Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 13, 2011

The Leopard and the New Deal

Filed under: financial crisis,liberalism — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

“Everything must change so that everything can stay the same”

Prince Tancredi Falconeri’s observation in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”

* * * *

“I think I am still a conservative, but I believe that a new set of plans is essential to preserve the conservative order of things. The trouble is that most of our business and professional friends do not understand that the old methods will not serve. New arrangements are necessary to save the economic structure. I think it is not radical, certainly not revolutionary, to change the methods of business leadership and the relations both with employees and with customers . . . the methods you and your associates are inaugurating are necessary in order to retain the existing industrial order.”

From Chicago lawyer Charles Leroy Brown’s letter to NRA (National Recovery Administration) director Donald Richberg

Emergency call to action on Wall Street

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

EMERGENCY CALL TO ACTION: Prevent the forcible closure of Occupy Wall Street!
Posted Oct. 13, 2011, 2:14 p.m. EST by OccupyWallSt

Bloomberg handed a notification to #OWS that the City is planning to
clean the park, etc. Nasty notification. Bloomberg needs his head
cleansed:

http://occupywallst.org/article/emergency-call-action-prevent-forcible-closure-occ/

Tell Bloomberg: Don’t Foreclose the Occupation.
Join us at 6AM FRIDAY for non-violent eviction defense.

Please take a minute to read this, and please take action and spread
the word far and wide.

Occupy Wall Street is gaining momentum, with occupation actions now
happening in cities across the country.

But last night Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD notified Occupy Wall
Street participants about plans to “clean the park”—the site of the
Wall Street protests—tomorrow starting at 7am. “Cleaning” was used as
a pretext to shut down “Bloombergville” a few months back, and to shut
down peaceful occupations elsewhere.

Bloomberg says that the park will be open for public usage following
the cleaning, but with a notable caveat: Occupy Wall Street
participants must follow the “rules”. These rules include, “no tarps
or sleeping bags” and “no lying down.”

So, seems likely that this is their attempt to shut down #OWS for good.
PLEASE TAKE ACTION:

1) Call 311 and tell Bloomberg to support our right to assemble and to
not interfere with #OWS. If you are calling from outside NY use this
number 212-NEW-YORK.

2) Come to #OWS on FRIDAY AT 6AM to defend the occupation from eviction.

Occupy Wall Street is committed to keeping the park clean and safe —
we even have a Sanitation Working Group whose purpose this is. We are
organizing major cleaning operations today and will do so regularly.

If Bloomberg truly cares about sanitation here he should support the
installation of portopans and dumpsters. #OWS allies have been working
to secure these things to support our efforts.

We know where the real dirt is: on Wall Street. Billionaire Bloomberg
is beholden to bankers.

We won’t allow Bloomberg and the NYPD to foreclose our occupation.
This is an occupation, not a permitted picnic.

Dr. Margaret Flowers confronts the real death panels

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:49 pm

(Hat tip to Counterpunch)

October 12, 2011

Janos Starker plays Kodaly

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

October 11, 2011

Belafonte on Herman Cain

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 10:52 pm

Another Depression, another Occupation

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street,war — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

In 1932, three years after the stock market crashed and when the U.S. was in the throes of the worst depression in history, WWI veterans occupied a parcel of land not far from the White House to demand payment on the bonuses that were owed them. They were supposed to get paid for the difference between their military pay and their civilian wages according to legislation passed in 1924 but would have to wait until 1945. Since many were unemployed and destitute they demanded immediate payment.

Like today’s OWS, this occupation captured the country’s imagination and led to a political polarization. With Herbert Hoover still in the White House, there was little to expect in the way of justice but probably few of the veterans expected what eventually took place, a full-scale military assault led by General Douglas MacArthur that included six tanks. Under MacArthur’s command were Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. This was obviously a major offensive.

After an initial foray with fixed bayonets and adamsite, a vomit-inducing gas, Hoover called for a halt to the assault that MacArthur ignored, stating that he was trying to put down a Communist insurgency. At this point in his career, MacArthur showed the kind of defiance of civilian authority that would lead to his firing by Harry Truman years later.

