Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 19, 2017

Robert Mugabe’s downfall: a challenge to the “anti-imperialist” left

Filed under: Zimbabwe — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

For most on the left, Robert Mugabe was a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance and a shining example of how to promote economic development outside of the Washington Consensus. The highlights of his career are well-known to the left:

  1. He defeated the racist colonial settler state in 1979 and became Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister a  year later, serving in that capacity until a coup removed him from power this week.
  2. When faced with a challenge from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), he relied on repression but was also able to exploit his adversary’s ties to the West and neoliberal economic program.
  3. Pushed against the wall by Western sanctions and support for the MDC, Mugabe took steps to expropriate the rich, white landowners and redistribute the land to the landless. This step was in stark contrast to post-apartheid South Africa where the whites continued to own most of the land.
  4. He broke with Western financial institutions and investors, making Zimbabwe a prime example of the benefits of trade agreements and partnership with China.

Among the most enthusiastic supporters of Robert Mugabe is Garikai Chengu, a staunch anti-imperialist who describes himself as a “founder and chairman of Chengu Gold Mining Pvt. Ltd. one of Zimbabwe’s fastest growing indigenous private gold companies.” In 2014, he wrote an article for the Zimbabwe Herald titled “Mugabeism: A model for African liberation” that concluded:

Mugabeism is a new brand of African Democratic Socialism that is becoming increasingly resurgent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Candidates who espouse African Democratic Socialism won recent Presidential elections in Kenya and Zambia. Their opponents, who favored pro-Western, neo-liberal policies, dismally lost their elections.

Mugabeism is an ideology that believes in not only the transference of political power, but also an unwavering commitment to shift the means of production—land, minerals, and corporations—from the privileged white minority to the Zimbabwean majority.

As is the case with Syria, the terms democracy and socialism have a hollow ring when applied to Zimbabwe. With respect to democracy, challenging Mugabe in the elections can be rather risky as the historical record of countless beatings bears out. While the MDC has been on the ballot repeatedly, brutal attacks on campaigners and rallies have tended to lessen the party’s effectiveness, which was also impeded by its own inability to counter Mugabe’s socialist pretensions. Furthermore, when he seized the land of the rich whites and redistributed them to the landless, his leftist credentials gained a certain credibility especially when he was an economic partner of China that even a renowned Marxist like Michael Roberts considers in defiance of the laws of capitalist commodity production.

If you hadn’t been paying any attention to Zimbabwe in the past couple of years, as I admittedly wasn’t, you’d be surprised to see that his army has overthrown him. Not only that, there are reports that the architects of the coup have been given the green light by China. Given Zimbabwe’s break with Western imperialism, what could have caused his own military to rise up against him? Were they in cahoots with AFRICOM or getting funded by the Rothschild bank?

Or was it possible that the army had removed Mugabe because his regime had become intolerable, especially for those at the lower rungs of society who regarded the economic status quo as not only irredeemably capitalist but a threat to their survival?

A review of Zimbabwe’s history from the date that Garikai Chengu’s article about Mugabeism appeared to the present-day will give you some insights into why a break with Western imperialism in and of itself is no panacea.

The first dark clouds appeared on the China-Zimbabwe horizon in January 2016 when there was widespread recognition that a declining demand for African commodities impacted all countries that China traded with, including Zimbabwe. In the preceding year, China exported $102 billion to Africa but imported only $67 billion. Despite all the promises made to Africans about how China would be different than the West, this unfavorable balance of trade was consistent with colonial patterns of the past even if it was benefiting a “Communist” country. Ibbo Mandaza, a political analyst and businessman in Zimbabwe, commented: “The Chinese are not romantic anymore about their relations with Africa — far from it. For them, it’s purely economic.”

As it happens, Zimbabwe was dealing with a major drought in 2016 so maybe the masses were even less romantic about their revolutionary leader than the Chinese were about their anti-colonial dog-and-pony show. In February 2016, just two years after Chengu’s puff piece appeared, drought had left leaving tens of thousands of dead cattle, dried-up reservoirs, and crop failure. A government official said, “Initial indications were that 1.5 million people were food-insecure with all the 60 rural districts being affected.”

Meanwhile, when this catastrophe was sweeping across the countryside like a Biblical plague, what was the intrepid anti-imperialist leader up to? He was celebrating his 92nd birthday with a 200-pound cake and accolades from a state-owned newspaper: “Mugabe’s birthday is like that of Jesus Christ.” Newspapers not controlled by the regime, however, were appalled by the party for which the cake was made since it cost $800,000. A bus driver and former organizer for Mugabe’s party, the ZANUP-PF, complained, “It is amazing that a president presiding over a state which fails to pay its workers on time, a country with a sea of poverty and going through one of the worst droughts in living memory and hunger, can see it fit to spend a million dollars celebrating his life, which has meant nothing but suffering for us.”

Oh, did I mention that Bashar al-Assad’s indifference to the suffering in the countryside during a drought just like this led to an uprising in 2011?

Somehow, I missed what was going on in Zimbabwe in the summer of 2016. The shit was beginning to hit the fan apparently. Strikes and protests broke out over the faltering economy, including in two poor townships Harare, where roads were barricaded and the people engaged in street fighting with the cops. Most civil servants had not been paid in a month but Mugabe was sure to keep the wages flowing for those critical to his survival: the cops, the soldiers, and the prison guards.

To make sure that a Zimbabwe Spring was not in the offing, Mugabe clamped down on the Internet and communications systems. WhatsApp and Twitter were cut off and the state-backed cellphone providers warned against “gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services.” The country’s anti-imperialist paragon told the masses to behave themselves: ”They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country but we tell them that it is not going to happen here,”

In addition to the drought and the decline of revenue from trade with China, Zimbabwe was in the grips of a Weimar Republic type hyperinflation. The treasury had issued a $100 trillion note, which equaled 35 American cents.

For those in the higher echelons of the Zimbabwean state, none of this impacted their lifestyle. Phelekezela Mphoko, a ZANU-PF vice president, elected to stay at a hotel that cost a million dollars a year because government housing was not to his taste.

In the very hot summer of 2016, the mainstay of Mugabe’s support that had benefited the most from his land redistribution decided that the game was up. The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association issued a statement that included this quite subversive challenge to their fearless anti-imperialist leader: “We note, with concern, shock, and dismay, the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle.”

Some of these veterans who had benefited from the land reform discovered that it was a bad idea to oppose the president for life. Agrippah Mutambara owned a 530-acre as part of this program, one certainly deserved on the basis of being a hero in the war of liberation and having served as an ambassador to three different nations over a 20 year period. But when he heeded the call of the veteran’s group and joined the opposition, he became the target of Mugabe’s goons who showed up at the farm with the intentions of giving him the kind of beating MDC activists used to get. When Mutambara trained an automatic weapon on them, they had a change of heart and left peacefully.

