Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2017

One of Us; Jane

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

After I described “Baby Driver” as a supremely stupid movie on Facebook, someone wrote that “I knew its was something of a love project for edgar wright, so i just turned my brain off rather than wait for any quirky humour to arise.” What a coincidence. After seeing the two documentaries reviewed below, I said to myself that they were superior to “Wonder Woman” and “Baby Driver” because they made me think. For many people, especially those who prefer Hollywood blockbusters top-heavy with CGI such as “Wonder Woman” or car chases such as “Baby Driver”, the goal is to stop thinking. They are escapist fare while my deepest need is to be engaged with social realities. This can mean watching a narrative film like “Menashe” that made me think about the contradictions of Orthodox Judaism but there are far too few narrative films worth watching, especially in 2017 that has been a plague year for Hollywood, as Daniel Defoe would have put it.

Turning to the first documentary, “One of Us” is an examination of three young people who left ultra-orthodox Hasidic sects and that is closely related to “Menashe”. Although Menashe was sorely tested by the demand the sect elders put upon him as a single father to award custody of his young son to his brother-in-law, he was not likely to leave the Hasidic world. Ironically, the Hasid (Menashe Lustig) who played Menashe was an Internet personality with a considerable following on Youtube where his Yiddish-language comic riffs on Hasidic life persuaded the film’s director that he would be ideal for the part.

As is made clear by Ari, the 18-year old who we see being shorn of his peyot (sidelocks) in a barber shop, it was an encounter with the Internet that convinced him to leave his sect. He refers to Wikipedia and Google rapturously. It was a miracle that all the world’s knowledge was accessible to him at his fingertips.

We see a clean-shaven Ari in Gap-style clothing sitting in a park in the middle of Hasidic territory in Brooklyn gazing at his laptop when he is approached by a bearded Hasid in the standard black frocks. He begins by asking Ari if children can access the Internet from within the park, to which he replies “of course”. This leads quickly to a discussion about the threats to Hasidic life posed by all the bad things on the net and why Ari has decided to throw in his lot with the outside world. Why didn’t he want to be “one of us” as the Hasid puts it, from which the film derives its title?

The film includes footage of a remarkable rally that took place at Shea Stadium in Queens in May 2012, where a Hasidic leader referred to young children getting iPads or iPhones in anguished tones as if they decided to drink milk with meat. The NY Times reported on how difficult it would be for the community to swear off the Internet:

For an event billed as taking aim at the Internet, signs of the digital age seemed to pop up everywhere.

On a No. 7 train headed toward the stadium, several men wearing the clothing of the ultra-Orthodox whipped out smartphones as soon as the subway emerged from the East River tunnel, poking at e-mail in-boxes and checking voice mail messages.

Several opponents of the rally gathered outside the stadium, including a crowd that stood by police barricades holding signs that read, “The Internet Is Not the Problem.”

Like Ari, Luzer was seduced into leaving the Hasidim but by another snake in Eden, namely Blockbuster video where he used to rent DVD’s before Netflix obsoleted the chain. He used to rent 3 or 4 DVD’s and sit in a shopping mall parking lot to watch them in his car. When a cop thought he looked suspicious, he asked him what he was doing. When Luzer told him he was watching a movie, the cop asked why he didn’t do it at home. Because I can’t was the answer.

Now 32, Luzer is trying to make it as an actor. He divides time between LA, where he lives in an RV, and NYC. We see him visiting Monsey, NY where he is now persona non grata and not even permitted to see the two children of his previous marriage. Ironically, the town is named after the Munsee Indians who were ethnically cleansed from NY in the same way that Palestinians have been driven out of Israel.

The third subject is a woman in her mid-30s named Etty who despite being in early 30s has seven children. She has separated from her husband who was introduced to her through an arranged marriage, just as was Menashe’s recently deceased wife. In the case of the fictional Menashe and the real-life Etty, there was no love in the marriage but even worse for Etty, it led to a decade or so worth of beatings and humiliation. For Etty, there is also custody battle but one that she is likely to lose just like Menashe. A civil court in Brooklyn is likely to side with the husband as is usually the case with Hasidic divorces since the community exerts influence through bloc voting.

Like Ari and Luzer, Etty is appalled at the willful ignorance of the Hasidim as well the sexism that facilitated the oppressive household conditions she lived under. She shows us a book her daughter uses in a religious school that embodies Hasidic backwardness, including the blacking out of young girl’s faces who are depicted in the book’s graphics. It reminded me of the intervention my grandmother took but in the opposite direction. She altered a photo of my great-grandmother to block out the religious head covering she was wearing. My grandmother was religious but she had no use for shtetl backwardness.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 1.16.35 PM

“One of Us” is reminiscent of “Trembling Before God”, a 2001 documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews that adopted secularism because the homophobia in the community became unbearable. If you don’t mind Portuguese subtitles, the film can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts7bhOau0Wc

As they say, 90 percent of the success of a documentary involves the selection of attractive and interesting subjects. On this basis, “One of Us” succeeds admirably and will certainly gain my vote for best documentary in 2017. It can be seen at the IFC Center in NYC starting tomorrow as well as on Netflix.

Also opening tomorrow at the Landmark theaters on both West 57th St. and East Houston St is “Jane”, a biopic documentary about Jane Goodall, the woman who studied chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania starting in 1960 when she was 26 years old. Recently National Geographic that funded her studies came across an archive of film footage from Gombe that they turned over to Brett Morgen who would be responsible for molding them into a documentary. “Jane” consists of this footage with commentary by Jane Goodall who is now 83 years old.

As someone who was enthralled by Goodall’s “In The Shadow Of Man” when it came out in 1974, I was looking forward immensely to this film. I was a bit disappointed because the focus was much more on her life story rather than her research. For example, there is only about a minute or so showing a chimpanzee fashioning a twig into a tool to extract termites from their nest. When I read about this in her book, it made me rethink what I had read in Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

Labour begins with the making of tools. And what are the most ancient tools that we find – the most ancient judging by the heirlooms of prehistoric man that have been discovered, and by the mode of life of the earliest historical peoples and of the rawest of contemporary savages? They are hunting and fishing implements, the former at the same time serving as weapons. But hunting and fishing presuppose the transition from an exclusively vegetable diet to the concomitant use of meat, and this is another important step in the process of transition from ape to man.

Despite her lack of a college education and specialized training, Louis Leaky decided to send his secretary Jane Goodall to Tanzania because he thought that most animal behavior scientists would carry too much intellectual baggage with them and not be able to allow the chimpanzee’s behavior to speak for itself.

Leakey had come to the conclusion that studying chimpanzees would give us insights about homo sapiens. Much of what Goodall saw did have relevance, especially the use of tools and how mothers looked after their children. In addition to Goodall, Leakey also recruited Dian Fossey to study gorillas.

What I did find somewhat troubling, however, was the footage of what Goodall referred to as a virtual war between rival bands of chimpanzees that she regarded as proof that warfare is in our genes. Obviously, this is consistent with the sociobiology of Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.

As was the case with the use of fashioning twigs, the film spends only a few minutes reviewing the so-called war. One supposes that the director had to make a choice. Given the standard 90 minutes or so allocated to a feature film, you could not tell both her life story and do justice to her in-depth research.

As soon as I returned home from a press screening and did some searching on chimpanzee wars. I recommend the articles in Scientific American written by John Horgan who speculates that the aggressive behavior might have even been triggered by Jane Goodall feeding bananas to the chimps in order to bring them closer to her husband Hugo van Lawick’s camera, as is seen in “Jane”. In an article titled “Quitting the hominid fight club: The evidence is flimsy for innate chimpanzee–let alone human—warfare”, Horgan writes:

The first lethal gang attack was witnessed in 1974 at Gombe, after Goodall and her co-workers had spent 14 years closely observing chimpanzees. Goodall, who began supplying bananas to chimpanzees in 1965, once expressed concern that the feeding “was having a marked effect on the behavior of the chimps. They were beginning to move about in large groups more often than they had ever done in the old days. Worst of all, the adult males were becoming increasingly aggressive. When we first offered the chimps bananas the males seldom fought over their food; …now…there was a great deal more fighting than ever before.” (This quote appears in Sussman and Marshack’s paper.)