In the video clip below, pay close attention to the orator in white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and suspenders. That is none other than General Smedley Butler!

The Bonus Army movement raised some of the same themes now being heard at OWS rallies. On June tenth, just a month before the men were attacked, their leader Walter W. Waters wrote an article in the NY Times (the paper was reasonably favorable toward the movement) using language that might sound familiar to you. He wrote:

We realize that the hue and cry is being raised by our opponents that payment of the bonus would be “class” legislation. But is not Federal assistance to broken-down railroads and defunct banks “class” legislation of a sort? Of course, the point is raised that assistance to industry is assistance to the working man.

Then, as now, there were certain problems that the occupiers had with the “Marxist-Leninist” left. Today that left is generally sympathetic to the movement but has no clue how to engage with it, a function unfortunately of seeing every mass movement as something to “intervene” in rather than become integrated with organically.

Back in 1932, the left was pretty much synonymous with the Communist Party which was deep into its “left turn”. A June 18 NYT article titled “Reds Urge Mutiny in the Bonus Army” that was not far from the truth. The CP urged the men to go back home and join with the working class in a fight for unemployment insurance. While the party’s call was cloaked in ultraleft rhetoric, it was clearly missing the point of the action, which was to implicitly put the rulers in Washington and their Wall Street funders on the defensive.

A week after the Bonus Army had been driven from its encampment, the CP held a press conference where its leaders demonstrated unbelievable stupidity. The lead paragraph of a July 31 1932 NYT article states: “The Communist Party, at its headquarters here accepted responsibility yesterday for the demonstration that resulted in the Bonus Army riots in Washington.” Speaking for the party leadership, William Z. Foster said:

Under the banner of the world Communist party, fight imperialist war, defend the Soviet Union, make Aug. 1 the beginning of a gigantic struggle for the defense of the right of workers.

Rally behind the election fight of the Communist Party. Oust the Hoover-Wall Street government. Forward to the workers’ and farmers’ government.

Can you imagine that this was the largest party on the left? Using rhetoric that evoked the “social fascism” mindset of the German CP, the CP labeled Walter Waters as a “stoolpigeon” who was following Mussolini and Hitler.

In the same way that Obama’s election in 2008 brought hope that social justice would be served, so did FDR’s election in 1932 raise the country’s spirits. Surely, someone who would become famous for his New Deal achievements—at least in the hagiography of American liberalism—would see a way to meet the request of the Bonus Army. As it turns out, FDR was as opposed to granting the veterans’ demand as Hoover. The only difference between the two was in the rhetoric they used. Hoover opposed it for obvious plutocratic motives while FDR opposed it because it would divert resources from the New Deal. In other words, the two presidents were playing the same game that Bush and Obama would play 76 years later in tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum fashion.

As part of “the Hundred Days” that marks the onset of the New Deal shortly after taking office, Roosevelt pushed through the Bill to Maintain the Credit of the United States Government. Better known as the Economy Act, the bill drastically cut federal expenditures through a 400-million-dollar reduction in veteran pensions and benefits. If Obama had taken the advice of the Nation Magazine and Salon.com to create a new New Deal, this is a piece of legislation he surely would have embraced.

In an odd role reversal, the Veterans of Foreign Wars—nowadays a bastion of reaction—took FDR to task from the left. The Economy Act in their eyes demonstrated the continuing influence of “Big Business” and “Wall Street”.

With its ranks dominated by men who were suffering from the impact of the Depression, the VFW’s magazine Foreign Service did not mince words. In an April 1933 editorial titled “Blood Money”, they wrote:

It is apparent that the veteran has been forced to bear the burden of a depression that was caused by his enemies—the predatory interests that have their hands in the public till. The money that will be withheld from the disabled veteran…can only be regarded as blood money.





This is the same mood that can be seen among the veterans participating in OWS today even if in this instance the anger is directed more at Sean Hannity than the president.