Perhaps people would have put up with the lack of democracy and the corruption at the top if the commodity boom had continued, rainfall had been plentiful and inflation had been tamped down. Yet, the regime continued to act in the same fashion as the royal family in France in 1789 with Mrs. Mugabe playing the part of Marie Antoinette as the NY Times reported 4 days ago:

The press nicknamed Mrs. Mugabe “Gucci Grace” and “Dis-Grace” for her shopping trips. During a trip to Paris in 2002, she was reported to have spent $120,000. She is also said to have purchased multimillion dollar properties in South Africa and built luxury palaces after pillaging party coffers. Earlier this year, she was widely panned for having spent $1.4 million on a diamond ring.

I have failed to convince my comrades in the left supporting the “axis of resistance” that the opposition to Bashar al-Assad was fueled by resentment toward the rich and the desire to live in a more just society. Instead, they saw the rebels as proxies of Saudi Arabia bent on turning the clock back to the 10th century.

Let’s hope that they have a better handle on what is going on in Zimbabwe. And even better, they might have a close look at what has been going on there for the past 37 years and ground their politics in class rather than the failed project of geopolitical chess game analysis.

November 17, 2017

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 17, 2017

When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the Mighty Atom’s legendary strong man act at the Panoramic Health Farm, a bungalow colony he owned in Woodridge, New York—my home town that was described by the leftist PM newspaper as a utopia in the Catskills in 1947.

I watched in awe as the 62-year old, 5’4”, 145-pound bearded man with shoulder-length hair perform the stunts that had been part of his repertory since the 1920s such as bending nails with his teeth and an iron bar across his nose. In his prime, he could pull a fire engine with his hair or twist horseshoes into a pretzel. In fact, until his death at the age of 84 in 1977, he continued to perform. The new documentary “The Mighty Atom” that became available as VOD (iTunes, Amazon and Google Play) on November 14th points out that on the day he died, he walked from room to room in the hospital performing for fellow patients to lift their spirits. After his last tour through the wards, he laid down on his bed and passed on.

Continue reading

November 15, 2017

Mr. Roosevelt

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

With the subject of male comedian bad behavior being discussed widely under the impact of Louis C.K.’s masturbatory aggressions, it is a relief to see what a female comedian is capable of. After walking away from C.K.’s tasteless and singularly unfunny train wreck of a movie “I Love You, Daddy” with a bad taste in my mouth, Noël Wells’s “Mr. Roosevelt” is a reminder that sexism in the film and television business is not only a crime against women but against all humanity for preventing the cream from rising to the surface. Wells is not only ten times smarter and funnier than C.K. but a welcome relief from the dyspeptic and misogynist strain that is found not only in C.K.’s work but across the board with male directors and screenwriters like Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, and James Franco.

Wells not only wrote the screenplay for “Mr. Roosevelt” but stars as Emily Martin, a young woman living in Los Angeles trying to make a career as a comic actor with mixed results. Rather than supporting herself as a waitress, she does film editing by day, a job that supposedly gives her the freedom to make it to auditions during working hours. This is essentially how Wells operated until she was discovered by SNL, where she became part of the cast in 2013 but not kept on after that. Another boneheaded move by Lorne Michaels, especially in light of Wells’s killer impersonation of Lena Dunham.

One day Emily gets a phone call from Austin, Texas, where her hopes for a career in show business began. After the call ends, she turns to her boss and says that a medical emergency requires her to fly to Austin immediately. In the next scene, we see her rush into a hospital and tells the receptionist breathlessly that she is there to see  Mr. Roosevelt. The receptionist informs her that it is too late to see him. He died earlier that day. It is only a minute later that we discover that Mr. Roosevelt was her pet cat and that he was at a veterinary hospital being treated for a kidney ailment. Since I have developed a deep affection for the Norwegian Forest Cat that is a guest in my apartment, I can totally empathize.

Mr. Roosevelt was not the only loved one she left behind in Austin. He was kept by her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune), who was trying to make it as a rock musician in a city filled with many such hopefuls. Perhaps being more realistic about his prospects, he stayed behind in order to weigh his options in a place where the arts were increasingly being replaced by high technology firms and real estate developers.

When she spots Eric in the waiting room, she runs up and throws her arms around him, partly to be consoled for the loss of her beloved Mr. Roosevelt and partly because of lingering affections. Within seconds he pushes her back for a good reason. Also in the waiting room is his new live-in girlfriend Celeste who symbolizes everything that she hates about the new Austin. Celeste works in high technology developing social media platforms for corporate customers and embraces the creepy New Age mentality found among the entrepreneurial class in Silicon Valley. Her yuppie values have even been embraced by Eric who now keeps his guitar stashed in a garage behind the house that he and Emily used to live in together. Music is part of the past. His new dream is to become a real estate agent and become part of Celeste’s world.

The clash between Celeste and Emily over Eric’s affections and over commerce versus art drives the narrative forward. Mr. Roosevelt is scheduled to be cremated in a couple of days and the couple iinvitesEmily to stay in their guest room until then. Over those two days, the confrontations between Emily and Celeste reach a comic crescendo during a brunch to memorialize Mr. Roosevelt’s passing. Drunk and sick of the new Austin, Emily grabs the urn containing Mr. Roosevelt’s ashes, runs out of the house, gets on her bicycle that had been sitting in the shed next to Eric’s guitar, and pedals away madly with the attendees in pursuit.

When Emily is not battling Celeste and arguing with Eric about his conversion to a New Age yuppie lifestyle, she is hanging with old Austin’s denizens who are depicted with great affection but with warts and all. When Emily has a one-night stand with a pothead, she takes umbrage at his comment about her being “quirky”. Why am I quirky, she asks. That is a word reserved for men. If I was a man, you wouldn’t call me quirky. You’d call me “eccentric”. He replies that maybe the right word is “bitch”. I’d give anything to see Noël Wells being interviewed about Louis C.K. and sexism in the comedy business.

“Mr. Roosevelt” will receive my nomination for best first film by a director in the NYFCO awards meeting in early December. It will also likely be nominated for best female actress and screenplay. Right now, it has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and unlike most hyped films really deserves it.

In spirit, the film is closely related to Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Look Twice”, a 2016 film about the hardscrabble life of people in the lower tiers of the comedy business. Just like Birbiglia, this is a world that Wells knows firsthand. And just like Birbiglia, she has made it to the upper echelons. And, finally, like Birbiglia, she has not lost her humanity—unlike Louis C.K.

