Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2014

Separated at Birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 10:51 pm

Moe Howard


Jared Diamond

Braddock America; The Hadza: Last of the First

Filed under: Film,indigenous,workers — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

Two very fine documentaries that opened today in New York serve as counterpoint to Joan Robinson’s observation in “Economic Philosophy” that “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

“Braddock America”, which will be showing at the Anthology Film Archive, is an obvious confirmation of Robinson insofar as it demonstrates the terrible human costs of a Pennsylvania town losing 90 percent of its jobs as the steel mills closed down. By contrast, “The Hadza: Last of the First”, which opens at the Quad, suggests that the worst thing for a gathering-and-hunting tribe of a thousand souls that has lived outside the capitalist economy for millennia in Tanzania would be wage labor. Furthermore, the primitive communism of the Hadza points to alternatives to the current wage slavery that offers nothing but a Hobson’s choice to humanity: “take it or leave it”.

“Braddock America” was co-directed by a French team, Jean-Loïc Portron and Gabriella Kessler. If you’ve seen Tony Buba’s films, you will be familiar with the terrain. Braddock is a Detroit in miniature. The film opens with a drive past boarded up homes and abandoned factories. From an economic standpoint, there are obvious comparisons with the Great Depression but with one key difference. In the 1930s the factories were operating at full tilt and as such the workers could apply immense pressure on the bosses by withholding their labor. But when the factories are gone, there’s not much leverage. Presented with an ultimatum of “take it or leave it”, the former steel workers of Braddock leave it.

As a documentary, “Braddock America” takes a rather eclectic approach. It is a mixture of Frederick Wiseman cinema vérité, interviews with various Braddock residents affected by the collapse of the mills, and archival footage showing life as it was in the past. In its heyday, Braddock was a bustling town that in exchange for dangerous and backbreaking work could offer wages sufficient to buy a row house and consumer goods, as well as pay for the tuition  your kid needed to get a decent education and an exit out of the mills. One of the interviewees is a middle-aged African-American man who judging by his impressive art collection has benefited from the advantages his blue-collar father was able to provide. As he begins describing the sacrifices his father made, the man begins to cry, something that happens frequently with the shell-shocked interviewees.

Since I am familiar with Buba’s work, I was able to recognize a number of the townspeople who have appeared in his films, including Tony himself. Unfortunately, the directors made an unwise decision to avoid identifying the people who are featured in the film except in the closing credits. Since a number of them were obvious experts on the history of the town, I regretted not being able to follow up by Googling their name. Perhaps this was done in order to maintain the vérité effect but I would advise up-and-coming filmmakers to avoid this practice like the plague.

Although I would be very interested in the Braddock story on its own terms, it resonated even deeper with me as having a similar experience with the collapse of the tourist industry in my upstate New York county that is now one of the poorest in the state. As the counterpart of Detroit’s auto plants and Braddock’s steel mills, the hotels of my youth have either been demolished or abandoned. With no prospects for opening a small business catering to the tourist industry, local residents can also “take it or leave it”. Taking it means working as a prison guard or selling drugs, two jobs that reinforce each other.

“Braddock America” is a graphic reminder of how bad things have become in the United States. Economic collapse has produced a kind of radicalization in the ranks of the people who live there that is a reminder of Marx’s dictum that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” A local cop is heard saying that the CEO’s are destroying the country. A priest opens the service giving what amounts to a liberation theology sermon. All that is missing is the economic power that can put the ruling class on the defensive and ultimately bring its rule to an end. The problem we face in the 21st century is that Robinson’s observation cuts both ways. Not only does failing to be exploited lead to hunger and illness, it also robs the worker of the one thing that can stop the boss in his tracks: the ability to withhold one’s labor.

Of all the films I have seen over the years about precapitalist society, none has come closer to confirming Engels’s take on the Iroquois in “Origins of the Family, Private Property than the Hadza:

There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

The anthropologists who are interviewed in “The Hadza: Last of the First” concur that this tiny group of people living in the Rift Valley, where homo sapiens is first encountered, have a social organization that most closely resembles how humanity lived for upwards of 90 percent of its existence. Among the Hadza, there are no chiefs and nobody goes hungry, as long as there is sufficient food to go around. They are also people who try to avoid conflict as much as possible. When they first realized that the German and British colonizers threatened their way of life, they did not make war. They withdrew into the bush.

Unlike the slanderous accusation made by people like Shepard Krech about precapitalist societies being as wasteful as capitalist, the Hadza only kill what they plan to eat. They also are perfectly integrated into the ecosystem of their surroundings. When they come across a bee hive, they make sure to leave the combs that have been stripped of honey for the honeybirds that use them for their nests. They also enjoy a life of leisure that is unknown to the wage slave. When they have ample food, they stop their hunting and gathering, and rest. They are the perfect confirmations of what Marshall Sahlins called stone-age leisure. He accumulated data that demonstrated that in a representative hunting and gathering society, after adding up all the time spent in all economic activities (plant collecting, food preparation, and weapon repair), the average male worked three hours and forty-five minutes a day, while females worked on average just five minutes longer. Of course, they do not have cable television to stare at in their leisure time but after recently taking in a few minutes of Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, I wonder how much advantage there is in that.