By April 1933, the VFW had FDR pegged in pretty much the same terms as Paul Street had Obama pegged early on. While some pundits viewed FDR has having been duped into supporting the Economy Act, the VFW saw him siding openly with big business and nothing but a continuation of Hoover. Since the Economy Act had removed 501,777 veterans and their dependents from the pension rolls, the pain must have been excruciating. In the VFW magazine, the reference was from that point on to “the new deal” rather than the New Deal.

While the VFW has gone through an evolution obviously, the American Legion was not much different in 1933 than it is today. It supported the Economy Act and its leader Louis A. Johnson spent as much time at the White House as some labor fakers do today.

The VFW published Smedley Butler’s speech to the Bonus Army seen in the Youtube clip above under the title “You Got to Get Mad”. Butler agreed to go on a speaking tour to promote the veterans’ demands that year. A Roosevelt supporter in 1932, Butler was now angry at the administration’s cozy alliance with “Big Business”.

Under the impact of such activism, FDR was forced to back down but not without resistance. Congress, where Democrats held majorities in both houses, passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act in 1936 authorizing the immediate payment of the $2 billion in WWI bonuses over the President’s veto.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from the original occupiers, it is that you have to rely on your own power in the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s words: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Even if such demands are still pending!

Source:

Stephen R. Ortiz, The “New Deal” for Veterans: The Economy Act, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the origins of New Deal Dissent, The Journal of Military History, April 2006, Vol. 70, no. 2

October 10, 2011

By Mr. Fish

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

October 8, 2011

The Birth of Capitalism

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Back sometime in 1998, the year that I created the Marxism mailing list, a University of Illinois at Chicago geography professor named Jim Blaut showed up touting a new book titled “The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History” that I read with great interest since it dovetailed with my own research on American Indians at the time. Blaut maintained that Eurocentrist historians had given Asian, African and New World civilizations short shrift, an analysis I had read before in Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s “Before European hegemony: the world system A.D. 1250-1350”.

Abu-Lughod’s book was filled with fascinating details, such as the fact that all three of Columbus’s ships could have fit on the deck of the largest ship in a Ming Dynasty armada that made frequent trips to the coast of East Africa in the 1400s. Since Abu-Lughod had blurbed Blaut’s book as “absolutely spellbinding”, that was recommendation enough for me.

Soon after Jim made his initial appearance, his attention turned to Robert Brenner, a UCLA professor I had never heard of and who was targeted as a Eurocentrist in his new book. While most of the historians discussed there were non-Marxists, Brenner apparently had the reputation of being a big-time Marxist. I scratched my head trying to figure that out. Marxism and Eurocentrism seemed to be diametrically opposed (this was before I had been exposed to post-colonial scholarship.)

Not long after “The Colonizer’s Model of the World” came out, Jim followed up with “Eight Eurocentric Historians”, the second in a trilogy of books that would have concluded with one on writing non-Eurocentric history. Unfortunately, Jim died of cancer of the pancreas in November 2000 and was not able to complete that book.

One of the eight historians Jim took up was Robert Brenner who he had described as follows in an Antipode article (available online) that was later adapted for the new book:

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.

I would say that of all the people I grew to respect and admire through the Marxism list, Jim Blaut stood at the top along with Mark Jones, a self-professed Stalinist who died of cancer three years after Blaut’s passing. The passion that Jim directed toward his project has sustained me ever since. I only wish that he had been around to see the publication of Henry Heller’s “The Birth of Capitalism: a Twenty-First Century Perspective”, a book put out by the leftwing British Pluto Press, whose chief editor Roger van Zwanenberg was an old friend of Mark Jones. It’s a small world, after all.

Heller’s book is an amazing accomplishment. It serves as a very useful introduction to the “Brenner thesis” debates as well as weighing in with his own perspectives—including a critique of Jim Blaut’s analysis that I find persuasive. I only regret that Jim had not lived to read this book since his response to Heller would have been something to behold, I am sure. If there was one thing that Jim loved more than bird-watching, it was debate.

For me, the book is of particular value since it jibes in so many ways with my own amateur historian’s findings. I always thought I was on the right track but having a professional saying many of the same things I have said gives me a sense of vindication.

