Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 14, 2018

Tehran Taboo; Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 14, 2018

If you want to understand the social contradictions in Iran that lead to periodic explosions like those that took place recently, there is no better resource than Iranian film. Often risking repression, which at its most extreme cost the life of environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, filmmakers put a spotlight on the grievances of large parts of the population, especially women and those who have not benefited from the wealth-producing oil rentier state.

New Yorkers have an unparalleled opportunity to see Iranian film at its best this month from two unheralded directors. On February 14th, the Film Forum will be showing “Tehran Taboo”, a noirish animated feature by Ali Soozandeh who lives and works in Germany after leaving Iran in 1995 at the age of 25. I have no doubt that “Tehran Taboo” will get my nomination as both best foreign-language and animated film for 2018. It is the story of three women dealing with different aspects of a suffocating patriarchy and one young man trying to live the life of a free artist in an unfree society. On February 23rd, the Anthology Film Archives will be showing a retrospective of Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentaries that address Iran’s deep-seated gender and class injustices. While Iranian film is best known in the West for the narrative works of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi, Oskouei deserves pride of place alongside such masters. His work has appeared at over 400 film festivals in over 50 countries and earning him over 90 awards, so it is high time for a retrospective here and now.

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February 13, 2018

Ben Norton cooks the books

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Once you decide to become an Assadist propagandist, it is like selling your soul to the devil. If Faust sought infinite knowledge,  a job with AlterNet or Salon seems rather cheap by comparison. Ben Norton is a case in point.

In an article for The Real News, Norton uses all sorts of dodgy journalistic tricks to make the case for Assad. Like AlterNet, TruthDig, et al, the Real News is a bully pulpit for Assadists with Ray McGovern, Lawrence Wilkerson, et al, making frequent appearances. With over 100 articles turned up by a search for “Syria”, not a single one challenges the Assadist propaganda machine.

The goal of Norton’s article is to prove that the USA sought regime change in Syria by “following the money”. He writes:

The United States spent at least $12 billion in Syria-related military and civilian expenses in the four years from 2014 through 2017, according to the former U.S. ambassador to the country.

This $12 billion is in addition to the billions more spent to pursue regime change in Syria in the previous three years, after war broke out in 2011.

To start with, Norton makes no attempt to document the “the billions more spent to pursue regime change in Syria in the previous three years, after war broke out in 2011”. It is common knowledge that the USA spent money through two different programs, one out of the Pentagon and one out of the CIA that only began in 2013. It is a sign of Norton’s dodgy reporting that he does not bother to identify where “the billions” were coming from unless they were part of an underground, illegal network like Oliver North set up for the Nicaraguan contras. This was not Obama’s style, especially since he held the rebels in contempt from the beginning.

So let’s take a look at that $12 billion and see why it failed to make a dent in the Assadist killing machine. Most of it was actually spent on humanitarian aid that Norton considered part of the “regime change” agenda, just like the White Helmets:

Ford also reported that the U.S. spent $7.7 billion in humanitarian aid efforts in Syria in those same four years. This figure cannot be excluded from the overall cost of the U.S. regime change mission, however, because U.S. spending on humanitarian aid in Syria has often been explicitly politicized.

Did the USA spend nearly $8 billion dollars on humanitarian aid in Syria? That’s a lot of dough and it hardly made a difference, as far as I can tell. All you need to do is check all the articles on starvation conditions in places like East Aleppo, East Ghouta, and Idlib where such aid could not be distributed for obvious reasons.

If you go to the Department of State website, you’ll get a proper accounting for the funds. Of that $7.7 billion, less than half of that was spent in Syria. Most went to refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Does this Assadist propagandist really think that the people living in tents in Lebanon were a threat to the regime with its barrel bombs and poison gas? I suppose anything is possible with such a sick mind.

The $7.7 billion is not distributed by American agencies, needless to say. But even the UN, that does operate in Syria with other NGO’s, admits that it has not had access to “hard-to-reach” places, including East Ghouta. Since Norton blames the “extremist” rebels for carrying out a “false flag” attack there, I suppose he is pleased that people in East Ghouta are being reduced to Auschwitz like conditions. In November, Reuters reported that they are so short of food that they are eating trash, fainting from hunger and forcing their children to eat on alternate days. Meanwhile, Norton gets paid to write propaganda describing such suffering as necessary to prevent al-Qaeda from invading Park Slope.

Once you subtract the $7.7 billion, you end up $4.3 billion that supposedly went to weapons and material aid for fighters in programs mounted by the Pentagon and the CIA’s Timber Sycamore. You might as well subtract the $500 million that the Pentagon spent since it would only be allocated to rebels who signed a contract that they would not fight against Assad’s military and only target ISIS.

As for remainder doled out by the CIA, it paid for everything except MANPAD’s. In fact, the CIA created border guards in collaboration with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to keep the Libyan-supplied weapons out of the hands of rebels. If the CIA had kept its AK-47s that could be bought cheaply on the black market and simply gotten out of the way, the war would have likely ended in 2015 by turning Syria into a graveyard for MIGs.

It is important to mention that despite claims that Timber Sycamore supplied anti-tank TOW missiles to the rebels, there was little indication that they were received until 2015. A 2013 NY Times article describes the reality:

Through the fall, the Qatari Air Force cargo fleet became even more busy, running flights almost every other day in October. But the rebels were clamoring for even more weapons, continuing to assert that they lacked the firepower to fight a military armed with tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launchers and aircraft.

Many were also complaining, saying they were hearing from arms donors that the Obama administration was limiting their supplies and blocking the distribution of the antiaircraft and anti-armor weapons they most sought. [emphasis added] These complaints continue.

“Arming or not arming, lethal or nonlethal — it all depends on what America says,” said Mohammed Abu Ahmed, who leads a band of anti-Assad fighters in Idlib Province.

I have heard Assad supporters justify the blockade against MANPADs on the basis that they can be used against civilian airliners (even though most fly above their range) but why would the USA interfere with the shipment of TOWs if it was so hell-bent on regime change?

Two years alter, TOW missiles became available but only from Saudi Arabia that plausibly was acting on its own. They proved so devastating that there were genuine fears that Assad’s days were numbered, especially after the Southern Front of the FSA overran a major air base near Dara’a in June of that year. This evidently persuaded the Russians to intervene in September. You might remember that the combined firepower of the Syrian and Russian air force was initially directed against everyone except ISIS.

Clearly, it was Russia, Iran, Hizbollah, Iraqi sectarian Shi’ite brigades and Afghan mercenaries that finally broke the back of the revolutionary resistance. This is a Pyrrhic victory. Syria is rapidly running out of oil and water, so much so that even if had been at peace for the past six years, it would still be in a deep economic/ecological crisis. This is compounded by massive infrastructure destruction that will require billions to replace but that the West has little interest in supplying. This leaves it to oil rentier states like Russia and Iran to step into the breach. Given the economic woes of both countries, it is doubtful that Syria will be anything except what Tacitus described: “To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace.”

