Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 19, 2016

Bloody Counterrevolution in Aleppo: on Russian Blitzkrieg and US “betrayal”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:19 pm

Source: Bloody Counterrevolution in Aleppo: on Russian Blitzkrieg and US “betrayal”

February 18, 2016

Do capitalists create use-values?

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 4:41 pm

I received this in an email yesterday:


            I have only read the Communist Manifesto and chapter 1 of Capital, so my analysis may be misrepresentative of Marxist thought and the capitalist system as a whole; I, therefore, would like a little help from someone that is much more well-read than myself.

            My question is one that I have scoured the internet and my own reason for, with little success in the achievement of a coherent answer. This question being, does the capitalist not provide an essential service, in his planning of the production, the careful delegating of responsibilities to certain individuals, and the act of selling the commodities, to the workers he employs? In more technical terms, is he not creating a use-value to the workers by these actions, for, if he were not present, this would have to be done by the workers themselves, assuming the constancy of all other aspects of the capitalist mode of production?

            Could this use-value, created through the service of the capitalist, be the true source of surplus value, and therefore of profit? The immensity sometimes seen present in the profit would be due to the immensity of the use-value created, for he is creating a rather massive use-value when he sells the commodities produced by every single worker in a massive factory.

            I have heard it said (bear in mind, on Reddit, so it may be misrepresentative) that Marx ignored the fact that the capitalist himself does labor. How true is this?

            As an end statement, I would like to state that I have nothing less than a truly open mind, and ask these questions only after much reasoning being done on my own part.

Thank you!

My reply:

There is little doubt that the capitalist provides an essential service in supervising production. All you need to do is read a biography of Stephen Jobs to figure this out. However, there is ample evidence that workers do not need a capitalist to organize production. The Mondragon company in Spain has a vast economic empire including the manufacture of pressure cookers, bicycles, and building supplies but it is a worker-owned cooperative, not a private corporation. Furthermore, the USSR had a number of very innovative production units without the need for a capitalist to supervise production such as in aerospace, munitions, and heavy industry. The Soviet economy collapsed, however, because it was distorted by bureaucratic control over the firms that had many problems such as hoarding, etc. You can find out about these problems by reading Alec Nove, especially his “The Economics of Feasible Socialism”, portions of which can be read on Google Books.

More problematic is the question you raise: “In more technical terms, is he not creating a use-value to the workers by these actions, for, if he were not present, this would have to be done by the workers themselves, assuming the constancy of all other aspects of the capitalist mode of production?”

This is not what Marx had in mind when he coined the term “use-value”. For Marx, it was associated with the commodity, which is something that originated as raw materials in nature such as cotton, wood, iron, etc. and that labor transforms into something useful such as a shirt, a chair or the hull of a ship. Under capitalism, the commodity also has exchange-value, which is its capability to produce profits and cash for the capitalist who hires the worker.

You might find something I wrote about value theory worth reading: https://louisproyect.org/2014/07/08/questions-about-socialism-and-value-theory/

Looking a bit further into these questions, I have the same problem again with this:

Could this use-value, created through the service of the capitalist, be the true source of surplus value, and therefore of profit? The immensity sometimes seen present in the profit would be due to the immensity of the use-value created, for he is creating a rather massive use-value when he sells the commodities produced by every single worker in a massive factory.

Well, this is essentially the analysis put forward by Mises and Hayek, the Austrian economists who influenced Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and that pervades the Republican Party think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, et al. Just to repeat myself on the “use-value” question, this is not how Marx used the term. That being said, Marx did recognize the vast productive power of the modern capitalist system. As you have read “The Communist Manifesto”, this should be obvious to you from this:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

So in essence Marx did not ever question the vastly productive capacities of the capitalist system, nor did any of those who came after him. Furthermore, if capitalism could simply continue to provide jobs for the billions of people living on earth with a wage sufficient to maintain a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, there will never be a socialist revolution even if most workers are alienated by the monotony of factory life and the general social decay associated with commodification—something I am reminded of when I walk into a subway station and see ads covering every inch of the station as well as the trains that enter them.

People rise up against capitalism when it is stagnant, not when it is thriving. For example, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Scotland are now to one degree or another witnessing the growth of parties on the far left because of unemployment. The capitalists tell the people that before returning to normal they will have to endure austerity for some undefined period. This is pretty much what they were told in the 1930s as well. When you are like the Koch brothers, there is no hurry for the business cycle to trend upwards. When you have $100 million a year to piss away, time is not of the essence.

Given such business slumps, the workers tend to get angry–so much so that they join parties committed to ending capitalist rule. To keep them at bay, the capitalists try to solve their problems by grabbing land and resources in other countries where cheap foreign labor in places like China or Vietnam can help keep the homeland at peace through cheap commodities sold at Walmart. Competition over empire-building risks war as the ruling classes collide with each other over turf just like the mafia cartel wars in Mexico. This is essentially what caused WWI, WWII and colonial wars too numerous to mention.

Finally, even if the capitalist system retains some of the dynamism you speak of, there is the environmental crisis that ultimately will threaten the survival of civilization. To maintain profits, the capitalist class will drill for oil in places that pose vast risks such as the Gulf of Mexico. When oil and coal are used to keep the factories going, greenhouse gases cause climate change sufficient to flood much of New York City or London by the end of the 21st century. The capitalists are not too worried about this since they are not in it for the long haul. The Koch brothers are happy with the way things are and shrug off such dangers if not funding professors and journalists willing to lie on their behalf.

To conclude, your concern about “use values”, however understood, is misplaced when the survival of the human race is at stake. Better to tamp down the “dynamism” of the capitalist system in the interests of peace, clean air and a general state of contentment with the world around us.


February 17, 2016

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

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For at least a month before its premiere, I was repeatedly invited to press screenings of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” over the summer of 2015 that I turned down because the title of the film suggested that it would be a kind of fan’s tribute to a highly problematic Black nationalist group that imploded just a few years after its formation through a combination of its own ineptitude and police repression.

Among the batch of DVD’s I received in November in conjunction with NYFCO’s 2015 awards meeting was this documentary that remained gathering dust on my bookshelf for the reasons mentioned above. When it aired last night on PBS (and that can be seen here as well), I decided to finally have a look especially since it was bashed by former member Elaine Brown in the Daily Beast:

Like new-right ideologue David Horowitz, Nelson paints Huey as a thug, a “maniac,” according to an interview he highlights with one former Panther—a man harboring a lifelong, apolitical grudge against Huey, whom he never knew or even met. Nelson’s Huey is then reduced to a thug and drug addict killed by his own “demonic” behavior. Although Huey was killed 10 years after the Party’s demise, Nelson ties Huey’s tragic murder to the death of the Party. This opens the way to his wholesale condemnation of the Party as a fascinating cult-like group that died out on account of the leadership of a drug-addicted maniac. In this, he exonerates the government’s vicious COINTELPRO activities, and discredits and destroys the very history and memory of the Party.

