Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 24, 2015

Ernie Tate’s “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

A Revolutionary Joy Ride Through History

by LOUIS PROYECT

Exactly four years ago, as my wife and I were in the final week of our vacation in South Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a female voice with a distinctly Scottish burr piping up just behind us on the sidewalk as we were going out for breakfast. “Is that Lou?” The voice belonged to Jess MacKenzie, the long-time partner of Ernie Tate, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had the audacity like me to vacation in a spot that in our youth would have been regarded as a decadent bourgeois swamp.

It turned out that Ernie and Jess were staying in a hotel right next to the apartment building where we had paid for a month-long sublet. I had run into Ernie and Jess at Left Forums once or twice and knew him as a Marxmail subscriber but beyond that mostly by reputation. In 1967, not long after I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York, members were still buzzing about how Ernie had been beaten up by Gerry Healy’s goons in London while selling a pamphlet critical of the cult leader outside one of their meetings. Since that incident loomed large in my mind even after decades had passed, I introduced my wife to him as the guy who Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten up. This prompted Ernie to remark genially but firmly that he preferred to be described as a leader of the British antiwar movement.

read full article

January 23, 2015

Sheldon Silver, caught with his hands in the cookie jar

Filed under: crime,real estate — louisproyect @ 7:48 pm

Sheldon Silver leaving the United States Court House in Lower Manhattan after being arraigned on corruption charges on Thursday. Credit: Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Today’s NY Times has extensive coverage on the arrest of Sheldon Silver, a powerful Democratic Party politician who like so many of his ilk going back to the days of Tammany Hall exchanged political favors for big cash bribes. Of particular interest to me was his crooked deals with figures at Columbia University and Bard College, my long time employer and alma mater respectively, two places that like to preen themselves as paragons of democracy, freedom and the American way. Of course, the American way has always been about corruption rather than democracy and freedom.

Basically Silver made millions of dollars for making connections between those in the business world and politics. In other words, he was a high-class pimp. The NY Times put it this way:

Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York Assembly, exploited his position as one of the most powerful politicians in the state to obtain millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, federal authorities said on Thursday as they announced his arrest on a sweeping series of corruption charges.

For years, Mr. Silver has earned a lucrative income outside government, asserting that he was a simple personal injury lawyer who represented ordinary people. But federal prosecutors said his purported law practice was a fiction, one he created to mask about $4 million in payoffs that he carefully and stealthily engineered for over a decade.

Mr. Silver, a Democrat from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was accused of steering real estate developers to a law firm that paid him kickbacks. He was also accused of funneling state grants to a doctor who referred asbestos claims to a second law firm that employed Mr. Silver and paid him fees for referring clients.

“For many years, New Yorkers have asked the question: How could Speaker Silver, one of the most powerful men in all of New York, earn millions of dollars in outside income without deeply compromising his ability to honestly serve his constituents?” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, asked at a news conference with F.B.I. officials. “Today, we provide the answer: He didn’t.”

The Times identified Robert N. Taub, the director of the Columbia University Mesothelioma Center, as having a mutually beneficial and certainly illegal relationship with Silver.

It seems that Silver was on the payroll of Weitz & Luxenberg, a law firm that advertises its ability to win claims on behalf of mesothelioma victims so many times per hour on cable TV stations that you are practically driven to stick knitting needles into your eardrum for relief.

With his finely honed knack for making ill-gotten gains, Silver racked up $3.9 million in referral fees for cases he steered to Weitz & Luxenberg on behalf of Taub who got $500,000 in state funds in exchange. The Times reports:

Mr. Silver also got the Legislature to issue a resolution honoring the doctor, the complaint says, and helped the doctor’s son Jonathan find a job at a Brooklyn-based social services group that has received state funding with Mr. Silver’s help.

The group, OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, issued a statement confirming that it had hired Jonathan Taub in 2012, and saying it had “cooperated fully” with prosecutors and been assured that it was “not under investigation and did nothing wrong.”

In another instance, the complaint says, Mr. Silver directed $25,000 in state funding to a nonprofit on which a relative of Dr. Taub’s served on the board of directors. Dr. Taub’s wife, Susan, serves on the board of Shalom Task Force, which promotes healthy marriages. The group received the funding in 2008, records indicate.

Although the Times does not mention Bard College board of trustee Bruce Ratner, the developer responsible for forcing his white elephant Atlantic Yards megaproject down the throats of Brooklynites, it would not surprise me that he ends up under the same kind of spotlight as Dr. Taub and hopefully in the same jail cell.

Silver worked out a deal with another shady law firm run by Jay Arthur Goldberg. Silver steered real estate developers to Goldberg in exchange for a cut of the fees. The Times names Glenwood Management as one of two real estate firms buying Silver’s favors and I’ll bet that Ratner’s Forest City Enterprises will be revealed as the other.