 

 

February 11, 2018

Newsweek: the death of a corpse

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 7:48 pm

David Jang: the cult leader who owns Newsweek

This week Newsweek Magazine, a journal that usually doesn’t show up on my radar screen, caught my attention. The NY Times reported on February sixth that “Two top editors and a reporter at Newsweek were fired on Monday, and two other reporters left in limbo, in a purge that targeted employees involved in coverage of the company’s financial and legal troubles.”

This was fall-out from an editor’s decision to assign reporters to cover an incident that occurred on January 18th when investigators for the NY District Attorney raided Newsweek’s offices. The Newsweek article that led to the firings stated:

A grand jury investigation of Newsweek Media Group, formerly known as IBT Media, has been ongoing for at least 17 months, according to a source familiar with the matter. The probe was likely looking at loans the company took out to purchase the servers.

A spokeswoman for the Manhattan DA’s office declined to comment on the probe.

The company has a rocky financial history. Digital publisher IBT Media bought Newsweek from IAC, an internet and media company, in 2013, and it missed payroll and laid off large numbers of employees in 2016.

Both Etienne Uzac and Johnathan Davis, the IBT founders who bought Newsweek in 2013 and still own parts of Newsweek Media Group, also appear to have large debts, according to public records. The Internal Revenue Service filed a $1.2 million lien against Uzac in December 2017, while the IRS filed an $800,000 lien against Davis in October that year, public records show.

IBT Media has faced questions about its relationship with David Jang, a South Korean pastor who leads a Christian sect called “the Community” and founded a small Bible college called Olivet University, according to a 2014 Mother Jones report.

The Mother Jones report portrayed David Jang as being cut from the same cloth as fellow Korean Sun Myung Moon, the deceased cult leader of the Unification Church that launched the Washington Times in 1982 to promulgate his reactionary views. Like Moon, Jang, who was formerly a key figure in Moon’s cult, portrayed himself as a godlike figure–the Second Coming Christ. Jang’s cult is organized as the Community, a project that also includes the Olivet colleges in the USA. Newsweek’s top executives, including Uzac and Davis, are long-standing members of Jang’s cult.

Unlike Moon, Jang has describes his media goals as one of promoting business news objectively rather than propaganda. Notwithstanding the stated goal, he claims that everything he is involved with is designed to promote the Kingdom of God. Jang’s first foray into the media business was something called the International Business Tribune (IBT) that at first blush seems legitimate. Peter Goodman, a top editor at Huffington, was hired to be editor-in-chief. The main problem wasn’t content but shady business practices behind the scenes.

Like most Internet based publications, IBT was dedicated to traffic, just as is Newsweek now. The bosses demanded that every article generate 10,000 hits or else you’d get fired. And like other electronic publications, the articles tended to be virtual plagiarisms with IBT in Japan publishing 302 articles constructed of patches lifted from Japanese media that were combined in “collage-style”.

A Guardian article on IBT/Newsweek dated March 28, 2014 reported:

A former editor at 33 Universal said “full-time freelance” writers who did much of the writing were paid $8 per article for pieces aiming to ride the crest of that day’s wave of popular news search terms. “You wrote at eight articles a day minimum, sometimes more,” said one former writer for 33 Universal websites.

Even I couldn’t keep up with such a pace.

Like Jacobin that falsified the number of its Twitter followers to convince Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to write an article for them, Newsweek was not above juggling the books. A full report on their fraudulent traffic statistics can be read at Social Puncher, a website dedicated to exposing such manipulative practices.

While some of the staff has been fired, others have left in protest. One of them is David Sirota, a very capable reporter who I used to read in Huffington Post. He was a Bernie Sanders supporter and described himself as a “democratic socialist”.

But even more disconcertingly, I discovered a couple of days ago that Patrick Hilsman, a FB friend and occasional email correspondent on matters such as the LaRouche cult, had tweeted that he too had quit. However, it did not take the post-January 18th turmoil to convince him to leave. He quit the same day he started work:

Like me, Patrick Hilsman has been one of those stiff-necked people who refuse to hoist Bashar al-Assad on our “anti-imperialist” shoulders. To show you how much things have changed at Newsweek, an article written by one Ian Wilkie has been making the rounds in the Max Blumenthal/Consortium News/Global Research propaganda network. Titled “Now Mattis admits there was no evidence Assad used poison gas on his people”, it rehashes all of the “false flag” narratives promoted equally by “leftists” like Seymour Hersh and not so leftists like David Duke and Pamela Geller.

Saving me the trouble of wading through Wilkie’s manure, Eliot Higgins donned his hip boots and did his usual yeoman job on Bellingcat:

Wilkie also repeats one of the popular theories among chemical weapon conspiracy theorists that people filmed at the impact site of the Sarin bomb after the attack would have died from Sarin exposure, stating “these people would all be dead if they had come into contact with real military-grade Sarin.” This is based on the popular misconception among chemical weapon conspiracy theorists that Sarin is a persistent agent, in that it remains in the environment in lethal quantities long after an attack has occurred.

Naturally enough, Wilkie describes himself as a “terrorism expert”, which is ultimately the perspective of Consortium News, Global Research, LaRouche’s EIR, et al. It does not recognize the class origins of the Syrian civil war and has no other interest than in preventing another 9/11, as if bombing hospitals in Idlib will serve as a prophylactic. Wilkie is a contributor to Tracking Terrorism, a website based on a $500 subscription. I was considering taking out a trial subscription just to see what lurked beneath but was persuaded not to bother when I checked what its editors had written about the mass murder in Las Vegas last year:

My guess is that Wilkie’s article does not indicate that Newsweek is going to read anything like Consortium News that was started by the late Robert Parry, a former Newsweek reporter himself. Throughout 2017, there were articles at odds with Wilkie’s op-ed piece such as “Assad Regime is Still Making Chemical Weapons in Syria: Report”. Perhaps the only explanation is that the magazine saw Wilkie’s piece as prime clickbait since it is well-understood that there are many people attracted to such slop as might be obvious from Breitbart News offering up much of the same.

Centrist political opinion is quite upset with developments at Newsweek. Jonathan Alter, a former Newsweek pundit, wrote “The Death of Newsweek” for Atlantic, a prime dispenser of centrist politics.

Newsweek was always the scrappy, risk-taking underdog, Avis to Time’s Hertz. As Don Graham, his mother’s successor, liked to say, “We’re the pirate ship and they’re the stately ocean liner sailing off.” Pirates had fun—not raffish newsroom amusement (our offices looked more like an insurance company) but a spirit of adventure every week. “Scramble the jets!” our late editor, Maynard Parker, would shout, and all over the world dozens of correspondents and editors swooped and dove on a Friday afternoon to cover the big, late-breaking story of the week. Within 24 hours, we could produce a polished 7,000-word cover package with arresting, often-exclusive reporting from far-flung locales, fresh columns and sidebars, classy photos and spreads, and—especially if someone like Peter Goldman, Evan Thomas, or Jerry Adler was writing—exquisite narrative “tick tock.” The features and criticism in the “back of the book” were also as good or better than those in more intellectual publications, even if it wasn’t cool in New York to admit that about a middlebrow magazine.

