Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 12, 2015

Scientology and the SWP: varieties of cult experience

Filed under: cults,religion — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Just as Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” helped to put a famous musician into perspective following the mannered and incoherent biopic “Get on Up”, he has come to the rescue once again with “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, another documentary this time about the infamous cult that bears little resemblance to that depicted in Paul Anderson’s equally mannered and incoherent “The Master”. Perhaps one can excuse Anderson for making a film that was purportedly not about Scientology if at least it was a good film. Not knowing that much about the cult nor much of a fan of Anderson’s self-indulgences, the film amounted to a sheer waste of time for me. In contrast, Gibney’s documentary that is currently running on HBO was totally riveting especially for someone like me who belonged to a political rather than a religious cult. When former members of Scientology discussed being “Disconnected”, a term for ostracizing those who give hostile interviews to the press or run blogs that expose the cult, I could identify completely.

“Going Clear” is a reference to the process in Scientology that is roughly equivalent to being “cured” through psychoanalysis. People who join the group are convinced that like the Oedipal Complex in Freudian theory, there is psychological baggage that we have carried around since early childhood that prevents us from a full flowering as a human being. What makes Scientology quasi-religious is the notion that the baggage actually predates our birth and is connected to cosmological battles that took place eons ago on planet Earth when our earliest spiritual ancestors (thetans) were seduced by the material world. As someone who spent a summer in a psychotherapy camp run by an orthodox Freudian in 1958 and a couple of years at Bard College studying Gnosticism, all this rang a bell.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard started off as a science-fiction writer so his business about thetans was probably no more nonsensical than much of the “Sky” based religions, especially Christianity that like Gnosticism absorbed much of the Neo-Platonism that was in fashion in Jesus’s day. When you combine a redemptive theology with pop psychology in a period of American history that was rotten ripe for the acceptance of that sort of thing, it is no surprise that the cult grew like wildfire.

Gibney’s film is two hours long with the first half devoted to L. Ron Hubbard’s career and the second to the rise of David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology who has the pretty face and chintzy charisma of someone like Joel Osteen. Like Osteen, Scientology is a religion of “success”. If Osteen’s sermons are mostly about living a “successful” life by following Christ, Miscavige’s approach is also geared to “making it”. That is why it became so important for him to groom Tom Cruise as a figurehead. With his successful career and devoted fan base, what better advertising could there be for the cult?

This ties in to what appears to be Scientology’s orientation to people in the film industry, a sector whose personnel is obviously subject to feelings of inadequacy. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the actors I have known in my life only feel whole when they are imitating someone else. Except for the rare individual like Marlon Brando who saw through the film industry’s bullshit, most are like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Priscilla Presley et al: plastic people that except for the ability to memorize lines and become someone else on stage would languish in obscurity. It would seem that most of these show business professionals got into the cult relatively early in their careers when a security blanket was necessary to get them through the lonely and difficult journey of becoming a star.

What is a bit more difficult to understand is why director Paul Haggis became a member since he was capable of making films as thoughtful as anything that Gibney ever produced such as “In the Valley of Elah”, one of the few Hollywood films about the war in Iraq that departed from the flag-waving norm. Interviewed throughout the film, Haggis comes across as a thoughtful soul who should have known better. His decision to break with Scientology was prompted by their opposition to gay marriage, a stance in line with their belief that homosexuality was a sign of not being “Clear”.

In a fascinating section of the film that focused on John Travolta’s membership, it was pointed out that he is submissive to the leadership because they have damaging information on his gay identity that could destroy his career. That is the stick. The carrot is the powerful legal and PR machinery they wield that can be deployed against tabloids that go too far in going after Travolta.

As a high-profile critic of the SWP cult, I felt a strong affinity with a group of men and women who have taken their case against Miscavige et al publicly. Chief among them is Mark “Marty” Rathbun who operates a blog called Moving on Up a Little Higher. Rathbun was once the inspector General of the group, a job that monitored the membership for deviations from the Truth. Under Miscavige’s rule, Rathbun’s staff became much more repressive and began to function like the Soviet secret police administering “reeducation” camps that featured intense brainwashing exercises and corporal punishment. He is now considered Scientology’s Public Enemy Number One.

As I sat watching the film, I could not help but wonder what the big difference was between Scientology and the “legitimate” religions. Is there anything that controversial about the IRS’s decision to grant Scientology a tax-exempt status? Gibney’s documentary points out that this has enabled it to build a real-estate empire but is there anything really new about that? Queen Elizabeth is number one in the 15 largest real estate landowners in the world with 6.6 billion acres but Pope Benedict is no slouch at number 3 with 177 million acres under his control.

In terms of dealing with dissidents, as bad as Scientology is, I doubt that we ever have to worry about them killing ex-members as is common in the world of Christian sects. Some historians argue that the Fourth Crusade that pitted the Vatican-backed army against the Byzantine Church’s garrisons in Constantinople was as ruthless as any directed against Muslims.

During his long and controversial but illustrious career, Alexander Cockburn was labeled a Scientology apologist. As a reality check, I tracked down one of his articles on the cult and found it rather convincing. Besides sharing their antipathy toward Prozac (I found the drug most beneficial so on this I am at odds with the late great Master just as I was on global warming), most of his energy seems devoted to defending their rights to exist like other religions. Written in 1997, his LA Times piece titled “Scientologists Take Offensive in Reich Land” makes some excellent points:

Never get on the wrong side of the Scientologists, as I often say to Heber Jentzsch, with whom I have spent many interesting hours discussing the evils of the CIA, brainwashers, shrinks, the pharmaceutical companies, Time and other pet peeves we share. Jentzsch is president of the Church of Scientology International and is now much preoccupied with their great battle against German politicians.

