Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2010

Marx Reloaded trailer

Filed under: Film,financial crisis,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

December 18, 2010

December 16th antiwar protest

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

December 17, 2010

Captain Beefheart is dead

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 11:13 pm

Captain Beefheart, a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, dies at 69

by Simon Vozick-Levinson

Captain-BeefheartImage Credit: Jan Persson/Redferns/Getty Images

Avant-garde rock legend and visual artist Don Van Vliet, who performed under the name Captain Beefheart, passed away today at age 69. A representative of New York City’s Michael Werner Gallery, which showed his paintings, confirms the sad news to EW. Van Vliet died of complications from multiple sclerosis at a hospital in Northern California this morning.

Born in California in 1941, Van Vliet dubbed himself Captain Beefheart and began experimenting with eccentric rock’n’roll sounds in the mid-1960s. His first two releases with the Magic Band drew positive notice from some connoisseurs but failed to connect with the wider public. Van Vliet next forged a close creative partnership with Frank Zappa, a former high school classmate, who signed Beefheart to his Straight Records and produced 1969′s Trout Mask Replica. While the bizarre double album was not a major commercial success, it quickly became a cultural landmark. Van Vliet effectively redefined the frontiers of popular music, singing snatches of surreal imagery in disturbing tones over music that drew on blues, jazz, psychedelia, and a thousand other subgenres. Trout Mask Replica is still cited today as an essential art-rock document.

Van Vliet continued recording as Captain Beefheart with a rotating group of Magic Band members through 1982. In later years, he shifted his primary focus to creating visual art, a world in which he won some acclaim. The Michael Werner Gallery displayed his work for decades, with their most recent Van Vliet show occurring in 2007. Earlier this month, one of Van Vliet’s paintings was reportedly being offered at an asking price of $40,000.

Please join the Music Mix in sending our condolences to Van Vliet’s family and friends.

Dean Haspiel tribute to Harvey Pekar

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

December 16, 2010

The cringe factor: a distaff take on 3 mumblecore movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Over the past three evenings, I watched “Tiny Furniture”, “Cyrus” and “Greenberg”. The first two are dyed-in-the-wool mumblecore movies, while the third is a mixture of conventional Hollywood story-telling with mumblecore elements, a sign of the movement’s growing influence. All three are pretty awful but raise important questions about art and society in a period of declining expectations. The genre reflects this, whatever the intentions of its admittedly shallow practitioners.

In my review of Beeswax, my first exposure to mumblecore, I cited the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman by way of introduction:

Mumblecore’s compulsive navel-gazing, paucity of external references, and narrow field of interest is not for every taste—as Sam Fuller told a French journalist who asked him about Rebel Without a Cause, “I hate these adolescents and their problems.” Like, who doesn’t—although, seeing these films, I regret no one was on hand to fashion art from the stoned blather or communal shenanigans of Viet-era twenty-somethings.

Hoberman also noted: “The denizens of Mumblecordia are often failed musicians or would-be writers. Joblessness is rife.” This is something that unites all three of the movies under consideration here.

Another feature of mumblecore is the reliance on digital cameras whose modest costs allow movies to be made on a D.I.Y. basis. It also allows direct DVD sales through the Internet, a medium essential both to distribution and publicity. That being said, both “Tiny Furniture” and “Cyrus” represent bids by their makers to tap into broader and obviously more lucrative markets. “Cyrus” stars John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei—three established actors—but it is directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass who are considered fathers of the genre.

From a technical standpoint, “Tiny Furniture” is fairly revolutionary since the entire movie was filmed with a Canon EOS 7D, a $1600 SLR camera rather than a camcorder. Of course, all digital cameras are capable of recording video and “Tiny Furniture” is on a par with any other low-budget movie that I have seen. It is too bad that the script—such as it is—and the “acting” can’t match the technique.

“Tiny Furniture” was written, directed by Lena Dunham, a 2008 graduate of Oberlin College who also plays the lead character Aura who has just graduated college. It also features her sister Grace Dunham who plays the character Nadine, Aura’s younger sister. To complete this virtual home movie, their real-life mother Laurie Simmons plays their mother Siri. The movie is shot in Laurie Simmon’s palatial Tribeca loft that contains her photography studio. Ms. Simmons specializes in shooting dollhouse figures in a style that shares Cindy Sherman’s sensibility. The movie’s title is a reference to her work as seen below:

Laurie Simmons is married to Carroll Dunham, a painter whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Would their daughter’s movie, the first she ever made, have gotten the financing and attention it has if she was not born into this family? The answer is obvious.