My own experience with Newsweek was ambivalent to say the least. Back in the stone ages when there wasn’t an Internet, households such as ours relied on Time and Newsweek much more than the N.Y. Times. The magazine was tabloid sized and the articles were written for someone with a high school education or presently in high school, as I was. It was in Newsweek where I discovered the beat generation, foreign films and contemporary classical music.

Between 1965 and 1967, Newsweek published ten articles about the US war in Vietnam that focused almost exclusively on the advances produced by firepower. Typically, such magazines only devoted 3 percent of its coverage on the toll B-52s and other killing machines were taking on civilians.

By 1967, the malfeasance of Newsweek and much of television reporting was enough for me to break with the system and become a revolutionary socialist. I stopped reading Newsweek or any other capitalist print publication and relied strictly on the radical press, especially the SWP’s, and the NY Times that can be very useful if you read it critically.

Eleven years later, when Reagan was trying to make the Nicaraguans cry uncle at the same time I was recruiting engineers, programmers, skilled tradespeople, and medical professionals to volunteer to help keep the revolution alive, Newsweek was writing the kinds of articles that are now being written about Venezuela. The government was repressive, the economy sucked, etc. But none of the articles really explored the American role in creating such a dire situation. This article was typical:

In the battle over contra aid, the administration was set to open a new offensive. Congress has become increasingly skeptical about the Nicaraguan rebels’ military capabilities, and the peace plan signed by five Central American leaders last August isolates the contras politically. But U.S. officials had a new weapon: Maj. Roger Miranda, a high-ranking Sandinista defector with stories of secret Cuban and Soviet pacts and of links to other leftist guerrillas. Last week Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams allowed several news organizations to interview the defector. Then, learning that reporters planned to publish Miranda’s revelations, Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega launched a pre-emptive strike. Speaking at a gathering in Managua, he confirmed some of Miranda’s most damaging disclosures.

Among the revelations:

* Manauga [sic] has made secret agreements with the Soviet Union, Cuba and East-bloc nations. Ortega said the pacts, which Managua has never before acknowledged, call for assistance in helping the Sandinistas arm and train 600,000 Army troops and civilian militia by the mid-1990s. According to one U.S. official, the goal is to make any U.S. invasion prohibitively costly. With that kind of troop strength and arsenal, it would take four divisions and massive air strikes to oust the Sandinistas.

* Nicaragua has “several hundred, a few thousand” officers taking courses in Cuba and the Soviet Union in the use of sophisticated weapons, Ortega admitted for the first time last week.

* The Sandinistas are training Salvadoran rebels to use ground-to-air missiles; the shoulder-launched weapons could sharply escalate the eight-year-old war.

Oh, did I mentioned that Robert Parry was one of the three Newsweek staffers who co-wrote the piece?

 

February 9, 2018

A Sniper’s War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 9, 2018

“A Sniper’s War” just premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and will next be seen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana on February 23rd. Although I doubt that many of my readers will be in Missoula for the festival—or for any other purpose—I still want to call attention to a film that should eventually and hopefully make it into theatrical distribution before too long. This is a first-time work by a young filmmaker that shows remarkable courage, talent and perseverance in painting a portrait of a Serb volunteer who came to the Donetsk People’s Republic to defend his socialist beliefs. Whether or not those beliefs were grounded in reality is not really a question the film sought to answer. Director Olya Schechter simply wanted to tell the story of a man nicknamed Deki who was poised on the razor’s edge between duty to a higher cause and murder.

Early on in her powerful documentary, we see Deki showing photographs on his smart phone of the devastation wrought by NATO in Belgrade. There are bombed out buildings that by any definition were the result of war crimes. Behind him on the wall is a banner from the former Soviet Union of a hammer and sickle poised above a red star. Later on, we hear him and fellow separatist fighters mourning over the loss of Communism that they blame on NATO and Western imperialism. Deki is nostalgic for a system that provided free health care and education in Yugoslavia, as the militia members nod in agreement. The men are not ultra-nationalist special forces “volunteers” hoping to reabsorb the whole of Ukraine into a new Russian empire. Instead, they are the salt of the earth of Eastern Ukraine: middle-aged schoolteachers and coal miners.

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February 6, 2018

Chris Hedges and Identity Politics

Filed under: Workerism — louisproyect @ 11:26 pm

One can only hope, maybe even pray, that the well-intentioned Chris Hedges knew very little about the Socialist Equality Party when he participated in a webinar with cult leader David North on January 25th that drew statements of support from the feckless Putinites John Pilger and Julian Assange. The webinar was devoted to a discussion of “Organizing Resistance to Internet Censorship” that grew out of the SEP’s campaign against the new Google algorithms that cut down on the number of “hits” that its website got. The campaign made it sound as if they were being singled out because of their threat to American capitalism whereas other left websites were affected as well.

Over on Truthdig that still has mud on its face for publishing Daniel Lazare’s Assadist propaganda, you can now read an article by Hedges titled “The Bankruptcy of the American Left” that takes the side of North’s super-sectarian sect-cult on “identity politics”. He found himself in complete agreement with this comment by the cult leader:

We totally reject the narrative that the working class is racist. I think this has been the narrative pushed by the pseudo-left, middle-class groups who are drunk on identity politics, which have a vested interest in constantly distracting people from the essential class differences that exist in the society. Dividing everyone up on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference fails to address the major problem.

Hedges also recommends the writings of the Boston College sociologist Charles Derber:

The left offers no broad critique of the political economy of capitalism. It’s largely an identity-politics party. It focuses on reforms for blacks and women and so forth. But it doesn’t offer a contextual analysis within capitalism.

As an example of the bankruptcy of identity politics, Derber mentions gay people wanting to “fight in the military” since this amounts to “legitimating the American empire”. He asks, “If you were living in Nazi Germany, would you say I want the right of a gay person to fight in combat with the Nazi soldiers?” I suppose that you might as well have denounced civil rights activists demanding equal rights for African-Americans in the military as well, or at least making sure that if they became soldiers that their duties be limited to non-combat roles such as washing dishes or ironing an officer’s uniform, as was once a common practice.

Much of this conversation about the left and identity politics is driven by policy wonks in the Democratic Party who blamed Hillary Clinton for the party’s loss in 2016. Chief among them is Columbia professor Mark Lilla who described BLM as a “textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” You also get a Marxist version of this from Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed.

Hedges has had a stick up his ass about identity politics and multiculturalism for some time. In November 2015, he wrote a screed that hailed Russell Jacoby’s “The End of Utopia”. Jacoby, according to Hedges, says that the call by multiculturalists for inclusion within the power structure does nothing to challenge the deadly “monoculturalism” of corporatism. This, of course, is exactly what Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed argue as well.

Probably the most rancid example of this political philosophy can be found in Todd Gitlin’s 1995 “The Twilight of Common Dreams” that complained about how multiculturalism (ie, uppity women, gays and Blacks) alienates blue collar workers from voting Democrat. In 1997, Gitlin and the late Bogan Denitch spoke together at a plenary session at the Socialist Scholars Conference denouncing “identity politics”. I encourage you to read Jesse Lemisch’s “Angry White Men on the Left” for a brilliantly lacerating take on the two:

GITLIN HAS RECENTLY MOVED FROM THE SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT at Berkeley to become Professor of Culture, Journalism and Sociology at New York University. His arrival in New York City seems to have given added strength and legitimacy to a pre-existing condition: a straight male backlash among New York left intellectuals. This was especially clear in the presentation by Bogdan Denitch, the conference organizer, who spoke along with Gitlin in the session on identity politics.

