Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 12, 2010

Picture Me: “a model’s diary”

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

As a fan of cable TV’s Project Runway and documentaries about Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino, I jumped at the opportunity to see a press screening of Picture Me: “a model’s diary” last Thursday that was scheduled to coincide with Fashion Week in New York. (The movie opens at the Angelika Theater on September 17.)

However, this film was anything but the kind of free PR that the fashion industry might have expected. It was co-directed by Ole Schell, a documentary filmmaker, and Sara Ziff, his girlfriend—a professional model since the age of 14 who kept a video log of her experience in the industry over a five-year period. Weaving together her amateurish shaky footage with his own interviews with industry honchos, the finished product is a complex, ambivalent and altogether fascinating glimpse into the world behind the photos seen in Vogue and Elle magazines and the mammoth billboards on Times Square.

That is what one might have expected given their background. Ole Schell is the son of famous Sinologist Orville Schell whose first movie was Win in China, a documentary on the country’s entrepreneurial tidal wave. By the same token, Sara Ziff is not the stereotypical bubble-headed model (the movie’s main breakthrough is challenging these stereotypes) but the thoughtful and self-aware daughter of an NYU biochemistry professor and his wife, an attorney.

One day a total stranger approached Sara on the street asked her if she was a model. When she answered no, he set up an appointment with her at a top agency and her career began immediately. She knew that this would take her away from the path of college education and a career more in line with her parent’s expectations but the promise of a glamorous world, travel and buckets of cash persuaded her to take a shot at it. Although the film does not mention it (and really does not need to do so), the third “benefit” (buckets of cash) is exactly what draws young women into exotic dancing, porn films and prostitution.

While the world of runway modeling would seem to have little to do with these tawdry professions, we learn that they now recruit from the same labor pool: the impoverished nations of Eastern Europe such as Byelorussia and Romania, two countries whose representatives are seen in the film.

There is also the same kind of meat market mentality that operates in both realms. Sara Ziff says that the objectification is so extreme in the modeling world that an agency bigwig will often grab a model’s thigh or rear end in his or her hand and comment “She’s too fat” without even asking the model’s permission. For them, the model amounts to the same thing as a head of cattle on display at an auction.

We also learn that sexual predation is commonplace in the fashion industry. A top photographer will have his version of the casting couch, often selecting a young model under the age of 15. It is a sign of the desperation of poor women trying to break into the field that charges are not filed on a regular basis as they were in the Polanski case.

Despite the horrors that Sara Ziff put up with, she freely admits that the money kept her going. She was making more money than her dad and able to buy a fancy loft in Soho. But the longer she stayed in the industry, the more alienated she became. It was also getting to the point when she was becoming “too old”, an astounding verdict given that she was only 23. We learn that the industry is a revolving door, always on the lookout for the next big sensation, ideally a 15 year old just beyond the body of an anorexic.

At the end of the film, Ziff has been accepted into Columbia University General Studies and the closing credits inform us that she is majoring in political science and has begun work to launch a fashion model’s trade union. Good for her and good for Ole Schell for making a remarkable movie.

September 11, 2010

Bard College, Martin Peretz and the Hasbara counter-offensive

Filed under: bard college,middle east — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Martin Peretz

A few days ago I spotted a reference on the Mondoweiss blog to an upcoming talk by Martin Peretz sponsored by Bard College. It is titled “The Demonization of Israel: Its History and Politics” and will be held on September 16th at 6:15 at the school’s Globalization and International Affairs offices at 36 West 44th St. The talk is part of The James Clarke Chace Memorial Speaker Series. Chase was a professor at Bard who died in 2004 and could best be described as an inside-the-beltway master of realpolitik, just the sort of person who would thrive at Bard College.

Our friends at Mondoweiss were resourceful enough to dig up a post from Peretz’s blog at The New Republic Magazine (TNR) bought with his wife’s money (she was an heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune) back in 1975. It is as toxic as his usual offerings and cut from the same cloth as the NY Post, Fox News or the WSJ editorial page.

Mondoweiss singles out these gems:

The State of New York has no need for more mosques, since there are plenty of them. Furthermore, Muslims living in New York do not frequent their mosques on a daily basis; usually they go to them either on Saturdays or on Sundays, due to the nature of their work. Therefore, there is no real need for the building of the Cordoba Mosque; especially as the project has already provoked the sentiments of Americans, by reminding them of the attacks on 9 September, 2001, the Islamic conquest of Spain, as well as the tragic consequences of Islamic imperialism in general.

In my view, the really modest struggle against the mosque is probably the closest thing we’ve had to a genuinely grass roots effort against the casual and elitist First Amendment fundamentalists.

The fact that Bard would give a platform for this kind of rant must be explained. When Leon Botstein told me back in 1987 that the appointment of Martin Peretz to the Bard College board of trustees must not be subjected to a litmus test (I had written him a letter complaining about Peretz’s advocacy of contra funding), it dawned on me years later that he was applying a litmus test. That litmus test consisted of support for Israel obviously and more generally for the right of US imperialism to rule the world.

Some background on Peretz is in order. Back in the 1960s, he was still something of a leftist, enough so that he dipped into his wife’s trust fund and came up with much of the money for a conference organized by the National Conference for New Politics, a group led by left-liberals and “old school” SDS’ers like Paul Booth. In Jacob Heilbrunn’s “They Knew they were Right: the rise of the Neocons”, we learn that Peretz was also a major funder of Ramparts Magazine as well. He had studied with Herbert Marcuse as a Brandeis University undergrad and was not above writing angry letters to the NY Times denouncing the military dictatorship in Brazil.

But something happened at the conference that he had financed with his wife’s grandfather’s hard-earned money that made him turn his back on the left. The conference adopted a motion critical of Israel that had been put forward by Black Nationalists. This made Peretz a raving rightwinger practically overnight, the first manifestations of which was an article titled “Israel and the American Left” that appeared in the November 1967 issue of Commentary Magazine. Seven years later when he took over the New Republic, he would turn the magazine into an outlet for Zionist propaganda and neoliberal social and economic policies associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. When he joined Bard College, he clearly intended to do as much as he could to put the school on a collision course with Palestinian rights even if this was sometimes at odds with more “reasonable” minds in the Bard College power structure.

While George Soros was never a board member (his ex-wife Susan was), he certainly had just as much money to throw around as Peretz and—logically—just as much power to determine the school’s destiny. Soros is somewhat to the left of Peretz, especially on the Middle East, and therefore got on his wrong side. In 2007, Peretz wrote a TNR article titled Tyran-a-Soros that accused Soros of being what amounts to a “self-hating” Jew:

Soros is ostentatiously indifferent to his own Jewishness. He is not a believer. He has no Jewish communal ties. He certainly isn’t a Zionist. He told Connie Bruck in The New Yorker–testily, she recounted–that “I don’t deny the Jews their right to a national existence–but I don’t want to be part of it.” But he has involved himself in the founding of an anti-AIPAC, more dovish Israel lobby. Suddenly, he wants to influence the character of a Jewish state about which he loudly cares nothing. Once again, he bears no responsibility. Perhaps his sense of his own purity also underwrites his heartlessness in business. As a big currency player in the world markets, Soros was at least partially responsible for the decline in the British pound.