Aura has just returned to her mother’s loft in order to “veg out” after four years of college. With no obvious ambitions or ideals for that matter, her main interest is hanging out with friends, getting high and looking for a man. What makes her character somewhat exceptional is the fact that she is about 25 pounds overweight. Unlike Robert DeNiro putting on pounds to play Al Capone, Lena Dunham has been fat for a long time and even exploited this feature on a Youtube clip that went viral until she removed it. Here’s another example of her Youtube work that is in the Guggenheim Museum collection. Once again, I have to ask whether the museum would have given her a moment’s notice without her family ties. You will notice that the clip is obsessed with “making it” in the art world.

Throughout “Tiny Furniture”, Aura is seen in the most unflattering terms. She is told by her sister that she smells. When she tries to get something started with men, the results are degrading. One is a Youtube artist like her who is in town to have meetings with HBO (sheer fiction obviously). She invites him to crash at her mother’s loft and he makes a mess of the place while ignoring her advances, showing much more interest in a Woody Allen paperback. One assumes that Lena Dunham might have been paying homage to Allen in this tale  of well-educated, narcissistic and privileged Manhattanites but Allen knew how to write comic dialog. The dialog in “Tiny Furniture” is “realistic” in the sense that it is exactly what some 23 years old might have to say to each other in real life, a subject that is not of intrinsic interest to me and most people looking for art or entertainment in exchange for an $11 admission ticket. As Sam Fuller put it, I hate these adolescents and their problems.

One other thing worth pointing out. On Ms. Dunham’s blog, there is a very long article about her going to Israel to appear at screenings of “Tiny Furniture”. There is not a single mention of Palestinian suffering, let alone the fact that there is a BDS movement. This young woman is apparently to swept up in her own career to notice that other people are being ethnically cleansed.

The eponymous Cyrus (Jonah Hill) is a 20 year old living with his mother Molly (Marisa Tomei) in Los Angeles. After she develops a relationship with John (John C. Reilly), a depressed divorcee, Cyrus does everything he can to subvert it. To describe their relationship as Oedipal would be the understatement of the year. In terms of creepiness, it is almost a comic version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. We should add that Hitchcock’s classic has more laughs.

John meets Molly at a party where he has been moping around trying to make some kind of connection with the opposite sex. After having one drink too many, he beings taking a piss in the shrubbery near the house and is caught in the act by Molly who somehow finds him attractive. Despite mumblecore’s stated claim to capture people in naturalistic situations, this strikes me not only as absurd but sexist.

With barely anything going for him and in a drunken stupor to boot, John manages to end up in bed with Molly. Before long, he meets her son Jonah, who is an aspiring New Age composer but mostly he appears to be a slacker like Aura, content to loll around in his mother’s home until something better comes along. Is there some connection between Jonah Hill’s corpulence and the character Aura’s? It would appear that mumblecore goes out of its way to draw out the most unattractive aspects of a character’s physical and psychological attributes in an attempt to subvert Hollywood conventions.

But what the genre does not understand is that our sympathy for a character has little to do with body size or personality tics. It has much more to do with moral stance that defines a character in relationship to society, something that could be of less interest to its practitioners. For example, in the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges, the main characters are always searching for a more genuine existence or to be true to themselves, even if this leads to comic setbacks as was the case of “Sullivan’s Travels”. Margaret Thatcher once said that society does not exist, only individuals. She seems to have anticipated mumblecore.

The “comedy” in “Cyrus” consists mainly of dialog between the characters that reflects their sad attempts to resolve the cringe-inducing triangle. Since there are disturbing psychological aspects to all this, the directors seem to be hedging the bets. If a critic says that a scene is not funny, the Duplass brothers can say that they didn’t mean it to be. At the climax of the film, Cyrus has an altercation in a bathroom with John while a wedding party is in progress. They tumble out of the bathroom and topple a serving table, drawing everybody’s amazed reaction. It has finally reached the point where Molly has to openly confront the reality of her son’s mental illness. I for one found the scene deeply disturbing and judged the directors to be guilty of cheap exploitation not much different than cable TV reality shows and the equally exploitative pseudo-documentary “Catfish”.

Although Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is twice the age of Cyrus, he acts like a twenty year old and is just as disturbed. After being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown in a New York hospital, Greenberg goes out to Los Angeles to spend a few weeks at his wealthy brother’s house that represents a kind of womb for him, just as Aura’s mother’s loft and Cyrus’s mother’s house. All three characters enjoy living sheltered existences.

