Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2013

Herman’s House

Filed under: Film,prison — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Opening today at New York’s Cinema Village, “Herman’s House” evokes the relationship between West Memphis Three prisoner Damien Nichols and the New York architect who after joining his defense campaign became his wife. In “Herman’s House”, the relationship is more about a young woman bonding with a father figure but is just as moving.

The 40-year-old artist Jackie Sumell was one of those young people who inexplicably became radicalized in the 1990s. Her first foray into synthesizing art and politics was the 2001 project challenging Bush’s attacks on reproductive freedom. A Salon article from back then shows what conceptual art is capable of once it puts aside the cheap sensationalism of a Damian Hirst:

Jackie Sumell’s art project, she says, is less about art than about social intervention. An MFA student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Sumell has put out the call to female friends and acquaintances: Shave your pubic hair, put it in a little plastic bag and send it to her in the mail (anonymously, please). Her rallying cry? “No Bush! — It’s not yours, it’s mine.”

Like many kids who got involved with the Vietnam anti-war movement, there was little in her background to suggest that she would eventually end up as a kind of Dadaist revolutionary. In high school she was a star athlete and even ended up on an all-tackle football team.

Not long after this project was finished, she learned about Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3 who had been in solitary confinement for 40 years. He was convicted of bank robbery in 1967 but was handed down a life sentence after being charged with the murder of a prison guard. Even though a bloody fingerprint on the guard did not match his, the sentence was not reversed.

Sumell conceived of a two-tiered conceptual art project, the first part of which would be a replication of Herman’s cell in a gallery. The next part, done cooperatively with Wallace, would consist of raising funds to build a house that corresponded to his dreams. She guessed correctly that having conversations with him about the layout, etc. would keep his spirits up.

The film was the first time I had thought about the Angola 3 in a very long time. Back in the early 70s the Militant newspaper used to cover their case in the same way that the leftwing of the Internet covers Mumia. Wallace and two other men formed a chapter of the Black Panther Party behind bars in 1971. This put them on a collision course with the authorities who found the murder of the guard convenient to their aims.

You never see Wallace throughout the film but overhear his conversations with Sumell throughout the film. Given what he has been through, he is amazingly serene and broadminded. We meet a young white ex-convict who was in solitary confinement with Wallace and learned how to read and write through Wallace’s guidance.

The film points out that architects back in the 18th century designed prisons with the intention of isolating prisoners from each other. They wanted to emulate a monastery where monks would commune with God and be inspired to repent for their crimes. Wallace states that the analogy is with a dog pound where the animals are kept apart. Did you ever walk into a dog pound, he asks. The animals are driven mad by their conditions.

Try and imagine what is like to be along in a 6X9 cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week. This is not punishment. It is torture.

“Herman’s House” is tough going but essential cinema.

Pathology and Reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

My introduction to Korean films and the changing political landscape in the south was Lee Chang-dong’s 2000 masterpiece “Peppermint Candy”.  Not only was it a fearless assault on South Korean repression of strikes and student protests in the 1980s, it was my pick for best narrative film that year leaving Academy Award winner “Gladiator” in the dust. If Hong Kong cinema had become increasingly formulaic by then, South Korea picked up the slack and turned into by far the most fertile ground for new cinema in the world.

Chang-dong Lee went on to write and direct other masterpieces, including “Mother” and “Poetry”, but even more importantly to serve as a symbol of progress in the south and reconciliation with the north in his capacity as Minister of Culture and Tourism in 2003-2004 under reformer President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh continued the policies of Kim Dae-jung who ruled from 1998 to 2003. Widely regarded as the Nelson Mandela of South Korea, Kim instituted the “Sunshine Policy” that sought to bring the two halves of the country closer together.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/19/pathology-and-reconciliation-on-the-korean-peninsula/

Snail mail to Robert De Niro

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Hey Bobby,

This morning I went down to the Clearview Chelsea Theater for a 9:30 press screening for a documentary on herring fishermen. I got up early just to make it there on time. My guess is that I probably would be the only person attending.

Anyhow, I stopped at the table in the lobby to check in but was told that I was not in the database. That didn’t surprise me since I never applied for press credentials. As a blogger (but with 650 film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), I figured that I would not pass muster.

But I had been invited by the film’s publicist to attend the screening. Even though she vouched for me, I was still not admitted. It was a “security issue” they told me, as if I was concealing a pressure cooker bomb. When I told them “Fuck you and fuck the Tribeca Film Festival”, the off-duty cop serving as a security guard got up from his chair with his hand on his gun to tell me to shut up. I said that since there is no law against telling someone to fuck off, he should sit back down.

If I ever run into you on the street, Bobby, I am going to tell you this to your face. With your fucking connections to Jonathan Tisch and your idiotic red tape and your bourgeois red carpets, you can take your fucking film festival and stick it up your ass.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

April 15, 2013

Fact checking the New Yorker

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm



Like most people on the left, I was appalled by Jon Lee Anderson’s error-filled and tendentious report on Hugo Chavez’s death in the New Yorker Magazine. It was sad to see Anderson turning into a sputtering reactionary. While he was never a fearless radical, at least it could be said that his Che Guevara biography was pretty decent, only going downhill after the guerrillas took power. That, I suppose, was an early warning about how he would treat another leftist in power.