Chimpanzees throughout Africa are also increasingly threatened by poachers, farmers and other humans. Ian Tattersall, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, told me that chimpanzee violence is “plausibly related to population stress occasioned by human encroachment.” In other words, outbreaks of lethal violence among chimpanzees may stem primarily from environmental and even cultural factors. Wrangham himself has emphasized that chimpanzees display “significant cultural variation” in tool use, courtship and other behaviors.

My advice is to see “Jane” for some thought-provoking material to chew over as well as spectacularly beautiful cinematography produced by van Lawick, widely considered the greatest photographer of wildlife in Africa. If you, however, are interested in escapist entertainment, there is always “Wonder Woman”. You can leave your brain at home.

October 17, 2017

Q&A with an Algerian journalist

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 1:24 pm
  1. How do you explain the decline of the American Left?

The left that I joined in 1967 embraced a “Marxist-Leninist” model that led to deeply sectarian concepts and even cult-like tendencies. This was true of both Trotskyist groups, such as the one I belonged to, and Maoist groups. I have written many articles about these problems that can be read at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization.htm but would recommend “Lenin in Context” (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/lenin_in_context.htm) as a good place to start. Twenty years ago when Marxists began exchanging ideas on the mailing list that would evolve into Marxmail (http://lists.csbs.utah.edu/listinfo/marxism), a query similar to yours prompted me to begin writing about the problem that I first encountered in the early 80s when the Socialist Workers Party, from which I had recently resigned, developed abstentionist positions in the name of a “turn to industry”. At the time it had close to two thousand members, including in the youth group, but now has less than a hundred. So your question of the decline on the left is closely related to the fate of this group that expected the 1930s to repeat itself in the early 80s despite indications that the working class was not radicalizing.

As for the New Communist Movement, aka the Maoists, they went through an identical decline mostly as a result of overprojecting the state of the class struggle in the same way as we did. I strongly recommend ex-Maoist Max Elbaum’s Verso book “Revolution in the Air” that draws many of the same conclusions found in my articles.

Even if the left had abandoned self-destructive sectarian methods, it still would have been difficult to sustain the kind of growth that took place in the 1960s and early 70s. To start with, the end of the Vietnam war removed one of the main irritants to young men who no longer had to worry about being drafted. Around the same time the war ended, the Supreme Court legalized abortion, which had the effect of satisfying the main demand of the woman’s liberation movement. The Black liberation struggle continued to face the same oppressive social conditions that had brought it into existence but had to endure challenges that reduced its numbers and impact. To start with, repression was much deeper against Black militants. The FBI and local police departments used fierce repression against the Black Panther Party and other such groups that they never recovered from. Also, the ruling class made a calculated decision to fund anti-poverty programs that had a powerful cooptation logic. It also opened the door for Black elected officials, at least in the Democratic Party. Black mayors cropped up all around the country giving some in the Black community a sense that reform was possible. The election of Barack Obama was a crowning victory for those trying to foster such illusions.

  1. In your opinion, is it not necessary to have a strong labor movement to frame the struggles of the underprivileged classes? What remains of the epoch of the trade union and workers’ movement in the USA?

This is one of the biggest problems facing the left. The trade unions have shrunk drastically over the past few decades largely as a result of the deindustrialization of auto, steel, electronics and other mainstays of the AFL-CIO. Cities such as Detroit that used to have powerful civil right groups and trade unions, even if only reform-oriented, have lost the economic base that made them possible.

The only unions sustaining any growth today are in the service industries such as those organized by AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). As important as such unions are, they lack the raw power that could confront capital in the way that the Teamsters Union used to in the 1950s and 60s. Despite their relatively tame stance vis-à-vis their employers, the Trump administration is determined to break such unions because they are a major source of funding and organizational muscle for the Democratic Party. At the same time he is seeking a confrontation with workers in the service industries, he is courting workers in the construction and mining industry since his nationalist rhetoric and climate change denialism enables him to pose as a friend of workers hoping to get jobs digging coal, constructing pipelines, etc.

On top of all these problems, there is hardly any indication of a trade union movement as such. All of the major unions, both blue-collar and white-collar, are organized on the basis of business unionism, which limits itself to wage increases, minimizing layoffs, and other economic protections that while of benefit to dues-paying members has hardly any relationship to the deeper crisis of the American working class.

The last time there was anything resembling a full-scale trade union movement as such was the United Farm Workers but it too became a business union hostile to any challenges from the rank-and-file.

  1. How do you explain the total lack of combativeness of the trade union movement faced with the ultraliberal offensive?

This is related to the question above obviously. Mostly, workers are fearful of owners closing down a factory under their feet if they fight too hard. With technologies allowing corporate headquarters in New York to operate production in East Asia, Mexico and elsewhere, it is very easy to pick up and move. The October 15, 2017, NY Times had a long article on a female steelworker who worked for a ball-bearing manufacturing company called Rexnord that was moving to Mexico. She was a skilled worker doing the job usually done by men that paid $25 per hour. Rexnord was going to Mexico where they planned to pay someone doing the same job $6 per hour. Not only that, they were offering her a $5000 bonus to train the Mexicans who had come up to Rexnord. Desperation forced her to train the workers who would soon replace her.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, globalization had nowhere near the power it has today. Workers in auto, steel, and electronics could withhold their labor and bring the bosses to their knees. Today, it is the workers who are on their knees for the most part.

  1. Did not the American Left which was seduced by Obama commit a strategic error? During the reign of Obama, we saw imperialist wars as well as many racist crimes, wasn’t Obama a lure?

The radical left was not taken in that much. The magazine CounterPunch, upon whose board I serve as film editor, never gave an inch to Obama. It published a book titled “Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion” that included articles that debunked the idea that Obama would be the next FDR. Not only that, it also opposed Bernie Sanders primary bid in on the same grounds, namely that the Democratic Party was a dead-end for the left.

On the other hand, there were many on the left who did support Obama even if they qualified their support as “lesser evil”. For some, there was an analogy with the New Deal. Roosevelt once said that he needed pressure from the left to get anything done. This encouraged Obama supporters to promote the idea that the left had to mobilize to push him to the left, even though there was little recognition that the left in 2008 was nothing like the left in 1932. Furthermore, back then when the USSR existed, there was the enormous pressure of an alternative model that made the ruling class worry about being overthrown unless it began to adopt important reforms such as Social Security.

The problem of the Democratic Party is key to American politics. Despite the gloomy picture I painted of the revolutionary left in the question above, the reform-oriented left is growing dramatically. The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) now has over 25,000 members, many of whom worked to get Bernie Sanders elected. They generally understand socialism in different terms than someone like myself but can be important activists around important struggles taking shape under an extremely reactionary White House. I wrote an appeal to the DSA about breaking from the Democratic Party (https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/15/reflections-on-the-dsa/) but I am not optimistic. My guess is that the Democratic Party still has a grip on many young people because of its command of the mass media and the deep roots it has in American society as a party with a 175-year history.

  1. Is not a rebuilding of the American Left and the trade union movement necessary? And with what tools?

It is absolutely necessary. The most important catalyst would be an organized movement of the revolutionary left that could have the clout to move broad sectors of the population into action in the way that the Vietnam antiwar movement did. That is basically what I have been arguing for over the past 35 years or so. With the collapse of the sectarian left, there is much more appeal for a broad-based radical party but it will take a nucleus of dedicated and younger activists to bring it together. I am far too old to be part of that nucleus but my articles are directed to those who might be the future leadership.