To people who remonstrate with me for having truck with Scientologists, I always say that folks who hate the organizations listed above can’t be all bad, and that there’s probably more psychic oppression in every 10 seconds of the life of the Roman Catholic Church (or–let’s be ecumenical–the Mormons, Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists) than in the career of the Scientologists since L. Ron Hubbard got them launched. Last time I heard, the Vatican (which has to OK every deal) was settling sex abuse cases against priests in the U.S. at about $1 million per.

Anyway, the provincial German government got up Jentzsch’s nose by being beastly to German Scientologists. They wouldn’t even let jazz player and Scientologist Chick Corea perform inside the country. In some German provinces, they won’t let the children of Scientologists into kindergartens. This is because Germans are constantly worried that unless vigilance is exercised, covert groups will take over the state, suck out their brains and turn them into zombies.

Jentzsch and his fellows have been fighting back, with considerable success. They ran big newspaper ads saying that the Third Reich is being revived. (The Nazis started persecuting Seventh-day Adventists before pressing on to the big task of killing all the Jews, gypsies and Communists.) There have been letters from Scientology supporters and adepts in Hollywood. There have been condemnations of Germany by members of Congress and finally some stern words about German abuses of Scientologists’ human rights from the State Department.

As I watched “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, I not only made comparisons with other religions but with the Socialist Workers Party that I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. Unlike Scientology, it was not a cult at the outset but only became one around the time I was ready to leave. I was uncomfortable with the new “turn to the working class” but just as much if not even more so by the willingness of the membership to vote for the turn without hesitation.

So fervent was the campaign and so deep the pressure to toe the line that I got up at a meeting of several hundred members in NYC and announced that I was “excited” to go to Kansas City and get a factory job even though I was crushed by the choice I had made. Unlike other members, however, I had inner doubts that would make it impossible for me to spend more than a few months giving the “turn” a try. Others found it so much to their liking that a life of poverty and political work that consisted of selling the Militant to indifferent workers was sufficient to keep them going for decades. I could barely stand six months of it.

The other thing that made me resistant to cult membership was my identification with the beat generation that remained with me even after joining the SWP. Although I joined out of political convictions that made me susceptible to the Messianic fervor endemic to the Trotskyist (and Maoist) movement, I always felt detached from the gravitational pull that lured many people my age to go on full-time and/or to live in semi-communal housing in which your social, political and love lives became entangled with each other.

In a way, I understand why people would join the Scientology Church or the SWP, leaving aside the radical differences between their beliefs. As has been the case since the days of the Gnostic religion, there has always been a tendency for people—especially those with the psychological weakness to feel estranged by the dominant institutions of class society—to look for moral support from others so disposed. Ironically, this is what made Bard College so appealing in 1961. It was a place where other pimply seventeen-year-old kids who loved “On the Road” and “Howl” could finally feel at home.

The one thing I got from my education there, however, was the lesson that you had t stick to your own principles and not bow down to authority, a point that was made repeatedly by Heinrich Blucher when he spoke about Socrates. It is the ultimate contradiction of revolutionary politics is that you have to continue to think for yourself while acting in concert with others. Once we assemble the forces that are capable of changing the world from top to bottom, we will finally be able to be “clear” for the first time in human history.

April 10, 2015

Slave Rebellions on the Open Seas

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery — louisproyect @ 4:27 pm
Slave Rebellions on the Open Seas

The Black Struggle Against Slavery

by LOUIS PROYECT

Greg Grandin’s “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” and Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom” share both subject matter—slave rebellions on the open seas—and an unabashed commitment to the Black freedom struggle. Beyond the fortuitous combination of topic and political passion, however, the greatest reward for any reader is how both authors make history come alive. Despite their remoteness in time and place, the stories they tell have an obvious affinity for the Black struggle today as a new civil rights struggle takes shape to secure the final victory sought by ancestors Babo and Cinque.

“The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” is an exploration of the events that inspired Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”, an 1855 novella about the ruse orchestrated by slaves fifty years earlier to convince Captain Amasa Delano, a distant relative of FDR, that their vessel remained under their ex-master’s sway. This excerpt from Melville should give you a flavor of this droll and macabre tale:

Three black boys, with two Spanish boys, were sitting together on the hatches, scraping a rude wooden platter, in which some scanty mess had recently been cooked. Suddenly, one of the black boys, enraged at a word dropped by one of his white companions, seized a knife, and though called to forbear by one of the oakum-pickers, struck the lad over the head, inflicting a gash from which blood flowed.

In amazement, Captain Delano inquired what this meant. To which the pale Benito dully muttered, that it was merely the sport of the lad.

“Pretty serious sport, truly,” rejoined Captain Delano. “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed.”

At these words the Spaniard turned upon the American one of his sudden, staring, half-lunatic looks; then, relapsing into his torpor, answered, “Doubtless, doubtless, Senor.”

If Grandin’s history is a fitting counterpart to Melville’s fiction, a work of high culture for the ages, we can see “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom” as a necessary corrective to Stephen Spielberg’s pop culture film that like his “Lincoln” told a tale of paternalistic white intervention when the real history would have revealed something much more like self-emancipation.

read full article

April 9, 2015

Black Souls

Filed under: crime,Film,Italy — louisproyect @ 8:59 pm

In American popular culture, the mafia gangster is either a tarnished hero like Don Corleone or a likeable lowlife like Tony Soprano. But for Italians, he is a much more malevolent figure especially as seen in a number of art films that are often infused with the leftist and neorealist traditions of the postwar period. More importantly, it is much harder for the average Italian to cheer for Michael Corleone taking revenge on a crooked cop and rival gang leader or Tony Soprano’s malapropisms when the mafia has functioned so often as a rightwing death squad.

In Paul Ginsborg’s Marxist-oriented “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988”, there’s an account of the mafia’s attack on a peasant protest in Villalba in central Sicily in September 1944. This was a village dominated by a mafia boss named Don Calò Vizzini, who had returned as part of the Allies entourage. Vizzini was among the gangsters who supposedly helped prepare the American invasion alongside Lucky Luciano and others.