Last March the NY Times reported on the tangled favoritism that connected Ratner to Silver. It seems that an orthodox Jewish charity, just like Mrs. Taub’s Shalom Task Force, was key to greasing the wheels. Silver had a protégé named William Rapfogel who ran the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a publicly financed charity whose insurance broker provided $7 million in kickbacks to Rapfogel over the years. Silver funneled millions of dollars to the Met Council and employed Mrs. Rapfogel.

In a move that reeked of Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Silver and Rapfogel worked together to keep Puerto Ricans out of an area on the Lower East Side that had undergone “urban removal” in 1967. More than 1,800 mostly Puerto Rican low-income families had been forced to leave their buildings with the understanding that they would be able to return once new public housing had been erected.

Nearly 50 years after the forced removal, the vacant lots remained. It was Silver and Rapfogel’s intention that any new projects would preserve what they called the areas “Jewish identity”, acting through the United Jewish Council of the East Side.

In 1994, Silver and Rapfogel finally figured out the best use for the land. Housing would not even enter the picture. Instead it would be best to house a “big box” store there, like Costco. And who would be brought it in as developer? Bruce Ratner, that’s who.

Once the three men connected over the site’s future commercial possibilities, their bonds strengthened. As was the case with Taub, family favors were the norm. Rapfogel’s eldest son, Michael, a lawyer, went to work for Ratner. The Times summed up the happy coincidence of interests:

In 2006, the Public Authorities Control Board, over which Mr. Silver has significant control, approved Mr. Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. Intervention by Mr. Silver and others enabled the project to retain a lucrative tax break, even as that break was actually being phased out.

In 2008, Forest City Ratner, which compared to other developers makes few political contributions, gave $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Housekeeping Committee, which is controlled by Mr. Silver.

That same year, Mr. Ratner helped raise $1 million for Met Council and was honored at a luncheon given by Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. “Bruce is responsible for much of the development and growth that’s gone on in Brooklyn and in Manhattan,” Mr. Silver said at the event. “He is a major force in New York City for the good.”

When I read about these corrupt bastards, I can’t help but be reminded of how criminality is embedded in the capitalist system. They keep saying that a true recovery in the USA hinges on a revitalized real estate sector. But it is exactly that sector that led to the 2008 meltdown, just as it did in Spain.

Back in 2011 I read a book titled “Sins of South Beach” that was a memoir written by a former mayor of Miami Beach who went to prison for the same kinds of charges now being made against Sheldon Silver. It was a fascinating account of how an idealistic young politician gets tempted by the devil, in this case not Mephistopheles but real estate developers looking for favors from City Hall.

I had thoughts about writing a book at the time looking at the history of corruption after the fashion of David Graeber’s book on debt. Corruption, like debt, seems to be a permanent feature of class society based on commodity exchange. When the FSLN lost power in Nicaragua, the first thing the formerly dedicated and selfless leaders did was figure out a way to game the system on their way out—the so called Sandinista piñata.

If you want to eliminate corruption, you have to eliminate money. To eliminate money, you have to produce on the basis of use values rather than exchange values. Of course, all of this seems rather utopian at this point, if not trivial in comparison to the other threats to our existence including climate change.

In any case, speaking from a purely reformist perspective, I am tickled pink at the prospects of Sheldon Silver, Dr. Robert Taub and Bruce Ratner going to prison. I hope they put them in cells next to Bernie Madoff as a reminder that connections made through a Jewish old boy’s network are okay just as long as they don’t victimize people who don’t belong to the club, especially Puerto Ricans on the Lower East Side.

I’m a mummy

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 1:08 am

January 22, 2015

Ivory Tower; The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

Recently I watched a couple of documentaries on DVD that were sent to me by publicists in conjunction with NYFCO’s yearly awards meeting. They cover topics that should be of keen interest to my readers. “Ivory Tower” is an examination of the crisis in higher education focusing on the economic trends that are driving it while “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” looks at the human tragedy behind and political significance of Obama’s Justice Department’s vendetta against one of the more important figures on the left. Fortunately for my readers both documentaries can be seen for free on the Internet, something that Aaron Swartz’s soul would smile upon.

Although “Ivory Tower” aspires toward PBS type balance, there is little doubt that director Andrew Rossi views the current situation as inimical to the health of the republic and to democracy. On the film’s very useful website, you can find the following:

Through profiles at Arizona State, Cooper Union, and San Jose State —among several others—IVORY TOWER reveals how colleges in the United States, long regarded as leaders in higher education, came to embrace a business model that often promotes expansion over quality learning.