  1. All the progressives and revolutionaries of the world will commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, according to you, what is the major lesson of this revolution and this great moment of history?

This is not easy to sum up in a few words. It would probably take a book to answer properly but let me try to briefly convey some thoughts.

The major lesson is that workers could take control of their own destiny and move toward a just society based on the principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. The fact that 21 counter-revolutionary armies invaded the USSR to destroy this experiment indicates that it was a mortal threat to the capitalist status quo. In the words of Noam Chomsky who was commenting on the American war in Indochina, it was the need to destroy “a positive example of successful development.”

When I was young, it was difficult to think of the USSR as a “positive example” because of the repression and its faltering economy. When the USSR collapsed, there was a widespread belief that “there is no alternative” (TINA) to capitalism. Now that the Great Recession in the USA lingers on and the economy shows no signs of rebounding with the kind of vigor capitalist ideologues have promised, many people like the steelworker at Rexnord or the young unemployed college graduate saddled with $50,000 in debt will be as open to a different economic model as people were in the 1930s. The left has to be able to make the case for something like the USSR model but without the dogmatic trappings of Red Stars and hammer and sickles that make no sense to the average American. Our work is cut out for us.

  1. Don’t you think a new reading of some left-wing thinkers like Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman and James M. Blaut are needed to rebuild the American Left?

Absolutely. Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman tried to build a movement in the early 50s under very difficult circumstances. Much of what they wrote has a freshness and relevance that stand up well today. I invite people to look at articles from the American Socialist that they published in the 1950s here: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/index.htm.

The late Jim Blaut, who was a very good friend of mine and a great influence on the way I think about the origins of capitalism, was a powerful example of how academics can help to change society. He wrote a book on the national question that was meant to help leaders of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party develop a strategy for national independence. In an obituary that appeared after his death 17 years ago, he said that he was proudest of being arrested in an antiwar protest in the 1960s. A sample of his articles can be read here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/blaut.htm

  1. I interviewed the great thinker Henry Giroux. In your opinion, does not Giroux’s thought open up perspectives for the understanding of today’s world and does it not offer alternatives to ultra-liberalism?

I have very great respect for Giroux as an academic who follows the example of Jim Blaut. I particularly value his analysis of the education crisis in the USA, both in secondary schools and higher education. Having worked at Columbia University for 21 years until my retirement a few years ago, I saw the rot from the perspective of an insider. Giroux’s “University in Chains: Confronting the Military-industrial-academic Complex” is probably the best introduction to how capitalism has been destroying the soul of academia.

  1. You had an experience of struggle in South Africa. I interviewed Patrick Bond who was the economic advisor to President Mandela and who drafted the White Paper on Reconstruction and Development in the South African government. He explained that South Africa is experiencing a major crisis. Don’t you think that the gentrification of the political elites can wreck a revolutionary experience as seen in South Africa or Algeria, my home country where oligarchs took power?

What is happening in South Africa today and Algeria for decades now is a tragedy. Considering the sacrifice of lives that went into destroying apartheid and gaining independence from France, it is deeply frustrating to see how class divisions remain in both nations. When I visited the ANC in exile in 1991, I never would have dreamed that you would have a situation in which cops would kill striking miners in South Africa under an ANC government 21 years later. Like most socialists, I expected the ANC to deliver on its ambitious program that while not specifically socialist was very clear about addressing class as well as racial injustice.

As is the case in countries elsewhere, a new left is developing in South Africa that challenges the economic apartheid. I am glad to have met and become a friend and comrade of Patrick Bond about 15 years ago. Through access to the Internet that is as important to our movement today as the printed press was to the revolutionary movement in the early 1900s, I have begun to connect with the emerging revolutionary left worldwide. Now, more than ever, a worldwide revolutionary movement is needed to help us move forward to socialism. The final showdown will very likely take place in a country like the USA. If it was possible for a semi-peripheral country like Russia to have been nearly destroyed in the early 1920s, a Socialist America will not have to worry about outside intervention given its massive defensive capabilities.

  1. Can you tell us about your fighting experience in countries like South Africa or Nicaragua?

To be honest, I never was involved in fighting. My role was mostly as a consultant to the ANC and to the FSLN in Nicaragua about technical assistance that could get from American volunteers. I am proud of the work I did but would not represent myself as an actual combatant.

  1. Do you think Trump is as dangerous as Bush and the neocons? And how do you explain the support of the limousine leftists to Hillary Clinton who is an inveterate warmonger?

It is hard to say. Trump’s intentions are not matched by his capabilities. Bush had far more support from the neocons, including many in the Democratic Party who voted for his adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. That being said, his intentions are far more worrisome than anything ever projected by Bush. We are living in very dangerous times, especially around the nuclear showdown with North Korea. There is a tremendous need right now for mass demonstrations in Washington but unfortunately the left is too divided and too weak to organize them.

Support for Hillary Clinton is mostly on the “lesser evil” basis. In 2016, there were those on the left who actually viewed Trump as less dangerous than her because of his isolationist “America First” rhetoric. It turned out that his words were cheap, just as Obama’s were in 2007.

Another task facing a new left party in the USA will be the construction of a principled antiwar and anti-imperialist movement that is not in the habit of reflexively following the Kremlin’s strategic, realpolitik agenda. While the USA is clearly the most dangerous military power in the world today, we must uphold a consistent internationalism resting on a class basis.

  1. You are also a cinematic art critic, how do you explain the current Hollywood scandals with Harvey Weinstein? Do you think that the Hollywood of the American dream and propaganda has revealed its true face, the one of money king, sex and drugs?

Some have pointed out that sexual assaults are taking place everywhere, including at the most prestigious universities in the USA such as Caltech, where an astrophysicist was forced to resign after sexually harassing two female students. Harvey Weinstein defended himself when the charges were reported in the NY Times by saying that the culture in the 60s and 70s were more permissive. This is utter nonsense. Back then a powerful feminist movement were putting men like Weinstein on the defensive but with the decline of the movement, such 1950s behavior began to threaten women once again. One of the benefits of a new left would be a powerful feminist component that would make sexual harassment difficult to carry out. Male supremacy, like white supremacy, grows stronger in periods of reaction. Fortunately, the men who have such values have been soundly rejected by most thinking and caring people in the past. That is what the immense reaction against Weinstein indicates. We need to reinforce the left in the USA so such people are not only put on the defensive but defanged totally.

  1. You are both a researcher and an activist, and you are also the moderator of the Marxist mailing list. What is the impact of your work on people’s awareness?

It is difficult to say. Most of the time I write to preserve my sanity. When I dropped out of the Trotskyist movement in 1978, I had plans to write fiction. Unfortunately, the decay of late capitalism got in the way.

  1. Do you think the alternative press has effectively countered mainstream media? Since information is a major key to counter the empire, do you think the alternative press is winning the battle against the dominant media?

I would like to think so. I have a relative who is staying with us temporarily. He was a corporate executive now hoping to start a new job in the USA but despite his socio-economic status, he relies on websites such as Counterpunch to get the real story. The Internet has had an enormous impact on popular opinion. I’d like to think that if we had it back in 1967, the war in Vietnam would not have dragged on as long as it did. When the class struggle deepens qualitatively over the next few years, it will be a powerful weapon against the class enemy. There will be obstacles put in our way but in the long run, I am optimistic that it will be as important to your generation as Iskra was to Lenin’s.

 

October 14, 2017

Wonder Woman

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:49 pm

Feeling like Diogenes carrying around a lamp trying to find an honest man, I futilely search Amazon Prime and Netflix for 2017 films to nominate as best film, director or screenplay in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Based on recent results, including “Wonder Woman”, it appears that the flame in my lamp has died.

