Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 30, 2015

Girlhood; Mustang

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:16 pm

Among the dozens of screeners I received from film studio publicity machines in conjunction with NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December were two that dealt in one way or another with teen girls struggling to define themselves against social constraints imposed by poverty and religion respectively. Both are serious works and have outstanding performances but ultimately fail as statements about the social conditions they seek to explain and dramatize. Despite the critical remarks I will be making about the films, they will both be categorized as “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes since I would prefer to reserve a “rotten” for the likes of “Mad Max: Fury Road”.

Set in Paris’s banlieues, “Girlhood” is about the struggles of Marieme, a sixteen-year old high school student and immigrant from some unnamed African nation, to escape following in the footsteps of her single mom who works as a cleaning lady. At home she is bullied by her older brother Djibril who whiles away his day playing video games or hanging out with other young men on the sidewalk beneath their public housing. It is left up to Marieme to cook, clean and care for her two younger sisters when her mother is at work.

Her only exit from banlieue life would be acceptance into a high school that would prepare her for college or an office job but the school adviser tells her that her grades are only good enough to qualify her for vocational school, an option that Marieme considers beneath her. She wants to be “normal”, which means enjoying a middle-class life.

Since there is little chance of her becoming eligible for the “A group” as we used to put it in the 1950s, she is lured into the gangsta life that flourishes in the banlieue. On her way from the school one day, she runs into a group of three girls from the neighborhood who are African immigrants like her. For them, the only purpose in life is to “get over”, which means smoking dope, getting drunk, and roaming around shopping centers. Their lives are described more accurately in the original title of the film “Bande de filles” that evokes Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” after a fashion.

After scoring some cash through petty thefts, they cut class and rent a room in an upscale hotel where they can escape their dreary lives for a day. They take baths and enjoy the other temporary luxuries a hotel can offer. The climax of the scene has them dancing to Rihanna’s “Shine Bright Like a Diamond”, a song that expresses their fantasies about another way of living:

You’re a shooting star I see
A vision of ecstasy
When you hold me, I’m alive
We’re like diamonds in the sky

I knew that we’d become one right away
Oh, right away
At first sight I left the energy of sun rays
I saw the life inside your eyes

The insouciance of Marieme and her three gangsta pals might remind you of this famous scene from “Band of Outsiders”:

To put it succinctly, this is the tradition that director Céline Sciamma belongs to, which is fairly far removed from social protest films. Despite the grim outcome that befalls Marieme, Sciamma is far more interested in depicting female bonding than decrying a wasted life. She studied under Xavier Beauvois at La Fémis, which is one of the most prestigious film schools in the world. Beauvois was a student in turn of Jean Douchet, who was a staff writer at Cahiers du cinema, the journal associated with the New Wave.

Despite the high-powered artistic prowess of “Girlhood”, the film left me with the same feeling I had watching “New Jack City” in 1991, an early film about gansta life in New York. I went to see it with a friend from London and her nephew. Although it was supposed to be a cautionary tale, the nephew who was of mixed race considered it to be a life-style guide. What impact it had on French audiences, it is difficult to know but it seems likely that its art house audiences were not likely to go out and mug people afterwards.

“Mustang” is a Turkish film that incorporates a lot of French art film elements, thanks to director Deniz Gamze Ergüven having been raised in France and attending the same prestigious film school as Céline Sciamma.

It tells the story of five orphaned sisters who are being raised by their grandmother and uncle in a village on the Black Sea that like most of Anatolia is ruled by deeply conservative and sexist codes of behavior.

In the opening scene, several of the girls have just been let out of school for summer vacation and they join the boys for a romp on the beach in their school uniforms. Clearly high-spirited (the title of the film is an analogy to the untamed horses of the West), they ride on the shoulders of the boys in a game to see who will be knocked into the water first.

When they return home, they discover that by simply having their legs wrapped around the shoulders of their male classmates, they are considered little more than whores and taken by their uncle to the local doctor who checks to see if their hymens are intact.

No matter how determined their caregivers are to rein them in, the girls find ways to break the rules, which means late night trysts with different boys that are made possible by sneaking out a second story window and down a drainpipe. There is also passive resistance. When a group of village elders come by the house to talk about an arranged marriage, one of the girls spits in the coffee before she takes it out to them in the living room.

The problem with the film is that cannot make up its mind whether to be a study in victimology or resistance. One after another the girls are handed off to one young man or another without a peep. These rituals are punctuated by acts of rebellion, including them sneaking off to see a football game in a nearby city that their uncle has forbidden them to see. Clearly, this is a nod to the Iranian film “Offside” by the irrepressible Jafar Pahani who is both more political than Ergüven and more skilled at creating distinct personalities in his screenplays. Since there was something formulaic about “Mustang”, I found it difficult to keep track of which sister was which as the film unfolded.

Despite my criticisms of both films, they got “fresh” ratings in the high nineties on Rotten Tomatoes and will probably be worth your time if they show up on Netflix. “Girlhood” can now be seen on Amazon streaming and “Mustang” will likely appear there as well before long.

December 29, 2015

Unrepentant Marxist Annual Report

Filed under: Annual Report — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm


Andrew Cockburn joins the Baathist amen corner

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

Andrew Cockburn

I always react with a mixture of anger and sadness when I come across the first article by a respected investigative journalist that is filled with Baathist talking points. When it comes to Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh, I know what to expect at this point. When I spotted an article in the latest Harpers by Andrew Cockburn that was titled “A Special Relationship: The United States is teaming up with Al Qaeda, again”, I had a feeling that he would be the latest A-List reporter to go that route since the pressure on the academy and the media is most acute right now. If you stop and think about it, the war fever that has attached itself to Vladimir Putin’s adventure in Syria is not that different from what we saw in 2002 except in this go-round it is the Kremlin rather than the White House that quickens the laptop bombardier’s pulse.

Since Cockburn’s article is behind a paywall, I recommend that you read it in your local library since a penny spent for a magazine that costs $6.99 to read this crappy article is a penny ill-spent.

The first part of Cockburn’s article rehashes the support that the Reagan White House gave to the Islamists fighting against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, an affair about which there should be no controversy. What is controversial is Cockburn’s claim that Obama is reprising Reagan’s mission but in Syria rather than Afghanistan.

