Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 13, 2017

The Standout Films of 2016

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

One of my picks

The Standout Films of 2016

As most of you probably know, Netflix no longer bothers with the offbeat films I tend to review, either as DVD or streaming. Since my reviews cover documentaries, foreign films and American indies that tend to be shown in art houses like New York’s Film Forum, I always regret that my readers living in cities or towns where there is nothing but Cineplexes are forced to choose between multimillion dollar movies about space aliens or Judd Apatow comedies.

The good news is that Amazon and ITunes have picked up the slack. Although I hate Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook just as much as the next person, I am glad that these types of art house films can now be seen in the same year they premiered for between $3.99 and $5.99 in these venues.

I tend to avoid identifying “best of” movies or directors after the fashion of the Academy Awards and only take part in New York Film Critics Online yearly awards meetings because members are expected to take part. This week’s Golden Globe awards ceremony pretty much sums up why the whole thing turns me off. Although I managed to sit through “La La Land” that walked off with the lion’s share of the awards, I found it far less interesting than the narrative films listed below that were diametrically opposed to Damien Chazelle’s sugar-coated retro-musical.

The twenty films listed below were among the best that I saw this year but I would be loath to sort them in order by preference rather than alphabetical order. Competition of this sort always turned me off whether it is for the Nobel Prize (good for Dylan to avoid the tuxedo and gown spectacle) or even for the Isaac Deutscher Prize. I wonder sometimes what Trotsky’s biographer would think of Marxists competing with each other for a £500 prize. Or Leon Trotsky for that matter, who is history’s greatest loser in some ways. I tend to identify with losers so I guess I’ll never fit into an American society that now has its President the host of “Apprentice” where “losers” are humiliated for failing to come up with some “winning” strategy for selling junk of the sort that Trump’s Empire is built on.

All of the films below can be seen on Amazon streaming and probably ITunes, although I haven’t checked that out. By and large, they are released to both platforms at the same time. That is why, interestingly enough, that Amazon is not part of the menu that comes with Apple TV, Tim Cook’s rip-off of the Roku box.

Needless to say, none of the documentaries likely made it to cities and towns that lacked an art house. Most of the narrative films are those that were also released in such theaters with a few exceptions made for two films that deserve being singled out: “Free State of Jones” that I consider a political and artistic breakthrough and “Snowden”, Oliver Stone’s best work in many years.

Finally, I include a brief excerpt from my review of the films with a link to the full review.

Read full article

January 12, 2017

Beyond the Golden Showers

Filed under: Donald Trump — louisproyect @ 12:47 am

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-7-47-43-pm(click to animate)

I have finally gotten around to reading the 35-page dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia that has only become viral because of the Golden Showers reference. I will take the president elect’s denial at his word and accept that this lurid tale is the result of a prank on the spook who collected various memos into a dossier.

You can get that side of the story on Zero Hedge, the conspiracist website that is party of the Putin/Assad old boy’s network:

In a story that is getting more surreal by the minute, a post on 4Chan now claims that the infamous “golden showers” scene in the unverified 35-page dossier, allegedly compiled by a British intelligence officer, was a hoax and fabricated by a member of the chatboard as “fanfiction”, then sent to Rick Wilson, who proceeded to send it to the CIA, which then put it in their official classified intelligence report on the election.

In a story that is getting more surreal by the minute, a post on 4Chan now claims that the infamous “golden showers” scene in the unverified 35-page dossier, allegedly compiled by a British intelligence officer, was a hoax and fabricated by a member of the chatboard as “fanfiction”, then sent to Rick Wilson, who proceeded to send it to the CIA, which then put it in their official classified intelligence report on the election.

Here is 4Chan’s explanation of how the story came to light:

>/pol/acks mailed fanfiction to anti-trump pundit Rick Wilson about trump making people piss on a bed obama slept in

>he thought it was real and gave it to the CIA

>the central intelligence agency of the united states of america put this in their official classified intelligence report on russian involvement in the election

>donald trump and obama have both read this pol/acks fanfiction

>the cia has concluded that the russian plans to blackmail trump with this story we made up

just let that sink in what we have become.

There’s only one problem with the claim that this “fanfiction” about Golden Showers was transmitted to the CIA via Rick Wilson, namely that the dossier was apparently put together by a man named Christopher Steele who is reputedly a former MI6 agent and who is a top executive at Orbis, a private intelligence company similar to Stratfor. While Steele has not admitted to being the man behind the Golden Dawns dossier, there are reports that support such a claim including the Wall Street Journal:

A former British intelligence officer who is now a director of a private security-and-investigations firm has been identified as the author of the dossier of unverified allegations about President-elect Donald Trump’s activities and connections in Russia, people familiar with the matter say.

Christopher Steele, a director of London-based Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd., prepared the dossier, the people said. The document alleges that the Kremlin colluded with Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and claims that Russian officials have compromising evidence of Mr. Trump’s behavior that could be used to blackmail him. Mr. Trump has dismissed the dossier’s contents as false and Russia has denied the claims.

Mr. Steele, 52 years old, is one of two directors of the firm, along with Christopher Burrows, 58.

What is left out of the WSJ article and every other I have read about the dossier’s provenance is who commissioned it. These sorts of reports cost a bundle of cash and it would be interesting to see who paid for it. Likely, we’ll never know. (Update: The Guardian reports that it was a unnamed opponent of Trump in the Republican Party that paid Orbis for the dossier.)

Once you get past the Golden Showers business, which occupies only a couple of sentences in a 35-page document, you’ll find that most of it is a rather unsurprising account of how Russia worked with the Trump campaign to get him elected. Quelle surprise. Towards the end of the dossier, you’ll discover that Putin encountered “buyer’s remorse” over being outed in the American press as responsible for getting Trump elected, who does not quite seem to be regarded as a reliable asset by the Kremlin. That would explain why they were so anxious to accumulate damaging material on Trump even if the Golden Showers business does seem unlikely. Why would Trump spend good money to have prostitutes put on a pee show when the guy was much more interested in “grabbing their pussy”.

Most of the 35 pages are about efforts being made to intervene politically in the American elections after the fashion of the report made by American intelligence agencies on January 6th that had less to say about hacking than it did about the open propaganda such as the kind RT.com traffics in:

In an effort to highlight the alleged “lack of Messaging on RT prior to the US presidential election democracy” in the United States, RT (RT, 3 November) broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a “sham.”

Holy fuck. I never thought I’d end up as a Kremlin propagandist myself.

As many on the left have noted, there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy involved with such accusations. The USA has openly admitted if not bragged about doing exactly the same thing in countries that had the impudence to stake out an independent course.

