Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 3, 2010

Two un-summer movies

Filed under: Fascism,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

For me, a summer movie does not mean the latest car chase extravaganza, but something more like the two distinctly low budget and offbeat items I saw over the past couple of days. The first is the odder, a Danish fiction film titled “Brotherhood” that is about gay neo-Nazis, influenced strongly it would seem by “Brokeback Mountain”. The other is a documentary titled “Summer Pasture” about Tibetan nomads living in the Kham region that overlaps Tibet and the Sichuan province in China. My kind of movies, in other words. The availability of such movies in New York is one of the few reasons I remain in this hedge fund manager’s paradise, other than the fact that my wife teaches at a local college.

When I first got some email from a publicist about an upcoming Danish movie that had a gay neo-Nazi as a main character, my immediate reaction was to put it on my calendar. What could that possibly be about?

In the opening scene we meet Lars, a sergeant in the Danish army, meeting with an officer who informs him that his promotion has been turned down because men under his command complained to higher-up’s that he had made passes at them. Needless to say, this movie does not provide ammunition for those pushing for allowing gays in the military, in Denmark, the USA or elsewhere. This premise has to be accepted on its own terms in order to continue watching a movie that has many improbable elements, despite which it remains gripping drama.

Without providing any background, we see Lars showing up at a neo-Nazi meeting where he tells those in attendance that they are basically punks and cowards for beating up what he refers to as “Pakis”. It appears that Lars is a racist and a neo-Nazi but has little use for such violence in much the same way that David Duke decided long ago that neither did he—at least verbally.

We first meet these neo-Nazis at the beginning of the film where they gang up on a gay man cruising late at night and beat the crap out of him. “Fatty”, their leader, gives his men a stern warning. They have to cut this out—not because of moral qualms but because a complaint to the cops might lead to their arrest.

Fatty decides at once that Lars would be a good candidate member since he has military experience and a feel for tactics. Unlike the knuckle-dragging skinhead members of the troop, Lars has longer blond hair and a pretty if Aryan face that might look good from a speaker’s podium.

After Lars has a fight with his parents, he decides to move out and find lodging with Fatty. He puts him up in a luxurious seaside estate owned by their top leader Ebbe and that is being upgraded by Jimmy, a skinhead member who has an enormous Nazi emblem tattooed on his back and the number 88 tattooed on his chest. (This is a coded number significant to fellow neo-Nazi’s. The eighth letter in the alphabet is “h”, hence “Heil Hitler”.)

Jimmy and Lars get into bed in around the same amount of time that it took the two sheepherders to get it on in “Brokeback Mountain”. Needless to say, their “forbidden love” eventually gets them in hot water with Fatty and the gang.

Yes, I know that this sounds like totally repellent stuff but the acting, writing and directing are first-rate rate. You don’t exactly care about Jimmy and Lars in the same way you might have cared about the two sheepherders, but your hatred for the other neo-Nazis is so profound that you prefer them as a “lesser evil”.

There are two scenes that are fascinating engagements with the ironies of homosexuality and fascism. When Jimmy offers Lars a beer, Lars has a laugh about it being organic. What’s this he asks, beating up Pakis and drinking organic beer? How does that go together? Jimmy insists that the neo-Nazis are fighting for nature, meaning the environment as well as pure sexual and racial standards. From what little I know of fascist movements today, environmentalism is not a major concern. Of course, a number of scholars have tried to depict Adolph Hitler as a big-time environmentalist, a claim I dispense with here.

The other scene involves Fatty and the rest of the gang, Lars included, having a discussion about Ernst Rohm, a Nazi leader that Hitler had murdered in the night of the long knives. They argue among themselves whether it was because Rohm was gay or because he was a rival to Hitler that he wanted eliminated. Lars argues for the latter.

Nicolo Donato, the director (a Dane of Italian origin), gave an interview to Cineuropa in which he explained the origins of the project:

Where did the idea of a gay neo-Nazi romance come from specifically?

I saw a documentary a long time ago about gay Nazis, and I felt stupid when I watched that. I was an anti-Nazi guy then, when I did a lot of stupid things. [Leni] Riefenstahl, she did this intro in one of her movies on the Olympics where the athletes are washing each other, rubbing each other’s backs, and all the guys are naked. And I thought, what’s going on here? Isn’t this supposed to be a Hitler movie? It didn’t fit with my idea of Nazism. But of course, you can’t choose your sexuality. I don’t know if there are gay Nazis in Denmark. But in Germany there are, that’s why they did this documentary.

