Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2016

Three Documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

What Charles Ferguson did for (or to, more exactly) Wall Street in his Academy Award winning 2010 documentary “Inside Job”, Steve Mims has now done with “Starving the Beast”, a shocking film about the “starving” of state universities by rightwing politicians opening tomorrow at the IFC Center in NY. Essentially the same neoliberal con artists that concocted the mortgage-based securities bubble that brought down the banking system in 2008 are now busily at work hollowing out flagship universities like the University of Wisconsin in the name of “reform”. Does it matter to those who idolize Ayn Rand that their policies are undermining the future viability of capitalism itself? Apparently not.

As someone who worked at Columbia University for 21 years, I began reading the Chronicle of Higher Education on a daily basis mostly as a way of keeping on top of IT developments at American universities. Since I was also a long-time socialist, I could not help but notice one article after another reporting on the corporatization of the university. Billionaires were gaining control over places like the U. of Wisconsin through the leverage they enjoyed through Republican Party governors that saw most professors as the enemy of the free enterprise system. Mims, who is as skilled as Ferguson at getting rightwing creeps to hoist themselves on their own petard, allows someone like Jay Schalin of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy to openly question the need for studying history, literature, art or anything that is not directly related to the goal of churning out graduates destined for the corporate world.

What is the Pope Center, you might reasonably ask. I had never heard of it myself. One of the chief benefits of “Starving the Beast” is how it lifts up the rock and allows the creepy, crawly things who fund or work for rightwing think-tanks to be exposed to daylight. The man behind the Pope Center is Art Pope, North Carolina’s version of the Koch brothers, whose deep pockets helped elect Republican Governor Pat McCrory in 2012. In an article on Schalin and the Pope Center that appeared in the Nation Magazine, Zoë Carpenter wrote:

Up at the podium, Schalin laid out part of the Pope Center’s vision for “renewal at the university,” which, he argued, could be achieved through the propagation of privately funded academic centers. In a related report Schalin described how these centers would balance “academia’s gradual purging” of courses dedicated to “liberty, capitalism, and traditional perspectives,” more specifically by supplanting the “French communist[s]” Derrida, Bourdieu, and Foucault with Ayn Rand. Schalin assured his audience that these centers wouldn’t be political—though, he said, “when you study capitalism on an objective basis, you are going to notice this very strong correlation between prosperity and capitalism—and that’s okay to bring up.”

One of the victims of the rightwing hostile takeover of the UNC was Gene Nichols, who was director of the Poverty Center, a research group that was on the school’s Board of Governors hit-list. This gang and the school’s president Margaret Spellings, who was George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, considered Nichols to be some kind of criminal subversive even though the center’s main focus was on North Carolina’s social and economic problems. To even identify them was considered “advocacy” by the new guard at the school and had to be punished.

The theoretical basis for the neoliberal restructuring of state universities can be found in the 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” written by MIT business school professor Clayton Christensen that put forward the theory of “disruptive innovation”, which was a bastardized version of Schumpter’s “creative destruction”. Four years later Christensen followed up with another book titled “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out” that was widely embraced by the sorts of people Art Pope foisted on the UNC.

Other schools have been under siege from the corporatist board members appointed by Republican governors, some of which became front page news. The film goes into considerable depth explaining the background of such battles including the forced resignation of the University of Virginia’s president Teresa A. Sullivan who resisted a move toward online classes. For many in the Art Pope/Koch Brothers think tank realm, the goal is to drastically reduce the number of tenured professors and replace them with a cadre of academic superstars who would lecture to students over the Internet in combination with adjunct foot soldiers responsible for grading papers and other grunt work. Ironically, this school was created by Thomas Jefferson in keeping with the humanist traditions of all great universities, even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner and advocate of Empire. Students and faculty at the U. of Va. rallied against the firing and Sullivan held on to her job.

It was in Texas where the onslaught was deepest and most extreme. With a governor like Rick Perry, schools such as the U. of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M would be the guinea pigs in corporatist “reform”. Professors at Texas A&M, which has the reputation of being a rightwing school with a football program that produced the execrable Johnny Manziel, were appalled when the school began maintaining a spreadsheet that evaluated them on the basis of how much revenue they were generating. The Huffington Post reported:

For years, state legislators, parents, and even his own boss had been hectoring Frank Ashley, the vice chancellor of academic affairs for the Texas A&M University System, to tell them whether his highest paid professors were worth their often fat paychecks.

Ashley responded with a spreadsheet that listed each of his faculty members according to how much money they made or lost for the university.