The local CP leader, a man named Girolamo Li Causi, had asked for permission to hold a meeting in the village square. Vizzini granted permission but only if there was no talk about land reform or the mafia. Ginsborg quotes fellow Marxist Carlo Levi on what took place there:

Causi began to talk to that little unexpected crowd about the Micciché estate, about the land, about the Mafia. The parish priest, brother of Don Calò, tried to drown Li Causi’s voice by ringing the bells of his church. But the peasants listened and understood: ‘He’s right; they said: ‘blessed be the milk of the mother who suckled him, it’s gospel truth what he is saying.’ By so doing they were breaking a sense of time-honoured servitude, disobeying not just one order but order itself, challenging the laws of the powerful destroying authority, despising and offending prestige. It was then that Don Calò,. from the middle of the piazza, shouted ‘it’s all lies!’ The sound of his cry acted like a signal. The mafiosi began to shoot.

Fourteen people were wounded that day, including Li Causi.

There was peasant resistance in Calabria as well, the “toe” of southern Italy that appears to be kicking the island of Sicily. A 1945 CP report indicated that they had built peasant leagues with 40,000 members in Calabria, the very region that is the locale for “Black Souls”, an Italian film that opens at the Angelika and City Cinemas in New York tomorrow and at the Nuart in Los Angeles on April 24.

The blackness alluded to in the title is not skin color but the evil that dwells in the heart of brothers Luigi and Rocco Carbone. The two gangsters come from the town of Africo in Calabria, where their older brother Luciano raises goats on a picturesque mountaintop. Luciano’s son Leo, who is in his late teens, wants nothing to do with goats and only dreams of becoming an apprentice to Luigi and Rocco who run their drug importing business out of Milan.

When a traditional rival of the Carbone family, a local saloon-keeper in Africo, insults them, Leo arms himself with a shotgun and blows out his windows in the middle of the night. This is hardly the kind of offense that leads to gang wars of the sort that dominate American films but is in fact typical of what has turned much of southern Italy into a blood-soaked battleground.

If you are expecting Godfather type action of the “going to the mattresses” sort, not only won’t you find here but you shouldn’t. The violence in “Black Souls” is like that takes place over turf control by the Crips and the Bloods or the kind that has forced so many young people to flee El Salvador and Honduras. It is Luciano’s hope to dissuade Leo from a life of crime even though he knows it is a losing battle. The boy worships Luigi who is both charismatic in his own slimy fashion as well as filthy rich.

“Black Souls” is based on a novel written by Gioacchino Criaco, who was born in Africo and a lawyer who returned home to write about his region’s troubles. Like Juarez in Mexico, Africo is one of Calabria’s most dangerous spots. The film benefits from the casting of Giuseppe Fumo, a local nonprofessional, as Leo. He must have known from first-hand experience the tragic attraction that the mafia has for youth with an uncertain future.

Criaco is far more interested in the family drama that pits brother against brother for the soul of a young man than in the social and economic forces that have given birth to the mafia. Before long, I will be researching Italian films about the mafia that draw from radical and neorealist traditions but do not hesitate to recommend “Black Souls”, a film that is uncompromisingly bleak but truthful. It is blessed by a good script and fine performances. There’s not much more than one can ask for nowadays.

April 8, 2015

Naomi Klein, Jodi Dean and the debate over “Green Keynesianism”

Filed under: economics,Global Warming,Green Party,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

this changes everything

Despite its obvious intention to challenge the corporate-dominated status quo, some Marxists fault Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” for supposedly straddling two

Despite its obvious intention to challenge the corporate-dominated status quo, some Marxists fault Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” for supposedly straddling two opposing and mutually exclusive systems: capitalism and socialism. For every criticism, there has been a defense of “This Changes Everything” from other Marxists, including those who have had long-standing affinities with the critics–thus demonstrating that deep divisions do not have to stand in the way of a unified movement. As such, the debate is a reminder that as long as our primary focus is on challenging capitalist rule, there is no reason why we cannot air out our differences in the public arena without the schisms that have harmed out movement in the past.

In a December 30, 2014 Jacobin article (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/naomi-klein-capitalism/), Sam Gindin praises Klein for attacking capitalism as the source of climate change but faults her for leaving too much “wriggle room” for capitalist reform. By hammering away at “villains” such as the Koch brothers et al, the left can effectively let the system off the hook. While Gindin does not identify her as a Keynesian—the term that is widely identified with the leftwing policy studies base of the Democratic Party—he leaves the impression that she is not much different than Bill McKibben. When he writes that “It is one thing to ask how we can organize ourselves better to register our dissatisfaction and to pressure or lobby corporations and states to modify some of their ways within capitalism”, it is clearly a warning that Klein’s agenda is one of capitalist reform.

The final paragraph of Gindin’s article is particularly intriguing:

At the end of her book, Klein is about to interview the youthful head of Syriza, the radical Greek party now on the brink of taking power. She asks a Greek comrade what she should ask him, and the person answers: “Ask him: When history knocked on your door, did you answer?” As Klein concludes, “That’s a good question for all of us.”

As you might know, Sam Gindin’s writing partner is Leo Panitch who has become one of Syriza’s most prominent defenders just as Jacobin has tended to stake out a position as a left critic of its supposed Keynesian weaknesses. Although Gindin has never written about Syriza, one might reasonably conclude that the critique he has mounted against Naomi Klein would apply equally to the Syriza leadership, especially the finance minister who has generated controversy on the left for stating that “saving capitalism from itself” is the number one task of Marxism.

