Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 15, 2018

The DSA, Julia Salazar and the future of the left

Filed under: DSA — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

About six months ago I went to the DSA website and became a member. That amounted to making a $5 contribution and nothing else. My main interest was being apprised of their goings on and as such my $5 was worth it since I get emails from Maria Svart, their elected leader, a subscription to their membership forum and their print newsletters.

In a FB conversation with long-time Marxist Democratic Party activist Carl Davidson about whether DSA’s membership figures were inflated based on an interloper like me being included as a member, Carl assured me that I really wasn’t a member. Well, just a couple of days ago I got snail mail indicating that I was one of the 50,000 members for real. My only question is how many others are only paper members like me.

Obviously not all since they were largely responsible for ringing the doorbells that helped get Julia Salazar elected, who by their reckoning is tantamount to the Bolshevik Party having a party member elected to the Duma. As it happens, there was one–Roman Malinovsky who turned out to be a Czarist spy. Now I don’t want to equate Julia Salazar with Malinovsky but she appeared to be living a double life as well. To her comrades, she was a working-class immigrant and Sephardic Jew from Colombia who was radicalized by her experience working as a domestic and by the treatment of Palestinians. The creeps at Tablet magazine looked into her background and discovered that she came from a wealthy family with no Jews in their past and enjoys a $685,000 trust fund from her deceased father. Also, she had a rightwing past that included defending Israel on Glenn Beck’s talk show. I suppose DSA’ers accepted all that like in the final scene of “Some Like it Hot” when Jack Lemmon pulls off his wig and confesses to Joe E. Brown: “We can’t get married because I am a man” (the reality of the period). Whereupon, Brown answers: “Nobody’s perfect”.

I’ll accept that she has made a legitimate political and religious conversions even though some cynics might have concluded that being self-identified as a Jew and a leftist is a good way to get elected in New York. My only question is why she did not disclose her past to her comrades. Unless, of course, that would have triggered suspicions that they were dealing with an opportunist. But, on second thought, that doesn’t hurt when you are running as a Democrat. Opportunism probably is a good way to get higher up in the DP machinery just like downing 20 Jello Shots when applying to become a member of a fraternity or sorority.

Over on Jacobin, there’s an article by DSA member and trade union steward Ben Beckett ebulliently titled “We’re On a Winning Streak” that offers up-to-date thinking among the young Marxist Democratic Party activists who will become the next generation’s Carl Davidson.

Showing a bit of buyer’s remorse, Beckett explained Nixon’s loss to Cuomo as a result of her lack of interest in working class issues. Of course, in the unlikely event that she had bested Cuomo, I am sure that Jacobin and DSA would have been basking in her glory. That’s how that kind of politics based on pragmatism works.

Beckett drew attention to the bourgeois press’s putting her past under a microscope, something that does not customarily take place when a candidate is running for a relatively minor post like State Senator. This could have only meant that the real estate industry was out to get her. That undoubtedly was true but it was also true that the democratic socialists have been getting more press than the marriage of Prince Harry & Meghan Markle so what else would you expect? It sells newspapers and is clickbait supremo.

Finally Beckett gets down to brass tacks and deals with the questions of dinosaurs like me blasting DSA for its Democratic Party orientation. Well, not me exactly. More like the ISO’ers who have benefited from exposure in Jacobin even if they help give it credibility on its left flank.

Here is Beckett’s excuse for supporting the Democratic Party:

However, any prospects of forming a working-class party in the future will also fail if that party cannot gain the support of a large number of people who currently identify as Democrats. By running in Democratic primaries now, socialists can sharpen the contradictions between voters and party heads and help accelerate the process by which founding an independent party will become feasible.

If you apply this formula to the last great collision between reaction and revolution in the USA, you’d have to conclude that it was a mistake to form the Free Soil or Liberty Parties. It would have been better to stay in the Whig Party since that was where most of the gradualist opponents of slavery could be found. Of course, it is difficult to reconcile your abolitionist beliefs with membership in such a party but even more so today when you are dealing with a party that has a vast funding base and propaganda machine rooted in wage slavery rather than chattel slavery.

Recognizing the swamp-like nature of the DP, Beckett advises:

To avoid…potential pitfalls, the Left must follow Salazar’s lead and work to cohere a distinct and consistent collective political identity based on a material analysis of society, the centrality of working-class solidarity and struggle against the capitalist class, and simple-to-understand, class-wide reforms that bring concrete benefits to voters at the expense of capitalists.

The problem is that a “materialist analysis of society” would in of itself dictate against running as a candidate in the oldest, still functioning capitalist party in the world. Formed by Andrew Jackson’s supporters in 1828, it was supposed to be the party of the “common man” even though commoners of the Cherokee nation and chattel slaves were not included.

He was succeeded by his protégé James Polk who launched a war against Mexico in 1846 that Ulysses S. Grant described as “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation” and “an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The next two Democrats to occupy the White House were white supremacists who make Donald Trump look like Ralph Nader. Franklin Pierce signed the Fugitive Slave Act and Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed those living in the two states to decide whether they wanted slavery or not. After him, it got even worse with James Buchanan backing the Dred Scott decision that denied the right of a slave taken to a free state by his owner to sue for his freedom.

Grover Cleveland was a Democrat who embodied imperialism. There’s not much else to say.

Woodrow Wilson, the first Democrat to supposedly fight for progressive economic policies, showed “Birth of the Nation” in the White House and had Eugene V. Debs charged with ten counts of sedition.

After a century of these kinds of Democratic Party administrations, we had FDR, Truman and LBJ who were idealized by social democrats and Stalinists as our equivalent of European social democrats even though they were warmongers who dropped atomic bombs, used biological warfare in Korea and killed millions of Vietnamese. Notwithstanding this monstrous history, Bernie Sanders demonstrates a certain affinity:

Screen Shot 2018-09-15 at 1.39.30 PM

To understand what the Sandernista movement and its offshoot in the DSA represents, you have to step back and look at the broader developments in the Democratic Party since the New Deal. Every so often, a significant portion of American society becomes deeply alienated by conditions naturally occurring under the capitalist system and the DP serves the ruling class by containing the discontent through reforms and/or promises of reform.

Under FDR, it was the working class that was ready to break with the system. It was up to the Communist Party and New Deal liberals to sustain the illusion that things would be set right.

With LBJ, it was Black America that was in open revolt. Thus, it was necessary to open the doors to Black politicians like DSA member John Conyers so they could bring working class Blacks back into the fold.

Today it is young people who are angry. A college or high school degree do not guarantee steady work. Furthermore, it is becoming more and more difficult to afford the necessities of a middle-class life like home ownership and raising a family even if you are lucky enough to get a decent job. So Bernie Sanders comes along to fight for a return to New Deal glory when economic conditions militate against that. We are in a long-term decline of American capitalism and no amount of tariffs, Keynesian gimmickry or winning State Senate offices will reverse that trend.

Even though the idea of revolution might come to the average American as a cure worse than the disease, that is what is needed. You got a glimmer of that being understood during the Occupy movement but the anarchist leadership (sorry for the contradiction in terms) could not see beyond the “prefigurative” nonsense that was swept away by Obama’s cops.

Starting in the early 1980s, I began working with Peter Camejo to promote the idea of a non-sectarian left. As you might have noticed, the North Star website that was dedicated to this goal is hibernating right now. Whether it wakes up or something else comes along to replace it, there is still a crying need for left unity but on a revolutionary basis.