In his youth Greenberg was an aspiring rock musician but bad choices put his career on the rocks. At the age of 40, he makes a living as a carpenter and is clinically depressed just like John in “Cyrus”. For obvious reasons, mumblecore dotes on either repellent or fractured personalities. It is a cheap way of making “compelling” art. One imagines that most mumblecore directors would be utterly incapable of drawing out real drama from the lives of adult human beings.

His brother has a personal assistant named Florence who is in her early 20s. Not long after she meets Greenberg, she has sex with him. Her decision to go to bed with this depressed, hostile character is as inexplicable as Molly’s decision to take up with John almost immediately after catching him in the act of pissing in the shrubbery. If there is one thing that mumblecore has in common with traditional Hollywood movies, it is treating female characters in a sexist manner.

Florence is played by Greta Gerwig, who starred in the Duplass brothers’ “Baghead”. Although Gerwig is a beautiful woman, she is photographed without any makeup. You can see every blemish on her face in an obvious bid to subvert Hollywood convention just as much as Lena Dunham’s fleshy thighs. Mark Duplass has a cameo role in the movie, playing a member of Greenberg’s ill-fated rock-and-roll band. These connections to mumblehead regulars indicate that director Noah Baumbach felt some kind of affinity with the genre, even though his past work was more conventional.

The main connection with mumblecore, however, was the utter lack of any kind of plot or character development in the film. Mostly, it is content to have people sitting around making small talk focused on their narrow life-style and amatory choices, the assumption being that this kind of “naturalism” is sufficient to sustain an audience’s interest. If this were truly sufficient, I can’t understand why the conversations people have on their cell phones on the bus is so annoying to me.

Greenberg is one of the most repellent characters I have ever run into in a movie. You have to give credit where credit is due. Ben Stiller captures his creepiness as if he was born to play the role or perhaps because he was basically playing himself, the way that Lena Dunham did in “Tiny Furniture”. It is one of life’s mysteries.

One scene captures the character’s unpleasantness perfectly. Old friends have taken him to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate his 41st birthday, an event that has left him depressed as does just about everything. When the waiters bring out a small cake with a candle for dessert and begin singing happy birthday, he goes ballistic and yells at his friend, a former member of his band, “why don’t you go sit on my cock?” It has all the cringe-inducing qualities as the bathroom altercation in “Cyrus”.

Like Lena Dunham, the 41 year old director Noah Baumbach comes from a privileged background resting on its achievements in the arts. His father is novelist/film critic Jonathan Baumbach and his mother is Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. For someone trying to crack into the film industry, such connections can’t hurt.

Before he made it in Hollywood, Baumbach directed short films for Saturday Night Live, a formerly amusing television show that adopted the same cringe-inducing sensibility as the movies discussed here long before mumblecore hit it big. In fact, SNL has been a spawning ground for “edgy” Hollywood directors for many years now, including Todd Solonz.

Not everybody has found Baumbach’s work deserving of the accolades heaped upon it in the pages of the New York Times and other middle-class taste-makers. My colleague Armond White of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) detests his work, as he does most commercial and indie film-making. Like me, his preferences are for films made long ago when screenwriters were more literate than they are today.

White’s reviews of Baumbach’s movies prior to “Greenberg” apparently drew the attention of his publicists who were instructed to disinvite him from a press screening, leading to a major controversy. Eventually Armond got around to seeing “Greenberg” and wrote an article that I thoroughly endorse:

While Allen’s Zelig poked fun at the absurdity of class and race envy, the mania to assimilate and fit in, Greenberg sentimentalizes the particular elitism of the moneyed and empowered class. Baumbach’s usual privileged settings (this time West Coast Hollywood-style) aren’t documented so much as preferred; just as Roger Greenberg’s bad manners and selfishness are coddled. Baumbach indulges rather than critiques Roger’s cruelty, revealing the same coterie inclination as Dart and Hoberman. Baumbach’s family drama differs from the upper-class comedies of Philip Barry or Whit Stillman through the desperately naked, social-climbing anxiety of its over-educated, morally shallow protagonist. They don’t have the class (in the old-fashioned sense) to show compassion toward others. That’s why Greenberg heroizes Roger’s arrogant bad behavior—Baumbach’s media friends surely recognize and enjoy the ugliness.

The interesting thing is that Armond blasted the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman in this piece as well. Hoberman taken up the cudgels against Armond as having a personal animosity toward Baumbach that colored his reviews. I have sort of the converse reaction. I started out hating the films and have now developed a personal animosity.