In his introduction to the conference program, Denitch had written, “We must learn to effectively confront the splintering politics of identity…” Speaking alongside Gitlin, it seemed that Denitch (who had arrived at the same conclusions on his own) had nonetheless been freed from a great burden, now that prestigious validation had been given to the attack on most kinds of feminism, gay liberation and black self-organization. In a truculent and martyred spirit, he dragged out the old Lasch-ian vocabulary with its condemnation of “self-indulgence” (as if those who organize themselves on any basis other than class are frivolous, irresponsible and destructive). To a sprinkling of applause from other angries in the audience, Denitch announced, “we don’t care if you are gay; we want to know whether you are a left gay!” And he was positively ferocious about some unspecified excesses by feminists which seemed to have been performed directly on his person. Whatever it was, I felt sorry for him and the obvious resultant trauma. As more of this kind of belligerence appears within its ranks, DSA is going to have to figure out where it stands.

People new to Marxist politics like Chris Hedges probably have no idea what kind of background David North has. He was a member of the Workers League in the USA that was the satellite of Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party in England that in its prime had enough clout to recruit Vanessa Redgrave.

Healy was expelled from his own party in 1985 after it was revealed that he was a sexual predator. In Chapter 11 of Bob Pitt’s “The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy”, we get the picture of someone who might be described as the Harvey Weinstein of the left, capitalizing on his cult status rather than the promise to an actress of getting a role in a Quentin Tarantino movie:

What was the character of this sexual abuse? It was later stated that the women Healy pressurised into having sexual relations with him ‘mistakenly believed that the revolution – in the form of the “greatest” leader demanded this, the most personal sacrifice of all. They were not coerced … physically, but every pressure was brought to bear on them as revolutionaries’. The situation was ‘not so much rape but … sexual abuse by someone in a position of power and trust’.6 It was, Dave Bruce comments, ‘wholesale sexual corruption in a manner analogous to these religious sects. There’s a very close parallel’.7

David Walsh, North’s film critic at wsws.org, is very upset over the stink women are raising over Weinstein and other sexual predators. He takes particular issue with Ronan Farrow, whose reporting on Weinstein in the New Yorker magazine was quite devastating:

Ronan Farrow, who helped launch the current campaign with his exposé of Harvey Weinstein in the New Yorker, personifies the nexus between middle class moralizing, the Democratic Party and high-level state operations. The son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, Farrow began working “in some unspecified capacity” (Politico) for US diplomat (and Democrat) Richard Holbrooke when he was a teenager. At one point, Farrow served as a speechwriter for Holbrooke, who, as the WSWS noted in a 2010 obituary, was “a man steeped in the commission and cover-up of bloody crimes” from Vietnam to the Balkans, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

So, dear readers, this must mean that all this stuff about Weinstein jerking off into a potted plant while he blocks an actress from leaving his office might lead to a nuclear war or something. (Don’t forget that I told David North that WWIII was not imminent over the fighting in Donetsk. He never forgave me.)

This is how David North’s cult sees all these uppity women complaining about getting fucked over by men like Harvey Weinstein or Gerry Healy for that matter:

The stage is set for an explosion of the class struggle, in the US and around the globe. Every social layer is propelled into motion. The affluent middle class resents those above and fears the working class below. Historically impotent and incapable of reorganizing society in a progressive fashion, this social grouping aspires to changes that “will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible.” (Marx)

The #MeToo movement, like Black Lives Matter, emanates from this layer. It represents one portion of the upper-middle class. There are certainly some powerful men who will lose out if this movement has its way. However, they are mere “collateral damage” in the eyes of more farsighted sections of the ruling elite, including leading Democrats, the New York Times, Washington Post, etc., who recognize the value of the sexual misconduct campaign in strengthening identity politics and generally distracting attention from the cancerous social inequality, the danger of dictatorship and the drive to war.

So, here we have it. The dead end of anti-identity politics. If women or blacks complain too much about getting raped or shot by a racist cop, they are “distracting attention from the cancerous social inequality, the danger of dictatorship and the drive to war.” I hope that someone who has Hedges’s ear can warn him that this has nothing to do with the task of overthrowing capitalism and building a new society on full respect for one and all. Marxism has had to deal with this “workerist” crap going back to Karl Marx’s day.

The “orthodox” Marxists like Frederic Sorge were similar to David North while Victoria Woodhull was much more like the feminist or Black Marxists of today. She wrote:

The sexual relation, must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery. Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like men, permanent and independent individualities, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity.

The debate on the left about “identity politics” has to transcend the obsessions of people like Mark Lilla or Walter Benn Michaels. It doesn’t matter if we are building a movement that loses the support of some whites because it defends the right of transgender people to choose the bathroom they are comfortable in or the need for affirmative action in the building trades or wherever it is needed. Unless we are ready to challenge injustice on all fronts, we will never create the vanguard that is so necessary today.

In “What is to be Done”, Lenin wrote:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life. That should be our watchword just as it was Lenin’s in 1903.

February 5, 2018

Fact-checking the latest propaganda rolling off the Assadist assembly-line

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

Judith Miller and Christopher Hitchens: forerunners of today’s Assadist propagandists

One of the most off-putting things about Assadist propaganda is that it advertises itself as a corrective to the “mainstream media” even as its purveyors adopt the journalistic norms of Judith Miller. What explains the cavalier attitude toward the truth? To a large extent, it is a function of deep-seated Islamophobia that is rooted in 9/11. Back then, Christopher Hitchens earned the contempt for most of us on the left for his close ties to the Bush administration. Even if it was becoming obvious that the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was based on a mountain of lies, Hitchens gave the Bush administration a free pass because he saw al-Qaeda as the greatest threat to “Western Civilization” since Adolph Hitler.

Today, there is a virtual army of journalists who combine the shoddy journalism of Judith Miller and the virulent Islamophobia of Christopher Hitchens on behalf of a new crusade against the “Salafist menace”. But instead of serving as the lapdog of George W. Bush, they operate as cogs in the propaganda machine for the Kremlin and the Baathist state. Their hatred for “jihadism” runs so deep that they justify the bombing of hospitals in Idlib because Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) has a foothold there. The ability of many leftists to lament the war crimes in Yemen and now in Afrin while cheering on Russian and Syrian mass murder is a defect in the kind of movement we have become, showing the same kind of cynical “ends justify the means” mindset that destroyed the Stalinized Communist Party.

Two recent examples illustrate how low the Assadist left has sunk. The first is an article in Viewpoint by Patrick Higgins titled “The Enemy at Home: U.S. Imperialism in Syria” that invokes Karl Liebknecht’s call for opposition to WWI. Hasn’t Higgins any idea that opposition to WWI in the USA back then would land you in prison as Eugene V. Debs discovered? Today, opposition to a Bush-style American intervention in Syria is universal, spanning from Higgins on the left to Henry Kissinger and David Duke on the right.