The Nelson referred to above is African-American director Stanley Nelson who could not be more unlike David Horowitz based at least on his 2003 documentary on the murder of Emmett Till not to speak of his simply allowing former Panther members to tell of their own experiences with Huey Newton in the last year of his life when they saw him as a paranoid megalomaniac who had evolved into a gangster leading a crew that specialized in robbing drug dealers and pimps.

My biggest worry before seeing the film was based on the occurrence of the word “vanguard” in the title. Not only do I find it routinely misunderstood by “Leninist” groups but in the case of the Panthers all the more so since in their case it was a purely “substitutionist” project. As one former Panther in the film put it, they carried guns and adopted revolutionary rhetoric in order to spur the Black community into following their example. As it turned out, their roots in the Black community were fairly shallow so when the repression deepened they proved highly vulnerable.

I was keenly aware of all the events depicted in Nelson’s film, having seen them unfold in the late 60s and early 70s but they were only a blur now in my mind until revisiting them in this nearly two hour highly powerful documentary.

Long before I became a Trotskyist, I was attracted to Black nationalism. I was moved by LeRoi Jones’s reading of “The System of Dante’s Inferno” as a Bard College freshman and in my senior year went to a debate on Black nationalism at the Village Gate in March, 1965 that pitted Jones (who would become Amiri Baraka a year or so later) against the awful Nat Hentoff. I loved how Jones took Hentoff apart but the biggest thrill occurred three months earlier when I heard Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum in New York, sponsored by the Trotskyist group I would join two years later.

In 1967 I ended up working in Harlem for the welfare department and began radicalizing under the impact of the war in Vietnam and seeing poverty for the first time in my life. When Newark erupted in July, I was convinced that world revolution was on the agenda and applied for membership in the Young Socialist Alliance two months later.

In late 1967 the Panthers had attracted the attention of both the bourgeois media and the radical movement. For the SWP, the Panthers were seen as a major development because they were popularizing the idea of Black control of the Black community, a slogan we raised in our election campaigns.

Whatever enthusiasm I felt would be dampened to some extent by the appearance of Fred Hampton at the YSA convention in November 1968. We had invited the chairman of the Illinois Panthers to give greetings to the convention with a fifteen-minute time limit. Instead he harangued us for over an hour, essentially coming across as if he was speaking to the Young Democrats. Derrick Morrison, an African-American YSA member who had frequent meetings with Malcolm X, kept coming up to the podium passing him notes that his time was up. When Hampton finally got tired of these reminders, he concluded his “talk” with a four-letter tirade and stalked off.

What a contrast to Malcolm X who told the Militant Labor Forum that he was grateful for the opportunity to speak to the meeting and praised the newspaper for telling the truth. Now I don’t know if he was simply being diplomatic but the kind of macho bluster heard from Hampton was pretty much par for the course in this period.

Nelson’s film is very useful as an introduction to the factors that led to the Panther’s collapse but you never get the sense that he has a deeper understanding of their failure or even more importantly a critical approach to their major success: the free breakfast program and other elements of their “survival” turn such as medical clinics. One interviewee characterized the breakfasts as a major achievement, reaching 20,000 children per day at its height. Supposedly the program was something that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night and thus led to Cointelpro and the death squads that would lead to Hampton’s murder in December 1969.

The free breakfasts were inspired by the Maoist “serve the people” ideas that flourished on the left in the 60s and 70s. For the mostly white groups led by Bob Avakian and Mike Klonsky, it was interpreted mainly as a paternalistic approach to organizing with their cadre going into working class areas like missionaries for socialism. Ironically, the SWP would adopt this organizing method later on without having the slightest clue that if it failed for the Maoists, it would also fail for them.

At least with Avakian et al, the “serve the people” notion was an element of a strategy meant to challenge the capitalist state. So, for example, the Maoists went into coal-mining regions with the goal of strengthening the leftwing of the UMW. But for the Panthers, there was nothing like this at work in the breakfast program. To some extent, it was simply a turn away from the gun-toting adventures that had begun to decimate their ranks. How could you send the cops against a group making breakfasts for poor Black children? That was the idea anyhow.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they never dropped the stupid rhetoric about offing the pig that continued as the breakfasts were being served. If you were reading their paper, as I was in this period, you could not help but be appalled by pictures such as this:

panther pig

This ultraleft image of a gun being trained on a pig was very much a product of the times just as the Weathermen’s tone-deaf “kill the rich” rhetoric that ultimately evolved into outright terrorism. In either case, bold imagery and words were meant to distinguish the “revolutionaries” from ordinary society that lagged behind their advanced consciousness.

The obsession with guns and bombs obviously was connected to the Vietnam war and the Cuban guerrilla initiatives that gave many—including me—the sense that American imperialism was surrounded by revolutionary forces closing in. To some extent this led to the feeling that emulating the NLF or Che Guevara’s fighters meant breaking with bourgeois society and showing solidarity with foreign fighters by breaking the law. It was ironic that for the Panthers this meant simultaneously carrying out an armed struggle and engaging in free breakfast meliorism.

One of the faintly remembered events that the film brought alive to me was the shootout between Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and other Panthers on one side and the Oakland cops that took place on April 6, 1968. Cleaver had become a leader of a faction in the Panthers that was dubious about the breakfast program and sought to “bring it on” as urban guerrillas. In any armed confrontation between a tiny group with thin support in the Black community and the cops, the revolutionaries were likely to end up on the losing side. Apparently, Cleaver embarked on this adventure as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier.

In essence, this convergence of events symbolized the inability of the Panthers to understand what King was about and their failure to develop a program that might be modeled on what King was doing in Memphis—a working class mass action that threatened racist and capitalist power to such an extent that it cost him his life.

Unlike King, who went to Memphis to build solidarity for striking garbage men, neither Cleaver nor Huey Newton saw their role as building a working class movement. They oriented to lumpen elements in the Black community, something that always struck me as perhaps being inspired by “The Battle of Algiers” with its main character Ali Le Pointe abandoning a life of petty crime to join the FLN.

What an opportunity was lost for a Black revolutionary movement to focus on organizing Black workers. Keep in mind that this was before the phenomenon of runaway plants and when Detroit et al were still thriving industrial centers. Auto, steel, rubber, oil, etc. were still profitable industries with very large—if not majority—African-American workforces. These were workers who were open to radical ideas as the Black caucuses in the UAW would indicate.

If the Panthers had built a movement in the ranks of the Black working class, it might have become a powerful deterrent to the runaway shops that have devastated Black America.

Although I could be wrong, it strikes me that Black nationalism will never undergo a revival. Black youth today who oppose police brutality are inspired much more by Martin Luther King Jr. than the Panthers. That being said, I still hold out hope that some day there will be a real engagement with Malcolm X’s ideas that while being Black nationalist were evolving toward working class internationalism. That, of course, is what probably got him killed just as it got Martin Luther King Jr. killed.

February 16, 2016

Left-leaning critics of Sanders? Left of Attila the Hun that is

Filed under: Bernie Sanders — louisproyect @ 4:52 pm

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When I saw the headline in today’s NY Times “Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans”, I bet myself a bottle of good Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand before reading the article that the “left-leaning” economists are not people like Michael Perelman or Richard Wolff. Naturally, given the paper’s backing for Hillary Clinton, this was a safe bet. The wine will go nicely with the Mahi Mahi later tonight that was probably caught in the waters near New Zealand. Yummy.