In order to understand how far removed the “business model” university is from past practices, the film provides useful historical background. It would seem that in years past, the American bourgeoisie was far more capable of thinking in long-term social terms than the short-term, profits above all way of doing things.

The Morrill Land-Grant Acts were passed in 1862 during the devastating Civil War, thus proving that guns and butter were not mutually exclusive, at least in a period when capitalism had not entered its decadent old age. This legislation created the basis for the flagship state universities that were clearly geared to the needs of an educated middle class and skilled working class that could serve the needs of a rapidly expanding corporate America.

Next in line was the GI Bill that allowed WWII veterans to go to school for free. Some of the recipients have been rightwing ideologues who like Ayn Rand who drew from Social Security knew a good thing when they saw it: Robert Dole, Clint Eastwood and William Renquist.

As the closing act in a long period of government support for the social underpinnings of capitalist expansion, Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Higher Education Act of 1965 that was designed to make a college degree possible to just about every qualified applicant through the Pell Grant. The film makes clear that the funding that at one time could cover 110 percent of college costs now covers less than half, mainly because Republicans and Democrats alike have acceded to Grover Norquist’s goal of “starving the beast”.

For colleges to successfully follow a “business model”, it is necessary to produce a commodity that will attract the typical consumer. This explains how a school like Arizona State, a typical land-grant college, has morphed into a kind of country club with lavish health clubs and well-publicized poolside drinking parties.

The film also answers a question I have always had about the tendency of places I have taught at (NYU), worked at (Columbia) and received degrees (Bard and the New School) to grow like topsy. The film makes clear that expansion is designed to burnish the reputation of colleges even if it is at the expense of the long-term economic viability of the institution.

Of course, if expansion covers a school’s finances in red ink, there is always a solution—raise tuition fees or in the case of Cooper Union, to charge for tuition and other fees for the first time in the institution’s history. The film features interviews with the students who rose up against the administration and board of trustees as well as the feckless president of the college who is incapable of answering an interviewer’s question about the school’s huge losses in hedge fund investments in an able manner. If for no other reason, this would prompt a board of trustees to fire him. Since the board is made up of lawyers, investment bankers and the usual cast of scoundrels, that is not likely to happen.

“Ivory Tower” can be seen here:

Additionally, I urge you to read Lance Kirby’s essay at the bottom of this post that hones in on the problem of failing student scholarship. Richard Arum, the co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that Lance alludes to in his essay is interviewed in the film.

* * * *

Aaron Swartz committed suicide just two years ago on January 11, 2013. At the time there were some in the mainstream media who claimed that it was depression rather than government persecution that was at fault. This was a disgusting lie that “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” demolishes. Considering the lengthy prison term that awaited him, it was understandable that he would kill himself even if his lawyer, who was just one of many thoughtful people close to Swartz interviewed in the documentary, feels that he might have been found innocent. Perhaps it was just a desire to be free of the intense pressure of an out-of-control Justice Department that explains his decision.

Although I followed the Aaron Swartz story carefully at the time, there is an abundance of eye-opening material that was new to me, starting with how much of a prodigy he was. From an early age, he was fascinated with computers and created his own version of Wikipedia when he was in grade school.

Early on, he became consumed with the problem of copyrighting in an age of universal electronic communications and joined the Creative Commons organization alongside Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig at the age of 15. Lessig is heard throughout the film, including at the very end when he breaks down in tears about the martyrdom of Aaron Swartz.

Despite the impression some may have of an awkward, geeky prodigy failing to fit in except in front of a computer, Swartz had a very normal social life, including relationships with two very attractive and intelligent women who are interviewed throughout.

Not only was his personal life fulfilling, he had embarked on a whole new project to connect his belief in the universal access to digitized information with the need to change society as a whole. He formed an organization called Demand Progress that defended Edward Snowden.

Like Snowden, Swartz was a high-profile target of the Obama White House. Stephen Heymann, the Justice Department lawyer heading up the prosecution/persecution of Swartz who refused to be interviewed for the film, had the audacity to openly admit to Swartz’s defense lawyer and family that the government sought to “make an example” out of him.

While nobody would expect anything much different from the Obama administration, the most appalling behavior was that of MIT, an elite institution supposedly committed to human rights, democracy and all the other usual good things. MIT took the position that it was basically independent of any investigation of Swartz, who had been downloading JSTOR articles across the university’s network. That independence served the prosecution even if it was calculated to protect the reputation of the school. For its part, JSTOR claimed that it had no interest in seeing Swartz prosecuted and refused to press charges.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a deeply moving and highly informative documentary that can be seen in its entirety here:

The Organic Capitalist or Selling Out
by Lancelot Kirby

The twentieth century Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is rightly famous for his concept of the organic intellectual, a term he interpreted to mean an individual from the lower classes who would work to critique the dominant culture, or Hegemony, of a society that is influenced by the ruling class as an effective tool for social control.