And like most people on the left, I was elated by NACLA’s Kean Bhatt’s demolition of Anderson’s ongoing reporting that elicited two retractions from the New Yorker. Here is a sample:

Anderson’s article, “Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chávez Wrought in Venezuela?,” is indeed filled with blatant misrepresentations. The New Yorker’s vaunted factcheckers somehow permitted the publication of the following statement: “Chavez suggested to me that he had embraced the far left as a way of preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” While it is true that in 1992, Chávez attempted a coup against an administration that had deployed security forces to massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian protesters, Anderson is misleading his readers. Chávez was “put in office” much later, in 1999, through a free and fair election—not a coup—a fact which he did not see fit to include in his piece. He instead wrote, vaguely, that Chávez “assumed” power in 1999.

Yes, what ever happened to those “vaunted factcheckers”? I suppose that compared to the Jared Diamond fiasco at the magazine in 2009, Anderson’s reporting was a mere peccadillo. A January 5, 2013 profile of Diamond in the Guardian summed things up:

Several years ago, Diamond says he met a tribesman called Daniel Wemp who said he had organised a clan war in New Guinea to avenge the death of an uncle. According to Diamond, after three years, and 30 deaths, Wemp’s target – a man called Isum Mandingo – was left paralysed in an attack. Diamond wrote up the story for the New Yorker in 2008 – and found himself at the receiving end of a $10m libel lawsuit from Wemp and Mandingo.

An investigation by Rhonda Roland Shearer – the widow of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and publisher of iMediaEthics, a not-for-profit news website – alleged that the New Yorker article was riddled with errors, that Wemp had not organised the clan war and that Mandingo was injured in an unrelated attack when he was protecting his land. It was also claimed that Wemp was now living in fear of his life because of Diamond’s article. Hence the lawsuit. For their part, both Diamond and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, vigorously denied the allegations. Their story was backed by careful notes that had been taken at the time by Diamond, while his text had been carefully scrutinised by one of the magazine’s best fact checkers, Remnick added.

 I imagine that Remnick’s reference to “one of the magazine’s best fact checkers” is accurate if you read it in terms of “one of Obama’s greatest contributions to social justice” or “one of the healthiest entrees from Macdonald’s”.

I first ran into the magazine when I was ten years old or so when my mom used to take me over to see Mrs. Basner’s canaries. Mrs. Basner was one my little village’s few eccentrics and likely saw me a potential recruit to her bohemian cause. She kept the canaries—numbering at least 25—flying freely in a sunny upstairs room and the New Yorkers stacked neatly at the bottom of the stairwell set aside for me. I loved the cartoons even if the short stories and nonfiction were lost on me. For me Gahan Wilson’s mordant wit was the nearest thing to Mad Magazine to be found in a refined format.

Years later I would be able to appreciate the quality of the nonfiction, even if the short stories continued to be lost on me. (Except for John Updike, most seemed pointless in the minimalist style that was characterized widely as “New Yorker type fiction”.)

For example, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” originally appeared in the New Yorker, as did Jonathan Schell’s reporting on Vietnam. This was the type of journalism to be expected under the editorship of William Shawn, who began working at the magazine as a fact checker in 1933 and stayed there for 53 years until being forced out by the execrable Si Newhouse Jr. in 1987. (Shawn was the father of playwright/actor Wallace Shawn, an open socialist.)

The original editor was one Harold Ross who founded the magazine in 1925 with financial backing from Raoul Fleischmann, heir to the margarine manufacturer’s CEO. In the 1920s Ross was a member in good standing of the Algonquin Round Table, a sort of American equivalent of the Bloomsbury Group, that used to meet regularly at the Algonquin Hotel dining room in New Yorker as a salon devoted to the discussion of politics and culture—something like the Marxism list. It included a wide variety of talents from Harpo Marx (I imagine he was out of character on such occasions) to the acerbic Dorothy Parker. Harpo’s brother Groucho once described them as a group where “The price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.” Of course, this point was somewhat moot since Groucho once said that he would never join a club low enough to admit him as a member.

Ross was succeeded by Shawn in 1951 and probably had more of a political edge than the founder.

After buying the magazine in 1985, media mogul Si Newhouse Jr. decided to replace Shawn with Robert Gottlieb two years later, a move that precipitated a protest letter by 154 contributors to the magazine. A NY Times article suggested what might have caused the eruption:

Mr. Gottlieb’s editorial stamp is also apparent in his passion for kitsch, exemplified by the garish statues of Elvis Presley and the Lone Ranger among the knickknacks on his desk. But few longtime New Yorker staff members seem to share that taste, which probably accounts for their general annoyance with a recent article about a convention of Scottish terrier fanciers. The piece was written by Jane and Michael Stern, who wrote a book for Mr. Gottlieb on Elvis Presley.