With a 92 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and only $5.99 to rent on Amazon Prime, I hoped that “Wonder Woman” would pass muster. I wouldn’t have spent $12 for a senior ticket at the local cineplex but six dollars won’t break the bank. I understood that a lot of the left took strenuous objection to an Israeli IDF-supporter cast in the leading role but I wasn’t sure whether an American actress would be carrying lighter baggage. I say that as someone with a fondness for Israeli couscous, so there. If the film was at least some old-fashioned fun, why not? After all, there’s nothing more racist and reactionary than the Indiana Jones franchise, right?

There are many things wrong with the film but chief among them is to use WWI as a historical setting with the Germans being cast as stock character villains. Like most of these youth-oriented films based on apocalyptic showdowns between good and evil, dramatic impact rests on the need for a bad guy with heft. An emblematic figure would be Ian McKellen as Magneto in the X-Men films or Lex Luther in Superman. Indeed, in the original comic book story that the film is adapted from, the setting is WWII. The author was both a patriot who hated Nazis and who hoped to deliver a feminist message.

A Syfy.com journalist endorses the time-shift since it supposedly avoids the reductionism associated with films that feature Nazi bad guys.

But World War I has largely gone unromanticized in mainstream American culture the same way World War II has. The internecine politics of the first modern war make it less ripe as a narrative to distort, lacking figures and sides easy to slot into the roles of heroes and villains. It simply can’t be twisted to serve the narrative need of the aforementioned rah-rah media narrative the way World War II can be.

On the other hand, Breitbart is annoyed because it failed to live up to their American nationalist expectations:

So, why the big switch? Why take the character originally introduced as a true American fighter of the Nazis and push her backwards into a whole other era in a war the U.S. had much less to do with when all was said and done?

It’s likely for the same reason that the new Wonder Woman will be dressed in a drab costume of earth tones instead of the red, white, and blue suit we are all used to. Today’s filmmakers want to erase as much of America from Wonder Woman as possible.

What the Syfy journalist missed was the obvious tropes about German perfidy redolent of the Nazi regime. Their troops are led by a stick figure named General Erich Ludendorff who might as well have been shouting “Heil Hitler” at the drop of a hat or telling Wonder Woman “Ve haf ways of getting information.” His chief assistant is a Spanish chemist named Isabel Maru, aka Doctor Poison, who is working on a formula to turn mustard gas into a super-weapon that could lead to the extinction of the human race, even if it was originally intended to be used against the British. Since this character first appeared in a WWII Wonder Woman comic, you would be led to believe that she was a premature Falangist. Her weapon is obviously a stand-in for the atomic bomb and consistent with the film’s pacifist message. Doctor Poison, like most of the secondary characters in the film, is underdeveloped. Facially scarred by experiments on herself, she wears a Phantom of the Opera-like mask to cover the scars. You have no idea why she ever involved herself with such a project since neither personal gain nor ideology ever enter the picture. All we know about her is that she has this thing about developing weapons of mass destruction. That’s what happens when you use WWI as a template. Motivation goes down the drain.

There is, of course, another way of seeing this choice. Starring alongside Israeli actress Gal Gadot, Chris Pine plays American spy Steve Trevor who has absconded with Doctor Poison’s notebook. Pine says that it was a great decision to use WWI since the helmets and uniforms look really cool. Pine graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 with a B.A. in English. Maybe you should think twice before sending your kid there.

The film opens with Trevor’s plane crashing into the waters off of the Greek island of island of Themyscira, where the Amazons have been living for millennia. They were sequestered there by Zeus who had plans to make one of its denizens the future killer of Ares who had pissed him off when gods ruled the earth rather than man. It seems that Ares, the god of war, was intent on using war itself as a way of solving the “human problem” and hoped to recruit his long-lost sister Diana (aka Wonder Woman) as a comrade in this cleansing operation.

After Diana rescues Trevor from the water and discovers that WWI is at full tilt, she convinces him to lead her to the outside world in order to kill Ares who she holds responsible for this war and all others. Obviously, the film is not too heavy into political economy. The climax of the film that must have cost $25 million in special effects alone consists of her and Ares throwing army tanks and other massive projectiles at each other. If this is your thing, be my guest. I preferred “Menashe”, a Yiddish-language film about a single dad Hasidic Jew trying to retain custody of his young son.

For many critics, the film was a feminist breakthrough. It was directed by a woman named Patty Jenkins, whose last feature film was “Monster”, a 2003 biopic about the prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos, hardly a resume that would have led to a summer blockbuster like this. The screenplay was written by Allan Heinberg, a gay man with both film and comic book credits. His “Young Avengers” included two gay characters. With a creative team like this behind a film with a pacifist message, it was likely to garner favorable reviews from liberal or leftist critics. Sojourners, a liberal Christian magazine, effused:

Wonder Woman marks a feminist milestone, too, one that feels like artistic justice: it’s the first major superhero movie to feature a female hero, and the first to use a female director, Patty Jenkins.

But it’s also a mission statement. In addition to being about feminism and patriarchy-smashing, Wonder Woman is a movie about the hunger for justice for all oppressed people, women included. It tackles sexism, racism, and the horrors of war, all tied up in a mightily entertaining summer blockbuster package.

If only that was true. Sigh. I have heard such claims made on behalf of any number of blockbusters, including “The Hunger Games” and even films I considered progressive such as “Avatar” and the new Planet of the Apes movies. I doubt that any of them will ever have the impact of a documentary. Maybe this year I’ll stop wasting my time searching Diogenes-like for a worthy narrative film and just nominate 3 documentaries for best movie of 2017.

October 13, 2017

Bringing Down the Cali Cartel: “Narcos” Season 3

Filed under: Colombia,Counterpunch,crime,drugs — louisproyect @ 2:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 13, 2017

Last December, I recommended Netflix’s “Narcos” to CounterPunch readers with the qualification that it had political problems. After having just finished watching Season Three, which deals with the Cali cartel (seasons 1 and 2 were about the hunt for Pablo Escobar), I can only repeat my endorsement for a thoroughly entertaining and frequently accurate portrayal of the attempts to bring down Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, the brothers who ran the Cali cartel.

The series is based to a large extent on William Rempel’s “At the Devil’s Table”, a 2011 book whose subtitle “The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel” refers to Jorge Salcedo who was chief of security for the Rodríguez brothers. Rempel’s book is a redemption tale as its protagonist decides to become an informer for the Colombian security forces and the DEA after seeing sicarios(hitmen) kill one of the cartel’s enemies. He was happy to keep his bosses safe from the law’s grasp through sophisticated counter-surveillance strategies, especially when the pay was very good, but drew the line at torture and murder.

Given the risks of going undercover against the cartel, much of the drama in Season Three revolves around Salcedo’s high-stakes game. His motivation was not to get a handsome reward for his efforts but to simply return to a normal life. Resignation from the cartel was not an option, especially when they relied on you for security. However, if he was ever found out, the consolation prize would be suffocation by a plastic bag wrapped tightly around his head, the preferred execution method in such circles.

Continue reading

October 11, 2017

Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917? A reply to Eric Blanc

Filed under: Lenin,Russian Revolution — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Eric Blanc

As most of my readers are probably aware, Lars Lih and Eric Blanc have been writing articles for the past couple of years taking the side of the “old Bolsheviks” against Trotsky on the question of whether Lenin abandoned previously held positions on the character of the Russian Revolution and especially on whether the April Theses were symbolic of such a break.

The latest installment can be read on the Historical Materialism blog. Titled “Did the Bolsheviks Advocate Socialist Revolution in 1917?”, Eric Blanc’s article makes an amalgam between Trotskyists, Sovietologists and—somewhat surprisingly—Stalinists over their supposed adherence to the “breach” version. Blanc cites a 1939 Soviet article making the case that “Lenin’s April Theses laid down for the Party a brilliant plan of struggle for the transition from the bourgeois-democratic to the Socialist revolution.” I am not sure how much relevance this has to the ongoing debate since Stalinist words come rather cheap. In fact, everything that the Kremlin had been doing as opposed to saying at least since 1927 indicates an adherence to the discredited “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.