Before examining the article, I should say that I am very sympathetic to Sanders’s economic program. Calling for universal Medicare and free college education is a perfect way to counter the neoliberal programs of every other candidate and even to force Clinton to shift to the left (mostly rhetorically). That being said, I have not voted for a Democrat since 1964 when LBJ essentially carried out Barry Goldwater’s agenda in Vietnam. It was only three years later when I became a Trotskyist that I fully understood how the American two-party system operated. Unlike the training I got from people like Farrell Dobbs and George Novack, however, I am much more flexible on the type of party I find acceptable. James P. Cannon regarded Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign as “bourgeois” while I consider it a model for the type of party that is needed now. Since Jill Stein’s candidacy for the Green Party is close to that in spirit, that is who I will be voting for.

Turning to the Times article written by one Jackie Calmes, a member of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, it justifies a complaint to the Times ombudsperson at public@nytimes.com. This is like a number of think tanks at Harvard, a marriage of the corporate elite and the media hacks who have scrambled to the top of the heap defending its interests. The center was started with funding by Walter Shorenstein, a real estate developer who was a long time power broker in the Democratic Party. To give you an idea of the Center’s politics, Michael Ignatieff, a major supporter of Bush’s war in Iraq, is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Press, Politics and Public Policy. This is like having someone like David Horowitz being named the Edward Said professor at Columbia University.

The article begins with an attack on Medicare for All that claims that Clinton was not aggressive enough in her charge that it would increase the size of government by 40 percent. It cited a “respected health economist” who said it would be more like 50 percent. So who is this left-leaning critic of Medicare for all?

It is none other than Kenneth Thorpe, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet and had a central role in formulating his ill-fated health care reform proposals.

Next in line to take a whack at Medicare for All is one Austan Goolsbee:

By the reckoning of the left-of-center economists, none of whom are working for Mrs. Clinton, the proposals would add $2 trillion to $3 trillion a year on average to federal spending; by comparison, total federal spending is projected to be above $4 trillion in the next president’s first year. “The numbers don’t remotely add up,” said Austan Goolsbee, formerly chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, now at the University of Chicago.

Left-leaning? Austan Goolsbee? Before Obama was a nominee for President in his first term, I came to the conclusion that his “hope and change” mantra was garbage based simply on the economics advisers he chose for his campaign.

Although it is not widely understood, Obama is pretty much committed to the neoclassical economics outlook of his home-town University of Chicago. Since becoming Senator, he has relied on the advice of a professor named Austan Goolsbee, who calls himself “a centrist, market economist” (Washington Times, July 16, 2007).

Goolsbee has been a columnist for Slate.com and the NY Times, as well as a standup comedian. His economics are not meant as a joke, as I understand it. His columns are written very much in the same vein as fellow U. of Chicago neoclassical economist Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics,” examining everyday problems such as “Why you get stuck for hours at O’Hare.” Most are fairly uncontroversial except for the swipe he took at Michael Moore’s “Sicko”, whose single-payer recommendations violate his free market principles.

Right. Very left-leaning if the comparison is to Attila the Hun, I suppose.

By the way, if you are looking for what genuinely left-leaning analysts think of this business, I urge you to read David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler’s dismantling of Thorpe that appeared in the Huffington Post:

In summary, professor Thorpe grossly underestimates the administrative savings under single-payer; posits increases in the number of doctor visits and hospitalizations that exceed the capacity of doctors and hospitals to provide this added care; assumes that the federal government would provide state and local governments with huge windfalls rather than requiring full maintenance of effort; makes no mention of the vast current tax subsidies for private coverage whose elimination would provide hundreds of billions annually to fund a single-payer program; and ignores savings on drugs and medical equipment that every other single-payer program has reaped.

Although he did have some credibility as a left-leaning economist in a previous lifetime, Jared Bernstein sold his soul to the devil when he became Vice President Biden’s economic adviser. Ensconced now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bernstein was called upon to deliver a verdict on a paper by Gerald Friedman of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is Sanders’s adviser.

“We need a deep investment in infrastructure, more efficient health care and less student debt,” Mr. Bernstein said. “But when you put it all together, government’s role in the economy goes well beyond anything we’ve ever considered.” He said protecting the Affordable Care Act against Republican opposition should be a higher priority — a critique echoed by Mrs. Clinton.

Just what you’d expect from someone drawing a salary from the Obama administration. Worries over “government’s role in the economy” and protecting Obamacare. Feh.

Calmes also invokes Paul Krugman as a “left-leaning” critic of Sanders. I don’t want to waste any words on Krugman except to say that I stopped reading him about eight years ago when he began focusing most of his wrath on Obama’s enemies in the Republican Party. That was also around the same time I bailed on MSNBC.

Next up in her rogue’s gallery is one Henry J. Aaron, “a longtime health economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington” (Brookings is a dead giveaway that he is a centrist) who belongs to a “lefty chat group”, which you can be assured is not PEN-L or anything remotely resembling it. In that chat group, Aaron has been arguing that fighting for a single-payer plan would destroy his political capital.

Since Aaron is a member along with Jared Bernstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it is worth saying a word or two about this outfit. To start with, its founder Robert Greenstein was one of Bill Clinton’s appointees to the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform in 1994. Co-chaired by the neoliberal war criminal Robert Kerrey and Republican Senator John Danforth, it proposed among other things raising the age for the full benefits for Social Security from 65 to 70. I have no idea how Greenstein voted in the deliberations there but do have to wonder how he was nominated in the first place. I doubt if Sanders would have been picked if you gather my drift.

All these people from Kenneth Thorpe to Jared Bernstein represent “left-leaning” to the political arbiters of the permissible spectrum at the NY Times. Clearly, Sanders falls outside that spectrum in more or less the same way that Trump falls outside the Republican Party spectrum. It is too bad that Sanders lacks the killer instinct of Trump who had the guts to lambaste George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq. I only wish that Sanders had half the gumption to go after the entire Carter-Clinton-Obama Democratic Party neoliberal edifice that is likely to continue with the election of Hillary Clinton. If Sanders would lose votes if he stopped pulling his punches, the real loser would be the American people who need to hear a critique of how we have ended up in such an unequal society that is rotting apart like a dead animal’s carcass in the desert. At least we have Jill Stein who knows how to throw a powerful uppercut (http://www.jill2016.com/plan):

A Green New Deal:

Create millions of jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable agriculture, and conservation.

Jobs as a Right:

Create living-wage jobs for every American who needs work, replacing unemployment offices with employment offices. Advance workers rights to form unions, achieve workplace democracy, and keep a fair share of the wealth they create.

End Poverty:

Guarantee economic human rights, including access to food, water, housing, and utilities, with effective anti-poverty programs to ensure every American a life of dignity.