“Mr. Roosevelt” opens at the Arena Cinelounge in L.A. on November 17th and at the Landmark Sunshine theater in NYC on the 22nd. It is not to be missed.

 

November 14, 2017

Reflections on James O’Connor (1930-2017)

Filed under: Ecology,obituary — louisproyect @ 11:05 pm

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 6.28.06 PM

James O’Connor in 1978 (photo courtesy of the UC-Santa Cruz Digital Collections)

Yesterday I learned on Facebook that James O’Connor had died. Born in 1930, he was one of the towering figures of academic Marxism who made an indelible impact on Marxist theory in a number of spheres. His 1964 PhD dissertation titled “The Political Economy of Pre-Revolutionary Cuba” was expanded into the 1970 “The Origins of Socialism in Cuba” that is the most rigorous application of historical materialism to Cuban revolution I have ever read. In 1973, his “Fiscal Crisis of the State” was a major contribution to Marxist theory about the contradictory nature of the state, which has to maintain the appearance of being independent of the ruling class while serving its needs.

But his most important contribution was founding Capitalism, Nature and Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology (CNS) in 1988, a journal he edited until 2003. After 2003, he became much less of a presence in academic Marxism, a function of age and declining health.

I didn’t know O’Connor well enough to write an obituary but hope that someone much closer to him will supply one before long since he was such a commanding presence. Instead, I want to focus on my own connections to him both personally and as someone with a peripheral involvement in the debates that have raged in the field of ecosocialism in the past 20 years or so.

A few years before coming to work at Columbia University in 1991, I had attended a workshop at the Brecht Forum in New York led by Joel Kovel on ecology that struck me like a bolt of lightning, especially his comparison of capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. So when I posted to Internet mailing lists, a medium that seems as dated nowadays as Nehru jackets, a lot of my messages had to do with ecology as well as my customary film reviews.

It turned out that O’Connor was subscribed to Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk in 1998, as was I. He appreciated my messages on ecology as well as those touching on popular culture, especially when I referred to the crime novels of Elmore Leonard who was also one of his favorites. This led to a fairly regular exchange of emails with O’Connor who struck me as a decent, down-to-earth academic despite his prestige.

He was like a number of Marxist professors I became friendly with 20 years ago who were impressed with my ability to hold forth on a wide variety of topics but without the scholarly depth that they expected from their graduate students. When one of them invited me to submit an expanded version of something I had written for a mailing list, it could lead to misunderstandings. I simply did not have the patience or the motivation to go through a peer review process. Unlike my wife who is a tenure-track professor, there was no material incentive to jump through hoops in order to get an article published in a Taylor and Francis journal.

In 1998, I posted criticisms of David Harvey’s newly published “Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference” that O’Connor apparently appreciated since he followed up with an invitation to expand it into a full-length article for CNS. O’Connor was hostile to the basic thrust of Harvey’s book, as was I. Writing in the name of a class-based environmentalism that took aim—rightfully—at the middle-class inside-the-beltway orientation of groups like the Sierra Club, Harvey also came up with some questionable hypotheses. Worst of them was the idea that the Nazis were Green and that American Indians were no more ecological than the colonists who stole their land.

Spending far more time than I usually do on a blog post (back then, of course, blogging had not been invented), I explored the philosophical roots of Harvey’s ecological theories in the philosophy of Leibniz. Since I had spent 2 years studying philosophy at the New School and had read Leibniz, my intention was to remove the platform that Harvey’s book sat upon and bring it tumbling to earth. My attack on Harvey’s use of Leibniz was couched in a defense of materialism as I made abundantly clear in the opening paragraph of my submission:

David Harvey’s “Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference” surely has the distinction of being the only Marxist study of ecology to draw inspiration from Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). While openly admitting that Leibniz is a “deeply conservative theoretician in political matters as well as a foundational figure in the rise of that German idealist tradition against which Marx rebelled,” Harvey assures us that Leibniz’s relational approach to time and space has powerful implications for ecology. This article explores the theoretical issues raised by Harvey’s appropriation of Leibnizian dialectics, while attempting to explain why Marx’s rebellion against this idealist tradition was a precondition for understanding the ecological crisis of today.

About a month later, O’Connor wrote a rejection letter telling me that the article would not be of interest to his journal’s readers.

That led me to blast him publicly and to promise myself that I would never submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal again. Ironically, there was only one such submission that defied my self-imposed embargo and that was also to CNS in 2013 on the political economy of Comanche violence. The editor Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro had promised me in advance that the article would be published and developed a fruitful working relationship with me in the three months it took me to finalize the article. I only wish that there were more people out there in academia like him, at least for some of the grad students and junior professors trying to get past the gates of the Kafkaesque castle of academic journals.

In nursing the wounds created by O’Connor’s rejection letter, I turned to John Bellamy Foster who I had gotten to know through my connections to Monthly Review and especially my online articles in praise of Foster’s ecosocialism. He explained to me that my hard-core materialism probably didn’t go over too well with CNS that was firmly in the Frankfurt School tradition. To a large degree, there was an implicit belief that Marx was a “productivist” who could be blamed in part for the disasters that befell the USSR, including Chernobyl.

Clearly, Foster was on to something because he was shocked to discover O’Connor publishing an entire issue devoted to bashing his “Marx’s Ecology” in 2001. Interestingly enough, the aforementioned Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro faults Foster on grounds that likely prejudiced O’Connor against my submission on David Harvey: “On a non-directional, non-linear evolutionary process of scientific practices he uncritically superimposes the inexorable advance of science, whose pinnacle is the achievement of dialectical materialism embodied in Marx. This approach to the history of science approximates all too painfully the conventional narratives featuring a line of great (white male) thinkers contributing to scientific progress.”

Of course, using the term “dialectical materialism” hardly does Foster justice since that is not in his vocabulary let alone his methodology and even prejudices the reader since it is so closely associated with Stalinism.

I summed up the feud between O’Connor and Foster in an article that took the attack to all the contributors to the symposium on “Marx’s Ecology”, especially Joel Kovel whose emphasis on the need for a “spiritual” approach betrayed his Frankfurt School sympathies. From my article:

The final article in the symposium is by Joel Kovel and is titled “A Materialism Worthy of Nature.” Basically it is a defense of spirituality in the following vein:

“Foster’s errors are grounded in a misconception about the meaning of ‘spirit.’ We can infer (because, as with the Greens, there is no actual critique of the spiritual) that for him, to be ‘spiritual’ is synonymous with what is anti-scientific, irrational and superstitious, and is merely a kind of rough congener for the pole of ‘idealism’ in the classic materialism-idealism debate. He fails here to comprehend the distinction between spirit and religion, that spirit is an elementary property of being human, and that religions are the binding of spirit for the purposes of social cohesion. Therefore he also fails to appreciate that there is much more to spirituality than its religious elaboration, and much more to religions than their spiritual impulse.”