During the late 80s, when I was co-editor of the NY Nicaragua Network newsletter, I was always writing about how the USA was basically buying candidates to run against Daniel Ortega. The National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and other groups operating sub rosa like the CIA spent millions of dollars to unseat Ortega in 1990. On its own, the CIA spent $38 million—an amount that far exceeds proportionately what the Koch brothers routinely spend buying candidates here.

Obviously acting on behalf of its own interests, the Kremlin curried the favor of Americans predisposed to its political agenda. And if there is a more motley crew than those named in the dossier, I’d be astonished. It seems that Putin cultivated the support of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, the Larouche cult, Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who attended an RT banquet alongside Stein, and a key Trump adviser named Carter Page.

From left to right: Flynn, Putin and Stein

Page’s name keeps cropping up in the dossier like a bad penny. He is cut from the same cloth as Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager who was dropped in favor of Steve Bannon. Page and Manafort were big-time operators in Russia seeking to promote the interests of Putin and his flunkies like the toppled Ukrainian president Yanukovych.

Page is an investment banker who formed an energy oriented firm in partnership with Gazprom executive Sergei Yatsenko. In other words, Page has the same relationship to Russia as Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who was CEO of ExxonMobil and a close associate of Vladimir Putin.

People like Diana Johnstone are tickled pink that people like Tillerson and Page are key players in the Trump administration. Supposedly this will forestall any moves toward WWIII as the beady-eyed conspiracists at WSWS.org keep warning about even though many on the left are far more worried about a war with China since Trump’s saber-rattling against a country supposedly cheating the USA is well known.

What I found intriguing was a comment in the dossier that claimed Trump was far more interested in partnering with China than Russia: “Suggestion from source close to TRUMP and MANAFORT that Republican campaign team happy to have Russia as media bogeyman to mask more extensive corrupt business ties to China and other emerging countries.” That, of course, backs up what I reported on the article titled “Trumponomics as Professional Wrestling“.

Is there any reason to put a lot of confidence in this dossier? I wouldn’t since most of it is patently obvious, as if it hasn’t been clear for the longest time that Russia is using RT.com and perhaps hundreds of paid trolls to influence voters in the USA. Since I have found Stratfor next to useless over the years, I find no reason to take Orbis’s intelligence more seriously.

The only thing we can be sure about is that Trump, Putin, Obama and Clinton are united around the need to make money for the capitalist class that they orient to. Unlike 1914 or 1941, there is little evidence that the nation-state of today is bent on going to war with its adversaries over the control of markets and resources. With ExxonMobil in partnership with Putin, Lenin’s essay on imperialism cannot be applied mechanically even though some sectarians are in the habit of doing so. There is a war going on, however, and that is between the global capitalist class that these politicians serve and the rest of us who work for a living and would face imminent ruin if we lost our jobs.

Eugene V. Debs put it well:

And here let me emphasize the fact — and it cannot be repeated too often — that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.


January 10, 2017

Twin Cities; Go North

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Two narrative films have come my way recently whose combined budget is probably less than 3 percent of what it cost to make La La Land but for my money are far more interesting films. One is titled “Twin Cities” and defies easy description. Even if writer/director Dave Ash is a Twin Cities resident, don’t expect it to be a warm and whimsical treatment of the region’s foibles a la Lake Woebegon. Or like fellow Twin Cities favorite sons Coen brothers whose trademark irony seems toothless compared to Ash, whose sensibility is a mixture of Kafka and Kierkegaard. The other is titled “Go North”, a post-apocalyptic tale inspired by “Lord of the Flies” that eschews the cheap thrills of the Road Warrior series in favor of a simple, even minimalist tale of survival in a world where children seek to build a new civilization based on the worst instincts of the one that has died.

As “Twin Cities” unfolds, we meet a husband and wife whose marriage is beginning to come apart at the seams. John is a computer programmer with an affectless demeanor that makes you wonder if he might be an automaton. His wife Emily is a novelist who has received marching orders from her editor to cut her 1000-page novel drastically and to make her principal characters more developed. While professing their love for each other every chance they get, there is little indication of what drew them together in the first place except physical attraction—the same bad chemistry that accounts for 90 percent of failed marriages.

“Twin Cities” is a sequel to “2021”, a film that I reviewed three years ago when its working title was “Connected” and about which I wrote:

“Connected” opens with John Cooper walking away from his cubicle into the men’s room at his workplace—a biotech company—and sticking a loaded revolver in his mouth. For the time being, he decides that life is still worth living and puts the gun away.

John would seem to have something to live for since he has been assigned to work on the company’s hot new project, an attempt to translate the human genome into computer code that would prove capable of replicating the human brain to the point of passing the Turing test: a computer is capable of fooling a human being to think that he is communicating with another human.

The irony of course is that the very programmer who is leading the project is having a devil of a time getting through to Emily, the smart and beautiful woman whose character armor—to put it in Reichian terms—would thwart a blockbuster bomb. Like John, she uses humor as a defense mechanism. On one of their first dates, he asks her to reveal something very personal about herself. Without skipping a beat, she says that she was born with two vaginas. He quickly replies that he knew there was something special about her.

The deadpan and lacerating humor continues in the sequel. Not long after the film starts, John learns that he has terminal colorectal cancer, which inspires him to seek the deeper meaning of life now that he only has four months of it left. Unlike the soulful main characters of Kurosawa’s classic “Ikiru” or Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” awaiting their own imminent demise, John treats his own prospects with his characteristic sense of the absurd.

After getting the bad news from the doctor, John returns home to fill Emily in:

“I have cancer”.


“I have cancer”.

“What do you mean? How?”

“I went to a doctor since I haven’t been feeling well lately and they ran some tests a few days ago”.

“Fuck you”.

“I begin intensive chemotherapy in a week. And if they don’t stop it in a few months, then that’s the end of me. Colorectal carcinoma. I have cancer in my asshole. I have asshole cancer.”

While this exchange is taking place, an inane pop tune is playing on the radio. “California…Well, the sun is shining bright”.

Like most people facing death, John meets with a minister who ends up confessing to him that he really has no answers to the big questions of life and death. When he visits his parents for perhaps the last time, he is told that they only went to church because they enjoyed the social life. As they used to say in the 1960s, God is Dead.

But in the final analysis, the film is not about Existential issues but about art itself. As John exits the stage (but not in the way we expect), Emily becomes the central character and the story of the film and her elephantine novel become interwoven in a way that finally leaves your head spinning.

I have no information on the film’s distribution but keep an eye out for it at your better film festivals.

Appropriate to a post-apocalyptic film, “Go North” was filmed in Detroit and stars Jacob Lofland in the role of Josh, a fifteen-year old denizen of a Detroit (unnamed in the film) neighborhood that consists of rundown houses and abandoned factories.