February 15, 2016

Stephen Kinzer and Jeffrey Sachs: latest recruits to the Baathist amen corner

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:52 pm

Stephen Kinzer

Jeffrey Sachs

It never fails to amaze me how Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin’s admirers on the left continue to see themselves as heroically challenging the status quo as if their “antiwar” position had anything in common with the martyrs who went to prison for genuine anti-imperialist beliefs. In 1918 Eugene V. Debs was convicted under the Sedition Act and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served three years until Warren Harding commuted his sentence. Three years for making speeches like this that referred to the embattled socialist opponents of WWI:

It is the minorities who have made the history of this world. It is the few who have had the courage to take their places at the front; who have been true enough to themselves to speak the truth that was in them; who have dared oppose the established order of things; who have espoused the cause of the suffering, struggling poor; who have upheld without regard to personal consequences the cause of freedom and righteousness.

Think anybody is going to be thrown in prison for cheering on Putin’s bombing raids on Aleppo? Doesn’t take much courage for that, does it? It is more likely that it will earn you a spot on Democracy Now or Eric Draitser’s radio podcasts.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, one of the first things I learned is that Farrell Dobbs, who I used to see at party HQ at 873 Broadway, had gone to prison for 16 months with other party leaders in 1944 for violations of the Smith Act—in other words writing the same kinds of articles as Eugene V. Debs. Think Mike Whitney or Eric Draitser is going to jail any time soon? In fact, these types of hacks have been busting down an open door for the past three years with their incessant warnings about Barack Obama invading Syria as a beachhead to take on Iran in the opening guns of WWIII. This was not based on any analysis of the objective conditions but a kind of conspiratorial mindset that mixed a crude anti-imperialism with the same kind of rancid Islamophobia Christopher Hitchens made infamous.

As most of you probably realize, there are very few leftists in the USA who have been opposed to Bashar al-Assad. When I am settling my accounts with my Maker a decade or so from now (if I am lucky), I will insist that writing against the Baathist dictatorship was my ticket into commie heaven. For the Baathist left, they can go straight to hell as far as I am concerned.

Over the past couple of days, I have been reminded of how mainstream the Baathist amen corner has become–almost as respectable as the Kiwanis Club. Nominally part of the left, academic mandarins Stephen Kinzer and Jeffrey Sachs have written the kind of putrid articles that appear on a continuous basis nowadays in places like Salon, Huffington Post, Jacobin (in the past), CounterPunch, the Nation, and ZNet.

Turning to Kinzer, you almost wonder if he has plagiarized Mike Whitney with his February 13, 2016 Boston Globe op-ed piece titled “On Syria: Thank you, Russia!”. My goodness, what a brave man writing such dangerous thoughts. I guess he knows that toasting the bombing raids on Aleppo that have turned the city into something looking like Stalingrad circa 1943 over the past month or so is no more subversive than being opposed to the Koch brothers.

Kinzer and Chris Hedges were NY Times reporters in the 1980s when I was involved with El Salvador and Nicaragua solidarity. Somewhere along the line they had a St. Paul on the road to Damascus type conversion except in Kinzer’s case it was not based on the radical Christian and pacifist beliefs that motivated his fellow Timesman. For Kinzer, opposition to US foreign policy was from the standpoint of Mearsheimer and Walt type realism. He wrote a book on Iran that was much more along the lines of Flynt Leverett, a former NSC and CIA operative who decided that it was in America’s interest to orient to Iran. Proletarian internationalism? Don’t make me laugh.

Kinzer is ensconced in the Watson Institute at Brown University—a think-tank obviously having little in common with the Smolny Institute. The Watson Institute is named after Tom Watson. You think maybe Brown University wanted to pay tribute to the populist leader who led poor farmers against Wall Street? Obviously not. It was started by Thomas J. Watson Jr., the former CEO of IBM, a company that in fine realist traditions sold tab machines to the Nazis to help keep track of Jewish concentration camp internees.

In 1983 Kinzer was writing the kind of crappy articles that have been written about Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. One of them was titled “Nicaragua Faces A New Shortage: Toys”. Here’s a country that had been devastated by earthquake and a brutal civil war inflicted on the people by “our son of a bitch” Somoza. So what does Kinzer write about? Literacy programs? Clinics for people who had never been to a doctor in their life? No, it is this:

Parents wait hours in line at Government-run stores for a chance to buy dolls and toy trucks. Meanwhile, in other parts of the city, private vendors peddle water pistols and talking robots at inflated prices.

What bold investigative journalism.

The Baathist amen corner would never understand that Anastasio Somoza was Nicaragua’s Bashar al-Assad. They prefer writing idiotic articles trying to make Assad sound like Daniel Ortega in the 1980s with evil contras trying to ruin his secular, diverse, and tolerant “socialist” society. Somoza’s Nicaragua and Syria were kleptocracies sustained by state terror. In the first instance it was backed by an imperialist power just as it was in the second. If Assad had not relied on Iranian and Russian muscle, his gangster regime would have fallen like a house of cards 3 years ago at least.

Kinzer’s article is a full-throated defense of the Baathist dictatorship that turns the criminal into the victim as Malcolm X used to put it:

Russia, which has suffered repeated terror attacks from Islamic fanatics, is threatened by the chaos and ungoverned space that now defines Syria. So are we. Russia’s policy should be ours: prevent the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government, craft a new regime that would include Assad or his supporters, and then work for a cease-fire.

One supposes that these “Islamic fanatics” are like those that attacked us on 911, angry because the USA allowed women to walk around in miniskirts and because of Coca-Cola. The left countered these arguments back then, explaining that the attack had more to do with Marines being stationed in Saudi Arabia and Palestinians getting slaughtered by Israelis. But somehow it lost its way. It failed to understand what made the Chechens turn to terror. It never occurred to people like Kinzer that Yeltsin and Putin made war on a country of just a million people that had been driven from their homeland by Stalin during WWII. It does not square with their propaganda agenda.

Like Kinzer, Jeffrey Sachs also had a St. Paul like conversion. After all, he had lot to repent for with his “shock therapy” advice to Russia costing 3.2 million deaths according to Lancet. I am not sure when he got religion but ever since then he became one of these self-satisfied liberals who can be counted on for sage advice on what might make America great again. You know the drill. PBS News Hour talking about the need for eliminating greenhouse gases. Op-Ed articles in the NY Times calling for the prosecution of Wall Street criminals. All very sensible ideas but not exactly ones that will risk getting you put in jail.

His article is titled “Hillary Clinton and the Syrian Bloodbath” and at least has the virtue of calling out an obviously odious figure. What goes wrong, however, is Sachs’s addled history of Syria over the four years that puts all the blame on the USA for the ongoing disaster.

He states that Clinton sabotaged peace talks in 2012 that would have resolved the conflict:

In 2012, Clinton was the obstacle, not the solution, to a ceasefire being negotiated by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. It was US intransigence – Clinton’s intransigence – that led to the failure of Annan’s peace efforts in the spring of 2012, a point well known among diplomats. Despite Clinton’s insinuation in the Milwaukee debate, there was (of course) no 2012 ceasefire, only escalating carnage. Clinton bears heavy responsibility for that carnage, which has by now displaced more than 10 million Syrians and left more than 250,000 dead.