While much of “The Hadza: Last of the First” is inspirational, the same sense of futility found in the Braddock film can be found here. If economic contraction has led to a crisis in a small Pennsylvania town, it is economic expansion that is leading to the same sort of social breakdown in Tanzania. Of the 1000 Hadza people, only 300 live by traditional means. In its haste to “develop” Tanzania, the ruling party has adopted economic policies that favor assimilation of precapitalist social formations into a new national identity based on a common language and state-sponsored agricultural projects—the “African socialism” of Julius Nyere that had little to do with socialism.

Export-oriented agribusiness has been accelerating in Tanzania just like the rest of Africa driven in large part by Chinese neocolonialism. The privatization of land forces pastoral societies to expand into Hadza territory. To create grazing land for the cattle, bush has to be cleared, thus reducing the number of animals that can be hunted.

The economic pressure on Tanzania from global capitalism threatens the existence of a people who are the closest link we have to a long-lost world where greed and violence were unknown. Despite the nonsense from Napoleon Chagnon and Jared Diamond, the evidence that Hadza society presents is one of peace and harmony even if it rests on a very thin margin. The mortality rate of the Hadza is very high due to diseases such as malaria and diarrhea, endemic to people living in remote areas where mosquito infestation is widespread and where water contains impurities.

The answer of course is to combine the communism of our ancestors with modern technology. Marx spent much time compiling an ethnological notebook. He was determined to find justification for his belief in the unnaturalness of capitalism by compiling the record of how peoples lived in its absence. I can only imagine the big smile that would have come across his face as he sat through a screening of “The Hadza: Last of the First”.


Shooting the Arab Spring

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm
Two Films: “Point and Shoot” and “Die Welt”

Shooting the Arab Spring


On December 17, 2010 Tunisian street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police brutality and corruption. His martyrdom touched off the Arab Spring that affected just about every nation in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya. This week I saw two films that should be of great interest to anybody with more than a passing interest in the ongoing struggle for human rights and social justice in the region, which means just about every CounterPunch reader. Both are sober accounts of the human costs of the struggle and a step back from the heady enthusiasm that was associated with the Arab Spring, a term that now requires some interrogation given the distressing conjuncture. Whether or not the term Arab Winter is more justified is open to argument. In any case, to help understand the ongoing process, “Point and Shoot”, a documentary about Matt VanDyke, an American who took up arms against Qaddafi, and “Die Welt”, a narrative film about Tunisia, are good places to start. Leaving aside their value as social commentary, these are two films of the highest achievement artistically and on the inside track for my nomination as best documentary and foreign film of 2014.

read full article

Trailers for films under review:


October 28, 2014

Madison Washington and the Creole Rebellion

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

From Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom“:

During the fall of 1841, Madison Washington, a self-emancipated former slave from Virginia, knocked on the door of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia as he was on his way back south to assist his wife’s escape from bondage. Washington had certainly come to the right place. Purvis had been active for several years in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. He remembered, years later, “I was at that time in charge of the work of assisting fugitive slaves to escape.” Purvis already knew Washington because he had helped him gain his freedom by getting to Canada two years earlier. Washington had since “opened correspondence with a young white man in the South,” who had promised to ferry his wife away from her plantation and to bring her to an appointed place so that the two of them could then escape northward. Purvis did not like the plan. He had witnessed others undertake such dangerous labors of love and fail. He was sure that his visitor would be captured and reenslaved. Washington, however, was determined to carry on.

By coincidence Washington arrived at the abolitionist’s home on the very same day a painting was delivered: Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad,” as Purvis called it. It so happened that Cinque and twenty-one other Amistad Africans had also been in Purvis’s large, majestic home on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Mount Vernon streets, when they visited Philadelphia on their fund-raising tour of May 1841. (Cinque later sent a message, “Tell Mr. Purvis to send me my hat.”) Purvis had long been inspired by the Amistad struggle and in late 184o–early 1841, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the case, he commissioned Jocelyn to paint the portrait.

Washington took a keen interest in the painting and the story behind it. When Purvis told him about Cinque and his comrades, Washington “drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.” Washington soon departed, headed south-ward in search of his wife, but he never returned, as he had hoped to do in retracing his steps toward Canada. Someone betrayed him, as Purvis had predicted (and only learned some years later). Washington was “captured while escaping with his wife.” He was clapped into chains again and placed on board a domestic slave ship called the Creole, bound from Virginia to New Orleans in November 1841.

As the Creole set sail, Washington remembered Cinque’s story—the courage and the intelligence, the plan and the victory. Working as a cook aboard the vessel, which allowed him easy communication with his shipmates, Washington began to organize. With eighteen others he rose up, killed a slave-trading agent, wounded the captain severely, seized control of the ship, and liberated a hundred and thirty fellow Africans and African Americans. Wary of trickery, Washington forced the mate to navigate the vessel to Nassau in the Bahama Islands, where the British had abolished slavery three years earlier. In Nassau harbor they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and insuring their victory.