The article also makes the case that Soros collaborated with the Nazis in prewar Hungary, something that appears borne out by a Sixty Minutes interview conducted by Steve Kroft:

Kroft: “And you watched lots of people get shipped off to the death camps.” Soros: “Right. I was 14 years old. And I would say that that’s when my character was made.”

Kroft: “In what way?”

Soros: “That one should think ahead. One should understand that–and anticipate events and when, when one is threatened. It was a tremendous threat of evil. I mean, it was a– a very personal threat of evil.”

Kroft: “My understanding is that you went … went out, in fact, and helped in the confiscation of property from the Jews.”

Soros: “Yes, that’s right. Yes.”

Leaving aside the question of complicity with the Nazis, which hardly seems to be Soros’s worst attribute, one might assume that Bard’s decision to develop a kind of paternalistic tie to Al-Quds University in Jerusalem reflects much more of Soros’s thinking than Peretz’s, especially since he is a major donor of this neocolonial initiative. Peretz would probably favor dropping white phosphorus bombs on the school while Soros would vote for turning the school into a training ground for accommodationists, thus mirroring the largely fictitious split in Israeli politics between hawks and doves.

Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds, is just the kind of quisling figure that would recommend himself to Bard College. In 2005, the Palestinian Teachers Union called for his dismissal from that post—probably something that cinched his eligibility for a partnership with Bard. The Electronic Intifada reported:

A Palestinian teachers union has called for the dismissal of Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh for “normalising ties with Israel” and “serving Israeli propaganda interests”.

A statement by the Palestinian Union of University Teachers and Employees (PUUTE), published on the front page of the Ramallah-based daily Al-Ayyam, on Monday accused Nusseibeh of “normalising relations with the Sharon government” despite the Israeli prime minister’s policy of “bullying the Palestinians and stealing their land”.

“This constitutes a strong blow to the Palestinian national consensus against normalisation with Israel,” said the statement.

“We call on all concerned parties within the Palestinian Authority, including President Mahmoud Abbas and the Higher Education Council, to take the necessary measures to put an end to this behaviour, which doesn’t represent the position of the Palestinian university teachers and employees, and dismiss the president of the Al-Quds University.”

The statement also accused Nusseibeh of acting against a recent decision by Britain’s Association of University Teachers to boycott Israel’s Haifa and Bar Ilan universities.

One would imagine that a hawk like Martin Peretz might have also been a bit unhappy with the honorary degree bestowed on novelist Margaret Atwood at the 2010 Commencement ceremonies. This writer, after all, did write this on her blog:

None of this changes the core nature of the reality, which is that the concept of Israel as a humane and democratic state is in serious trouble. Once a country starts refusing entry to the likes of Noam Chomsky, shutting down the rights of its citizens to use words like “Nakba,” and labelling as “anti-Israel” anyone who tries to tell them what they need to know, a police-state clampdown looms. Will it be a betrayal of age-old humane Jewish traditions and the rule of just law, or a turn towards reconciliation and a truly open society?

Time is running out. Opinion in Israel may be hardening, but in the United States things are moving in the opposite direction. Campus activity is increasing; many young Jewish Americans don’t want Israel speaking for them. America, snarled in two chaotic wars and facing increasing international anger over Palestine, may well be starting to see Israel not as an asset but as a liability.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But action counts for a lot more than words in politics. Just a month before these words were written, Atwood accepted a cash prize of a half-million dollars in Tel Aviv over the objections of boycott organizers. She claimed that it was an issue of “free speech” and offered up this bromide about how the conflict in the Middle East might be resolved:

I sympathize with the very bad conditions the people of Gaza are living through due to the blockade, the military actions, and the Egyptian and Israeli walls. Everyone in the world hopes that the two sides involved will give up their inflexible positions and sit down at the negotiating table immediately and work out a settlement that would help the ordinary people who are suffering. The world wants to see fair play and humane behaviour, and it wants that more the longer the present situation continues and the worse the conditions become.

In my version of Dante’s Inferno, I picture people like Botstein and Atwood living in Gaza-like conditions for all eternity, but then again I confess to being a materialist.

It is difficult to predict where Bard will be going as a willing participant in the Hasbara counter-offensive. Yale University had a conference on anti-Semitism recently that was very much in line with the Peretz speech scheduled for September 16. Once again I recommend the Mondoweiss report on this Hasbara con artistry:

This is disturbing. A Yale University center that purports to study anti-Semitism is holding a three-day conference on “the crisis” of global anti-Semitism (ending tomorrow) that is dedicated to the idea that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

The flotilla raid, anti-Semitic. Helen Thomas, anti-Semitic. The very idea of Palestinian identity, anti-Semitic.

That last claim–“The Central Role of Palestinian Antisemitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity”–was put forward Monday, shockingly, by Itamar Marcus, a leader of the settler movement in the occupied West Bank. Marcus has connections to the Central Fund of Israel, which raises money here for the settlers, including their “urgent security needs.”

Perhaps the best way to describe Bard’s approach is one of a multidimensional Hasbara. For the people who listen to NPR, there’s the Bard College that forms a partnership with Al-Quds and presents Margaret Atwood with an honorary degree. For the readers of TNR and donors to AIPAC, there’s the Bard College that gives Martin Peretz a platform to spew his racist filth or that allows its Chaplain Bruce Chilton to go on WABC hate radio to support IDF war crimes. In either case, we are not dealing with a college that puts the human rights of Palestinians first and foremost.

For Joel Kovel’s take on Bard College and Zionism, check this interview I conducted with him in July:


NY Times September 11, 2010

Is This America?


For a glimpse of how venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become, consider a blog post in The New Republic this month. Written by Martin Peretz, the magazine’s editor in chief, it asserted: “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.”

Mr. Peretz added: “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

Thus a prominent American commentator, in a magazine long associated with tolerance, ponders whether Muslims should be afforded constitutional freedoms. Is it possible to imagine the same kind of casual slur tossed off about blacks or Jews? How do America’s nearly seven million American Muslims feel when their faith is denounced as barbaric?

This is one of those times that test our values, a bit like the shameful interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.

It would have been natural for this test to have come right after 9/11, but it was forestalled because President George W. Bush pushed back at his conservative ranks and repeatedly warned Americans not to confuse Al Qaeda with Islam.

Now that Mr. Bush is no longer in the White House, nativists are back on the warpath. Some opponents of President Obama are circulating bald-faced lies about him that are also scurrilous attacks on Islam itself. One e-mail bouncing around falsely accuses Mr. Obama of lying and adds, “His Muslim faith says it’s okay to lie.”