He singles out al-Nusra, the group that holds the Al Qaeda franchise in Syria, as carrying on in the bloodthirsty vein of Afghan rebels under Osama bin Laden’s command. As a sign of how bestial they are, Cockburn points to their killing members of the Druze faith in Idlib province last spring. What he fails to point out, however, is that Sunnis were killed as well. According to Scott Lucas the killings had more to do with al-Nusra’s determination to seize some abandoned houses that they planned to use as frontline defense against both Assad’s army and ISIS. When a Druze family claimed ownership of the properties, a heated argument led to a confrontation that finally ended in a machine gun attack on nearby houses that resulted in the death of 23 innocent people. The Tunisian commander who led the al-Nusra unit was relieved of his duties while the group publicly repudiated and denounced what most commentators describe as an isolated incident.

Now, none of this excuses al-Nusra, a group that most certainly does not share the goals of the revolutionary movement that emerged in Syria in 2011 but in terms of its overall record in Syria, it is far less savage than the regime as I explained in an earlier post.

Cockburn, like most pro-Assad journalists, has a talent for writing evasively. When I came across these sentences, I wondered how much effort he put into defying attempts to corroborate what he wrote:

A few months before the Idlib offensive, a member of one CIA-backed group had explained the true nature of its relationship to the Al Qaeda franchise. Nusra, he told the New York Times, allowed militias vetted by the United States to appear independent, so that they would continue to receive American supplies. When I asked a former White House official involved in Syria policy if this was not a de facto alliance, he put it this way: “I would not say that Al Qaeda is our ally, but a turnover of weapons is probably unavoidable. I’m fatalistic about that. It’s going to happen.”

I just went through 54 articles in Nexis to find any report such as the one described above. The results: none were found. Now it might be there but you would think that a seasoned reporter such as Cockburn would have taken the trouble to identify the date it was written—unless he wanted to defy any attempt to debunk his claims. In terms of the “former White House official”, you are straying into Seymour Hersh territory and the less said the better.

To buttress his case, Cockburn cites a Joe Biden speech given at Harvard that blames America’s allies for being bad guys: “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” Well, since Biden does not seem to be aware that al-Nusra and Al Qaeda were the same thing, I am not sure how much stock to put in this gaffe-master’s analysis. More to the point, a serious analysis of al-Nusra would not be based on Biden’s words but independent and respected scholarly sources.

In fact, Saudi Arabia—the supposedly most fanatical Wahhabi element in the entire equation—does not support al-Nusra. Instead it backs other Islamist and Salafi units, especially Jaysh al-Islam, the group whose leader Zahran Alloush was killed by a Syrian air force attack this week. Whatever problems Jaysh al-Islam has, and they are considerable, it is not al-Qaeda. Maybe this is a difference without a distinction to someone like Andrew Cockburn but if you are serious about analyzing the Syrian civil war, you’d better get your facts straight.

For a more astute analysis of Jaysh al-Islam, I recommend Hassan Hassan who is a respected analyst of the Syrian rebel groups as opposed to Andrew Cockburn who appears to know next to nothing. In an article titled “The Army of Islam Is Winning in Syria“, Hassan makes a case for seeing such a group and al-Nusra differently:

But today, Salafi-leaning insurgents are the single most dominant force in liberated areas. Liwa al-Islam, which is the central player in the Army of Islam, now dwarfs both the FSA and radical militias such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which long played a prominent role in the region. These groups had coordinated with each other through a Damascus military council, but Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the council shortly after the merger, issuing an angry statement that criticized “the hegemony of certain factions and the exclusion of [other] effective ones.”

These developments, however, are not all bad news. The rise of Salafi-leaning rebel groups offers an opportunity to combat the real extremists — al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which have recently started wreaking havoc in Syria’s north and east by fighting among themselves and against more moderate groups. Syria is no longer witnessing a struggle of moderates versus extremists, but of extremists versus both moderates and religious moderates. While recent developments are a setback for the FSA, they also have marginalized the truly radical factions.

As might be expected, Cockburn has it in for the Muslim Brotherhood that he regards as “the ideological ancestor of the most violent Islamist movement of the modern era.” According to Cockburn, this group was designated by the Obama White House to be its trump card in the Arab Spring—this despite the fact that its chief ideologist Sayyid Qutb was an “inspiration” to the young Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda. Furthermore, Qutb’s call for a resurrected caliphate obviously must bear some responsibility for the birth of ISIS.

One hardly knows what to make of this prosecutorial attack on the Muslim Brotherhood except to wonder why General Sisi did not call Cockburn in as an expert witness for the prosecution’s case against the deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. After sliming the Muslim Brotherhood for its ideology, Cockburn fails to say a word about its actions. Now that the dust has settled in Egypt, it should be obvious that it was the most legitimate government the Egyptians had in a generation and whose worst offense was perhaps putting too much trust in the army.

Like most in the Baathist amen corner, Cockburn views the civil war in Syria as a proxy attack on Shia power, something that was plotted in advance by the Bush era neocons. He writes:

Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, testified on Capitol Hill that there was a “new strategic alignment” in the Middle East, separating “extremists” (Iran and Syria) and “reformers” (Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states). Undergirding these diplomatic euphemisms was something more fundamental. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who returned to Riyadh in 2005 after many years as Saudi ambassador in Washington, had put it bluntly in an earlier conversation with Richard Dearlove, the longtime head of Britain’s MI6. “The time is not far off in the Middle East,” Bandar said, “when it will be literally God help the Shia. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough.”

Whenever I read such an analysis, I rub my eyes in astonishment. Doesn’t Cockburn know that the current regime in Baghdad, whose anti-Sunni policies laid the groundwork for ISIS, is there because Bush made war on Sunni power? Was he asleep in 2004 when the US Marines were laying waste to Sunni-dominated Anbar province just as American, French and Russian bombers are doing today?

In order to establish the case that Obama approached Syria with the foreign policy imperatives of Saudi Arabia in mind and in much the same way Reagan intervened in Afghanistan (it was obviously impossible to make the same case by referring to Iraq where the White House aligned with the Shia bourgeoisie), Cockburn draws upon the expertise of Sir Richard Dearlove, a former MI6 official (what makes him and Hersh so drawn to men who have made a career out of misdirection and outright lies?)

Dearlove is a curious sort. He is both a supporter of the Henry Jackson Society that became infamous for its backing of Bush’s war in Iraq and a “senior advisor” to the Monitor Group that Wikipedia describes as “a consultancy and private equity firm which has been implicated in undertaking PR work for Libya and Muammar Gaddafi.” Sounds like a character in a Le Carre novel.