Representatives of the federal government literally screamed bloody murder, just as those of Spain had done two years earlier, following the rebellion aboard the Amistad. They demanded the return of the slaves, who must, they insisted, be tried in the United States for rising up to kill their oppressors. U.S. officials self-righteously defended the institution of slavery and called for all property to be restored to its rightful owners. The British government, however, refused to comply with the order. Madison Washington and many of his comrades gained their freedom, boarded vessels bound hither and yon around the Atlantic, and left no further traces in the historical records.

The reverberations of the Amistad rebellion were beginning to be felt in the wider world of Atlantic slavery, as predicted by abolitionist Henry C. Wright, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison. He foresaw that Purvis’s painting, properly displayed, would confront slaveholders and their apologists with a powerful message about successful rebellion against bondage. To have it in a gallery would lead to discussions about slavery and the “inalienable” rights of man, and convert every set of visitors into an antislavery meeting.

Wright did not imagine a meeting of only two people, one of them a rebellious fugitive, nor could he have known that the painting would inspire radical action on another slave ship, which would result in both a collective self-emancipation and an international diplomatic row between the United States and Great Britain. The combination of the Amistad and Creole rebellions had a major impact on the antislavery struggle, pushing activists toward more militant rhetoric and practices. As Purvis concluded many years later, “And all this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture.”

John Wick

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:36 am

I wasted $11 and more importantly two hours of my precious time watching “John Wick” this afternoon, a film that has an 86 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and raves from the Boston Globe (“It’s all sharp stuff from Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves finds decently tailored material in their mix of busy physicality, spare drama, and wickedly dry humor.”) and the Chicago Sun-Times (“Stahelski has created an impressively distinctive, self-contained world for John Wick that emphasizes sophistication and stylishness”). Well, don’t believe the hype.

“John Wick” stars Keanu Reeves in the eponymous role as a professional killer who has retired after his wife died of some unspecified illness. After Russian gangsters steal his car and kill the puppy his late wife left him for companionship, he sets out on a course of bloody revenge.

Such a well-worn theme of a professional killer coming out of retirement must rely on writing and performance to stand out from the crowd. Done right as in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, it can be memorable. That film was noteworthy for emphasizing the vulnerability of the main character. His frailty and his being past his prime made the climax all the more powerful as Eastwood blasts a saloon full of bad guys to kingdom come.

In “John Wick” the hero is much more like The Terminator. When a powerful gangster learns that his thuggish son has killed Wick’s dog (the lout did not know that he had preyed on a legendary executioner nicknamed “the Boogyman” who used to work for his father before retiring), he sends a hit squad of a dozen men out to Wick’s ultramodern and luxurious house as a preemptive measure. In a kind of scene that gets repeated 4 or 5 times for the rest of the film until it gets to the point when you feel like yelling “enough already”, Wick kills them all and is not even scratched in the process. If you want to see Keanu Reeves shooting people in the head for an hour-and-a-half, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I think most of the critics got suckered into raving about this film because they had never been exposed to the films that it rips off, namely the Korean revenge genre. The film was co-directed by David Leitch, who worked as a stunt man in 81 movies before getting behind the camera, and Chad Stahelski, who started out as a kick-boxer before becoming a stunt man himself and appearing in his own 71 films. So with them, you should not expect Merchant-Ivory, not that I am a big Merchant-Ivory fan. In fact, despite my preference for coming-of-age narrative films made in Turkey or Marxist agitprop documentaries, there’s nothing I love better than mindless action films—provided they are done right.

The script was written by Derek Kolstad, who had only two credits before this—VOD movies starring Dolph Lundgren, the woefully untalented hulk who played Drago, the Russian boxer knocked by Rocky Balboa.

But the real template for “John Wick” is the Korean revenge film that compared to this effort is like putting John Coltrane next to Kenny G. Over the past twenty years or so, Korean film studios have turned out one noirish classic after another, all revolving around a man or woman who has been wronged so grievously that their mission to take revenge has an ineluctable logic that gains momentum like a locomotive engine burning a mixture of kerosene and nitroglycerine.

The best of them can now be seen on Netflix: “I Saw the Devil”. This is the story of a Korean spy whose wife is murdered in the first 5 minutes of the film. Despite his unimposing appearance, he is just as fearsome as John Wick. There are a lot of bad guys who get killed but it is a lot more substantial than the Hollywood cheap imitation. Forgive me for self-plagiarism but this is my review from February 15, 2011.

Two new South Korean movies deepen my conviction that this country is producing some of the finest in the world. Furthermore, one of them, “Poetry”, is directed by Lee Chang-dong who I am now convinced should be grouped with the greatest directors of the past half-century, including Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene and Akira Kurosawa. Given the names of these three directors, it should be obvious where my preferences lie. I have a deep love for films that display an affection and respect for the salt of the earth, especially when they reach the level of fine art.