It should be said at the outset that the Brenner thesis enjoys hegemony in the left academy. Partially this is a function of the disillusionment with “Third Worldism” that took hold in the early 80s. It can also be traced to the decline of the Marxism that was associated with Paul Sweezy and the “dependency” theorists grouped around the Monthly Review. For the most part, they lacked the interest that someone like a Brenner supporter Ellen Meiksins Wood had in continuing the debate. In numerous articles and several books, she has even surpassed Brenner in carrying his thesis to its logical (or absurd) conclusion. Andre Gunder Frank, one of Brenner’s principal antagonists, had reached the point of abandoning Marxism altogether, arguing in “ReOrient” that the term capitalism had no meaning. I guess that’s one way of resolving the transition problem.

Other scholars who were explicitly or implicitly opposed to Brenner never had any commitment to Marxism to begin with. Most notable among them was Kenneth Pomeranz, a neoclassical econometrician and historian who argued in “The Great Divergence” that China was far more advanced than Britain in the 18th century. One of the best things about Heller’s book is his review of the Brenner-Pomeranz debate that has been focused on quite narrow questions about agrarian class relations in the lower Yangtze River region. As avid as I am to follow the Brenner debate, their articles have not whetted my appetite.

I sometimes felt that I was the only person in the world who cared enough to answer Wood or Brenner’s other acolytes. For some the debate seemed sterile. Who really cared where or when capitalism came into being? For today’s revolutionary, the burning question is how to make the transition from capitalism to socialism not to figure out how feudalism gave way to capitalism. Of course, the “transition” problem of 500 years ago can tell us a lot about how our own transition will take place, as Heller points out in his conclusion:

Writing in 2000 while the neoliberal experiment was still going strong, [medievalist and Brenner critic] Guy Bois saw neoliberalism as a symptom of deepening capitalist crisis. Toward the conclusion of his account of the late medieval feudal crisis, Bois offered a qualified comparison between that crisis and the contemporary crisis of capitalism. In doing so, Bois was able to suggest the gravity of the current situation from a historical perspective. Like the late medieval crisis, the current state of affairs is marked by ongoing large-scale unemployment, growing insecurity, violence and social marginalization. The two eras are likewise characterized by outbursts of the irrational in the realm of culture in which the existing elites are fully complicit. At the same time, Bois hastened to distinguish the sources of crisis in each case: the one engendered by an insufficiency of production in an economy based on petty production, the other rooted in a crisis of over-production in an economy based on industrial capitalism.

Unlike Pomeranz or other anti-Eurocentric historians such as Jack Goody and John M. Hobson (the great grandson of John A. Hobson, who Lenin cited frequently in his article on imperialism), Heller situates himself within the Marxist tradition. He is equally at home discussing the fine details of early modern European history (his specialty is France) and Marxist theory. While his analysis is more “Hellerian” than anything else, it is clear to me that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development is a major influence. While Trotsky’s theory was used to explain the contradictory character of a Russian capitalism that mixed feudal social relationships with some of the worlds most advanced industrial production facilities, Heller applies it to the 1500s and 1600s when ostensibly non-capitalist social relations including slavery were becoming essential—serving as midwife in many ways—to the birth of capitalism.

But even more importantly, Heller hones in on the contribution of V.I. Lenin whose groundbreaking 1899 study “The Development of Capitalism in Russia” is critical for understanding how much of a mistake it is to see the “British road” as the only possibility for a transition to capitalism. (Heller correctly points out that the term Eurocentric might not do justice to Brenner; “Anglocentric” is more fitting.)

Heller makes clear that Brenner and his followers view coercive “extra-economic” state interventions into the economy as typically pre-capitalist. So, for example, they assert that the East India Company is feudal even if they might not necessarily use that term–the same thing with Southern slavery, or other forms of forced labor including indentured servitude, debt peonage, etc. It ain’t capitalism if ain’t out of the pages of Adam Smith, in other words.