The democratic socialists or social democrats or Marxist Democratic Party activists—whatever you want to call them—are opposed to revolutionary politics. Despite the lip-service they pay to changing the system, they are basically America’s Mensheviks. Despite the hoary character of Lenin’s polemics, we are dealing with the same issues with the Democratic Party seducing the DSA leaders and Jacobin editors in the same way the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) seduced Julius Martov. Socialists have to support socialist parties, or at the very least “petty-bourgeois” parties that Lenin blocked with such as the SR’s. We have the equivalent of such parties today in the Greens. We should only be so lucky to see them as having the same weight. Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see a radical working-class party come along before long. After all, the conditions are rotten-ripe for it.

September 14, 2018

Icarus Film Retrospective

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Beginning tonight and lasting through the 30th, the Metrograph theater in New York will be featuring an Icarus film retrospective. Icarus is a distribution company whose leading-edge, radical films are generally not available on Amazon, iTunes or other popular streaming services. I have been covering Icarus films for close to decades now and can attest to their tremendous value as uncompromising artistic and political statements.

The Metrograph website introduces Icarus as follows:

In the summer of 1978, Ilan Ziv, fresh off his work helping to organize the first “Middle East Film Festival” in the United States, found himself in possession of a collection of little-seen films and of a passion to expose US audiences to the different points of view that they represented. Towards that end he created the distribution company Icarus Films, helmed since 1980 by Jonathan Miller. Now, forty years on, Icarus Films remains committed to the founders’ pluralistic, embracing vision of cinema, championing socially and artistically significant films that give voice to marginalized communities and express a vital, dissident version of history that’s not always written by the winners. Metrograph celebrates Icarus Films’ milestone birthday with a program of landmark films from South America, Africa, Europe, and points beyond, a program that includes crucial works by Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker, and the other epochal artists they’ve represented through the years.

Visit the Metrograph Box Office to purchase the Icarus Passport: a ticket to every program in the Icarus Films at 40 series for $50.

I am not sure when I began reviewing Icarus films but it was at least 11 years ago as this representative offering would indicate:

From my review (https://louisproyect.org/2007/05/19/six-days/):

The subtitle of “Six Days,” a documentary that opened yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York, is “June 1967: The War that Changed the Middle East.” Directed by Israeli émigré Ilan Ziv, it generally follows the formula of PBS Frontline shows or the History Channel. Striving for a neutral approach that avoids any hint of editorializing until the final 20 minutes, it concludes with a devastating look at the impact of Israel’s blitzkrieg victory in 1967–leaving no doubt about the director’s progressive intentions.

Ziv was the founder of Icarus Films in New York City, which later merged with First Run, another like-minded distribution company. Over the years I have reviewed a number of their excellent films, including most recently “The Angry Monk,” a film about Tibet that debunks the “spiritualist” hype associated with the Dalai Lama. Ziv stepped down from Icarus in 1980 in order to devote himself full-time to documentary film making. To give you a sense of where he is coming from politically, he made “Shrine Under Siege” in 1985, an attack on Jewish and Christian fundamentalist efforts to destroy the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest shrine, and to build a new Jewish temple in its place.

By June 1967, I had become radicalized by the war in Vietnam and was rethinking everything I had believed in the past, including Israel’s progressive reputation. Ziv’s film is an excellent reminder of why so many young Jews began to break with Zionism. It makes absolutely clear that despite Zionist propaganda Israel was the dominant power in the Middle East capable of reducing its neighbors to rubble.

Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism

Filed under: Counterpunch,mechanical anti-imperialism — louisproyect @ 3:11 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 14, 2018

Rohini Hensman’s recently published Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism is an important contribution to the debate that has divided the left since 2011, the year that Syria became a litmus test. For some, support for Bashar al-Assad became tantamount to backing Franco in the Spanish Civil War while others saw my perspective as lending support to the USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other reactionary states carrying out the same neoconservative foreign policy that turned Iraq into a failed state.

On practically all other questions, ranging from defending immigrant rights to opposing fracking, the left was fairly unified. The Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka epitomized the contradictions roiling the left. Except for her appearance at an RT conference and his article hailing Assad’s electoral victory in 2014, there was little question that their campaign was a real alternative to both Trump and Clinton.

Continue reading

September 12, 2018

Hurricane Florence, 9-11 Climate Change Terrorism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:15 am

via Hurricane Florence, 9-11 Climate Change Terrorism

September 11, 2018

Was Joseph Hansen a GPU agent? A reply to WSWS.org

Filed under: cults,journalism,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Joseph Hansen

Last month on Leftist trainspotters, someone referred to a 4-part series of articles that appeared on WSWS.org making the case that Sylvia Callen, James P. Cannon’s secretary, and Joe Hansen, one of the long-time leaders of the SWP and Trotsky’s bodyguard in Coyoacan, were GPU agents. I wrote a brief rejoinder but did not bother to read the articles. More recently, a troll showed up on my blog to use my article on UNZ Review to bring up the same charges. He thought I had a lot of nerve “policing” Norman Finkelstein’s affiliation with the neo-Nazi website when I was a veteran of a group that was filled with agent provocateurs and finks. When I asked him to substantiate this accusation, he too brought up the WSWS.org articles.

After giving it some thought, I decided to have a look at the articles. Although many veterans of the left understand that the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) is a toxic cult, many less knowledgeable—including Chris Hedges—give it respect that it does not deserve.

This is not the first time I have examined these charges since I was in the SWP in the mid-70s when they were first raised. Before getting into the particulars, a bit of background is necessary, particularly for people like Hedges unfamiliar with the internecine squabbles of the Trotskyist movement.

In the 1950s, the Fourth International was divided into two factions. The International Committee (IC) included the SWP (prevented from formal membership by reactionary laws aimed mostly at the CPUSA) and Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labor League in England. The International Secretariat (IS) was led by a man named Michel Pablo who believed that the Cold War would force the CP’s to move in a revolutionary direction.

Essentially, the Cuban revolution laid the groundwork for reunifying most parties in the IC and the IS even though Healy remained adamantly opposed to the “petty bourgeois” adaption to Fidel Castro who they considered a nationalist defending capitalist property relations. After joining the SWP in 1967, I remember members of the Worker’s League, Healy’s satellite in the USA, showing up at Militant Labor Forums in New York to denounce the “Pabloite revisionists” during the Q&A. They looked rather like Diane Arbus photos.

Before delving into the articles, I should say a few words about Hansen. While generally considering my time in the SWP as mistake, I count Hansen as a major political influence alongside Peter Camejo. He was a master theoretician and polemicist whose critique of Guevarism was a major contribution to Marxism. In the mid-70s, just around the time Healy began explaining Hansen’s alleged Pabloite revisionism as a function of his secret ties to the Soviet Union, Hansen began his defense of mass action against guerrilla foquismo strategy, including a devastating summary of how Che’s failure to understand Stalinism led to his betrayal by the CP of Bolivia. If proof that Hansen was a GPU agent rested in his defending Cuba uncritically, then he should have been found not guilty.

Meanwhile, the Workers League was going through its own turmoil about secret agents at this time. Party leader Tim Wohlforth was married to a comrade named Nancy Field whose uncle was in the OSS, a precursor to the CIA, something that had never been revealed to their comrades. This led to the two of them being grilled by Healy in intimidating circumstances of the sort endured by Soviet dissidents and members of Larouche’s cult. As it happens, a radical being the relative of an CIA officer or any other high-ranking government official was typical of what was going on the 60s. For example, Robert McNamara’s son was an antiwar activist as were many other children of officials in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations as detailed in Tom Wells’s “The War Within”.