Each day he goes off to a nearby school where the teachers are just a couple of years older than him and ill-prepared to teach anything except survival skills like trapping animals. Since everybody over the age of twenty-one seems to have succumbed to some global catastrophe that the film does not identify (it is not needed for a plot that brackets out social and political considerations), it is up to what amounts to high school bullies to keep order and to help propagate the species.

Josh’s teacher is an alpha male named Caleb who is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s son Patrick in the casting coup of the year. If you are going to develop a villainous character for a post-apocalyptic film, there’s no better choice than the Terminator’s son.

When Caleb is not “teaching”, he is acting as overseer for the garden that Josh and other children toil in after class under the watchful eye of Caleb’s henchman Martin (Joshua Close) who epitomizes the worst aspects of the high school bully. But when social norms have disappeared such an individual can abuse his power to the point of making up Josh’s mind and that of Caleb’s younger sister Jessie (Sophie Kennedy Clark) to “go North” in search of a better life.

As I have stated, this film makes no pretense of trying to make social commentary about the sharp decline of American civilization and sticks to telling a story about young people on the run from predators. In effect, it is a road movie in the same genre as the Road Warrior flicks but much more modest and much more enjoyable.

The film opens this Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and on VOD. It is well worth seeing.

January 8, 2017

Trumponomics as professional wrestling

Filed under: Donald Trump — louisproyect @ 10:16 pm

Any number of pundits on the left welcomed Donald Trump as an alternative to a Clinton presidency that would be beholden to Wall Street in general and Goldman-Sachs in particular. Pepe Escobar, who is on the farthest reaches of this territory, even considered the possibility that his election was “an unprecedented body blow against neoliberalism” and “Perhaps a new push towards democratic socialism”.

While many of these people have woken up with a bad hangover after seeing all the Goldman-Sachs people connected to the new administration, they still might feel worse over the possibility of Donald staying so nationalistic that it would risk a nuclear war with China, his supposed arch-enemy.

For example, the screwballs at the World Socialist Website have now switched from doing their Chicken Little routine over Ukraine to China:

As he declared that he would not feel bound by the One China policy, Trump lashed out at Beijing not only over trade and North Korea, but also for “building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing.” … If there were any doubt that he is preparing for war, Trump’s tweet prior to Christmas that the US must “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear [weapons] capacity” is a chilling warning of his reckless and militarist intentions.”

Once you step back and look at things coolly and calmly, which such people are obviously incapable of doing, you will see that there is not that much of a break between Obama and Trump, just as there wasn’t between Bush and Obama. Despite all the acrimonious words coming out of the mouths of Charles Schumer or Elizabeth Warren, the two capitalist parties are much more like professional wrestlers who threaten to destroy each other in a main event only to go out for dinner later that night. Not only that, there’s not much chance of a war breaking out between Trump and China as we shall see later on in this article.

Just consider the willingness of rising liberal Democratic star Kamala Harris to let Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury Stephen Mnuchin, a former Goldman-Sachs partner, get off the hook in the same way that Obama let all the other banksters go free after he was elected.

In 2009 Mnuchin led a group of investors to buy IndyMac, one of those shady mortgage companies that had been nearly destroyed by the 2007-2008 meltdown. George Soros, who was seen alongside Janet Yellen in a Trump campaign commercial widely viewed as anti-Semitic, was part of the group as was John Paulson. Both Paulson and Soros had bet correctly that the mortgage-backed securities business would tank and after cashing in on their winnings bought IndyMac at fire sale prices.

Once Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank absorbed IndyMac’s mortgages, it began to aggressively foreclose on families in arrears. The Daily Beast reported on one homeowner he went after:

One-hundred-and-three-year-old Myrtle Lewis ran into such issues with OneWest in 2014. She accidentally allowed her insurance to lapse, which prompted the bank to attempt to foreclose on her property. Lewis reinstated her insurance and the bank still didn’t back off. It is unclear what happened to the property.

So, this guy symbolizes exactly what drove people to Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Why then would someone the Nation Magazine describes as “one raising her voice for social and economic justice” let him get away with foreclosures that were prosecutable?

Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept recently got its hands on an internal memo from Harris’s office that referred to over a thousand violations of foreclosure laws by his bank when she was Attorney General in California, and that predicted that further investigation would uncover many thousands more. The bottom line on Mnuchin:

Despite the limitations on the investigation, we uncovered evidence suggestive of widespread misconduct, including evidence that OneWest:

(1) signed backdated and false instruments, acknowledged them to notaries, and then caused them to be recorded with county recorders throughout the State; (2) made and directed unlawful credit bids at trustee’s sales which resulted in the wrong parties winning auctions and the unlawful evasion of documentary transfer tax obligations; (3) performed other acts in the foreclosure process without valid legal authority-, and (4) failed to comply with requirements related to the execution, timing, and mailing of foreclosure documents.

Keeping in mind that Mnuchin’s partner in this enterprise was George Soros, who is supposedly the mastermind of every liberal initiative against the Koch brothers et al, you really have to wonder whether it is nothing but professional wrestling. Pure fakery.

As for Mnuchin, he is just the kind of person who might have shown up at a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton at Barbra Streisand’s mansion. When he was not trying to foreclose on 103-year old women, he was investing in films such as James Cameron’s “Avatar”, one that Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com called an “America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy”. Get it? Professional wrestling.

It also seems that Mnuchin had put his money where his mouth was when he funded Cameron’s movie. The Blaze has reported that “according to Federal Election Commission filings, Steven Mnuchin has donated more than $96,000 to political candidates, the vast majority of which went to Democrats and left-wing organizations, such as the League of Conservation Voters.” He gave $4,000 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2004 and more than $8,000 to Hillary Clinton’s various campaigns. He also gave $10,000, the largest single donation listed on the FEC website, to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2004. That’s not the end of it. The entire Mnuchin family has been delivering wheelbarrows full of money to the Democrats since the late 1990s. His father, mother, brother and his brother’s spouse have made major donations to Senators Elizabeth Warren and Charles Schumer and to former Democratic Party presidential candidate John Edwards. Odd that Mnuchin would give money to Warren since she is supposedly Wall Street’s worse enemy. She even described him as the “Forrest Gump of the financial crisis.” (Professional wrestling.)