I should add that J. Hoberman’s politics are supposedly a lot closer to mine than Armond’s who has expressed a certain displeasure with leftist films in his reviews. I can’t say that I have ever discussed politics with him but in our one conversation at a press screening, I was pleased to discover that we had the same affinity for movies from the 1950s.

Hoberman, on the other hand, has had good things to say about socialism, particularly in his collection of essays “The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism”, something I have not read. However, there are very important political issues involved in the film industry today that transcend conventional ideological categories. We are basically witnessing a corruption of film art that is being facilitated by a cozy relationship between the production companies and critics that in many ways mimics that of Washington politicians and lobbyists. Critics all too often forget what their mission should be, feeling the need to get people into the seats as a kind of duty to commerce.

Armond White’s March 2010 article “Do Movie Critics Matter?” is the definitive take on this sordid relationship:

Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and experience.

Amen.

December 15, 2010

Turkish hip-hop

Filed under: music,Turkey — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

From the wiki on Cartel:

In addition to combining Arabesk melodies with Turkish rap, Cartel is most identifiable by their gangsta style hi -hop that juxtaposes their group against cultural displacement, racism, and capitalistic exploitation[4]. Some themes in their music include cultural pride, the celebration of brotherhood amongst Turks and Kurds, and a call to mobilize the masses against arson attacks, racism, xenophobia, exclusion, drug abuse, materialism, and capitalism. This notion of Turkish youth struggling with national identity is perhaps most clearly addressed by Cartel’s lyrical content. In the explosive song “Go Go,” Cartel asks its audience to recognize the new generation of Turkish Germans, “We’re not Ali of Ahmet/Look at the chess board/Whoever disrespects us now is/ forced to make their play/You’ve made us sick long enough/ with your swindling.” By referring to Turks as “Ali” and “Ahmet”, the quintessential image of the Turkish Gastarbeiter, Cartel calls its listeners to see beyond Turkish stereotypes while holding them accountable for all cultural assumptions. In drawing upon the image of a chess board, Cartel alludes to future relationships between ethnic Turks and Germans, warning that the power is shifting to Turks because of the upcoming generation [5] Kaya sums up the implications of Cartel’s nationalistic rap by saying: Cartel rappers assert and construct a distant pan-Turkish diasporic cultural identity while acknowledging the African connections of rap art. Like many other Turkish rap groups, Cartel also acknowledges it’s ‘authentic’ Turkish folk music connections in the form of a lyrics structure which was used by the mythical Turkish minstrels (halk ozani) By doing so, the rappers also contextualize themselves both in their ‘own authentic’ culture and in the global youth culture [4]. Cartel’s strong identification with Turkey, as seen in their lyrics, is further confirmed by a variety of album cover designs. In their debut album, “Cartel” the design of the CD resembles the Turkish flag, with a red background and the initial letter ‘C’ of ‘Cartel’ imitating it’s signature crescent. The word, ‘Cartel’ is also decorated with Turkish ornamental shapes [4]

 

Open Letter: A Pre-Post-Mortem

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 2:46 pm

Open Letter: A Pre-Post-Mortem

As of this writing, the “Open Letter to the Left Establishment” is inching towards its goal of 5,000 signatures.  It has not “gone viral” compared to certain dancing parrots and singing dogs, though it should be kept in mind that this response was achieved without very much exposure on the web from large “gatekeeper” sites.

In particular, while we did, of course, sent it to them, none of the high traffic progressive sites, alternet, commondreams, or truthdig made any mention of it. Nor was it placed on high traffic blogs such as firedoglake or openleft, to say nothing of the so-called access blogs Daily Kos or Huffington Post.

Of those medium traffic left sites which did run it, Znet allowed it on its front page briefly and then removed it within less than a day-displacing it with a response by Bill Fletcher now front-paged on the site for three days.  In comments attached to it, Znet editor Michael Albert claims to have signed the letter “by mistake”-failing to mention that didn’t merely sign it but posted it on his own website.

Counterpunch ran it on its weekend edition-albeit far down on the page-just below a story about the unveiling of a new organ in Ithaca.

Truthout ran it on its front page, and it continues to maintain its place there four days after as the most read story on the site.

The mostly hands-off reaction might have come as a surprise given that the letter included the signatures of a cross section of left luminaries, many of whom are routinely featured in these same outlets- Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Cindy Sheehan, Cornel West among others. Novelist Russell Banks and non-fiction author Mark Kurlansky also signed on.  Also coming in over the transom, as it were, were unsolicited signatures from Immanuel Wallerstein, Frances Fox Piven, Jean Bricmont, Nell Painter, Steven Zunes, Paul Buhle and even Michael Lerner.