I contend that there is a flip side to this coin. That, just as an intellectual may arise organically from the lower classes to critique the larger culture, there is also an organic mechanism of capital for neutralizing such threats. The observation is not unique, but so pernicious I felt it deserved to be clarified and brought out into the open.

At one end of the spectrum the potential organic intellectual accepts, while still young, the hegemonic propaganda that a college education is the best way out of poverty. Putting aside the problem of mounting student debt, there is the equally serious problem of the quality of education its self, a problem dealt with at great length by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In order to be an effective critic certain skills are essential, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The disadvantaged student is limited in her choices as to which university she may attend, and must often sacrifice quality for affordability. Those institutions which are most affordable very often score the lowest in imparting those valuable skills. In large part this is due to the increasing commercialization of higher education. To compete, schools are becoming viewed more as businesses that provide a product. To sell more product means pleasing the consumer, i.e. the student, or more often their parent’s, who want an easy path for their child towards graduation.

One consequence of this process has been the slackening of rigor in courses, and the sense in the student body of entitlement to a degree, since that is what they are in effect paying for. Thus, those individuals who might have the most to say about the current system are effectively silenced without coercion or complaint. The organic intellectual is effectively stillborn because she was never exposed from the start to the proper atmosphere for critique. Nevertheless, in compensation, they will be given what, in capitalist terms, is called an “education”, typically in business or some technical proficiency in the medical or technological fields, and never look back with any sense of loss as they pick the low hanging fruit from capital’s tree. In essence it is little more than vocational training with the pretension of a university degree.

The second progression for organically silencing dissent is far simpler, but not in the least less unsettling for that. It comes under the name of “selling out”, but its subtlety is such that the individual being sold has so completely appropriated the modes of capitalist thinking that the transaction is never even noticed to have taken place. It is truly an invisible hand at work with magical prestidigitation.

In this instance, what amounts to the modern public intellectual for a large segment of the population, the entertainer or comedian, grows in increasing prominence their presence becoming more and more inescapable to the larger social consciousness. At this moment the individual becomes commodifiable. He or she is offered a platform were they may reach an even wider audience than ever before. However, along with this increased influence comes increased affluence. The entertainer has attainedall that they desired, they can entertain and are paid increasingly well to do so. This nascent social critic began as a somewhat disinterested observer critiquing what he or she has seen. With increasing popularity however, they reached the point of commodification. Being absorbed by capital he begins to view capital’s interests as his own. Whereas before he was an outsider looking in, now he is on the inside looking out, and in this natural non-coercive fashion capital thus nullifies the efficacy of dissenters who gain too much influence.

There are perhaps few better examples of this transition than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart has repeatedly been called out for his half-hearted criticisms. His childishly naive dictum of “fairness” in giving both sides a serious hearing in his determination not to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, has repeatedly given credibility to the worst excesses of the US government. This error of false equivalence was revealed no more tellingly than in the disastrous Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which became a massive joke at the attendee’s expense. A sad deflation of hopes from a man who was reported to have been an admirer of Eugene Debs.

Organic Capitalism is stealthy, the tools at its disposal almost limitless yet it can be overcome. With an improved standard of education and a higher education put within the grasp of even the most disadvantaged citizens, as well as the simple moral backbone to resist its temptations and see through its lies, such scenarios need not be an inevitability.

January 21, 2015

Kshama Sawant commentary on Obama’s State of the Union Address

Filed under: electoral strategy,socialism — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

January 19, 2015

Ernie Tate and Isaac Deutscher

Filed under: Marxist memoir — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm

(I am loving every word of Ernie Tate’s memoir but especially this account of a squaring off at Deutscher’s home. If you know Ernie, as has been my privilege, this is an exquisite moment that really expresses the thread that runs through the two volumes, namely a working-class guy from northern Ireland interjecting himself into a world of intellectuals on the left, sometimes too smart for their own good.)

Isaac Deutscher

I remember once when he made a few disparaging comments in my company about the Fourth International, that I took to be a questioning of its very existence and which got my back up a little, I faced him directly on the issue, sort of poking fun at what he was saying. I posed a hypothetical situation to him, that of an imaginary apolitical young worker, who after reading a Deutscher book, for example, might become convinced of the need for socialism and shows up on Deutscher’s doorstep to ask him advice about what he, the young worker, should do to help bring about this fundamental change. For me, I said, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment because from what I knew from history, without their own organization, workers won’t get anywhere and I would tell the young worker to join my group as the first step in trying to build such an organization which could help lead workers in transforming society. What would you tell the young worker? I asked him, and I knew I was appealing to his background as an active revolutionary leader, of which I knew he felt proud. Momentarily, he looked a little bit non-plussed, probably thinking that I had a bit of a nerve challenging him like that, but he came back, surprisingly, saying he would recommend the same thing. Better that than nothing, he said, in a sort of backhanded compliment.