Sachs was obviously referring to the spurious revelation made by former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari in September 2015 that when Russian diplomat Vitaly Churkin proposed a deal three years earlier that would have resulted in Assad stepping down in exchange for peace, Clinton and her allies in Britain and France said no. The only problem is that Churkin was not the ultimate authority on such matters. Much closer to Putin and certainly speaking for him, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated just four months later: “We will not support and cannot support any interference from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”

When the slogan of Assad’s shabiha at the time was “Either Bashar al-Assad or the country burns”, it is quite foolish for Sachs to have considered the possibility of a “Yemen-type solution” in 2012—not that this worked out that great in Yemen.

Seemingly unaware of Obama’s turn toward Iran, Sachs assures his readers that if it was not for Iran, Syria probably would have been left in peace:

As every knowledgeable observer understands, the Syrian War is not mostly about Bashar al-Assad, or even about Syria itself. It is mostly a proxy war, about Iran. And the bloodbath is doubly tragic and misguided for that reason.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the leading Sunni powers in the Middle East, view Iran, the leading Shia power, as a regional rival for power and influence. Right-wing Israelis view Iran as an implacable foe that controls Hezbollah, a Shi’a militant group operating in Lebanon, a border state of Israel. Thus, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel have all clamored to remove Iran’s influence in Syria.

Since Sachs is employed by Columbia University, you would think he’d take advantage of Nexis and other newspaper and magazine archives as I do as a retiree. Plumbing its depths, you will discover that Saudi Arabia and Assad were chumming it up not that long ago.

On March 26, 2009, the NY Times reported in an article titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” that a proxy war was not in the offing:

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

And Turkey was even more accommodating. On July 24, 2009 the Times reported in an article titled “Syrians’ New Ardor for a Turkey Looking Eastward” that the countries were as close as peas in a pod:

Well-heeled Syrians had already been coming to this ancient industrial city, drawn here by Louis Vuitton purses and storefront signs in Arabic. But local shop owners say Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish-led flotilla to Gaza in May has solidified an already blossoming friendship between Syria and Turkey, the new hero of the Muslim world.

“People in Syria love Turkey because the country supports the Arab world, and they are fellow Muslims,” Zakria Shavek, 37, a driver for a Syrian transport company based in Gaziantep, said as he deposited a family of newly arrived shoppers from Aleppo, which competes with Damascus for the title of Syria’s largest city and is about a two-hour drive from here. “Our enemy in the world is Israel, so we also like Turkey because our enemy’s enemy is our friend.”

Just three months later, things were going even better according to another NYT article:

Ten Turkish ministers, including those from the foreign affairs, defense, interior, economy, energy and agriculture departments, met with their Syrian counterparts.

The parties worked on almost 40 protocols and agreements to be put into action plans within 10 days, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said, according to the Anatolian Agency, a semiofficial news service.

The defense ministries agreed to draft at least three projects by the end of October, and energy officials agreed to complete the natural gas project connecting an Arab pipeline with a Turkish pipeline in the next 18 months, the Anatolian Agency reported.

“From now on, Turkey will continue walking on the same road” as Syria, “sharing a common fate, history and future,” Mr. Davutoglu said at a joint news conference. “We are going to walk hand by hand and work altogether to revive our region as a center of civilization.”

Of course all this fell apart when Assad decided that preserving his dynasty meant more than fostering capitalist relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. When his military began slaughtering tens of thousands of Sunnis, the Saudis and Turks began funding and arming militias seeking Assad’s overthrow. As might be expected with the reactionary character of these governments, the support came with strings attached. Groups tended to receive bigger handouts if they made political Islamic a centerpiece of the resistance.

The power of these reactionary states has been magnified by the collapse of the left internationally, something that is most keenly felt in the Middle East. We are dealing with a situation today when the revolutionary left in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere is tiny and isolated. But I’ll be damned if I stop trying to connect with them and join the Baathist amen corner. One FSA fighter still committed to the original aims of the revolution is worth more to me than 10,000 Stephen Kinzers or Jeffrey Sachses.

February 14, 2016

Bernie Sanders pulls his punches

Filed under: Bernie Sanders — louisproyect @ 11:16 pm

I am a big sports fan but it is very rare for me to watch a basketball, baseball or football game from beginning to end. Generally I prefer to read sports columns in the NY Times or, even better, to listen to ESPN or WFAN with “Vinnie from Staten Island” waxing eloquently on Phil Jackson’s Zen deviations.

It is sort of the same thing with presidential elections, which are generally treated as a sporting event as well–like “Sanders and Clinton are neck in neck in Iowa”, etc. I like to read the commentary but would prefer root canal to sitting through a Sanders-Clinton debate. It was a lot easier for me to read the transcript for the latest debate that was moderated by a couple of knuckleheads from PBS.

After skimming through it, I am beginning to wonder if Sanders is fighting with one hand behind his back. Hillary Clinton has figured out that by wrapping herself in Obama’s flag she can line up Black votes. In the PBS debate,  she kept demanding that he kneel before the President under whom Black poverty has increased geometrically and under whose watch cops shoot Black people with impunity.

For example, she said that Sanders “wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy.” Well, it turns out that he wrote no forward but just a blurb for Bill Press’s “Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down.”

Sanders tried to wriggle out of this by saying that the blurb was not actually an attack on Obama but only one that said “the next president of the United States has got to be aggressive in bringing people into the political process.” The exact words:

Bill Press makes the case why, long after taking the oath of office, the next president of the United States must keep rallying the people who elected him or her on behalf of progressive causes. That is the only way real change will happen. Read this book.

So Clinton was lying about what Sanders wrote–no surprise there. Meanwhile Sanders took the opportunity to demonstrate his fealty to the “transformative” President:

President Obama and I are friends. As you know, he came to Vermont to campaign for me when he was a senator. I have worked for his re-election. His first election and his re-election.

But I think it is really unfair to suggest that I have not been supportive of the president. I have been a strong ally with him on virtually every issue. Do senators have the right to disagree with the president? Have you ever disagreed with a president? I suspect you may have.

So, comrades, what kind of socialist characterizes himself as “a strong ally” of Barack Obama on “virtually every issue”? As far as I am concerned, Obama has been a disaster across the board, virtually functioning as the third and fourth term of the George W. Bush administration. He has backed Wall Street’s efforts to remain above the law. He has thrown his weight behind the charter school movement that is not only inimical to the interests of unionized teachers but one that is of dubious educational value. He has given the green light to oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas and boosted fracking and nuclear power. This is not to speak of his rancid foreign policy initiatives that are hallmarked by drone attacks across the entire planet victimizing the innocent and trade agreements that are in the Clinton NAFTA mold.

So how in the fuck does Sanders say he was with Obama on “virtually every issue”? Is he trying to con his audience? Or us? We know that he has been opposed to fracking and Wall Street crooks but how can you really be opposed without drawing a clear class line between yourself and the chief executive, at least if your “socialism” has a smattering of engagement with the ABC’s of socialist theory, namely that society is divided into classes. Maybe Sanders’s “socialism” is just a word he has some kind of emotional attachment to like Linus’s blanket. From my perspective, he has about as much connection to socialism as I do to Madame Blavatsky’s spiritualism.