But for those with a sufficiently skeptical view of such matters the blackout from the great majority of the establishment left media was predictable.

For as a basic rule, no institution or individual takes kindly to its authority being challenged-and that includes those which claim, as many leftists do, to be anti-authoritarian.

I should stress that challenging the authority of left individuals and the media which provided outlets for them was not the main purpose of the letter, which was, as we make clear, to advocate for the support of the kinds of protest actions against the Obama administration which are now desperately necessary.  Nor, speaking for myself, was it pleasant to do so given that some of these were key figures in my own intellectual and political development. Furthermore, in the main, I think these outlets, including those sites mentioned above, generally do a good job, and so it does not serve the interests of the left to have their authority undermined.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Obama campaign and the first two years of his administration, a near complete collapse of objectivity raised serious questions with respect to the credibility of numerous high profile figures and media organs of the left.  Challenging some of them therefore, became a regrettable necessity.  More seriously, it has also been necessary due to the fact that many of these figures continue to refuse to do what the letter urges them to do: namely to actively support protests against the Obama administration.

This has been demonstrated by the two responses to the letter which have been received since its posting by Bill Fletcher and Tom Hayden. For rather than refute the charge that both remain incapable of  offering strong and unqualified support to demonstrations of the size and intensity required, they confirm it. Thus, Hayden describes the civil disobedience action at the White House scheduled for Dec. 16 as “somewhat justifiable” although questioning whether “it was a smart idea to begin with.”   Nothing could better typify the kinds of half-hearted, tepid and qualified response which has played a major role in the demobilization of protest for all to many years.  Fletcher’s response, however, goes one better: failing even to offer any endorsement or mention the protest at all!  Furthermore, almost the entirety of the response is based on misreading, either careless or deliberate, in which the letter is claimed to “call(s) upon those named in the first paragraph to criticize the policies of the Obama administration.”  It does nothing of the kind, of course.  The first sentence of is “a call for active support of protest” not criticism of which there is always more than enough to go around.

Nothing could better demonstrate the necessity for challenging the authority of these two as leading voices of the left.  It is therefore convenient that when it comes to Fletcher and Hayden and the remainder of the recipients of the letter, this task was easily accomplished by simply noting some (though by no means all) of the most destructive aspects of the Obama presidency and addressing the recipients as “supporters”. That they were supporters is, of course, the undeniable fact of the matter though it should be kept in mind that their support was  to a greater or lesser degree “critical” lying along a spectrum of which the following two quotations can be seen as indicating the two extremes.

“Barack Obama is clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples’ lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America.”  (Katrina van den Heuvel)

“Putting Obama in the White House would not by any means ensure progressive change, but under his presidency the grassroots would have an opportunity to create it.” (Norman Solomon)

The first of these was typical of much that was written at the time.  It is obviously absurd on its face, and the less said about it the better-though mention should probably be made that it gives the lie to the pretentious and corrosive claim that the left constitutes a “reality based community.”

The second encapsulates the positions of the more sober and rational Obama supporters, most notably those associated with the Progressive Democrats of America.  Here the claim was at least superficially reasonable, but by now has shown by events to have been almost completely false.  As should be obvious, protest is only now starting to develop, and compared to the peak of millions on the streets in March of 2003 remains virtually non-existent.

The reason for this vacuum has to do with a virtually unbreakable law of left organizing which operates roughly as follows: when a Democratic President enters office, those membership organizations which had been on the outside now see themselves as having a seat at the table.  This is achieved through movement leadership being offered positions-albeit low to midlevel positions-in the administration.  When they are not actually invited into the administration, elite levels of the left establishment see themselves as having “access” to some these figures, with the result that organizations, media outlets and high profile figures   which would otherwise be organizing grassroots protests are now counseling patience, tolerance and, at the very least, “critical” support.

The Obama administration is, in fact, somewhat striking, no doubt to the displeasure of the left establishment, for the weakness with which it implemented this well-worn co-optation strategy. That said, there were at least some within it who could be pointed to as “our friends”.   Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor remains a favorite of organized labor as does Jared Bernstein.  Steven Chu was initially seen by environmentalists as likely to function as a strong advocate for a sane policy on Global Warming, as was Science Advisor Steven Holdren.  Human rights icon Samantha Power, now signing off on predator drone attacks in Pakistan on the National Security Council, is another. These and others (even including the exiled Van Jones) continue an unending flow of apologetics for the administration, some fraction of which are still taken seriously by some of the recipients and which have been sufficient, it would seem, to maintain the illusions among labor, environmental, and human rights organizations of access to the administration.