This was most obvious in the struggle between Leon Trotsky and the Stalinists over the dynamics of the Chinese revolution as I pointed out in a commentary on Lars Lih on May 15th of this year. Virtually the entire “old Bolshevik” cast of characters made the same arguments against Trotsky that they did in the 1924 “Lessons of October” debate except that in this instance it was the Kuomintang rather than Kerensky’s Provisional Government it was adapting to. After Chiang Kai-Shek had become an honorary member of the Comintern upon Stalin’s urging, he turned his guns on the Communist workers whose interests were considered of less importance than the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” in China. In a Pravda article titled “Questions of the Chinese Revolution”, Stalin describes two phases of the Chinese revolution. In the first, “the national army was approaching the Yangtse and scoring victory after victory, but a powerful movement of the workers and peasants had not yet unfolded—the national bourgeoisie (not the compradors) sided with the revolution. It was the revolution of a united all-national front.”

It is easy to become frustrated with Lih and Blanc’s special pleading for Kamenev et al since it is so narrowly focused on March and April of 1917. Since Lih makes no pretense of being a Marxist, his micro-focus is understandable. That is what the scholarly journals he writes for expect. Unfortunately, Eric Blanc seems to be following in his footsteps as a search on Google based on either of their names and Kuomintang produces zero results. I doubt that Lih will ever move out of his March-April 1917 comfort zone. Let’s all root for Blanc breaking out of his time-space tunnel as his career as a historian evolves.

Blanc writes, “We will see that while the Bolsheviks throughout the year hinged their politics on the imminence of international socialist revolution, their orientation within Russia itself remained significantly less socially ambitious.” In denying that Lenin was fighting for a socialist revolution as of April 1917, Blanc parts ways with those who have argued that the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was just an “algebraic” formulation that might have a “socialist” outcome. Chief among them were the American SWP and the Australian Trotskyists led by the Percy brothers. In an article that makes many of the same points as Eric Blanc’s but stops short of denying that Lenin’s goal was a socialist revolution, Jack Barnes told his cult members in 1983:

Trotsky viewed this algebraic character of Lenin’s formula to be its weak point. Lenin, however, was completely aware of the social contradictions bound up in the revolutionary process he sought to capture in his formula. He was completely aware that the proletariat and peasantry were classes “whose interests only partially coincide.” The key to proletarian strategy in Russia was to forge a worker-peasant alliance around those interests that did coincide that is, around the fight to bring down absolutism and landlordism – and to establish a dictatorship based on that alliance to carry out those democratic tasks while opening the door to the socialist revolution. The Bolshevik formula was exactly the kind .of algebraic approach needed to orient the proletariat toward leading an alliance of exploited classes through the transition from a victorious democratic revolution to the establishment and consolidation of a workers’ state.

Ironically, I agree with Blanc that Lenin disparaged the idea that socialist revolution was on the agenda as long as the cut-off point is 1916. But unlike Trotsky, I don’t think that there was that much of an “algebraic” quality to Lenin’s concept. Indeed, in the 1905 revolution that was considered a dress rehearsal for 1917, Lenin was absolutely clear that socialist revolution was not on the agenda: “It is absurd to confuse the tasks and prerequisites of a democratic revolution with those of a socialist revolution, which, we repeat, differ both in their nature and in the composition of the social forces taking part in them.” In a nutshell, Kamenev and company were writing articles in Pravda before Lenin’s arrival that were in the spirit of 1905 even though history had moved forward irrevocably. Indeed, immediately after Lenin published the April Theses, Pravda wrote: “As for the general scheme of Comrade Lenin, it seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is ended, and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.”

There is one sense in which I lean more in Blanc’s direction then you might expect from the criticisms leveled above. He makes a rather cogent argument that in 1917 Lenin saw the revolution in Russia as igniting revolutions in Europe that could culminate in the worldwide overthrow of the capitalist class. This view was consistent with the one put forward by Karl Marx in his letters to Zasulich. As opposed to Plekhanov, Marx believed that a revolution could be based on the rural communes but he did not specifically say that this meant a socialist revolution. If anything, the state might have looked something like Mexico had Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa triumphed.

Lenin obviously became convinced that socialism could be built in Russia but not in the manner dictated by Stalin. One of his last thoughts on the direction socialism might take in Russia was “On Cooperation”, a work that viewed peasant coops as the hub of future development. You might even say that this was a logical retreat to the conception found implicitly in Marx’s letters to Zasulich.

Since Blanc remains comfortably ensconced in 1917, he finds scant references to “socialist revolution” in Lenin’s writings. However, after 1917, his articles are replete with them, especially in “State and Revolution”, a key text of Lenin’s thinking on the conquest of power by the working class that Eric Blanc tried to reconcile with Karl Kautsky’s electoralism in “The roots of 1917: Kautsky, the state, and revolution in Imperial Russia”, an article written a year ago. It is consistent with Blanc and Lih’s attempt to rehabilitate Kamenev, since he tended toward Kautskyism in his Pravda articles in 1917, so much so that Lenin wrote a letter to J. S. Hanecki and Karl Radek on April 12, 1917, declaring that “We hope completely to straighten out the line of Pravda, which has wobbled towards ‘Kautskyism’”.

Unlike a lot of the contradictory and imprecise formulations of the Bolsheviks in 1917 in the months before October, out of which Blanc’s thesis seeks legitimacy, “State and Revolution” can be regarded as a systematic ex post facto defense of October 1917 as a model for socialist revolution in the 20th century. It rests not only on the experience of the Soviets but on the Paris Commune of 1871. Furthermore, it has a chapter that singles out Kautsky for betraying what Marx wrote about the Commune:

From 1852 to 1891, or for 40 years, Marx and Engels taught the proletariat that it must smash the state machine. Yet, in 1899, Kautsky, confronted with the complete betrayal of Marxism by the opportunists on this point, fraudulently substituted for the question whether it is necessary to smash this machine the question for the concrete forms in which it is to be smashed, and then sought refuge behind the “indisputable” (and barren) philistine truth that concrete forms cannot be known in advance!!

Lenin takes aim at Kautsky’s 1902 “The Social Revolution” as “a formula which makes a concession to the opportunists, inasmuch as it admits the possibility of seizing power without destroying the state machine.” However, Blanc regarded this article as being beyond reproach since it was “republished, and illegally distributed by the most radical of the Tsarist empire’s Marxist parties.” I can understand the logic of seeing Lenin’s party-building efforts as being modeled on Kautsky’s party in Germany but despite this, you need to recognize that there were structural problems in German social democracy that led to its eventual capitulation to German imperialism. Lenin might not have been clear on this in the early 1900s but by 1918, he describes Kautsky as a renegade.

Blanc calls attention to what perhaps has led to a lot of confusion on the left:

It has often been overlooked that in 1917 there was no clear Marxist definition of socialist revolution. Nor was there a general agreement on the exact political boundary between a democratic and socialist revolution, or for that matter between a capitalist and socialist society.

That, of course, is obvious just from the sharp differences over Cuba. Perhaps what leads to the confusion is a departure from the original concept found in Marx and Engels that socialism was a world system that would be born out of the triumphs of socialist revolutions in countries that had advanced capitalist systems.

Blanc’s latest article begins with a statement “A critical engagement with the past remains an indispensable instrument for critically confronting the present.” It is hard to argue with this but I only wonder when he will begin to critically confront the present.

You can search in vain for anything that he has written about Venezuela, Greece, Syria or any other country that has been poised on the edge of revolution, either socialist or democratic. What exact bearing does “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” have on the situation in Venezuela today, a rentier state that has been torn apart by the contradictions of declining oil prices?

