Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 19, 2018

The political economy of a bridge collapse

Filed under: Academia,capitalist pig,corruption,disaster — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Like many urban-based universities, Miami’s Florida International University had a tendency to expand. With more than 50,000 enrolled undergraduate students—many of whom are Cuban-American—it is the fourth largest in the USA. In recent years, expansion took place geographically as well. After more than 4,000 students found housing on the other side of an 7-lane highway to the north of the main campus, the school decided to build a bridge across it. Since the highway was a major artery in Miami, the school decided to use Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) that avoided the detours that would have blocked the flow of the city’s commercial lifeblood. In ABC, the first step is to build the bridge on a remote construction site and then transport it to the destination where it will be installed in a day or two at most.

Here is the breathless come-on to investors about the benefits the bridge will bring:

Here is the celebratory inauguration of the installed bridge on March 10th:

And here is its collapse on March 15th that left 6 people in the cars beneath the 950 tons of concrete dead:

As it happens, FIU was not only enthusiastic about this particular application of Accelerated Bridge Construction but also about ABC in general, so much so that it created a department devoted to the technology (https://abc-utc.fiu.edu/) in 2010 missioned to “reduce the societal costs of bridge construction by reducing the duration of work zones, focusing special attention on preservation, service life, construction costs, education of the profession, and development of a next-generation workforce fully equipped with ABC knowledge.”

Two days before it collapsed, the lead engineer with the Figg Bridge Group, one of the two principal construction companies on the project left a voice mail indicating that he saw a crack in the bridge with an employee of the Florida Department of Transportation, who was out of the office  and did not hear the voice mail until after the bridge had collapsed. It is not clear that anything would have been done had he been in the office since the voice mail did not sound a particularly urgent note.

While the Florida Department of Transportation was out of the loop, FIU itself was not. At a meeting at 9am on March 15th between Figg employees, including the lead engineer, and school administrators, they were told that “that there were no safety concerns and the crack did not compromise the structural integrity of the bridge.” A couple of hours later the bridge would come crashing down.

This was not the first time Figg had supervised the construction of a collapsing bridge. In 2012, there was an accident that fortunately did not involve motorists or pedestrians beneath even though four workers suffered minor injuries. The company paid a miniscule fine and moved on.

Required by state law to undergo an independent review of the project, Figg selected the Louis Berger Group, an engineering firm that lacked pre-qualification credentials from the Florida Department of Transportation. A November 5th 2010 NY Times article by James Risen, however, suggested that this firm was especially pre-qualified to scam the people that hired it:

A New Jersey-based construction and engineering company has been hit with the largest fines ever imposed on a contractor working in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, after a whistle-blower revealed that the company had been overbilling the government.

The company, the Louis Berger Group, based in Morristown, N.J., will pay $18.7 million in criminal penalties and $50.6 million in civil penalties for overbilling the United States Agency for International Development for work in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. As part of the civil agreement, the company will pay $14.2 million of the civil penalty in the next 30 days and the balance over the next four years.

Figg’s partner on the project was Munilla Construction Management, a firm whose vice-president Pedro Munilla is a former attorney who was disbarred in 2001 for violating trust accounts, which conceivably might have meant conning his clients in the same way the Louis Berger Group conned tax-payers (not to say that the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was not a con job to begin with.)

Pedro Munilla is a typical construction company wheeler-and-dealer. Last year he met with a a Chinese investor looking for U.S. acquisitions. Guess who was advising the investor: Paul Manafort. It’s a small world when corruption is involved. Munilla runs the firm with his four brothers who as might be expected were enthusiastic about Donald Trump.  Representing the brothers, Pedro Munilla had a meeting last June with Vice President Mike Pence to review the administration’s Cuba policies. The five brothers have ponied up more than $100,000 to the anti-Castro U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, whose chief Mauricio Claver-Carone blogs at Huffington Post for what that’s worth.

The Munillas have also contributed heavily to Republican Party politicians both in Florida and in Congress. This kind of influence-peddling must have opened doors for a a lucrative $63.5 million contract from the Defense Department in 2016 to build a school on the U.S.-controlled Guantánamo Naval Base in eastern Cuba.

Locally, their payoffs to politicians has been worth it as well. In 2012 Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro voted to award a $25 million contract to Munilla for a test track for Metrorail cars while renting office space from the firm’s owners, county records show. Four of the brothers contributed the maximum campaign donation of $500 each to Barreiro, who was won his commission seat for a fifth time.

All of the brothers are FIU graduates so everything came together from a military-industrial-academic complex standpoint.

The Miami Herald, which has provided outstanding reporting on the bridge collapse, ran down the Munilla brothers’ record, which is as shoddy as Pedro Munilla’s legal career:

MCM construction sites, meanwhile, have been inspected eight times by the federal government since 2013 and fined on four occasions for violations worth more than $50,000. The company has also faced a slew of standard negligence and personal liability cases — typical in the industry. A contractual dispute with a subcontractor that walked off the job resulted in a $143,000 judgment against MCM; the subcontractor cited safety issues with the project, a $13.5 million bridge reconstructing project on Red Road.

Court documents from the lawsuit show that Southeastern Engineering Contractors left the job, citing structural problems and “arguable collapse” at the worksite because of the “failure of temporary sheet piles on the south bend of the site.” Attempts to reach attorneys representing both sides in that case were unsuccessful, as were efforts to reach principal Pedro Munilla by cellphone.

This entire incident manages to touch all bases of the rotting capitalist system in the USA, both economically and politically.

To start with, what kind of university establishes a department with a single focus on Accelerated Bridge Construction? Isn’t a university supposed to provide general engineering courses that prepare a student for a career? The department chair is Atorod Azizinamini, who was honored by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change in 2015. Given the need to construct new bridges across the USA using a time-saving technology, including the replacement of the Tappan Zee bridge recently, you can understand why the big bourgeoisie would be thrilled by his innovation even if it just killed six people “accidentally”. After all, that’s the price of progress. Btw, remind me to not use the NY State Thruway the next time I go up to the Catskills since it crosses the Tappan Zee.

It also illustrates how influence-peddling can undermine the economic fabric of capitalist society itself even if benefits a particular corporation. Hasn’t this been the Achilles Heel of capitalism all along? Despite the libertarian, free market precepts shared by Republicans and Democrats alike (except for an outlier like Bernie Sanders), everybody knows that politicians are bought and sold. In a review of the Democrats who voted for a relaxation of the Dodd-Frank rules, it turned out that According to the Financial Times, the 12 Democrats behind the Crapo bill (aptly named after Mike Crapo, the Republican Senator who introduced it) receive a substantial percentage of their campaign donations from banks with just under $50 billion in assets—those, in other words, who will benefit from this deregulation.

Finally, it demonstrates that profits come before people. When shady construction companies collaborate with a university that serves as a vocational school for the technology they are utilizing and ignore obvious signs that peoples’ lives are endangered, that’s about as clear a sign as you will get about the decadence of this crumbling system.