Read full interview

“Brotherhood” opens at the Cinema Village in NY on August 6th.

“Summer Pasture” has the same kind of intrinsic appeal as movies like “The Story of a Weeping Camel” do. The lives of nomads, either Mongolian or Tibetan, on the great steppes of Asia are so unlike our own that we are drawn to narratives that allow them to tell their own story.

The documentary features a family consisting of a husband Locho, his wife Yama and their as yet unnamed infant daughter who they have nicknamed “pale, chubby one”. Locho tends to their herd of yaks while Yama collects yak dung for cooking and tends to household chores in their tent. The movie is titled “Summer Pasture” because it shows them in just such a place. When the seasons change, they pack everything up and move to a new pasture geared to the requirements of the season.

While the surrounding countryside is breathtakingly beautiful and the couple appears committed to a nomadic life (the Tibetans have lived in Kham for four thousand years), this is a very tough life. Yama is not in good health and the doctor has advised her that her arduous housekeeping tasks might end up killing her, especially since their diet is spotty at best. She has already lost two children to early deaths from illness and only hopes to be able to have another couple of children to fulfill the quota set by the Chinese government. This quota, of course, puts nomads and subsistence farmers at a disadvantage since they need large families for economic reasons. Locho states that it was not unusual in the past to see nomad families with 18 children.

Locho and Yama are keenly aware that nomadic life is dying out. Poverty forces the nomad to move to a village and assume regular jobs and a permanent dwelling. As is the case generally with precapitalist social formations in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, assimilation is not forced by carried out through the “invisible hand”. This is how American Indians are losing their own traditional way of life as well.

The Tibetan nomad’s primary mode of production is the yak that supplies transportation of goods, milk, wool, hides, and dung for fuel. While watching the documentary, I could not help but think of the Blackfoot Indian who relied on the bison in the same manner as I pointed out in an article written about a decade ago:

Because the Blackfoot warriors held the upper hand until relatively late in the 19th century, the bison remained plentiful in their territory. In the first instance the animal provided excellent nutritional value. Practically every part was edible, including the brains, liver, kidneys, soft nose gristle and bone marrow. The meat itself was either roasted or boiled. Care was taken to prepare pemmican, a preserved dried meat, in advance of the long, harsh winter. Pemmican was made by taking layers of dried meat and separating them with back fat, wild peppermint and berries. The pemmican bags themselves were made of the skins of unborn bison calves and could themselves be eaten in lean times.

They also made their clothing from bison skins. Making use of steel knives obtained through the fur trade, the Blackfoot made beautiful, long-wearing, waterproof clothing. All of the horsegear was made from bison hides as well: including saddles, bridles and shoes for sore-footed horses. Arms were also made from rawhide, including the strong shields constructed from the bull’s neck. Warclubs were held together by thongs made of rawhide.

In addition to providing food and clothing, the Blackfoot transformed bison skins into lodging and furniture as well. Soft-dressed bison skins without the hair were used for lodges (tipis). The bison-hide covering for a lodge weighed about one hundred pounds. Each day when a village moved to a new hunting ground, the lodge covering was packed up and stowed in a travois that was also made of rawhide, along with the rawhide bedding.

I deeply regret not having gotten the word out about “Summer Pasture” until now. The movie opened on July 30th in New York’s IFC Center and closes on Thursday night. But it opens in Los Angeles’s Arclight Theater the day after and runs until the 12th. I urge New Yorkers to try to catch the movie either tomorrow or Thursday night, and for Los Angelenos to put it on their calendar.

A visit to http://www.khamfilmproject.org is also worthwhile since you will get an idea of what motivates this collective of American and Tibetan filmmakers. Trust me, it is not money.

Rethink Afghanistan: women’s rights under Karzai

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Read more here

August 2, 2010

Olympia rabbi supports boycott against Israel

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Time Magazine: still setting the ruling class agenda

Filed under: Afghanistan,media,oil — louisproyect @ 5:06 pm

Admired Mussolini

Time Magazine still has the capability of defining the agenda of the ruling class even though the magazine no longer has the reach it once did. In the 1950s, it was practically de rigueur for working class and middle class families (like my own) to have a subscription. This magazine was not just where I learned about Jack Kerouac. It was also where I learned to hate Communism, which in my adolescent mind was interpreted as the world’s greatest threat to abstract expressionist art, atonal music and “freedom” more generally.