There is much to be learned from Lenin but a lot of it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Lars Lih wrote an 880-page book on “What is to be Done”, a work that Lenin described as only bearing on the “concrete historical situation of a definite, and now long past, period in the development of our Party.” [Emphasis added]

If I look askance at the idea of holding the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in reverence, I also treat the theory of permanent revolution in the same way. What we need today is a vigorous and intelligent application of Marxism to the current world as I have tried to do with Syria over the past 6 years or with Indigenous societies for the past 25 years or so. If reading Lenin’s 1905 articles helps you carry out such a task, don’t let me stand in the way. The proof is in the pudding. But if Eric Blanc’s intention is to carve out a scholarly niche that will help his career in academia, that would be a sorry waste of a promising talent. I would just advise him that this is not what Lenin would be doing in 2017 if he were alive. Or Kamenev for that matter. What about Stalin? I am quite sure he would be writing for Alternet or The Nation.

October 8, 2017

Gathering Sparks

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

Titled “Gathering Sparks”, Paul Pines’s latest collection of poetry convinces me that he is one of the U.S.’s finest poets. Since most of you are aware that I shy away from reviewer hyperbole, my recommendation is one that you can bank on. Now in his mid-70s, Paul is arguably the last poet working in the grand tradition of the new American poetry that emerged in the late 1940s and that is sometimes referred to as the product of the beat generation. But the poetry renaissance that was taking place in New York and San Francisco, as well as at places like Black Mountain College, had deep roots in the American cultural traditions going back to Walt Whitman. This was a literature that was deeply spiritual without being religious in the conventional sense and that was a cry in the wilderness against Mammon. In many ways, the changes that have transformed this country as the benign result of the Cold War winding down are as much cultural as political. People like Lawrence Ferlinghetti (still alive and kicking), Denise Levertov and Allen Ginsberg were its prophets. When Percy Shelley, a political as well as a cultural radical, wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, he had such people in mind. In this review, I hope to acknowledge Paul Pines as the latest such legislator.

Although a poem might consist of about as many words as you will find in the page of a novel, its value is not based on quantity alone. There are poems that you will read a thousand times and that will keep coming back to because they are like epiphanies. You know how a novel ends but there is no ending to a poem. Reading a great poem is like looking at a Van Gogh painting. You will never get enough of it.

“Civilization” is one of those poems. I have read it 5 times already and will likely return to it another 50 times before the year is up:

Civilization

The naked mole-rats
at the Philadelphia zoo
run blindly through their tunnels
with no imperial ambition to dominate any other colony
of their hairless kind
though they have a queen and are very ugly
they delight in feats of engineering
and their underground design

Not long ago, I told my wife that although old age has its drawbacks, particularly dealing with the typical medical complications of aging such as glaucoma, there is one asset that makes it all worthwhile. A lifetime of political experience and reading gives me a perspective that would have been impossible when I was an impetuous 25-year old. In tribal societies, the village elder had the respect of everyone. He or she had insights that were key to the survival of the community. I doubt that anybody would consider me anything except an old fool but I am sure that some young radicals will give me credit for saving them the trouble I went through when I was young and foolish myself.

What about poets? Paul Pines’s poetry is suffused with a lifetime of experience that never would have been known to someone who learned their craft at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He grew up in Brooklyn near Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 1960s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 1965 to February 1966 in Vietnam.  In 1973, he opened the Tin Palace, a jazz club on the corner of 2nd Street and Bowery-which provided the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel.

Every single word of a Paul Pines poem has the authenticity of having been written by someone who has lived life to the fullest. Forsaking the false complexity of most academic poets, Paul’s language is conversational—like listening to an old friend. A poem on the “Death of Carlos Castaneda” begins:

Seated at the window of the Kiev
surrounded by NYU film students
post-modern kids with ontological tattoos
rite-of-passage piercings

I spot ghosts on 2nd Avenue
Adam Purple who peddled through the 60’s
still on his bicycle (no longer in purple)
a new girlfriend in the wake
of his white beard

Like the other unacknowledged legislators, Paul’s antennae are finely attuned to the madness of our epoch. Drawing upon erudition gained from a lifetime of reading religious and philosophical classics, he takes on a prophetic tone writing about the terrible waste of life and treasure in the Middle East in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “Redness Remembered”:

Cardinals in the back yard
bring their redness to bare limbs
in a time of war when we are bombing Ur
from which Abraham
rose with his household gods
and left the flaming ziggurats
temple whores
that terrible lust
for death and renewal
their redness
after a long winter in the north
we can hear their song
before sunrise
whistling fills our ears
while elsewhere
missiles explode over the Tigris

Much of “Gathering Sparks” has an autumnal quality as questions of aging and mortality loom large. To some extent, this is to be expected from an author who is facing major health issues currently. But there is nothing morbid about these poems. They are a celebration of a life well spent and a testament to the nourishing spirit of the written word, both to those who hear them and those who write them.

My advice is to buy the collection from the publisher. If there’s anything that can be viewed as the total antithesis to Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, it is the world of small presses that make the invaluable work of a Paul Pines possible.

October 6, 2017

Another way to access my posts, including those that predate my blog

Filed under: Internet,Marxist literature — louisproyect @ 4:42 pm

Long before I began blogging, I was posting articles to my Columbia website as indicated below. Last October, a technical problem involving the newest Apple operating system and the ssh software used to access the Columbia Unix system prevented me from updating the page below, which is at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mypage.htm. This has now been fixed and as such I have begun updating it again. If you are demented enough to appreciate my writing, you might want to bookmark that page.

Louis Proyect Home Page

Go to Marxism home page


“a revolutionary career does not lead to
banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages.
It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the
unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman
belief.”

 

Max
Horkheimer

 

Louis Proyect, Istanbul, 2005


I am the moderator of the Marxism
mailing list
, where my various articles first appear. For information on how
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I first became active in socialist politics in 1967,
the beginning of my 11 years in the American Trotskyist movement.
Despite my profound respect for Leon Trotsky as a Marxist thinker, I
view the Trotskyist movement as such a sectarian mistake. Throughout
most of the 80s, I was active in the Central American solidarity
movement, first with CISPES and then with Tecnica, an organization that
sent computer programmers and other skilled professionals to Nicaragua.
The project eventually took root in southern Africa as well, where it
worked with SWAPO and the ANC. More recently I have given workshops on
the Internet to community and union groups, as well as moderating a
Marxist mailing list on the Internet that can be linked to above.

I have been strongly influenced by the example of The Socialist
Union, a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman who left the Trotskyist
movement in 1953 in order to create an alternative to the sectarian
“vanguard” model. For six years they published a magazine called The
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and worked to regroup the left. Marxmail is a conscious
attempt to link up with their traditions.

I have also created a small archive
of the writings of James M. Blaut, who died in November, 2000. Jim was an
outstanding scholar and revolutionary whose contributions to our movement are
best commemorated through his work.

My articles, many of which appeared originally as postings to
the Marxism list, have appeared in Sozialismus (Germany), Science and
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Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes,
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Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans
and Green Left Weekly (Australia).

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10 most recent posts

Letter to a Bard College professor on climate change (October 18, 2016)

Saudi Arabia, Syria and the smoking gun (October 16, 2016)

Inside the Inferno; Tezoros; Incarcerating US (October 14, 2016)

Is there anything worth salvaging from the Soviet legacy? (October 13, 2016)

Jason Moore’s “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital” (October 10, 2016)

Films from Iraq, Syria and Iran (October 7, 2016)

Getting Gaddafi wrong (October 5, 2016)

Max Blumenthal follows Ben Norton down the bloody primrose path (October 3, 2016)

The 13th; The Birth of a Nation (October 1, 2016)

Do not Resist; Among the Believers; Hurt Business (September 30, 2016)

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:43 pm

On September 30thNew York Times reporter Simon Romero profiled the thief who had severed the bronze right foot from a statue of Don Juan de Oñate twenty years ago as a protest against the genocide of American Indians. Even the normally sedate “gray lady” could not help but refer to Oñate as the “despotic conquistador” of New Mexico. Indeed, the theft of the foot was highly symbolic since Oñate had once ordered the chopping off of the right foot of 24 Indigenous captives.