Update from a Florida comrade:

From a union worker, explaining how “right to work” results in incompetent workmanship; in the recent tragic case in Florida, it got people killed:

For 30 plus years. I worked as a Concrete Form Carpenter. The media keeps saying they were doing a stress test when the bridge went down . The bridge deck was a cable stay deck instead of using Rebar, they used cables. So after the concrete is poured the cables are pulled tight. So these Idiots waited till the concrete was rock hard. When they pulled the cables they busted through the bottom deck. So down she goes.

The cables should been tightened before the rock turned hard but when the concrete was wet right after it was poured. I have worked in Florida, the companies hire anyone to work construction . The super down to the laborer. Unskilled people doing skilled labor. This is a right to work state.

Union Busting. Florida is a right to work state. No training. Crane Operators are not required have proof of any experience. It is a mess here. That is why I moved back to NY.

I have done bridge decks in the past. In Connecticut and New York state. I have never heard of a stress test. The media should inform them selves before issuing statements like that. They fucked up the cables should have been tightened before the concrete set up. When it is wet, a subcontractor should have been on site right after the pour and pulled the cables.

Before every concrete pour, the concrete is tested for water content and temp is taken. And core samples are taken to a lab. Were they are put in a press to test for strength. These idiots should have known better but here in Florida it is a right to work state. No Unions so the work force is unskilled. The contractors will hire anyone with a pulse.

I was trained by The United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Florida is a right to work state. No Unions, zero trained workforce. Idiots running these job sites all to save a dollar.

March 17, 2018

Journey’s End

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

“Journey’s End” opened  yesterday at the Landmark Theater on 57th street. It is an antiwar film based on events that took place just about a century ago. A British company is in the trenches at Amiens, France in mid-March preparing for Operation Michael, a planned, massive German assault gathering material just across a “no-man’s land” that was about the length of a football field. Most of the action takes place over a 3 day period from March 19 to March 21, when the Germans overran the British. In three months at Amiens, 750,000 men would die while another 1 million would die before the war ended. Unlike all the patriotic gore surrounding “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour”, this is a portrait of war that is a close relative of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory”.

The film is based on a 1928 stage play by R.C. Sherriff, a British army veteran who was badly wounded in Ypres in 1917. He was not particularly associated with the left and probably wrote the play more as a personal testament rather than propaganda (in the good sense). Indeed, after the critic J. B. Priestley (described in George Orwell’s dossier as “pro-Communist”) hailed it as a pacifist work, Sherriff shot back: “I have not written this play as a piece of propaganda. And certainly not as propaganda for peace.”

He had a long and successful career as a novelist, playwright and screenwriter, with films like “The Invisible Man”, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Four Feathers” to his credit. Less well-known is his screenplay for “This Above All”, which according to Wikipedia is about a veteran of the Dunkirk retreat who “having a crisis of conscience over what the war is being fought for and disgusted at the incompetence of the ruling elite…decides not to return to the Army and to go absent without leave.”

Although there are two very brief battlefield action scenes, most of “Journey’s End” takes place in the British bunkers occupied by Company C and has very much of a theatrical quality as the various men argue with each other or offer moral support in the face of certain death.

The three main characters are Captain Stanhope, the company’s officer who the war has turned into a nerve-shattered drunk, Osborne, an older second-in-commend nicknamed “uncle”, and Raleigh, a lieutenant fresh out of training and filled with hopeless illusions about trench warfare as if were a rugby match. He has wrangled an assignment to Stanhope’s unit because he was his classmate just a few years ahead of him and because he was his older sister’s boyfriend. Osborne is played by Paul Bettany, who also played the ship’s surgeon and amateur botanist in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”. He is perfectly cast since he exudes common sense, wisdom and decency just as he did in the earlier film that unlike “Journey’s End” is Colonel Blimp incarnate (even if entertaining.)

The soldiers are fully aware that they are on death row. They have spotted a massive concentration of heavy artillery and tanks on the German side and have been given orders not to retreat. Suffice it to say that the three days depicted in the film are marked by extreme tension even if you can guess the outcome. All the actors are terrific and they are given great material to work with.

This is now the fifth adaptation of Sherriff’s play and probably the one most in harmony with the original. In the press notes, director Saul Dibb explains what attracted him to the play:

I felt it just had this incredible ring of truth to it. A really honest, really human account of what it was like to be there. Sherriff was a brilliant writer and he was writing from personal experience. We had the opportunity to make a very truthful account. The First World War was just a waste. It wiped out this whole generation, and for what? These people have been sacrificed. We just wanted to make it clear from the start that these are dead men walking. It’s not about slowly coming to understand it. All they come to understand, really, is what day it’s going to happen.

 

Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm

Alfred E. Newman: Mad Magazine mascot

Gina Haspel: Mad torturing CIA official

March 16, 2018

2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:02 pm

Lou Andreas-Salome, Paul Ree, Frederick Nietzsche

COUNTERPUNCH, March 16, 2018

CounterPunch readers in the Greater New York area should bookmark the 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival website and try to make it to tonight’s 7 PM screening of “Lou Andreas Salomé: The Audacity to be Free” that opens the festival. If you’ve seen and appreciated “The Young Karl Marx”, I can assure you that this German-language biopic will remind you that the genre is still capable of providing first-class entertainment and substance unlike Hollywood biopics about industrialists or self-destructive musicians. I saw press screenings for this film as well as very good documentaries about the Armenian diaspora and how eugenics was practiced at Ellis Island that reconfirmed the value of a film festival I have been covering for CounterPunch since it began in 2015. This year, the films are being shown at the Cinema Village, an outstanding venue for better quality films over the years.

The photo at the top of the article depicts in rather sadomasochistic terms Lou Andreas Salomé applying the whip to Paul Rée and Friedrich Nietzsche. This photo, whose taking is a key scene in the film, is provocative enough on its own terms to deserve pride of place in a photography museum. However, the story behind the photo deserves a full recounting, which is the purpose to a large part of Cordula Kablitz-Post’s 2016 film, finally viewable in New York—and hopefully across the USA before very long.

Like Alexandra Kollontai and Victoria Woodhull, Lou Salomé was a transformative feminist figure who challenged oppressive patriarchal norms. Although she was not a revolutionary, her boldness and independence arguably exceeded that of any woman from her time. Living between 1861 and 1937, her path crossed with some of the most important men of her generation. Besides Nietzsche and Rilke, she was one of the first women ever to practice Freudian psychoanalysis. If anything, her connections to Freud (possibly sexual as well as professional), Nietzsche and Rilke indicate a breadth of learning that is unrivaled. In every sense of the word, she was a renaissance woman equally conversant in philosophy, literature and psychology.

Continue reading

 

March 15, 2018

The multipolar spin: how fascists operationalize left-wing resentment

Filed under: Red-Brown alliance,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:53 pm

​During his recent tour of Europe, disgraced former Trump strategist Steve Bannon declared “Italy is in the lead.”