Joan Walsh, the insufferable Hillary Clinton supporter who edits Salon.com, has a piece in the latest Nation titled “Bernie Sanders Has an Obama Problem” (http://www.thenation.com/article/bernie-sanders-has-an-obama-problem/) that tut-tuts Sanders for racial insensitivity. When asked by halfwit Judy Woodruff how a Sanders presidency would improve race relations, he replied that he would create jobs that would end young Blacks “hanging out on street corners”. For Walsh, this was tantamount to racism:

Again, I’m sure he didn’t mean it this way, but Sanders essentially said that race relations will improve when black kids stop hanging out on street corners and live productive lives instead. That would be the worst of respectability politics, if that’s what Sanders meant.

This is as disingenuous as anything Clinton would have said. It was obvious that Sanders was decrying the unemployment rate of young blacks that was 21.4 percent in 2014 and probably gotten worse. Furthermore, if anything Sanders was a lot less obtuse than Obama who has practically reduced the question of Black failure to the kind of pop psychology Bill Cosby made infamous.

In May 2013, Obama gave a commencement speech at Morehouse College, a historically Black institution, where he said:

We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices.  And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself.  Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.  I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. . .

Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was.  Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.  And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them.  And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.

After eight years of this kind of bullshit, isn’t about time that Obama got called out? What kind of socialist is Sanders to pull his punches on Obama? In terms of sporting events, what is he trying to do? Emulate the Washington Generals who used to play the Harlem Globetrotters?

What a strange campaign that Sanders is running. Every other word out of his mouth is on Wall Street billionaires. He is appalled by the Koch brothers but has little to say about how Obama catered to Wall Street interests over the past 8 years.

What you need to do is Google “Obama” with the domain of https://berniesanders.com. It speaks volumes to see what comes up in the first page of results. I didn’t go past the first page because it was too depressing to press forward.

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Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Sydney Lassick: actor who played mental patient in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

Anthony Scalia: mental patient who played a Supreme Court judge until yesterday

February 13, 2016

Exchange with Andrew Cockburn

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

Andrew Cockburn

Two months ago I printed out my critique of Andrew Cockburn’s article in the January 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine that came off the Seymour Hersh-David Bromwich-Patrick Cockburn assembly line as if programmed by a numerical control machine precise to the millionth of an inch and sent it to the editor who has since been fired. In the back of my mind I wonder if that was the consequence of him directing the letters editor to contact me about writing a rejoinder to Cockburn for the latest issue that is dated March 2016. This is the first time I have ever written a letter to an editor in a print magazine and struggled to say anything effective in the two hundred word limit they allowed me.

In any case, the issue just arrived in my mailbox today and here is the exchange:

Andrew Cockburn depicts a White House that is bent on regime change in Syria, despite a New York Times report from October 2013, which stated that from the beginning, “Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention.” Cockburn suggests that the eventual intervention was part of a master plan concocted by the Saudis to thwart Shiite influence in the region. But such a plan does not square with the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the rise of a Shiite regime that has alienated Sunnis so much that they have come to see the Islamic State as a lesser evil in Anbar province. This is to say nothing of the Pentagon training program for Syrian rebels, which required trainees to agree in advance that their weapons would be used only against the Islamic State, not against the soldiers of Bashar al-Assad. If this is a proxy war, it is not a very good one.

The White House has been far more determined to punish Al Qaeda, through its drone attacks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The sad truth is that the most effective intervention in Syria has come from Assad’s allies. Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah have now joined forces with the Baathist military to destroy non–Islamic State rebels who took up arms after peaceful protesters were attacked by government snipers. The failure of Cockburn to acknowledge the scorched-earth tactics of this unholy alliance is regrettable.

Louis Proyect
New York City

Andrew Cockburn responds:
Louis Proyect’s string of misconceptions usefully reflects the addled thinking of the administration, its allies, and the media, which has done so much to prolong Syria’s agony. Obama forswore as politically impossible military intervention (excepting the anti–Islamic State air campaign) in Syria. Instead he opted for covert action, in collusion with regional allies, that was aimed at displacing the Assad regime. Since he and other administration officials repeatedly stressed that “Assad must go” and supported armed opposition forces as a means to that end, it is hard to see why eschewing direct military intervention indicated a contrary policy. The United States and Saudi Arabia have pursued the same policy in Syria. This is confirmed not merely by their public statements; as I revealed in my article, the United States actively enabled Saudi arms supplies to flow to that country’s jihadist proxies. The loud complaints last fall that Russia was bombing “CIA-backed moderates” (who were embedded with an Al Qaeda coalition) on the front lines against Assad’s forces give the lie to assertions that we were interested only in fighting the Islamic State.

There’s not much more to say here except that it is patently absurd to link me to the “addled thinking of the administration” especially when there are reports of John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov being united around the need to keep the ghoulish Assad regime intact out of the Chamblerlain-Ribbentrop playbook. Unfortunately space limitations prevented me from getting too deep into Cockburn’s “Assad must go” nonsense so let me reprise it here and be done with it. From my blog post on Andrew Cockburn’s idiotic article:

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.”

William Randolph Hearst: populist Democrat

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:57 am

William Randolph Hearst

From Wikipedia:

Under William Randolph Hearst, the New York Morning Journal remained loyal to the populist wing of the Democratic Party, and was the only major publication in the East to support William Jennings Bryan and Bimetallism in 1896. Their coverage of that historic election was probably the most important of any newspaper in the country, exposing both the unprecedented role of money in the Republican campaign and the dominating role played by William McKinley’s political and financial manager, Mark Hanna, the first national party ‘boss’ in American history. Only a year after taking over the paper, Hearst could boast that sales of the Journal’s post-election issue (including the Evening and German-language editions) topped 1.5 million, a record “unparalleled in the history of the world.”

William Hearst’s outlook from the 1930s was ultra-conservative, nationalist and anti-communist. His politics were the politics of the extreme right. In 1934 he travelled to Germany, where he was received by Hitler as a guest and friend. After this trip, Hearst’s newspapers became even more reactionary, always carrying articles against socialism, against the Soviet Union and especially against Stalin. Hearst also tried to use his newspapers for overt Nazi propaganda purposes, publishing a series of articles by Goering, Hitler’s right-hand man. After his visit to Hitler, Hearst’s sensationalist newspapers were filled with ‘revelations’ about the terrible happenings in the Soviet Union – murders, genocide, slavery, luxury for the rulers and starvation for the people; all these were the big news items almost every day. The material was provided to Hearst by the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s political police. On the front pages of the newspapers there often appeared caricatures and falsified pictures of the Soviet Union, with Stalin portrayed as a murderer holding a dagger in his hand.

So you might think that something happened between 1896 and the 1930s, right? A kind of David Horowitz or Christopher Hitchens evolution, you’d think.

Well, maybe not.