Romero got a chance to interview the foot thief through a rendezvous set up by Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre who made “Skins,” a 2002 film that climaxes with red paint tossed in George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore.

Romero analogized these protests with those against the statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. Eyre referred to the president’s complaint about these disrespectful acts: “Trump asked if all this stops with Washington or Jefferson. For me, that’s actually where it starts because we need to go back a whole lot further to examine the crimes upon which these lands were claimed.”

Trump is well-qualified to defend Washington and Jefferson since he harbors the same sort of racist attitudes that these Indian-killers embodied as early architects of Manifest Destiny. When he was building up his gambling casino empire in the early 90s, he claimed that Indian reservations were run by the Mafia. He secretly paid for more than $1 million in ads that depicted the St. Regis Mohawks in upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals around the time that they were seeking to build a casino in the county where I grew up. He even told the notoriously racist shock jock Don Imus that they were probably not real Indians, stating that he might have more Indian blood than them.

Besides the St. Regis Mohawks, there was another Indigenous group seeking permission to build a casino–the Munsee Lenapes. They were ethnically cleansed from Sullivan County, where I grew up, in the 1800s. Monsey, New York (now a predominately orthodox Jewish enclave) was named after the people who lived in the area while the city of Muncie, Indiana was where they were forced to go. Frankly, I would welcome a return of all the Munsees to their original homeland. They certainly would have more respect for a beautiful part of New York state that is being sacrificed at the altar of capitalist development and its consequent environmental despoliation.

When some on the left seek to contextualize Washington and Jefferson, it usually follows the line of reasoning that despite being slave-owners, they were also founding fathers of a democratic republic that was the envy of the world. While this might not sit well with the descendants of the slaves they owned, it also carries the burden of sweeping Indigenous peoples under the rug.

After reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, you will conclude that all these great White leaders should be condemned to the ashbin of history. Published as part of the Beacon Press’s Revisioning American History series (there are also books about gays, the disabled and Blacks/Latinos in American history), it is very much in the vein of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”. While the term “revisionist” is often applied to works such as these, I am persuaded that “revisioning” is a far more appropriate term since it points to both past and future. If we do not have a vision of how the United States should be governed, our future is bleak.

Continue reading

October 5, 2017

CounterPunch fund drive

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

 

Whatever your views on Syria, CounterPunch is a valuable asset of the left as well as a place I can reach a wider audience. Please make a donation now.

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October 4, 2017

Was Saudi Arabia behind 9/11? A reply to Andrew Cockburn

Filed under: conspiracism,Saudi Arabia,September 11 — louisproyect @ 8:54 pm

In the latest issue of Harpers Magazine (dated October), Andrew Cockburn tries to make the case that Saudi Arabia orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. Key to this conspiracy-mongering is 28 pages of a previously classified 2002 Congressional report that supposedly connected the dots between the hijackers and Saudi governmental officials. This is typical:

The FBI files in California were replete with extraordinary and damning details, notably the hijackers’ close relationship with Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi living in San Diego with a no-show job at a local company with connections to the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation. The FBI had investigated his possible connections to Saudi intelligence. A couple of weeks after the two hijackers flew into Los Angeles from Malaysia, in February 2000, he had driven up to the city and met with Fahad al-Thumairy, a cleric employed by his country’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs who worked out of the Saudi Consulate. Thumairy, reported to be an adherent of extreme Wahhabi ideology — he was later denied a U.S. visa on grounds of jihadi connections — was also an imam of the King Fahad mosque in Los Angeles County, which the hijackers had visited soon after their arrival.

Those 28 pages only surfaced because a former Democratic Senator from Florida named Bob Graham had raised a ruckus about Saudi complicity. As co-chair of the Congressional committee that produced the report in 2002, he had the clout to make it happen. You wouldn’t know it from Cockburn’s reporting but the Saudi government was just as vociferous in demanding that the 28 pages be released since they were sure it would clear them.

If you’ve read the 28 pages or articles about them, you’ll discover that there are three Saudis who had contact with a couple of the 9/11 hijackers when they were taking flying lessons in San Diego:

  1. Omar al-Bayoumi, who Cockburn describes as having a no-show job with a local company with connections to the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation.
  2. Fahad al-Thumairy, a cleric who was on the payroll of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. After al-Bayoumi met with al-Thumairy, he “accidentally” met the two hijackers at a Middle Eastern restaurant in San Diego.
  3. Osama Bassnan. He was a friend of al-Thumairy who funneled money from Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington.

Clearly, the Bandar connection is critical to establishing high-level support for the 9/11 plot since he was widely regarded as about as close to the ruling dynasty as you can get. Of course, he was also widely regarded as just as close to the White House, whichever president sat in the oval office. He had such a close relationship to George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, he was often referred to as Bandar Bush.

Cockburn cites a Hillary Clinton memo dated December 2009 that refers to Saudi donors funding Sunni terrorists all around the world, clearly agreeing with her claim. Yet this does not jibe exactly with Bandar advocating Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in Iraq in March 2003. I guess if you are into false flags, this might make sense since it would provide the necessary cover for Prince Bandar to have worked with al-Qaeda to completely destroy the Twin Towers—the symbol of American financial power—and inflict massive damage on the Pentagon, the symbol of American military power.

It does not seem to make much difference to Andrew Cockburn that Saudi Arabia has been a stalwart defender of American imperialism for decades. He does not bother to provide an analysis of why the chief voice of the ruling dynasty would act against his country’s strategic interests but instead invokes the wild card whenever this business comes up: Wahhabism.

It was the Al Saud family’s alliance with “the puritanical and intolerant Wahhabi sect” that explains the royal family’s support for the hijackers. Fahad al-Thumairy was an adherent of “extreme Wahhabi ideology” so naturally he would make himself available for the aid and comfort of the hijackers in San Diego.

What about Prince Bandar? How much of a Wahhabist fanatic was he? In 2013, when Prince Bandar stepped down from his diplomatic duties, Christopher Dickey wrote about his austere lifestyle in the Daily Beast: “When the prince was the ambassador he was the toast of Washington, and plenty of toasts there were. Bandar bin Sultan smoked fine cigars and drank finer Cognac.” Oh, I guess this was just a clever ruse to get the Americans to believe that he was a good old boy. When all the infidels finally went home from these affairs, I am sure he lashed himself with a cat o’ nine tails just to get right with Allah.

If George W. Bush was so determined to keep the 28 pages a secret, maybe he was in on the plot as well. And how about that Robert Mueller? He was also in on the act suppressing information that would blow the Saudi complicity sky-high. Cockburn writes:

The reason we know so much about the West Coast activities of the hijackers is largely because of Michael Jacobson, a burly former FBI lawyer and counterterrorism analyst who worked as an investigator for the Joint Inquiry. Reviewing files at FBI headquarters, he came across a stray reference to a bureau informant in San Diego who had known one of the hijackers. Intrigued, he decided to follow up in the San Diego field office. Bob Graham, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me recently that Robert Mueller, then the FBI director (and now the special counsel investigating connections between Russia and the Trump campaign) made “the strongest objections” to Jacobson and his colleagues visiting San Diego.

Whoa, Nellie! Mueller was trying to cover things up. The plot thickens…

The truth is that allegations of Saudi connections to al-Qaeda are bullshit and only a hair’s width in distance from the “controlled demolitions” people.

If the USA connived to open doors for men bent on its destruction, why wouldn’t it send in operatives to prepare a planned detonation of the twin towers or fire a missile at the Pentagon? If the ruling class was so desperate to launch a new war in the Middle East based on a “false flag”, why not?

The guilt of the Saudi government has been accepted by much of the conspiracy-minded left for obvious reasons. Osama bin-Laden admitted he was behind it and 15 out of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia just like him. Isn’t that proof enough? As so many guests on the Bill Maher or Jon Stewart show used to put it, we should have invaded Saudi Arabia rather than Iraq.