So why would Kamala Harris let this bastard go free? The answer is that she is like many of the new faces in the Democratic Party that are supposed to be a breath of fresh air and a repudiation of Clintonite neoliberalism just like Barack Obama was in 2008, if you took the Nation Magazine at its word. The daughter of a Jamaican economist father and an Indian biologist mother, she has many progressive credits on her resume—just the sort of thing that is necessary to develop a political career in San Francisco, her home base. The NY Times drew attention to her in a September 2010 article:

In 2008 she laid the groundwork for a statewide race by being co-chairwoman of Barack Obama’s California campaign and fund-raising extensively on his behalf in Southern California. After his victory, Ms. Harris began appearing on national television, with journalists like Gwen Ifill and Matt Lauer referring to her as the “female Obama.”

The female Obama? That sounds about right.

Turning now to worries about Armageddon with China, there’s less there than meets the eye. In fact, the ties between the Trump White House and the Chinese ruling class might be even more intimate than those with Russia based on an eye-opening report in today’s NY Times on his son-in-law’s dealings with the Chinese investors close to the government’s top officials.

Jared Kushner is not just Trump’s son-in-law. He is slated to be appointed as one of his chief advisers. Like the Donald, there will be a token divestment of his business dealings but you can be sure that his empire will grow and prosper as a result of the dovetailing of interests with the Trump administration.

The article sets the tone in the opening paragraphs:

On the night of Nov. 16, a group of executives gathered in a private dining room of the restaurant La Chine at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The table was laden with Chinese delicacies and $2,100 bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild. At one end sat Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of the Waldorf’s owner, Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese financial behemoth with estimated assets of $285 billion and an ownership structure shrouded in mystery. Close by sat Jared Kushner, a major New York real estate investor whose father-in-law, Donald J. Trump, had just been elected president of the United States.

It was a mutually auspicious moment.

Anbang and Kushner’s real estate firm are co-owners of 666 Fifth Avenue, a “fading jewel” of the Kushner empire. Just by coincidence, after dining at the Waldorf Astoria, Wu Xiaohui has expressed a desire to meet with President Trump. I am sure that Jared will exercise some influence to make that happen.

Apparently the 35-year old Kushner knows how to get around. Last August he and his wife Ivanka hobnobbed with some VIPs:

In August, they were spotted with Wendi Deng, an ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch, on the 453-foot yacht Rising Sun, owned by the entertainment mogul David Geffen. Several weeks later, they were photographed watching the United States Open tennis finals with the art collector Dasha Zhukova, wife of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, a member of President Vladimir V. Putin’s inner circle.

Is there any better way to describe the internecine ties between the ultra-rich than is encapsulated here?

  • David Geffen: the gay Hollywood macher who was an early backer of Bill Clinton but who had a falling out with him over his decision not to pardon Leonard Peltier. Geffen was also an early backer of Obama for president and raised $1.3 million for Obama in a Beverly Hills fundraiser.
  • Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife, who divorced her when he learned that she was having an affair with Tony Blair. She is also rumored to have had one with Putin. So incestuous.
  • Abramovich is the 13th richest man in Russia and said to enjoy the status of a father-like figure to Vladimir Putin. Sort of like being a godfather to another Vlad—Vlad the impaler.

These sorts of connections have paid off for Jared. Russian billionaire tech investor Yuri Milner and Chinese billionaire founder of Alibaba Jack Ma are investors in Cadre, a real estate investment company he and his brother started with a friend. Guess what. Goldman Sachs has invested as well.

But the bridge being built to Anbang will lead to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The Times has reported that Anbang is “owned by a few dozen companies, which in turn are owned by a number of shell companies that are controlled by roughly 100 people, many of whom have ties to a county in China that is the home of Mr. Wu, whose own power stems in part from marriage.” Like Jared Kushner, Wu knew how to marry well, in his case to Zhuo Ran, a granddaughter of Deng Xiaoping, the CCP leader who carried out the capitalist turn.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding Trump’s faux saber-rattling that has the sectarian nut jobs at WSWS.org shitting in their pants, the president-elect is not likely to launch H-Bombs at people he has these kinds of connections with. The president-elect has his own financial entanglements with China: Trump “owns a 30 percent stake in a partnership that owes roughly $950 million to a group of lenders that includes the Bank of China, and one of his biggest tenants at Trump Tower is another state-owned bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.”

A week after Jared Kushner met with Mr. Wu, Donald Trump has lunch with him at the Waldorf. It must have been a pleasant and mutually rewarding affair since Wu was heard saying as left in perfect English: “I love you guys”.

January 6, 2017

What Turkey has become

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

What Turkey Has Become

Almost every week lately, there is another incident that can be tied to ISIS whether or not it actually takes “credit”. On New Year’s Eve, we were at her brother-in-law Mehmet’s apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan sitting down for dinner with Prosecco, the poor man’s Champagne, when the news broke about the terrorist attack on the Reina nightclub in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul. When I first met Mehmet on a visit to Istanbul in 2003, he anticipated that this sort of thing would eventually begin to take place in Turkey. He thought that the war in Iraq could spill over into Turkey and that it would be best for his family to relocate to the USA. This is pretty much what has happened.

ISIS is a product of the invasion of Iraq, a war that Turkey opposed and whose decision was welcomed by the left. While most people might remember the AKP as key to voting down a resolution that would have permitted Turkey to be a staging ground for the invasion, the truth is that its opposition was based more on cash than principle. Like a mafia gang, it offered the USA a deal. A fifty-two-billion-dollar aid package would buy Turkey’s backing but when Bush refused to pay more than half of that, the AKP nixed the deal.

In fact, the baksheesh economy prevailed in Syria as well, the “anti-imperialist” country often depicted as the polar opposite of NATO member Turkey. Clifford Krause reported in the NY Times on January 2nd, 2003 that the Bush administration was “surprised and gratified by Syria’s recent vote in the United Nations Security Council in favor of the resolution demanding Iraq allow weapons inspectors to return or face possible military action.”

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January 4, 2017

RT.com report on the rebel sabotage of the Wadi Barada springs

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

RT.com has just identified the jihadist who blew up the pumping station in Wadi Barada. He is the infamous leader of the al-Malarki militia that has been funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and East Waziristan. He goes by the name Yossan Miti al-Sami and has reputedly killed and eaten the hearts of 2,386 Syrian soldiers.


January 3, 2017

Did Syrian rebels sabotage the water supplies of Damascus?

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:53 pm

Over the past six years, I have noticed time and time again that a seemingly organized campaign has been mounted to accuse rebels of the kind of atrocity that the regime carries out routinely, with the “false flag” accusation that they used Sarin gas on their own supporters in East Ghouta the most notorious case.

In the latest instance, the Assadists are pushing the line that the rebels in Wadi Barada, a rural suburb northwest of Damascus, have either blown up the water pumps that supply the city with water or contaminated it with diesel fuel to make it undrinkable. Whether it is the clearly deranged Moon of Alabama or “professional” journalists like Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, they automatically take the side of a dictatorship that has used water as a weapon against rebel-held villages and cities from the very beginning of the war.