For Lenin, this distinction does not exist. He wrote about capitalism coming into existence “from above” and “from below”. The best hope for a Russian revolution would have been a transition to capitalism “from below” like the classic yeoman farmer dominated Anglo-American model but it was not excluded that a “Junker” model from above might be imposed. In line with both Lenin and Trotsky, Heller observes:

The Prussian instance demonstrates in turn how the state not only intervened to ensure the survival of its nobility, but aided them in making the transition to capitalism at the expense of the peasant producers. As their historical development has recently been fruitfully explored from the point of view of capitalism from above, the examples of Scotland and Japan are discussed with an eye to developing a comparative under- standing of alternative routes to capitalism. The decisive role of the state is illustrated by applying Trotsky’s conception of combined and uneven development to the Scottish path to capitalism. It illustrates the speed and contradictory nature of capitalist development in states with archaic social relations.

That was the first thing that came to my mind after reading Brenner’s 1977 New Left Review article “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism” that challenged Paul Sweezy, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank and other “Third Worldists”. (It was an open question whether Brenner even considered them to be true Marxists, since Sweezy’s analysis of the origins of capitalism was regarded as “neo-Smithian”. It always occurred to me that the same adjective might have been applied to the Brennerites since they were so determined to make an equation between the capitalist mode of production and free markets.)

The words “Junkers” and “Meiji restoration” kept popping into my head. I said to myself, “Louis Proyect, this cannot be right. Capitalism arrived in Germany and Japan through a mixture of state coercion and market relations. Take yourself over to the Columbia University library first chance you get and follow up.”

The net result was the very first article I ever wrote about the Brenner thesis titled aptly enough “The Brenner Thesis”. It has a section with the subheading “The Meiji Restoration” that anticipates what would be written far more elegantly and with more erudition in Heller’s book. I wrote:

Turning to Japan, the question of whether capitalist agriculture is a requirement for the advent of capitalism in general becomes even more problematic. Japanese Marxist scholarship has been the site of intense debates inspired by the Sweezy-Dobbs exchange. The Meiji restoration of the late 19th century is widely seen as the advent of the contemporary economic system, but there is scant evidence of bourgeois transformation of agriculture.

In “The Meiji Landlord: Good or Bad” (Journal of Asian Studies, May ’59), R.P. Dore dates the controversy as arising in the 1930s, long before Dobbs, Sweezy and Brenner stepped into the ring. The Iwanami Symposium on the Development of Japanese Capitalism, held in 1932, marks the starting point of a sustained effort to date the transformation of Japan from a feudal to a capitalist society. Especially problematic was the role of class relations in the countryside, which never went through the radical restructuring of Brenner’s 16th century England.

Referring to Hirano Yoshitarö’s “The Structure of Japanese Capitalism” Dore writes:

Hirano’s work contains a good deal of original research concerning the economic facts of the agrarian structure of the early Meiji, and the creation of a highly dependent class of tenant farmers. The landlords of Hirano, for example, preserved the semi-feudal social relations of the countryside which provided the necessary groundbase for the peculiarly distorted form of capitalism which developed in Japan. The high rents, maintained by semi-feudal extra-economic pressures, not only helped to preserve this semi-feudal base intact (by making capitalist agriculture unprofitable) they also contributed to the rapid process of primitive capital accumulation which accounted for the speed of industrial development. Thus the landlords were to blame for the two major special characteristics of Japanese capitalist development–its rapidity and its distorted nature.

Gosh, this is enough to make your head spin. Here we have a situation in which, according to one of the deans of Japanese Marxist scholarship, semi-feudal relations in the countryside served to accelerate Japanese capitalist development. Just the opposite of what Brenner alleges to be the secret of English hyper-capitalist success. Something doesn’t add up here, does it?

There are so many good things in Henry Heller’s “The Birth of Capitalism”  that my readers would be foolish not to rush out and buy it at once. You have already been told that it serves as a primer to the Brenner debate and is worth having on you bookshelf as a kind of reference guide. Like a racing form at the track, it helps you know who the players are and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

It also helps that despite his adversarial relationship to Brenner and his followers, he is always civil and respectful finding value in their various books and articles where it is appropriate.

Keeping in mind that much of the debate is taken up with relatively arcane matters, Heller writes with a clarity that is missing all too often in works directed toward one’s peers in the academy.