To the contrary, Foster’s book is not an attack on spirituality but on developing an analysis of the ecological crisis on other than a scientific and materialist basis. This is in keeping with the record of Marx and Engels, who both paid close attention to scientific matters throughout their life. While the rigorous attempt to develop a dialectics of nature based on the latest scientific findings was identified most often with Engels, Marx supported and consulted on each of these initiatives. Marx considered the soil chemist Van Leibeg to be more important to understanding European society than a dozen economists–in his own words. Marx’s Scientific Notebooks have been published recently and lend support to the notion that Marx was a consummate believer in rigorous scientific methods, both in understanding the natural and social world.

As it happens, I broke all ties to Foster in 2006 or so after he hired Yoshie Furuhashi to run MRZine. I was not the only one, of course, Editorial board member Barbara Epstein, who was at U. Cal, Santa Cruz at the same time as O’Connor, quit the board because of Furuhashi’s pro-Ahmadinejad’s propaganda. Notwithstanding my disgust with Foster’s obvious Assadist sympathies, I have never found fault with the analysis found in “Marx’s Ecology”. Since Furuhashi has gone, the new MR website is far less associated with the “axis of resistance” politics of the left even though it obviously considers the Syrian revolt to be a Western conspiracy. Maybe in another 5 years or so, the comrades will have figured out that Assad was about as “anti-imperialist” as General al-Sisi.

For that matter, long after James O’Connor faded from the scene, his analysis of the environmental crisis has a remarkable staying power. CNS might have been overly influenced by the Frankfurt School with its submerged Heideggerian motifs, but O’Connor’s methodology was as true to the Marxist method as Foster’s. It is probably beyond the capability of any single Marxist thinker today to have the final say on ecosocialism since the scope of the project is not just global but galactic.

However, given the increasing devastation wrought by climate change, O’Connor’s basic approach is perhaps more timely than ever as I see in my references to his “second contradiction” of capitalism theory over the years. O’Connor defined the “second contradiction” as follows:

Examples of capitalist accumulation impairing or destroying capital’s own conditions, hence threatening its own profits and capacity to produce and accumulate more capital, are many and varied. The warming of the atmosphere will inevitably destroy people, places, and profits, not to speak of other species life. Acid rain destroys forests and lakes and buildings and profits alike. Salinization of water tables, toxic wastes, and soil erosion impair nature and profitability. The pesticide treadmill destroys profits as well as nature. Urban capital running on an ((urban renewal treadmill” impairs its own conditions, hence profits, for example, in the form of congestion costs and high rents.’ The decrepit state of the physical infrastructure in the United States may also be mentioned in this connection.

The theory has become ever more relevant as the capitalist mode of production in its mad rush for profits undermines the environmental basis for its long-term sustainability. Houston is a prime example of the second contradition with its real estate developments destroying the prairies that might have prevented the city from being swamped by Hurricane Harvey. Here are two other examples of the “second contradiction” at work:

https://louisproyect.org/2012/10/31/hurricane-sandy-and-the-second-contradiction-of-capitalism/

https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/16/flint-michigan-and-the-second-contradiction-of-capitalism/

James O’Connor, ¡Presente!

 

November 12, 2017

I Love You, Daddy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:18 pm

As a credentialed film critic, I had the dubious distinction of being among the privileged few able to see Louis C.K.’s “I Love You, Daddy” that was supposed to premiere this month until the masturbation story broke. After saying something about the film, I’ll offer some thoughts on Louis’s downfall and those of other A-List celebrities.

While the film has the look and feel of Woody Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan”, being shot in black-and-white and never straying far from the one-percent lifestyle of its characters (the Hamptons, Upper East Side, etc.), it is much more of an extension of C.K.’s FX cable TV series “Louie” in terms of its dramatic focus. He plays the same basic character—a hapless single dad trying to cope with his daughters’ wayward behavior. The only difference is that the daughter in the film is a 17-year old that is on the verge of becoming the girlfriend of a 68-year old director that has made a habit of dating teens. If you’ve seen “Manhattan”, you’ll remember that Woody Allen’s character was dating a 17-year old (Mariel Hemingway).

Despite the very contemporary feel of the FX show that has been canceled just like the film, it is in many ways a throwback to the situation comedies of the early 60s, which frequently depicted a father trying to figure out how to solve a problem involving a teen daughter or son. “Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver” and “My Three Sons” were typical. The big difference between then and now is that “Louie” had no pat solutions to a family crisis, like when his 11-year old daughter Lily is caught smoking pot. Unlike Robert Young in “Father Knows Best”, Louie smoked pot when he was her age as well so lecturing her from on high was out of the question.

C.K.’s character is Glen Topher, a highly successful TV comedy writer and producer but with the same exact foibles as his much more economically insecure stand-up comedian avatar in the FX series. The Woody Allen character is named Leslie Goodwin and played faultlessly by John Malkovich in his characteristic reptilian manner. He is not a neurotic Jew but a Christian sybarite after the fashion of Vicomte de Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons”.

When Topher and his daughter China are invited to a party in the Hamptons, Goodwin slithers up not long after spotting her. Within days, he has invited her to come to Paris with him as part of a group of young admirers. It seems that everybody is in awe of Leslie Goodwin, including Glen Topher whose first reaction was to scrape and bow before the legend. After all, he was a mere TV comedy writer while Goodwin likely amounted to another Ingmar Bergman in this fictional world as is the case with Woody Allen in the real world.

From this scene onward, the film consists of father and daughter confronting each other over her stubborn refusal to stop seeing Goodwin or Topher and Goodwin having words over the same issue. When Topher reminds Goodwin that he would be having sex with a minor, he replies “a minor what”. Since none of you will likely be able ever to see the film, it is no spoiler to point out that China is hardly damaged by the encounter, no more so than the Mariel Hemingway character in “Manhattan”.

As might be expected, some of the critics have savaged the film as Louis C.K.’s veiled attempt to defend his perversions. Richard Brody of the New Yorker Magazine wrote:

The result is, in effect, an act of cinematic gaslighting, an attempt to spin the tenets of modern liberal feminism into shiny objects of hypnotic paralysis. The movie declares that depredation is liberation, morality is tyranny, judgment is narrow-mindedness, shamelessness is creativity, lechery is admiration, and public complaint is private vanity.