Skeptical about skepticism

Filed under: religion,skepticism — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm

Michael Shermer

On Salon.com you can find an article titled “Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress” by Michael Shermer that is an excerpt from his book “The Moral Arc”. He draws a contrast between what some have called “the sky religions”, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam that are tribal in nature rather than universal, and all those great conquests of Modern Civilization such as goodness, justice and truth. He writes:

Most people believe that moral progress has primarily been due to the guiding light of religious teachings, the activities of spiritual leaders, and the power of faith-based initiatives. In “The Moral Arc” I argue that this is not the case, and that most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment. Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time. Why?

Today, of course, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that moral principles are universal and apply to everyone, but this is because they have inculcated into their moral thinking the modern Enlightenment goal of broadening and redefining the parameters of moral consideration. But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle. Religion, by definition, forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, those heathens, those unbelievers. Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past. Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces.

I have to wonder if many people reading this article know that Shermer is a prominent spokesman for The Skeptic Society that publishes Skeptic magazine. Like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Shermer is a frequent guest on television talk shows arguing against religion, superstition and other challenges to the Enlightenment and Modernity.

Over the years, I keep running into him like a bad penny.

When I was doing background research on Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomami, I discovered that Shermer took up Chagnon’s defense.

My conclusion is that Chagnon’s view of the Yanomamö is basically supported by the evidence. His data and interpretations are corroborated by many other anthropologists. Even at their “fiercest,” however, the Yanomamö are not so different from many other peoples around the globe. Yanomamö violence is certainly no more extreme than that of our Paleolithic ancestors, who appear to have brutally butchered one another with abandon.

The subtext for this, of course, is that as mankind advances beyond religion and superstition, we grow more Civilized. The notion that the closer we are to our hunting and gathering roots the more murderous we are is widespread among sociobiologists like Chagnon, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker. Writing for Scientific American on “The Liberal’s War on Science”, Shermer practically makes opposition to sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology, the most recent nomenclature for what originated as social Darwinism) tantamount to creationism or belief in ESP:

As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his 2002 book The Blank Slate (Viking), belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who in the 1980s and 1990s led an all-out assault against evolutionary psychology via such Orwellian-named far-left groups as Science for the People, for proffering the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past.

Twelve years ago, long before I began blogging, I wrote about skeptics. I is worth reprinting what I wrote at the time especially since—surprise, surprise—it involves the question of Islam desperately needing a “Protestant-like Reformation”. I should mention that the article concludes with a jab at Michael Shermer from Ziauddin Sardar, my editor when I wrote for Critical Muslim.

Skeptical About Skepticism

Yesterday’s NY Times had a interesting profile on the 76 year old professional skeptic Paul Kurtz. It leads off:

“These are some of the things that Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and publisher of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, does not believe in: parapsychology, holistic cures for animal illnesses, the universal effectiveness of chiropractic, extraterrestrial beings, alternative medicine, Bigfoot and organized religion.

We learn that Kurtz’s operations have an annual budget of $11 million and that the center has small branches in Los Angeles and Montclair, N.J., with about 40 employees overall. There are affiliated groups in Russia, France, Peru, Germany, Africa and other locations. He also maintains a small empire of skeptical publications, including The Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice and others. His publishing house, the aptly named Prometheus Books, puts out about 100 books a year. In addition there is a sponsored student organization called the Campus Freethought Alliance, plus a secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous called S.O.S. (for Save Ourselves).

While Kurtz was left-wing in his youth during the depression, he became an anti-Communist while on duty with the US army in Europe. It seems that Russian slave laborers had refused to return to the Soviet Union at the end of the war, thus proving that Communism was a hateful system. Perhaps these Russians had heard through the grape-vine that a jail term awaited them in the USSR. In keeping with the draconian defense policy of WWII, Stalin had decided that anybody who had even been taken prisoner was insufficiently devoted to the defense of the motherland. One might also suspect that Kurtz’s indoctrination under Sidney Hook at NYU in the early 1940s might have had as much to do with his subsequent evolution.

We also learn that Paul Kurtz has joined people like Bernard Lewis and Thomas Friedman in the ideological war against Islam:

Islam desperately needs a Protestant-like Reformation,” he continued. The Islamic system is the product of “a nomadic, agrarian society, pre-modern and pre-urban, which they are trying to apply to the contemporary world.