For those who are relatively up to speed on the debate, Heller provides tantalizing references to more specialized works that can open up avenues of further research. For example, he writes:

The deep-seated prejudice that capitalism represented a triumph of free trade over political imperialism goes back to Adam Smith. In fact as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson pointed out long ago, capitalism has used both overt political imperialism and free trade to assure global domination depending on the historical and strategic circumstances.53

This will surely be of use to me in my own research. I did not know Gallagher and Robinson before this and am anxious to see what they have to say. Columbia University might not have the highest-paid programmers in New York (my old employer, the dreadful Goldman-Sachs, beat them on this score) but the library is worth gold to me.

This leads me to my conclusion. As valuable as Henry Heller’s book is, it does not answer all the questions posed by the Brenner thesis, as I am sure that it was not intended to do anyhow.

Gallagher and Robinson’s research on how “capitalism has used both overt political imperialism and free trade to assure global domination” matters to me because it addresses the ideas put forward by Ellen Meiksins Wood in “Empire of Capital”, a book that attempts to extend the Brenner thesis to imperialism. Bent as she is on demonstrating that “capitalist imperialism” operates mostly on the basis of market coercion, Wood misses the reality of international relations today—one that is dramatically illustrated by the gargantuan U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that is nearly as large as the Vatican. In fact, the decline of American economic hegemony can only lead to increasing “extra-economic” factors such as those that marked imperialism in its infancy. With the growing turmoil of a financial crisis that does not seem to show any signs of abating, we can expect the state to play a growing role. This might not amount to “feudalism”, but one cannot avoid the suspicion that Bois was correct when he referred to the current period as one of marked by ongoing “large-scale unemployment, growing insecurity, violence and social marginalization.” With that to look forward to, no wonder young people are mobilizing to realize their hopes that “another world is possible”, the slogan for the transition so necessary in the 21st century.

Occupy the Hood

Filed under: Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

October 7, 2011

The Sons of Tennessee Williams; Elevate

Filed under: Africa,Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 5:51 pm

Although the adjective “inspirational” is one of the most hackneyed in the film reviewer’s vocabulary and hence one that I tend to shirk, I could think of no other word that better describes two new documentaries: “The Sons of Tennessee Williams”, opening today at the Quad in NY, and “Elevate” that opens at the AMC Empire in NY on October 21 and in other major theaters around the country thereafter. The first is about gay men in New Orleans who used Mardi Gras as an opportunity for what amounted to gay pride demonstrations long before Stonewall. The second is about Senegalese high school students who win basketball scholarships to prep schools in the United States. While sharing some of the same dark concerns as “Hoop Dreams” (basketball as a problematic ladder up from poverty) and “Lost Boys of Sudan” (African youth dealing with an alienating white bread American environment), it is instead an uplifting story of true grit and the finest movie I have ever seen about basketball.

Joining “Before Stonewall” and “The Celluloid Closet”, “The Sons of Tennessee Williams” illuminates the efforts of gay people to express themselves when the law and a backward society were against them even much more so than today. The film is structured around old home movies and still photos taken by the men themselves and their reflections on the past. Most are now in their 60s and beyond and obviously thrilled at the idea of telling anybody who will listen that they had nothing to be ashamed of. While Hollywood fiction films still tend to the “gay as tragic” motif, documentaries continue to make the case that gay men and women can live happy and fulfilled lives if the bigots would just leave them in peace.

“The Sons of Tennessee Williams” tells the story of “drag balls” in the early 60s that used the cover of Mardi Gras to allow gay men to express themselves. Even if cross-dressing was not necessarily their “thing”, these occasions were opportunities to implicitly “come out” since it was understood by everybody that they were coming at things from a different angle than the heterosexual men who cross-dressed during Mardi Gras in the same way they might have wore more conventional costumes. Of course, New Orleans being what it is, just about everybody enjoyed getting in rhinestone-studded outfits whether they were gowns or cowboy duds.