In a defense (http://systemchangenotclimatechange.org/article/view-burnaby-mountain-naomi-klein%E2%80%99s-changes-everything) of “This Changes Everything”, Canadian ecosocialist Brad Hornick takes up the question of “wriggle room”, a term for evading the need for socialism. Hornick points out that there is a certain necessity imposed on Klein as the head of a mass movement who has to adopt a somewhat ambivalent stance in order to engage people who have not made up their mind about socialism, even if this populist writing style is guilty of “conceptual slippage or ideological ‘wiggle room,’“as Sam Gindin puts it. That just might be the price that must be paid for avoiding the “ideological closure that more rigorous and precise Marxist or eco-socialist categories may engender for ‘untrained audiences’”, something that is more geared to Historical Materialism conferences than the mass movement.

Richard Smith, an environmentalist and Marxist scholar, has faulted Naomi Klein along the same lines in a Truthout article dated November 12, 2014. (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/27226-climate-crisis-the-deindustrialization-imperative-and-the-jobs-vs-environment-dilemma) He claims that in her vision of the future, “corporations will still run the world’s economies and capitalist governments will still run politics” and adds that by failing to articulate a clear-cut socialist vision she runs the risk of failing in the same way that the Occupy movement failed:

When New York bankers replied to the Occupy movement in 2011, “Don’t like capitalism? What’s your alternative?” for all its audacity and militancy, Occupy had no alternative to offer. We can’t build much of a movement without something to fight for, not just against.

There is, of course, an opposite interpretation of Occupy’s legacy, namely that its power derived partially from its refusal to elaborate a socialist program—something that might have undermined it more than any billy club.

While acknowledging that “This Changes Everything” is by no means perfect, Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster defends her (http://monthlyreview.org/2015/02/01/crossing-the-river-of-fire/) against the “wiggle room” criticisms and particularly against Richard Smith. For Foster, her failure to call for socialism is a pardonable offense since her real mission is to make the case for System Change Not Climate Change, even if all the i’s are not dotted and the t’s uncrossed.

It might be apparent at this point that the comradely debate around “This Changes Everything” goes to the heart of questions of reform versus revolution that have dogged the left since the days of Karl Marx. Since Green politics globally has been susceptible—at least in the eyes of some Marxists—to cooptation of the sort that worries Sam Gindin, Richard Smith and by extension those keeping a watchful eye on Syriza, it would be useful to turn to Jodi Dean’s article that was crossposted to North Star on March 27th, which has the merit of drawing sharp distinctions between her own perspective on divergent roads we face today on Green politics and social change as a whole. Her sharp elbows have a way of crystallizing the differences.

Dean characterizes Klein’s program as one that advocates “dispersed activities combined within a diffuse policy framework oriented toward long-term planning and inspired by an essentialist, overly romantic vision of locality, indigeneity, and democracy (that is to say, populism)… She invokes radical politics, but ultimately pulls back into the formula of the alter-globalization movement: in a movement of movements, multiple communities can solve their problems democratically.”

If you wonder why Dean recoils from “democracy”, admittedly a word that has lost its original meaning (rule of the people) in a world where an Orwellian abuse of language is universal, the answer is that it falls short of drawing sharp class lines. In an excerpt from her book “Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics” that appears on E-Flux (http://www.e-flux.com/journal/democracy-a-knot-of-hope-and-despair/), she wonders why the left continues to appeal to democracy. “Calling for democracy, leftists fail to emphasize the divisions necessary for politics, divisions that should lead us to organize against the interests of corporations and their stockholders, against the values of fundamentalists and individualists, and on behalf of collectivist arrangements designed to redistribute benefits and opportunities more equitably.”

It may be the case that many activists fail to understand the inherently undemocratic nature of capitalist “democracy” but it does not help us get a broader hearing by turning the word into a kind of curse word. As more and more people take part in social struggles, they will learn from experience that the cops and the army attack democratic rights in order to protect corporate power. A movement is necessary that educates people around the idea that genuine democracy requires a defense of civil liberties, the voting rights of African-Americans now under siege, rescinding the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Citizens United, equal time for third parties such as the Greens and many other demands that will resonate with the average American. When this is combined with a patient explanation of the need for economic democracy, for which socialism will be the culmination, our cause will be strengthened.

Turning now to Dean’s critique of Klein’s economic policies, it can be described as a defense of “communism” against Green Keynesianism.

Some of the components of Klein’s new Green Keynesianism would likely include:  a carefully planned economy; basic annual income; big public sector expenditures; higher taxes on the rich; and tougher business regulations. The Green justification for the higher taxes on the rich is that they are the ones who need to curb their consumption. The big expenditures would include better public transit, energy efficient housing, and changes in land use to encourage local agriculture.

If such a program is so limited, you might conclude that the Green Party would not pass muster with Dean, especially since there is not a whisper of “communism” in its policy statements. Since Dean is critical of Klein for opposing the nationalization of energy and advocating instead “the model of democratically run, community-based utilities”, you can imagine her disappointment in the Green Party’s call for “Decentralized, Bio-Regional Electricity Generation and Distribution” (http://www.gp.org/committees/platform/2010/index.php).

It must be said that for people beginning to question capitalist rule, the call for “nationalization” might not be very inspiring on its own terms. Since this only means state ownership, and was par for the course in many oppressive capitalist societies such as Pakistan and Turkey in the past, it might make more sense to call for “democratically run, community-based utilities” that would probably be more inimical to the interests of the billionaires than nationalization.

If you have been paying close attention to Green politics over the years, you will probably be aware that there is an affinity between environmentalism and indigenous peoples’ struggles so much so that Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwa Indian activist, was Ralph Nader vice-presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. LaDuke was a logical choice since as Executive Director of Honor the Earth, since the group defined its mission as creating “awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities.”