While not quite ascending to this rarefied level, Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil”, which opens on March 4th at the IFC Center in New York, is a roller coaster ride of a thriller that features two of Korea’s top actors in a cat-and-mouse revenge tale of the kind that Korean audiences dote on. Kim is a master of genre-bending, with a horror movie (A Tale of Two Sisters) and a “Western” (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) that takes place on the Mongolian steppes in the 1930s to his credit.

“I Saw the Devil” is a mixture of Hollywood serial killer movies, particularly those based on the Hannibal Lecter tales, and a genre that is unique to Korea in many ways, the revenge tale that was perfected by Park Chan-wook in his Vengeance Trilogy, of which “Oldboy” is the most popular installment.

Choi Min-sik, who was the tormented victim seeking revenge in “Oldboy”, plays Kyung-chul, the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil”. The husband of the woman he has killed in the opening moments becomes his relentless pursuer seeking revenge. When a search party turns up his wife’s severed head in the marshes not far from Kyung-chul’s home, Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hyun, a star of “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) vows to make the killer suffer just as much as his wife did in Kyung-chul’s torture chamber. Soo-hyun is surely capable of inflicting such punishment since he is an elite special agent of the Korean security forces. It turned out that Kyung-chul picked out the wrong person to kill.

Not only is Soo-hyun determined to track the killer down, he will not be satisfied by taking his life. Instead, after he finds and beats him into unconsciousness, he puts an electronic tracking device down his gullet that will allow him to follow his every step. When the spirit moves him, especially when Kyung-chul is about to take a new victim, Soo-hyun steps in and delivers a new round of beatings to the mystified serial killer. How does that guy keep finding me?

Director Kim Jee-woon proclaims deeper philosophical goals for his latest genre-bender, even quoting Nietzsche in the press notes: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” But—thankfully—the film is much more about action than meditation. From the moment it starts until its macabre conclusion, this is an exciting, often darkly comic, movie that Hollywood is no longer capable of making.

If you are looking for an escapist joy-ride that will send shivers down your spine, then I can’t recommend “I Saw the Devil” highly enough.

October 26, 2014

Fuck Jared Diamond

Filed under: Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

The title of this article is the unexpurgated version of one that appeared in a recent issue of “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”: “F**K Jared Diamond”. I only hope that the author of the article, who is referenced in the same Guardian article as me, is a tenured professor since even the expurgated version of the title certainly risked violating the new “civility” code spreading across academia like a metastasized tumor and might lead to his Salaitazation.

Titled “Jared Diamond: ‘150,000 years ago, humans wouldn’t figure on a list of the five most interesting species on Earth’”, it at least has the merit of confronting the UCLA celebrity professor with some of the criticisms that have been mounted against his work, including mine. The subtitle makes that clear: “The bestselling biogeographer talks to Oliver Burkeman about dealing with the critics who condemn him as a cultural imperialist.”

I and the “F**K Jared Diamond” author are both referenced in the article. First honors goes to David Correia, writing in “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”, the same journal I have had the honor to contribute to a while back:

They condemn him as a cultural imperialist, intent on excusing the horrors of colonialism while asserting the moral superiority of the west. (One 2013 article, in an ecology journal, was entitled “F**k Jared Diamond”, the asterisks failing to conceal the general tone of the debate.) Diamond strikes back with equal force, calling his critics “idiots”, unscientific timewasters and purveyors of “politically correct blabber”.

Later on my own potshot is mentioned:

As one writer put it, after the book [“Guns, Germs, and Steel”] was adapted for the US TV network PBS, his stance means that “a PBS donor can sit in his Connecticut estate feeling no guilt since it was, after all, only an accident of geography that made him rich and the Bolivians poor.”

I am pleased that at least Diamond has been confronted with the charges that many on the left have made, but unfortunately interviewer Oliver Burkeman does not go for the jugular as I am about to do now through my own obiter dictum on the article.

To start with, Burkeman is far too deferential to Diamond’s first book “The Third Chimpanzee” that is a completely idiotic exercise in sociobiology after the fashion of “The Naked Ape”. He alludes to Diamond’s observation that we share 97% of the chimp’s DNA and in Burkeman’s words: “by any commonsense classification, we are another kind of chimpanzee.” I wonder if Burkeman would go along with Diamond’s argument that since chimps have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their genes, art must be a clever stratagem by men to lure women into bed. This led Tom Wilkie to drolly observe in the May 22, 1991 Independent that this lesson must have been lost on Tchaikovsky, Andy Warhol and other homosexual artists.

Burkeman next takes up “Guns, Germs and Steel”, the blockbuster book that put him in the same company as Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukuyama and Henry Kissinger, all a-list guests on the Charlie Rose show. The famous encounter with Yali, a native of Papua New Guinea, is mentioned: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo” – meaning manufactured goods, medicines, clothing – “but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

As I might have expected, Burkeman does not take the trouble to point readers to social scientists who have a different take than Diamond’s, most particularly Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz, the authors of “Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History”. Yali’s question was not so much about material goods as reflected in the awful saying, “Those who die with the most toys win” but about racial oppression. The real meaning of the question, according to the authors, was this: “Yali and many other Papua New Guineans became preoccupied with the reluctance, if not refusal, of many whites to recognize their full humanness–to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history.”