All this is directly relevant to purpose of the letter in that the perception of access to “friends” on the inside insures that the organizational infrastructure which is necessary to organize protest withers, leaving it to outside marginal groups the necessity to build this infrastructure from scratch.

As noted, all this should have been obvious to those who lived through, or at least read about, the Carter and Clinton administrations where the dynamic of co-optation was refined to something close to a science.  So when we confronted it anew under Obama, we should have seen it, and the events which followed, for the inevitabilities which they were and be prepared to confront them. We did not because those who should have been warning us had an investment in the Obama campaign and Obama brand, and what they felt it represented, and were thereby unwilling or unable to do so.  The legacy of false claims and unrealistic expectations lives on in the continuing failure of many of these figures to advocate for protest on the scale and intensity which is required.

An awareness of this fact, as indicated by the 4000 signatories, is slowly percolating through the rank and file left.  But since the left establishment gatekeepers will not allow expressions of it to surface on those high traffic sites which they control, it will need to develop further before it reaches a breaking point. When this occurs institutional leadership, personified by figures such as Hayden and Fletcher is correctly seen as a major obstacle to the progress of the protest movement.  At this point the rank and file will begin to develop their own institutions independent of what have become, for all practical purposes, fatally compromised institutions and spokepersons.

Or, a more happy development, would be if those left establishment figures we address, and others we do not, were to do as signatory Doug Henwood does gracefully in his statement in support of our letter. They should own up to their past mistakes, and show by their words and actions that they are now committed not to support, critical or otherwise of the Obama administration, but to active and militant opposition to its policies.

There is no good reason, it seems to us, why they could, or should, not do precisely that.

And should they do so, we will welcome them with open arms.

John Halle

December 14, 2010

Autumn of the Hegemon

Filed under: financial crisis,swans — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Perspectives: A Review of 2010

The Autumn Of The Hegemon

by Louis Proyect

FUNDRAISING DRIVE: Green is the color of hope and hope means meeting a fundraising goal of $4,000 for 2010. That money, evidently, does not pay for wages, only the operating costs of the endeavor and the opportunity to keep bringing original humanist and radical thoughts to the wider realm. Jan Baughman and Gilles d’Aymery have sacrificed for 15 years to make this “sweetest dream” a reality. Unfortunately, they never had a wealthy mentor or someone willing to match funds — a sad happenstance, but a plain reality…

Thank you very much to Beverly Holley and Phil Fine for their enduring friendship and their recurring generosity. Still, another $650 are needed. If you want to make a difference and help Jan and Gilles carry on, please Donate Now! Thank you for your attention and for reading Swans.

(Swans – December 13, 2010) This was the year that the war in Afghanistan became the longest in American history. It was also a year in which a jobless recovery was threatening to spiral out of control, turning into a double-dip recession. For those with even the most underdeveloped capacity for making historical analogies, it should be rather obvious that the U.S. is facing the same kind of intractable contradictions that brought down the USSR.

Clearly, there are major differences between the U.S. and the USSR over the Afghan wars. The USSR at least had the merit of intervening on behalf of a progressive government that was attempting to emancipate the countryside from the kinds of misogynist and feudal-like social relations that both the current government and the Taliban-led resistance support to one extent or another. The war cost over 13 thousand Soviet lives over a ten year period while the U.S. has managed to keep losses at relatively low levels, a function of the low-intensity warfare it has developed ever since the end of the Vietnam War.

However, the costs of sustaining this war, as well as the low-intensity occupation of Iraq and the maintenance of military bases all over the world, are undermining the financial health of the republic. While Randolph Bourne was correct to identify war with the health of the state in terms of it being able to delivering “a tremendous liberation of activity and energy” to the citizenry, it comes at a significant monetary cost. In July of this year, the House passed an additional 33 billion dollars for the war in Afghanistan. The ability of legislators to grant the Pentagon’s every wish will soon become understood as in violation of the “guns and butter” formula of the Vietnam era when the American economy enjoyed super-hegemonic status. Now it is really a question of “guns, not butter” as the economy sputters along on two cylinders.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy65.html

Thomas Quasthoff sings All Blues

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

December 13, 2010

Black pundits rally around the president

Filed under: african-american,Obama — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

Three high-profile African-American members of the punditocracy have reacted to the mounting chorus of criticism against Obama, particularly over the tax deal with the Republicans. Although they have different political backgrounds and adopt varying tones, they agree that challenges to Obama are ill-advised, except for what amounts to friendly criticism. In other words, they would prefer that the left treat Obama in more or less the same way that Fox News treated Bush. You could find an Ann Coulter or a Rush Limbaugh disagreeing with Bush over, for example, immigration policy but there was never any question about whether or not he was The Man.