Amid the historic resurgence of the Italian far right that returned right-wing populist Silvio Berlusconi to prominence, Bannon fantasized about “the ultimate dream” of unifying the anti-establishment Five Star Movement with the far-right League (formerly the Northern League) through a populist movement. Bannon’s international vision of nationalist populist movements is locked into the Kremlin’s geopolitical ideology of a “multipolar world.”

The League is tied through a cooperation pact to Putin’s Russia, and its deputy in charge of relations with foreign parties, Claudio D’Amico, explicitly called for a “multipolar world” in Katehon, a think tank created by fascist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin. Following the ideological line Dugin put forward in his text, Foundations of Geopolitics, Katehon calls for uniting a “Eurasian” bloc in constant struggle against “Atlanticist” countries. For Dugin, the “21st century gamble” is to create a “multipolar” confederation of “Traditionalist” regional empires united under Russian sovereignty that will overthrow the “unipolar” empire of “postmodern” democracies.

Shortly after Putin’s election in 2000, the Kremlin released a set of foreign policy guidelines calling for a “multipolar world order” against the “strengthening tendency towards the formation of a unipolar world under financial and military domination by the United States.” Escalating with the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004, the Kremlin’s production of soft-power networks throughout Europe and the United States involves- think tanksloansforumspropaganda outlets and cooperation agreements with far-right parties like the Austrian Freedom Party and the League. From Russia to Iran to Western Europe and the U.S., this international movement uses conspiracy theories and “gray material” to warp the political spectrum into a populist referendum along “geopolitical” terms set by fascist engagées.

Red and brown polarities

As a recent major report on syncretic networks exposed, the modern fascist movement’s obsession with geopolitics emerged in force amid the post-Cold War antiglobalization movement. In 2002, a front group formed out of the U.S.-based Workers’ World Party known as the International Action Center joined forces with the Assisi-based “Campo Antimperialista.” As Duginists infiltrated the Campo, opening a journal called Eurasia that garnered the influential involvement of Campo participant Costanza Preve, the International Action Center continued their cooperation.

Soon, a similar Russian group called the Anti-Globalist Resistance began to repost the Campo’s dispatches. Sharing support for Milosevic with the Campo and the International Action Center, the Anti-Globalist Resistance emerged simultaneously with the same tendency to fight globalization by linking far-right to hard-left. In 2008, they brought the Campo to Moscow for the third “All-Russia Anti-Globalist Forum,” introduced by long-time U.S. fascist Lyndon LaRouche. The next year’s conference included Duginist leaders like Leonid Savin and retired General Leonid Ivashov, along with LaRouche and Holocaust denier Israel Shamir.

As their work continued, the Campo and Anti-Globalist Resistance drew more anti-globalization activists into their syncretic orbit. In 2012, a group came together at a Campo Antimperialista event in Assisi and developed what would become the Syria Solidarity Movement. The movement’s steering committee came to include top figures from groups from the U.S. hard left, including the Workers World Party, its affiliate, ANSWER and a spinoff of the latter group called the Party of Socialism and Liberation.

After changing their name to the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, the group drew people from the Syria Solidarity Movement’s network to a conference called the “Right of Peoples to Self-Determination and Building a Multipolar World” in 2014. A delegate from the International Action Center attended, along with delegates from another Workers World Party front group called United Anti-War Coalition, including an editor with the Black Agenda Reportnamed Margaret Kimberly. Among the conference’s other attendees were Michael Hill of the neo-Confederate League of the South and the Texas Nationalist Movement, as well as the far-right Republika of Srpska and National Bolshevik Italian Communitarian Party.

The following year, the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia met with a purported Cherokee Nation elder named “Mashu White Feather” and a representative of the Uhuru Movement, also connected to the Black Agenda Report. They then organized a state-funded conference that drew members of the fascist Italian group Millenium, Mutti’s associate Antonio Grego, and a leading member of the far-right Rodina party, as well as representatives of separatist groups like the Texas Nationalist Movement and the Catalan Solidarity for Independence party. The now-notorious troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, would later invite the Texas Nationalist Movement to join an armed, Islamophobic protest launched by the fake “Heart of Texas,” while also inciting counter-protestors.


This network map shows the flow of movement building from parties to front groups to participation in and creation of syncretic coalitions.

The Syria connection

The Syria Solidarity Movement lists on its steering committee a host of syncretic figures like DuginistNavid Nasr and an Australian representative of the fascist-modeled Syrian Social Nationalist Party affiliateMussalaha. Before a report revealed her associations with Global ResearchRon Paul and the right-wing British Constitution Party, conspiracy theorist Vanessa Beeley held a position on the steering committee as well.

As an editor at the alt-right-associated conspiracy theory site, 21stCenturyWire, Beeley’s repeated conspiracy articles attempting to link the White Helmets to al Qaeda and George Soros earned her a visit with Assad in Damascus and senior Russian officials in Moscow; however, they have been thoroughly debunked. A defender of right-wing Hungarian president Viktor Orban, Beeley promotesantisemites like Gilad Atzmon and Dieudonné, even speaking at a conference hosted by the latter in partnership with notorious Holocaust denier Laurent Louis. Regardless, the Syrian Solidarity Movement and the associated Hands Off Syria Coalition recommend Beeley’s work.

Along with members of the Syria Solidarity Movement, delegates who attended the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia’s “Multipolar World” conference sit on the Hands off Syria Coalition’s steering committee. Showing its commitments and affinities, in January 2016, the Hands Off Syria Coalition published a “Multipolar World Against War” statement signed by the leader of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, Alexander Ionov.

Similarly, the Hands Off Syria Coalition website publicizes self-described Marxist, Tim Anderson, who has an interesting record of attending far-right conferences. In 2015, Anderson attended the far-right Brandherd Syrien Congress, and the next year he was at Defend Our Heritage’s Leura Forum, chaired by a leader of far-right party Alternative for Germany. Following that, Anderson’s pet project, Center of Counter Hegemonic Studies, convened a conference that brought in Paul Antonopoulos, an editor for the Duginist website Fort Russ.

The Hands Off Syria Coalition advertises Anderson’s book, The Dirty War on Syria, which is published by syncretic conspiracist site Global Research. Multiple “Research Associates” of Global Research sit on the “scientific committee” of the Campo-linked Duginist journal Geopolitica, and the site lists as its “partner media group” the Voltaire Network. Publishing LaRouchite and Duginist articles, the Voltaire Network boasts the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs as its Vice President. One of the Voltaire Network’s leading contributors is Mikhail Leontyev, an associate of Dugin who has moved from prominent media personality to the role of spokesman for Russian state oil company, Rosneft. The Syria Solidarity Movement publishes Voltaire Network articles by founder Thierry Meyssan, a contributor to Campo-linked journal Eurasia who associates with Holocaust deniers and open fascists, among others.