When you go to Kurtz’s website, you discover that the enemies of science are not just people looking for the Yeti (an interesting aside–one of the lead anthropologists on the Kennewick Skeleton investigation has been on expeditions to find the Yeti, or abominable snowman). They include those of us who have an irrational fear of Genetically Modified food.

Matt Nisbet is a regular columnist for Kurtz publications, a self-described X-generation person, and a student at Cornell University. In an article titled “Caught in the Ag Biotech Crossfire: How U.S. Universities Can Engage the Public About Scientific Controversy“, he gives the kind of advice that would fit right in at the Monsanto public relations department:

Universities are therefore confronted with a public communication dilemma. When dealing with an issue like GM agriculture that is heavy with political controversy and scientific uncertainty, and a technology that is closely tied to institutional research and resources, what strategies of successful public engagement and communication can the universities pursue? Several courses of action based on past research in the social sciences can be recommended. They include: 1) sponsoring participatory public forums; 2) acknowledging uncertainty and strategically framing messages; 3) targeting specific publics through specific media; and 4) carefully monitoring public reaction and media coverage.

Oddly enough, for an outfit so devoted to science and reason, there is little engagement with the science of genetic modification itself. This is not surprising since this intellectual current seems either totally innocent of ecological science, or determined to sweep it under the rug. The moniker Prometheus that Kurtz has given to his publishing outlet suggests an unreconstructed vision of 19th century Progress. Needless to say, this dovetails neatly with the kind of philosophical pragmatism he embraces, which appears totally at home with the agenda of US imperialism.

The other big mover and shaker in the world of skepticism is Michael Shermer, who is much younger than Paul Kurtz and is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine. While targeting all the usual suspects (UFO’s, Bigfoot, ESP, etc.), Shermer has also investigated bogus history. He is the author of a book focusing on the libel case against David Irving, a holocaust denier.

Just as with Kurtz, Shermer casts a wide net in his crusade against the forces of anti-scientific darkness. Such forces include those who believe that there is a Gulf War Syndrome and that silicone breast implants might be harmful.

In a somewhat critical review of Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s “Leftist Science & Skeptical Rhetoric: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science”, Shermer does find himself nodding in agreement with their hostility to Marxism:

Where the academic left (driven by outdated Marxist theories of class oppression) presents science as nothing more than a social construction designed to support the group in power (usually white males), Gross and Levitt rightly point out that “science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise” where, for example, “the set of plain truths that science (in the guise of, say, penicillin) works just as well for Australian aborigines (male and female) as it does on Englishmen (and women).” And, I would add, it works for all classes.

This view of science is consistent with the one found in Paul Kurtz. It is a throwback to 19th century positivism and positively innocent of how capitalism shapes the scientific agenda.

In a review of Shermer’s “The Borderlands Of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense”, that appeared in the Aug. 14, 2001 Independent, Ziauddin Sardar is underwhelmed with Shermer’s call to reject bogus beliefs:

It’s good, sensible advice. It will be of immense use to people who accidentally missed primary education or left their brains in their mothers’ wombs. I suspect that most of these will be Americans, as the kind of non-science that Shermer exposes originates largely from North America.

But are people who believe in alien abduction, aura reading and past- regression therapy open to any kind of scepticism? And who is the bigger nut: the person who believes in “remote viewing” (the ability to travel in mind and give detailed descriptions of a person, place, process or object) or the person who devotes endless time to exposing it as fake?

There are more fundamental problems with Shermer’s scepticism. It is firmly of the Eurocentric kind that believes science was invented in Europe 300 years ago. He lumps acupuncture and yoga with dowsing and channelling, unable to distinguish between bodies of knowledge thousands of years old, with their own system of rationality and evidence, and a recent new-age fad. Moreover, his knowledge filter and boundary-detection kit cannot really tell the difference between an ancient and sophisticated medical system such as ayurveda and the schemes of Deepak Chopra, designed for California buffoons who will believe in anything.

Worse, Shermer’s scepticism is directed towards soft targets. When it comes to science, it turns into dogmatic belief. His understanding of history is less than rudimentary. When discussing the problems of ethics and morality in science, or the issue of cloning, his language becomes irrational and paranoid. Every argument is dismissed as a “historical common rejection of new technologies”.

To top it all, Shermer’s view of science is totally obscurantist. An old-fashioned believer in facts, he is quite unaware that ignorance has now become an integral part of science. We now appreciate not just that science seldom solves problems in neat packages, but also that there are always extra bits that cannot be solved. As in the case of nuclear waste, these messy bits of science are typically neglected — by many scientists as well as professional sceptics. Only someone ideologically sold on the Victorian notion of science as absolute truth would insist that it should be the yardstick for measuring all reality.