To some extent, searching for spies was to be expected in the Trotskyist movement since Stalin had every intention of destroying what he saw rightfully as his mortal enemy. Trotsky’s assassination was just one example of this campaign that forced his followers to fend off Stalinists at the same time they were dealing with FBI harassment and infiltration.

As for the FBI, the Socialist Equality Party claims that the leadership that evolved in the early 60s around Jack Barnes is made up of FBI agents because they all attended Carleton College in Minnesota. An obvious Healyite plant in the SWP, the lawyer Alan Gelfand was expelled as a provocateur in the mid-90s. Gelfand then sued the SWP for damages on the basis that his right to political expression had been denied. So, as you can see, this stuff about agents and spies has a long and tortured history on the fringes of the Trotskyist movement. However, it is odd that WSWS.org would bother in a new assault on the SWP since for all practical purposes it is a moribund sect that is not an obstacle to the growth of the SEP. The real obstacle to their becoming number one on the far left is their own crazy sectarian politics. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

The bulk of the WSWS.org articles, which are written by Eric London, are focused on Cannon’s secretary who was known to the party as Sylvia Caldwell. After Max Shachtman and Albert Glotzer, two former leaders of the SWP who had left to form the Workers Party, heard rumors that Callen was a CP agent, they dropped in on Cannon in 1947 to urge him to conduct an investigation. One did take place that year, clearing her of all charges. One suspects that it was Cannon’s insistence that she was innocent that made the difference. Of course, this would implicate Cannon himself as an agent, a bridge too far even for conspiracy-minded sectarians. As soon as the investigation was completed, Callen resigned from the SWP and abandoned left politics altogether, either Stalinist or Trotskyist.

In 1950, ex-Communist and now McCarthyite tool Louis Budenz wrote a book titled “Men Without Faces” that was typical of the time. Like Whittaker Chambers, Budenz wrote about the CP as if it were indistinguishable from the GPU. This fed the paranoia of the witch hunt that made victimization of CP’ers so easy. Since Budenz identified Callen as a CP asset in the book, the SWP had no other recourse but to follow up and effectively re-open the investigation of 1947 even though she was no longer in the party. Cannon sent Farrell Dobbs out to speak to Callen who insisted that she was not guilty. This was enough for Cannon who wrote an article clearing her of Budenz’s charges.

The SWP continued to insist on Caldwell’s innocence even though she was named as a member of Jack Soble’s spy ring in a 1960 NY Times article. However, the Times refers to her as Sylvia Callen. That leaves open the question whether Cannon, Dobbs et al made the connection to Caldwell, Cannon’s secretary. The other curiosity is that despite being indicted, Callen never spent a day in jail. Considering the political climate 58 years ago, that is something of a mystery.

The first indication that the SWP might consider the possibility that Caldwell was a Stalinist agent occurred in 1976 when Healy’s accusations were roiling the left. In an article that appeared in Intercontinental Press defending Hansen by Betty Hamilton and Pierre Lambert, leaders of another Fourth International franchise,  the authors accepted the possibility that she might have been an agent and thought it appropriate for a new investigation to proceed. Looking back at this period, I doubt that the SWP would have found much use in establishing her guilt since Healy’s accusations only had the effect of deepening the isolation of his cult-sect. They hoped that he would hang himself on his own petard.

image

Sylvia Callen: interrogated by David North’s deputies

In 1976, the Workers League tracked down Callen to conduct their own investigation. At the time she was probably in her late 70s and appeared to have cognitive issues as this excerpt from the interview outside her trailer home would indicate:

Question: Do you have a memory block which begins after all these events supposedly took place?

Franklin: I don’t know. I wish you wouldn’t try to make me remember because I’ll have a breakdown. I can’t remember. It’s been many years, and I’ve put it out of my mind.

Question: Is it possible that you were in the Communist Party and simply have forgotten all about it?

Franklin: I don’t know. I don’t know. It could be one way. It could be the other. I can’t believe that person was me. I can’t believe that I worked in that office. That I was his secretary. I can’t believe anything.

In the view of the SEP, the SWP never held a new investigation of Caldwell because evidence about her GPU/CP connections would point in Joe Hansen’s direction. In the view of this batty sect-cult, it might have brought to light the letter that Hansen’s close friend Vaughn T. “Irish” O’Brien wrote in 1976:

In this letter, dated June 8, 1976, O’Brien recalled an encounter in the late 1940s or early 1950s—the general time frame of the control commission and the publication of Budenz’s books—with Pearl Kluger, a former member of A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party who knew Budenz personally. O’Brien wrote, “I had not seen Pearl for a considerable period of time, but she immediately said, ‘Budenz says your friend Joe Hansen worked with the GPU.’”

Wow, that’s the smoking gun, isn’t it? If Budenz said it, it must be true. For those curious about Budenz, you can find a bunch of his articles archived at the neo-Nazi UNZ Review—that should give you an idea of their provenance. As it happens, you can find O’Brien’s letter on Google books. It is exactly the opposite of what Eric London purports. O’Brien wrote the letter in order to assure Hansen that the charges against him were preposterous.

Indeed, immediately after the sentence above quoting Pearl about Joe working with the GPU, O’Brien follows up with: “I replied, with great earnestness, that while I was aware of circumstances which might lead Budenz to make such a charge, it was not true.” In fact, despite Pearl’s reference to Budenz charge, Hansen is not mentioned once in his writings. Imagine that. With such a potentially juicy expose about Trotsky’s bodyguard being in cahoots with the Kremlin, why wouldn’t Budenz have mentioned it somewhere in his books or articles? Probably because it wasn’t true and didn’t want to risk being sued for libel.

O’Brien clarifies Hansen’s contact with the GPU in 1938 that features so prominently in Healy’s demagogic attacks. What Healy leaves out is that Hansen made this contact with the full knowledge of Trotsky. The only other party members who knew what was really going on were Cannon and Shachtman, the two top leaders of the SWP. All of them were privy to a money-raising scam that Hansen was going to carry out. He would tell the GPU that he had become disillusioned with the movement and would be willing to sell the only manuscript of Trotsky’s biography of Stalin for $25,000 so that he could buy himself a “nice little ranch” in Utah and retire from politics. As it happened, the GPU was not interested in the manuscript but was much more interested in the layout of Trotsky’s house in Coyoacan for obvious reasons.

Does this story sound far-fetched? To me it does but if you are going to cite O’Brien, you need to do it in a way that follows elementary journalistic standards. He was not endorsing Budenz, or at least what he was purported to have said. Just the opposite. As for journalistic standards, they went by the wayside on the very day WSWS.org was launched.

 

 

September 8, 2018

Two new, problematic African films

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Two films opened at art houses in New York yesterday that purport to say something meaningful about African society. I am afraid that they say more about the directors and screenwriters since the message they convey is carefully tailored for Western audiences in general and the film festival/art house circuit in particular. Generally, I cut such films some slack since they are made by creative teams trying sincerely to tell stories about real social and political issues. Rather than rating them as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I simply say nothing. To paraphrase my mother, “If you can’t something nice about somebody (in this case a film), say nothing”. I dispense with my mother’s advice on this occasion since both films reflect a creative and political default on a continent undergoing permanent crisis and badly in need of a new Ousmane Sembene.