Or there’s the e-mail I received the other day from a relative, declaring: “President Obama has directed the United States Postal Service to remember and honor the Eid Muslim holiday season with a new commemorative 44 cent first class holiday postage stamp.” In fact, it was President Bush’s administration that first issued the Eid stamp in 2001 and that issued new versions after that.

Astonishingly, a Newsweek poll finds that 52 percent of Republicans believe that it is “definitely true” or “probably true” that “Barack Obama sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.” So a majority of Republicans think that our president wants to impose Islamic law worldwide.

That kind of extremism undermines our democracy, risks violence and empowers jihadis.

Newsweek quoted a Taliban operative, Zabihullah, about opposition to the mosque near ground zero: “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor. It’s providing us with more recruits, donations and popular support.” Mr. Zabihullah added, “The more mosques you stop, the more jihadis we will get.”

In America, bigoted comments about Islam often seem to come from people who have never visited a mosque and know few if any Muslims. In their ignorance, they mirror the anti-Semitism that I hear in Muslim countries from people who have never met a Jew.

One American university professor wrote to me that “every Muslim in the world” believes that the proposed Manhattan Islamic center would symbolize triumph over America. That reminded me of Pakistanis who used to tell me that “every Jew” knew of 9/11 in advance, so that none died in the World Trade Center.

It is perfectly reasonable for critics to point to the shortcomings of Islam or any other religion. There should be more outrage, for example, about the mistreatment of women in many Islamic countries, or the oppression of religious minorities like Christians and Ahmadis in Pakistan.

Europe is alarmed that Muslim immigrants have not assimilated well, resulting in tolerance of intolerance, and pockets of wife-beating, forced marriage, homophobia and female genital mutilation. Those are legitimate concerns, but sweeping denunciations of any religious group constitute dangerous bigotry.

If this is a testing time, then some have passed with flying colors. Hats off to a rabbinical student in Massachusetts, Rachel Barenblat, who raised money to replace prayer rugs that a drunken intruder had urinated on at a mosque. She told me that she quickly raised more than $1,100 from Jews and Christians alike.

Above all, bravo to those Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders who jointly denounced what they called “the anti-Muslim frenzy.”

“We know what it is like when people have attacked us physically, have attacked us verbally, and others have remained silent,” said Rabbi David Saperstein. “It cannot happen here in America in 2010.”

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick put it this way: “This is not America. America was not built on hate.”

“Shame on you,” the Rev. Richard Cizik, a leading evangelical Christian, said to those castigating Islam. “You bring dishonor to the name of Jesus Christ. You directly disobey his commandment to love your neighbor.”


I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos videos and follow me on Twitter.



Brandeis Repudiates Racist Alum, Martin Peretz
By M.J. Rosenberg – September 11, 2010, 5:15PM

He’s a little old to lose his BA from Brandeis. Nonetheless, it is still good that Brandeis students are organizing against the most prominent Brandeis-associated racist.

Brandeis, where Eleanor Roosevelt was both a trustee and a faculty member and which was the national headquarters for the 1970 student mobilization against the Viet war is a Jewish-sponsored university, proud of is liberalism and its Jewish values (you know real Jewish values, the ones from the Prophets not the neocons).

In lining up against Peretz, Brandeis students of today indicate that they are at one with their traditions.

Too bad Brandeis grad, Abbie Hoffmann, is not around. He would both do a great job organizing this effort and smearing Peretz with an ephitet Peretz has earned a hundred times over: shanda fur de goyim.

That is what Hoffman shouted from the defendants’ dock at the judge conducting the trial of the Chicago 7 antiwar protesters. The phrase refers to a Jew who makes other Jews cringe and delights anti-Semites everywhere.

That’s Peretz.

Text of Brandeis response follows:

Marty Peretz is a famous Brandeis Alum, and the editor-in-chief of the New Republic. He recently wrote a column with this disturbing conclusion:

But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.

This is the collective response of the Brandeis community

Please co-sign the letter if you are a Brandeis community member:

From the Brandeis Community:

Dear Marty Peretz ’59,

Your recent remarks are appalling, and do not reflect the values of the broader Brandeis community.

Recently, in your September 4th column, you claimed that Muslims don’t value human life, that they are soft on terrorism, and that you wish to strip them of their First Amendment Rights.

That was unacceptable, irresponsible, and wrong.

Mr. Peretz, your name and likeness is used in our admissions materials, the University lists you among its most prestigious alumni, and not two years ago you accepted a Distinguished Alumni award from us. For better or worse, your actions reflect on us.

Brandeis University stands for love, not hate. Brandeis stands for respecting the truth. Brandeis stands for recognizing the humanity in others. We value our Muslim community members here; they are part of our broad family.

If nothing else, this University was founded to fight back against discrimination, bigotry, and fear of minorities.

Attacking people’s First Amendment rights is un-American, un-Brandeisian, and unethical. You’re hurting us. You’re hurting our Islamic community members, our pride in you, and our good name.

We, the united Brandeis community, respectfully and firmly demand you apologize.

September 10, 2010

Email exchanges with a Bard College human rights professor

Filed under: Academia,bard college — louisproyect @ 2:25 pm

Roger Berkowitz

Last Wednesday I got a Bard College alumni email newsletter, something I have mixed feelings about—not unlike the reaction I have to Goldman-Sachs alumni emails. Both institutions epitomize the mixture of smug self-satisfaction and hypocrisy that drives an unrepentant Marxist like me up a wall.

The Bard newsletter had the usual tidbits about what alumni and professors were up to but a link to an article by a Human Rights professor named Roger Berkowitz caught my eye. For the past 15 years at least, Bard has operated as a wing of the George Soros Open Society/New York Review of Books/Human Rights Watch establishment. In practice, this axis has been all about unleashing oceans of ink on the world about Evil Slobodan Milosevic but nary a word about Nato’s uranium-tipped armaments in the Balkans wars.

Berkowitz, who runs the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, has built up an impressive CV lecturing and writing about evil dictators and such. His article “Approaching Infinity: Dignity in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon” is a fairly typical contribution from this Camus and Koestler-adoring crowd that makes the patently obvious claim that “Politics can follow no law but the law that the ends justify the means.” This is something that Koestler and Hannah Arendt fought against apparently.

Of course one might wonder why Bard ever considered extending an invitation to have President Obama speak at the 2010 Commencement (he had to cancel) in light of these considerations. Just yesterday the NY Times reported: “A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that former prisoners of the C.I.A. could not sue over their alleged torture in overseas prisons because such a lawsuit might expose secret government information.” So how did Obama, a politician who promised to clean up the Augean stable of human rights abuses under his predecessor, react to this news?

The sharply divided ruling was a major victory for the Obama administration’s efforts to advance a sweeping view of executive secrecy powers. It strengthens the White House’s hand as it has pushed an array of assertive counterterrorism policies, while raising an opportunity for the Supreme Court to rule for the first time in decades on the scope of the president’s power to restrict litigation that could reveal state secrets.