This is of fundamental importance for anybody trying to come to terms with Diamond’s legacy since an important part of it was slandering a Papuan New Guinea native as a mass murderer in the pages of the New Yorker Magazine. The whole story is laid out on Rhonda Shearer’s IMediaethics website. Without taking the trouble to fact-check his own work, let alone the magazine’s failure to follow up, Diamond exploits what was likely some braggadocio from his driver for the purposes of imposing a sociobiological narrative on the tribesmen who supposedly had violence in their genes. As such, Diamond was spinning the same tale that Napoleon Chagnon told about the Yanomami.

In my own analysis of Papuan New Guinea blood feuds and Diamond’s shoddy research, I wrote:

The problem with Diamond’s case is that it rests on bogus history. He deploys Daniel Wemp as an expert witness in describing a savage tribal war that went on for years, when in fact the only fighting that took place in recent years was a rather tame affair described by Mako J. Kuwimb, one of Rhonda Shearer’s PNG consultants and a model of restraint in his debunking of Diamond’s version.

The “war” in question did not take three years and cost 29 lives, as Diamond asserts. It was instead a fight between two youths over a couple of dollars that went missing during a card game that got out of hand after one had his jaw broken. Fighting lasted for three months and only four men died. Daniel Wemp, who Diamond described as a warlord seeking revenge for his tribe, was not involved in this affair at all. Apparently, Diamond wove together some actual incidents and others that were cooked up, all the while exaggerating the severity of the conflict so as to turn the PNG highlands into something on a par with contemporary Congo. Meanwhile, Daniel Wemp and the other participants are described as having almost as much fun killing each other as if it were a sport.

Burkeman next takes up “Collapse”, a book on ecology that has none of the redeeming features of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, at least in the eyes of its leftist admirers who were persuaded by its lame attempt to debunk a cruder form of racism. He at least has to acknowledge what many critics had to say, referring to the NY Times, which has generally been deferential to Diamond. The paper of record summarized his critics’ take: “The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise.” In other words, the same “accidents can happen” explanation of world history found in “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

I wrote a series of posts on “Collapse” here that can be read alongside those on the TV series drawn from “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. The book is rotten from beginning to end, especially the section that deals with “progressive” corporations like Chevron—no I am not joking. I quote from my final installment in the series:

Although Shell has the well-earned reputation of being the dirtiest oil company operating in Nigeria, Chevron is no slouch. Notwithstanding Diamond’s assurances that Chevron CEO Kenneth Derr has “been personally concerned about environmental issues” and that Chevron employees receive monthly emails from him about the state of the planet, some ingrates from the more radical wing of the environmental movement threw cream pies in his face back in 1999. They were angry over Chevron’s involvement with human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, where 90 percent of Nigeria’s crude oil is produced.

According to the June 1999 Earth Times:

“Members of the Ijaw tribe, native to the Delta, say they have lost as much as 70 percent of their ancestral lands to Nigeria’s oil operations. Ijaws who protest the environmental degradation of their lands and ask for greater economic returns for their communities have been killed by government troops, their women and children raped and run off, say human rights groups.”

Chevron, it seems, made its helicopters available to Nigerian troops who were summoned to deal with angry protestors. In 1998, after 200 demonstrators took over a Chevron oil platform for three days, the manager called in Nigerian troops, who, Chevron representatives admit, were transported to the platform in the company’s helicopters by company pilots. Two demonstrators were killed. In the second incident, which occurred two months later, four people were killed and 67 left missing when Nigerian forces attacked two small villages, reportedly once again using Chevron helicopters and boats.

Chevron blandly denied any wrongdoing. It said that any equipment, including helicopters, that is leased to its joint venture company in Nigeria is free to be used by its majority partner. That joint venture company just happens to be the blood-soaked Nigerian government.

Perhaps the Ijaws should have picked up and moved to Papua New Guinea where they would have been looked over properly by the good Chevron twin. As it turns out, things were not all they were cracked up to be over there.

I haven’t taken the trouble to read and refute Diamond’s latest book, titled “The World Until Yesterday”, one that shares Steven Pinker and Napoleon Chagnon’s sociobiological beliefs that state-based systems are effective barriers to the wanton violence that prevailed in hunting-and-gathering societies.

Since I am a glutton for punishment and even more so for dishing it out, I probably will get around to reading this stinking pile of horseshit and writing about it. This much I can glean from the reviews. Diamond seeks to portray hunter-gathering practices as more humane in some ways, for example carrying babies around long after what is acceptable in “civilized” society.

But he taketh away with one hand that he giveth with the other, far more so in fact. He regards primitive man as driven by a bloodlust that would have made Hitler blanch. As I referred to above, he found the tales of the Papuan New Guinea blood feuds useful even if they were not true.