Citing Dearlove, Cockburn connects the usual suspects (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) to ISIS:

Some in intelligence circles suspect that such funding is ongoing. “How much Saudi and Qatari money—and I’m not suggesting direct government funding, but I am suggesting maybe a blind eye being turned—is being channeled towards ISIS and reaching it?” Dearlove asked in July 2014. “For ISIS to be able to surge into the Sunni areas of Iraq in the way that it’s done recently has to be the consequence of substantial and sustained funding. Such things simply do not happen spontaneously.” Those on the receiving end of Islamic State attacks tend to agree. Asked what could be done to help Iraq following the group’s lightning assaults in the summer of 2014, an Iraqi diplomat replied: “Bomb Saudi Arabia.”

This is probably the most absurd paragraph in this awful article that violates just about every journalistic standard and that could be used in a journalism school as an example of what to avoid (except for the fact that these are exactly the skills you learn to prepare you for a job in the bourgeois press.)

Does Saudi funding and ideology explain the rise of ISIS? Maybe the next time Patrick Cockburn gets together with his older brother, he can clue him in on what allowed ISIS to get a foothold in Anbar province:

The swift rise of Isis since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became its leader has come because the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011 led the Iraqi Sunni to protest about their political and economic marginalisation since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Peaceful demonstrations from the end of 2012 won few concessions, with Iraq’s Shia-dominated government convinced that the protesters wanted not reform but a revolution returning their community to power. The five or six million Iraqi Sunni became more alienated and sympathetic towards armed action by Isis.

Patrick Cockburn does write a lot of bullshit but on this rare occasion he spoke the truth.

The final paragraph of Andrew Cockburn’s miserable article will be a depressing reminder of how so much of the left that was on the front lines opposing Bush’s war in Iraq now sounds exactly like the Islamaphobes of those days (Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Kenan Makiya, Norman Geras). This might even have been written by people with no pretensions of being on the left, sounding as it does like a Thomas Friedman op-ed piece or even the sort of thing that Dick Cheney might have come up with:

Things are clearer on the ground. Not long ago, far away from the think tanks and briefing rooms where policies are formulated and spun, a small boy in the heart of Nusra territory was telling a filmmaker for Vice News about Osama bin Laden. “He terrified and fought the Americans,” he said reverently. Beside him, his brother, an even smaller child, described his future: “To become a suicide fighter for the sake of God.” A busload of older boys was asked which group they belonged to. “Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda,” they responded cheerfully.

Suicide fighter…Osama bin Laden…For the sake of God.

And god help us when Andrew Cockburn, Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh are all sounding as if they are angling to be guests on the Bill Maher show. It is enough to make you wonder if the ghost of Christopher Hitchens has taken over their miserable souls.

December 27, 2015

Venezuela, Greece and the prospects for a new left

Filed under: North Star — louisproyect @ 10:15 pm


After the Venezuelan elections, what is to be done?

After an extended period of relative quiescence in which the North Star editorial board has been continuing to assess the progress (or lack thereof) toward the creation of radical, nonsectarian formations on the left, we hope to begin publishing relevant content again. To some extent, this is an unavoidable task since the defeats in Greece and Venezuela of such parties has led to widespread discussion of whether they were oversold to begin with.

While the emphasis for people who believe in the North Star type approach has always been on organizational questions (what Lenin really meant, etc.), there is no avoiding the programmatic aspects of both Syriza and the Bolivarian revolution. In the first case you are dealing with a party that ostensibly refused to live up to its promises. With Venezuela, the issue might be one of whether the ruling party could have done anything to stay in power given the dire economic situation triggered by falling oil prices.

full: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12407

December 25, 2015

A Pentagon-Kremlin conspiracy to back Assad? Who is Seymour Hersh kidding?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

Martin Dempsey, America’s top general, funneled intelligence to Assad according to Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh, the doddering old fool who should have retired from journalism at least as long ago as Woody Allen should have stopped making movies, has written a preposterous article in the London Review of Books that relies pretty much on the word of an ex-official in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The unnamed source (what else would you expect) claims that the Pentagon has been effectively operating as an arm of the Kremlin to back Bashar al-Assad in his war on the Syrian rebels. If the Justice Department were to take these allegations seriously, they’d arrest the former Pentagon head for treason and not just put him in jail but underneath the jail.

Except for the supposed Dempsey-Putin conspiracy that would likely be rejected by Tom Clancy’s publisher as being implausible, most of the article is a tired retread of all the Baathist amen corner talking points.

Showing that he is as tough-minded as John Wight—the British Assadist who justified barrel-bombing as having something in common with the carpet bombing of Dresden (that’s some fucking justification), Hersh told Amy Goodman that you have to break an egg to make an omelet:

The Russians’ concern is not about establishing a new world order; their concern is terrorism, primarily. They have a big terrorism problem. There’s no question the leadership—many of the leadership modes or groups inside the ISIL, or the Islamic State, originated from the Chechnyan war. They had two wars with Chechnya—one of them went 10 years—brutal wars, in which Russia did horrible things, the same sort of stuff that Bashar al-Assad did, and one could argue that—same things we did to Japan at the end of World War II, when you see your country is at stake. People do very rough things in all-out war.

Well, he got this right—sort of. The USA dropped atomic bombs on Japan twice but was it because it saw that our country’s survival was “at stake”? That, of course, is the excuse that scumbags like Winston Churchill (a fave on John Wight’s website) made but one rejected by New Left historians like Gar Alperovitz who likely Hersh (and Wight) have never read. In fact the argument that your country’s survival is at stake is the same that was made in 1914 and then again in 1941. If you have zero understanding of the Marxist class analysis, or having once understood it like Christopher Hitchens and John Wight but went on to reject it in favor of Enlightenment Values against the dreaded jihadi scum, you are likely to line up with Hersh rather than Alperovitz. Barrel bombs, A-Bombs, carpet bombing…that’s what you need to ensure the rule of Reason, Religious Tolerance and Democracy. Just ask Bill Maher.

As might be expected, the LRB article begins with a reference to a top secret document that us poor unwashed mortals have to have transmitted to us through Hersh’s access to his informant. Don’t you feel blessed?

The military’s resistance dates back to the summer of 2013, when a highly classified assessment, put together by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Martin Dempsey, forecast that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to chaos and, potentially, to Syria’s takeover by jihadi extremists, much as was then happening in Libya.