From Greg Mitchell’s “Change of the Century”:

At the 1932 Democratic convention, [Joseph P.] Kennedy helped swing the support of William Randolph Hearst, who controlled the make-or-break California delegation, to Roosevelt. As head of the party’s finance committee, he raised an estimated one hundred thousand dollars from his Wall Street cronies, donated twenty-five thousand dollars of his own money to the FDR campaign, and lent the party another fifty thousand dollars. He wooed A. P. Giannini, the leading California banker, out of the Hoover camp and into Roosevelt’s. During a vacation trip with FDR, Kennedy’s secretary, Edward Moore, amused fellow guests with the prediction that if everyone lived long enough, they would witness one of Joe’s sons taking office as the nation’s first Catholic president.

Meanwhile, Joe Kennedy—the father of DP icons Jack, Bobby and Teddy—had his own issues with Nazism as Seymour Hersh pointed out in his book “The Dark Side of Camelot” (this was before he lost his mind):

There is no evidence that Ambassador [Joseph] Kennedy understood in the days before the war that stopping Hitler was a moral imperative. “In­dividual Jews are all right, Harvey,” Kennedy told Harvey Klemmer, one of his few trusted aides in the American Embassy, “but as a race they stink. They spoil everything they touch. Look what they did to the movies.” Klemmer, in an interview many years later made avail­able for this book, recalled that Kennedy and his “entourage” generally referred to Jews as “kikes or sheenies.”

Kennedy and his family would later emphatically deny allegations of anti-Semitism stemming from his years as ambassador, but the German diplomatic documents show that Kennedy consistently minimized the Jewish issue in his four-month attempt in the sum­mer and fall of 1938 to obtain an audience with Hitler. On June 13, as the Nazi regime was systematically segregating Jews from German society, Kennedy advised Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambas­sador in London, as Dirksen reported to Berlin, that “it was not so much the fact that we wanted to get rid of the Jews that was so harmful to us, but rather the loud clamor with which we accompanied this purpose. He himself understood our Jewish policy completely.” On October 13, 1938, a few weeks before Kristallnacht, with its Brown Shirt terror attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses, Kennedy met again with Ambassador Dirksen, who subsequently informed his superiors that “today, too, as during former conversations, Kennedy mentioned that very strong anti-Semitic feelings existed in the United States and that a large portion of the population had an un­derstanding of the German attitude toward the Jews.”

Kennedy knew little about the culture and history of Europe be­fore his appointment as ambassador and made no effort to educate himself once in London. He made constant misjudgments. In the summer of 1938, for example, he blithely assured the president in a letter, described in the published diaries of Harold Ickes, FDR’s secretary of the interior, that “he does not regard the European situation as so critical.” Diplomats serving on the American Desk in the British Foreign Office quickly came to fear ­ and hate ­ Kennedy. They compiled a secret dossier on him, known as the “Kennediana” file, which would not be declassified until after the war. In those pages Sir Robert Vansittart, undersecretary of the Foreign Office, scrawled, as war was spreading throughout Europe in early 1940: “Mr. Kennedy is a very foul specimen of a double-crosser and defeatist. He thinks of nothing but his own pocket. I hope that this war will at least see the elimination of his type.”

Kennedy remained insensitive, at best, about the Jewish issue through the later war years, when the existence of concentration camps was widely known. In a May 1944 interview with an old friend, Joe Dinneen of the Boston Globe, Kennedy acknowledged, when questioned about his alleged anti-Semitism: “It is true that I have a low opinion of some Jews in public office and in private life. That does not mean that I hate all Jews; that I believe they should be wiped off the face of the earth. . . . Other races have their own problems to solve. They’re glad to give the Jews a lift and help them along the way toward tolerance, but they’re not going to drop everything and solve the problems of the Jews for them. Jews who take an unfair advantage of the fact that theirs is a persecuted race do not help much. . .. Publicizing unjust attacks upon the Jews may help to cure the injustice, but continually publicizing the whole prob­lem only serves to keep it alive in the public mind.” Kennedy’s discussion of anti-Semitism was withheld from publication at the time by the editors of the Globe, but in 1959 Dinneen sought to include a portion of it in a generally flattering precampaign family biography. Advance galleys of the Dinneen book, entitled The Kennedy Family, had been given to Jack Kennedy, who understood how inflammatory his fa­ther’s comments would be and had no difficulty in successfully urging Dinneen to delete the offending paragraphs. The incident is described in Richard Whalen’s biography of Joe Kennedy.

When I read this sort of thing, I am reminded of why I took an oath never to vote for a Democrat, not even if was Bhaskar Sunkara running for President rather than Bernie Sanders. It’s BS to me across the board.

February 12, 2016

Four documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

Apart from their subject matter, the four documentaries of recent vintage and under review below would be of great interest to anybody who has ever made a film—or more accurately a video—using a digital camcorder and editing software like IMovie. You find yourself thinking about the creative process as the film unwinds, asking yourself how the director, cameraperson and editor cobbled together the raw material into a finished product. Of course, given the largely unprofitable business of documentary filmmaking, it is a stretch to think of such films as commodities in contrast to the crapola of the week featured in full-page ads in the NY Times.

“Amy” is about the late Amy Winehouse, a self-styled jazz/blues singer who died of alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011 just short of her 28th birthday. The film begins with a 1998 home movie of the fourteen-year-old Winehouse singing at a birthday party for a friend named Lauren Gilbert, something likely done with a Super 8 camera given its fuzziness. As the film progresses, we see scene after scene made with ordinary digital camcorders as Winehouse and her friends “perform” in various locations in England and at posh resorts where the sadly self-destructive singer sought to run away from the ghosts that haunted her. If there is one thing clear about this footage, it is that Winehouse liked being the focus of attention even if she at the very same time was trying to escape being Amy Winehouse. In some ways, the steadily advancing toll that tobacco, drugs, alcohol, depression and bulimia were taking on her were reminiscent of “found video” horror movies like “Blair Witch Chronicles” that featured people the same age as Winehouse. The monsters of such movies were a lot less scary than the demons that lurked inside her psyche.

In addition to the home movies, “Amy” relies heavily on TV interviews with Winehouse as she exchanges banter with various personalities. Conducted in 2004, one of the most interesting of them is with Jonathan Ross, a BBC talk show host who tells her that she is “common”. He can get away with this because he immediately tells her that he is “common” himself. She laughs it off, telling Ross that she has resisted attempts by the record company executives to pressure her into being more “polished”. With her tattoos and tawdry dress, she looked all the world like a streetwalker. One gets the impression that for performers like Lady Ga Ga, the image is carefully cultivated but for Winehouse it was entirely natural even if it went hand in hand with a simmering masochism.

For those who followed her career, the film will prove gripping. For someone like myself, it was fascinating in a morbid way, akin to watching a roadside accident with body parts strewn everywhere. She had the same kind of unquenchable appetite for mind-altering substances as John Belushi or Janis Joplin that no degree of adulation from her fans or being in the spotlight could displace. In fact, it was the very celebrity that probably led to her self-destruction. The grind of being in the public eye–the tours, the pressure to be number one–combined with a depression that was omnipresent from an early age would kill anybody. It is a miracle that this fragile wraith made it to the age of 27.

“Amy” is available on Amazon streaming. It is not exactly Unrepentant Marxist fare but worth a peek.