On Friday, Washington Post op-ed columnist Colbert I. King issued a Memo to the left: Hands off Obama. It turns out that the left he was referring to was not the kind of people who write for Counterpunch but the Democratic Party left that might back someone against Obama in the 2012 primaries. He writes:

Sabotage the nation’s first black president and the Democratic Party might as well bid farewell to its most loyal base of supporters: African Americans.

In 2008, the turnout for young black eligible voters was higher than that of young eligible voters of any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Pew Research Center. Consider them gone in future congressional and presidential elections if the left dooms Obama in 2012.

Of course, Obama seems to be doing a pretty good job himself convincing Blacks to stay home, with Black turnout decreasing from 13 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in the 2010 midterm elections.

King, as might be expected, warns that if Obama had not been elected, all sorts of really terrible things would be happening to the country. But, thanks to Obama, Wall Street has been reformed and billions have been spent to fight homelessness and hunger. It should be mentioned at this point that Colbert I. King was once the Executive Director of the World Bank so he should have a pretty good handle on fighting poverty. (Insert irony symbol here.) He is also a big fan of Obama’s efforts on behalf of peace, confirming the wisdom of placing the Nobel Peace Prize upon his saintly shoulders:

Would the United States be on its way out of lraq under a McCain presidency? Or pursuing a strategy to disengage from Afghanistan, even while thrashing al-Qaeda and rounding up home-grown terrorists?

I should mention that the misspelled “LRAQ” above is in the original article, a sign no doubt that the Washington Post’s editing standards are on a par with its politics. The idea that the U.S. is “disengaging” from Afghanistan, of course, has the same credibility as Obama waging a war on poverty. None.

Now all this is par for the course for an op-ed writer at the Washington Post. We wouldn’t expect anything different. But another op-ed piece that appeared in the N.Y. Times this weekend might have thrown some for a loop, since it was written by Ishmael Reed, one of those people who do write for Counterpunch. In What Progressives Don’t Understand About Obama, Reed says that calls for Obama to “man up” against the Republicans (a term I doubt that Rachel Maddow has ever used) will backfire since “he’d be dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people”. This strikes me as somewhat puzzling since Obama campaigned vociferously about a tax break for millionaires up until very recently. When he was speaking out in that manner, nobody ever likened him to Louis Farrakan, now did they?

This is not the first time that Reed has expressed his displeasure with Obama critics. Last May he was interviewed by Jill Nelson on Counterpunch about his new book Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers. It’s not just the mainstream media that is racist. It is also the alternative media:

The white males who dominate the progressive media are used to black guys playing basketball. Their opinions dominate NPR, Pacifica, The Nation even though it has a feminist editor. They’re crazy about Michael Jordan.

NPR and The Nation I understand but Pacifica? There are all sorts of problems with the network, but excluding Black voices is not one of them—at least it wasn’t when I listened to the local station. It turns out that the offending party at Pacifica is our good friend and comrade Doug Henwood, about whom Reed had this to say in the aforementioned book:

On January 1 during her annual retrospective program Obama was subjected to withering criticism by her guests and this was followed the next day on progressive Pacifica radio by Doug Henwood, a marxist economist, who was just as unrelenting in his criticism of Obama.

Even while admitting on his Pacifica show, aired on Jan 9, that manufacturing jobs were beginning to return, he, using the kind of language that slave masters used when trapping the movements of a fugitive slave, referred to Obama as slippery and like some others who are treating non-white voters as invisible, noted that Obama was losing his friends.

This is what Doug said. I will let others judge whether this is the “kind of language that slave masters used”:

Though the right has been energized by fighting against Obama’s phantasmic radical leftism, he is of course no such thing. But his very vaguness and slipperiness has come to haunt him. Since he stands for little other than compromises aimed at shoring up the status quo, his ranks of enthusiastic supporters shrink every day. He has more enemies and fewer friends all the time. This is what happens when you’re a brand rather than someone with principles.