I strongly suspect that if Louis C.K. had not been outed as a sick exhibitionist using his clout in the industry to force himself on women, these words would have never been written. Indeed, a New Yorker profile on Louis C.K. written in 2013 compared him to the great Russian novelist Gogol:

If C.K. is a feminist, or has a contribution to make to gender theory, it may be in his studies of the body. More likely, this relentless exploration of physicality is his rendition of Gogol. In a recent “questionnaire” for Vanity Fair, he named Gogol as a favorite author. This choice is particularly suggestive when you consider that, of the literary moralists he tends to favor, Gogol is the only one who’s also a comedian (his other favorites: Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Richard Wright).

I have to admit that if I had heard nothing about the masturbation scandal, the film would have evoked nothing but a big ho-hum. The truth is that despite being billed as a comedy, there is not a single minute that is funny. Like the FX show, it is bogged down in lead-footed dialogs between the major characters and is reminiscent of the “problem dramas” you see on the Lifetime cable network. Or, for that matter, despite being a warped homage to “Manhattan”, it is much more like Woody Allen’s later movies that are ponderous morality tales such as “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. Louis C.K.’s greatest crime after forcing women to watch him whack off is losing his sense of humor.

On almost a daily basis lately, there are reports about some Hollywood celebrity or another being called out for sexual offenses. It reminds me quite a bit of the Catholic Church scandals of the 1990s. If the priests took advantage of children as authority figures, in the TV and film industry it was the ability of men like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Brett Ratner to affect the careers positively or negatively of female actresses that kept the lid on the abuses for so many years.

In a way, it is the mirror image of the scandals at Fox News that involved rightwing gentiles. This time it is liberal Jews that are getting nailed. What do they have in common? Power.

The “casting couch” has been around forever. Ever since the days of silent films, men like Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner and Howard Hughes slept with starlets in exchange for helping them get cast in a movie. Although I am no expert on this aspect of Hollywood, I can’t imagine such figures masturbating into a potted plant like Harvey Weinstein did while blocking the door. It makes you wonder if sex was the purpose of such behavior. It is possible that the sole purpose was to punish women for ever having rejected Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. Considering the way Weinstein looked and C.K.’s needy persona, they must have had their fair share of women telling them no—not ever.

The best analysis I have read of this aberrant behavior is an interview with sex therapist Alexandra Katehakis titled “Why Men Force Women to Watch Them Masturbate”:

What are the psychological motivations behind it?

I don’t know what it’s like to hold a penis and do that. But from what I know about men, it does make them feel powerful. He’s got his prey in the corner, which provides a kind of a gratification. There’s also something inherently really primitive and childish about forcing a woman to watch you masturbate. It’s almost like “Look at me.” And there’s the possibility that he feels wanted, as disordered as that might sound. He might feel like she’s here and she’s seeing me and she wants me. But the fact that she’s also scared and humiliated makes him feel powerful and aroused. There is a sense of power, plus a hostile revenge. That combination is what creates the high for this particular act.

Another element to consider is the nature of the entertainment industry itself, which has managed to sidestep the affirmative action that has become universal in corporate American and enforced by Human Resources departments anxious to avoid bad publicity and hefty legal fees. A place like Goldman-Sachs, where I used to work, had a glass ceiling for women but you’d never see Robert Rubin jerking off into a potted plant.

Despite its liberal pretensions, Hollywood is a place with deeply reactionary social relations. Just keep in mind that the most respected liberal director in the industry is one of the most backward as was pointed out in a comment on my blog:

[Oliver] Stone’s films are noteworthy for the machismo that runs through them, all the way back to “Platoon” and “The Doors”. “The Doors” provides some great insight here, given that the subject, Jim Morrison, is not political, revealing the hypnotic machismo that Stone centers at the heart of American culture. The movie comes across as a love letter from Stone to Morrison. Stone’s personalized political vision is one where mass political organization and radical feminism have no place because the ultimate objective is the empowerment of a hypermasculine leader capable of positively transforming society from above.

So, it’s predictable that Stone would be seduced by Putin. He’d probably make a movie about Putin if he could find the financing for it. The flip side of Stone’s political homoeroticism is the hostile gay stereotypes that he presents in “JFK”. He would also present women in the same way if he found a place for them in his movies.

Oh, did I mentioned that Stone has been caught up in the web as the NY Daily News reported just a month ago?

While Oliver Stone defended Harvey Weinstein amid more than a dozen allegations of sexual harassment and assault, a former Playboy Playmate accused the “Platoon” director of sexual assault.

Carrie Stevens, who was best known as Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in June 1997 but also had several small movie and TV roles, claimed Thursday that Stone had grabbed her breast at a party.

The 48-year-old model told the Daily News that she was at a party at producer Ted Field’s home in honor of Stone more than 20 years ago when Stone walked up to her standing by the front door.

“He was really cocky, had this big grin on his face like he was going to get away with something,” Stevens, who was 22 at the time, told The News.

At that point, Stone “reached out and…honked it like a horn,” she said, describing him as “an immature guy in elementary school who snaps your bra.”

 

November 10, 2017

Intent to Destroy

Filed under: Armenians,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 10, 2017

Joe Berlinger’s reputation rests on a number of documentaries about the injustices of the judicial system including a trilogy about the trial and imprisonment of three teens in West Memphis, Arkansas falsely accused of taking part in a Satanic ritual murder of three 8-year old boys. Next came “Crude”, a film about the struggle of indigenous peoples in Ecuador to make Chevron pay for the massive despoliation of their land and water. It should not come as a big surprise that an American judge declared Chevron innocent of all charges.

His most recent film opens on November 10th at the Village East in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. Titled “Intent to Destroy”, it is an examination of the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1916 and that left just under 300,000 survivors out of a population of 1,700,000 in the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire. As opposed to the Nuremberg trials that punished the Nazis and the allied powers insistence that reparations be paid to Israel, the Armenians were left with nothing. This is a sorry confirmation of the historical law that victorious nations never have to pay for their crimes. Despite being on the losing side in WWI, the Turks found themselves in the envious position of being a geopolitical asset in the hands of the West for quarantining the USSR and as a launching pad for Middle East incursions. Even Israel found Turkey to be a convenient ally. When a bill was introduced in Congress some years ago condemning Turkey for genocide, Abraham Foxman opined, “I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue.”

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November 8, 2017

Requiem for a running back

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,sports — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

In choosing the title “Requiem for a Running Back” for her profoundly moving documentary about football and CTE, director Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of its subject Lew Carpenter, might have had the 1956 teleplay by Rod Serling in mind. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starred Jack Palance as the boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, who is at the end of his career and already showing signs of dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome”. In telling the story of her father, who was a halfback with the Green Bay Packers and other teams from 1953 to 1963, she conveys the same kind of dramatic intensity Serling brought to his teleplay. As is so often the case, the truth of a documentary reaches heights that no fiction can reach. The film, which opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, now has the inside track for my pick as best documentary of 2017.