As is customarily the case, as long as Higgins writes about American foreign policy exclusive of Syria, there is not much to quibble with. Most of it is what you’d read in Noam Chomsky or Alexander Cockburn. Or, for that matter, what I wrote about Vietnam, Nicaragua, Palestine or Iraq over the years.

It is only when he gets to Syria that the propaganda kicks in.

Higgins argues that the war in Syria is the culmination of a policy that began during Eisenhower’s administration to contain Arab radicalism, particularly of the type Nasser represented. Making the case that the Baathist state is inimical to American interests in the region would by necessity omit any reference to Hafez al-Assad becoming part of the coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The Baathist dictator’s support for American imperialism paid dividends as the Chicago Tribune reported:

A year ago Syria, which always has aspired to a leadership role in Arab affairs, was isolated and resented by most of its neighbors. Now it has forged an alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and has joined with Egypt in providing the bulk of the troops for a new Arab peacekeeping force in the Persian Gulf region.

It has received about $2.5 billion in assistance from the Gulf States and Japan, and its role in the peacekeeping force promises another sizable windfall.

So, imagine that. Assad the father cuts deals with Mubarak and the Saudis in cahoots with the USA and this is what “Arab radicalism” amounts to? Oh, did I mention that Kuwait is not mentioned once in Higgins’s article?

Like many others who profess support for the Palestinian cause, Higgins credits the Syrian dictatorship for backing Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel in 2006 even if it is impossible for him to sweep under the rug how it allied with Israel against the PLO in Lebanon.

Once again, this is a highly selective version of Syrian-Palestinian relations. Search for a reference to Gaza or Hamas in his article and you will come up empty just as was the case with Kuwait. He cannot admit that Hamas has condemned Russian and Syrian war crimes in East Aleppo. When Russian and Syrian jets were bombing hospitals, Hamas issued a statement that said: “We are following with great pain what is happening in Aleppo and the horrific massacres, murders and genocide its people are going through, and condemn it entirely.” Unlike Higgins, Hamas was not persuaded by the need to bomb hospitals because they were treating 4-year olds with broken bones who might grow up one day to become “terrorists”. When Syria dropped leaflets in East Aleppo to demand that the citizenry repudiate terrorism in the way that IDF did in Gaza City, Hamas could not help identifying with the victims of the “war on terror”.

In a journalistic maneuver that would have been too crass for Judith Miller to employ, Higgins claims that weaponry supplied to rebels in Syria were “diverted” to al-Nusra. As is often the case when I click the link to an article such as this, it is not what it was supposed to be saying. Maybe Higgins did not read past the Reuters article headline: U.S.-trained Syrian rebels gave equipment to Nusra: U.S. military. However, when you continue reading the article, you will learn that the weapons were surrendered in order to gain safe passage. This is like saying shopkeepers used to “give” protection money to the Mafia as if the consequences for refusing such payments would have been nothing but a slap on the wrist rather than a bullet in the head.

To make the case that the rebels were “Salafists” from the beginning, Higgins cites a Pentagon report that appears on the rightwing Judicial Watch website and that has been cited by a thousand other Assadist propagandists. However, in 2012 the dominant force in Syria was the FSA that would soon begin to clash with ISIS as it had with al-Nusra on occasion. To really make sense of the relationship of forces in Syria, you’d have to do more than write a brief report that was never official policy and that was also heavily redacted.

In May of 2013, the Center for American Progress issued a report estimating that the FSA had 50,000 fighters as opposed to al-Nusra’s 6,000. Another report from Charles Lister around this time estimates ISIS and al-Nusra’s combined forces to be 12,000 (I would have put ISIS into a separate category altogether since it had little interest in the goals of the Arab Spring, even less so than al-Nusra), while all other rebel groups amounted to 88,000. Perhaps Higgins has his own estimates but I doubt that someone who relies on the specious Judicial Watch report has any interest in that.

Higgins has the audacity to compare US bombing in Syria to that which occurred during the Vietnam war. This is truly astonishing. The USA dropped more than 3 times the tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than it dropped during all of WWII. And what was an example of US bombing in Syria? The only examples that Higgins could dredge up was a mortar attack on a trade fair in Damascus last August that killed 6 people and a suicide bombing there 3 months earlier that killed 31. This is on one side of the ledger and on the other you have artillery, missiles, barrel bombing and Sarin gas attacks that have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands. Talk about putting your fingers on the scales of justice.

As it happens, Higgins wrote essentially the same article for Jacobin in 2015 before it switched gears editorially to oppose Assad. To a large extent, Max Ajl was responsible for Assadist propaganda when he was a member of the editorial board. That kind of garbage disappeared after he got the boot. Now that he is on Viewpoint’s editorial board, we can expect the same kind of Islamophobic junk to appear. We might even assume that he will recruit the same scoundrels he used to line up for Jacobin.

On December 2, 2017, I wrote about Ajl’s conversation with fellow Assadist Justin Podhur about his departure from Jacobin. The oddest thing about their wound-licking session is their outlandish exaggeration of the power that is wielded by people like me, Gilbert Achcar, the ISO, New Politics and the new Jacobin over the Syria debate. Podhur put it this way:

And I think that feeling is something that I have personally been feeling for a really long time – guilty, muted, fumbling, silenced – about opposing imperialism, especially in Syria, and it’s been really confusing for me. And so for you to write that…I felt a lot of relief reading that somebody else felt that way.

This is truly astonishing. You have Alternet, Truthdig, CommonDreams, The Nation, the Boston Globe (via Stephen Kinzer), the LRB, the NYRB, 90 percent of the articles on CounterPunch, and countless other bloggers and websites making the same arguments as Ajl and Higgins and they feel “silenced”? Maybe what is irking them is that there are still a few lonely voices that don’t buy their crap. It wasn’t enough that Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton were bribed into write Assadist propaganda. Speaking for myself, I’d rather be water-boarded than justify bombing hospitals.

Unlike Higgins, who was an obscure graduate student with little to show either as a journalist or activist, Daniel Lazare has written some important stuff, including two books on the American constitution. But like all these good people from Seymour Hersh to Patrick Cockburn, he turned into Mr. Hyde after 2011.

In a Truthdig article titled “Jacobin Is Fueling the Lies About Syria”, Lazare hyper-ventilates on the post-Ajl Jacobin:

Syria has generated more lies than any United States action since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That’s why Jacobin Magazine, the self-proclaimed “leading voice of the American left,” is so important. Readers need it to help cut through the dense fog of mendacity billowing forth out of Washington.

Correction: That’s why Jacobin should be important. In fact, the magazine/website has echoed U.S. propaganda on Syria and in some cases even exceeded it.

Like Higgins, Lazare makes claims that are not backed up by the articles he links to in support of those claims. For example, he writes that “Jacobin has attacked the Assad regime for dwelling excessively on rebel atrocities against Christians, Shiites and other minorities” but when you go to the article in question, which is an interview with Yasser Munif, you can find nothing remotely connected to this. Just go to the article and look for anything about the Assad regime being attacked in such a manner. If you can find it, I will donate $1,000 to the Moon of Alabama’s next fund-drive.