“Meru” is an amazing documentary on its own terms, telling the story of attempts by three professional rock climbers to scale a peak that rises from the ground at a near 90-degree angle just like the letter L. What makes it even more noteworthy is that it was filmed by the men themselves as they struggled toward the top of the summit that is called the “Shark’s Fin”.

Unlike climbing Mount Everest, there are no plateaus that can serve as an overnight campsite. When you ascend Meru, your campsite is a tent suspended from the side of the mountain as if you were on your way to the top of the WTC. Indeed, the three climbers were in their own way bigger daredevils than Philippe Petit. As I was watching the film, I scratched my head trying to figure out how a long shot of the men inching their way up Meru could have been made. Was a helicopter accompanying them?

My strong recommendation is to watch the film without such foreknowledge. It will enhance your pleasure (but keep in mind that it will be the pleasure of a roller coaster ride.) Afterwards I strongly urge you to read an interview with the climbers at Filmmaker Magazine. If you’ve ever had a camcorder in your hands, you’ll marvel all the more so at what went into this work:

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Ozturk: The type of Himalayan climbing on Meru is very different from that of an Everest ascent. On Everest you have Sherpa support to help carry equipment up the mountain. Our biggest challenge on Meru was weight, because we had to carry everything we needed ourselves. We counted every ounce we brought up on the mountain. This included sleeping bags for conditions that were -20 degrees at night, so we were forced to strip down to absolute essentials for camera gear. While we wanted to roll camera constantly we only had a few batteries that needed to be conserved for crucial moments. Just getting the camera on with a working battery with no fog or ice on the lens took significant effort up there!

“Meru” is now available on Amazon streaming.

J.P. Sniadecki is a filmmaker and anthropologist affiliated with the oddly named Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University that is described on the department’s website:

The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) is an experimental laboratory at Harvard University that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography.  It uses analog and digital media to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world.  Harnessing perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities, the SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose.  Most works produced in the SEL take as their subject the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human and animal existence.

“The Iron Ministry” is a documentary suffused with the social and artistic mission of the lab. It is the sixth in a series ofSniadecki films about China that use a cinéma vérité technique to allow ordinary Chinese to freely discuss their hopes and frustrations, in this instance passengers on its railway system who Sniadecki filmed over a three-year period. Like the train in “Snowpiercer”, the trains are class-divided. Armed with a modest camcorder and a crew of one, he engaged in small talk with the working class passengers and allowed them to riff on a variety of topics, including what it is like to be a Muslim in China (these were Han ethnically, not the Uighurs of Turkic origin.) One man says that if the pollution and economic situation get bad enough, he will leave the country. Another group passes hard liquor around using a bottle cap—a female member being three sheets to the wind and quite funny.

When Sniadecki attempted to film in the first-class section of the trains, he was blocked at the door.

This interview with the director at Sinosphere suggests that his was as much of a voyage into the unknown as that of the three rock climbers. His observation that the film was about filmmaking itself is most astute.

Q: Why did you make a film about Chinese trains?

A: Like most of my films, the impetus comes from my own life and daily experience. Ever since my first long-distance train journey in 1999, China’s railways were my primary classroom for learning Mandarin and, like the vast majority of Chinese people, the primary means to get around.

Before I even considered the longstanding relationship between trains, cinema and modernity, I knew countless films could be made from the encounters and experiences of rail travel. But it wasn’t until I was living in Beijing from 2010 to 2013 that I began to film on trains.

At the time, I would often travel to visit friends, to conduct fieldwork for my dissertation on Chinese independent documentaries and to make my own films, such as “People’s Park” (2012) and “Yumen” (2013). I had a compact manual camcorder that quickly became an extension of my body. I was taking different lines and different classes and different trains — from old collectivist-era trains to high-speed bullet trains — and I gradually realized that I was in fact making a film, or the film, that I had imagined over a decade earlier.

I started to film on every train ride, and even took a few trains precisely for the purpose of filming, such as the train to Tibet and the train through Wenzhou, where the tragic accident of July 2011 [a train crash that killed 40 people] happened. But the majority of the filming was conducted on trains I was taking for personal reasons, for my dissertation research, or for my own filmmaking. Instead of wanting to tell one person’s story or investigate some social issue, I let the filming process guide the project, so the film is at once diaristic and ethnographic, a film about China’s railways and a film about filmmaking itself.

“The Iron Ministry” can be purchased for under 30 dollars as a DVD from Icarus Film, a leading edge distributor of fine cinema, including many that would be of interest to the political malcontent.

Finally, we come to “Hitchcock/Truffaut” that can also obviously be described as a film about filmmaking. In 1962 Francois Truffaut sat down with Alfred Hitchcock to conduct interviews that were intended to make the case for him as an auteur rather than a mere entertainer despite the reputation one might glean from his weekly TV show that was wildly popular with young people like me. Not only did I live for that show (and others in that vein like “Twilight Zone” and “Gunsmoke”) but the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine that I looked forward to even more than Mad Magazine.

The film consists mainly of clips from a wide range of the Hitchcock oeuvre with the voiceover of the director telling Truffaut what his goal was in each key scene. This is about as good as it gets in film theory and worth all the idiotic film school classes in UCLA, NYU and Columbia put together (trust me, I’ve been in one of them.)

So compelling was the discussion between the two master directors that I ordered the book based on the interviews that is still in print and will likely be so until a nuclear war destroys life on earth—maybe even afterwards. This will give you a flavor for the kind of exchanges that took place—utterly mind-bending:

F.T. I’ve always enjoyed the way you make dramatic use of your protagonists’ professions. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, James Stewart plays a doctor, and he behaves like one throughout the whole picture. His line of work is. deliberately blended into the action. For instance, before telling Doris Day that their child has been kidnaped, he makes her take a sedative. It’s a nice detail. But let’s get back to The Secret Agent. In their book about you, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer point out an innovation in this picture that reappears time and again in your later work: the villain is attractive, distinguished, has good manners; he’s actually very appealing.

A.H. Certainly. The introduction of the villain is always something of a problem, and this is especially true in melodrama because, even by definition, melodrama is passé and it has to be brought up to date. That’s why in North by Northwest, where the villainous James Mason is competing with Cary Grant for the affection of Eva Marie Saint, I wanted him to be smooth and distinguished. The difficulty was how we could make him seem threatening at the same time. So what we did was to split this evil character into three people: James Mason, who is attractive and suave; his sinister-looking secretary; and the third spy, who is crude and brutal.

If there’s any problem with the film, it is that among the high-powered directors who comment on the interviews throughout the film, there is almost an exclusive emphasis on camera angles, etc. They even speak of “storytelling” in a dismissive manner, finding Hitchcock’s use of a light inside a glass of milk carried by Jimmy Stewart as he climbs some stairs far more interesting than what made Hitchcock’s films so memorable—their suspense. Indeed, one of the superstar directors was David Fincher who has about much understanding of storytelling as I do about gravity waves and black holes.

“Hitchcock/Truffaut” is not yet available as DVD or streaming. Look for it in the usual places over the course of 2016 but don’t waste your time with Netflix that has gone down the drain faster than a speeding bullet.


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