In any case, Gottlieb’s stay was a short one. In 1992 Newhouse put Tina Brown, the British editor of “Vanity Fair” (another Condé Nast property), in charge. It was widely understood at the time that Brown, now the editor of the Newsweek/Daily Beast atrocity, would reshape the New Yorker along the lines of “Vanity Fair”, a temple of vacuous celebrity worship. Wikipedia reports that two months after the first Gulf War started, she removed a picture of the blonde Marla Maples (Mrs. Donald Trump) from the cover and replaced it with a photograph of Cher. She told the Washington Post: “In light of the gulf crisis, we thought a brunette was more appropriate.”

In 1998 Brown moved on to a new job at the Walt Disney Corporation. Newhouse replaced her with Sovietologist David Remnick, who is still the editor. With no apparent appetite for kitsch or celebrities, Remnick does seem to have an unquenchable appetite for neoliberalism and bellicose foreign policy initiatives.

One of Remnick’s early hires was Jeffrey Goldberg, the Zionist booster of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Alexander Cockburn did not mince words back in 2003 when he called attention to Counterpunch readers that Goldberg had written a New Yorker article tying al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.

At the core of his rambling, 16,000-word piece was an interview in the Kurdish-held Iraqi town of Sulaimaniya with Mohammed Mansour Shahab, who offered the eager Goldberg a wealth of detail about his activities as a link between Osama bin Laden and the Iraqis, shuttling arms and other equipment.

The piece was gratefully seized upon by the Administration as proof of The Link. The coup de gráce to Goldberg’s credibility fell on February 9 of this year in the London Observer, administered by Jason Burke, its chief reporter. Burke visited the same prison in Sulaimaniya, talked to Shahab and established beyond doubt that Goldberg’s great source is a clumsy liar, not even knowing the physical appearance of Kandahar, whither he had claimed to have journeyed to deal with bin Laden; and confecting his fantasies in the hope of a shorter prison sentence.

Given Goldberg’s talent for the fabulous, and Remnick’s role in vetting his garbage, is it any wonder that Jared Diamond falsely accuses Samuel Wemp of murder and that Jon Lee Anderson is caught with his pants down reporting on Venezuela?

I’ve had my own complaints about the New Yorker in recent years. I found Malcolm Gladwell tendentious on social networking and was appalled by Jill Lepore’s pissing on Howard Zinn’s grave.

Finally, although I have serious problems with the Nation Magazine, I am glad they gave Daniel Lazare a platform from which he could expound on the New Yorker’s perfidy at length. Written in 2003 (The New Yorker Goes to War) and inspired like Cockburn’s piece by the magazine’s support for Dubya’s war, the article went straight for the jugular:

The New Yorker has not been the only publication to fall into line behind the Bush Administration’s war drive, but for a number of reasons its performance seems especially disappointing. One reason has to do with the magazine’s track record. One doesn’t have to be a William Shawn devotee to agree that the magazine has published some astonishing journalism over the years–Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Jonathan Schell’s pieces on Vietnam and Pauline Kael’s wonderful demolition job on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to name just a few. During the Vietnam War, it was one of the few mainstream publications to try to unmask the sordid reality behind the brass’s regular 5 o’clock press briefings. And if it published too many long and hyperfactual stories in the 1980s about wheat or geology, at least it preferred being trivial and obscure to the glories of being a team player in Washington, which is a moral stance of a sort.

Though its style may have been genteel, The New Yorker succeeded in challenging middle-class sensibilities more often than any number of scruffier publications. Another reason to mourn the magazine’s lack of resistance is that it represents an opportunity lost. Just as the magazine helped middle-class opinion to coalesce against US intervention in Vietnam, it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at stake in the Middle East. Rather than unveil the reality behind a spurious War on Terrorism, though, The New Yorker helped obscure it by painting Bush’s crusade as a natural and inevitable response to the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack and, as a consequence, useless to oppose. Instead of encouraging opposition, it helped defuse it. From shocking the bourgeoisie, it has moved on to placating it at a time when it has rarely been more dangerous and bellicose.

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown’s irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick’s 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile’s ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.

You are strongly encouraged to read Lazare’s entire article here.

April 14, 2013

Statistical survey

Filed under: liberalism,media — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

Number of times that the term “predator drones” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 6

Number of times that the term “gun control” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 373

Number of times that the term “chained cpi” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 43

Number of times that the term “tea party” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 404

(Based on a search of Nexis.)


Obama’s 2006 Neoliberal Manifesto

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 3:00 pm

April 13, 2013

The Koch brothers hedge their bets

Filed under: energy,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

Richard and Elizabeth Muller

There must be something wrong with me. Here I am at the age of 68 still getting worked up over some Koch brother’s funded op-ed piece in the NY Times. If I had stopped reading newspapers 33 years ago after dropping out of the SWP, maybe I could have launched a career writing fiction. What is it that they recommend for people like me? A chill pill?