According to Hersh’s pal, it was the findings in this report that so frightened the top generals that ran lickety-split to their rolodex and phoned their counterparts in the Russian army. They had to put their heads together to stop the threat posed to world survival by ISIS and al-Qaeda. If you’ve seen “Dr. Strangelove”, you’ll remember how the Yanks and the Commies could put their differences aside when their common survival was at stake. I should add that if Stanley Kubrick were still alive, he’d be writing a screenplay based on Hersh’s fanciful reporting right now.

(Coincidently, Hersh admitted to a Pacifica radio interviewer (2:30 into this clip) that he never even saw the report, he only “knew about it”. So there’s a level of reportorial integrity here that is less than meets the eye.)

With the USA and Russia secretly aligned on behalf of Assad, you would think that the war in Syria would have ended long ago. So what kept it dragging on? Of course, it couldn’t be the rebels who Hersh dismisses as extremists with a zero social base in the population. Instead it has been Turkey, a country that developed “an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State”, that has tried to keep the pot boiling. But General Dempsey and his cohorts foiled the evil Turks’ dastardly plans:

“We worked with Turks we trusted who were not loyal to Erdoğan,” the adviser said, “and got them to ship the jihadists in Syria all the obsolete weapons in the arsenal, including M1 carbines that hadn’t been seen since the Korean War and lots of Soviet arms. It was a message Assad could understand: ‘We have the power to diminish a presidential policy in its tracks.’”

M1 Carbines? Really? Funny that this weapon is not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on arms used by the Syrian rebels. Who knows, maybe the rebels opened a box of M1’s and threw them away. But more to the point, despite all the fear-mongering over Turkey’s supposed backing for ISIS et al, there is evidence that it was crucial in blocking shipments of the very weapon that could have made the most difference, even without the connivance of those “trusted” Turks who were as ready as Martin Dempsey to prop up Assad.

On October 17, 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported (emphasis added):

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.

Martin Dempsey resigned in May of this year, thus allowing Obama to preside over a foreign policy that could rely on a “more compliant” Pentagon. Hersh is disappointed in this, since it means “There will be no more indirect challenges from the military leadership to his policy of disdain for Assad and support for Erdoğan.” If that is the case, why the continuing refusal to supply the weapons that could turn Syria into a graveyard for Russian jets?

On October 26th, the Voice of America reported on the frustration of Syrian rebel commanders over the continuing ban on MANPAD’s:

Abdul Rahman, a commander with the Ahfad Omer battalion, part of the larger First Brigade, a U.S. backed secular militia, said they had made several attempts to buy MANPADS and recently had been negotiating with a mafia group in Turkey, but they realized they were being set up for fraud. “We understood that they didn’t have access to the weapons they claimed,” he explained.

He said he has hopes that Saudi Arabia and Qatar may tire with the U.S. ban on supplying MANPADS and break coalition ranks, but that the Gulf countries are not ready to flaunt the Americans. “No one will give us any, we are really suffering because of this.” He added: “We are trying all kinds of ways to get them, including from the mafia, on the black market, anything we can think of to get some. Whatever money they want, we can give them.”

Is there any explanation for Saudi Arabia and Qatar not supplying MANPAD’s, especially in light of their supposed involvement with jihadist terror all around the world? With all of the zillions of articles about the Saudi’s commitment to Salafist terror groups like ISIS, why in the world would they respect a U.S. ban? None of this adds up, of course, if you accept the notion that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey would stop at nothing to create an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. However, this is a false premise. These three nations have been supporting a wide range of groups in Syria but all of them have been at odds with ISIS. In fact, ISIS came into existence as a break with al-Qaeda in whose name the al-Nusra Front operates. That being said, Turkey has promoted other groups especially the FSA that has borne the brunt of Russian and Syrian bombing.

How does Hersh explain the various reports in the media about Russia targeting these enemies of ISIS? That’s no problem for our intrepid journalist. He relies on the Russian media for an explanation:

The Kremlin adviser on the Middle East, like the Joint Chiefs and the DIA, dismisses the ‘moderates’ who have Obama’s support, seeing them as extremist Islamist groups that fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and IS (‘There’s no need to play with words and split terrorists into moderate and not moderate,’ Putin said in a speech on 22 October).

Well, I guess that settles it. If Putin says it, it must be true.

To buttress his case against those of us who view Assad as a stinking, scabrous Middle East version of Pinochet or Suharto, Hersh invokes the expert testimony of a German journalist and one-time politician:

Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German journalist who was allowed to spend ten days touring IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, told CNN that the IS leadership “are all laughing about the Free Syrian Army. They don’t take them for serious. They say: ‘The best arms sellers we have are the FSA. If they get a good weapon, they sell it to us.’ They didn’t take them for serious. They take for serious Assad. They take for serious, of course, the bombs. But they fear nothing, and FSA doesn’t play a role.’”

Quoting this 75-year old globetrotting fool (if I embarrass myself as badly as Hersh or Todenhöfer 5 years from now, please inform my wife) is about the same thing as quoting Pepe Escobar or Mike Whitney. On his website,Todenhöfer invokes the Pentagon document found on Judicial Watch that has been cited 10,000 times by people like Seumas Milne to “prove” that the USA was trying to create an Islamic State (of course, everybody knows that Obama is a secret Muslim—just ask Donald Trump):

The contents of the said secret document is prone to leave readers speechless. It reveals a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to actually be an instigator of terror and shows how the West sides with international terrorists. Both of them have been deliberately promoting international terrorism – particularly ISIS! That’s the bitter reality.

The document is a sensation and a political scandal – let’s call it a “terrorist Watergate”. Obama and the West knew early on who was really fighting in Syria and how much of a terrorist threat their politics created for the world. While they were telling the world the usual lies of them fending for freedom, democracy and human rights, they were actually actively (and purposefully) supporting terrorist organizations.

Don’t these idiots read the document to its conclusion? It clearly states that the development of what would become ISIS is a threat to US interests:



Dire consequences? Grave dangers? How in fuck’s name do you interpret such words to mean that Obama was in favor of jihadists especially when he has been using drones to kill them all around the planet on a nonstop basis for fifteen years now? Some analysts say that the use of drones will convince people to join ISIS. Is that what Todenhöfer had in mind? Your guess is as good as mine.

Hersh also has good things to say about Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic Congresswoman from Hawaii who served two military tours in the Middle East. Hersh concurs with her statement to CNN that Russia was doing the USA a favor by bombing the rebels in Syria (with an occasional token gesture aimed at ISIS.)