But Jodi Dean is just as wary of “indigeneity” as she is of localism in general even when local ties are based on tribal bonds where the connection to the land goes back thousands of years. The notion of being tied to a particular place is troubling to her at best and in the eyes of her students who looked at these issues in a seminar possibly “racist” and even “fascist”. Indeed, the lack of roots of the sort that a family farmer or an Ojibwa Indian has to his or her land ”echoes with descriptions of cosmopolitan Jews, intellectuals, and communists. Some are always foreign elements threatening our way of life.”

This seems distinctly at odds with the living struggles taking place now against fracking in which native peoples and farmers have joined together to protect the natural habitat. It would appear unlikely that such people have any incentive to conduct pogroms against “rootless cosmopolitans” or undocumented workers working in slaughterhouses in the Midwest. If anything, they would be natural allies.

Close to the end of her article, Dean quotes Klein on a matter very close to the mission of North Star:

And let’s take it for granted that we want to do these radical things democratically and without a bloodbath, so violent, vanguardist revolutions don’t have much to offer in the way of roadmaps.

While Dean does not quite come out and say that she is for “violent, vanguardist revolutions”, it does make one wonder why she is so insistent on using the term “communism” that for most people summons up images of North Korea rather than what Karl Marx had in mind, who it should be emphasized used the words “communism” and “socialism” interchangeably.

Fortunately, you can read an excerpt from “This Changes Everything” at the Nation Magazine (http://www.thenation.com/article/181621/climate-change-peoples-shock) where the words were can be found as part of a discussion of the overarching need to oppose climate change that threatens life on earth.

It begins with the passage alluded to above by Sam Gindin where Klein posed the question to Alexis Tsipras: “Someone suggested: ‘History knocked on your door—did you answer?’” Klein, who was troubled by Syriza’s support for expanded oil and gas exploration even if the proceeds would pay for pensions, subsumes everything under the struggle to preserve the planet and everything living on it.

It is not really the purpose of this article to render a decision on the “extractivism” question except to say that it is worth mentioning that socialists have made convincing cases for backing oil and energy exploration in places like Bolivia where it is the only means to improve the living conditions of those most in need.

However, there are reasons to believe that Syriza will make a decision differently than politicians in Louisiana who were in BP’s back pocket. Within Syriza, the decision on gas and oil exploration is likely to be made on the same basis as other decisions that the party has made, namely with respect for the democratic rights of the party members. If there has been any lesson to be taken away from the first couple of months it has been in power, it is that this is a party where open and heated debate can take place without fear of expulsion or ostracism. The Greeks who have forged ahead with this new party against practically insurmountable odds are reminding us of the original meaning of democracy in the Greek language: rule of the people.

 

 

April 7, 2015

About Elly; Salvation Army

Filed under: Film,Gay,Iran,Islam — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

Although I am generally put off by prizes and “best of” lists, I would be remiss if I did not cite Asghar Farhadi as one of the best filmmakers in the world today, who is to Iran what Nuri Bilge Ceylan is to Turkey: a supremely gifted dramatist that weaves the stories of individual men and women into the social and political fabric of his nation.

Opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York, “About Elly” is the third Farhadi film I have seen. Even though its release follows “A Separation” and “The Past”, it was made first—back in 2009. Made in 2011, “A Separation”—as the title implies—deals with the break-up of a husband and wife in Tehran whose marital problems are exacerbated by Iran’s charged political climate, especially for such well-educated and secular middle-class people. Made a year later and set in Paris, “The Past” examines some of the same family issues of “A Separation”. An Iranian husband has traveled to Paris to sign the divorce papers for his French wife. Although the primary tension in the film is about the pending break-up, a parallel drama revolves around the fate of foreigners in an increasingly nativist France.

This social milieu and its particular problems are once again the subject of “About Elly”, a film that works both as a story of responsibility and guilt after the fashion of Ian McEwan’s earlier (and better) novels, as well as the problems facing single women in Iran today.

“About Elly” opens with a small caravan of cars barreling through a tunnel in Iran as one of the women passengers is yelling out the window for no good reason except to be heard. She and the others are in high spirits since they are driving to a beachside resort on the Caspian Sea, the Iranian counterpart to a weekend in the Hamptons.

One of the male passengers is a handsome and bearded (but probably not for religious reasons) man in his thirties named Ahmad, who like the protagonist in “The Past”, has just separated from a European wife—in this instance a German. He is visiting Tehran where he hopes that Sepideh, a female member of the entourage, can fix him up with a nice Iranian woman.

Sepideh invites Elly, her daughter’s teacher, along for just that reason. Despite the Western-sounding name, it is just an informal version of Elizeh or Elika, etc. The fact that Sepideh has no idea of Elly’s full name might indicate that the ties between her and the rest of the group are tenuous at best. In essence, what is taking place in this well educated and secular milieu of law school faculty members is not that much different than traditional courtship rituals that have taken place for a millennium and one that usually empowers man at the woman’s expense.

As the group drives along toward the resort and even after they have unpacked, they tease the two who have just met about the upcoming marriage—to Elly’s mounting irritation. Perhaps the fact that all the women wear scarves—even indoors where it is not mandatory—indicates that their modernity is incomplete.

In the only moments when Ahmad and Elly are alone together, she asks why he and his German wife had divorced. His answered that she told him “a bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness.” He obviously agreed.

About twenty minutes into the film, there is an abrupt shift toward the tragic. Sepideh has asked Elly to keep an eye on her young son who is wading in the sea just behind their villa. As the film cuts to the group playing volleyball in their villa’s back yard, we see one of the younger children come crying. Sepideh’s son has been carried out to sea. The men rush into the turbulent waters and rescue the boy from drowning but Elly is nowhere to be seen. They fear that she has drowned trying to rescue the boy but hold out hope that she might have only left unannounced back to Tehran out of annoyance with their teasing.