The offending piece is titled “China Must Exploit its Shale Gas”. My first reaction was to wonder if it was some kind of onion.com spoof. Not a day goes by without a disaster in China attributable to some profit-driven shortcut. Some reminders. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake caused 7000 inadequately constructed schoolhouses to collapse, thus costing the lives of 5000 children and another 15000 injured. As predicted, the Three Gorges Dam has had a terrible environmental impact, producing erosion on 80 percent of the adjacent land. One last instance to dramatize how risky it is for China to “dig deep” for any resource, including coal. Although producing just 35% of the world’s coal, China is responsible for 80% of coal miner fatalities. For example, a gas explosion at the Nanshan mine on November 13, 2006 killed 24 people. The mine, like so many, was operating without any safety license.

The op-ed piece written by one Elizabeth Muller encourages Obama’s pro-fracking and pro-nuke (what? You were expecting a Green?) Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz to push China to go full blast in hydrocracking (ie., fracking) since this would alleviate global warming. As China’s chief energy source right now is coal, this would cut down on greenhouse gases. I guess that makes sense given China’s current situation–exchange air pollution and climate change for carcinogenic, flammable water.

At the bottom of the article, Ms. Muller is identified as the co-founder and executive director of Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit research organization focused on climate change. Gosh, as the head of something called Berkeley Earth, you’d expect her least of all to be wearing Birkenstocks and driving a Prius. But more importantly, that branding would ensure her to be Greener than Green, right?

Being an inveterate “cui bono” investigator, I went to the Berkeley Earth website and checked out the donor page, which is divided into three “phases”. Guess what? In phase one, they got $150,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the largest chunk. Bill Gates’s Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research kicked in another hundred thou. A brief search revealed that Gates’s main interest in all this is to promote geoengineering. An opinion piece by Naomi Klein on October 27, 2012 described Gates’s stake in this jury-rigged technology:

Bill Gates has funneled millions of dollars into geoengineering research. And he has invested in a company, Intellectual Ventures, that is developing at least two geoengineering tools: the “StratoShield,” a 19-mile-long hose suspended by helium balloons that would spew sun-blocking sulfur dioxide particles into the sky and a tool that can supposedly blunt the force of hurricanes.

She adds:

 The geopolitical ramifications are chilling. Climate change is already making it hard to know whether events previously understood as “acts of God” (a freak heat wave in March or a Frankenstorm on Halloween) still belong in that category. But if we start tinkering with the earth’s thermostat — deliberately turning our oceans murky green to soak up carbon and bleaching the skies hazy white to deflect the sun — we take our influence to a new level. A drought in India will come to be seen — accurately or not — as a result of a conscious decision by engineers on the other side of the planet. What was once bad luck could come to be seen as a malevolent plot or an imperialist attack.

 Ms. Muller’s husband Richard founded Berkeley Earth and now is the institute’s Science Director. Doing a bit of research on him, you discover from Wikipedia that he is the director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project that Koch funds as well. But interestingly enough, that project confirmed that temperatures were rising despite suspicions that it would fall within the skeptic’s camp.

This of course has some bearing on Elizabeth Muller’s op-ed piece that accepts the science but proposes a remedy that will likely kill the patient—mother earth. The only conclusion you can be left with is that the Koch Brothers are hedging their bets. If governments move more and more in the direction of eliminating “dirty” greenhouse emitting energy sources like coal, then why not push natural gas and hydrocracking?

Tina Casey of Triplepundit.com ties everything together and puts a red ribbon around it:

 The green blogs were buzzing last week with news of a new bombshell report that affirms the role of human activity in global warming. Studies affirming climate science are nothing new to say the least, but this one was produced through the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST), under the auspices of well known climate skeptic Richard A. Muller. The kicker is that BEST is partly funded by the Koch brothers, who have become notorious for their financial support of the “climate change denial machine.”

Hence the bombshell, and with it a lesson in the perils of corporate funding  for scientific research. But is it really a bombshell? Take a closer look at some of the Koch brothers’ energy investments and pair that with another BEST funder, and it’s clear that the new study works in favor of the Koch interests, not against them.

The Koch brothers and natural gas

First off, it’s important to note that not all fossil fuels are due for a quick and brutal end once the so-called climate “skeptic” movement is neutralized.

Fossil fuels will continue to feature prominently in the U.S. energy landscape during a transitional period to low-carbon energy, and proponents of natural gas have positioned this particular fuel to play a key role in the transition, based on the idea that it is “cleaner” than other fossil fuels.

It’s also worth noting that natural gas is not necessarily deserving of this advantage, at least not when it is obtained through fracking.  Fracking is a highly controversial drilling method that involves pumping a toxic chemical brine underground. It has been linked to water contamination, greenhouse gas emissions, and even earthquakes.