I am a bit surprised to see Hersh neglect other major political figures who have pretty much the same outlook, including Donald Trump who said that even if Assad is pretty bad, the rebels are worse. Without going too far, it might be said that this is the dominant position across the political spectrum from Marine Le Pen on the right to Mike Whitney on the left. If you are comfortable with such bedfellows, be my guest. Just watch out for the crabs and the scabies.

And finally, if you are trying to establish whether or not Obama was a bitter enemy of Assad anxious to “bring ’em on” as George W. Bush once infamously referred to war with Iraq, there’s no need to go scuttling about trying to find some spook or retired Pentagon official to quote anonymously in the feckless LRB. You can simply check out what Robert Ford has to say–no not the guy who shot Jesse James but the former Ambassador to Syria who has been telling everybody who will listen that Obama had the same relationship to Assad as Neville Chamberlain had to Hitler. In countless interviews and articles, he has been hammering the administration for abandoning the rebels:

First, the Free Syrian Army needs far greater material support and training so that it can mount an effective guerrilla war. Rather than try to hold positions in towns where the regime’s air force and artillery can flatten it, the armed opposition needs help figuring out tactics to choke off government convoy traffic and overrun fixed-point defenses.

Indeed, this was administration policy all along. Perhaps General Dempsey was tilting even more for directly backing Assad but that would be trying to break down an open door as far as the White House was concerned.

In fact there was zero interest in a large-scale intervention in Syria in either civilian or military quarters. All this is documented in a NY Times article from October 22nd 2013, written when the alarums over a looming war with Syria were at their loudest, that stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.” In other words, the White House policy was and is allowing the Baathists and the rebels to exhaust each other in an endless war, just as was White House policy during the Iran-Iraq conflict.

(In a future post, I will deal with Hersh’s claim that Turkey had a “rat line” of Uyghur jihadists that Russia needed to exterminate for its own survival.)

December 23, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

Filed under: Film,literature — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

If I were to second-guess myself, I’d say that my high regard for this year’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” was inextricably linked to my love of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Ubervilles”. While there certainly was “value added” by director Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 adaptation (the screenplay was written by David Nicholls, who adapted “Tess of the D’Ubervilles” for BBC), it was the underlying written work that would have perhaps salvaged an attempt by Michael Bay to make a film based on Hardy’s breakthrough novel. Of course, the source is often no guarantee of success, as the dreary version of “Macbeth” starring Michael Fassbender would indicate.

In 1979 I began a systematic study of the world’s greatest fiction in order to prepare me to write the Great American Novel. Nothing much came out of that project except some enormous reading pleasure particularly from the 19th century British novel that I had neglected during a misspent youth trying to overthrow American capitalism with the bluntest of all instruments, the SWP.

If Vinterberg’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” does nothing except to whet the appetite of the audience for a relatively neglected author, he deserves an award far greater than any Oscar. While Hardy’s novels have elements that lend themselves to cinema, as I shall point out momentarily it is his language that soars above plot and character development. Considered by some to be a better poet than novelist, there are passages in “Far From the Madding Crowd” that can rival the greatest poetry. If you go to Project Gutenberg, you can turn to practically any page and read something like this, a description of the farmhouse of Bathsheba Everdene, the novel’s lead female character: “Fluted pilasters, worked from the solid stone, decorated its front, and above the roof the chimneys were panelled or columnar, some coped gables with finials and like features still retaining traces of their Gothic extraction. Soft brown mosses, like faded velveteen, formed cushions upon the stone tiling, and tufts of the houseleek or sengreen sprouted from the eaves of the low surrounding buildings.”

Some critics find Hardy’s language overstuffed and archaic, not to speak of the archness of the names such as Bathsheba Everdene that obviously reflect Dickens’s influence, but in my view it is one of the main drawing points just as it is in Dickens. Speaking of which, Everdene is beloved by Gabriel Oak whose name suggests exactly who he is as a character—a stalwart country yeoman who is as dependable as he is prosaic.

She is also beloved by William Boldwood, an older and prosperous farmer who despite having everything going for him cannot inspire Everdene’s affection. Spurning Oak and Boldwood—a tandem united by their lumbering names and personalities—she falls for a dashing scoundrel named Sergeant Frank Troy who she first spots leading a cavalry regiment bedecked in red near her farm. It was the classic case of falling in love with the uniform rather than the man. Hardy has lots to say about the character but probably nothing more telling than this:

He had been known to observe casually that in dealing with womankind the only alternative to flattery was cursing and swearing. There was no third method. “Treat them fairly, and you are a lost man.” he would say.

In essence “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a love story in the same vein as the Bronte sisters with the heroine finally connecting with the right man all along after a many obstacles put in her way, especially her own bad decision.

It is also a study of class relations in the British countryside in the 1860s when the enclosure acts had finally succeeded in wiping out the small farmer and rendering class relations into a close approximation of what existed in the factory system. After Bathsheba Everdene inherits her uncle’s estate, she joins the rural bourgeoisie. The class differences between her and Gabriel Oak are one of the stumbling blocks in consummating a relationship that would have been the best possible outcome. Through thick and thin, Oak sticks with her as bailiff (a kind of foreman) on her farm even though he bitterly resents Frank Troy’s presence in her bedroom.

In his chapter on Thomas Hardy in “The English Novel”, Terry Eagleton reflects on the anxiety of the middle-class in this period as it is being squeezed into the rural proletariat:

England had long been a capitalist, market-oriented enterprise based largely upon landowners, tenant farmers and landless labourers. There was thus no sharp social divide between country and city, since the social relations which ‘prevailed in the latter were equally dominant in the former. There was also a rural lower middle class of dealers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, traders, artisans, schoolteachers, cottagers, small employers and the like, with whom Hardy, as an offspring of that class himself, especially identified. It was this class, not the ‘peasantry’, which he saw as preserving the cultural continuities of the countryside; and its steep social decline in his own day meant the catastrophic loss of that precious heritage. As with most of the classic English nineteenth-century novelists, then, Hardy’s allegiances lay neither with the governing classes nor with the plebeian masses. Instead, he draws many of his major protagonists from the mobile, unstable lower middle class — one trapped between aspiration and anxiety, and therefore typical of some of the central contradictions of the age. In this sense, Hardy could attend to the plight of this obscure social grouping without losing a grip on broader issues. Gabriel Oak of Far From The Madding Crowd starts off as a hired labourer before graduating to become an independent farmer and then a bailiff.