January 18, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Val and Nicholas Sarkozy

Filed under: Charlie Hebdo — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Philippe Val

This is a follow-up to my post on “Representing Mohammad” in which I stressed the importance of Charlie Hebdo’s decision to republish the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in 2006. My focus in that article was on the role of Denmark’s elite in supporting Bush’s war in Iraq and opening up a xenophobic attack on immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East seeking political asylum. In this post I want to take a close look at how Charlie Hebdo (CH) decided to align itself with elements of the French political class who were moving in the same direction. This requires putting a spotlight on the magazine’s editor Philippe Val and on Nicholas Sarkozy who was making a bid to replace Jacques Chirac as France’s President.

It is worth pointing out that Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post) received the same sort of response from the left that CH is receiving today. For example, in a CounterPunch article dated May 6, 2008, Trish Schuh, a co-founder of Military Families Support Network and a member of Military Reporters & Editors covering the Middle East, wrote:

As a free speech crusader, Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s editor behind the Muhammad cartoons (and ally/author of a Daniel Pipes profile “The Threat from Islam”), had earlier refused to publish denigrating cartoons of Jesus, fearing it would “offend readers.” Jylland-Posten also rescinded sponsorship of a Holocaust cartoon contest for the same reason. Kurt Westergaard, Jylland-Posten’s ‘Muhammad bomb’ illustrator even transcribed a Koranic verse onto Muhammad’s turban to reinforce his message. Westergaard later admitted to The Herald of Glasgow, Scotland that “terrorism” which he said got “spiritual ammunition” from Islam was the inspiration for that message.

If propaganda is a weapon of war, Islam is under carpet bombing. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels described the methods, which define those used today: “Concentrating the fire of all the media on one particular point- a single theme, a single enemy, a single idea- the campaign uses this concentration of all media, but progressively…”

Rings a bell, doesn’t it?

What confuses so many, however, is CH’s long association with the left. The aging artists and writers who were gunned down have been widely portrayed as soixante-huitards, or veterans of the 1968 May-June events in France. I have noticed defenses of CH pointing out that its editor Charb illustrated Daniel Bensaïd’s “Marx mode d’emploi”. Bensaid was a member of the French Trotskyist movement who along with Alain Krivine became part of the far left contingent hoping to go “all the way” against capitalism. Meanwhile, on MRZine you can find an article pointing out that Georges Wolinski, one of the murdered cartoonists, supplied artwork for a postcard that was to be used in a campaign to free the Cubans imprisoned in the USA for their role in keeping track of counter-revolutionary terrorists. So how can a magazine that has people like Charb and Wolinski working for it be considered the enemy?

Part of the problem, of course, is that too much of the left thinks in terms of black-and-white, good-and-evil, and friend-and-enemy. In reality, individuals and institutions can be both black and white. That is the whole point of dialectics, after all. In formal logic, you deal with static abstractions but in dialectics you are dealing with change. Heraclitus put it succinctly: the only thing that is permanent is change. Trotsky found another way to express this:

Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.

I would argue that Charlie Hebdo could be very well summed up as an exercise in “contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc.”, especially when you take a look at what was going on in 2007 when the Grand Mosque of Paris began criminal proceedings CH editor Philippe Val for publishing the Danish cartoons among other offenses.

President Chirac appeared to side with the Grand Mosque at the time, describing CH’s action as provocative. Before jumping to the conclusion that Chirac was soft on Islam, you have to remember that his administration pushed through the law that banned the headscarf in state-controlled spaces such as public schools. Even though the law would ban the Sikh turban and Jewish skullcap as well, most people understood that the real target was Muslim women. While Bensaid’s party, the NPA, opposed the ban, a vocal minority in the group supported it so stridently that a prominent hijab-wearing NPA candidate resigned.

Unlike Chirac or the NPA, Nicholas Sarkozy was totally hostile to Muslims. Interior Minister under Chirac, he wrote a letter on behalf of Val that was read in court: “I am eager to lend my support to your newspaper, which belongs to an old French tradition, that of satire.”

In 2008 Val showed his gratitude to Sarkozy, whose letter could very well have tilted the scales in favor of his acquittal after his son Jean was involved in a traffic accident that might have led to criminal charges if he had been a kid from the banlieues rather than the President’s son. It seems that Jean had run into a car with his scooter, leaving a dent that in itself is no big deal. But when he drove off before the cops arrived, he might have ended up in hot water.

CH cartoonist Siné couldn’t resist making a joke at Jean Sarkozy’s expense. In a column accompanied by his cartoon, he wrote:

“Jean Sarkozy, worthy son of his father and already a UMP councillor, emerged almost to applause after his court case for not stopping after an accident on his scooter.