This week the mendacious newsweekly made bold attacks on behalf of the national-security state on two fronts. Michael Grunwald (possibly related to former chief editor Henry Grunwald?) told Time Magazine readers on Thursday July 29 that the damage to the Gulf of Mexico has been “exaggerated”, citing a local scientist:

LSU coastal scientist Eugene Turner has dedicated much of his career to documenting how the oil industry has ravaged Louisiana’s coast with canals and pipelines, but he says the BP spill will be a comparative blip and predicts that the oil will destroy fewer marshes than the airboats deployed to clean up the oil. “We don’t want to deny that there’s some damage, but nothing like the damage we’ve seen for years,” he says.

Grunwald also cites Ivor Van Heerden, another scientist, to this effect but admits that he “like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from BP’s spill-response funds.” Well, what difference does that make? We all know that it is only the conspiracy-minded who would make a connection between somebody making light of the spill and being on the payroll of BP.

If this article gave what amounts to a green light for deep-water drilling, a cover article that displayed an Afghan woman with her nose cut off by the Taliban gave the Obama administration badly needed propaganda support for “staying the course” in Afghanistan:

For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous. An Afghan refugee who grew up in Canada, Mozhdah Jamalzadah recently returned home to launch an Oprah-style talk show in which she has been able to subtly introduce questions of women’s rights without provoking the ire of religious conservatives. On a recent episode, a male guest told a joke about a foreign human-rights team in Afghanistan. In the cities, the team noticed that women walked six paces behind their husbands. But in rural Helmand, where the Taliban is strongest, they saw a woman six steps ahead. The foreigners rushed to congratulate the husband on his enlightenment — only to be told that he stuck his wife in front because they were walking through a minefield. As the audience roared with laughter, Jamalzadah reflected that it may take about 10 to 15 years before Afghan women can truly walk alongside men. But once they do, she believes, all Afghans will benefit. “When we talk about women’s rights,” Jamalzadah says, “we are talking about things that are important to men as well — men who want to see Afghanistan move forward. If you sacrifice women to make peace, you are also sacrificing the men who support them and abandoning the country to the fundamentalists that caused all the problems in the first place.”

For young people fortunate enough to have been spared the kind of diet of Time Magazine that I received in the 1950s, a word or two about this fetid newsweekly might be in order. It was founded in 1923 by one Henry Luce as the first news magazine in history.

Luce was a powerful member of a Republican Party that was more in line with Eisenhower, Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller than the current outfit identified with Rush Limbaugh and the tea party. This was a Republican Party that differed little from the current Democratic Party. Luce was also closely associated with “the China lobby” that pushed for war against Mao’s China. His wife Clare Booth Luce was a major figure in anti-Communist politics who was to the right of her husband, backing Goldwater enthusiastically in 1964.

While not exactly the kind of ferocious attack that Henry Luce deserves, Alan Brinkley’s (a Columbia University history professor) recently published biography reveals how the magazine winked its eye at fascist dictators. Michael Augspurger, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, wrote an article on Luce that contained the following:

In the late twenties and thirties, Henry Luce was accused of harboring fascist tendencies. His accusers pointed primarily to the editorial practices of Fortune and its older sibling, Time. Time, a magazine notorious for its editorializing news copy, was particularly well-known in its support of Mussolini. As Herzstein notes, “When important issues were at stake, one knew where Time’s editors stood…. The magazine approved of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, il Duce” Time’s involvement with fascism was not limited to Italy, either. Time foreign correspondent Laird Goldsborough, for example, called supporters of Spanish fascist leader General Francisco Franco “… men of property, men of god and men of the sword.” And while Luce was not nearly as vocal as Goldsborough, he did support his correspondent’s writing even when it became a highly divisive staff issue at Time, Inc. But there was more to the accusations than just these editorial tendencies. Observers as disparate as Fortune writer Dwight Macdonald, Fortune managing editor Eric Hodgins, and biographer W.A. Swanberg have seen fascist leanings in Luce himself. Macdonald, referring to the anonymous corporate structure of Time, Inc., accused Luce in 1937 of “fascist capitalism.” Hodgins, in his 1973 autobiography, recalled that Luce liked “the purported aims of fascism.” And Swanberg claimed that Luce admired the dynamism, militarism, strong leadership, and anti-Communism of Mussolini’s Italy. Clearly, Luce appeared to some of those familiar with him to be attached to certain fascist ideals.