Be that as it may,  Koch Industries is heavily involved in natural gas, as detailed in an article last spring by Lee Fang in the Republic Report. Its recent activities in the natural gas industry focus on services for fracking operations including pipelines, storage, processing, and supplies.

BEST, Novim and natural gas

That pretty much explains why the new report from BEST is not such bad news for the Koch brothers after all.

In fact, the report is not such bad news for the natural gas industry as a whole, judging by another major funder behind BEST, a non-profit organization called Novim.

According to its website, Novim initiated and sponsored BEST in line with its stated mission, which is “to provide clear scientific options to the most urgent problems facing mankind.” Novim’s mission also focuses on cost/benefit analyses, and it claims to report its findings “without advocacy or agenda.”

That’s all well and good, but Novim’s news page currently leads off with an Associated Press article asserting that evidence of water contamination and public health impacts from gas drilling is “sketchy and inconclusive.”

Other featured articles include a New York Times piece touting increased natural gas production (with a veiled reference to new fracking technology) as a critical factor in carbon emissions management, and a love letter to fracking in the form of a Yale study review published in Forbes.

Aside from BEST, Novim is also involved in at least one other research project with implications for the natural gas industry, an analysis of methane leakage from natural gas drilling. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and critics argue that the leakage effectively neutralizes the low-carbon advantage that natural gas is supposed to have over other fossil fuels.

He who laughs last, laughs BEST…

As for the methodology behind BEST, some critics are already lining up to shoot it down but according to a recent article in The Guardian, others are having themselves a bit of a chuckle over it. For all the media firestorm surrounding BEST, so far it pretty much confirms conclusions about global warming that had already achieved general acceptance back in the 1990′s.

At any rate, regardless of the science it’s a win-win for the Koch brothers. Either the critics are right and BEST contributes little or nothing to the body of climate science, or it is a valid study that happens to support Koch Industries’ investments in the natural gas industry.

Who’s laughing now?

April 12, 2013

American Meat; The Revolutionary

Filed under: China,Film,food — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Opening today:

“American Meat” at the Cinema Village

“The Revolutionary” at the Quad

A meat diet contained in an almost ready state the most essential ingredients required by the organism for its metabolism. By shortening the time required for digestion, it also shortened the other vegetative bodily processes that correspond to those of plant life, and thus gained further time, material and desire for the active manifestation of animal life proper. And the farther man in the making moved from the vegetable kingdom the higher he rose above the animal.

–Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

When my old friend Doug Henwood, America’s most brilliant left economist, posted this item on Facebook, I am sure he did it with a mischievous grin on his face since so many people on the left equate meat eating with imperialism. Since Doug cooks a mean meatball, he and other meat-eating leftists would appreciate “American Meat”, a fascinating documentary that makes the case for organic, grass-fed livestock and poultry. I should add that even vegetarians would get a lot out of the film since it deals with attempts to resolve a fundamental crisis in agriculture identified by Karl Marx:

If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect.

–Karl Marx, Capital V. 3, Chapter 47, Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent

The indigenous energy referred to by Marx is a bunch of manure—literally. The lack of fertilizer was the environmental crisis of the mid-1800s, just as global warming is today. So desperate farmers were for fertilizer that the bones of dead soldiers were considered suitable input for fertilizer. The crisis also led to the “guano wars” in Latin America.

When Fritz Haber, a German scientist born into a Hasidic family, invented chemical based fertilizers in 1918, the crisis appeared to be solved. Henceforth, you did not have to worry about keeping livestock and poultry in close proximity to crops as a source of natural fertilizer. Industrial farming could now be launched on a scientific basis that Marx and Engels never dreamed about. As so happens with such “magic bullets”, the end result was a nightmare.

As the film explains, industrial livestock and poultry production is bad for your health, cruel to the animals, and a waste of precious resources—particularly the petrochemicals that are essential to large-scale production of the sort that Perdue symbolizes.

The film reveals that the major poultry companies own the creatures that farmers raise to maturity. They are dropped off in massive containers and then picked up after they are ready to be slaughtered and packaged. The poultry farmer is under intense pressure to maintain effective cost control since the Taylorist production methods require vast amounts of capital, including air-conditioning, computers, antibiotics and the like.

What comes off the assembly line goes directly to your Walmart and has the merit of being affordable—at least at first blush. It turns out that we are footing the costs of such cheap food by subsidizing the corn and soybean production that makes industrial production possible. What we get from it might be cheap but tasteless.

Grass-fed poultry and livestock is not only a pleasure to eat; it is also beneficial for the soil. Among the farms visited in the film, the art of combining different sorts of animals like chickens and pigs into a kind of organically linked cycle is stunning to behold. The question, of course, is how this can replace the system we operate under now. Can small farms ever compete economically with the Perdues of the world?

The film argues that they can through various strategies, including the direct to market approach embodied by the Union Square Greenmarket in New York. However, for most people of modest means a $25 per pound chicken is out of he question. There have been modest steps toward matching up such people with the suppliers but it has not made that much of a dent as a substitute for Perdue’s.