I guess the idea is that the ends do justify the means, as long as it they are being pursued by the “good guys” invited to speak at a college that enjoys bragging about its human rights credentials.

Berkowitz’s article, titled Why we must Judge, appears in Democracy: a Journal of Ideas that is edited by Michael Tomasky, a tiresome hardcore supporter of President Obama.  As the title of the article implies, it is a reminder to its readers that it is necessary to make judgments about evil dictators:

To judge the Iraq War morally wrong, and to judge the harassment of suspected illegal immigrants unconstitutional, reflects a sound mind. However, to condemn the characterization of an autocratic and cynical despot who gasses his own citizens as evil, and to refuse to see that those who enter this country illegally undermine our system of taxation, reduce the wages for working Americans, and contribute to a culture of corruption and lawlessness, is something else.

Of course, it is one thing to make such a point and another to tug at Leon Botstein’s sleeve and urge him to reconsider an invite to President Obama in light of what Koestler wrote about Stalinist illegality and repression. After all, those in the know understand that Leon is a bit of a bully and does not appreciate professors on his payroll judging him rather than those figures deserving of Orwellian hate minutes. That is left to impudent alumni like me who act on ethical imperatives rather than writing self-important articles about them.

Berkowitz’s article called attention to the kinds of “business leaders” (a euphemism for scumbag capitalists) that have been ravaging American society:

Are business leaders right to hire those who have earned hundreds of millions while destroying their companies?

This sentence prompted me to ask him in an email: “Oh, I don’t know. Where would the Bard College Board of Trustees be without such people?” To which he replied: “Who do you have in mind?” I responded thusly:

Asher Edelman and Charles Stephenson: corporate raiders

Leon Levy (deceased): his Odyssey Fund was brutal toward workers (http://www.marxmail.org/bitterman.htm)

Bruce Ratner: using insider political connections, ran roughshod over Brooklyn residents to create a dubious Sun Belt type development.

George Soros (an uber-board member): repeatedly broke laws to make profits, the latest instance being fined millions of dollars for illegal speculation against Hungary’s largest bank.

Stewart Resnick: in bed with the Fiji dictatorship to extract mineral water to sell to the prosperous.

As expected, he did not appreciate the men who provide the funding that allows him to teach in a pleasant environment along the Hudson River being “judged” in this fashion. He wrote me back:

Hi Louis

Do we know each other?

these are damning characterizations. I don’t know all these folks. But those whom I know I have a much more positive impression of than you do. Certainly, they are not people who ran companies into the ground by acting irresponsibly, which is what the quote you referred to below from my article was about. On the contrary, many of them saw the insanity of the last decade and then profited from the crash.

I must say I find your characterizations simplistic.  Are you suggesting that these businessmen are so evil that Bard shouldn’t associate with them? I find that a hard argument to share. Your one-sided characterizations to the side, these are quite respected people you are talking about.


I will conclude with my response, although something tells me that the correspondence will continue. I have a way of getting under the skin of people like Roger Berkowitz and Leon Botstein:

> Hi Louis
> Do we know each other?

Not really. I graduated Bard College in 1965 and have been in a running battle with Leon since the late 80s after Martin Peretz was added to the board. When I saw a link to your article in the latest alumni newsletter email, I decided to have a look. I am quite interested in questions of ethics, the super-rich and academia.

I was president of a nonprofit whose volunteers were working in Nicaragua with an engineer named Ben Linder who was murdered by the contras. At the time Peretz’s New Republic was a major voice for contra funding. I wrote Botstein a letter *judging* Peretz that he took strong exception to, based on “free speech” considerations. Politics was not a litmus test for board selection, he told me. Well, that’s obviously a truism when it comes to the connections between the malevolent rich and academia going back to the days of Andrew Carnegie.

> these are damning characterizations. I don’t know all these folks. But
> those whom I know I have a much more positive impression of than you
> do.

Obviously. This is called rallying around the flag. All politics, including academic politics, is imbued with this.

> Certainly, they are not people who ran companies into the ground by
> acting irresponsibly, which is what the quote you referred to below
> from my article was about. On the contrary, many of them saw the
> insanity of the last decade and then profited from the crash.

Well, look, the financialization and hyper-speculation of the American economy has resulted in mass misery. I am 65 years old and have seen the consequence of job loss, foreclosure, etc. on people I know. Hedge fund managers and owners of private capital firms are to blame for this. That is something that is *on record*. That sector of the American economy is well represented on the Bard board. Of course, Leon was simply doing what college presidents have been doing since the early 1900s when he lined up a crook like George Soros (through his wife Susan). This is the way the system works. Read Upton Sinclair’s book on academia for more information.

> I must say I find your characterizations simplistic.  Are you
> suggesting that these businessmen are so evil that Bard shouldn’t
> associate with them? I find that a hard argument to share. Your one-
> sided characterizations to the side, these are quite respected people
> you are talking about.

Frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass about who Leon puts on the board. My only interest is in calling attention to it through postings on my blog (that Leon’s son reads to his great chagrin) and in my prize-winning video “Leon and Me” (my wife gave the prize, a kiss on the cheek.)

September 9, 2010


Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

September 8, 2010


Filed under: beatniks,literature — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Like François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl mixes fact and fiction in a recreation of the 1957 obscenity trial against Allen Ginsberg’s poem. Starring James Franco as the young poet, it is an ambitious attempt to evoke the social and political climate of the country at a time when challenges to the Cold War mindset were being mounted by the leaders of the beat generation.

In a clever casting move, two actors who have played major roles in dramas set in this period have been cast as the prosecution and defense attorneys, but in a kind of reversal. The prosecutor Ralph McIntosh is played by David Strathairn, who was memorable as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film that celebrated resistance to McCarthyism. The defense attorney is played by Jon Hamm, the actor who plays the iconic advertising executive Don Draper on Mad Men, the celebrated television drama about the 1950s. Throughout the film, we see herds of white collar workers marching off to work accompanied to Ginsberg’s words from Howl:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Ginsberg is played by James Franco, who was cast as Harvey Milk’s lover in Gus Van Sant’s movie. Franco is an exceptionally intelligent actor who will be entering the Yale PhD program in English literature this fall while simultaneously studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. Throughout the film, he is seen in a reenactment of Ginsberg reading “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. Franco had hopes for a number of years to do a project involving the beats, so this role was a natural for him.

Among those in attendance that evening was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights bookstore and publishing who decided to publish the book that would land him on trial for obscenity charges in two years. Ferlinghetti is 91 years old and still going strong.