Hands Off Syria Coalition steering committee member Issa Chaer joined Meyssan on a panel at the Second New Horizons conference in Iran in 2012. Conference speakers that year included World Workers Party member Caleb Maupin, Alt Right journalist Tim Pool, Holocaust denier Kevin Barrett, and Duginists like Voltaire Network associate Mateusz Piskorski, German editor Manuel Ochsenreiter, Leonid Savin, and Claudio Mutti the leading fascist infiltrator of the Campo Antimperialista. The banner image for last year’s New Horizon features Aleksandr Dugin.

Multipolar propaganda

According to the metrics search engine BuzzSumo, most of the leading articles with the terms “multipolar world” and “multi-polar world” in the title come from an interconnected network of sites, including Global Research, The Duran and Sign of the Times. With an estimated six million unique daily views per month, the biggest and most influential in this network is the Russian state-run media site Sputnik News.

Billing itself as pointing “the way to a multipolar world that respects every country’s national interests, culture, history and traditions,” Sputnik frequently publishes PiskorskiOchsenreiter, Mutti’s fellow Campo infiltrator Tiberio Graziani, commentator Andrew Korybkoand Fort Russ editor Joaquin Flores. Furthermore, Sputnik has joined RT in consistently using dubious sources affiliated with theSyria Solidarity Network to attack the White Helmets and throw doubt on the Assad regime’s war crimes, for instance its use of chemical weapons.

A syncretic hub on Sputnik, anti-imperialist John Wight’s podcast, “Hard Facts,” promotes the same figures associated with the pro-Assad network in the West, including Beeley, Anderson, and Nasr. Perhaps most interestingly, Wight also hosted trans-national far-right figure, Edward Lozansky during the 2016 election and again early the next year.

With more than 30 years of involvement in the U.S. and Russian far right, Lozansky is perhaps most known as the creator of the American University in Moscow. Boasting a number of Fellows involved in pro-Kremlin media outlets like The Duran, RT and Russia Insider, the American University in Moscow appears to be an ideological center in the concerted social media campaign associated with the Internet Research Agency to boost anti-Clinton, pro-Kremlin propaganda in the U.S. Lozansky also hosts conferences with known fascist ideologues and an annual “Russia Forum” featuring far-right politicians and left-wing media operators from Russia and the U.S.

During both of his pro-Putin, pro-Trump interviews with Lozansky on “Hard Facts,” Wight advocated “a multipolar alternative to the unipolar world,” insisting, “we’re talking about a struggle for a multipolar world to replace the unipolarity that has wreaked so much havoc since the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.”

The most important anti-imperialist hub on Sputnik, however, is hosted by Brian Becker, whose fellow party member and brother sits on the steering committee for the Syria Solidarity Movement. The leader of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Becker regularly hosts Fellows of the American University in Moscow on his Sputnik podcast, “Loud & Clear.”

“Loud & Clear”‘s Lozansky-affiliated guests include far-right PR man Jim Jatras, Mark Sleboda of the Dugin-founded Center for Conservative Studies, the Ron Paul Institute’s Daniel McAdams and Alexander Mercouris of the syncretic conspiracist site, The Duran. The program also provides a platform to a variety of explicitly far-right guests, including Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, antisemite Alberto Garcia Watson, alt-right figure Cassandra Fairbanks and militia movement leader Larry Pratt.

Aside from marginal guests, Loud & Clear can bring on some heavy hitters. During his two appearances on “Loud & Clear” in late 2017, bestselling author Max Blumenthal called the red-brown radio show “the finest public affairs programming” and declared, “I am increasingly turning to RT America for sanity.” No stranger to Sputnik, Blumenthal also went on “Hard Facts” that August, claiming that notorious ISIS militant Mohammed Emwazi was ushered into the Syria conflict by the CIA via a “rat line” from Saudi Arabia.


This Venn diagram suggests that certain syncretic groups exist as containers for the intersection of right and left wing groups, ideologies.

Highway to the Grayzone

Around the same time he went on “Loud & Clear,” Blumenthal appeared on Tucker Carlson‘s FOX News show to defend RT — his second time on the far-right show that year. Blumenthal’s RT appearances have been praised by white nationalists like Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., who murdered three people outside of a Jewish Community Center in 2014, so his courting of the right on FOX drew considerable backlash.

Two months later, Blumenthal offered up a staunch defense of “Russia’s position in the world” to author Robert Wright in an interview on bloggingheads. Admitting that Putin’s Russia remains far from left-wing, Blumenthal justified support for the country’s authoritarian conservative government as “part of the multipolar world.”

“If you believe in a multipolar world,” Blumenthal told Wright, “you believe in détente, you believe in diplomacy.” He specifically mentioned Becker’s Party for Socialism and Liberation and groups like it, arguing that they “tend to get all the major issues right regardless of their ideology or agenda.”

Blumenthal was not as clear of a spokesperson for Kremlin geopolitics before he appeared at the same RT gala as disgraced former National Security advisor Michael Flynn and the Green Party’s Jill Stein in December 2015. During that occasion, he joined a panel called “Infowar: Will there be a winner” alongside Alt Right anti-Semite Charles Bausman of Russia Insider. A month later, Blumenthal’s pro-Kremlin position crystalized with the founding of the Grayzone Project.

Grayzone is a collaborative project also featuring journalist Benjamin Norton, who cosigned the Hands Off Syria Coalition’s points of unity statement along with Beeley and others. After going on “Loud & Clear” with Duginist Mark Sleboda and Infowars regularRay McGovern, Norton plugged the Party for Socialism and Liberation on a podcast episode titled “Hands off Syria.” With other Grayzone contributors, Norton has been criticized for downplaying war crimesand helping publicize false theories about rebels contaminatingDamascus’s water supply.

When reached for comment by email, Norton retorted, “I know your goal is to outlandishly smear anyone who opposes US imperialism and is to the left of the Clintons as a ‘crypto-fascist,’ while NATO supports actual fascists whom you care little about.”

Grayzone is perhaps best known for Blumenthal’s controversial two-part article attacking the White Helmets, which brought accusations of plagiarism from Beeley. Grayzone contributor Rania Khalek had, Beeley insisted, “pumped me for information on the [White Helmets] and then Max wrote the article.”

While Blumenthal may have repeated some of Beeley’s theories, Beeley cannot be seen as a credible source. Regardless, Khalek has since used a questionable interview sourced from Beeley as evidence that the White Helmets “were deeply embedded in al Qaeda.”

Grayzone recently announced their move from independent news site AlterNet to The Real News Network, a left-wing site with a penchant for 9/11 truther inquiries. Neither Blumenthal nor Khalek responded to efforts to reach them for comment.