Among the answers put forward by the film is the growing influence of outfits like Whole Foods and Chipotle’s that are based on grass-fed meat grown by small farmers. Unfortunately, the film almost becomes a free commercial for the two corporations toward its conclusion. It is unfortunate that the film does not reflect on their track record on matters not directly related to what you eat.

In an article titled “Mother Nature, Make Me Rich”, Marxist economist Michael Yates gives the low-down on Steve Ells, who makes an appearance in “American Meat”. It turns out that Ells treats his workers like dogs:

The company has come under scrutiny by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has questioned the identification documents of hundreds of Chipotle employees.  Restaurants in Minnesota and Virginia have responded with mass and sudden firings, possibly in violation of state laws and, according to the workers, without paying wages due to them.  Workers, labor unions, and support groups have also said that Chipotle had often knowingly hired undocumented immigrants (even allowing them to change their social security numbers!), was using the ICE actions to get rid of senior and more highly paid employees (it takes three years of work to qualify for a one-week vacation), and had actually hired back some of the fired workers as new hires.

Furthermore, there is some question about how healthful the food is, notwithstanding the company’s public relations efforts (including its fiscal backing of the film.) Michael quotes from Wikipedia:

A Center for Science in the Public Interest report stated that Chipotle’s burritos contain over 1,000 calories, which is nearly equivalent to two meals’ worth of food.  MSNBC Health placed the burritos on their list of the “20 Worst Foods in America” because of their high caloric content and high sodium.  When a burrito with carnitas, rice, vegetables, cheese, guacamole, and salsa was compared with a typical Big Mac, the burrito had more fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and sodium than the Big Mac, and the burrito had more protein and fiber.

What good does grass-fed beef do you when it is slathered in bad cholesterol?

At least they haven’t taken money from Whole Foods (as far as I know), even though it gives one of its executives plenty of time at the mike. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say about these bastards on August 10, 2008:

Whole Foods Market pulled fresh ground beef from all of its stores Friday, becoming the latest retailer affected by an E. coli outbreak traced to Nebraska Beef, one of the nation’s largest meatpackers. It’s the second outbreak linked to the processor in as many months.

Even if Whole Foods did a better job of checking where their meat was coming from, there’s no evidence that its CEO John Mackey, an obnoxious libertarian, would ever do anything to treat his workers better. A Whole Foods employee spilled the beans to Socialist Workers newspaper on January 28th of this year:

Although it markets itself as a caring health foods store, Whole Foods doesn’t care about the welfare of its own employees.

In the last year, the company has instituted speedups through different policies store to store. In one store, all full-time non-managerial employees had their hours reduced to 30 hours per week. Management cited a decrease in sales numbers, but when sales picked back up, they continued to operate with the reduced hours schedule, resulting in a 25 percent pay cut for full-time employees.

In other stores, management has begun an “incentive” program for cashiers, rewarding increases in items rung up per minute (IPM) and stressing that all cashiers should be increasing their IPM to 30. The average IPM for most cashiers, when ringing at a comfortable and sustainable pace, is 14 to 20 IPM.

Mackey might be selling free-range chickens but he treats his workers much more like Perdue chickens, commodities to be exploited.

While I can recommend “American Meat” as a good presentation of the contradictions of industrial farming and possible prototypes for an alternative mode of production, I am afraid that like most films I have seen in this genre it does not face up to the class interests that make organic agriculture a possibility. The two-party system is owned lock, stock and barrel by agribusiness operating in partnership with big pharma, the arms industry, megabanks and other pillars of American capitalism.

Once we put control of the means of production into the hands of the people who produce the commodities we depend on, then we can talk about truly alternative food production. Until then, the solutions will be partial and somewhat utopian. (That being said, I will make a trip down to Union Square tomorrow to get some organic vegetables and meat.)

Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.

He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.

When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.

Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.

Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.

Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.

Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.

April 10, 2013

Glenda Jackson on Thatcher

Filed under: Britain — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

April 8, 2013

Notes on modern art, part two

Filed under: art,Film,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

I received two documentaries focused on artists who are arguably among the most important in the world as part of the year-end bounty of screeners meant to help NYFCO members pick winners at our December 2012 meeting. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “Gerhard Richter Painting” are both now available on Netflix screening and very much worth watching. Around the same time I viewed them, the MOMA show on the birth of abstract art had begun. In my last post on modern art, I tried to get to the bottom of its origins using the analysis of Meyer Schapiro. With Ai WeiWei and Gerhard Richter, you are confronted by the dialectic of art and politics operating in an epoch that might be described as post-modern if not necessarily subscribing to the ideology deployed in its name. In following up on their work, I have learned a great deal about the current state of fine art that is worth sharing with my readers.

Before examining Ai Weiwei’s work and activism, it’s necessary to get a handle on conceptual art, the genre that he works in. I think most of you are aware of some of its more famous objects, even if you are not familiar with the precepts of its makers. For example, New Yorkers must have vivid memories of “Piss Christ”, the photo of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine that received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, something that pissed off Senator Jesse Helms.