The movie dramatizes Ginsberg’s friendship and intimacy with both Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassidy, although largely without dialog. Except for the reenactment of the obscenity trial, Franco’s performance of Howl, and an interview with him that runs throughout the film using Ginsberg’s actual words from various sources, the film is mostly wordless. This works particularly well with the animation of images from Howl based on the work of Eric Drooker who illustrated a recent volume of Ginsberg’s poetry, including Howl. Drooker’s images are particularly powerful, reminiscent in some ways of William Blake’s engravings.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were obviously motivated to explore Ginsberg’s ideas about art, which challenged conventional expectations about art in the 1950s. The prosecution witnesses appear absolutely clueless, especially an utterly clueless English professor named David Kirk, played ably by Jeff Daniels (Dumb, Dumber and now Dumbest) who tells the court that Howl was not genuine literature because it imitated the form of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. When the defense attorney asks him who Whitman imitated, he could not answer.

But the most interesting aspect of Howl has to do with its treatment of Ginsberg’s sexuality. After Ginsberg got kicked out of Columbia University, he moved out to San Francisco and took a job in advertising just like Don Draper, still not sure whether he would live the life of a gay man or not. After going into psychotherapy with a remarkably open-minded shrink, he was asked what he really wanted to do with his life. He replied that he wanted to live with Peter Orlovsky, his lover, and write. “Well, go ahead and do that”, the psychiatrist said and the rest is history.

Howl now joins the documentary on high fashion designer Valentino as one of the few movies that depicts blissfully happy and professionally fulfilled homosexual men. As opposed to the weepy fiction films from Philadelphia to Brokeback Mountain, it is a testimony to the potential for a fully realized life, something that all gay people could enjoy if they didn’t have to put up with the insane repression that was deepest in the 1950s but persists today.

Howl will open September 24 in New York, and October 1 in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a national roll-out to follow.

Stuck in reverse

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 2:03 pm

September 7, 2010

Plumpy’nut and the politics of food

Filed under: health and fitness,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine section has a fascinating article titled The Peanut Solution that is focused on a food product called Plumpy’nut that is supposed to be a savior for children suffering from malnutrition in very poor third world countries. Basically, it is a mixture of peanut and other high calorie food additives that has a dramatic effect:

One doctor who decided to take a risk was Mark Manary, a pediatrician and professor, who was working at a hospital in Malawi. His malnutrition ward was crammed full of dozens of children lying on mats. “It was really an incredible burden,” Manary recalled. “These kids are deathly ill, you’re doing whatever you can for them, and you think you’re on the right track, and then you come in the next morning and four of them have died.” Manary emptied out the ward, sending his patients home with Plumpy’nut. Many malnutrition experts were horrified. “It seemed dangerous to them, and it made them afraid,” said Manary, who recalled that one eminent figure stood up at a conference and said, “You’re killing children.” In fact, when the results were analyzed, it was found that 95 percent of the subjects who received Plumpy’nut at home made a full recovery, a rate far better than that achieved with inpatient treatment.

The Malawi test emboldened Doctors Without Borders, which recognized that treating children outside clinical settings would allow a vastly scaled-up response to humanitarian emergencies. In 2005, it distributed Plumpy’nut to 60,000 children with severe acute malnutrition during a famine in Niger. Ninety percent completely recovered, and only 3 percent died. Within two years, the United Nations endorsed home care with Plumpy’nut as the preferred treatment for severe acute malnutrition. “This is an enormous breakthrough,” said Werner Schultink, chief of nutrition for Unicef. “It has created the opportunity to reach many more children with relatively limited resources.” Nonetheless, Schultink estimates that the product reaches only 10 to 15 percent of those who need it, because of logistical and budgetary constraints.

Plumpy’nut was invented by a French physician named André Briend who got the idea for the food product after opening a jar of Nutella, a hazel nut spread, one morning. Once he had put the finishing touches on it, he approached Nutriset, a French manufacturer, with a proposal to mass produce it. Briend and Michael Lescanne, the founder of Nutriset, own the patent but have licensed it almost exclusively to poorer countries, all in Africa. Attempts to get a license in more developed countries have been turned down, thus raising concerns that Nutriset is using its humanitarian reputation to protect the bottom line of a highly profitable business ($66 million in 2009). America’s sole licensee for Plumpy’nut, a 38 year old Rhode Island woman named Navyn Salem, defended the tight control:

“What we don’t want,” Salem told me, “is for General Mills to take over and put our Ethiopian producer out of business.” Opponents of the patent, however, say that Nutriset is just trying to avoid competition that would cut into its bottom line. Recently, a handful of companies have set up shop in countries where, because of the vagaries of various treaties, the Plumpy’nut patent is not in force. In the United States, two would-be competitors have taken a more confrontational route. They filed a lawsuit with the federal district court in Washington, D.C., seeking to have the patent invalidated.

Some American businesses challenging the Nutriset monopoly also appear to be mixing equal amounts of philanthropy and mammon:

The plaintiffs are a Texas-based manufacturer called Breedlove Foods and the Mama Cares Foundation, the charitable arm of a snack-food manufacturer based in Carlsbad, Calif. Both are small nonprofit organizations with strong ties to Christian aid organizations. But Nutriset’s defenders suspect that larger corporate interests are lurking in the background. In the French press, the patent dispute has been portrayed as a case of a plucky Gallic company besieged, as Le Monde put it, by “ ‘légions’ Américaines.”

In fact, there is a not-so-hidden instigator behind the case: the American peanut lobby. A few years ago, a Unicef official gave a presentation to an industry trade group, forecasting dramatically increasing demand for peanut pastes. That got the growers excited. They looked at Nutriset’s patent and came to the conclusion that, as a technical matter, Plumpy’nut was really nothing more than fortified peanut butter. “People have been making this stuff for centuries,” Jeff Johnson, a board member of the Peanut Institute, said. “It’s nothing new.” Johnson is the president of Birdsong Peanuts, one of the country’s largest shelling operations. Through a friend, he heard about Breedlove Foods, which was based in Lubbock, close to one of his processing plants. Johnson met with the company and proposed a challenge to Nutriset.

“It’s a cotton-pickin’ shame that they decided to take the stance that they have with the intellectual-property issue,” said David Fish, Breedlove’s chief executive, whose lawsuit contends that the patent is hurting starving children. But even some Nutriset critics have questioned the motives behind the lawsuit, pointing out that America has a long and controversial history of dumping its agricultural surpluses on poor countries through food aid. “If you want to develop countries out of third-world status,” Fish replies, “they’ve got to come out and compete on the open market.”

Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, a fairly long-time advocate of policies that favor the poor in developing countries (after an earlier experience in making such people poor through “shock therapy” programs), approached the Plumpy’nut controversy from an entirely different angle in this morning’s Huffington Post. While hailing an innovation that could save children’s lives, he thought that something more was needed:

It is critical, however, that we not confuse the many types of hunger and malnutrition (poor nutrition) around the world. Plumpy’Nut is not a miracle cure for global hunger or for global malnutrition. Plumpy’Nut addresses only one kind of hunger — acute episodes of extreme food deprivation or illness, the kind mainly associated with famines and conflicts. Plumpy’Nut is not designed for the other major kind of hunger, notably chronic hunger due to long-term poor diets. Nor is it designed to fight long-term malnutrition that is due to various kinds of chronic micronutrient deficiencies, such as iron, zinc and vitamin-A deficiencies.