Jack Palance played Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, someone for whom boxing was all he ever knew and terrified of trying something new—so much so that he signed up for a fight even though doctors warned that it might kill him. After Lew Carpenter’s football career came to an end, he started a new career as a coach under Vince Lombardi who he idolized. As he approached middle age, Carpenter began to exhibit the traits that all CTE sufferers display: loss of memory, depression, fits of anger, and intellectual deficits. But when he was coaching, they were kept under control. It was only when he could no longer coach that they escalated radically to the point of breaking up his marriage and creating a deep estrangement with his daughters, one of whom was Rebecca Carpenter destined to graduate from Harvard University and begin a career in television, film, and education. With a mission to discover who her father was through interviews with former players who knew him probably better than she did—his surrogate sons—and her obvious grasp of the art of the documentary, she has made a film for the ages.

Lew Carpenter was born in 1932 to dirt poor farmers from Hayti, Missouri but grew up in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. He understood that unless he made a career in football, he’d end up chopping cotton like his parents who lived in a shack. After starring on the University of Arkansas team, he began his career with the Detroit Lions and then moved on to the Green Bay Packers. Despite the director’s obvious aim in putting football out of business, she has made a point of communicating what makes the game so fulfilling for those who play it, including Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Lofton who was coached by Lew Carpenter. Lofton makes clear that even though both Lombardi and Carpenter could be as mean and even as degrading as a drill instructor, he and his teammates looked at them worshipfully because they helped them excel. He describes professional football as a place where ethnicity and class make little difference because the sport is only interested in what you can bring to the game. In fact, the same thing can be said about the military.

Carpenter also interviews a number of medical researchers who testify as to the indifference of the owners about the health of the men who toil for them. When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair described the protests of men like Colin Kaepernick as “inmates running the prison”, he blurted out what has been true for a very long time. In one eye-opening interview with attorney Ed Garvey, who represented the players in a number of confrontations much sharper than that going no now, we learn that they insisted on using AstroTurf even though it risked injury to the brain. At one point, an owner growing tired of Garvey’s advocacy warned him that for only a $100 he can find someone to stuff his corpse into a trunk.

In keeping with the most recent research on CTE, Carpenter reveals that some experts do not regard concussion as its cause. It happens that although Lew Carpenter endured the usual number of collisions on the field over a 10-year career, he had never suffered from repeated concussions. It is entirely possible that he was a victim of “brain slosh”, a term used by some medical researchers to describe the effect of having a brain floating normally in cerebrospinal fluid and not connected to the skull being hurled against it when a player is tackled. No helmet can prevent this. Furthermore, it is also possible that it is only exposure to “minor” hits during a career in football can be the culprit. That is why some analysts are predicting the demise of the game.

In one of the more jaw-dropping interviews in Carpenter’s film, we hear Mike Ditka state that if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football—the very same Mike Ditka who was once described by Mike Duerson as a coach who never “gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching.” Although it is understandable why Carpenter would find Ditka’s renunciation of football worth filming, it must be said that the grizzled icon of brutality on the football field has not seen fit to defend Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Dave Zirin pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Ditka is the guy who berated his own Bears players for not crossing a picket line when the NFLPA was on strike in 1987. He’s the guy today who—after a lifetime of supporting right-wing candidates—shills for another dubious product: Donald Trump.

And now, true to form, he’s coming out against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. On Friday, he said on the Shan & RJ radio show, “I think it’s a problem. Anybody who disrespects this country and the flag. If they don’t like the country they don’t like our flag, get the hell out. My choice is, I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka said. “I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now, if they don’t want to look for them then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work. If you don’t work, that’s a different problem.”

Eventually, professional football players will connect the dots between the racism of a Robert McNair and the continuing efforts of the owners to shortchange the former players who are in desperate need of support as they wrestle with the onset of early dementia and the other demons CTE submits them to.

The Disaster Artist, what a disaster

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:53 am

I’m doing something I haven’t done in years—write about a film I walked out on.

I had my doubts about “The Disaster Artist”, a film that was shown at the Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) this year since it was produced and directed by the insufferable James Franco who was also the film’s costar. The film is based on a true story—the making of “The Room”, which some say is the worst film ever. I thought that perhaps it might have the affectionate touch of “Ed Wood”, the vehicle for Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Hollywood’s worst director especially since New York Magazine’s Jada Yuan said, “it may soon join Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in the ranks of great movies about terrible movies.”

Things started off inauspiciously when I showed up at the Tribeca Screening room 10 minutes before the film started and was asked by the guy at the door to id myself since my name wasn’t on the list. Proper id in this instance meant providing the email id or the name of the publicist who sent me an invitation to the screening that I rsvp’d to. Since I don’t own (and won’t own) a smartphone, I told him I had no idea who it was but he could check my name on Rotten Tomatoes and see that there are 1300 of my film reviews. Showing a rather low level of comprehension, he asked me once again for the email or name of the publicist who contacted me. “Look”, I said, “do you think that I would come down to the Tribeca Screening Room in a driving rain in order to jeopardize Robert De Niro’s security? What is the deal with De Niro and security, I began to rant. Five years ago I showed up at a Tribeca Film Festival screening on the wrong day to see a documentary about sea life ecology and was blocked from taking a seat by a security guard. Even when the publicist vouched for me, the security guard not only insisted I leave but put his hand on a pistol in his holster to show that he meant business—a Travis Bickle telling me to get lost. I guess they couldn’t take a chance on a secret al-Qaeda operative bombing their screening room.

I walked out of the film after 20 minutes. Instead of seeing anything remotely as charming as Timothy Burton’s “Ed Wood”, I was exposed to what would have been a 103-minute version of an SNL sketch like “Wild and Crazy Guys” or “The Roxy Guys”. These are the 5 minute patented comedy routines in which two supremely stupid but self-confident stooges embarrass themselves to get laughs out of a studio audience and the millions of TV fans who enjoy satire based on punching down. Despite the shots that Chevy Chase took at Franco or that Alec Baldwin takes at Trump, most of SNL consists of laughing at rather than with ordinary people living in the USA. Not only is it elitist, it is dull.

As tedious as those SNL sketches were, they were at least relieved by some funny moments especially with talents like Dan Ackroyd and Steve Martin. What you get with “The Disaster Artist” is the mockery of losers but without the yucks. A deadly combination.