Turning now to Vinterberg’s film treatment, we should first note that he hardly seemed like the sort of director who would be drawn to such material since he was a founding member of Dogme 95, the film group that can best be described as minimalist. Given the lush cinematography of his latest film, it would seem that he has gone mainstream. If so, that is a recommendation for not allowing dogma (dogme?) to trump sound cinematic judgment.

There are some scenes in his film that are totally riveting, among them one that pitted Oak’s reliability against Troy’s wastrel ways. On the night of a celebration of the autumn harvest, Troy leads the farm hands in a drunken debauchery that leaves them all barely capable of protecting the harvest in the face of a violent storm let alone standing on their feet. Oak, who has remained sober, climbs to the top of the haystacks to lay a canvas atop them despite the howling winds. It is filmmaking of the highest order.

In an interview with Comingsoon.net, Vinterberg shows that he came to this project with exactly the right frame of mind. Asked why he chose to make a film about Victorian England when most of his films deal with contemporary ills (such as the superlative “The Hunt” that dealt with false accusations of sexual abuse of a child), he described himself as a fan—just like me:

ComingSoon.net: This is a really interesting movie for you after “The Hunt.” I feel that in general you’ve been doing very modern films about modern society so to go back in time to direct a Thomas Hardy adaptation seems like quite a leap. Can you talk about that decision to go in this direction?

Thomas Vinterberg: Well, first of all, I like to change. I hate repeating myself, and here was a considerable change, both in genre but also in gender in the sense that my latest movies had been very full of testosterone and this was an exploration of being a woman that I found incredibly modern actually, and visionary. The first thing that has to happen to me when I do a film is unexplainable thing where you sort of fall in love with something. I read this and these characters moved me, the way that Thomas Hardy plays with fate moved me. I was to some degree overwhelmed by it and humbled by it, and it couldn’t go away. And that’s where I decide to make a movie. It’s not, “Now I think this will be right for my career.” And then I felt a certain relief and lightness of doing something I hadn’t been writing. Normally, I invent the movie from the get-go, from the white paper, to the end, like the auteur genre of Europe. This was something different. It’s a collective effort. I’m not the writer. It’s as much a Thomas Hardy movie as a Thomas Vinterberg movie and I felt relief and a sense of playfulness about that.

Although it is not available in streaming, I recommend the John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation that starred Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdeen, Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak and Terrence Stamp as Frank Troy. I bought the DVD from Amazon for $13.49 and it was worth every penny.

Schlesinger’s film was 171 minutes compared to Vinterberg’s 119 and as such could furnish plot continuity that made the film a lot more congruent with the novel. I found, for example, the rivalry between Boldwood and Troy far more developed in Schlesinger.

The studio intended that the film be marketed like other lengthy and ambitious “classy” films of the period such as “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. It comes with an overture and an intermission.

Like Vinterberg, Schlesinger would not appear at first blush to be a director eager to adapt Hardy since he emerged as a maker of “angry young man” films such as “Billy Liar” that were in their way defied conventional filmmaking esthetics like Dogme 95 did.

However, for Paul J. Niemeyer, the author of “Seeing Hardy: Film and Television Adaptations of the Fiction of Thomas Hardy”, there is an affinity:

That Schlesinger should favor a realist approach is only appropriate, since he is largely a product of the social realist movement in British cinema; and in 1967, he was still very much under its sway. Social realism, of course, gave us the “Angry Young Man” whom the Welfare state had educated out of the working class, but who had not succeeded in breaking down the class and economic barriers to greater prosperity. Such films as Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960) were marked by familiar elements like a working-class antihero who usually expressed his disaffection through sneering wit, aggressive sexuality, and chauvinism often bordering on misogyny; harsh, unsentimental depictions of bleak northern cities and landscapes, usually with a focus on the effects of industrialism on the land; and—most importantly—authentic regional dialects.

Suffice it to say that “the sneering wit, aggressive sexuality, and chauvinism often bordering on misogyny” are all embodied in Frank Troy while they were not found in Gabriel Oak, the character who had most in common with the angry young men of the early 60s. If you are at all susceptible to novels and films with likable major characters, you will probably be as seduced by “Far From the Madding Crowd” as I was.


December 22, 2015

The Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party shuts down

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

On May 15, 2015 I reported on my time in the Houston branch of the SWP that had just been closed down by the leadership in NY. If you could map the decline of the SWP in an Excel spreadsheet bar chart since the time I left 36 years ago, it would look like a Michael Roberts falling rate of profit graphic. If some vulgar Marxists predicate the growth of the radical movement as an inverse function of the FROP, this is about as good an argument against vulgarity I can think of.

A comrade who tracks the implosion of the SWP a lot closer than me reported the latest branch going under on the Yahoo group I set up just to allow former members to wisecrack and gossip about the cult. This time it was Boston. He gleaned its departure from its absence in the Militant newspaper’s directory of local distributors, which is a guide to where party branches exist. It is too soon to say whether there will be a report on its closing in the Militant as there was for the Houston branch but you can be sure that for old-timers in the party, a qualitatively bigger hole has been left in political terms. The Houston branch existed for 45 years while the Boston branch dates back to the 1920s before there was an SWP. That’s nearly a century.

Its most famous member in Boston in the early period was Doctor Antoinette Konikow, a pioneer birth control advocate at the time. She was typical of the pioneering members of James P. Cannon’s faction of the CP that agreed with Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism. Her background, like Arnie Swabeck’s, reads like a CV for the American left.

As it turns out, I was a member of both of these defunct branches. I moved from NY to Boston in early 1970 and then down to Houston in 1973. Boston was both a more interesting place than Houston politically and even more so culturally. I imagine that if I had been asked to transfer to Cleveland or Detroit in 1970 rather than Boston, I would have dropped out of the SWP a lot earlier. In fact by the end of 1969 I was ready to quit because I felt alienated from a group that seemed overloaded with student government types. They might have talked about the class struggle but their behavior reminded me more of the people who ran for class president in high school, especially Jack Barnes’s classmates from Carleton College that was about as distant from Bard College culturally as Norman Rockwell was from Jackson Pollack.

The minute I hit Boston, I fell in love with the city. It had a huge energy from the student movement and was very groovy as well. I lived in Cambridge and spent my Saturday afternoons in Harvard Square shopping for books or records. But the best thing of all was having Peter Camejo as a branch organizer, the guy who influenced me politically more than any person I ever knew. So you can blame him for my errant ways.

The excerpt about Boston from my graphic memoir that is printed below falls under the rights afforded me under established Fair Use provisions.