Ben Norton, whose tweet referred his followers to a Reuters article, probably didn’t bother to read the whole thing and was content to use the heading to condemn the rebels. If he wasn’t so lazy and so biased, he might have discovered that the very article undermined his claim: “The rebels in Wadi Barada have allowed government water authority engineers to maintain and operate the pumping station and supply Damascus since they took control of the area in 2012.”

There is also the possibility that indiscriminate barrel bombing might have damaged the water pumping station especially since the Syrian air force has never been noted for careful targeting. When you drop a 50-gallon steel drum filled with dynamite, nails, scrap iron, ball bearings and the like from a thousand feet above ground, accidents will happen. Of course, since the goal is only to kill or maim men, women and children who have the gumption to oppose a mafia state, who can blame Assad when a few of the barrel bombs go astray? Nobody’s perfect.

This frame grab from video provided By the Wadi Barada, a Syrian opposition media outlet that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows the damaged Ain el-Fijeh water processing facility which supply the capital, northwest of Damascus, Syria. Water supplies to Damascus have been largely cut off for nearly two weeks because of fighting between pro-government forces and rebels for control of the main tributary, forcing millions in the Syrian capital to scramble for enough to drink and wash with. The cut-off is a major challenge to the government’s effort throughout the nearly 6-year-old civil war to keep the capital as insulated as possible from the effects of the conflict tearing apart much of the country. (Wadi Barada, via AP)

This frame grab from video provided By the Wadi Barada, a Syrian opposition media outlet that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows the damaged Ain el-Fijeh water processing facility which supply the capital, northwest of Damascus, Syria. Water supplies to Damascus have been largely cut off for nearly two weeks because of fighting between pro-government forces and rebels for control of the main tributary, forcing millions in the Syrian capital to scramble for enough to drink and wash with. The cut-off is a major challenge to the government’s effort throughout the nearly 6-year-old civil war to keep the capital as insulated as possible from the effects of the conflict tearing apart much of the country. (Wadi Barada, via AP)

For a useful report on Wadi Barada written by a genuine journalist rather than a third-rate propagandist like Norton or Blumenthal, I recommend Alisa Reznick’s “Weaponizing War” in the Boston Review. She makes it abundantly clear why the rebels would be loath to cut off water to Damascus:

Each time rebels have shut off the water supply, they have restored it within a few days, according to Baradawi. He says this is partly because the spring also supplies the Wadi Barada villages along the road to Damascus and opposition-aligned neighborhoods inside the capital. Moreover, the rebels receive a major blow when government forces inevitably retaliate.

“For two days [after the shutoff] the regime was hitting Ain al-Fijah with heavy shelling, dropping barrel bombs and mortars and sending snipers into the mountains,” he said. “Entire buildings were hit with families living in them. It was really barbaric, and it turned the people against the FSA.”

Even after the water flowed again in Damascus, the regime continued to punish Ain al-Fijah. In August, Assad’s forces ordered a blockade, causing garbage services, electricity, and traffic from the capital to cease. Baradawi said only 150 or so students and government workers with business in Damascus were allowed to exit or enter the area; they were prohibited from carrying food and fuel back inside.

“People have started eating leaves,” Baradawi said when we spoke in November. “All the people want now is to find a student going to Damascus who can buy one potato. A kilo of sugar is a dream.”

The blockade also prevents chlorination of the water pumped back to Wadi Barada from the station on Mount Qasioun, sparking a host of sanitation concerns. Cholera and Hepatitis A are currently on the rise as families use untreated water to drink and cook food. Local doctors have documented some three hundred cases of stomach illnesses since the blockade began.

“We can say the regime 100 percent won this one,” Baradawi tells me in resigned tones. The blockade has been so effective that, he believes, residents no longer see the spring as a useful bargaining chip.

There’s another dimension to this story that would likely be of zero interest to either Norton or Blumenthal who are content to see Syria as merely a pawn in the geopolitical chess game. If the USA is playing white, they would cheer on the black player even if he was a combination of Somoza and Batista. Come to think of it, that pretty much describes Bashar al-Assad.

On December 14th, I wrote an article on the economic roots of the Syrian revolution that called attention to the ruling class’s exploitation of water resources that drove the rural poor to rise up. The Middle East Report (MERIP), another worthwhile magazine that would never bother to consider Norton or Blumenthal’s articles publishable and probably not even worth lining a birdcage with, documents how the people of Wadi Barada became part of this movement. According to author Mohammad Raba‘a, a Syrian researcher and journalist, the rural region northwest of Damascus was the typical victim of the mafia/bourgeois state:

But the disaffection with the regime in Wadi Barada is of long standing and rooted in exploitation of the area’s water and land to shore up the regime’s support in Damascus and among privileged strata of Syrian society. Much of the groundwater in the formerly productive farming valley was pumped out to supply the capital city. In the 1970s and 1980s, the regime expropriated vast tracts of land in Wadi Barada, including mountain ridges, “for the public good.” These lands were designated for public buildings such as schools, hospitals or military facilities, but in practice most plots were sold (or given) to high-level officials and businessmen who built private homes.

Over the last year, even as Wadi Barada and environs become war zones, the regime is applying a new version of this old strategy with a series of large-scale tourism developments in the area. In June 2014, for example, the state-run Tishrin newspaper announced that the Ministry of Tourism has licensed a new complex including a four-star hotel and a swimming pool. The complex will cost 3.5 billion Syrian pounds (over $185 million) and cover an area of 10,808 square meters. Tishrin did not mention the names of the investors, the means by which the lands would be obtained or the timeline for the construction. The drive for real estate takes advantage of the growing poverty among the population to acquire valuable land at a fraction of the pre-conflict price.

If Norton and Blumenthal had not become such shallow propagandists, this is the kind of story that they could have written. Both of them could discriminate between good and evil and truth and falsehood once upon a time. Too bad they lost that ability in pursuit of a journalism career inspired apparently by Judith Miller.

January 2, 2017

MRZine: goodbye and good riddance

Filed under: Iran,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:41 pm


After a decade of pumping out propaganda for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Baathist dictatorship in Syria, MRZine is no more. In a farewell note, editor Yoshie Furuhashi, who never wrote more than 2 or 3 articles for the online publication and none at all for its parent print magazine Monthly Review, stated that she is being reassigned to do translation for the institution founded by Paul Sweezy 67 years ago as a voice of the independent left.