I would refer you to Steven Corry’s article in the Daily Beast, a publication that is generally more wrong than right. In this instance it was right. Corry is the Executive Director of Survival International, an indigenous peoples rights group that is on the lookout for genocide mounted in the name of development. He writes:

Diamond claims that tribes are considerably more prone to killing than are societies ruled by state governments. He goes much further. Despite acknowledging, rather sotto voce, that there are no reports of any war at all in some societies, he does not let this cloud his principal emphasis: most tribal peoples live in a state of constant war.

He supports this entirely unverifiable and dangerous nonsense (as have others, such as Steven Pinker) by taking the numbers killed in wars and homicides in industrialized states and calculating the proportions of the total populations involved. He then compares the results with figures produced by anthropologists like Chagnon for tribes like the Yanomami. He thinks that the results prove that a much higher proportion of individuals are killed in tribal conflict than in state wars; ergo tribal peoples are more violent than “we” are.

There are of course lies, damned lies, and statistics. Let us first give Diamond the benefit of several highly debatable, not to say controversial, doubts. I will, for example, pass over the likelihood that at least some of these intertribal “wars” are likely to have been exacerbated, if not caused, by land encroachment or other hostilities from colonist societies. I will also leave aside the fact that Chagnon’s data, from his work with the Yanomami in the 1960s, has been discredited for decades: most anthropologists working with Yanomami simply do not recognize Chagnon’s violent caricature of those he calls the “fierce people.” I will also skate over Kim Hill’s role in denying the genocide of the Aché Indians at the hands of Paraguayan settlers and the Army in the 1960s and early 1970s. (Though there is an interesting pointer to this cited in Diamond’s book: as he says, over half Aché “violent deaths” were at the hands of nontribals.)

I will also throw only a passing glance at the fact that Diamond refers only to those societies where social scientists have collected data on homicides, and ignores the hundreds where this has not been examined, perhaps because—at least in some cases—there was no such data. After all, scientists seeking to study violence and war are unlikely to spend their precious fieldwork dropping in on tribes with little noticeable tradition of killing. In saying this, I stress once again, I am not denying that people kill people—everywhere. The question is, how much?

Awarding Diamond all the above ‘benefits of doubt’, and restricting my remarks to looking just at “our” side of the story: how many are killed in our wars, and how reasonable is it to cite those numbers as a proportion of the total population of the countries involved?

Is it meaningful, for example, to follow Diamond in calculating deaths in the fighting for Okinawa in 1945 as a percentage of the total populations of all combatant nations—he gives the result as 0.10 percent—and then comparing this with eleven tribal Dani deaths during a conflict in 1961. Diamond reckons the latter as 0.14 percent of the Dani population—more than at Okinawa.

Viewed like this, the Dani violence is worse that the bloodiest Pacific battle of WWII. But of course the largest nation involved in Okinawa was the U.S., which saw no fighting on its mainland at all. Would it not be more sensible to look at, say, the percentage of people killed who were actually in the areas where the war was taking place? No one knows, but estimates of the proportion of Okinawa citizens killed in the battle, for example, range from about 10 percent to 33 percent. Taking the upper figure gives a result of nearly 250 times more deaths than the proportion for the Dani violence, and does not even count any of the military killed in the battle.

Similarly, Diamond tells us that the proportion of people killed in Hiroshima in August 1945 was a tiny 0.1 percent of the Japanese people. However, what about the much smaller “tribe” of what we might call “Hiroshimans,” whose death toll was nearly 50 percent from a single bomb? Which numbers are more meaningful; which could be seen as a contrivance to support the conceit that tribespeople are the bigger killers? By supposedly “proving” his thesis in this way, to what degree does Diamond’s characterization differ significantly from labeling tribal peoples as “primitive savages,” or at any rate as more savage than “we” are?

If you think I am exaggerating the problem—after all, Diamond does not say “primitive savage” himself—then consider how professional readers of his book see it: his reviewers from the prestigious Sunday Times (U.K.) and The Wall Street Journal (U.S.) both call tribes “primitive,” and Germany’s popular Stern magazine splashed “Wilde” (“savages”) in large letters across its pages when describing the book.

Seek and you shall find statistics to underscore any conceivable position on this. Diamond is no fool and doubtless knows all this—the problem is in what he chooses to present and emphasize, and what he leaves out or skates over.

I urge you to read Corry’s article in its entirety here.

Making history with Howie Hawkins

Filed under: third parties — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

Must reading on Iran

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 12:57 am

(The author is someone I know very well and respect highly.)


Dancing in the Dark?

The Iran-US Tango


Four steps forward, four steps back,

Right foot forward, left foot back,

Two steps sideways, one step back.