Playing at Cinema Village, “Five Fingers for Marseilles” seeks to adapt a Sergio Leone film to the hinterlands of South Africa just as his “A Fistful of Dollars” was an attempt to adapt “Yojimbo” to the Old West. Leone’s films were straightforward escapist entertainment while director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond sought to entertain as well as to comment on post-apartheid South Africa. Although the film did put Black South African actors to work, Matthews and Drummond—two white South Africans—made a film that did not come close to achieving the goal set forth by the pair in an interview with “Cinema Escapist”. As Drummond put it:

If you look at the greater theme of the movie, [Marseilles] has never been free and it takes a new generation to fix it. The liberators often hold back from true liberation, which you see here [in South Africa] with the ANC (African National Congress, the party of Mandela who have been the dominant political power in South Africa since 1994). They lost sight of what the goal was – hope for a new generation without the baggage of the past – and a lot of White South Africans feel like Honest John, in this limbo and not knowing what their place is [in Post-Apartheid South Africa].

The Marseilles referred to in the title was an actual place historically. Colonists often named settlements after cities from their country of origin and this was one of them. At the start of the film set in the apartheid era, five young people—four boys and a girl constituted as the five fingers of a fist—have begun taking target practice with slingshots to use against the cops who come to their village to extort payoffs from shopkeepers and generally bully the long-suffering Blacks. When the cops arrest the girl and begin taking her off to jail, Tau, the group’s leader, rides off on his bike to rescue her. Although it is not exactly clear how a youth on a bicycle could have pulled it off, his riding in their path manages to spook the driver so badly that he takes a sharp turn that upends the paddy wagon. Tau then wrests a gun away from one cop and kills both him and his partner. All this takes place in front of the other three boys have caught up with them. They bring the girl back to Marseilles while Tau flees to parts unknown to escape arrest.

Instead of hooking up with Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tau becomes a common thief. The only benefit of living by the sword was that it gave him the skills he needed to return to the village and go to war with the Black gang that is making life unbearable for the dwellers  led by the villainous Sepoko, the “Ghost”. Sepoko and his crew serve the same purpose in this narrative as the gangs in both Leone and Kurosawa’s films—someone to hate. Unfortunately, writer and director neglect the most important part of developing villainous characters: complexity. If they function like the mustache-twirling bad guys in 1930s Tom Mix serials, dramatic intensity will not be achieved.

Tau has returned to Marseilles not to confront evil but perhaps escape from his criminal past. Since his character is exceedingly taciturn, who knows? From the minute he hits town, he is beset by Sepoko’s goons who have plans to take over and see him as a potential obstacle. Like both “Yojimbo” and “High Noon”, the local government is spineless and corrupt–and evidently ANC. Eventually, Tau rounds up a new gang of five that has a climactic gun fight that will remind you of “Gunfight at O.K. Corral”. Matthews and Drummond are obvious film buffs that like Quentin Tarantino enjoy recycling the classics. This tendency is fairly widespread among film school graduates in both the USA and South Africa.

The saving grace of the film is the spectacular landscapes around Lady Gray, the town in the Eastern Cape where it was shot. A couple of months ago I wrote about the Eastern Cape in the context of how desperate poverty was forcing locals to poach rhinos in order to sell the horns on the Chinese black market. Now that would have been a great theme for Matthews and Drummond. I doubt that my review will ever cross their desk but for budding filmmakers who read this blog, a word of advice should be sufficient. Make films that are socially relevant and fresh.

Rungano Nyoni, the director/screenwriter of “I am not a Witch”, was born in Zambia but moved to Wales with her parents when she was 9 years old. On a visit to Zambia a few years ago, Nyoni read about how women were being accused of witchcraft just like Salem in 1693. This gave her the idea to make a film about a young girl who after wandering into a village is accused of being a witch.

This leads a local official to consign her to a kind of leper’s colony where other accused witches, all old enough to be her mother or grandmother, are forced to work in the fields of local farms as virtual slaves. Since they have been found guilty of witchcraft, they must be prevented from escaping. In keeping with the ultra-dry humor of the film, they are not held back by chains but by ribbons extending by hundreds of feet and drawn from spools on a flatbed truck.

The young girl, who is called Shula by the other accused women, is treated differently. Local officials are convinced that she can identify who is a criminal from a large group of accused men, make rain fall on a parched land by casting a spell, and generally perform supernatural feats. Her celebrity grows to the point where she is interviewed on a Zambian talk show although she refuses to talk. Throughout the film, she is totally passive while being passed from one adult to another determined to exploit her non-existent powers. I found it totally impossible to believe that a young girl would not be screaming and kicking on every occasion. Despite the title of the film, she never once cries out “I am not a witch”.

Within five minutes of Googling, I was able to ascertain that the Zambian government has set up camps for women accused of witchcraft but they exist mainly to protect them from ignorant and vengeful villagers. The nearest analogy would be battered women shelters in the USA.

Shockingly, this exploitative film has garnered a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I am about to change that. If you’re up for something like this, you can see “I am not a Witch” at the Quad and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

September 7, 2018

Operation Finale

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 7, 2018

Having seen both a documentary and narrative film about Hannah Arendt that focused on her famous (and to some, infamous) reporting on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker magazine, I was curious to see what “Operation Finale” had to say. Directed by Paul Weitz, who is best known for commercial work like “American Pie” and “The Twilight Saga”, it chronicles the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in May 1960 by a team of Mossad agents led by Peter Malkin, who is played by Oscar Isaac. Ben Kingsley co-stars as Eichmann and makes a trip to your local movie theater worthwhile. Matthew Orton’s screenplay develops the Eichmann character close enough to Arendt’s “banality of evil” to have provoked the Times of Israel to fulminate:

Having barely outlined Eichmann’s role in the genocide, the film proceeds to humanize him with the assistance of the Mossad team. Eichmann is spoon-fed like a bird, toasts a L’Chaim with Malkin, and performs calisthenics. There’s also a scene with Eichmann on the toilet bowl, during which he makes the Mossad agents laugh by telling Nazi jokes.

I doubt any actor could have done a better job than Kingsley who steals every scene, something not hard to do in a film that has not much to work with dramatically. Making a film about the abduction of Eichmann is hardly the stuff that would draw Mission Impossible fans to a theater. Even if “Operation Finale” devotes an inordinate amount of time in fleshing out the technical details in an elaborate plot to evade Argentina’s police, there is no suspense in a film that has a preordained conclusion.

Continue reading

September 4, 2018

Meet the leftwing writers identified as columnists on a neo-Nazi website

Filed under: Red-Brown alliance — louisproyect @ 7:01 pm

Norman Finkelstein: prefers neo-Nazis to the NY Times

Just about a year ago I discussed The Unz Review in the context of a controversy over Valerie Plame tweeting a link to an article that appeared there written by columnist Philip Giraldi titled “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars”. Oh, did I mention that other people identified as columnists include: Patrick Cockburn, Peter Lee, Tom Engelhardt, Norman Finkelstein, and Michael Hudson?

The website is named after its founder Ron Unz, two of whose most recent posts has prompted me to revisit this website that encapsulates the sordid connections between the alt-right and the radical movement. Like Michael Albert of ZNet, Ron Unz aggregates articles that might have appeared originally on leftist websites. Such articles offer solidarity for the Palestinians, Assad’s war on terrorism, the Eastern Ukraine separatists as well as opposition to trade deals like The Trans-Pacific Partnership, warmongers like John McCain, Mueller’s investigation and NATO.