James Franco plays Tommy Wiseau, who was an aspiring actor that met Greg Sestero in an acting class in San Francisco in the late 80s. He is played by Franco’s brother Dave. After meeting each other, the two hooked up and decided to make a movie of their own since nobody auditioning them in Hollywood thought they were any good. Wiseau, in particular, was horrible. The running gag in “The Disaster Artist” is Wiseau reading lines in a thick accent like “the wild and crazy guys”. When the casting director tells him to drop the accent, he replies “what accent?” As it happens, Wiseau was a Polish-American and had an accent. Somehow, I don’t find jokes about having an accent that amusing in 2017.

Everything in “The Disaster Artist” is totally exaggerated. I am willing to believe that Wiseau and Sestero had no idea how limited their abilities were but Franco is determined to make them look even more stupid than the characters in those SNL sketches and even coming close to the performances of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in “Dumb and Dumber”.

For example, when Wiseau is casting for “The Room”, he has women being asked to act as if they were eating a melting ice cream cone while they are a cowboy on horseback. We are supposed to laugh at her look like she is performing oral sex. It is hard to tell whether Franco wanted to dumb down this scene for a teen audience or whether he has the sensibility of a 16-year-old himself. I simply don’t care to find out.

The screenplay for “The Disaster Artist” was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the team responsible for the 2009 “Pink Panther 2” that got a 12% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. One critic wrote, “I have seen taxidermy livelier than this moribund mess which further sullies the reputation of everyone associated with this unwelcome sequel.” I only wish that “The Disaster Artist” was half as good.

The irony is that in spoofing what some critics regard as the worst movie ever made, James Franco has made the worst film of 2017.

November 7, 2017

Review: Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality”

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

(Posted with the permission of the journal Socialism and Democracy, where it appeared in the April, 2017 edition.)

The 12 articles in this book address a topic made acute by the Great Recession of 2008. From Thomas Piketty’s Capital to Bernie Sanders’ campaign speeches, the issue has been examined from many different angles but not with the sharp Marxist focus of an economist who understands what inequality means on both a theoretical and a personal level, having grown up in a hardscrabble company town in Pennsylvania.

Written in language that ordinary workers could understand, each chapter is filled with data illustrating the ever-widening gulf between the 1% and the rest of us. Chapter two, which has the same title as the book, documents the great divide between the plutocracy and the average American in jaw-dropping detail. Using the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality with 0 being a state of perfect equality and 1 tantamount to total inequality, Yates observes that the numbers have been moving steadily toward 1 for the past four decades. In fact, the Gini coefficient of the Roman Empire not long after the death of Jesus was more equal than the US today. With Jesus preaching that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” one can understand why opposition to the status quo has reached a religious fervor today. As a socialist, Michael Yates tends to look askance, however, at Great Men who would be saviors of the poor and the working class. In the final analysis, it is up to those who sell their labor power to transform society and make wage slavery a thing of the past.

Globally, the numbers are damning. About 40 percent of the world’s population lives on $2 per day or less. The richest 9 percent gets about one-half of the world’s income while the bottom half gets 7 percent. The wealthiest 80 individuals own as much as the poorest half, some 3.5 billion people. While many are on the edge of starvation, a man with a billion dollars in the bank could spend $10,000 per day and would not exhaust his funds until 274 years had passed.

Beyond the book’s value as a source of powerful arguments based on hard data, it is like everything else that Yates has written – an eminently readable work that can even be described as entertaining in the fashion of a Jonathan Swift essay. Shunning the pedantry of many economists, including those on the left, and drawing upon a lifetime of experience dealing with the boss whether in a coal company town or in academia, Yates has some sharp observations rendered in anecdotal fashion.

Chief among them is an incident that occurred on a nature hike near Santa Fe, about 7000 feet above sea level. Yates and his wife ran into another group of hikers that included an older man who struck up a conversation about what brought Yates to Santa Fe. He explained that he was collecting material for a travel book written from the viewpoint of an economist – the superlative Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue. When asked what he had observed to that point, Yates replied: environmental degradation, suburban sprawl and growing inequality. This did not sit well with his interlocutor who came across like Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. For him, everything was getting better. People were living longer and getting healthier. As a sign of what capitalism could bestow, “Almost everyone in the country lives within an hour of a Wal-Mart Supercenter.” Eventually, the Panglossian fellow was revealed to be an economist, just like Michael, but with a difference. As a conventional member of the Dismal Science profession, he was used to covering up for the ruling class through the application of “neoclassical” theory.

While the statistics in The Great Inequality will leave you feeling angry and ready to make a revolution (if you hadn’t reached such a state long ago), the discussion of the daily assaults on the spirit and body for those who sell their labor power will push you over the edge for sure. Chapter five, aptly titled “Work is Hell,” examines factory and office existence today, suggesting that even if the Gini coefficient was 0 – in other words, pure equality – there would still be compelling reasons to abolish a system based on the private ownership of the means of production.

I was struck by the mention of a certain class of workers who might not be thought of ordinarily in terms of Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, namely the crews of cruise ships that take people down to the Caribbean islands. They tend to be people of color from poor countries that do the most backbreaking work. If they are injured on the job, they must pay their own way back to their homeland even if better care is available in the US. It is quite a comment on the values of Nation Magazine that it has used Holland America for its fundraising cruises with the leftist glitterati. Holland pays its largely Filipino and Indonesian crew $300 per month for a 10- to 13-hour workday, seven days a week. In addition to screwing its workers, their ships constitute an ongoing threat to the environment. In just one violation, Holland dumped 20,000 gallons of raw sewage into the waters off Juneau, Alaska.

While it is only hinted at in The Great Inequality, there are political imperatives that flow inexorably from the economic miseries it describes. At the very top of a page titled Issues, you can see a link to the section “Income and Wealth Inequality” that states: “The real median income of male workers is $783 less than it was 42 years ago; while the real median income of female workers is over $1,300 less than it was in 2007.” But in the very next sentence, you discover the Achilles Heel of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign: “That is unacceptable and that has got to change.”

But how has that got to change?

By endorsing Hillary Clinton, who gives speeches to Goldman-Sachs for $225,000 a pop, Sanders was talking out of both sides of his mouth. This was obvious even to those on the left who found his campaign inspirational. In an article for New Politics titled “True Confession: I’ve Lost that Bernie Feeling,” Michael Hirsch lamented that Sanders let the plutocrat off the hook.

Bernie stoked a fire under millions of Americans but couldn’t muster campaign 2.0 beyond a fund-raising bonanza (no small thing) and promises of a confection of free stuff courtesy of the state, yet with too little attention to Hillary’s and Bill Clinton’s role as abettors of the very corporate oligarchy he so despises and has otherwise sketched so well.

