger lurks! The omnipresent scratch! As it turns out, an “ill-defined” environmentalism and feminism could be what leads to gangrene:

Now, those members for whom the electoral results of the NPA are the most important thing will draw the conclusion that the break with “radicalism” and the “Communist” profile of the LCR has not gone far enough. They will apply pressure to put “anti-capitalism” in the background, to the advantage of more moderate ideas – vaguely environmentalist, feminist, etc. – which they consider to be more advantageous on the electoral front.

Now it should be understood that IDOM leader Alan Woods has the kind of suspicion of feminism that was prevalent on the Marxist left in the early 1960s, but unfortunately he carried those kinds of suspicions well into the 21st century as exemplified in his workerist article Marxism versus feminism – The class struggle and the emancipation of women. This sort of thing is an embarrassment and not worth the time and energy to refute.

IDOM also has a very mixed record on environmental issues, embarrassing itself two years ago by publishing a long denialist article on climate change of the sort one might find on Spiked Online, but without the Marxist rhetoric of course.

Curiously enough, La Riposte has nothing to say about the broader context for the NPA initiative, namely the recognition that groups based on the organizational principles—such as they are—of the various Fourth Internationals have led to one split after another. Indeed Woods’s Fourth International is the product of a split with Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers International over entryism, with Taaffe favoring a break with the tactic. Not surprisingly, Taaffe described the Woods group in drearily familiar terms:

The split between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks began, as is well known, over the famous “Paragraph One” of the constitution of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, defining the character, rights and duties of the members. The dispute was between the ‘hards’ and the ‘softs’. Subsequent events demonstrated that this divergence between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks was an anticipation of the future political gulf that would open up between them in the course of the three Russian revolutions that followed.

Let us recall here that when the dispute broke in May, 1991, the minority claimed that there were no political differences. The majority on the other hand argued that the roots of the differences lay in the complex objective situation nationally and internationally and in the subjective weaknesses and incapacity of the minority leaders to face up to this.

Sigh. That’s always the way it turns out, one more reenactment of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, a proletarian wing of the party versus a petty bourgeois wing. I think I’ll stick with the swamp.

August 4, 2010

IED attacks in Afghanistan 2004-2009

Filed under: Afghanistan — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm
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