For every one of these leftist articles (leaving aside the merits of Assad and the Donetsk militias) you will find just as many promoting bans on immigration of the sort found in VDARE (Ron Unz has donated 10s of thousands of dollars to VDARE) along with “scholarly” articles making the case that people of color are genetically inferior to Caucasians. One regular there, a deeply racist woman named Ilana Mercer who is listed as a columnist right next to CounterPunch regular Peter Lee, has written a number of pieces arguing that the ANC is promoting “white genocide” against South African farmers just like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump. Plus, tons of anti-Semitic tripe of the sort Giraldi wrote.

But none of this prepared me for Ron Unz’s recent turn that effectively puts The Unz Review in the same category as the Daily Stormer and DavidDuke.com.

Unz, who happens to be of Jewish origin, wrote an article titled “Oddities of the Jewish Religion” on July 16th that effectively turns anti-Zionist Israel Shahak into an anti-Semite. Using Israel Shahak’s scholarly review of how the state of Israel used backward Talmudic passages to justify all sorts of brutality, Unz essentializes such writings as proof that the Jews have been viciously predatory for their entire history.

Like the fascists of the 1930s, Unz dwells on the Jewish-Bolshevik plot that led to the Czar being overthrown, using none other than Alexander Solzhenitsyn as an expert. Using a thoroughly racialist narrative, Unz saw Putin as delivering the Russians from the oppressive Jewish-Communist legacy: “After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, reborn Russia soon fell under the overwhelming domination of a small group of Oligarchs, almost entirely of Jewish background, and a decade of total misery and impoverishment for the general Russian population soon followed. But once an actual Russian named Vladimir Putin regained control, these trends reversed and the lives of Russians have enormously improved since that time.”

Given that that the Bolshevik leaders were overwhelmingly Jewish, according to Unz, he concludes that when you also acknowledge the small numbers of Jews worldwide, you end up with the Jews as “the greatest mass-murderers of the twentieth century, holding that unfortunate distinction by an enormous margin and with no other nationality coming even remotely close.” Obviously, this balances out the millions of Jews who died in Nazi death camps. Hitler killed millions of Jews; so did the Bolshevik Jews kill millions of Christians.

Not only did the Jews wreak havoc in Russia, they also got their dirty mitts on the entertainment industry. Even if good Christians were responsible for the invention of film, radio, and television technologies, they all came under the control of “ruthless Jewish businessmen, who sometimes destroyed the lives and careers of those creators.” Furthermore, “By the 1950s, nearly all of America’s leading concentrations of electronic media power—with the sole major exception of Disney Studios—were solidly in Jewish hands.” I guess Unz didn’t realize that Michael Eisner was a yid.

As bad as this was, Unz escalated his neo-Nazi attack on Jews in a August 27th article titled “Holocaust Denial” that begins by defending a 1976 special issue of Reason Magazine from Mark Ames in PandoDaily accusing it of Ernst Zundel type “revisionism”. To get an idea of the contents, you can find something by Austin App, the author of a 1973 book titled “The Six Million Swindle: Blackmailing the German People for Hard Marks and Fabricated Corpses”. Unz found App to be a very convincing debunker of the myth that six million died.

Unz was predisposed to take Reason at its word since Murray Rothbard, a Jew just like him, was not only on the magazine’s masthead but a fellow holocaust denier. That Rothbard is also the patron saint of Antiwar.com’s webmaster Justin Raimondo should give you pause to think about these right-left romances that have emerged since 2011.

The crux of Unz’s willingness to believe people like David Irving was the widespread holocaust denialism that could be found in the USA after WWII. How could so many good Christians be wrong? Gosh, you might as well believe that there was a Communist conspiracy to take over the government based on widespread public opinion in the late 40s until the early 60s. Who are you going to believe? Joe McCarthy or a crank like I.F. Stone, after all? As a matter of fact, Unz kills two birds with one stone, the Jew scare and the Red scare:

Some years ago, I came across a totally obscure 1951 book entitled Iron Curtain Over America by John Beaty, a well-regarded university professor. Beaty had spent his wartime years in Military Intelligence, being tasked with preparing the daily briefing reports distributed to all top American officials summarizing available intelligence information acquired during the previous 24 hours, which was obviously a position of considerable responsibility.

As a zealous anti-Communist, he regarded much of America’s Jewish population as deeply implicated in subversive activity, therefore constituting a serious threat to traditional American freedoms. In particular, the growing Jewish stranglehold over publishing and the media was making it increasingly difficult for discordant views to reach the American people, with this regime of censorship constituting the “Iron Curtain” described in his title. He blamed Jewish interests for the totally unnecessary war with Hitler’s Germany, which had long sought good relations with America, but instead had suffered total destruction for its strong opposition to Europe’s Jewish-backed Communist menace.

Unz was impressed with the fact that Beaty’s book was the second most popular conservative text of the 1950s, ranking only behind Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind”. Most people outside of Unz’s fascist cocoon would regard this as a strike against Kirk as well, of course.

Another source recommended by Unz is Joseph Bendersky’s 2000 book “The Jewish Threat.” We are told that “His work chronicles the extremely widespread anti-Semitism found within the U.S. Army and Military Intelligence throughout the first half of the twentieth century, with Jews being widely regarded as posing a serious security risk.” So Bendersky wrote the book as a leftist investigative report and Unz ends up siding with the vermin the author was exposing. Quelle surprise.

Using impeccable logic, Unz cites neo-Nazi Robert Faurisson who observed that in their memoirs, Eisenhower, Churchill, and De Gaulle never mention the death camps. This means that they too were holocaust deniers like David Irving. Perfect.

Getting both feet planted in David Irving/Ernst Zundel territory, Unz cites a Chicago Tribune article from 1992 making the case that only a million Jews were killed in Auschwitz but fails to mention that the article also states that the downward revision actually strengthens the case that 5.5 million to six million Jews died in the Holocaust.

A major part of Unz’s article consists of a defense of some of the major holocaust deniers such as Arthur Butz and Willis Carto who launched a publishing house dedicated to their literature named the Institute for Historical Review (IHR). He recommends an IHR book titled “The Dissolution of Eastern Europe Jewry” by the pseudonymous Walter N. Sanning that raises the possibility that a million Jews or more simply moved to the USSR rather than died in concentration camps. You can read a six-part dismantling of Sanning’s book here but that’s hardly worth it considering the implausibility of Sanning’s case. It is equivalent to reading a book refuting flat-earth advocacy.

There are more than 1,600 comments on Unz’s article, most of them reading like this:

Once again a well written and researched essay. Ron it will be hard to ever get the truth out because the Jewish Gangbanging of Society is in full force. They invented the Social Mob Government that now runs the opinions of the Main Stream Media which as you said is in total control of the Jews. What we are seeing is Tribalistic Control of Society. As soon as anyone disagrees with anything the Social Mob of Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the clowns kick into gear. This is especially appealing to Blacks and other minorities who wish to riot, take down statues, and burn things. This isn’t much different to the way things work in Africa where for instance there are over 100 different Tribes fighting for control in places like Uganda. There is no time for reason or discussion. The Jews just kick these people into action. In Ferguson Michael Brown never had his hands up and tried to take the gun of the police officer. It doesn’t matter. These actors aren’t interested in truth or facts they demand some Cosmic Justice. The MSM during these riots just kept pouring more gasoline on the fire with lies and fake reports. When the Justice Dept. investigation by Obama’s Eric Holder was released no one cared about the truth the MSM went on to their next plan of attack. You cannot have a civilization with this type of mentality and that’s why we are doomed.