The remainder of the film consists of mounting tension between Sepideh and her husband over her role in procuring a date with Ahmad, especially in light of the fact that Elly has been engaged for the past three years. If Elly had mixed feelings about the arranged tryst with Ahmad, she is simply miserable about being engaged to a man who will not allow her to break it off. All of this takes place against a backdrop of a desperate search for her body in the foreboding waters of the Caspian.

It is worth mentioning what David Bordwell, arguably the most respected Marxist film critic in the world today, wrote about the film in 2009:

The best, and my favorite film I’ve seen so far this year, was About Elly. It is directed by Asghar Fahradi, and it won the Silver Bear at Berlin. I can’t say much about it without giving a lot away; like many Iranian films, it relies heavily on suspense. That suspense is at once situational (what has happened to this character?) and psychological (what are characters withholding from each other?). Starting somewhat in the key of Eric Rohmer, it moves toward something more anguished, even a little sinister in a Patricia Highsmith vein.

Gripping as sheer storytelling, the plot smoothly raises some unusual moral questions. It touches on masculine honor, on the way a thoughtless laugh can wound someone’s feelings, on the extent to which we try to take charge of others’ fates. I can’t recall another film that so deeply examines the risks of telling lies to spare someone grief. But no more talk: The less you know in advance, the better. About Elly deserves worldwide distribution pronto.

While not quite “pronto”, we can be grateful for the opportunity to see a film that according to Wikipedia was rated the 4th greatest Iranian movie of all time by a national society of Iranian critics. Considering the artistic merit of Iranian films in general, this is high praise indeed.

Arriving as VOD (identified at the distributor’s website), “Salvation Army” is a major breakthrough since it is the very first film with a gay protagonist to come out of the Middle East and North Africa.

Abdellah Taïa, the first openly gay author in the Arab world, has now adapted one of his novels as a film, one that showed at the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York last year. Set in Casablanca, this is a bildungsroman in Taïa’s own words. The main character is a teenaged boy named Abdellah who is a closeted gay who has desultory trysts with older men in his neighborhood but whose most amorous feelings are directed toward his older heterosexual brother. His mother, sensing that there is something “wrong” with him, abjures him from spending too much time going through his brother’s clothes, especially his underwear.

It is obvious that family life has gotten the better of him. With a father who beats his mother and a mother who treats him like a servant, and sisters who laugh at his softness without actually openly engaging in gay bashing, there is not much joy to be found in Casablanca. In many ways, this is a tale that subverts the stereotypes many people have developed from reading Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs and the like.

Deliverance arrives in the form of a gay Swiss professor who kept Abdellah as his courtesan in exchange for help in a visa and entrance into the college where he works. The second part of “Salvation Army” depicts and older and wiser Abdellah fending off the professor and trying to eke out a living in Switzerland just before his first semester begins. This includes crashing at the local Salvation Army, the title of the film.

The film does not have a conventional plot but moves along as a series of vignettes that reflect different aspects of gay life in Morocco. It is not surprising given its provenance that it has a novelistic quality, with most of the drama having a subdued if not repressed quality. In the most evocative scene, Abdellah has gone to a beachside resort with his older and younger brothers. Just before they leave, the mother gives him an amulet to put under his older brother’s bed as a spell to ward him away from prostitutes. When he hooks up with a surly but willing waitress, Abdellah phones his mother to advise her that a stronger spell was needed.

I strongly recommend the Wikipedia entry on Abdellah Taïa that reveals him to be a multifaceted figure with a willingness to take up many other issues besides gay rights, including repression in Putin’s Russia and the terrorism that afflicts the Muslim world.

There is also a N.Y. Times article that is very much worth reading that I include below, just so that you do not run into the usual paywall issues:

HE was born inside the public library of Rabat in Morocco where his dad worked as a janitor and where his family lived until he was 2. For most of his childhood, he hid his sexuality as best he could, but his effeminate demeanor brought mockery and abuse, even as it would later become a source of artistic inspiration.

About eight years ago, the author Abdellah Taïa, now 40, came out to the Moroccan public in his books and in the news media, appearing on the cover of a magazine under the headline “Homosexual Against All Odds.”

It was an act that made him one of the few to publicly declare his sexual orientation in Morocco, where homosexuality is a crime. The hardest part, he recalls, was facing his family. They probably always knew, he said, they just never talked about it. Still, it took years to overcome the rifts.

“They cried and screamed,” said Mr. Taïa, who now lives in Paris. “I cried when they called me. But I won’t apologize. Never.”

In February, Mr. Taïa screened his film “Salvation Army” at the National Film Festival in Tangier, an adaptation of his book of the same title, and a promising directorial debut that gave the Arab world its first on-screen gay protagonist. The film, which has already been shown at festivals in Toronto and Venice and won the Grand Prix at the Angers Film Festival in France, was shown at the New Directors Festival in New York last month.

“Salvation Army” is based on the author’s life growing up in Morocco, his sexual awakening, his fascination with a brother 20 years older, his encounters with older men in dark alleys and his complex relationship with his mother and six sisters who mocked him for being too girly or too attached to them.

SHOOTING the film in two countries, he made clear artistic choices: no voice-overs, no music, no explicit love scenes. The film details a trip with his brother on which the two men bonded and also, a few years later, an affair with a Swiss man. After he moves to Switzerland in his 20s, he connects again with his mother.

But the film also shows the anger and frustration of the young Abdellah, as he fends off the advances of older men in a society that publicly rejects homosexuals.

“A lot of men in Morocco have sexual relations with men, but I looked feminine so I was the only homosexual,” he said. “In Morocco, sexual tension is everywhere and I wanted to show that in my film without having crude sex scenes; to stay true to these secretive behaviors.”

One night when he was 13 and with his family, drunken men outside called out his name and asked him to come down to entertain them, a traumatic scene he recalled in a New York Times Op-Ed article, “A Boy to Be Sacrificed.” After that he decided to change his persona, to eliminate his effeminate mannerisms to stop men asking him for sexual favors.