The chronic kind of hunger is by far the most prevalent kind of hunger in the world, though it is more hidden and less recognized by the American public. As part of the UN Millennium Project, which one of us (Jeffrey Sachs) directed on behalf of then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Hunger Task Force found that chronic undernourishment accounts for more than 90 percent of global hunger, while acute undernourishment (starvation) addressed by Plumpy’Nut accounts for less than 10 percent. Of course, the acute episodes are far more widely known to the US public because those are the ones seen on TV in the context of wars, droughts, and other upheavals.

Additionally, Sachs looks at the problem of hunger from the angle of political economy, something that is ignored entirely in the NY Times article:

Our recommended solutions therefore include the following. In cases of acute malnutrition, UNICEF and other agencies should promote locally produced, quality-controlled, ready-to-use fortified foods and should resist claims of patent protection that impede local production or low-cost imports, as needed. In cases of chronic undernourishment, rich and poor governments in partnership should promote improved agriculture and dietary diversity.

Unfortunately, the goal of “improved agriculture” is not something that rich countries would shoot for if it entails a clash with the export-agriculture oriented agrarian gentry that have been in cahoots with American imperialism for the past century at least.

That was something that I was reminded of when I saw this reference in the Times article in a passage describing the operations in Navyn Salem’s Nutriset factory:

After the Plumpy’nut was mixed, it was run through overhead pipes into a contraption that squirted it into foil packets, which were sealed and ejected onto a conveyor belt, where workers packed them for shipping. In an adjacent warehouse, there were pallets of boxes labeled for delivery to Haiti, Yemen and Nicaragua.

When I visited Nicaragua in 1987, the director of a large-scale cooperative told our delegation that Nicaragua soil, enriched by volcano eruptions and steady rainfall, was the most productive in the hemisphere. You drop seeds in the ground and the crops will grow themselves. What needed to happen, however, was an end to the contra war which resulted in crops being burned, tractors being blown up and campesinos murdered.

Between 1980 and 1984, the first four years of Sandinista power, the gross product in agriculture increased by 10 percent a year. While continuing to maintain the large-scale farms that produced cash crops for export like coffee, cotton and sugar, land reform empowered smaller holdings owned by the formerly landless to produce beans, corn and other foodstuffs for the local market. It was the success of this approach that antagonized Washington, anxious to snuff out what Noam Chomsky refers to as the power of a positive example.

After Violeta Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega in the 1990 election, she enacted “economic reforms” that were ripped from the pages of the Jeffrey Sachs of yore. The May 17, 1993 Journal of Commerce reported:

State-owned enterprises were sold or closed, the huge government bureaucracy was retrenched, and markets were thrown open to foreign trade. This sort of economic shock therapy was dictated to Mrs. Chamorro’s government by foreign lenders, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But the technocrats in Mrs. Chamorro’s inner circle believed strongly that their policies would be a magnet for foreign investors.

In other words, Nicaragua was turned into Haiti. Haiti was the hemisphere’s poorest country and now Nicaragua would land in second place.

After Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, nobody expected a return to the ambitious goals of the 1980s least of all the Sandinista party that had become accommodated to global capitalism. If socialism was no longer on the agenda, the party—to its credit—was reinstating some of the egalitarian measures that benefited the poor as the website Tortilla con sal reported:

Since coming to power in January 2007 the FSLN government has brought in a number of measures aimed at increasing food security and sovereignty for the population and the nation as a whole.

The measures implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG-FOR) and other public institutions related to agricultural production include the Zero Hunger Program which aims to ensure that 75,000 rural families previously suffering varying levels of food insecurity are able to produce enough food to meet their own needs over a period of five years.

During the first two years of the FSLN government 32,359 food production packages (consisting of a pregnant cow, a pregnant sow, ten chickens, one cockerel, seeds and other inputs) were provided to the same number of families in rural areas of Nicaragua.

The government has also successfully increased the amount of basic grains being produced by small and medium farmers and agricultural cooperatives since 2007 as a result of its certified seeds program. 140,010 small and medium farmers who previously did not have access to credit to produce food were provided with zero interest in-kind loans of certified seeds and fertilizer in 2008.

Additionally MAG-FOR has overseen the implementation of the National Seed System, an inter-institutional system involving a number of public institutions. By November 2008, the national seed system had converted Nicaragua into the biggest producer of certified seeds for national production in Central America.

All this, of course, has motivated the ultraright in the U.S. to paint Daniel Ortega as a threat to American interests. As might be expected, President Obama has found their complaints seductive. In June 2009, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a government aid agency, decided to withhold $62 million from Nicaragua, a substantial sum for a poor country. The head of the agency complained that Daniel Ortega’s party had been involved in voting irregularities, a stunning complaint from a government that filled the pockets of the FSLN opposition parties with millions of dollars in 1990. As is always the case with such behavior, we are not dealing with a double standard. As Noam Chomsky once wrote:

Reigning doctrines are often called a “double standard.” The term is misleading. It is more accurate to describe them as a single standard, clear and unmistakable, the standard that Adam Smith called the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind: . . . All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.” Much has changed since his day, but the vile maxim flourishes.

From: Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

September 6, 2010

Two movies about Glenn Gould

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 10:56 pm

Without giving short shrift to the various eccentricities that spring to mind when the subject’s name is mentioned, the new documentary “Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gould” that opens on September 10 at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas offers a compelling portrait of the artist’s personal life and musical contributions. It is one of the finer film biographies you will encounter in this or any other year.

I first encountered Gould’s artistry as a freshman at Bard College in 1961 when his CBS Goldberg Variations recording of 1955 had achieved the iconic status of Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” or Ray Charles’s “”Hallelujah, I love her so” albums. Despite the prevailing prejudice at the time for hearing the “authentic” Bach played on original instruments, the sounds of Gould playing Bach on a Steinway were likely to stop you in your tracks.

This was a universal reaction to as evidenced by the reaction of a Russian audience to his performance of the Goldberg Variations in a 1957 tour, the first by a North American (Gould was Canadian) since WWII. The hall was only half full since his reputation had not yet been established globally but after the Bach performance which occurred in the first half of the concert, there was a mad rush to telephones in the lobby where audience members called everybody they knew to come hear the amazing young artist. By the time the second half of the concert was ready to begin, the place was packed.

Co-directors Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, fellow Canadians, have brought an obvious love for Gould the man and Gould the artist. Despite the seeming apolitical character of their chosen subject, both directors have an extensive background as political filmmakers with a film about Chilean activist and writer Ariel Dorfman to their credit. Of course, there is a political dimension to Gould’s life that we will say a word or two in closing.