Much of the Social Mob Movement in the US is funded by Soros and friends. Of course he is never criticized in the MSM because he is Jewish and that would be antisemitic. On the other side the so called Repubs have been bought out by Sheldon Anderson, the Zionist Jew who is a big supporter of the Holocaust Hoax and Israel’s wars with the US funding most of them. It seems hopeless because they have control of everything world wide and the view of everything is first filtered through a Jewish Lens before anyone sees it.

So the question is why someone like Norman Finkelstein or Michael Hudson would allow themselves to be listed as a columnist to a website that is for all practical purposes the Daily Stormer, plus some leftist articles to make it palatable to the kind of leftist who has Consortium News or Max Blumenthal’s GrayZone bookmarked. It is clear that Unz has a sizable readership. According to Alexa, Unz.com is ranked 9,783 in the USA and 27,006 globally as compared to CounterPunch’s numbers—18,225 and 40,052 respectively.

Of the leftwing columnists at Unz I emailed, asking why they would lend their good names to a white supremacist website, only two responded: Michael Hudson and Norman Finkelstein. Hudson hasn’t spend much time investigating the contents of Unz.com but assured me that in light of what I told him, he would now consider severing his ties.

Finkelstein, on the other hand, told me that “So long as my name is attached to only to my work, it’s fine. I would even write for the … New York Times.” Obviously, this demonstrates the kind of affinity that I alluded to early on in this article. The bourgeois press is the main enemy because it demonizes the Palestinians, so close to Finkelstein’s heart. This justifies being a columnist at Unz.com since it is “pro-Palestinian”?. The neo-Nazi stuff? The VDARE type articles? Denouncing the ANC as responsible for White Genocide? Yeah, regrettable, but they are still “for the Palestinians” and against no-fly zones, etc.

In a follow up note, Finkelstein wrote: “I know Ron. He’s very smart, but it appears that Jews with an IQ over 200 end up in strange places, especially if they live in California. First Bobby Fischer, now Ron Unz. Truth be told, even in his pigheaded silliness, and often appalling judgment, Ron always has insightful things to say, which is more than I can for NY Times columnists.” This fixation on the NY Times is remarkable. You might object to Judith Miller, et al, but you can rely on it for factual reporting such as, for example, today’s edition that includes an article about the travails of the Yurok Indians in northern California who are dealing with an opioid epidemic attributable to the genocidal destruction of their traditional life on the Klamath River. Compare that to Unz.com that has run dozens of articles making the case that non-whites are genetically inferior to Caucasians. Where is the insightfulness in an article authored by Ron Unz that states:

Or consider the fascinating historical case of Emmett Till, mentioned earlier, whose murder in 1955 became the archetypal case of an innocent black youngster lynched by murderous Southern whites, perhaps even lending some inspiration to Harper Lee’s public school classic To Kill a Mockingbird. There was enormous national media coverage of the Till murder, which uniformly reported that the black fourteen-year-old child had merely made rude and provocative remarks to the young wife of a white shopkeeper—a “Wolf whistle”—leading to his abduction and brutal killing. Yet oddly enough, only long afterward did it emerge out that his father, a violent criminal, had been executed for multiple rapes and murder, and that Till himself, weighing 150 pounds and quite large and muscular for his age, also had a violent history. Indeed, these facts had remained totally unknown to me until quite recently.

I have no idea how much of Unz.com Norman Finkelstein reads but 15 minutes spent looking at it critically would persuade me to avoid being listed as a columnist. We are living in a period unfortunately that is reprising much of what took place in Weimar Germany when Communists began adapting to the same kind of degenerate nationalism we are plagued by today.

On June 20, 1922, Karl Radek made a speech proposing a de facto alliance between the Communists and the Fascists. This, needless to say, was in his capacity as official Comintern representative to the German party. It was at a time when Trotsky was still in good graces in the Soviet Union. Nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow when Radek urged that the Communists commemorate the death of Albert Schlageter, a Freikorps fighter who died fighting against the French, who had seized territory in the Ruhr. Schlageter was regarded as a martyr of the right-wing, a German Timothy McVeigh so to speak. Radek stated that “…we believe that the great majority of nationalist minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the Workers.”

Radek’s lunacy struck a chord with the German Communist ultraleftists who went even further in their enthusiasm for the right-wing fighters. Ruth Fischer gave a speech at a gathering of right-wing students where she echoed fascist themes:

Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class, even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts…But…how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klockner?…Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the “folkish” side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.

Sad to think of Norman Finkelstein (Mike Whitney, Diana Johnstone, James Petras et al) as the Ruth Fischers of today.

September 3, 2018

Remembering Jesse Lemisch through his fiery assault on Popular Front culture

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

On August 26th, FB friend Marcus Rediker announced the death of another FB friend Jesse Lemisch. I am posting the entire item since some of you—for good reasons, I might add—are not on FB.

Rest in Peace, Jesse Lemisch (1936-2018), radical historian and fun-loving contrarian. I first met Jesse in 1978. I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who would study eighteenth-century sailors, just as Jesse had done so memorably in his famous article “Jack Tar in the Streets.” I visited him in his small Greenwich Village apartment. We sat on the sofa in one corner of the room as his wife, the brilliant feminist psychologist/neuroscientist Naomi Weisstein, wore headphones and pedaled a stationary bike in the other. Jesse was animated, funny, irreverent, brash, and helpful. It was a joy for me to sit and talk with the person who had done so much to give meaning to the phrase “history from the bottom up.”

There was much to like about Jesse – his fierce intelligence, his endearing warmth, his larger-than-life spirit. He was a red-diaper baby and radical to the bone, a natural-born fighter. We worked together on various projects over the years. When his legendary dissertation, “Jack Tar vs John Bull,” was finally published in 1997, I wrote the introduction, link below. That intro begins with a description of an adventure Jesse and I had as we searched the massive Hotel Rossiya in Moscow in 1991 for a group of Siberian miners who had come to the capital city to wage a hunger strike.

It was my pleasure to dedicate my book Outlaws of the Atlantic to Jesse in 2015. I hope he knew how much he meant to me. I lament the passing of someone who showed us how to write history from below.

http://www.marcusrediker.com/writings/jesse-lemisch.php

Rediker announced that he will have a short article on Lemisch in the Nation Magazine this week, so look for it there.

I was obviously not as close to Lemisch as Rediker but I enjoyed the electronic camaraderie I had with him. Whatever you want to say about the rottenness of FB, and it is undoubtedly true, there is still something valuable about its ability to connect you to people you never would have encountered, let alone “friended”, in the pre-Internet days. Besides Rediker and Lemisch, I also value the friendship I have with historians Greg Grandin, David Roediger and Richard Drayton, who also come out of the “history from below” perspective.

My first encounter with Lemisch was in the old-fashioned print media days when I read an article in the October 18, 1986 Nation Magazine that had everybody on the left buzzing, including me. It is an all-out assault on the culture of what Yale historian Michael Denning called “The Cultural Front”, in other words the films, novels, music and dance of the Communist Party and its periphery during its heyday. I loved the book, not least of all for the reason that Denning’s dad taught Latin and French in my high school and was part of the subculture of leftist teachers who cautiously discussed politics at Fallsburg Central in the early 60s.

My first reaction to Lemisch’s article was “what the fuck”? But even if I was annoyed with it, I found it 10 times more compelling than anything I had read in The Nation that year. At this point, I am still with Leadbelly and “Salt of the Earth” rather than MTV and “Sorry to Bother You” but if there was anybody who could dissuade me from my moldy fig preferences, it would be Jesse Lemisch.