“The prosecutor even asked for him to be cleared. You have to remember that the plaintiff was an Arab. And that’s not all. He has just said that he wants to convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancé, who is Jewish, and heir of the founders of Darty. He will go far in life, this boy!”

Sarkozy somehow lost his sense of humor when this item appeared. When he threatened to sue CH, Val had a change of heart. He called Siné anti-Semitic and demanded the kind of self-criticism that all of France’s Muslims are being asked to make today. Siné said, “I would rather cut off my balls.”

In keeping with the contradictory character of CH Siné was no Marxist saint. In an August 3rd, 2008 Observer article, he is quoted: “Yes, I am anti-Semitic and I am not scared to admit it. . . I want all Jews to live in fear, unless they are pro-Palestinian. Let them die.” After this outburst, he apologized.

In a letter to Le Monde, some major players in the holocaust industry demanded Siné’s firing, among them Elie Wiesel and Bernard-Henri Levy. Levy offered these thoughts: “Behind these words, a French ear is unable not to hear the echo of the most rancid anti-Semitism.” In a way, the 20 co-authors of the letter were trying to break down an open door since Val was clearly disposed to their way of thinking as reflected in an interview he gave to L’Express on October 22, 2008:

Q: Can we, amid the conflict, be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic?

A: It is impossible. Israel is a democracy and Zionism is the expression shared by the right and left, the Israeli patriotism. “Zionist” is the word for patriot. There are only Jews being denied the right to patriotism. One can legitimately say opposed the Israeli government policy, but say anti-Zionist is to say anti-Jewish.

Val also scoffed at “trendy” anti-colonial movements that enlisted NPA leader Besancenot among others on their behalf. Once upon a time it was noble to be against colonialism but for many it was just a way to get the kind of kicks that the WWII Resistance once provided: “But ten years after the Second World War, for part of the left that missed the rendezvous with the Resistance, the anti-colonial enthusiasm was much appreciated. The Algeria, it was a comfortable catch-up session: easier to fight against the French state as colonizer then the Germans … For some, there is a desire to take on their own or, as in Genet or Vergès, to hate France.”

It would also seem that Sarkozy and Val were united on domestic issues as well as foreign policy based on their response to the banlieue uprising as The Australian reported on November 7, 2005.

On Friday night alone, almost 900 cars were torched, mostly in poor immigrant suburbs. Hundreds more struggling residents of la banlieue — or the suburbs — lost their means of transportation at the weekend. At least 3000 cars have been incinerated since October 27, and late last week copycat attacks spread across France to Normandy, Lille, Marseilles and Dijon.

The clashes sparked 10 days ago by the accidental death of two teenage boys — who were electrocuted after taking refuge in a substation, believing police were chasing them — in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois have paralysed the country.

Arsonists came closer to the centre of Paris on Saturday, striking at neighbourhoods such as Pantin and Montreuil, which are on the metro line. The heart of Paris was hit yesterday, when Place de la Republique, 10 minutes’ walk from Notre Dame cathedral, was closed after the burning of four cars.

“This is like (the protests) of May 1968 — except it is the inverse,” said Philippe Val, the publisher of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

A book published by Institut PANOS in Paris titled “Media and Cultural Diversity in Europe and North America” was much more direct in its characterization of Val’s views. According to its researchers, he described them as nothing more than “anti-Semitic mobs”.

Sarkozy must have really appreciated Philippe Val’s efforts on his behalf since he put him in charge of French Public Radio after he resigned from Charlie Hebdo. If such a character can be regarded as “radical”, then I would have to paraphrase Marx and say that I am no radical.

About the best thing you can say about Charlie Hebdo is that it was a contradictory phenomenon. It was a voice of the left and the right at the same time. All through the history of our movement, socialism has had tensions within its ranks over the same sorts of issues. In Marx’s time, the people in the USA who were building a movement in his name had all sorts of problems. At the NYC branch of the American section of the First International, a San Francisco worker addressed his comrades:

The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.

All we can do in such circumstances is to remain vigilant and never forget the basis upon which our movement was built, namely to unite the working class across ethnic, racial and religious divides to face and defeat a common enemy. We can hardly expect cartoonists with only a fleeting commitment to Marxism to hold up their end of the bargain but let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard.

 

Syriza meeting at 6pm

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

Screen shot 2015-01-18 at 10.54.41 AM

January 17, 2015

Sol Dollinger interview, part two

Filed under: Cochranites — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm

In this portion of the interview, Sol Dollinger talks about:

–the role of the CP in the UAW

–James P. Cannon’s attitude toward the CP

–Sol’s hospitalization following a Nazi torpedo attack on his freighter during the Murmansk Run

–Meeting Genora Johnson

Sol Dollinger interview part one

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