The study calculated an individual professor’s “revenue” based on the tuition he or she brought to the school — a product of the number of students taught — and the amount of research awards and grants he or she obtained, among other factors. The greater the number of classes and students taught, the greater the revenue. If a professor’s annual salary was lower than the amount of revenue generated, it was black. Otherwise, it was red.

Of the 50 highest compensated faculty members, only five appeared to be in the black and earning their keep. The rest were crimson.

When Texas A&M president Mike McKinney became convinced that such an approach was counterproductive and took steps to oppose it, he was fired.

At the U. of Texas, it was open warfare as Perry and his flunkies tried to get rid of the school’s president. Perry had installed Wallace L. Hall, Jr. on the board of regents, where he began a campaign to find some excuse to remove Bill Powers and find someone more amenable to Perry’s “disruptive innovation” goals. Finally, they used the excuse that Powers had influenced the admissions office to accept the sons and daughters of wealthy alumni who had made major contributions to the endowment, even though they had low grades. Someone likened this to Claude Rains being shocked that gambling was going on at Rick’s.

Perry and Hall were closely connected to a character named Jeff Sandefer who made millions in the oil business and like Art Pope in North Carolina decided to use his clout to “reform” the U. of Texas, where he had taught a class in the business school on a part-time basis. When the school decided to bring in tenure-track professors rather than use part-time businessmen, he quit and started his own business school in Austin. While nobody would begrudge someone getting pissed off and taking his football home with him, Sandefer wasn’t finished. He cooked up something called “seven breakthrough solutions” that Perry presented to the board of regents for implementation.

Since one of Perry’s appointees had written a paper titled “Is Academic Research a Good Investment for Texas?” that concluded that it wasn’t, there was obviously a very deep conflict between Perry’s men and the old guard at the U. of Texas and Texas A&M whose educational philosophy hearkened back to Thomas Jefferson who had written:

An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

Yes, I know. Jefferson was a skunk but he got this much right at least. An informed citizenry is necessary for democracy. Is there any more proof needed to see what happens when that requirement is neglected than the 2016 election?

Finally, let me recommend a visit to the film’s website and a look at the documents section that has 128 articles on the crisis of the state university system. Steve Mims has done an enormous service by making this film and being an advocate for the traditional values of higher education that I benefited from at Bard College in the early 60s. In the press notes, Mims describes his goal in making this critically important film:

The film takes the shape of a story of 35 years of state funding reductions resulting in a transfer of financial burden from the state to students via tuition and fees and programs introduced through market-oriented think tanks to radically reform the public university system.

Beyond that, though, we got to a larger, philosophical issue:  the mission of public universities and how that mission is changing. These schools were conceived as a public good – an investment in the young as future citizens and leaders of the states in which they reside. Today, many see these schools as providing monetary value to individual students, who, in a free market, should alone bear the cost of that education. Furthermore, many also question the tax-payer worthiness of some course content offered in public higher education, arguing, ultimately, for a re-evaluation of the very ideas suitable for discussion in tax-payer underwritten schools.

That struck us as very interesting. Luckily for us, we found and interviewed people from all sides of these issues, and we got to meet some of the smartest people across the country who shared with us their stories and opinions about what turns out to be a pivotal moment in public higher education in the United States.

Also opening tomorrow at Cinema Village in NY is “Landfill Harmonic”, an inspiring (a word I don’t often use but in this case it applies) film about the children of Cateura who play musical instruments fashioned from materials found in Asuncion, Paraguay’s garbage dump.

I first heard about them in a Sixty Minutes segment that was aired three years ago. It seems that Fabio Chavez, who had begun working at the landfill as an environmental engineer, got the idea to teach music to the kids as part of a general effort to improve the quality of life.

Since Chavez is an uncommonly warm and supportive man, the children flocked to his classes until the demand for training exceeded the supply of instruments. Nicolás “Cola” Gomez, a guajero (the Spanish term for trash recycler) who had also worked earlier in life as a carpenter and wood worker got the idea to construct instruments from discarded tin cans and pieces of wood in the Cateura dump. Watching the children play these instruments is something of a miracle considering the cognitive dissonance between a violin made of empty cans and the strains of Mozart it produces.

The narrative arc of the film is quite simple. The kids get better and better at playing these instruments and begin touring everywhere in the world to great acclaim. In some ways, the film is reminiscent of “Buena Vista Social Club” but with the differences over how Paraguay and Cuba treat their young people. In Cuba the state provides resources to educate the sons and daughters of campesinos to become musicians, dancers and artists while in Paraguay it is up to individuals and charities to extend support.