Furuhashi’s hiring was a perverse act and likely the decision of MR board member John Mage, who like Furuhashi has a scanty publication record. Around the time that she was being considered for this post, she had been at war with subscribers to Marxmail, the mailing list I created in 1998, LBO-Talk, Doug Henwood’s listserv created the same day as mine, and PEN-L, a mailing list geared to economics professors in the spirit of URPE. For Furuhashi, these 3 mailing lists, which were among the most prominent in Marxist cyberspace, only served as a receptacle for her pro-Ahmadinejad messages that came across as leaflets being dropped from an airplane.

Her devotion to the Islamic Republic was the culmination of a several years long disaffection from the American left, including a brief membership in Solidarity. Like many young radicals, the realization that socialist revolution was not around the corner came as a bitter disappointment. Instead of taking the “longer view” of history as articulated by Monthly Review editor Paul Baran, Furuhashi was attracted to the Ahmadinejad presidency like a moth to a flame. Why fritter away your time in a small and isolated socialist group in the USA when you can become a minister without portfolio for a government that she considered even “more socialist” than Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela?

Not everybody at Monthly Review was happy with MRZine turning into something that prefigured the turn toward RT.com on the left. Seven years ago, Barbara Epstein resigned from the MR board because she found the pro-Ahmadinejad material on MRZine unacceptable. Three years earlier 17 Iranians living outside of the country wrote an open letter to Monthly Review with the same complaints. Despite Epstein’s resignation and the open letter, John Mage rejected the idea that MRZine was pro-Ahmadinejad. Of course, as is the case with all such matters, the people who owned Monthly Review were not under any obligation to meet anybody’s expectations. Who knows if Mage or John Bellamy Foster would still regard MRZine as having a diversity of views on Iran and Syria today? If you did a mathematical analysis of the tweets that appeared on its home page, you will find that there about 100 pro-Assad tweets to every one against the dictator. But like I say, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

I had the foolish idea ten years ago that MRZine might have functioned in the same spirit as the Guardian (the now defunct American leftist weekly newspaper) and Monthly Review that were both launched around the same time as part of an attempt by the left to reach out beyond the CPUSA’s orbit. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s American Socialist, the Monthly Review was not a “line” publication but much more of a forum for the Marxist left to discuss and even debate its differences.

In a NY Times obituary for Paul Sweezy in 2004, John Bellamy Foster is quoted about the original vision of its founder:

“The Monthly Review was attractive to people who were leaving the Communist Party and other sectarian groups,” said John Bellamy Foster, a co-editor of the publication now. “It was and is Marxist, but did not hew to the party line or get into sectarian struggles.”

That might be true to some extent about the magazine but clearly not of MRZine. There certainly was a party line and it certainly did involve itself in sectarian struggles. Everybody understood that Yoshie Furuhashi was the last person in the world to be hired as an editor if the intention was to stay above the fray. Her history was that of a one-person sect that had a program of defending the “axis of resistance” to the point of self-parody. In March of 2011, when Assad’s cops had castrated a 13-year old boy who had been caught protesting the dictatorship and left the dead body on his parents’ doorstep, Furuhashi wrote one of the few articles under her name for MRZine that showed her true colors:

Millions of Syrians rallied all over Syria, pledging loyalty to the country, in support of Bashar al-Assad, on 29 March 2011.  The dialectic of the regime and the opposition in Syria, it is safe to say, is neither like Tunisia and Egypt, nor like Iraq and Libya.

Moreover, the president of Syria has a weapon in the obligatory media war accompanying any protest in a geopolitical hotspot these days, which neither any other Arab regime nor the Islamic Republic of Iran can claim: his undeniably charming wife Asma.  Perhaps not altogether inconsequential in the age of celebrities.

This was the Furuhashi that had antagonized hundreds if not thousands of subscribers on listserv’s such as Marxmail, LBO-Talk and PEN-L. Her article was pro-regime propaganda and blatantly so, the sort of thing that people like Rick Sterling, Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett have become infamous for. After six years of genocidal=like war, there are more and more articles now that assess the role of this sector of the left. Among them is one written by Santiago Alba Rico, a Spanish-born philosopher and writer based in Tunisia. Titled “Aleppo, the tomb of the left”, it is unsparing in its judgement of the Yoshie Furuhashi’s of the world.

In short, a large part of the Arab, European and Latin American left has sacrificed internationalism to a geostrategic order in which the peoples and their democratic struggles no longer have any friends and in which this left, irrelevant and in retreat now throughout the world, has let the regimes against which the “Arabs” rose up in 2011 advance without resistance. We have understood nothing, we have done nothing to help, we have handed over to the enemy all our weapons, including conscience. After Syria democracy is retreating everywhere. Aleppo is indeed the tomb of the Syrians’ dreams of freedom, but it is also the tomb of the global left. Just when we need it most.


January 1, 2017

Seven Documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

In late November, I wrote about some excellent films featured in the 2016 New York African Diaspora International Film Festival. New Yorkers will get a chance to see a follow up screening of the “best of” films from the festival between January 13 to 15 including one called “Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories” that epitomizes the mission of the festival that began in 1993.

“Gurumbe” is a documentary that pays tribute to the Africans who were enslaved by the Spaniards in the early stages of capitalism but not transported to the Americas. Instead they were sold at the auction in Spanish cities to serve as household servants, factory workers and even assistant to fine artists. In the 1700s, for example, 10 percent of the population of Seville were slaves and another 5 percent were freemen. Whether slave or free, the Africans made an important contribution to Spanish culture, particularly to flamenco—an art form that has always been seen as exclusively a contribution from the Roma but that also owed much to uniquely African rhythms.

The film succeeds on two levels. For the mind, you get some of Spain’s top-flight anthropologists and historians who have been delving into the historical archives of cities like Seville to unearth evidence of the African legacy. Even more astonishingly, forensic anthropologists have discovered skeletons beneath the garbage dumps from hundreds of years ago that were certainly African. Since the slaves were not considered proper Catholics, they did not deserve a proper burial in the eyes of their masters. With some skulls bearing the marks of a lethal blow, you get proof of the deep-seated racism that persists until this day in Spain that the film’s creators and the experts they interviewed are determined to eradicate.

On another level, the film appeals directly to the heart through performances by a wide range of musicians who have mastered the flamenco style and particularly its likely African roots. There are also flamenco performances that have the rawness that are most often linked to the Roma sensibility but conceivably are testaments to the feelings of desolation and homesickness felt by slaves.

It was not just music where slaves left their mark. Juan de Pareja served as a slave in the studio of Diego Velasquez, one of Spain’s greatest artists, carrying out menial tasks. But when he showed an artistic ability, Velasquez gave him the opportunity to develop his talent and finally gave him his freedom in 1650. His painting “The Calling of St. Matthew” is exhibited in El Prado while Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant is at the Met.