Piss Christ

This is the kind of work that is often on display at the Whitney Biennial in New York, widely interpreted as “subversive” in the sort of transgressive fashion we associate with postmodernism. It should not surprise anybody that some of conceptual art’s pioneers viewed Marcel Duchamp’s work in the Dadaist genre as a forerunner, especially his 1917 “Fountain”, a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt.

If Dadaism was an expression of disdain for the bourgeois rationality that led to WWI, then conceptual art had a similar birth in the 1960s when napalming peasant villages in Vietnam led many young artists to conclude that art had to be delinked from bourgeois culture. Among them was Joseph Kosuth, born just 5 days after me, who considered Wittgenstein’s linguistic theories and Freudian psychoanalysis a major influence on his work. Kosuth was the art editor at Marxist Perspectives, a journal published by Eugene Genovese in the late 70s through the early 80s. Due to the impossibly dysfunctional archives at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research I was not able to read the Kosuth articles.

In 1990 Kosuth curated the “The Play of the Unmentionable” show at the Brooklyn Museum to answer the likes of Jesse Helm. He included erotic Japanese woodblock prints, a 19th-century painting of a black youth eating watermelon, sculptures by Auguste Rodin of lesbians embracing, and furniture from the Bauhaus, the avant-garde German design school closed down by the Nazis.

Betraying the Wittgensteinan obsession with language and the philosopher’s infamous predilection for the inscrutable, Kosuth’s work almost always includes some text whose purpose is unclear. For example, his most famous work “One and Three Chairs” has a physical chair, a photo of the chair and a text panel with a dictionary definition of a chair. On the MOMA website, a page devoted to this work states:

But is this art? And which representation of the chair is most “accurate”? These open-ended questions are exactly what Kosuth wanted us to think about when he said that “art is making meaning.”

For what it’s worth, this work was constructed in 1965 just as the war in Vietnam was intensifying. A year later I would be studying Wittgenstein at the New School, convinced that such pursuits were useful only for maintaining a student exemption from the draft.

Another conceptual artist also chose her words carefully and arguably with a more outright political intent. Born on the very same day as me, Barbara Kruger became very famous and very wealthy for creating photos overlaid with provocative text and eventually just for works that amounted to electric signboards like the one that carries the latest news in Times Square.

When I worked at Goldman-Sachs in the late 80s, they had one of her signboards in the cafeteria. Back in 2000 I forwarded a nasty swipe at Kruger by Judith Shulevitz titled “Barbara Kruger, Ad Industry Heroine” with my preface:

Back in the late 80s, when I worked in Goldman-Sachs’s new corporate headquarters, I always got a chuckle over how the powerful investment bank had decided to festoon the walls with ‘avant-garde’ art. This was especially glaring in the cafeteria, which served as a mini-gallery for some “daring” neon signs created by Barbara Kruger, who has an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in NYC right now. These signs had slogans like “You think you can escape commodification — You can’t”. Standing on line behind some bond salesmen in $1200 suits, I couldn’t imagine them being disturbed by her archly ironic postmodernism. Now if Goldman-Sachs had decided to put up some of Mike Alewitz’s murals of striking workers, that would have been a different story.

Another well-known conceptual artist is Damien Hirst who is pretty open about his bid to become the artist favored by the world’s one percent. Lately Hirst has been encrusting his work with precious jewels instead of text like other conceptual artists. This approach has generated significant revenue as reported by The Economist in 2008:

Alexander Machkevitch, a Kazakh mining magnate with a taste for metallurgical themes, bought six lots in the evening sale: a large stainless steel cabinet filled with manufactured diamonds, a pair of gold-plated cabinets containing more lab gems, three butterfly canvasses and a spot painting with a gleaming gold background for a total of £11.7m. Other buyers from the region included Maria Baibakova, Vladislav Doronin, Victor Pinchuk and Gary Tatintsian.

In keeping with the financial collapse that began in 2008, Hirst’s work has devalued considerably, with the resale market reflecting a 93% drop in prices.

Perhaps the brick-and-mortar character of the Chinese economy, largely devoid of the postmodern financialization of the world of Goldman-Sachs and hedge fund billionaires, lends a different character to the work of Ai Weiwei who I knew only by reputation. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is not only valuable as an introduction to a most revolutionary figure; it also shows in a highly dramatic fashion what it means to face censorship and repression in a “communist” country.

The film points out that Ai Weiwei became a conceptual artist through his exposure to the thriving downtown New York City art scene of the early 1980s when he was studying at the Parsons School of Design. One wonders if his “20 Chairs From the Qing Dynasty” might be paying homage to Kosuth’s work:


When he returned to China in 1993, he began producing provocative works geared to his country’s traditions. He let a valuable Han dynasty urn to fall from his hands and break. He also painted the Coca Cola logo on other valuable pieces, or after applying garish-colored paint over them presented them as cheap counterfeits. The obvious statement was that China was for sale.

Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, one of China’s leading poets and a powerful figure in the Communist Party. In 1957 he made the mistake of opposing the persecution of Ding Ling, another Communist leader and writer, during an “anti-rightist” campaign. Accused now of “rightism”, Ai Qing was banished to a state farm and his work went unpublished for another 20 years.

Obviously Ai Weiwei inherited both his father’s talent as well as the courage of his convictions. He was the chief architect for the 2008 Olympics stadium in Beijing that he eventually disavowed. In a statement he not only attacked China for cracking down on dissidents but—warming the cockles of my heart—lashed out at Stephen Spielberg for his cozy connections to the CP bosses: “All the shitty directors in the world are involved. It’s disgusting. I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment. It is mindless.”

Like the late Roger Ebert, Ai Weiwei became totally involved with the Internet to get out his ideas, both through blogging and Tweeter. After a mammoth earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that cost the lives of more than 5000 children due to shoddy construction, he created a work in their memory that like Maya Ling’s Vietnam Memorial is simply a list of their names. He used Twitter to gather together the names of the children.

A year later the Chinese cops conducted a raid on his apartment and beat him so badly that he required emergency brain surgery.

Not content to use physical violence, the state has also tried to pressure him into keeping quiet through legal persecution over alleged tax evasion. If you enter aiweiwei.com as a URL, you will be directed to fakecase.com that has the facts on the latest round of repression. On April 6, 2011 Xinhua News Agency reported: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.” Considering the amount of corruption at the highest levels that the top officials of the CP are engaged in, it is a stunning exercise of chutzpah for the state to single him out for obviously trumped up charges.

My strongest recommendation for watching this documentary. It will show you how conceptual art can be a powerful weapon against the status quo, as long as those creating it know who the enemy is.

If “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is carried along by the force of the subject’s personality, the opposite can be said about “Gerhard Richter Painting”. Mostly giving the impression of being camera-shy and self-effacing, the 81-year-old artist originally from East Germany is content to let his work speak for itself. Most of the film’s action reminds me of documentaries I have seen about the designers Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld that focus most of all on their work in the studio as they prepare a collection for their next show. Since fashion design is probably the art that has most in common with the grand old days of aristocratic or bourgeois patronage, it is not surprising that world class designers fit comfortably into the life-style of their benefactors.

For an artist like Richter, whose works command the highest price tag of any living artist, there’s not much sign of him enjoying a life of privilege. He is seemingly content to live for his work and rather indifferent to celebrity and the luxury it affords.

Unlike any documentary about art I have ever seen, this one is all about the production of work. Approximately 90 percent of it depicts Richter working on his latest series of abstract paintings that are executed through the use of a squeegee. He applies (throws, more accurately) different colored paint on a huge canvas and works them over with the squeegee until he is satisfied with the results. The benefit of the film is seeing a major artist at work. Imagine how this generation could have gained from a similar treatment of Jackson Pollock. Indeed, that would be the artist with whom Richter has the closest kinship.

Richter is a throwback to the modernist tradition embodied in the MOMA show. In 1955 he submitted a painting titled “Communion With Picasso” as part of his BA in East Germany—a sure sign that modern art rather than socialist realism was his preference.

Although I can certainly recommend the film, it is regrettable that it does not have much to say about works that don’t fit into the squeegee mold. He also works in a photorealist style, one that can also be regarded as “post-modernist” in the same vein as conceptual art.

When Richter arrived in West Germany to seek political asylum in 1961, he hooked up with a group of artists who described their work as a “Capitalist Realism” that repudiated the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism. The 1963 work titled “Bombers” speaks for itself:

Another Richter work that speaks for itself, and which also was omitted from the film, was his “October 18, 1977” that consisted of fifteen paintings based on photographs of moments in the lives and deaths of four members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), referred to as the Baader-Meinhof gang by the tabloid press. On October 18, 1977, the bodies of three leaders of the RAF found in their cells and widely regarded as having been murdered by the German state police.

Finally, there’s Richter’s painting from 2009 titled “September”, a reference to 9/11:


Interestingly enough, the work appears to be an amalgam of his photorealism and the “smear” technique used in his squeegee paintings.

In an interview with Rolf-Gunter Dienst in 1970, Richter was asked how he interpreted his role as a painter in German society. He replied:

As a role that everyone has. I would like to try to understand what is. We know very little, and I am trying to do it by creating analogies. Almost every work of art is an analogy. When I make a representation of something, this too is an analogy to what exists; I make an effort to get a grip on the thing by depicting it. I prefer to steer clear of anything aesthetic, so as not to set obstacles in my own way and not to have the problem of people saying: ‘Ah, yes, that’s how he sees the world, that’s his interpretation.’

In my next and final post, I am going to comment on how some leading Marxists (Alex Callinicos, Alan Woods, et al) grapple with the challenge of contemporary art.

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