The cops generally allowed these “krewes” as they were called some leeway but it was understood that anybody caught in a dress after carnival was over would be arrested. The press notes for the documentary describe the origins of this early foray into gay liberation:

In February 1959, a group of gay men in New Orleans decided to have a Mardi Gras ball of their own. Mardi Gras organizations in New Orleans, called krewes, are social clubs comprised of members who celebrate the season together. Each krewe has their own festivities, including parties and parades, usually ending with a formal ball and the coronation of a King and Queen. Everyone seems to have a krewe of some kind to belong to. A full decade before Stonewall, a gay Carnival krewe was founded. They called it the Krewe of YUGA or “KY”. In 1962, “KY” rented a school cafeteria in the notoriously conservative suburb of Jefferson Parish. Securing such a venue for an all male krewe to hold a Mardi Gras ball would not likely raise suspicion. Most krewes were, in fact, made up of an anonymous all male membership. Various personnel from the venue were present at functions like these, however. This would no longer be a private event. “It was a kindergarten, is what it was.”

Familiar with police raids, the men knew that the 1962 ball would break a few laws. They made absolutely sure to be in full drag anyway. “It was a ball, after all, not bowling night.” The police roared in precisely at coronation time, alerted by private citizens of crossdressing men entering the building at night. Krewe members attempted to escape by running into the swamplands adjacent to the school, chased by officers with dogs and flashlights. Many were betrayed by their glittering costumes while hiding in the dark night and tall grasses of Jefferson Parish. They were taken to jail, identified by name in the newspaper and eventually prosecuted with the charge of “disturbing the peace.” The significance is this. The following year the ball was not raided nor was any subsequent ball in the history of these annual events. By 1969, there were four gay krewes legally chartered by the state of Louisiana as official Mardi Gras organizations, holding yearly extravaganzas at public venues across the city. “Society matrons begged for ball tickets from their hairdressers.” New Orleans was the first place in America where gay and straight people came together to publicly recognize gay culture.

Not only does the film celebrate gay culture, it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans a special place. The film has a perfect title since Tennessee Williams, despite his first name, was the city’s poet laureate. It begins with a quote from Blanche Dubois, from his greatest play “A Streetcar Named Desire”. (Streetcars in New Orleans actually had such names.) When asked by her brother-in-law Mitch whether she was being straight with him, Blanche answers: “Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?” How true.

“Elevate” begins in Dakar, Senegal at the SEEDS Academy, where young basketball players from across West Africa come to get intensive athletic and academic training. We are introduced to Amadou, Assane, Byago, Dethie and Aziz as they go through the paces on the basketball court and the classroom.

We also see them at home where you can get an idea of domestic life and family relations in West Africa that is unlike anything I have seen in a documentary before. The warmth and solidarity that family members offer the young athletes is one of the film’s most engaging aspects. With so much emphasis in documentaries about war-torn countries like Sudan or Ivory Coast about cruelty and suffering, these scenes are a reminder that there is more to Africa than doom and gloom.

Once the athletes get off their planes and drive to their new schools in the United States, the contrast with Dakar could not be starker. One school has mandatory chapel services that Assane amiably takes part in despite his Muslim faith. After services are finished, he goes back to his room and prays toward Mecca. At the very minute another athlete Aziz is eying a hot dog in his school’s cafeteria during Ramadan, worrying if there is pork in it, the film cuts back to Dakar where it shows his mother preparing a traditional Senegalese dish in a huge kettle. The contrast drawn between America and Senegal throughout the film is not one intended to be judgmental, only to help one understand the psychological adjustment the young protagonists had to make.

And make them they did. The film benefits from having five of the most likable and engaging young people as you can possibly imagine. Wise beyond their years, they have few illusions about making it to the NBA. They see prep school not as a path toward a McMansion and a fleet of cars but rather one that can get them into an American college on a basketball scholarship and then a profession, like medicine or law.

Much of the film consists of locker-room banter, games on the court, sessions between the athletes and coaches or guidance counselors that are ostensibly mundane. But they take on a highly dramatic character since everything the five young heroes are involved with amounts to stepping stones toward a better life. This is a documentary that takes a seemingly routine business—the lives of Senegalese basketball scholarship students in America—and turns it into high drama. Highly recommended!

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