Lazare misses the good old days when Jacobin was publishing Patrick Higgins. That’s a laugh. His 2015 article was even a worse case of yellow journalism than his Viewpoint piece. I would refer you to my commentary on it here. He tells his readers that the rebels were bloodthirsty jihadists from the beginning, referring to a BBC article that connects them to the death of 120 Baathist cops in 2011. What he fails to tell you, however, is that the BBC was simply reporting what state television said. Covering this up is just what you’d expect from a shameless propagandist like Patrick Higgins.

Lazare is upset that Jacobin questioned whether Obama was for “regime change”. Maybe he hadn’t read the October 22, 2013 N.Y. Times article that made this crystal clear, written when worries over a looming war with Syria were at their height. It stated “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”

This is not to speak of the Atlantic Magazine interviews that Jeffrey Goldberg conducted with Obama in 2016. Once again the clash with Samantha Power is cited:

At the outset of the Syrian uprising, in early 2011, Power argued that the rebels, drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens, deserved America’s enthusiastic support. Others noted that the rebels were farmers and doctors and carpenters, comparing these revolutionaries to the men who won America’s war for independence.

Obama flipped this plea on its head. “When you have a professional army,” he once told me, “that is well armed and sponsored by two large states”—Iran and Russia—“who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict …” He paused. “The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.” The message Obama telegraphed in speeches and interviews was clear: He would not end up like the second President Bush—a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East, whose decisions filled the wards of Walter Reed with grievously wounded soldiers, who was helpless to stop the obliteration of his reputation, even when he recalibrated his policies in his second term. Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Lazare explains Syria’s war as the outcome of religious Sunni resentment toward a leader who even Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami considered “genuinely popular” with most Syrians. These are the co-authors of “Burning Country” whose meeting at Columbia University was trolled by Lazare. I suppose that Lazare assumed that people would not go out and buy their book to judge the accuracy of his citation. As it happens, the book—happily—can now be read online and in the context that Lazare slyly omitted. The authors were referring to the hopes of some that Assad would respond positively to the earliest protests in 2011:

Some even thought the popular protests would be welcomed by Bashaar as ammunition in his presumed struggle against regime hardliners. After all, the man was genuinely popular. Perhaps – after allowing  non-sectarian and non-ethnic parties to operate openly – he could  even have won a real election, and gone down in history as hero of  the democratic transition.

In other words, the authors were referring to what some thought. I suppose by this criterion, Assad was the most popular president in modern history, routinely getting 98% of the vote. That “some” might have been 25% of the country or maybe even 40% but we’ll never know since door to door polling would have been about as possible as a television station that challenged a system that relied on prison, torture, murder and beatings for a stability based on fear.

For Robin Yassin-Kassab’s reaction to Lazare’s intervention, I recommend this:

We heard some strange things, but were only once confronted by a highly aggressive, profoundly ignorant and prejudiced white man. This was during our talk at Columbia University, New York. This character was the first to put up his hand after our presentations. He’d been glaring, particularly at Leila, throughout the talks.

He was almost spitting with anger. How could Leila describe Iran as a prime generator of sectarianism, he wanted to know, when everyone knew it was Saudi Arabia? He himself knew for sure that Syria’s 2011 protest movement was entirely made up of Sunnis, and that they were calling for the blood of the Alawis and Christians from the first day. He knew that all the Christians and Alawis and Druze had demonstrated for Assad. He named a French commentator as evidence for this (Fabrice someone?), and expressed admiration for Patrick Cockburn, who I’d criticised in my talk.

And so he encapsulated some of the worst characteristics of this pro-fascist ‘left’ that has run so badly aground. The lack of detail, and useless binarism, of the Iran/Saudi comment; the orientalism and Islamophobia of the rest; the anger born of a sense of entitlement to narrate other people’s struggles; and the reliance on French and Irish commentators rather than on Syrian revolutionary voices. Neither Leila nor I claim to be Syrian revolutionary voices, but we have interviewed many Syrian revolutionaries, including many from Christian and Alawi backgrounds, who were part of the protest movement from the start. In my answer I mentioned them, and also towns like Yabroud, with a very high proportion of ‘religious minorities’, which liberated themselves from Assad’s forces and set up free local councils and Free Army militias instead. The angry man tutted and spat through my answer. At least two Syrian Christians were in the room, rolling their eyes as he spat.

Leila was disturbed by him. I told her not to dwell on it. The man was so emotionally overwrought he probably had mental problems, like so many in this city. But afterwards we learnt that the angry man is a Stalinist ‘intellectual’, that he writes for the ugly magazine Jacobin, and that his name is Daniel Lazare.

If Lazare’s analysis rests on shaky foundations, his writing is just as badly in need of a watchful editor that the well-endowed Truthdig’s editors were unable to catch. He cites a book “Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam” as proof of the U.S.’s evil intentions. The author? None other than Richard Dreyfus [sic, it is actually Dreyfuss], the star of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” who was recently charged with sexual harassment? Nope. Lazare meant Robert Dreyfuss, who is as hysterically obsessed with al-Qaeda as Lazare or Higgins.

Like Higgins’s 2015 Jacobin article, Lazare insists that the rebels were bloodthirsty jihadists from the start:

The claim that protesters turned to violence only after the regime used deadly force is belied by an Israeli TV report in March 2011 that protesters had killed seven soldiers in Dera’a and set fire to the local courthouse and Baath Party headquarters.

Naturally, Lazare fails to mention that four protestors were killed and another 100 were wounded days before the retaliation took place. If you want to see why peaceful protestors decided that they had enough, watch this:

Naturally, Lazare begins to wind down his article with an endorsement of Robert Fisk’s reporting from Syria, where he has  been continuously embedded with the Syrian army just as CNN was embedded in the U.S. military during the war in Iraq. Fisk’s reporting has been so atrocious that the word “Fisking” was invented to describe his habitual distortions and lies.

On February 2nd, Fisk told his Independent readers: “I have to say, however, that after a 2,000-mile tour over much of Syria, I have – for the first time in recent months – seen neither a single Hezbollah member or Iranian revolutionary guard. And since Western leaders believe Syria is swamped with Iranians, this is interesting.”

But on January 3rd, Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah was quite clear that his troops were in Syria.

The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group said on Wednesday the Syrian war, now in its seventh year, will be finished in one or two years at most.

In an interview with Lebanon’s pro-Iran al-Mayadeen channel, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also said Israeli strikes on Hezbollah positions in Syria did not, and will not, prevent supplies of weapons reaching the group.

You can read the whole thing here: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/five-things-you-may-have-missed-nasrallah-s-interview-372610417.

So, if Robert Fisk didn’t see any Hezbollah fighters in Syria, maybe he should get checked for cataracts. As for Daniel Lazare and Patrick Higgins, they are clearly beyond help.

February 3, 2018

Nelson Blackstock, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 8:21 pm

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Nelson Blackstock, 1944-2018

Yesterday, Nelson Blackstock, a comrade and friend for nearly 50 years, died from the complications of Parkinson’s. He was a central leader of the SWP in the 1970s, serving as the editor of the Militant newspaper and on the political committee. Under ordinary circumstances, someone with those kinds of credentials would deserve an obituary in the Militant but Nelson became persona non grata to some extent because he was perceived as my friend. But it is just as possible that his death would have gone unnoticed since there were other “offenses” on his record after he had left the party in the mid-80s having nothing to do with me. When he and his wife Diane decided to take a trip to Cuba, they were told that sympathizers were not permitted to make such an unsupervised trip. They ignored the party’s instructions just as Nelson ignored my banning.