When I became a socialist in 1967, one of the main motivations was to help make it possible for every child to realize their full potential. If people were kept in poverty, it meant that a future Beethoven or Jonas Salk would be thwarted by the conditions of life that were thrust upon them by a class-divided society. Cuba gives you a little flavor for what that future world will look like while “Landfill Harmonic” will demonstrate the possibilities that exist everywhere under a world socialist system. As CLR James put it, every cook can govern. So can every child play Mozart as long as they have the talent to do so. The job is to provide the standard of living so that no obstacles block them from achieving their goals.

Also opening tomorrow at Cinema Village is “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps War”, a Ken Burns documentary about a Unitarian Minister and his wife who went to Europe in 1939 to help Jews escape Nazi persecution. Since the narration is by Tom Hanks, you might get the impression that the film is cut from the “Schindler’s List” cloth. While this is true to some extent, Burns allows the events to speak for themselves as would be dictated by the norms of the genre. Documentaries are required to stick to the facts more or less while fictional films like “Schindler’s List” veer toward the melodramatic.

While there is little likelihood that Waitstill and Martha Sharp were in any danger of being sent to a concentration camp given their American citizenship, there were enormous strains on them in working in such a high pressure environment with the lives of many people at stake, including children. They had left their own kids at home just to be able to carry out their mission more effectively.

Among the interviewees was Justus Rosenberg, the 95-year old Bard College professor emeritus who was profiled in the NY Times on April 16 this year for his work with the rescue effort. He described the chaos that descended on France immediately after the Nazi invasion in 1939 that led to an exodus of more than a million of its citizens to the southern part of the country, an event depicted in “Come What May”, a narrative film I will be reviewing tomorrow.

Among the people rescued by the Sharps was Lion Feuchtwanger, a novelist who was a fierce critic of the Nazis and who influenced Berthold Brecht. The Sharps were involved with a risky and perhaps even dangerous mission to get him out of France, into Spain, and from there on a ship bound to the USA.

About fifteen years ago I read Feuchtwanger’s “Jew Suess” on the advice of Michael Smith, the ex-SWPer and well-known radical lawyer. I was interested in finding out more about tax farming, the bailiwick of court Jews in the Middle Ages, since my last name means “counting house of a tax farmer” in Yiddish.

The novel was based on the real life of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, a court Jew who engaged not only in tax farming in the 17th century but in early forms of manufacturing—a sort of transitional figure between feudalism and capitalism.

As it happens, the Nazis bowdlerized the novel and made an anti-Semitic film that was totally at odds with Feuchtwanger’s much more nuanced presentation. In 2010 I reviewed a documentary titled “Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss” about the film’s director Veit Harlan who was almost as well-known as Leni Riefenstahl.

From my review:

Jew Süss, made in 1940, is set in the 18th century and is based on historical events involving a Jewish financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, who was one of the Duke of Württemberg “court Jews” and despised by the masses who found him a convenient scapegoat for the Duke’s misrule. In Harlan’s movie, Süss becomes a grotesque arch-villain. So effective he was in turning the character into a stereotypical receptacle of hatred that Heinrich Himmler laid down the law that all cops and SS members had to see the movie.

Veit Harlan always defended himself as being forced to make such movies, even when he was charged with war crimes. We learn from one of his children that the judge who ruled in his favor was the same one who during WWII sentenced a Ukrainian woman to beheading because of a petty crime.

His oldest son was a staunch Hitler Youth and initially collaborated on screenplays with his father before turning radically against him, even setting fire to movie theaters that showed Veit Harlan’s postwar films as the press notes for the documentary relates. It adds:

In the early years of the Federal Republic, he fought former Nazis in high positions. In 1948 Thomas moved to Paris, later becoming a Nazi-hunter in Poland who delivered documents for thousands of war-crime proceedings. Himself a director of several powerfully political films, he was also an anarchist and Communist revolutionary in Portugal and Chile, the darling of Rome’s glitterati and a close friend of actor Klaus Kinski. He remembers many pleasant moments with his father; but Jew Süss he calls a “murder instrument.”

Veit Harlan always insisted that he had nothing against Jews. Believe it or not, he said that some of his best friends were Jews and that he even had a Jewish doctor. But of most interest in deciphering his eventual transformation into arch-Nazi propagandist, his first wife Dora Gershon was a Jew who left him for a Jewish man. She died in Auschwitz in 1943. One of his daughters explains his anti-Semitism as being personally grounded in this affront that he took bitterly.

1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

    Comment by 21st Century Poet — September 8, 2016 @ 9:38 pm


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