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December 20, 2015

Polling problematics

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:46 am

From Assad diehard Stephen Gowans:

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From ORB International website:

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From Jill Lepore article in the New Yorker titled “Politics and the New Machine: What the turn from polls to data science means for democracy“:

Gallup had always wanted to be a newspaper editor, but after graduating from the University of Iowa, in 1923, he entered a Ph.D. program in applied psychology. In 1928, in a dissertation called “An Objective Method for Determining Reader Interest in the Content of a Newspaper,” Gallup argued that “at one time the press was depended upon as the chief agency for instructing and informing the mass of people” but that newspapers no longer filled that role and instead ought to meet “a greater need for entertainment.” He therefore devised a method: he’d watch readers go through a newspaper column by column and mark up the parts they liked, so that he could advise an editor which parts of the paper to keep printing and which parts to scrap.

In 1932, when Gallup was a professor of journalism at Northwestern, his mother-in-law, Ola Babcock Miller, ran for secretary of state in Iowa. Her late husband had run for governor; her nomination was largely honorary and she was not expected to win. Gallup had read the work of Walter Lippmann. Lippmann believed that “public opinion” is a fiction created by political élites to suit and advance their interests. Gallup disagreed, and suspected that public opinion, like reader interest, could be quantified. To get a sense of his mother-in-law’s chances, Gallup began applying psychology to politics. The year of the race (she won), Gallup moved to New York, and began working for an advertising agency while also teaching at Columbia and running an outfit he called the Editors’ Research Bureau, selling his services to newspapers. Gallup thought of this work as “a new form of journalism.” But he decided that it ought to sound academic, too. In 1935, in Princeton, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion, with funding provided by more than a hundred newspapers.

In 1936, in his syndicated column Gallup predicted that the Literary Digest would calculate that Alf Landon would defeat F.D.R. in a landslide and that the Digest would be wrong. He was right on both counts. This was only the beginning. “I had the idea of polling on every major issue,” Gallup explained. He began insisting that this work was essential to democracy. Elections come only every two years, but “we need to know the will of the people at all times.” Gallup claimed that his polls had rescued American politics from the political machine and restored it to the American pastoral, the New England town meeting. Elmo Roper, another early pollster, called the public-opinion survey “the greatest contribution to democracy since the introduction of the secret ballot.”

Gallup’s early method is known as “quota sampling.” He determined what proportion of the people are men, women, black, white, young, and old. The interviewers who conducted his surveys had to fill a quota so that the population sampled would constitute an exactly proportionate mini-electorate. But what Gallup presented as “public opinion” was the opinion of Americans who were disproportionately educated, white, and male. Nationwide, in the nineteen-thirties and forties, blacks constituted about ten per cent of the population but made up less than two per cent of Gallup’s survey respondents. Because blacks in the South were generally prevented from voting, Gallup assigned no “Negro quota” in those states. As the historian Sarah Igo has pointed out, “Instead of functioning as a tool for democracy, opinion polls were deliberately modeled upon, and compounded, democracy’s flaws.”

December 18, 2015

Youth; 45 Years

Filed under: aging,Film — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

If you follow my writings on film, you are probably aware that I tend to review documentaries and foreign-language films with a focus on politics. As a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I try to catch up with commercial films starting in late November through the DVD’s and press screenings the studio’s publicity machine churns out. Most years I go to NYFCO meetings and abstain on many categories for the simple reason that something like “Zero Dark Thirty” was beyond the pale for me.

This year I was pleasantly surprised by the number of quality films that came my way, including an animated feature titled “Inside Out” that was in some ways the best film of 2015. Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting reviews of some of the best starting today with a couple that are by no means political but speak to me on both on an artistic and existential basis since they deal with the question of aging, a preoccupation of many baby boomers. Just about all of the films that I will be writing about are still playing in local theaters, including the two considered below.

Although it is an English-language film featuring American and British actors, the ironically titled “Youth” is really an Italian film. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, it is basically a two-character drama featuring Michael Caine as a composer named Fred Ballinger and Harvey Keitel as film director Mick Boyle. They sit around the hotel restaurant or swimming pool in a combination luxury hotel and health spa in the Swiss Alps discussing their various health problems, including enlarged prostate glands. They have been friends for decades and are acutely aware of having entered what Tom Brokaw called the “mortality zone”.

Ballinger has pretty much given up on new projects and spends much of the film fending off a representative of Queen Elizabeth who wants him to conduct one of his most famous compositions, “Simple Songs”. Boyle hasn’t given up yet and is working with a crew that has gathered at the hotel on a film intended to be his swan song. As grim as this sounds, it is mostly played as wistful comedy with Michael Caine at the top of his game.

Much of the film was shot on the premises of the Hotel Schatzalp, the same place that is featured as a TB sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain”. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Cancer Ward”, such frameworks lend themselves to philosophical/political dialogues between the main characters. “Youth” has this aspect but it is blended with Felliniesque touches that are far sunnier than the gloom of Mann and Solzhenitsyn. For example, a monstrously obese actor plays Argentine soccer player Maradona whose daily waddle into the hotel swimming pool prompts catty commentary by the two old friends.

Ultimately “Youth” is as much about the cinematography and film score as it is about plot or dialogue. If you want to spend a couple of hours immersed in a stream of jaw-dropping tableaus assembled by a director/screenwriter with a mastery of his art form second to none, I recommend “Youth” highly.

Like the two main characters in “Youth”, the British film “45 Years” features a couple of old friends who have known each other for about the same amount of time. It also so happens that they are married. As I know from first-hand experience, a solid marriage is based on friendship more than anything else.

Tom Courtenay plays the husband Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling is his wife Kate. Another main character is their German Shepherd Max that Kate walks each morning. Well into their seventies, their day is spent listening to music, eating meals with each other and puttering about their small but attractive house on the outskirts of a bright and prosperous looking town in the British countryside. As a retiree, I am familiar with the drill.

Their placidly quotidian existence is interrupted by a letter that Geoff receives one morning a week before their 45th anniversary informing him that the body of his companion prior to meeting Kate has been discovered at the bottom of a precipice in the Swiss alps. The two had been hiking when in their early 20s and she stepped into the precipice accidentally. As next of kin (he and his lover identified themselves as husband and wife in more straight-laced times), he received the news with a sense of finality.