Hozer and Raymont were inspired to make this movie after learning in 2007 that the famous “loner” had a serious relationship with Cornelia Foss (the estranged wife of composer Lukas Foss) that was nearly consummated in marriage. In distinction to the mad genius image we associate with Glenn Gould, he emerges as a loving and considerate mate who doted on her two children while refusing to substitute for their real father. He was more of an uncle to them than anything else, but that did not prevent the two children—Christopher and Eliza—from growing very fond of him. Despite his reputation as a world-class celebrity, he lived for automobile trips with Cornelia and the two kids to lakes and parks all around Canada.

While he sought a kind of normalcy with the Foss’s, his eccentricities eventually drove a wedge between him and Cornelia that were impossible to overcome. Like Howard Hughes, Gould was an obsessive-compulsive, a hypochondriac who took his blood pressure several times a day, and an abuser of prescription medication in the same league as Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. He died of a stroke at the age of 50, ostensibly from years of living an unhealthy life-style.

If this was all there was to Gould, there would not be that much of an appeal to this documentary. But most of it is uplifting and even hilarious at points. Gould was no stuffed shirt. He enjoyed playing the clown as we can see in a short film he did on a beach in the Bahamas. He conducts before an imaginary orchestra while a scantily clad local female does what appears to be the frug.

He was also fascinated by pop culture, taking a particular interest in Petula Clark, the British songstress best known for the hit tune “Downtown”. She was the subject of a radio program he did for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). After Gould decided to stop performing in concert, his attention shifted to studio recordings and his award-winning radio show “The Idea of North”.

The film includes an ample amount of Gould performances, as well as interviews he conducted over a lifetime. Both are compelling. We also hear from musical experts who explain what made his style unique. Apparently he learned that style from Albert Guerrero, a Chilean who had emigrated to Canada and stressed the use of “finger tapping”, a technique that consists of placing one hand with the finger pads on the keyboard and then releasing the fingers, allowing them to return quickly to the surface. The technique is intended to make the hand learn how to minimize the effort on keys, allowing for faster play. It is what gives Gould’s pianism its characteristic articulation and muscularity.

If you can’t see “Genius Within”, then you should see the next best thing, the idiosyncratic mixture of documentary and fiction called “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” that came out in 1993. Directed by French-Canadian François Girard and starring Don McKellar as Gould, it can be seen in its entirety on Youtube:

It is totally non-linear and consists of 32 independent segments, all intended to reveal different aspects of Gould’s musicianship and eccentricities. For example, one segment titled “CD318” (the serial number of his favorite Steinway) consists of a close-up of the inside of a piano as the hammers rise and fall in the Prelude No 2 from The Well Tempered Clavier.

Another segment is titled “Pills” and consists of nothing but a list of all the medications the pianist took over a lifetime.

What is missing from the film is any glimpse at the homespun Gould we meet in Hozer and Raymont’s film, but that is to be expected given the year it was made, long before the world learned of the Foss connection.

Neither film takes up the question of Gould’s departure from live performances on stage, something that people living in the age of the Internet would find most interesting since it is very much the same kind of issue as print versus electronics. Just as the book is very much a commodity, so is performance at a place like Carnegie Hall imbued with all sorts of class distinctions. The best seats are occupied by the wealthy and the major donors and board members tend to come from the haut bourgeoisie. Gould never really thought about the class issues, but he resented “performing” like a trained monkey in front of people in evening clothes. In fact, as Girard’s film reveals, Glenn Gould was the first artist to ever perform in a business suit on the stage of one of these places.

In the same way that the concert hall was a step upward from the kind of feudal control over musicians in the Baroque epoch within the monarch’s castle, the recording studio represent a kind of emancipation from the stultifying atmosphere of the Carnegie Halls of the world where geniuses are paid to perform in exchange for applause.

Gould’s passion was for the artistic ideal, not celebrity or riches. Perhaps his fixation on the recording studio was just one more eccentricity of a man with deep psychological problems who had trouble with human relationships. But at the very least, his defiance of the expectations of a celebrity-worshipping society puts him on the side of the angels when considered against the never-ending parade of “the greatest tenors” or “the greatest pianists” in PBS fundraising campaigns.

September 5, 2010

Peter McLaren on academic repression

Filed under: Academia,repression — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm

September 4, 2010

Maoists and the Democratic Party

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

It has been a while since the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) has shown up on my radar screen. When Stan Goff was a member, I paid a lot more attention to it since I had a high regard for Stan. When he dropped out with an open letter disavowing Marxism, I pretty much lost interest.

I should add that there are actually two FRSO’s. The one that Stan was involved with is referred to as Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Refoundation) while the other FRSO is called “Fightback”. Neither group uses the qualifier in referring to itself. The split occurred in 1999 over the “refoundation” business that appeared to overlap to some extent with broader moves to break with sectarianism on the left. With all proportions guarded, the split is reminiscent of the split in the CPUSA with the Committees of Correspondence offering up its own kind of “refoundation” thinking and the Gus Hall faction upholding “orthodoxy”, as laughable as that seems to someone outside their ranks.

The Fightback group sized up the split this way:

Under the banner of building a “new socialist party” a right wing section of our organization adopted the standpoint of social-democracy and anti-communism, and insisted that FRSO pursue this strategy.  In an exercise of sectarianism, the rightists said there was no socialist movement that met their criteria of what a revolutionary movement should be (either in the U.S. or internationally) so it was their task to “refound it”.  They said that Marxism-Leninism was a failure, as well as an obstacle to building socialism, and that a “new revolutionary theory” was needed.  They convened a meeting to solidify their strategy to build an organization that corresponds to their thinking over the next 5 years.

More recently, the “Refoundation” group has oriented itself to the Bolivarian revolution:

From this FRSO sharpened the vision of Left Refoundation. Drawing on the analysis of Latin American socialist and political thinker, Marta Harnecker, FRSO has said it must be based on the fusion of forces from both the Party Left (socialist organizations) and the Social Movement Left (mass-based groups in different sectors with left politics and a core open to socialism). Two pamphlets were written with these new sights and widely circulated: “Which Way is Left” and “The Young and the Leftless” (aimed at younger activists). Both make the call for a broad party-building project on the left which required a reassessment of long-established organizational models, theory and practice. These pamphlets, coupled with participation in local social forums and the USSF, locally-based cross-left forms, and being a founding organization of Revolutionary Work in Our Times has stirred interest in a new generation of revolutionaries based in the social movements.

While I am generally sympathetic to their approach, a post that appeared recently on the Kasama website gives me pause to wonder. A fellow named Patrick Ryan who had left the group after 2 years decided that the FRSO (from this point on, you can assume that I am referring to the “Refoundation” group) was just too mired in the Democratic Party and wrote a resignation letter that Kasama published. Ryan states:

The leadership of FRSO/OSCL [ie., Refoundation] has played pivotal roles in social-democratic organizations like Progressives for Obama, the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, and aligned itself with like minded groups such as Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, the Democratic Socialists, and the Communist Party, USA in mass work which is dominated ideologically by a line of “Added-Value” Social-Democracy.