The Calling of St. Matthew

Portrait of Juan de Pareja

The film is directed by Miguel Ángel Rosales, an anthropologist focused on Andalusia. His work is a labor of love that I can’t praise highly enough. The film is not only a great introduction to Spain’s past but a cry of protest against the racism that has been infecting Europe in the past few years. For many Spaniards, the boat people coming from war-torn and economically devastated Sub-Saharan Africa are viewed as a pestilence. The film will serve to demonstrate the debt owed to such peoples, including from Santander Bank that was the product of a merger historically with a bank that derived every penny from the slave trade.

“Watani: My Homeland” is a film that touches more directly on the refugee crisis. This is a forty-minute documentary that is being considered for an Academy Award alongside “The White Helmets”. Like “The White Helmets”, it is a response to the hell that has been visited on the people of East Aleppo by the Baathist tyranny and its foreign allies.

The film begins in East Aleppo where we meet Abu Ali, who is an officer of the Free Syrian Army and whose wife and four children literally dodge mortal shells, machine gun bullets and barrel bombs in their daily routines. The children have become shockingly inured to the violence as they even play games with toy weapons that mimic the real fighting taking place a stone’s throw from the hollowed-out buildings that surround them.

Abu Ali is frank about the prospects awaiting him, his family and his comrades in East Aleppo. Has he destroyed their lives in a futile attempt to change a brutal system whose brutality reached deeper levels of depravity as the war wore on? By the time the film was being made, it was too late to turn back the clock.

After Abu Ali is abducted by ISIS, his family becomes eligible for refugee status in Germany. They move to a small village that is populated by old people who are anxious to receive new and younger neighbors to keep it alive. This is a factor that probably explains the material basis for Angela Merkel’s specious humanitarianism.

The film was made by Marcel Mettelsiefen, a German citizen, who has been covering the Arab Spring since 2011 and began reporting from within Syria in April 2011. Since then he has filmed and photographed within Syria more than twenty-five times. He deserves a medal for risking his life to make such a powerful film.

Fortunately, much of the material that make up the film was shown originally under the title “Children of Aleppo” on a PBS Frontline documentary (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/children-of-syria/) that I recommend both watching and circulating far and wide. It will go a long way in countering the vicious propaganda campaign directed at the White Helmets and even the seven-year-old Bana Alabed that would have you believe that they are al-Qaeda agents.

Despite the horrors that took place yesterday in Istanbul yesterday, the city is capable of great warmth and solidarity, even extended to the street cats that are paid tribute to in the wonderful documentary “Kedi” (Turkish for cat) that opens on February 10th at the Metrograph theater in New York.

Unlike most cities, Istanbul has not been reduced to sterile concrete edifices. There are many nooks and crannies where cats can remain feral but amenable to interacting with human beings in a variety of ways but on their own terms. We see cats departing from their makeshift homes each day and making the rounds of nearby restaurants and shops where Turks are all too happy to share food with one of god’s creatures. What makes the film so effective is that the director has devised a camera rig that follows the cat around on its peregrinations at its eye-level. We see things from the cat’s perspective and also see it from behind as it circumnavigates restaurant tables, fishermen’s wharves, back alleys, trees, rooftops and other places where the cat feels at home.

And to top it off, we hear from Istanbul’s cat lovers who combine humor, self-deprecation and the uniquely Turkish sensibility that makes the country’s current troubles seem such a curse.

There’s a personal angle here worth mentioning. My wife’s brother-in-law moved to New York about a year ago to get away from the country’s troubles. He brought along with him a female cat named Boncuk (Turkish for jewel and pronounced bonjuk) that he spotted on the street in Istanbul and adopted. She has the supreme diffidence that makes cats so special as well as a beauty that will make her name seem so appropriate.



Moving from cats to dogs, I urge you to see “Stray Dog”, a documentary about a man who appears at first blush to belong to Donald Trump’s “basket of deplorables” but becomes something much more—far much more—as Debra Granik’s film unfolds. Granik’s subject is Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a Vietnam veteran who manages a trailer park in rural southern Missouri and who is married to a Mexican woman–a recent immigrant. His favorite pastimes seem to be driving his Harley-Davidson to memorial meetings for military veterans and sitting around with other veterans in the trailer park swapping tales about their past and ruminating on the miseries of old age, including the need for Viagra and dentures. Despite his advanced years, Hall is a formidable character with tattoos and garb that are distinctly Hell’s Angel fashion-wise. He looks exactly like the kind of person you would avoid if you ran into him on the way to a peace demonstration.

Granik ran into him in southern Missouri when she was casting for her film “Winter’s Bone” that is about the area’s hillbilly drug dealers. He was cast as type but in the course of making the film, she learned that appearances can be deceiving.

Hall, unlike many Trump voters, was open to marrying a Mexican immigrant and even making a home for her twin teenaged sons that he and his wife will be bringing up to the trailer park for a new life in the USA in the course of the film. He is also no war hawk, saying offhandedly at one point that it is the rich man who makes war and the poor who fight it.

Hall knows all about poverty, growing up the son of a cotton-picking sharecropper family. He joined the army to escape poverty and went to Vietnam for two tours of duty. He brought back terrible memories of the war that wake him up on many nights yelling in horror. In the press notes for “Stray Dog”, Granik explains her motivation in making such a film:

Stray Dog’s story is also about a Midwestern workingman negotiating the convulsions of our times – gun culture, unemployment and underemployment in recession-era America. Why does a relative or a neighbor join a militia group? How do you advise a grandchild who can’t make ends meet working two full-time jobs? When does boredom, frustration or lack of opportunities lead to changing the receivables on an AK-47?

As the Vietnam generation grows older, its history is being re-written, and is at risk of being whitewashed. Stray Dog is a warrior who sees the links between his struggles and those of today’s soldiers. He and some of his fellow vets can show us what PTSD is like many years later, long after the headlines fade. Now we have a name for the way it changes the brains of soldiers. We know that it’s one of the costs of war, and we know this mainly because people like Ron have taken the risk to tell us about it.

“Stray Dog” can be seen on Amazon streaming and is well worth the $3.99 to see a memorable portrait of a man who defies stereotypical thinking.

If you like me are filled with loathing over those BP ads that flood Sunday morning TV about how things have “returned to normal” in the waters off of Louisiana, I recommend “After the Spill” that documents the permanent damage to the wildlife and nature in general.

It is an indictment of Louisiana politicians who are all too willing to destroy the lives of fisherman and the general public in order to “save jobs”, the cry of the state’s venal politician Bobby Jindal and lesser-known legislators who are in the back pocket of oil companies.