Haunted now by her memory, he acts to put the anniversary on the back burner. He loses interest in his current affairs to the point of backing out of a big celebration his friends have organized. Not only is Kate disturbed by his decision, she is even more upset to discover that Geoff might be making plans to travel to Switzerland to see her body. When Geoff begins spending time in the attic pouring through the boxes that contain photos of he and the woman, she confronts him: if she had lived, would they eventually wed. His answer: yes.

Andrew Haigh, a gay man who produced and wrote for “Looking”, the HBO series about gay men, wrote and directed “45 Years”. It is as sign of his brilliance that despite his sexual orientation he was able to make a film about heterosexual marriage that is about as realistic as any I have seen in my life. He has the daily rhythms of married life nailed down perfectly, from the minor quarrels to the major dramas that naturally occur over the course of a life together.

The screenplay was adapted from a short story by David Constantine titled “In Another Country”. Constantine lectured on German literature at Oxford University for twenty years and was the editor of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation so we are dealing with source material that is obviously a cut above the junk that most commercial films are based on. It would be well worth your time to read the story at https://books.google.com/books?id=5WRwCgAAQBAJ. It would be an even better use of your time to see this amazing film that probes the depths and heights of human experience.

Is there a place for films starring septuagenarian characters? I would hope so since everybody will find himself or herself there at one point or another—if you are lucky. With so much crap coming out about geezers, from the stereotypical crotchety “get off my lawn” performance of Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” to Alan Arkin’s performance of an out-of-control grandfather in “Little Miss Sunshine”, there is a need for films that depict people in their seventies and eighties as essentially the same people they were in their youth. As I told a good friend yesterday who I have known since 1961, there’s not much difference between the man I am today and back then—of course excluding the enlarged prostate.

December 17, 2015

Slavoj Zizek’s shameful bid to tarnish Turkey’s image

Filed under: Syria,Turkey,Zizek — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

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Slavoj Zizek’s Dec. 9 article in the UK’s New Statesman amounts to little more than anti-Turkey propaganda

ISTANBUL – Slavoj Zizek’s most recent article, published on Dec. 9 in the U.K.’s New Statesman magazine, has been described by some as little more than propaganda unbecoming of an intellectual or an academic.

Ihsan Gursoy, editor of the In-Depth News Analysis Department at Anadolu Agency, responded to Zizek’s article by making the following observations:

Many Turkish readers were surprised by Slavoj Zizek’s Dec. 9 article in the New Statesman.

Unable to forget Zizek’s interesting analysis of German, French and American society based on their respective toilets, many Turkish readers were excited when Zizek said, “We need to talk about Turkey” – expecting to hear a similar psychoanalysis of Turkish society within the context of “Alla Turca” toilets.

Instead, however, Turkey was directly accused by Zizek of collaborating with a terrorist group.

Since the article in question amounted to little more than propaganda – containing a level of impoliteness unbecoming of an intellectual or an academic – we won’t engage in content-based criticism.

Rather, we will discuss the issue only in terms of ethics: editorial ethics and the ethics of accurate citation.

Zizek stated his conclusion at the outset of his article – a conclusion based entirely, with one exception, on quotes that he claimed to have obtained from an Anadolu Agency interview with Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT).

However, Anadolu Agency never conducted or published such an interview, nor had Fidan uttered the words – anywhere – attributed to him by Zizek.

The fabricated quotes attributed to Zizek – and officially refuted by Anadolu Agency on Oct. 20 – were, however, published on Oct. 18 on AWDnews.com, a “news” website of unknown origin.

Writing an article based on arguments from a fabricated news piece – not covered in any reliable news outlet with the exception of a website with no credibility (and which was probably set up with the purpose of producing disinformation) – would be shameful if done by an unscrupulous university student, let alone a highly-respected professor.

No less unethical is the claim – one that could have serious consequences – that a legitimate country is in cahoots with terrorist organizations.

If our imagined student was to submit such an article as a research paper, he would come in for harsh criticism – first for his misuse of sources, then for his credulousness; for considering all information online as true without cross-checking it with other sources.

He may even be accused of plagiarism – since he failed to use quotation marks for sentences taken directly from his “source” – and could ultimately be expelled.

So what, we wonder, would drive a prominent academic like Zizek – who could not but be aware of these basic principles – to write such an article?

Once the arguments obtained from the fabricated quotes found on AWDnews.com are dispensed with, only one of Zizek’s sources remains: David Graeber’s article in the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper, entitled: “Turkey could cut off Islamic State’s supply lines. So why doesn’t it?”

But Zizek wasn’t satisfied with merely sourcing an article rife with baseless claims. By pretending to quote Graeber indirectly (he does not use quotation marks), Zizek manages to insert his own claims – claims not made by Graeber – into his own article while making them sound as if they came from Graeber.

Graeber, for example, mentions neither Turkey’s alleged facilitating role in Daesh’s oil exports, nor the wounded Daesh terrorists allegedly being treated in Turkey – claims that are made in Zizek’s article.

Zizek could have written a separate paragraph making these claims on his own authority, but why did he feel the need to quote The Guardian’s Graeber?

Setting aside the issue of intellectual honesty for a moment, why didn’t he, as an academic, comply with the basic rules of citation?

As soon as it became clear – on the very same day that the article was published – that the source of the arguments on which the article was based was a fabricated interview, the New Statesman removed these parts of the article and added a note, stating: “This article originally included a statement that was falsely attributed to the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. This has now been removed.”

Now the question begs itself: does the removal of the inaccurate parts of the article – and the subsequent addition of the explanatory note by the New Statesman – comply with basic editorial ethics?

The answer is no. On the contrary, the mere removal of blatant inaccuracies in such a controversial article serves to hamper healthy discussion of the issues involved.

Simple editorial ethics demand that the writer’s dishonesty be pointed out to the reader, by, for example, adding a note stating something to the effect of “These assertions have been proven false”.

Rather, the magazine merely attempted to cover up the article’s deceptions once they had been exposed, making the New Statesman itself complicit in the editorial dishonesty.

The New Statesman should have kept the article on its site while pointing out its flaws – in the manner we have described above – due to the extreme sensitivity of the assertions made by the author.

What’s more, the magazine should have published an apology to its readers for running the article in the first place.

So we ask the New Statesman directly:

How could you publish an article – on such a sensitive subject – without first subjecting it to a modicum of editorial scrutiny? Without verifying, by merely clicking on a couple of links, whether the sources therein were even remotely credible?

How can such a well-established publication – and such a prominent intellectual, such as Zizek – so easily risk its dignity and reputation?

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