He worked hard to learn French so he could move to Europe to escape the oppression, moving to Switzerland in 1998 and then to France the following year.

“I can’t live in Morocco,” Mr. Taïa said in an interview in a Parisian brasserie. “The entire neighborhood wanted to rape me. A lot of people in Morocco are abused by a cousin or a neighbor but society doesn’t protect them. There, rape is insignificant. There is nothing you can do.”

Mr. Taïa spent his childhood watching Egyptian movies, detailing them in a scrapbook where he collected pictures of movie stars he admired, like Faten Hamama and Souad Hosni. The freedom in Egyptian cinema, where women appeared without veils and alcohol was consumed openly, pervaded his living room and gave him hope. In a scene in “Salvation Army,” the family is seen watching “Days and Nights” (1955) by Henri Barakat, and a scene where Abdel Halim Hafez sings, “Ana Lak ala Tool” (“I Am Yours Forever).

“Egyptian movies saved me,” he said. “There was already the idea of transgression through television happening in my house with my sisters. In my head, I connected that to homosexuality.”

THE author says he considers himself Muslim because he is very spiritual, and he believes that freedom has existed in Islam through those such as the Arab philosopher Averroes and the Iranian poet Rumi, and in works such as “1001 Nights.”

“I don’t want to dissociate myself from Islam,” he said. “It is part of my identity. It is not because I am gay that I will reject it. We need to recover this freedom that has existed in Islam.”

His books have stirred some negative reviews and reaction. His writing, in particular, has been criticized as undisciplined, as if it were dictated. Others say that it is the rawness of the writing that makes his work authentic and touching.

Mr. Taïa says he always wanted to become a filmmaker. He became a writer by accident after writing all his thoughts and experiences down in a journal to learn French. While he draws on his experiences growing up, he says he has never looked to art to exorcise the pain and abuse he experienced as a child and teenager.

“Books, like the film, do not solve anything,” he said. “My neuroses are, at some level, what we might call my creativity. But what I produce artistically does not help me in any way in my real life. Nothing is resolved. Everything is complex, complicated. I sincerely believe that there is only love to heal and soothe troubled souls.”

He says he has no preference between writing and filmmaking. “To me, both have the same source: the wonderful Egyptian films that I discovered with my family on Moroccan television during my childhood. Everything comes from images. For years, my brain has been structured from images of films I thought and rethought, in a manner at once naïve and serious. I will continue to write books inspired by images — and by my neuroses, of course.”

Today, he has patched up relations with most family members, though there are still awkward moments. His older brother, always cold and distant, remains estranged, a point of particular pain for Mr. Taïa. The brother was worshiped by the entire family not only for his charisma but because he saved them from poverty when he took several government jobs before marrying at the age of 35.

His mother died shortly after Mr. Taïa came out, and he now has a cordial relationship with his sisters. He has over 40 nieces and nephews who symbolize a new more open-minded generation of Moroccans — they often post messages of encouragement on his official Facebook page.

Still, Mr. Taïa finds it very difficult to go home.

“I can’t talk to them,” he said. “I am just a human being. They were ashamed of me. I always felt they were. I don’t want them to be proud of me. And anyway, they’re not.”

HE was one of the few Moroccan authors to denounce the oppressive policies of the kingdom and to strongly back the Feb. 20 movement that led protests in Morocco in 2011 demanding democratic reforms. His thoughts on this experience are detailed in chapters of the book “Arabs Are No Longer Afraid,” which was released at the biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York in March.

Mr. Taïa is working on his next book: a tale about old Moroccan prostitutes who at the end of their careers touring the world have landed in Paris. He lives in a small studio apartment near the central Place de la République, and worked as a baby sitter for over 10 years to finance his work. He still hasn’t found love but is convinced it is what will heal his wounds.

April 6, 2015

Syria, Chechnya, and the jihadist gambit

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:58 pm

For the longest time now I’ve been making the point that Bashar al-Assad seems to have adopted Putin’s scorched earth military/political strategy in Chechnya. After reading the introduction to Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising”, a new Verso book (good for them), I’ve discovered that there’s more there than just the near-genocidal blitzkrieg aspect. Remember how Bashar al-Assad released the jihadists from prison who would go on to provide the shock troops for ISIS? Well, it turns out that this was a gambit used in Chechnya as well:

Jonathan Littell:

Playing the extremists against the moderates — the basic idea being that, having little or no social base, radical forces will be easy to eliminate once they have helped with the far harder job of crushing a main opponent deeply rooted in society — is a strategy that certainly has its lettres de noblesse. Practiced ineptly, as it usually is, it has an unfortunate tendency to turn against its initiators, as in the case of Israel when it quietly fostered the rise of Hamas in the hope of bringing down Arafat’s PLO, or the United States when it armed the more radical jihadists against the Soviets in Afghanistan, sealing the doom of the moderate mujahideen factions and unleashing forces still not contained to this day. But on occasions it can bring a measure of success, at least in the short term. Chechnya is a case in point. After Russia’s humiliating defeat there, in August 1996, at the hands of a few thousand rebels armed only with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, the Russian special services, FSB (the successor organization to the KGB) and GRU (military intelligence), immediately began preparing the grounds for the next conflict. The three years during which a de facto independent Chechnya managed its own affairs rapidly turned into a dis-aster: the systematic kidnappings of foreign journalists and aid workers, culminating in the spectacular decapitation of four British and New Zealander telecom engineers in December 1998 by the well-known Islamist commander Arbi Barayev, ruined any good will abroad for Chechnya and generated an effective media blockade as journalists ceased travelling there; rising political and even military pressure by rogue Islamist rebel groups on the freely elected nationalist president Asian Maskhadov forced him to radicalize his position, eventually declaring a “shari`a law” no one really wanted or even understood; further decapitations of Russian captives and other atrocities, conveniently filmed by their Islamist perpetrators, continued to feed Russian anti-Chechen propaganda, with compilations of these videos being distributed to all foreign embassies at the start of the 1999 reinvasion of Chechnya to help justify the inev-itable excesses of the “anti-terrorist operation.”