Louisiana is literally being deluged by the Gulf of Mexico as a consequence of unwise “development” that removed the natural barriers to flooding. There are men and women of conscience in Louisiana willing to take on the despoilers, including John Barry whose expert commentary is heard throughout the film.

Barry is a historian who wrote about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that had as much of an impact on driving working people to the north as the Jim Crow system. Because of his expertise on water, he became a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East (SLFPAE) , the levee board overseeing the New Orleans metro area on the east bank of the Mississippi River. On July 24, 2013, SLFPAE sued Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, Chevron and 94 other oil, gas, and pipeline companies for their role in destroying Louisiana’s coastline. Barry’s expertise was reflected in the suit and he became its major spokesman. Governor Bobby Jindal fought against the lawsuit and a federal judge sharing his pro-corporate views dismissed it. It is now under appeal and obviously faces an uphill battle given a Trump White House.

Like “Stray Dog”, “After the Spill” can be seen on Amazon streaming and other VOD services.

Opening on January 20th at the Village East in New York, “They Call Us Monsters” is a look at three juvenile offenders trapped inside a prison system that now treats all offenders as adults no matter how young they are. The film shows one eleven-year old boy on trial for murder. The three youths in “They Call Us Monsters” are older but certainly not as capable as adults in acting responsibly, especially when they live in neighborhoods that are dominated by gang warfare. Even when they are released, as one of the three is, it is a struggle to avoid recidivism especially when you are homeless and unable to find work.

Into their world comes a filmmaker named Gilbert Cowan who is one of the documentary’s producers. His goal is to draw them into a screenplay writing class that will result in a film that they help write. Since they are facing long prison sentences, there is little hope that such an exercise will prepare them for work after release or even whether it will help make life behind bars more tolerable. Mostly, they take part in the exercise with a healthy degree of skepticism and find it mostly as a diversion from the boredom and despair of prison life.

Like Cowan, director Ben Lear (the son of Norman Lear) is a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition that teaches a weekly writing class within the high-security Compound of Sylmar Juvenile Hall and mentors former juvenile offenders.

Guess where this reactionary practice of treating 15-year olds as adults come from. You guessed it. It was part of Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill. Along with the draconian mandatory sentences, putting young people in prison for long stretches has cost our country billions of dollars and destroyed the lives of young people and their families as well. An article in Atlantic Monthly pointed out that a year in a New Jersey prison costs $7000 more a year than a year at Princeton. And a forty year prison terms costs far more than 4 years at Princeton.

Every so often, actually every day of the year, I am reminded of the irrationalities of the capitalist system. Leave it to the son of the good Norman Lear to work on such a project that fights for sanity and to make a film relevant to his humanitarian ideals.

(Screening information on “They Call Us Monsters” nationally can be seen here.

Heavy screening duties in early December prevented me from seeing “First Lady of the Revolution” until after it had finished its run in New York. This is a documentary about Henrietta Boggs, who became the wife of Costa Rica’s President José ‘Don Pepe’ Figueres in 1941. Boggs is still alive at the age of 98.

The film is a combination of her personal story and Costa Rican politics that was tangled to say the least. Bogg’s account of her husband’s political legacy was decidedly critical even though it is generally positive. I invite you to see it if becomes available as VOD (I will give you a head’s up) but it might be useful to consider my analysis of what happened in Costa Rica when Boggs was First Lady:

Another important element of the particularism of the modern Costa Rican state and society was the events surrounding the Presidency of Rafael Calderon in the 1940s. Calderon was a Roosevelt-styled reformer who won the election in 1942 and proceeded to institute a number of progressive social measures including Social Security, a first for Central America. Like Roosevelt, he instituted many of these measures from the top down and had no intention of allowing the working-class or peasantry to go beyond the boundaries this caudillo had set.

He had two powerful allies in this enterprise: the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of Costa Rica. The CP had a substantial base among banana plantation workers and under the influence of the popular front threw its full support behind Calderon in the same way its sister party supported FDR.

Calderon’s development model was based on export agriculture and for the most part had goal to undermine the power of the traditional oligarchies. While Costa Rica’s bourgeoisie was not as vicious as El Salvador’s, it still had no intention of allowing full-scale agrarian reform.

Calderon’s paternalism and his development model alienated much of the country’s emerging urban petty-bourgeoisie. They preferred a more modern capitalism that was diversified and less oriented to export agriculture. Furthermore, Calderon, like many of Central America’s traditional caudillos, was corrupt. The corruption was not as blatant as Somoza’s but it was just enough to anger the urban petty-bourgeoisie.

This most politically advanced members of this modernizing middle-class started a think tank called the “Center for the Study of National Problems” in 1948. This think tank was sharply anti-imperialist and thought that Calderon’s export-oriented model ceded too much to the United Fruit Company and other foreign companies. They produced studies that fed into popular discontent against Calderon.

They could be properly called “petty-bourgeois nationalists”, the formulation a list member used to falsely categorize the Sandinistas. They believed that Costa Rica’s main problem was domination by foreign and domestic capital, however they did not accept Marxist theory at all.

This group became allied with a grouping within the powerful bourgeois Democratic Party called Democratic Action. Its main leader was one Jose Figueres who was also a petty-bourgeois nationalist. Figureres’s group joined with the urban middle-class professionals in the Center for the Study of National Problems and created Costa Rica’s Social Democratic Party in 1948. This party also attracted the support of many of Costa Rica’s oligarchs who were nervous about Calderon’s populism and his Communist Party support.

When the anti-Calderon forces lost the elections in 1948, they launched a civil war that targeted many CP members. Martial law was declared and the junta threw its support to the Social Democratic rebellion. The civil war, while bloody, was inconclusive. The two factions eventually made peace and formed a coalition government. Neither of the contending class forces in the civil war were capable of achieving victory and the contradictions between them remained unresolved for the next several decades.

In order to mediate between themselves, they made a decision to suspend warfare and co-exist within parliamentary forms. They also decided to dissolve the army since they calculated that it could be counted on as a reliable ally to either faction. This act was unprecedented in Central American history. The irony, not at all understood by superficial Social Democrats like Village Voice writer Paul Berman, was that it required a bloody civil war to result in the abolition of the armed forces of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica managed to avoid the deep-going conflicts that marked the rest of Central America in the post WWII era largely because Calderon’s welfare state model was eventually accepted by both factions. This model allowed the bourgeoisie to coopt popular struggles. It has remained a successful counter-revolutionary strategy for some decades, but could break down in the 1990s as export agriculture-based economies continue their downward slide. Just as Sweden has begun to attack the welfare state measures that defined it, so has Costa Rica. What the political consequences of all this will be is difficult to say, but one thing is clear: Costa Rica’s exceptionalism is not permanent.

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