It is a remarkable feat to witness the inexplicable and sudden disappearance of the legions of leftist doom and gloom as regards the Iran-US relations. Indeed some readers may not even remember such legions at all. It is excusable to forget that for some years we were audience to regular warnings of “imminent military attacks” to be unleashed by the US against the Iranian regime. Likewise, you might not remember that some commentators made a lucrative living going around forewarning, “Imminent attacks coming! Imminent attacks coming!” Stirring up hysteria, the legalistically oriented lobbied the US Congress Quixotic style to avoid such eventuality; in leftist publications, the literarily oriented filled columns quoting previous write-ups of warnings as evidence that imminent attacks were forthcoming any time, very soon and inevitably. All the while throwing a thick cover over the internal oppressions committed against, and the rights denied, the Iranian people.

For some time now, however, those commentators have been uncharacteristically silent about imminent attacks. What happened? If the Iranian and the US governments were such enemies and if the US had been planning for years to launch a military attack, what changed then? Or is the situation still the same? Those commentators should not be so quiet. In fact, they owe everybody a detailed explanation of how it came to be that such imminent attacks never took place.

Well, as it has turned out, no such attacks were forthcoming. Everybody can now breathe a sigh of relief and thank whatever deity they are deferential to (personally I’ll be thanking JD while playing James Brown’s Say It Loud).

Some Iranian socialists were however explaining for all those same years that no such attacks would materialize. They were likewise advising to pay more attention to the miseries and injustices meted out daily to the Iranian people not just by imperialist outsiders (be it the US-imposed sanctions for example, or the Russians extracting ransom from a regime under pressure), but by the internal theocracy choking the Iranian people: a theocracy that is in fact the embodiment of imperialism inIran. The point is seldom acknowledged that this regime is actually not disliked by imperialist powers. Ask IMF. Iran gets decent grades from that international institution epitomizing finance capital, the quintessential imperialist institution of record if ever there was one.

Imperialist countries house a long list of definitely eager corporations willing to stand in line to get to do business with this regime: no regime-changes here, they agree, no thank you please! The multinationals and international finance institutions also know best how effectively Iranian state has privatized state assets, and how much more privatizing can still happen; they have observed in detail the cutting of subsidies of all kinds, which actually started with Ahmadinejad’s administration and continues under the current administration of Rouhani; they know, in other words, how willing the regime is in sticking it to the poor. Multinational corporations are as well the biggest promoters of anti-labor laws, which Iranian government is prolific at legislating. In Iran, international companies get the additional bonus of a robust legal system promoting anti-women, puritanically anti-communist, anti-dissent and just plain anti-everything-normal-human-beings-may-enjoy laws. Just for one item, Iranian authorities recently issued an order for imprisonment and lashing for a bunch of kids dancing to a song! You realize how many coups imperialists and their local cohorts have had to organize in some other countries just to get to this level of social repression written into law? So, why would the US militarily destroy such a golden goose?

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October 24, 2014

Red Army; Wild Tales

Filed under: Film,Russia,sports — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

The other day I saw a couple of films at the Sony screening room that were being released through Sony Picture Classics, an autonomous division catering to the “art-house” market. Both were very good.

“Red Army” is a documentary about the legendary Russian hockey team of the pre-Perestroika era that reflected the USSR at its best and worst. It consists mainly of interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, arguably one of the greatest hockey players of the past half-century as well as an extremely witty and insightful interviewee as deft before the camera as he was with a hockey stick.

Director Gabe Polsky was using the fate of Russia hockey as a symbol of Communism’s contradictions and how they were unsuccessfully resolved in the favor of capitalism. Clearly Polsky has learned from Werner Herzog, having served as his producer on the 2009 narrative film “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”. The two men obviously have the same off-kilter view of the world based on this new film for which Werner Herzog returned the favor, serving as co-producer. Like Herzog, Polsky includes some elements that guarantee that the audience will understand that something is being filmed, in his case showing some of his assistants setting up gear and including Fetisov’s admonitions to stop filming since he has to take a phone call. For documentaries, it is the equivalent of breaking through the “fourth wall”.

The film will appeal to people who are still trying to figure out what happened to the Soviet Union and the nature of Putin’s Russia today, as well as hockey fans. In fact the film, which opens on November 14 at the Empire 25 Theater in NY, will have a nationwide rollout in January that will be pitched to sports fans. It has been many years since I watched hockey but followed the NY Rangers in the early 70s when it was led by Rod Gilbert, a speedy forward who turned up as a fellow resident of my high-rise on the Upper East Side.

The film begins with Fetisov reflecting on the state of Soviet Russia when he was a 9-year-old boy trying out for the Russian Army youth team. He tells Polsky that 25 million of his countrymen were killed and that most of the country was destroyed. (Stock footage depicts the horror.) When the country began rebuilding, the new apartment buildings were barely sufficient. It was normal for 3 families to share a 400 square foot apartment. Despite that, Fetisov said that he was happy. There seemed to be enough food to eat, even if you had to stand on line. Of course, once markets were introduced the lines disappeared but hunger became widespread.

Fetisov was a protégé of Anatoli Tarasov, the coach of the Red Army hockey team and the man widely considered the father of Russian hockey. Fetisov joined the team in 1976 at the age of 19, playing defense and learning the skill of passing, something Tarasov saw as fundamental to the game. For Tarasov, hockey as a kind of chess game in which sharing the puck was fundamental.