Right uses left

Through its amplification of an interlinked, multi-centered network organized around institutions like Lozansky’s American University in Moscow and the Voltaire Network and conferences like Moscow’s “Multi-Polar World” and Tehran’s “New Horizons,” syncretic networks associated with Dugin’s Eurasianist ideology have combined distortions and ambiguities into a geopolitical narrative meant to confuse audiences and promote authoritarian populist opposition to liberalism.

The “gray measures” used to deny the Kremlin’s influence operations may seem dubious when delivered through channels like Sputnik that are, themselves, political technologies of far-right political influence. When cycled through “narrative laundering” of secondary and tertiary networks enhanced by trolls and coordinated influence operations, however, propaganda is “graywashed” of its dubious sources and presented as cutting-edge journalism.

As shown with Figure 3, think tanks like Katehon and connected Russian Institute for Strategic Studies develop strategies for media spin and online promotion through influence groups and botnets. These think tanks engage in feedback loops with Russian state media channels and linked syncretic news sites, amplified through social media with the help of botnets, and eventually reaching more legitimate sources often freed of their dubious sourcing. The results are explored by a recent study from Data and Society called Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online: “Online communities are increasingly turning to conspiracy-driven news sources, whose sensationalist claims are then covered by the mainstream media, which exposes more of the public to these ideas, and so on.”


A conceptual model made in Vensim intended to present the workings of “Graywashing.”

The problem with multipolarism, aside from assuming polarity as a useful prescription, may be that it supports not the emergence of Russia as a world power but the rise of the Kremlin’s authoritarian conservative political ideology. In this, multipolarists tend to support other authoritarian regimes and movements from Iran to Syria to Italy. Although anti-imperialists may believe that these measures land them on the right side of history, taking stock of the fascist movement suggests that the strategy of opposing a liberal order through red-brown populist collaboration makes the left a willing accomplice.

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The letter that Max Blumenthal’s lawyer sent to SPLC

Filed under: Red-Brown alliance,Syria — louisproyect @ 12:49 am

(Before William A. Moran II became an attorney, he was an editor at Sputnik. The photo below is from his law firm’s website. Many years ago, when I was in the Socialist Workers Party, Gerry Healy’s sect began publishing articles accusing our leaders of being FBI agents, a charge you can still find on WSWS.org. We responded by answering them in our newspaper since Marxist principles exclude resolving such disputes in the bourgeois courts. Blumenthal and Khalek never claimed to be Marxists but a worm like Ben Norton, who was in the ISO at one point in his sorry life, still throws the Marxist rhetoric around. When Patrick Lawrence and Andrew Spannaus took exception to me labeling them as Assadists, they told me that they would be looking into the possibility of suing me for libel just like this jerk William Moran II did. Spannaus is an ex-member of LaRouche’s cult that used to launch nuisance suits against his critics. Given the two degrees of separation between Blumenthal and enemies of the left, I can’t say I am surprised by his move against SPLC. Answering Andrew Reid Ross politically would be above his pay grade.)

VIA EMAIL DELIVERY

SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER

Re. Notice and demand for preservation of documents and electronically stored information in the care. custody, control or possession of SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER, ALEXANDER REID ROSS. CHARLES DAVIS, MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD and WAYNE WAKELAND.

To Whom It May Concern:

I have been engaged by MAX BLUMENTHAL to assess imminent legal action against your organization and other entities in relation libelous statements in an article titled: “The Multipolar Spin. How Fascists Operationalize Left-Wing Resentment” appearing on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Watch” biog. The purpose of this correspondence is to demand that the Southern Poverty Law Center and its agents, employees, directors, officers, attorneys and representatives both past and present – preserve all documents, tangible things and electronically stored information (“ESI”) that are potentially relevant to MAX BLUMENTHAL including research, editorial notes, conversations, and other communications of (both to and from) ALEXANDER REID ROSS related to the publication of the above mentioned article including but not limited to correspondence sent to and received from CHARLES DAVIS and MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD.

This notice and demand for preservation extends beyond ESI related to SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER’S relationship to any named co-conspirator and with MAX BLUMENTHAL.

Preservation includes, but is not limited to, NOT destroying, NOT concealing, and NOT altering any paper or electronic files and other data generated by and/or stored on your computers and storage media, or any other electronic data, such as voicemail or text message.

As used in this document, “you” and “your” refers to each of the TARGETS identified in this notice including SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER, ALEXANDER REID ROSS. CHARLES DAVIS, MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD and WAYNE WAKELAND as well as their employees, agents, directors, officers and attorneys

YOU should anticipate that much of the information subject to disclosure, responsive to discovery. and/or evidence in this matter is stored on your current and former computer systems, and other media and devices, including, but not limited to personal digital assistants, voice messaging systems, online repositories and cellphones or smartphones.

Electronically stored information must be afforded the broadest possible definition. It includes, by way of example and not as an exclusive list, potentially relevant electronically, magnetically or optically stored information such as:

Digital or analog communications, both sent and received, whether internally or externally; Digital or analog electronic files, including “deleted” files and file fragments, stored in machine-readable format on magnetic, optical, or other storage media, including thumb droves, hard droves, floppy disks used by your computers and their backup media (e.g., other hard drives, backup tapes, floppies, Jaz cartridges, CD•ROMs) or otherwise, whether such files have been reduced to paper printouts or not, computer system, removing their ESI systems, media and devices from service and properly sequestering and protecting them may be an appropriate and cost-effective preservation step. In the event you deem it impractical to sequester systems, media and devices, we believe that the breadth of preservation required, coupled with the model numbers of systems implicated, dictates forensically sound imaging of the systems, media and devices is expedient and cost effective.

We anticipate the need for forensic examination of one or more of these systems and the presence of relevant evidence in forensically accessible areas of the drives. Therefore, you employ forensically sound ESI preservation methods. Failure to use such methods poses a significant threat of spoliation and data loss. By “forensically sound” we mean duplication, for purposes of preservation, of all data stored on the evidence media while employing a proper chain of custody and using tools and methods that make no changes to the evidence and support authentication of the duplicate as a true and complete bit-for-bit image of the original. A forensically sound preservation method guards against changes to metadata evidence and preserves all parts of the electronic evidence, including in the so-called “unallocated clusters,” holding deleted files.

Preservation Protocols

I intend to work with you to form an agreement regarding an acceptable protocol of forensically sound preservation. If you will promptly disclose the preservation protocol you intend to employ, perhaps we can identify any points of disagreement and resolve them.

Do Not Delay Preservation

I am available to discuss reasonable preservation steps; however, you should not defer preservation steps pending our discussions if ESI will be lost or corrupted as a consequence of delay. If the failure to preserve potentially relevant evidence results in the corruption, loss or delay in the production of evidence to which we are entitled, such failure would constitute spoliation of evidence, for which my client will not hesitate to seek sanctions and appropriate remedies including application of the adverse inference with regard to issues adversely affected by spoliation.