Since Lemisch’s article, titled “I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night”, cannot be read unless you are a Nation Magazine subscriber like me (only for the cryptic crossword puzzles), I reproduce it below. If you find his arguments overlapping with the aesthetics of Jacobin Magazine, I can’t blame you. It is also funny to see MTV being described on the leading edge. I guess it was 32 years ago. In any case, Lemisch was the kind of polemicist we need more of on the left, not afraid to speak his mind and let the chips fall where they may. The contrast between his vitriolic article and his sweet, gentle presence on Facebook could not be more striking. They were just two sides of his personality, god rest his soul.

The Nation Magazine, October 18, 1986
I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night
By Jesse Lemisch

My friend, a fellow red diaper baby, has modified his politics, but he is still locked into the Popular Front culture that we grew up with: Pete Seeger, songs of the Spanish Civil War and some New Left versions of the same thing. He gave up trying to get me to Pete Seeger concerts. I had bad reactions, somewhat surprisingly, since, in my heart, I like Seeger. Sullenly, I mumbled things like “blue overalls,” “disingenuous,” “archaic aesthetic” and “dead end for the left.” So my friend gave up on me. Then one day he called to ask me to go to a Si Kahn concert with him. Kahn, he told me, is a rabbi’s son who came out of the New Left and has played an honorable role in labor, civil rights and community organizing for twenty years, and who sings in new ways about new causes.

My friend’s instinct proved unerring: it was Pete Seeger all over again, but offensive in ways that Seeger is not. Kahn makes a much longer leap than does Seeger into a culture and voice that are not his own. His singing raises some important general questions about left thought and culture, concerning authenticity, class, the relation between the left and the rest of America, yd a variety of issues at the intersection of aesthetics and politics. Some of the same questions are raised by the documentary films Seeing Red, The Good Fight and Union Maids.

One of the chief problems in left expression centers on the question of authenticity. Can people on the left speak honestly in their various voices, or must they pretend to be somebody else and speak in a voice that they imagine, erroneously, to be mainstream American? For Kahn it is the latter. He writes and sings songs of love, some of them touching, and of current causes: labor, feminism, gay liberation, Central America, disarmament. He accompanies himself on the guitar, singing of new issues in the old style. Unlike Seeger, whose songs genuinely move audiences, Kahn’s songs are so bad that it’s hard to see how any of the people whose voice he affects would want to sing them. In an updated version of what we used to call white liberal tolerance, Kahn, singing as a man who “loves women,” celebrates his friendship with a gay man:

There’s no need to keep it from me
You can come right out and tell me
You know I love you just the way you are.

A cry of “Thanks, Si” rises from a thousand gay throats.

When he spoke for the victims of sexual harassment- “they say it’s oil yer fo1t”–the women in the audience around me winced. “They call you in their office/And they stare straight at your breasts,” he sang. The sentiments are fine, but Kahn is completely unaware of the arrogance and condescension of his setting himself up in this way as definer of the pain of sexual harassment. Finally, perhaps the ultimate in misplaced authenticity: he sang of his ancestors’ flight from the Cossacks, proceeding to a song of the concentration camps, accompanied by a dulcimer, and, again, in the voice of the cracker.

Kahn imitates the old forms nicely, but why bother? There is much that is noble in these traditions and in the struggles associated with them, but isn’t there sufficient dignity and significance in the causes that Kahn sings about to let them be expressed in a modern voice? Why are they the real people, and not us? To return to Seeger-who is currently on tour with Kahn and has just released a joint recording with him-what goes through the minds of his many college-educated listeners when he leads them in singing Malvina Reynolds’s anthem of middle-class embarrassment, “Little Boxes,’’ in which people go to college, become doctors, lawyers and executives-“And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky/And they all look just the same”? Why must the left dress up in workers’ garb? The whole guilt-trip associated with the notion that blue overalls and only blue overalls, are where it’s at is sexist, aesthetically retrograde and deeply out of touch with the realities of class in America today. Why does authenticity reside only in the accents of the South and West, anywhere but in New York City? How was it determined that this must be the voice in which we speak to-America? Why is it such a bad thing to be a Jew in left folk song? Why, at a time when so much of avant-garde culture is crossing over toward a mass audience, does the left, with more important messages to convey, intentionally remain so isolated? What we have is a culture descended from a noble tradition of popular struggles–one whose public rehearsal is an important ritual of affirmation for those of us who grew up in it–that leaves us speaking a language that more and more Americans don’t understand.

A related complex distorts left film and documentary, where the question of truthfulness is raised more directly. The dominant aesthetic of this genre, which we might call first-person heroic, became the documentary style of the New Left, but it has its origin in the aesthetic of the left of the 1930s. In its older version we were presented with-the voice of the people, apparently unmediated. The style strongly expressed the idea that the testimony of those who participated in great events is the truth, needing no comment or analysis. In fact, as William Stott shows in Documentary Expression and Thirties America, the alleged voice of the people was deeply mediated in the documentaries of the 1930s, sometimes through the selection of data and sometimes through misrepresentation and outright deception.

Seeing Red and other left documentaries are descended from that aesthetic. Their stories are told largely in the first person, with contemporary clips and- with narration playing a secondary role. Truth and art are seen to be at odds, with  truth given a lower priority as a merely academic concern. The films and their “unsung heroes” are described in the promotional literature as “inspiring” and “stunning, ” and no one would deny their power.

But the films mishandle first-person testimony, leading to ahistoricity, and, finally, to falsehood. First-person testimony is important in the reconstruction of history, particularly for getting at the lives of ordinary people. Social. historians have been turning to material like the- Works Progress Administration’s extraordinary collection of slave reminiscences, which was largely ignored by the profession until the 1960s. A new history that focuses on biographies of ordinary people has produced modern classics such as Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre and Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. These works rely on first-person testimony, but never uncritically, and never alone. History is complicated; people disagree. For all the filmmakers’ antiacademicism, their characters take on the authority that we associate with the textbook. There is little sense of the complexity of the past and little confrontation between conflicting views. Interviewers’ questions are admiring and credulous. The simple repetition of pieties and platitudes by people who were “there” is not history.

Despite the subordination of truth to story-telling, the irony is that, ultimately, these documentaries are boring. They are didactic and klutzy. They look like the 1930s, and they speak in-the-ancestral visual language. Pete Seeger praises Union Maids: “No, it’s not wide screen, not color. Hell with all that. It’s real.” The assumption is clear: plainness and antiquated presentation translate into truth. As Seeger’s statement suggests, the appearance of these films has as much to do with ideology as with money; it’s militant amateurism. Seeger’s assumptions dominate contemporary left aesthetics, reinforcing a New Left notion that concern with form is “bourgeois” and elitist. Those assumptions are present in film, in new but old-fashioned agitprop theater, and in public-access cable television, an area of enormous potential but one in which the impact of otherwise promising left efforts has been limited by the rejection of mainstream technology and the use of such devices as handheld and hand-lettered signs. The same applies to much left journalism. A direct-mail solicitation from a brand-new left magazine boasts that it “isn’t slick,” has “no lavish color spreads” and is “printed entirely on newsprint.” In these ways the left fails to address people raised on and thoroughly at home with a more advanced, “bourgeois” aesthetic.