Indeed, when he was demonstrating to his players how to move forward on the ice, he often illustrated with chess pieces. He was also convinced that ballet exercises could make his players more nimble on the ice, as the film demonstrates from archival footage. By the time that Fetisov began playing on the Red Army team, Tarasov had acquired a huge beer belly. Watching him demonstrating some steps to his team is like watching the hippopotamuses dancing in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.

Despite losing to an inferior American hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, a loss that inspired the chauvinistic chant “USA, USA” that has tainted every game since including table tennis, the Red Army team rolled over every professional hockey team that they faced over the years. Tarasov’s goal-sharing methods were superior to the individualistic style of the West. Although the film is far too subtle and skeptical about socialism for that matter to point out that the collectivist culture might have something to do with that, you can’t help drawing such a conclusion.

After Perestroika, it became possible for Russian hockey players to turn professional in the West. Fetisov and other Red Army superstars took high-paying jobs but were not shown to their best advantage since the teams were all based on the individualist model.

It was only when the Detroit Red Wings recruited Fetisov and a cadre of ex-Red Army players that they were able to cash in, winning the Stanley Cub in 1997 and 1998.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It is a very sharp analysis of the Communist experience by a director who not only studied at Yale but also was on their hockey team. As the son of Russian immigrant parents, he has just the right background for drawing all the human drama out of the Red Army story. His statement in the press notes indicates the outlook that was clear to me but one that he did not want to beat over the audience’s head:

When I was at Yale, I studied politics and history and learned about the unusual role sport played in the Soviet Union. The Red Army team was designed as an instrument of propaganda to prove the superiority of the Soviet system. The country’s investment in the team’s success was massive. The demanding lifestyle and oppressive circumstances under which the players trained were a reflection of broader Soviet society. It became clear to me that the Red Army’s style of play, too, was significantly informed by the country’s ideology. Much like Communism, there was little emphasis on the individual. Those who became heroes earned as much money as teachers. Priority was placed on serving your teammates and your country, and expressing individuality or questioning authority was forbidden.

“Wild Tales” opens on February 8th. It is an Argentine narrative film directed by Damián Szifron that he described in the following terms:

I frequently think of Western capitalist society as a sort of transparent cage that reduces our sensitivity and distorts our bonds with others. Wild Tales presents a group of individuals who live within this cage without being aware of its existence. But at that point where most of us would repress – or get depressed – these people shift into gear.

Although I loved the film, I don’t think it had much to do with “Western capitalist society”. Basically it is a dark comedy about people going to extreme lengths to destroy each other in the fashion of classic Warner Brothers cartoons but without any hero like Bugs Bunny to cheer for. Instead it is like watching Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd trying to blow each other’s brains out with shotguns.

The film consists of six chapters, each one set up as elegantly as an O. Henry short story and an ending that serves as poetic justice for the miscreant characters. In “Road to Hell”, road rage turns into an elemental battle for survival pitting an Audi-driving yuppie against a hulking rural bumpkin who refuses to allow his wreck of car to be passed on a mountainous road. Not long after the yuppie passes him by, making sure to curse him out as he passes, he gets a flat tire next to a bridge over a mountain stream. When the bumpkin catches up to him, all hell breaks loose, including him taking a dump on the Audi’s hood. As the violence escalates, you will not be able to keep your eyes off the action. It is akin to not being able to avert your eyes from a highway accident except one that is far more entertaining.

I will only add that the final chapter, titled “Till Death to Us Part”, is about a Jewish wedding party that will remind you of the great Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner vehicle “War of the Roses” with bride drawing almost all the blood. It is obvious to me that the guests are Jews even though this is not a point made specifically. Since the director (and screenwriter) has a last name that is a dead giveaway for his Jewish origins, this is a conclusion I feel safe drawing.

Both films are worth putting down on your calendar.

Political Minimalism and “The Death of Klinghoffer”

Filed under: Counterpunch,music — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

Night Chorus

When Rambo Met Klinghoffer on Club Med

Political Minimalism and “The Death of Klinghoffer”


Since I could not justify spending hundreds of dollars for tickets to “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, I did the next best thing, which was to take out a CD from the Columbia University library. Something told me that the work was a bit off, so I wanted to reduce my financial liability to a minimum—the price of a subway ride back and forth from my old workplace.

My goal was to come to terms with the opera as an artistic/political statement rather than comment on Zionist attempts to squelch it, as ably reported by Bill Dobbs in CounterPunch.

I first became aware of composer John Adams back in the 1970s when I was always on the lookout for works by minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Since Adams was touted at the time as the new kid on the block, I made sure to pick up a recording of “Shaker Loops” when it came out in 1987, a piece like most of Reich and Glass that was calculated to appeal to the average listener as a kind of ear candy. As the classical music counterpart to Kraftwerk or Brian Eno, minimalism was about as close as you could come to the pleasure of pre-20th century classical music, joined on these terms later on by the neo-romanticism of composers like Henry Górecki.

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