Attorney-Client Privilege

Nothing in this request should be construed as interfering with or impairing the attorney-client privilege of SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER, ALEXANDER REID ROSS, CHARLES DAVIS, MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD and WAYNE WAKELAND as well as their employees and agents. That said, the burden in claiming that any information or communication is entitled to attorney-client privilege rests with the party asserting privilege and therefore communications, documents and data relevant to this litigation should be retained.

I look forward to receiving your call to discuss the matters raised in this notice and demand.

Respectfully, William Moran II – Partner Hawgood, Hawgood & Moran

March 13, 2018

Our Blood is Wine

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Opening at the Village East Cinema on Friday is a film titled “Our Blood is Wine” (with a VOD roll-out soon afterward) that documents the history of winemaking in the Republic of Georgia. It was the product of master sommelier Jeremy Quinn’s curiosity about a tradition that goes back 8,000 years according to archaeological evidence. As is the case with wheat, another basic staple, winegrowing first appeared in Anatolia as well. The film was directed by Emily Railsback, who formed a production company in partnership with Quinn dedicated to understanding culture through the medium of beverages. In Georgia’s case, the film is appropriately titled since wine has a place in its culture that has persisted no matter the efforts of both Stalinism and capitalism to commercialize it. To my astonishment, I discovered in the film notes after watching “Our Blood is Wine” that Railsback made it on an iPhone.

Quinn functions pretty much the same way that Anthony Bourdain does in his visits to various parts of the world to simultaneously try the local cuisine and give his take on socio-political matters. The film consists of him visiting various vineyards that all employ the same technique that existed 8,000 years ago, namely the use of kvevris (spelled qvevris in the film). A kvevri is a clay vessel usually over six feet tall that is buried in the ground in order to allow fermentation to take place. After Georgia became part of the USSR in 1917, Stalin decided that more revenue could be generated by industrializing the winemaking process using stainless steel vessels even if it turned out an inferior product and undermined Georgia’s national identity. As Quinn visits various practitioners of an ancient art undergoing a renaissance, he often ends up like Bourdain sitting around a dinner table sampling wines and the Georgian cuisine with men and women breaking into the polyphonic style that distinguishes the country’s music. It is an altogether joyous pastime that makes me want to spend time there the next time I am in Turkey, the country immediately to its south.

In 1966, Georgian director Otar Iosseliani made a narrative film titled “Falling Leaves” whose hero is a young man who has become employed at a local wine collective where he is pressured to bottle inferior wine. When he challenges a bureaucrat to do things the right way, he is told that state-ordered productivity quotas permit no delays: “Look around you, this is no time for principles.” Excerpts from the film are sprinkled throughout “Our Blood is Wine” and make you yearn for seeing it in its entirety. You can see it on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1ZDuEkC9lw) but without subtitles alas.

We learn from the film that Georgia might be home to at least 500 different varieties of grapes, most of which were wiped out during the Stalinist era. But many remained in the backyards of Georgians who were permitted to make their own wine as long as they didn’t become decadent bourgeoisie in the process. The state only sanctioned Stalinist decadence.

The press notes include links to articles about new discoveries about Georgian wine made by anthropologist Patrick McGovern:

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/science/georgiaoldest-wine.html

Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-ofscience/wp/2017/11/13/earliest-evidence-of-wine-found-in-giant-8000-year-oldjars/

BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/11/13/563281665/georgianjars-hold-8-000-year-old-winemaking-clues

Food & Wine: http://www.foodandwine.com/news/worlds-oldest-wine-found

National Geographic: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/11/oldestwinemaking-grapes-georgia-archaeology/

I thought the National Geographic article took the most interesting tack with this lead: “Contrary to stereotypes, Stone Age people had a taste for finer things”. It adds:

The evidence adds a new wrinkle to our understanding of the Neolithic, a pivotal period when humans were first learning to farm, settling down and domesticating crops and animals. The gradual process, known as the Neolithic Revolution, began around 10,000 B.C. in Anatolia, a few hundred miles west of Gadachrili.

It’s increasingly clear that it didn’t take long for people to turn their thoughts to alcohol: Just a few thousand years after the first wild grasses were domesticated, the people at Gadachrili had not only learned the art of fermentation but were apparently improving, breeding, and harvesting vitis vinifera, the European grape. “They’re working out horticultural methods, how you transplant it, how you produce it,” McGovern says. “It shows just how inventive the human species is.”

Today, wines made in the traditional way are treasured globally by oenophiles, especially the Japanese who make pilgrimages to Georgia to see wine being made in kvevris. Much of the “productivist” tendency in Marxism that was embraced by both Stalinists and Trotskyists alike has overlooked how much “primitive” societies had so much to offer, especially given their classless nature. In the first chapter of “Stone Age Economics,” titled “The Original Affluent Society”, Marshall Sahlins put it this way in “Stone Age Economics”:

We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free. Their extremely limited material possessions relieve them of all cares with regard to daily necessities and permit them to enjoy life.

March 12, 2018

Max Blumenthal and the Streisand Effect

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

On the Southern Poverty Law Center, this rather odd statement can be read:

Yesterday, Friday, March 9, we published an article entitled “The multipolar spin: how fascists operationalize left-wing resentment.” After receiving some concerns about the article from Max Blumenthal that evening, we took it down, pending further review.

The article was written by Alexander Reid Ross as a follow-up to earlier articles for SPLC titled “The Internet Research Agency: behind the shadowy network that meddled in the 2016 Elections” and “The far-right influence in pro-Kremlin media and political networks”.  Subsequent to the removal of the latest, the other two have been removed as well.

The three articles are all focused on the real problem we face from Putin, which is much less about the 2016 elections that Clinton was mostly responsible for subverting, than it is about his outreach to the American left. If our main goal is to overthrow American capitalism, how do we reconcile that with the growing ties between those viewing themselves as radicals and a regime that is promoting fascism everywhere in the world, including the USA.

Ross is not the only investigative reporter looking at these ties. In a book-length post on the Ravings of a Radical Vagabond blog titled “An Investigation Into Red-Brown Alliances: Third Positionism, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, And The Western Left”, you can discover the same kind of research that Ross credits in the deleted article that can still be read here. (Make sure to adjust the embedded links since they concatenate the web archive URL, where it is located, with the original URL’s.)

Despite the SPLC’s massive treasury based on donations made by wealthy liberals, I doubt that they will be publishing the article even after its dubious “review”. Most people surmise that Max Blumenthal, who is the main target of Ross’s article, has threatened legal action that we can assume his daddy Sidney will support. Sidney is not that rich (only $4 million according to some analysts) but his ties to American liberal elite circles would certainly make those same elites at SPLC think twice about antagonizing.

Since the purging of Ross’s article has touched a nerve, there is every possibility that more people are reading it than would have been the case if Max Blumenthal had simply ignored it. Someone described this as the Streisand Effect as Wikipedia described it:

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is an example of psychological reactance, wherein once people are aware that some information is being kept from them, their motivation to access and spread it is increased.