Returning to the questions of the BP spill and the war in Afghanistan, it first of all has to be understood that the magazine is a cut above the Murdoch press in terms of credibility. In fact, Time Magazine’s website is co-sponsored by CNN, a news organization that is still capable of solid reporting. (Newsweek has a similar connection to MSNBC.)

Michael Grunwald, the author of the BP article, is the also the author of a highly regarded book on the Florida Everglades. He has written for www.grist.com, a highly respected environmentalist online magazine, including a piece on the Everglades that states:

But starting in the 1880s, Americans determined to subdue Mother Nature started trying to drain the Everglades with canals, hoping to create a new paradise for agriculture and development. A few lonely voices warned that ditches could turn the swamp into a desert, but most Floridians agreed with Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who declared in the early 1900s that if drained swamps could really burn, “the great bogs of Ireland would have been ash heaps long before St. Patrick drove out the snakes.”

But sure enough, the early ditches started sucking the marsh dry, ruining wells, damaging soils, and, yes, igniting fires so smoky that children in Miami had to cover their faces at school. And in the summer, southern Florida’s torrential downpours overwhelmed the ditches, converting farmland back to swampland, inspiring the first jokes about buying Florida land by the gallon. The jokes seemed a lot less funny in 1928, when a hurricane blasted Lake Okeechobee through a flimsy muck dike, killing 2,500 pioneers in the Everglades.

So clearly we are not dealing with John Stossel or Spiked Online, especially since Grunwald hedges his bets:

The potential long-term damage that underwater oil plumes and an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants that BP has spread in the area could have on the region’s deep-water ecosystems and food chains might not be known for years.

Well, I should say so. Not long after the ink was dry on his article—metaphorically speaking—there were reports on dispersants that undercut his article. Even his own magazine was forced to go along with what the Washington Post and New York Times have been reporting about the looming threat:

In humans, long-term exposure to dispersants can cause central nervous system problems or damage blood, kidneys or livers, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

BP’s apparently generous use of dispersants helps explain why so little oil has been spotted on the surface recently, said Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Whether the benefits of dispersants outweigh the possible risks is a “debatable point,” he said, noting that they’ve protected some fragile coastal wetlands from heavier bands of oil.

More to the point, we are dealing with a situation in which BP and the government have a vested interest in controlling the flow of information, something they were much better at than controlling the oil spill. Reporters and scientists were not allowed to conduct their own survey of the troubled waters. In light of this, it is hard to take Michael Grunwald’s bromides seriously. He has only damaged his own reputation through such a specious article, although I am sure that he is rewarded handsomely by Time Magazine for writing such nonsense.

Turning to the question of Taliban cruelty, we wonder if the magazine has a double standard (gasp!) when it comes to such questions. While preaching the need to stay the course in Afghanistan to defend women from sexist brutality, it seems quite content over how things have turned out in Iraq, with a Shi’ite government working assiduously to deny women the limited gains they achieved under Saddam’s government, not to speak of the misogyny of Afghan warlords on “our side”.If the magazine was really concerned about the status of women in Afghanistan, it would publish the speeches and articles of Malalai Joya, a fearless defender of peace, human rights and social justice. As it turns out, Time did recognize her as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People of 2010 but in their typically dishonest fashion as Salon.com blogger Judy Mandelbaum pointed out:

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, Homer wrote thousands of years ago. Today human rights activists would be well-advised to beware of major American news magazines passing out honors. Last week, noted Afghan politician Malalai Joya, the author of “A Woman Among Warlords” whom the BBC has called “the bravest woman in Afghanistan,” was named one of TIME Magazine’s “World’s Most Influential 100 People” of 2010. The trouble is, the magazine presented her to the world in a brief but misleading text by Islam critic and American Enterprise Institute fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who concluded her tribute with the words:  “I hope in time she comes to see the US and NATO forces in her country as her allies. She must use her notoriety, her demonstrated wit and her resilience to get the troops on her side instead of out of her country.”

What an odd choice of words, considering that Ali is writing about a woman who wrote in the Daily Beast last week that:

more than eight years of occupation have made life bleak, and we are tired of being pawns in the US and NATO’s game for control of Central Asia. We can longer bear the killing of our pregnant mothers, the killing of our teenagers and young children, the killing of so many Afghan men and women. We can no longer bear these “accidents” and these “apologies” for the deaths of the innocent.