And finally there is the inimitable Bill Fletcher Jr., who unlike King and Reed does represent himself as some kind of Marxist, although never so gauche as to actually cite Lenin or Mao in his communications to the left.

Over on ZNet, he holds forth on Obama the Tax Cuts, & the Federal Pay Freeze. You can find the same riff about avoiding the “angry black man” image as in Reed’s piece:

Emotion from a black person is often perceived by whites as threatening and since President Obama wanted to assure whites as to his stability, he could not afford to show emotion. Thus, the anger that millions are feeling, regarding the collapse of their lives, is not something that he can channel because to do so would be to raise the spectre of the Mau Mau, literally and figuratively in light of his Kenyan background…at least that seems to be his fear.

All this is sheer nonsense. Nobody ever asked Obama to howl at the cameras as if he were Howard Beale in “Network”. All he had to do was calmly and coolly—just like Mr. Spock—tell the insurance companies and the American people that he was pushing ahead with a single-payer plan, for example. But the problem was not in his emotions but in his intellect. The guy believes deeply in U. of Chicago economics and his fans on the left had a hard time figuring that out before they got involved with nonsense like Progressives for Obama. You might as well have launched Progressives for Milton Friedman.

Fletcher concludes his article with a warning that a primary challenge to Obama would not be a good idea since it “is unlikely that a good, multi-racial, progressive challenge – that has credibility – can be mounted against Obama.” My own position is that would not be a good idea but for a different reason, namely that it would be a god-damned waste of time and energy. More about that here.

Bill Fletcher Jr. has reacted to an open letter to the Left Establishment by calling attention to his criticisms of the president:

So, assuming that there is loving intent from the authors–and i am certainly not critical of the signatories–then i would say, i agree with many of the criticisms they have offered of the Obama administration; i have offered many of those criticisms already; i have been active, as have most of my colleagues, in trying to engage liberal and progressive social forces in the need to both combat the political Right as well as put the pressure on the Democrats; and, guess what?  I will continue to, and i am assuming that my colleagues will as well.

As I said at the outset, leftist supporters of Obama have not been shy about making criticisms. But this is not adequate to the task. Instead what is needed is a posture of opposition, no different in fact from that taken against George W. Bush. This is a bridge too far for people like Fletcher and obviously why the open letter was written. Nobody believes that Fletcher, Vanden Heuvel and Michael Moore will ever budge on the basic question of supporting Obama but it is important to raise awareness about their obligations to the left, in whose name they presume to speak.

There are clear signs that Obama has made up his mind to wash his hands entirely of the “professional left”. Whether they continue to carry a torch for him is their business, not ours. But at least one professional rightwing pundit has it all figured out, even if they don’t. In a mailing to Weekly Standard readers, Matthew Continetti, a rightwing asshole of biblical proportions, professed an admiration for Obama that exceeded the Establishment Left’s. This is a contradiction for them to resolve, not us:

Well, I’m in a good mood. It only took about a month after the midterm election for President Obama to start moving to the center-right. In the last week, the president has (a) frozen salaries for non-defense federal employees, (b) negotiated a major trade deal with South Korea, and (c) agreed to a two-year extension of current tax rates along with a temporary reduction in the payroll tax. At this rate he’ll be haggling with Paul Ryan over the fine points of the Roadmap for America’s Future by next August.

The tax deal, moreover, falsifies two myths. The first is that Obama is incapable of moving to the center. I confess, I had my doubts. The man is too professorial, too committed to the liberal view of the world. What I forgot was that he is also a politician who seeks reelection. If his speech announcing the tax deal is any indication, Obama will kick and scream as he works with Republicans in the next Congress. He does not like ceding ground to American conservatism. But that’s fine. He doesn’t have to like it. What’s important is that conservative ideas will have an opportunity to work.

The other myth? That the left matters. Oh, they’ll howl that Obama is abandoning his base. They’ll point to the emerging center-right fiscal consensus, the lack of a public option in the health care bill, the president’s continued intervention in Afghanistan. They’ll make a fair case, especially when it comes to Obama’s relations with Wall Street, that the president is an elitist who has no connection or sympathy with the common man. The talk shows and headlines will be filled with chatter that Obama’s “betrayal” will hurt him in 2012.

But none of it will make any difference. For the fact is that, while the center-left is overrepresented in the public discourse, the liberal core is limited to around 20 to 30 percent of the electorate. There are far more votes to mine in the places where voters identify as conservative. Anyone can see that—even the president. So the question isn’t whether Obama can survive the disaffection of the left. It’s whether Republicans will be ready when the president tries to poach the center-right.

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