It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose 2003 attempt to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently drew further public attention to it. Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters to suppress files, websites, and even numbers. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, often being widely mirrored on the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.

Why was Blumenthal so worked up about Ross’s piece?

In another Tweet, Blumenthal characterizes it as part of a new “red scare” and has referred to past articles tying him to the Kremlin’s propaganda offensives over Syria, Ukraine, etc. as “red-baiting”. McCarthyite, a red scare, red-baiting? People were red-baited in the 1950s because they signed a petition supporting the Spanish Republic in 1938 and even lost jobs. Meanwhile, people all across the political spectrum write articles in praise of Bashar al-Assad without consequence, from Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Globe to David Bromwich in the NY Review of Books. Does Bromwich have to worry about being fired from Yale because of this?

When a “red” supports war criminals like Putin and Assad, the only thing they have to fear is getting attacked by an anarchist like Alexander Reid Ross or a Marxist like me, something that poses no risk to their tawdry careers.  What rankles Blumenthal is being exposed as being on the same side of the barricades as Pamela Geller, David Duke and Richard Spencer–all of them Assad propagandists just like him. It is all driven by an Islamophobia that sees the clean-shaven Bashar al-Assad as the Middle East’s best hope.

You have to ask why Blumenthal gets the red carpet treatment on the Tucker Carlson show unlike other leftists who get baited mercilessly. What is going on? You can ask the same question about how Stephen F. Cohen became one of WABC radio show arch-conservative host John Batchelor’s favorites. The three most frequent guests on the Batchelor show are Cohen, Sebastian Gorka and Malcolm Hoenlein, the one-time executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization and about as rabid a Zionist you can find.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether there is anything particularly “red” about Blumenthal himself. The main topic Ross addresses in his purged article is the shared preference for a “multipolar” world by outright fascists like Aleksandr Dugin and people supposedly on the left like Blumenthal. In websites such as Global Research and Katehon, there is zero interest in world revolution. They are preoccupied with defending Russian and to some extent Chinese foreign policy because it reduces American power. In its most naked formulation, it devolves into a defense of the Russian takeover of Crimea because it had to protect strategic military interests on its border. Does that ring a bell? It should because that was the same excuse JFK made for the Cuban missile crisis. Indeed, even Noam Chomsky acknowledged Russia’s right to bully Ukraine on this basis.

Socialists, on the other hand, don’t approve of either JFK or Putin’s neocolonial trampling on the rights of weaker nations. People like Max Blumenthal have zero interest in socialism. Their opposition to imperialism is a reductionist one viewing any struggle against the USA as progressive, whether it is Fidel Castro standing up to JFK or Bashar al-Assad standing up to Barack Obama. Since Obama feared the Syrian rebels more than the Baathists, his “support” for the FSA consisted of light arms that could have easily been purchased on the black market (and was) but also positioning the CIA on the borders of Syria to make sure that anti-aircraft missiles did not reach the FSA. If the CIA had minded its own business, the war probably would have ended in 2014.

Fundamentally, Blumenthal et al function in the same way as the Daily Worker did in the 1930s but without any regard for the class distinctions that at least explained how a CPer might have been doing wrong with the best of intentions. That’s a whole lot better than his doing wrong with the worst of intentions.

 

March 10, 2018

Life Itself

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

In January, I reviewed “The Lovers and the Despot”, a fascinating documentary about how the father of North Korea’s current dictator was a bona fide cinephile, so much so that he kidnapped a couple of film stars from the south to help improve the north’s film industry that he considered overly propagandistic and just plain boring. What kind of films did Kim Jong-il go for? His tastes ran to Friday the 13th, Rambo and Hong Kong action films instead of socialist realism, according to Shin Sang-ok, the director he abducted. So, that should warn you about stereotyping the north.

“The Lovers and the Despot” was distributed by Magnolia, a company launched by the billionaire and cinephile himself Mark Cuban to help make offbeat art films and documentary available to the general public. I have a huge backlog of Magnolia DVD’s that have been sent to me on a regular basis for years now as part of its outreach to film critics taking part in awards ceremonies like NYFCO’s, a bargain basement version of the Oscars. These are the kinds of films I prefer to write about but I am under pressure at year-end to prioritize the DVD’s or digital screeners from the big studios like Sony or Fox since these are the ones that will likely have the inside track at our awards meeting. I have begun going through the Magnolia backlog recently and will repeat what I said last time. These are among the most interesting films being made today and a bargain rental for $3.99. The library can be browsed here: http://www.magnoliapictures.com/

After working my way through the 2015 and 2016 Magnolia DVD’s, I watched one from the top of the 2014 batch the other day that moved me profoundly. “Life Itself” is a documentary about Roger Ebert begun in 2012 and completed abruptly at the time of his death from cancer on April 4, 2013. It is hard slog in many ways since Ebert was deeply ravaged by the disease, having lost his lower jaw as a result of metastasizing thyroid cancer. Ebert was not shy about his appearance and was just as eager to share the experience of battling the disease in the hospital rooms he spent long periods in toward the end. I can only say that in the nearly 2 years I worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in NY, I never saw anybody more disfigured.

As someone with 1,054 film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, the film probably meant more to me than the average person even though it will be moving to anybody who sees it since it is about a heroic struggle to live a full life under daunting circumstances. Like Cuban, Kim Jong-il and Ebert , I am a cinephile. While I hadn’t paid all that much attention to Ebert’s reviews in recent years, I used to regularly watch the show he did with Gene Siskel on PBS between 1975 and 1982, as well as their appearances on late night TV shows. Like Ebert, Siskel was  cut down by cancer but even more prematurely. After learning that he had brain cancer in May 1998, he died 9 months later at the age of 53.

After Ebert’s death, I wrote an obituary that you might want to have a look at: https://louisproyect.org/2013/04/05/roger-ebert-an-appreciation/. I offered these thoughts: “If I write…mostly out of a love for the medium than for money, I can at least say that this appeared to be Ebert’s motivation as well. It is too bad that we have so few journalists worthy of the name.” After seeing the wonderful “Life Itself”, I can only say that my respect for Ebert has grown a thousandfold.

“Life Itself” was directed by Steve James, who also directed “Hoop Dreams” and “Abacus”, the marvelous film about how an obscure and tiny bank in Chinatown was made a scapegoat for the financial industry’s criminal mortgage-backed securities scam. If there is anything clear about this film, it is that James was much more than a filmmaker. He was also a friend and critical pillar of support for Ebert. In the final moments of the film, we see James and Ebert messaging each other about the next interview for the film until Ebert basically says that he is checking out.

Testaments to Ebert are given by old friends he worked with at the Chicago Sun-Times and by noted film critics such as the NY Times’s A.O. Scott and the now retired Jonathan Rosenbaum who wrote for the Chicago Reader, an “alternative” weekly. I often find myself sitting in the same screening room with Scott and was gratified to learn from him that he has read my reviews. I was friendly with Rosenbaum at Bard College but lost track of him after I graduated. Like Scott and Ebert, Rosenbaum writes from a left perspective but more specifically Marxist.