After a yeoman job of revealing the economic divide in the US, Yates has begun to connect the dots between politics and economics, an obligation that faces everybody who considers himself/herself a socialist. In an April 30, 2016 article for Truthout titled “Let’s Get Serious About Inequality and Socialism,” Yates makes the case for socialism – not the Swedish model that no longer exists but the classless society envisioned by Karl Marx that remains just as necessary for humanity and nature as it was in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the reality is that many of Sanders’ leftist supporters have modest aims, believing that the most we can hope for is to take the first small steps to be like Denmark or Sweden. But those who believe that only gradual, piecemeal changes can occur are, in my view, embracing a dead-end strategy for achieving socialism. There are those of us who believe that, if we are radically prepared for it, sudden, revolutionary change could usher in the dream of a classless society – one that is egalitarian, radically democratic, with a surfeit of leisure, and with collectively provided goods and services. For us there is but one choice. Hold fast to our vision, put our shoulders to the wheel, and struggle on.

Reviews of other books by Michael Yates:

Naming the System

In and Out of the Working Class

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back

November 4, 2017

The Kremlin/social media controversy

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 10:12 pm

Frankly, I have stayed away from an articles or TV news segments dealing with the Russia/social media controversy since it seems so pointless. Russian trolls and bots are here to stay, even as the NY Times admits in video titled “How Russian Bots and Trolls Invade Our Lives — and Elections”. They do recommend, however, warning about such interference in our wonderful open society by looking for clues that would reveal its Russian origins:

  1. If the timestamp on the post is during working hours in St. Petersburg, that’s a red flag. (What if it is someone with insomnia?)
  2. Posting dozens of items a day. (That would account for 90 percent of the people on Twitter, I’m afraid.)
  3. Look for alphanumeric scrambles in a user id. (Again, that sounds like a lot of the Twitter accounts I’ve run into.)
  4. Google the profile picture. (If it is an attractive female, it is likely a photo of a German supermodel according to Ben Nimmo, an expert on these matters apparently.)
  5. Look at the language. If there are grammar mistakes, it might be a Rooskie. (The Times supplies an example: “So, let me get this right” As it happens, this was deemed grammatically correct by Grammarly so maybe they are Russian agents themselves?)

What I still don’t get is the purpose of this intervention. If it is to win a new Cold War, as Clint Watts, an ex-FBI agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, it is difficult to understand why the Kremlin paid for Facebook ads that took both right and left positions. The Washington Post, which has been fixated on Russian meddling with MSNBC running a close second, tried to explain:

The batch of more than 3,000 Russian-bought ads that Facebook is preparing to turn over to Congress shows a deep understanding of social divides in American society, with some ads promoting African American rights groups, including Black Lives Matter, and others suggesting that these same groups pose a rising political threat, say people familiar with the covert influence campaign.

“Is it a goal of the Kremlin to encourage discord in American society? The answer to that is yes,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is now a director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “More generally, Putin has an idea that our society is imperfect, that our democracy is not better than his, so to see us in conflict on big social issues is in the Kremlin’s interests.”

I try to imagine the high-level strategy meeting that took place between Putin and the top guys in the Foreign Intelligence Service:

Putin: So, gentlemen, why exactly are we giving equal time to fake BLM and white supremacy ads?

Colonel Badenoff: We believe this is the best way to win the new Cold War. After the USA gets bogged down in bitter divisions, the BRICS will become the new hegemon.

Putin: Okay, just make sure to make it sound real. No alphanumeric scrambling or German supermodels.

If Russia was trying to make an impact on American politics, the $100,000 it spent would have the effect of a mosquito bite on an elephant. Just compare that to the budget of the Trump and Clinton campaigns: $81 million. Not only that, Russian ads taking both sides of a divisive issue would be like knocking down an open door. Most people get their ideas from outlets like AM talk radio for the right and CNN or MSNBC for the liberal left. Once they have made up their mind about immigration or cop killers, it is doubtful that looking at a Facebook ad will intensify their feelings.

I have a somewhat different take on the question of Russian interference than others on the left, especially from those who have defended the Kremlin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine. While I don’t particularly care about some stupid Facebook ad, I do resent the role played by Russian media in covering up for Russian war crimes. In the past six years, there have been countless posts on Twitter and Facebook defending Russian intervention. Unlike trolls and bots, the authors of such material do not use German supermodels as profile photos. RT.com has made it possible for people like John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Max Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry, Vanessa Beeley and Robert Parry to defend the dictatorship’s scorched-earth tactics.

There is no question that the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC are lying, warmongering, neoliberal sacks of shit but it does not help the left to go on RT.com to back Putin. Of course, when you are in it for the money like Max Blumenthal, there are incentives to twist the truth into a knot.

Finally, on the question of “social media”. I regard Twitter as inimical to the exchange of ideas and an important element in the dumbing down of American society—unless you use it for nothing except linking to an article posted somewhere else. Given its 140 character limit, it is next to useless and can lead to disastrous effects on leftwing professors who use it to ventilate. When they get in trouble at their university for some rant about Donald Trump or whatever, they always end up trying to explain what they really meant. Maybe they should have been blogging in the first place like Juan Cole or Michael Roberts if the intention was to raise the level of consciousness.

Facebook is a bit better but not by much. By and large, people write things off the top of their head and without the care you see on a mailing list or the comments section of a blog. The other day, someone challenged my interpretation of fascist economics by referring to Pinochet’s failure to privatize the copper mines. I replied that this was a very interesting point and invited him to expand on it as a guest post on my blog. He declined my invitation.

I have 2,249 friends on FB and 911 followers on Twitter while following 273. Of all these 3,000 souls (taking overlap into account), I probably know 50 or so as genuine friends, even if the friendship is based only on email exchanges. What exactly is “social” about all this? I have no idea.

Back in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg began working on the software that would become Facebook. It was intended for use by college students and hardly in line with what it eventually became:

We had books called Face Books, which included the names and pictures of everyone who lived in the student dorms. At first, he built a site and placed two pictures, or pictures of two males and two females. Visitors to the site had to choose who was “hotter” and according to the votes there would be a ranking.

Somewhere along the line, it became practically universal and a tool of activists such as during the Arab Spring. I value it today for connecting people and have found it essential for sharing ideas and information about Syria. But is that “social”?

Back in the 60s, there was no Internet. People got together in meetings and discussed strategy for the antiwar movement, the woman’s movement, etc. We are in an odd place today. Very little takes place face-to-face but people are checking their iPhones or laptops all day long for new stuff on FB, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. I sometimes go for weeks without getting a phone call and personal interaction is even less frequent. As social media explodes, society becomes ever more atomized and incapable of mobilizing against the threats to our survival.

Is it possible that this was the original intention? Just asking…

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