Being ostracized from the SWP and its periphery of sympathizers has Kafkaesque dimensions. Last year, when Priscilla Ring died, Nelson called party HQ in Los Angeles to find out where the memorial meeting was being held but was told that he could not attend. I surmised that this was because he was seen as my friend. This mattered more than his close ties to Harry and Priscilla Ring who had treated Nelson like a son in many ways. More recently, when Nelson tried to contact Jeff Powers, another diehard supporter of the SWP who was Nelson’s friend even longer than me, he got the cold shoulder. I doubt that the Jehovah’s Witnesses “shunning” behavior is more inhumane than this.

Nelson was born on September 7, 1944 to a working-class mother and father in suburban Atlanta. For most of his youth, they used an outhouse. His father sanded floors for a living and could easily be reduced to the status of a “deplorable” since his racial views were like those of other Southern whites. There’s a photo of his father holding a dead snake by its tail that Nelson treasured. If you look at it, you’d conclude that he was the least likely father to raise a son who would devote many years to opposing racism and capitalism.

Nelson started out sharing the same views as his father and his peers. Always a gifted draftsman, who used to draw caricatures of comrades in executive committee meetings in the Houston branch, Nelson used to draw pictures of the Confederate flag in the margins of his notebooks during elementary school classes.

All that changed when he began to read Harry Golden’s columns in the Carolina Israelite. Golden was a Jew who had immigrated from the Ukraine and become an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow in the 1930s. For many of us who grew up in the 1950s, people like Golden and talk show host Steve Allen were the only source of liberal ideas.

Besides being a political liberal (and dogmatic anti-Communist), Allen was tuned into the beat generation, enough so to feature Jack Kerouac reading his poems while he played jazz piano as background. Kerouac was a major influence on Nelson, and me as well. Since we were a bit older than most of the people who would join the SWP in droves during the Vietnam antiwar movement, we had one foot in the beat generation. When I first met Nelson in 1969, we found ourselves talking as much about “On the Road” as Marxist theory.

Before joining the SWP, Nelson had been a leading figure in the Southern civil rights movement. He helped to found the Southern Students Organizing Committee (SSOC) in 1964, a group that was intended to be a combination of SDS and SNCC for white students. You can see Nelson’s application for the Mississippi Summer Project in the University of Southern Mississippi’s digital archives here that identifies him as an SDSer, where his political career began.

Nelson took part in an obscure initiative that was part of the Mississippi Summer. Called the White Folks Project, this was an attempt by SNCC to organize poor whites. As part of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), it sent volunteers like Nelson into Mississippi in order to try to win men and women who shared his father’s prejudices to the cause of desegregation. Nelson’s report can be read here.

It shows the prose mastery that Nelson would display later on writing for the Militant newspaper when it was of such relevance and intelligence that Malcolm X himself recommended it to a largely Black audience at a meeting organized by the SWP. I suspect that the Jeff mentioned in the report is his old friend Jeff Powers.

I entered the barber shop alone – leaving Jeff at door. I had on Levis and Jeff dressed in usual manner. One old man was cutting another bald-headed old man’s hair, No one else inside, As soon as I sit down the man getting haircut mentions seeing a man about 22 or 23 and a girl 19 “just a’eatin’ with Lem” in a “colored” restaurant. Says a couple of white restaurants have integrated last week and he expects that it is going to happen that “black and white” will eat together. The barber breaks into a wheezing, coughing tirade about how only a sorry son of a bitohin’ white man would eat with the black filthy-ass bastards. (I suspect that I have been recognized.) Barber goes on to say he would drive his car all over U.S. before he would eat in some place as a stinkin’ nigger. Bought car to get out of riding trains and busses. They take up all front seats. The other man reverts to using nigger in recounting how he has eaten with then at VA hospital but hover at same table. They have sat down beside him but he has gotten up.

Nelson came up to N.Y. in 1969 to edit the Young Socialist, the magazine of the Young Socialist Alliance. When we were introduced at party headquarters, we hit it right off. I found most SWP leaders back then to be aloof characters with a manner I associated with student government types but Nelson was funny, smart and warm. After I left N.Y. in 1970 to reinforce Peter Camejo’s faction in the Boston branch of the SWP, we lost touch.

We were reunited in 1973 when I was sent to Houston in order to take up the fight against the local opposition to Jack Barnes. This group, amounting to nearly half of the branch,  raised the same objections I countered in the Boston branch as well as new ones that were associated with Ernest Mandel’s Fourth International. One of the people I was sent down  to “crush” in Houston was a young man named Mark Lause, who is now a respected Civil War historian and the comrade I feel closer to politically than any other human being. Mark was allied at the time with Peter Gellert, who is also a long-time friend and comrade who was the first to send me email after hearing about Nelson’s death.

Nelson and I grew much closer in Houston. We used to spend time hanging out at Liberty Hall where we would always make sure to hear Asleep at the Wheel when they were in town. This was a Bob Wills tribute band that was led by Ray Benson, a great Western Swing vocalist and a Jew who grew up in Philadelphia. As much as I enjoyed spending time with Nelson, I began to become deeply alienated by the SWP, so much so that told people that I was boycotting the next “social” because it would be nothing but a bunch of people getting drunk as they talked about party matters. By this time, Nelson had departed to Berkeley where he was once again taking up the fight against the “Mandelistas”. Like Mark and Peter, the respected Marxist literary scholar Alan Wald was opposed to the Barnes leadership. I received this note from him just after I informed him that Nelson was dying:

Very sorry to hear this–and I appreciate being kept informed. If it is helpful to send a message of support or solidarity to anyone, I’m happy to do it.

Of course, Nelson and I fought like cats and dogs in the late 60s/early 1970s when he was Oakland/Berkeley SWP organizer and I was the YSA organizer (until I was “removed” in fall 1971). But we had a half-dozen or so pleasant exchange in the last few years.

1) Nelson was the first person who showed me a bound volume, personally owned in his apartment, of all issues of FI/NI/ISR from the 1930s-40s onward. He must have gotten them from his time in New York when he designed/edited YS. I was very jealous but only able to start collecting individual copies. (Now they are all on line.)