Are Ali and the editors of TIME really entitled to tell Malalai Joya what to think about her country’s plight? To set the record straight and to find out what really motivates this activist, journalist Sonali Kolhatkar of UprisingRadio contacted Ms. Joya yesterday and conducted an interview, which I have excerpted below (you can – and should – read the entire discussion here):

I am very angry with the way they have introduced me [Joya said]. They have a completely painted a false picture of me that does not mention at all about my struggle against the occupation of Afghanistan by the US and NATO, which is disgusting. In fact every one knows that I stand side by side with the glorious-anti war movement around the world and have proved again and again that I will never compromise with the US and NATO who have occupied my country, empowered the most bloody enemies of my people and are killing my innocent compatriots [inaudible] in Afghanistan. What TIME did was like giving an award to someone by one hand and getting it back by another hand. I have sent my protest to it to the Defense Committee [for Malalai Joya] but TIME did not bother to even answer than protest letter. Perhaps this is the kind of freedom of expression exercised by TIME and the USA. …

August 1, 2010

Isaiah at the Wall

Filed under: literature,middle east — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Daniel Marlin is a poet, artist and scholar of the Yiddish language who lives in Berkeley for whom I have the greatest admiration. He has just published his latest work, a collection of poems titled Isaiah at the Wall: Palestine Poems that according to the acknowledgments is the result of a trip to the Middle East in 2008 and of decades of thought and activism which preceded it. He singles out some people who have deepened his understanding of the occupation: the poet Mahmoud Darwish, the human rights activist Israel Shahak, the lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh, and the scholar Sarah Roy. On the book’s back cover, he describes how his thinking has evolved on the Middle East, reminding me of my own experience and just about every other Jewish anti-Zionist, whose numbers are growing by the day:

As a child, I absorbed idealistic narratives of American and Jewish history. I learned about the Holocaust at an early age but knew nothing of the Palestinian Nakba. Understanding history, like understanding ourselves, requires a peeling away of myths, habits, fears, the sacred masks of self-image, and their furious defenses. The ideals of freedom and justice led me to oppose the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and to travel to Palestine and Israel in the summer of 2008. These poems grew out of that journey.

I have to confess that my poetry (and novel) reading days are mostly behind me but Daniel’s latest book reminds me of the value of political poetry, especially when it is written by a master of language and imagery. When I was involved with the Vietnam antiwar movement, I looked to Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg for the artistic corollary of the demonstrations I helped to organize. And when I was involved with Central American solidarity, I got the same kind of lift from Carolyn Forché. And when it comes to the Middle East, we have another such voice in Daniel Marlin.

Here are a couple of poems from Isaiah at the Wall that will surely convince you to buy this wonderfully inspired book without delay.

Checkpoint Fantasy

“Where are you going?” the soldier asks.

“To Jerusalem,
with black dates
for the angel’s courtyard.”

“The angel of dance,
or of atonement?”

“The blind angel
who sees with her fingers.”

“The angel of judgment
or of condolence?”

“The black angel
whose brow turns silver at dawn.”

“The angel of rivers
or of mist?”

“The seamstress angel
who threads the dream with desire.”

“The angel of dogs
or of wanderers?”

“She who invents
the language of pity.”

“Then go in Peace”
the soldier says,

“but first, look into my eyes.
What do you see?”

“I see gallows in one eye,
a candle in the other.”

Instructions for Isaiah at the Wall
Qalandia Checkpoint

You must remove the bracelets from your wrist,
rings from your fingers,
the furious tongue from your mouth,
and place them on the
table for inspection.

Erase impatience from your gaze,
the visions behind your eyes.
Silence the omens in your throat
before facing the camera.

Do not step forward until directed.

If you find this demeaning
go outside and
traverse the wall by other means.

Become the rich, bitter
tea of field fire smoke
drifting over the rampart
on the breath of the western wind.

Grow a pair of grasshopper legs
and leap its height
in a high-jumper’s arc.

Glide above its twisted wire on the
hawk’s amber wings

Make the passage
underground—as a black
silken mole,
or in a caravan of ants.

If all else fails
find a ram’s horn
like Joshua used.
Blow into it until the wall
comes crashing down.

When you reach the other side,

O prophet,
they will be waiting
with shackles and
burning air to make you weep.

Daniel’s book can be ordered through Paypal, as well as another collection called Heart of Ardor that I reviewed here. You can now purchase that book as well, now that Dan has entered the brave new world of electronic commerce!

Isaiah at the Wall costs twelve dollars, including postage and handling.

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