If you buy into this, it is probably a good idea to gloss over the long-standing relationship between the ruling class of the USA and the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia has been staunchly opposed to radical movements in the Middle East and supportive of stability in the West, where much of its oil wealth was invested. It supported the first Gulf War and has provided an open door to the construction of American military bases. In 2010 the USA signed a 60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, not exactly consistent with reports that they might be used to destroy American assets both economic and personal.

In fact, it makes no sense at all, especially in light of al Qaeda’s hostility to the monarchy. Indeed, one of the reasons bin-Laden gave for the 9/11 attack was the presence of American troops on the land where Muhammad was born.

But an alternative interpretation begins to make sense if you look beneath the surface. Bin-Laden and the 15 hijackers might have been Saudi but their roots were in the Yemeni tribe that has been brutally oppressed by the Saudi monarchy since the early 20th century.

The Arabian Peninsula was home to two major tribes historically, the Adnan who lived in the north and became the rulers of contemporary Saudi Arabia, and the Qahtani who dwelled in the south and are now referred to as Yemenis. Bin-Laden was a Qahtani descendant as were every single one of the Saudi hijackers. Furthermore, most of the initial cadre of al Qaeda were Yemenis from the Asir region of Saudi Arabia that borders Yemen and was Qahtani homeland. Like Texas, this was a piece of foreign territory that a more powerful nationality was able to conquer and absorb.

If you have trouble with the word tribe, it is simply a synonym for the more anthropologically precise “segmentary lineage” term that is defined in Wikipedia as:

A simple, non-anthropologist’s explanation is that the close family is the smallest and closest segment, and will generally stand with each other. That family is also a part of a larger segment of more distant cousins and their families, who will stand with each other when attacked by outsiders. They are then part of larger segments with the same characteristics. Basically, if there is a conflict between brothers, it will be settled among all the brothers, and cousins will not take sides. If the conflict is between cousins, then brothers on one side will align against brothers on the other side. However, if the conflict is between a member of a tribe and a non-member, then the entire tribe including distant cousins could mobilize against the outsider and his or her allies. This tiered mobilization is traditionally expressed e.g. in the Bedouin saying: “Me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.”

In 1906 the Asiris formed a state under the leadership of Muhammad al-Idrisi, the great-grandson of a revered Sufi scholar known for his skillful debates against Wahhabists from the north. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of WWI, al-Idrisi cast his lot with the British who he hoped could guarantee the sovereignty of his people. Instead the British chose alignment with Saudi Arabia that had became a state in 1932. Did this have something to do with the fact that the north had oil and the south virtually none? Do I have to ask?

Deciding that Asir must become part of Saudi Arabia, its monarch Ibn Saud went to war and was victorious. Some historians believe that as many as 400,000 Asiris and other tribesmen died as a result of Ibn Saud’s onslaught.

Once the Asiris were brought under Riyadh’s thumb, a process of forced assimilation took place with Wahhabi beliefs being forced down the throats of people whose customs could not be more remote from the austere but mammon-worshipping norms of the north. Qahtani tribesmen wore garments that amounted to skirts, revealing much of their legs. They were known as the “flower men” and frankly could pass for people walking around Haight-Ashbury in 1969.

As for the women, they liked to dress in colorful clothes and shunned the veil. Their elaborate headdresses were customarily bedecked with coins and jewelry.

To consolidate its grip on a people that obviously resented being forced into the Wahhabist mold, the Saudis constructed Highway 15 that would be the backbone of an economic-military presence in its newly acquired territory. It would have air bases, missile sites, and garrison outposts just like the Alamo. Guess who got the job of building Highway 15. Osama bin-Laden’s father. That project and others in Saudi Arabia generated billions for the family but did little to mollify his son. Even though the Asiris appeared to have been re-engineered as Wahhabi robots, they harbored resentment against the American presence in the region as well as the ostentation of the Saudi ruling class. From its inception, the Qahtani tribe had preferred a simple life and tribal camaraderie. Bin-Laden might not have had flowers in his hair but there were aspects of Saudi society he found deeply objectionable, in fact far more irritating than the reputed “Western” values like Madonna videos he supposedly reviled.

In order to understand the clash between the Asiris and the royal family, as well as to help debunk the outlandish claim that top Saudi government officials were involved with 9/11, you have to read Akbar Ahmad’s “The Thistle and the Drone” that I reviewed for Critical Muslim two years ago. Ahmad lays out the social divide between the descendants of the Adnan and the Qahtani:

Muhammad [bin-Laden] had come to feel at home in Asir. He loved its tribes, its ways, its history, and its cultural ambiance. One of his favorite wives was from Asir. In turn, the tribes of Asir accepted Muhammad as one of their own. Not only was he a fellow Yemeni, but they were won over by his easy charm as he held court sitting in a large white canvas tent with brightly colored cushions and carpets covering the floor. Muhammad received tribesmen who would petition him to settle disputes or for other assistance. He had become more than a mere construction worker. He had become their sheikh. The tribes would respond with loyalty when Muhammad’s son Osama would come to them for support. Twelve of the 9/11 hijackers were from towns along Highway 15.

While the oil boom made the Saudi royal family and its supporters very rich, little was done for the people of Asir. The large, extravagantly built holiday villas owned by the Saudi elite in Asir seemed to add nothing but salt to their wounds. In 1980 the poverty-stricken province had only 535 hospital beds for a population of about 700,000. Besides, given their religious background and its emphasis on austerity, the Yemenis disapproved of the Saudis’ arrogance and vulgar displays of wealth. Poor Yemeni tribesmen desperate for work looked for jobs in the Saudi cities. Typically, they could only find employment in the military or as cooks, gardeners, or drivers. After the kingdom began to invite immigrant workers from the Philippines and India, the Yemenis could not even obtain those menial positions. Their resentment against the Saudi centers of power remained a constant undercurrent of Asir society.

Eventually, the grievances against the ruling family reached a critical mass and led to open revolts. A cleric from Asir named Juhayman al-Otaybi led the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in December-January 1979 that was directed both against infidelity to Islam and the worship of riches in the country’s top echelons.

Finally, despite the emphasis on radical Islam versus the civilized world, a more plausible explanation for the violent clashes taking place around the world is not that different from that between tribes and civilization more generally. Indeed, Islam does not have to enter the picture as the British conquest of Ireland might indicate.

For Osama bin-Laden, the loyalty to Qahtani values might trump his Wahhabi beliefs. Indeed, if you take a close look at his statements around 9/11, there is a tribal element that stands out as Murad Batal al-Shishani pointed out in a March 4, 2010 Jamestown Foundation article:

A focus on tribes in Yemen has been a main reason behind al-Qaeda’s success in finding a safe haven there.  Abu Musab al-Suri, the first to see Yemen’s potential as a safe haven for the jihadist movement, has said that the main reason for considering Yemen a stronghold for jihadis is the tribal nature of its people and the solidarity between tribes. [3]. It was for similar reasons that Osama bin Laden addressed the southern tribes of Saudi Arabia in 2004, specifically in Asir province (which borders Yemen), naming the tribes and encouraging them to fight in Iraq. “Oh heroes of Asir and champions of Hashed, Madhaj, and Bakeel, do not stop your supplies to assist your brothers in the land of Mesopotamia [i.e. Iraq]. The war there is still raging and its fire spreading.”

Abdul-Ilah al-Sha’e, a Yemeni journalist, confirms that al-Qaeda has succeeded in building an alliance with the tribal system in Yemen because the country has not been “tamed” or “civilized” like other countries.  Tribes are still in control and thus it was easy to build alliances with them. [5] Abdul-Illah said that al-Qaeda wanted to recruit young people who were not afraid of death and found these young people in Yemen’s tribal and Bedouin societies, where acts of revenge and battles between tribes are still dominant, given the absence of state institutions (al-Jazeera.net, January 21).

 

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