2) I used to hang out in a bookstore called PM in San Francisco (open only in the evening) owned by Jac Wasserman. Wasserman had been the founder of the SWP’s Pioneer Publishers–hardly even recognized in SWP history because he became a Shachtmanite in 1940. When Jac came back from WWII his marriage broke up and he moved down South, to Alabama. There he became deeply involved in sharecroppers rights and in the 1960s ran into Nelson. Jac really admired Nelson and praised him to high heaven–but he said that, after Nelson joined the YSA/SWP, he changed. I had always planned to try to get Jac and Nelson together to see what might happen, but by that time either Nelson and I were on bad terms or else Nelson had gone to Texas. Years later I went back to visit Jac with a tape recorder in hopes of an interview; he had been in the John Reed Club before the SWP and was friends with a famous Brazilian art critic (Mario Pedrosa) who lived in NYC in the 1930s and was on the International Executive Committee of the FI.. But I found Jac alone in his apartment with his memory entirely gone…

Nelson’s next assignment after Berkeley was to become the editor of the Militant newspaper. In that capacity, he began writing about the FBI’s Cointelpro program that had been used against our members (including me) as well as many others on the left, including Martin Luther King Jr. His articles were collected into “Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom” in 1975, a book that profiled victims of this attempt to create dissension in the SWP and to get people fired from their jobs as this excerpt would indicate:

In still another poison pen episode, the FBI tried in April 1969 to get Maude White (now Wilkinson) “separated from her employment” as a preschool teacher in Washington, D.C. The local FBI sent an anonymous letter signed “A Concerned Citizen,” purporting to be from Wilkinson’s neighbor, to the superintendent of the D.C. school system. The letter said that “Miss White has held weekly meetings of a socialist youth group” in her apartment.

After expounding upon the classical FBI distortions of the YSA as a group supporting “violent activities against established authority,” the letter continues, “I bring this information to your attention in order to protect the D.C. School System from the menace of a teacher who does not have the interests of the children or the country at heart.”

But it was precisely the interests of the children and the American people that led Wilkinson to become a socialist: “Being a teacher, especially in the D.C. schools, I saw how rotten the schools were, how much money was spent on war and how little on education,” she says.

Four years later, Nelson became the organizer of the Birmingham, Alabama branch of the SWP that as part of “the turn to industry” was colonizing the coal mines. To help win workers to the socialist cause, party members would sell the Militant newspaper on the road leading to a coal mine. One morning as Nelson was out on a sale, he and a comrade were attacked by Klan members who left permanent damage to Nelson’s hip as this article from the Militant details:

You can get some more detail on this incident from page nine of the Militant newspaper dated June 22, 1979.

Afterward, Nelson walked with a cane and as a result was not able to get a job in industry. This led to his being sidelined politically and becoming willy-nilly a less than worthy party member. Within a couple of years, I had become part of Peter Camejo’s North Star Network and a fierce critic of the party. This did not make any difference to Nelson.

When I used to go out to Los Angeles to visit friends working in the film industry, I would always spend time with Nelson and his wife Diane Jacobs. He listened patiently to my charges against the party leaders even if he thought that they indicated that I “lost faith in the working class” or something like that.

Me (l) and Nelson (r) in my living room in the mid-80s, probably after drinking bourbon

In the mid-80s (I am not sure exactly when), Nelson dropped out of the SWP for personal reasons. In weighing the benefits of being the book store director against enjoying Saturday afternoon reading novels and smoking his pipe or a cigar from the terrace of his apartment in Lago Vista condos overlooking Echo Park lake, he went with the novels and the smokes. This unique modernist complex, designed by architect Allyn E. Morris, is known as the “Crown Jewel” of Echo Park and was beloved by Nelson and Diane who were both art students when young. I used to take great pleasure sitting out on the terrace with Nelson discussing music or film, even if I was rude enough to bring up the degeneration of the SWP from time to time.

I think Nelson finally figured out that there was something wrong with the party when the N.Y. Observer reported that Jack Barnes had sold his condo in the West Village near party HQ for nearly $2 million. It was literally large enough to fit two of the Lago Vista apartments into.

Nelson began to lose interest in politics by this point. His only project that could be described as political was to begin work on a documentary about SWP leaders like George Novack. Unfortunately, declining health and a failure to master the editing software that could turn the videos into a finished product got in the way. I worked with Nelson to interview some of the leading Cochranites, however. They can be seen on my Vimeo channel. My hope is to finish Nelson’s project since the videos would be critically important oral history.

Nelson’s health began to decline in the mid-80s with a series of issues that made him into a modern-day Job. First there was the hip injury that was finally overcome through an artificial hip joint. Next there was the loss of the sight in one eye because an ophthalmologist had urged him to continue using steroids after cataract surgery even though it was damaging the nerves in one eye. Adult attention deficit disorder worsened to the point that he occasionally missed plane flights because he lost track of the departure time. But the worst problem was with his spine. He underwent surgery to relieve pain from a herniated disk only to discover that a few  years later that scoliosis had worsened to the point that he needed to have a titanium rod attached to his spine if he wanted to stay out of a wheelchair. An 8 hour surgery a few years ago relieved this problem even if it meant him not having the mobility of a normal person.

And, just as the spine problems seemed to be under control, he came down with Parkinson’s. Nelson was trying hard to live with Parkinson’s but the illness made it difficult for him to function. He was hospitalized twice with pneumonia, an illness caused by the aspiration of food into the lungs—a common hazard for Parkinson’s patients who have difficulty swallowing. The finale began two months ago after a series of falls and a weakened condition led to him being cared for in a hospice a few days ago.

When I think of the kind of revolutionary party I want to belong to, it will be made up of people like Nelson Blackstock whatever their skin color, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. That was the kind of party I thought I was building in the 1960s and 70s. Maybe the tumultuous period we are living through will lead to the real thing. I hope to god that it does or else we are doomed.

February 2, 2018

The best films of 2017

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

My sentimental favorite

To repeat what I said in last year’s selection of the best films available as VOD (video on demand), Amazon continues to provide access to those that show up originally in obscure art house venues in the largest cities and nowhere else. The rental fee ranges between $3.99 to $6.99 and is worth every penny.

Despite the decline of such theaters as I pointed out in a recent CounterPunch article, the on-line availability of leading-edge independent, foreign-language, and documentary films is greater than ever. In the 1950s and 60s, arguably the golden age of film, your only opportunity to see something like Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” was to live in a city where it was playing. And even if you did, it might have been impossible for you to fit it into your schedule. That’s the demand for which a revival house like The New Yorker or Bleecker St. Cinema began to meet decades ago.

In 1985, the video shop revolution began with the opening of the first Blockbuster. Now, for the first time, you could go rent a VHS for “Yojimbo”, even though it was more likely that you’d rent it from the video store equivalent of The New Yorker, which in the Big Apple was a place called Kim’s Video and Music that shut down in 2014, a victim of Amazon just like the massive record shops Tower and J&R. Who knows? Maybe in ten years every capitalist commodity can only be ordered from Amazon. At that point, we should arm the workers, seize power, nationalize it once and for all, and exile Jeff Bezos to that space station colony he is obsessed with.

With the steady improvement of bandwidth and the convenience of devices such as the Roku box, it has reached the point where many of these envelope-pushing films can be rented not long after they premiere in an art house. In fact, most of the films I review were seen on Vimeo, a streaming site that is essential for the film industry’s publicity departments.

This year’s selection of ten narrative and ten documentaries was drawn from an especially rich pool. While Hollywood continues to decline, such films trend upwards—a function no doubt of living in a time when the social and economic crisis creates an enormous magnetic pull on filmmakers with a conscience. No matter how bleak things seem, let’s support such films since it is better than cursing the darkness.

The list below contains a link to and excerpt from my reviews.

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