We learn in the film that Ebert was influenced politically from his father who was an electrician and a life-long Democrat. When Ebert ended up at the U. of Illinois, he rapidly became the editor of the daily newspaper there, which was a major responsibility. The film pays attention to the powerful editorial Ebert wrote the day after a KKK bombing left six children dead in Birmingham. He wrote:

“The blood of these innocent children is on your hands,” Martin Luther King cried out to the governor of Alabama.  But that was not entirely the truth.  The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling.  And it is not new blood.  It is old, so very old, and as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away.  It clings and waits and in its turn it kills again.

It was such writing that led him being hired by the Chicago Sun-Times just after graduation. Unlike the Chicago Tribune, this newspaper catered to the once-powerful unionized blue-collar workers in the city that included his father. Not too long afterwards, he became the paper’s film reviewer—the youngest at a major daily in the USA.

The most interesting part of the film dealt with the love-hate relationship between Siskel and Ebert. While my friend Paul Buhle, who was a classmate of Ebert’s at the U. of Illinois, regards Siskel as a reactionary, I don’t recall any political squabbles between the two. Mostly the disagreements were about film itself. I found the arguments compelling even though I can’t really identify with them. As a member of NYFCO for over a decade, I have never once argued with colleagues about a film except on one occasion, when they named “Zero Dark Thirty” best of 2012, a film that justified torture. I simply can’t get worked up one way or the other over films like “Lady Bird” or “Phantom Thread”.

Roger Ebert was never one to walk away from an argument. As I pointed out in my obit, when I wrote him a snide message taking exception to his favorable review of “Crash”, Paul Haggis’s coincidence-laden fable about racial reconciliation in Los Angeles, he must have been so shocked by being attacked from the left that he rose to the bait and wrote me back defending his review. About 4 or 5 exchanges took place that day, leaving me finally with an appreciation for his lack of snobbery and willingness to engage with a lout like me.

Responding to email was just one part of his engagement with the Internet. As Ebert lost his tongue along with his lower jaw, it was impossible for him to speak except with a computer like Stephen Hawking does. However, he was just as enthusiastic about the net’s possibilities across the board. We meet the web designer who created https://www.rogerebert.com/, a tremendous resource for his film reviews as well as his blog entries on a whole range of questions. The website is still going strong with new reviews by a staff of dozens.

Long before the internet became dominant as a source of film reviews through sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Ebert had a debate with Richard Corliss of Time Magazine and Film Comment, a magazine catering to the film cognoscenti, that echoes some of the complaints about Rotten Tomatoes. It boils down to seeing TV reviews as an assault on longer and deeper treatments that can be found in print publications. Today it is Internet reviewers rather than TV reviewers that are seen as the upstarts.

You can read the entire series that took place in three parts at Film Comment in 1990, with the current-day Richard Corliss reflecting on the debate in the documentary.

  1. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/richard-corliss-all-thumbs-or-is-there-a-future-for-film-criticism/
  2. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/roger-ebert-richard-corliss-cure-for-criticism-of-film-criticism/
  3. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/richard-corliss-roger-ebert-cure-for-criticism-of-film-criticism/

Corliss’s initial article was an attack on how TV film reviewers mostly offered their audience 2 minutes or so of shallow observations, accompanied with some shtick like the kind that made Gene Shalit famous. He was noted for a mustache even more grotesque than the one Kenneth Branagh wore playing Hercule Poirot in the forgettable remake of “Murder on the Orient Express”. He also took exception to the use of stars that always remind me of a grade you get on a term paper. Even worse, is the thumbs up/thumbs down rating that Siskel and Ebert used. It paved the way for Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” versus “rotten” categories that appall me even more than the idea of giving prizes to films as if they were entries in the Westminster Dog Show.

Corliss opened his article, which was a defense of the time-honored serious journalism of people like James Agee, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, with these words:

Will anyone read this story? (It has too many words and not enough pictures.) Does anyone read this magazine? (Every article in it wants to be a meal, not a McNugget.) Is anyone reading film criticism? (It lacks the punch, the clips, the thumbs.) Can anyone still read? (These days, it’s more fun and less work just to watch.)

Corliss makes many important and useful points but when he wrote “On Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, the critics play Roman emperors and award a thumbs-down condemnation or a thumbs-up reprieve”, he got Ebert’s dander up.

Ebert’s defense of his own approach to TV reviewing and his credentials as a serious film critic is part of his rich legacy. He wrote:

I submit to Richard Corliss that he missed the real source of distemper in today’s American film market, and that is the ascendency of the marketing campaign, and the use of stars as bait to orchestrate such campaigns. Reviewers, after all, can only offer their opinions on a new movie. Some like it, some don’t; together they do not have the impact of a well-coordinated national campaign that lands a popular star simultaneously on the covers of a People-type magazine, a newsweekly, several glossy monthlies, and the talkshows. Hollywood has never been more star-driven than it is at this moment, and publishers and producers have never been more eager to get their piece of the star of the week.

Ebert hit the nail on the head. Hollywood is all about marketing today. The junk that shows up in Cineplexes follows a marketing plan put together by accountants and investors. That is why we end up with garbage like Keanu Reeves in a travesty like “47 Ronin” that dishonored this Japanese art film classic like a mustache as ugly as Gene Shalit’s painted on the Mona Lisa.

As it happens, largely as a result of digital technology, good and even great cinema is flourishing today. N.Y. has as many art houses as it did 40 years ago, maybe even more. That’s where most of the films I review show up. The cost of making such films has dropped dramatically as digital cameras and software like Final Cut Pro make films much less expensive to produce even though it might take $100,000 to get one off the ground. Not only that, you have conscientious film distribution companies like Magnolia, Bullfrog, IFC as well as Netflix and HBO getting into the act. After a film has spent its moment of glory in a place like the Film Forum in NY, it has a good shot of being available as VOD at Amazon, iTunes or Netflix. In fact, I would argue that quality filmmaking is on the rise today even if capitalist civilization is sinking rapidly into a septic tank.

Rent “Life Itself” here.

 

March 9, 2018

The left and East Ghouta

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:58 pm
East Ghouta
COUNTERPUNCH, March 9, 2018

While reports filter out of East Ghouta about suffering on a massive scale reminiscent of the siege of Leningrad in 1941, some on the left support Assad’s war crimes because they see them as necessary for winning the war on terror just as Germans supported the war on Bolshevism back then.

Three of Assad’s leading defenders are associated with Alternet’s Gray Zone, a project initiated by Max Blumenthal who was soon joined by Ben Norton and Rania Khalek in churning out talking points for the Baathist dictatorship. Perhaps the rumor mill’s whispers are correct that the Gray Zone has gotten the axe. That would explain why the three have used other mediums to defend a harsh but necessary siege.

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