What followed is well known: the total destruction of Groznyi, the mass killings and disappearances, the waves of refugees. What is less so, though it has been extensively documented by a handful of courageous Russian journal-ists, is the sinister pas-de-deux played by the special services and the Islamists throughout the years. This is no place to go into details, but a few examples might serve. Documents leaked by frustrated GRU (military intelligence) officials to the Russian media revealed that the FSB (successor to the KGB)  paid Barayev 12 million dollars, out-bidding the four telecom engineers’ employers, to have them gruesomely killed in a manner maximizing the propaganda impact; in the spring of 2000, after the Federal Forces had occupied Chechnya, Chechen colleagues of mine saw Barayev — officially one of the most wanted men of Russia — freely driving through Russian checkpoints using an FSB accreditation; and it was only when his chief FSB protector, Rear-Admiral German Ugryumov, mysteriously died in May 2001 that the GRU was finally able to corner him, in an FSB base, and kill him. On a military level, when Groznyi finally fell in late January 2000, the Russian services manipulated or paid the Islamist rebel groups, which had been sent ahead to the mountains to prepare the withdrawal of the remaining forces from the city, to betray their comrades, leading to the nationalist forces being decimated during the retreat. The evidence is also strong for a form of direct complicity, or at least mutual manipulation, between the ser-v ices and the Chechen Islamist commando that occupied a Moscow theater in October 2002, resulting in the death of over a hundred hostages and further discrediting president Maskhadov and his remaining guerilla forces. In spite of a succession of disastrous incidents, the most notorious being the hideous school massacre in Beslan in September 2003, this insidious strategy would bear fruit: after Maskhadov was finally killed, during a Russian operation in 2005, his successor Doku Umarov renounced the drive for national independence in favor of the creation of a pan-Caucasian Islamic Caliphate — a move that drove virtually all the remaining nationalist commanders into the arms of Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet in Chechnya, thus bringing to an effective and squalid end the long-held Chechen dream of independence. Chechen rebel activity has now been reduced to almost nothing, and Doku Umarov was killed in turn toward the end of 2013; the fact that the Islamist uprising continues unabated in neighboring regions, especially Daghestan, seems to be considered by Russia as a “manageable” problem, for now.

It would be tempting, given this history, to see the hand of Bashar al-Assad’s Russian advisors in the shop-worn idea of allowing radicalized Islamist factions totally to discredit the popular revolt, all the more so as the wave of kidnap-pings and murders of foreign observers that accompanied the rise of the Islamists closely resembles the Chechnya model. There are also some potentially direct links. The appearance in the Syrian theater of several Chechen brigades, aligned either with Jabhat al-Nusra or Da`esh, has gained quite a bit of media attention, as has the main “Chechen” commander `Umar al-Shishani, now a military emir of Da`esh, who is in fact a former Georgian special forces officer of mixed Christian-Muslim descent whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili. Less well known, how-ever, is the fact that behind Omar al-Shishani stands a certain Isa Umarov, who left Chechnya to join him in Da`esh territory and has given him his daughter in mar-riage. Umarov, one of the oldest and most influential (albeit highly discrete) Chechen Islamist leaders, whose links to the KGB go all the way back to the 1980s when he was one of the founders of the Islamic Rebirth Party, the first anti-Soviet Islamist organization, is a man who played a key role in the interaction between the Russian services and the Islamists he godfathered all through the two Chechen wars; and his role within Da`esh certainly raises interesting questions. But as a Syrian friend pointed out to me, the mukhabarat too are old hands at these games, and have no need of lessons from their Russian patrons. Their strategic philosophy is explicitly stated in graffiti now very common around Damascus: “Assad or we burn the country.”

 

April 3, 2015

The Hand that Feeds

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION APRIL 3-5, 2015

Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick’s “The Hand That Feeds”
The New Face of the American Class Struggle
by LOUIS PROYECT

A 1954 film titled “Salt of the Earth” told the story of a courageous strike by the mostly Mexican-American zinc miners against a ruthless corporation that was based on a 1951 strike in New Mexico. Produced by Paul Jarrico and directed by Herbert Biberman, two Hollywood blacklistees, it was remarkable for both its power as film and for its fearless radicalism in a time when the left was being hounded out of existence. It derived much of its strength from the casting of New Mexican miners in leading roles, such as Juan Chacon, the president of a miner’s union, as a strike leader. And of critical importance in a time when reaction was running full throttle, the film depicted a victory of workers against insurmountable odds, just as had taken place in 1951.

I could not help but think about the 1954 classic when watching a screening of “The Hand that Feeds”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. If “Salt of the Earth” was a fictional film based on the facts of a real life strike, “The Hand that Feeds” is by contrast a factual film with all of the heartrending drama of a fictional film blessed with a “star” who led a struggle of twenty workers at Hot and Crusty, a bagel shop that was a stone’s throw from Bloomingdales in New York. In a panel on storytelling I chaired at this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival, a documentary filmmaker explained that casting is as important for the documentary as it is for narrative films. One cannot imagine better casting for this documentary than the mostly undocumented Mexican workforce at Hot and Crusty, starting with Mahoma López, the 2014 counterpart to the Juan Chacon of sixty years ago.

read full article

April 2, 2015

Countering apologetics for the Baathist apocalypse: Once again, Assad regime responsible for sectarianism in Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Countering apologetics for the Baathist apocalypse: Once again, Assad regime responsible for sectarianism in Syria.

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