Frankly, it is a little difficult to find the kind of cheerleading for Obama on the FRSO website that you see on the CPUSA’s. Since FRSO members tend not to identify themselves publicly as such (a Maoist tradition that differs sharply from the Trotskyists), it is hard to assess the role of FRSO in the altogether regrettable Progressives for Obama, a website initiated by Carl Davidson, a student leader of the 1960s who is now a co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence, a group just as comfortably wedded to the Democratic Party as the CPUSA from which it split.

Just to refresh my memory, I took a look at Progressives for Obama (which has rebranded itself as Progressive America Rising, perhaps to put some distance between itself and the permanently rightward lurching White House) to see what they had to say about Obama during the early flush of illusion in this reincarnation of Herbert Hoover.

Davidson saw fit to publish Robert Borosage’s encomium to Obama a few days after the inauguration:

Obama’s inaugural speech was a pointed critique of the “failed dogmas” of the last 30 years of conservative misrule and a summons to a new and bold, progressive era of activist government; regulated markets and shared prosperity at home; and a foreign policy that reflects our values…

It was not the words, but this transcendent reality that evoked the tears at Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday. The somber eloquence of the new president, the presence of over a million people celebrating what they had done, the grace of Michele and Barack together, the infectious delight of their daughters, the relief felt in the long overdue departure of Bush and Cheney—all were overshadowed by the historic reality of Americans electing the first African-American president to lead them in this time of trouble. We see one another and the world sees America with new eyes as a result.

Now it is understandable why a Nation Magazine liberal like Borosage would write such nonsense. The bigger problem for us is why so many self-declared socialists like Davidson would believe it. The words “shared prosperity at home” ring particularly hollow.

The FRSO’s orientation to the Democratic Party, mostly gleaned from reading between the lines of their various articles and statements, is a legacy of one branch of the Maoist “New Communist” movement that Max Elbaum documented in “Revolution in the Air”.

While most 60s New Leftists started out as fierce opponents of the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, there was a shift back to the oldest party of the American ruling class when the New Left began to dissolve under the impact of the French revolt of May/June 1968. All of a sudden, classical Marxism and a proletarian orientation became de rigeur.

For many New Leftists who had grown to despise the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (for both good and bad reasons), the alternative model would become the Chinese Communist Party. But in terms of our own history in the USA, this peasant-based revolution would not be so easy to import. So instead young radicals began to look to the Communist Party despite its flaws.

In one of the oddest overtures ever made to the party of Gus Hall a group called Line of March led by ex-CP’er Irwin Silber, who used to write film reviews for the now defunct Guardian newsweekly, wrote article after article lashing out at the CP in one paragraph while writing obsequiously in the next–all this in the context of fusion proposals that the much larger CP found all too easy to ignore.

Unlike the CPUSA, the Maoists were not a wing of the Democratic Party but chose instead to participate in campaigns that had more of a maverick quality, especially those with African-American candidates. When I was in CISPES in New York City, we had a hard-working and well-respected member of the Maoist Communist Workers Party who had a day job on State Senator Bill Perkin’s staff. When CISPES had a national conference in 1984 that adopted a resolution becoming part of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the DWP’er persuaded many people to jump on board.

Despite FRSO/Fightback’s opposition to FRSO/Refoundation’s “revisionism”, it shared its orientation to the Jackson campaign:

In the 1980s, we campaigned for Jesse Jackson and Chicago’s mayor Harold Washington while working to build the Black liberation movement and the struggle for African American political power. Our members were on the union picket lines when Hormel meatpackers faced the National Guard. We built opposition to Bush Sr.’s first war on Iraq and organized countless protests and demonstrations of every war of every administration – from Reagan to Bush, Jr. In the 1990’s and this last five years, we participated in thousands of battles on the local and national level. High points include building the Chicano and Latino movements against the government’s anti-immigrant measures in California, the powerful struggles of the urban poor in Minnesota and the Teamster reform movement.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that not all Maoists go along with this. Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party was never on the Obama bandwagon. He wrote a letter to his followers stating:

Besides the need to sharply expose how Obama, and others parroting this stuff, are attempting to draw Black people into being consciously complicit in the crimes of “their country”—i.e., U.S. imperialism—against the oppressed masses of the world,6 it needs to be recognized and pointed out that these syrupy bromides being given voice by Obama, and by many bourgeois Black figures, on the basis of Obama’s winning the presidential race, not only make the ground more favorable for, but can very quickly turn into, the menace voiced by William Bennett as things unfold, as this system continues to operate according to its essential nature and underlying dynamics, including—as we have stressed in the special issue on the Black national question7 —the ways in which it functions, and is bound to function, to keep masses of Black people, in particular youth in the inner cities, from “being whatever they strive to be,” and these youth and other basic Black masses are increasingly seen, and treated, by many of these Black bourgeois forces as dragging them down and posing an obstacle to their being what they are striving to be—more prominent functionaries and lackeys of the imperialist system.

Despite having very little use for cult leaders of any sort, Avakian’s words strike me as quite persuasive.

To conclude, it is beyond the scope of this article to deal with all of the complexities of Marxism and electoral politics, but there are some points that can be made.

1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels co-wrote an Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League March 1850 that stated:

“Even where there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory.”

You’ll notice that the “democratic party” is in lower case but it can be in upper case if applied to the American scene ever since Ralph Nader decided to challenge the two-party system.

In Marx’s day, it was simply understood that workers should vote for socialist candidates. Some Marxist supporters of the Democratic Party bring up Karl Marx’s fervent support for Abraham Lincoln. One can only say that this was an exceptional moment in American history when a section of the ruling class decided to complete the bourgeois revolution. By 1873, the two parties had coalesced around opposition to socialism and support for Jim Crow so any attempts to extrapolate Marx’s civil war writings to the modern imperialist epoch are self-serving to say the least.

2. Lenin advocated support for bourgeois workers parties like the German Social Democracy and the British Labour Party as a tactic to gain a hearing among workers who had not yet become supporters of the CP. Critical to this tactic was the understanding that once such parties came to power, they would expose themselves as traitors to the people who voted for them. How this has anything to do with the Democratic Party, a bourgeois party plain and simple, is anybody’s guess. This is a party that has been around since the early 19th century. Those who have not wised up about its goals are not going to be persuaded one way or another by having Obama in the White House. People vote for the Democrats mostly because they see no alternative. But the left has no business accommodating itself to the prevailing mood of futility in American society. We should be building bridges that lead to an alternative, starting with campaigns like Nader-Camejo. It is doubtful that Nader will mount another campaign but we should be thinking about a serious challenge to the single party running this country today, the party of big business that has two factions bickering over how to best screw the American people.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.