Finally, for all its plainness and artlessness, sometimes what we see in this left genre just isn’t true. The euphemism “progressive” hangs heavily over some of the films, masking the presence of the Communist Party. This cuts both ways, suppressing the Communist role that is open to criticism and also concealing the party’s positive accomplishments. The Good Fight is, to say the least, a debatable view of the Spanish Civil War. Seeing Red has come under heavy fire from researchers who have compared the 400 interviews done by the filmmakers with the fifteen actually used. Looking at what was edited out, Phyllis Jacobson, writing in New Politics, accuses Seeing Red of presenting a “fairy tale version of Party life and history.” Harvey Klehr, writing in Labor History, has pointed out the disproportionately low presence of Jews in the film, and he objects to the film’s caricature of anti-Communism, as if the only critique of the C.P. came from Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. The film is one long platitude, epitomized in Seeger’s remarks on the C.P. (“Better to have loved and lost . . .”), followed by a scene of Seeger chopping wood in the cold. The left should be embarrassed by the authoritarianism, manipulation and falsehood in much of the current documentary-film genre.

There are new ways of looking at the world, some from inside the left, some from outside. Say what we will about the values of television advertising and MTV, we recognize their form as distinctly contemporary, and so does much of America. They offer us rapid movement, mobile cameras, quick cutting, excitement, condensed expression, wit, comedy and attractive color. While I hold plenty of reservations about content, anyone who wants to talk to Americans–as the left presumably does–must understand this language. MTV’s influence has pervaded the culture, and, as we will see, the left is beginning to produce some visual images that have a similar look. But even in the mainstream there are some fine examples of the use of music video to convey political messages. One thinks of the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin’s video, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” The strongest evidence that real songs of protest can be presented in the music video genre is Artists United Against Apartheid’s “’Sun City Rap’”, written by Little Steven Van Zandt and produced by Van Zandt and Arthur Baker, which topped both The Village Voice’s and The New York Times’s list of singles for 1985 [see “’Sun City Rap’,” The Nation, December 21, 1985]. “Sun City” delivers a hard political message in the contemporary idiom, reaching a mass audience and making what Robert Christgau calls “the essential rock and roll equation between celebration and revolt.”

The most powerful example I know of an emerging left aesthetic is found in the work of the American Social History Project, which, in its own way, draws on music video and underground comics, as well as other influences. Begun at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York under the supervision of the late social historian Herbert Gutman, the project has turned out a prize-winning collection of films and audiovisual productions, under the overall direction of Stephen Brier and with the magnificent art direction of Joshua Brown. This work represents a striking alternative to the traditional aesthetic and is a fascinating example of left culture in transition.

The project’s most ambitious production to date is the thirty-minute film 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation. In that year, propelled by economic depression and pay cuts, 80,000 railroad workers struck, and across the country hundreds of thousands of others joined a national protest which was called the Great Uprising. Describing these events, 1877 is full of visual excitement, much faster than what we expect from this genre. The color is beautiful, and the camera is wonderfully active: it pans, zooms in on detail, pulls back.

Among the basic materials used in I877 are nineteenth-century graphics: black-line wood engravings from the newspapers of the day. But they are put into motion by two deliberate anachronisms:, tinting and animation. Brown found that the engravings looked “archaic, static and murky to audiences accustomed to the photographic and moving image.” Rather than immerse us in this antique look, Brown tinted the engravings, as he says, “to bring out details and add dimensionality to the drawings.” Suddenly, we are looking at a colorful scene that conveys familiarity and reality, rather than a dead and impossibly unreal past. Sometimes the graphics are retouched and animated, and the film has the overall appearance of a cartoon. Based on stills, 1877 is more of a movie than are the left documentaries.

The sound of this film is also innovative. An original score by Jane Ira Bloom takes us far from the folk singer’s guitar to synthesizer, trumpet, percussion and soprano saxophone. Just as the period graphics were colored to avoid archaisms, so was a deliberate decision made to avoid folk music, with its archaic connotations.

Like Seeing Red, 1877 uses first-person testimony. But in 1877 there is a strong narrative for which the first-person testimony is illustration. The narrative is spoken, powerfully, by James Earl Jones. Seeing the past through the mediation of the narrator brings us closer to reality than does the unmediated presentation of first-person testimony. Oral history is not history; narrative is. Here we are not left on our own to worship past heroes.

Another of the project’s productions, a slide/tape presentation titled “Tea-Party Etiquette,” offers a fine example of a critical approach to oral history. “Tea-Party Etiquette” is an adaptation of Alfred Young’s biography of George Hewes, the shoemaker who was lionized late in life for having been at the Boston Tea Party. “Tea-Party Etiquette” shows a biographer interviewing and arguing with Hewes, challenging his memory of the event. The effect is like watching Mike Wallace hector someone on ’60 Minutes. It’s lively, but, more than that, it adds layers to our understanding of the complexities of the past at a point where Seeing Red closes down and presents a single sanctified vision.

The only other left documentary I know of that breaks with the frozen conventions of the 1930s“there must be others-is Jill Godmilow’s Far From Poland. Unable to make the trip to Poland to do a film on Solidarity, she instead uses all sorts of comic and imaginative devices. An actor walks through the countryside reciting the published reminiscences of a government censor who came over to Solidarity, the scene set to a laugh track. Blackout. With melodramatic piano music in the background, there’s Fidel on the telephone, delivering an apologia for Soviet policy on Poland and lecturing Godmilow on art and politics. (“It’s your nickel,” she tells him.) This film has the mark not of the 1930s but of Jean-Luc Godard, with a touch of Laugh-In. What all of this adds up to is not solely a question of aesthetics; it is also a question of politics and honesty. The aesthetic I’ve criticized is disingenuous; it has not and it will not serve the left well. If that is the best we can do, the American people show their good sense by not listening.

Jesse Lemisch is a professor of American colonial and social history on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is currently a visiting professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York.

 

September 1, 2018

Jacobin, air-conditioning, and productivist nonsense

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

An air-conditioner

Leigh Phillips, an air-conditioner salesman

About 10 years ago, two young radicals showed up on Marxmail and soon found themselves clashing with old fogies on the list. One of them was the 19 year old Bhaskar Sunkara who unsubbed from the list to get away from all the nasty digs against Barack Obama:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

The other was Leigh Phillips, whose exact age I don’t know but he was most likely a Millennial based on the evidence of photos. Phillips began defending GMO on the list, a rather brave stance to take considering the animosity most of the Marxist dinosaurs on the list feel toward chemical/industrial agriculture.

Fast forward, to use a cliché I rather detest, a decade and now we see Phillips writing articles for Jacobin, the latest being one “In Defense of Air Conditioning”. Using Marxist formulations, he makes the kind of case you can read in Spiked Online. In 2006, during a heat wave in London like the kind that we have been suffering through this year, Spiked editor-in-chief Mick Hume wrote an op-ed piece for Rupert Murdoch’s London Times that stated:

Right, get your sun-addled brain around this vicious circle. Environmentalists and the authorities argue that the recent heat waves demonstrate the extent of man-made global warming. If that’s true, then we must need more air-conditioning to cope. But oh no, they tell us, that will cause -you’ve guessed it -man-made global warming.

Verily, they want us to suffer for our sins. The old puritans cautioned only that we would burn in Hell in the next life. The neo-puritans tell us we must burn on Earth in this one.

Air-conditioning and refrigeration do indeed account for a lot of energy. But then, they are technological cornerstones of modern civilisation. Much of the world as we know it would be uninhabitable without air-con. The booming growth of the American South in the past half-century, from the metropolis of Los Angeles to the space centre of Houston, has been possible only because air-con is ubiquitous there.

While Phillips does not quite have the sneering arrogance of Hume, he does say about the same thing:

In fact, if you think about it, the abstemious green options — lifestyle changes, anti-consumption, the retreat from material demands — seem rather compatible with austerity and neoliberalism’s four-decade-long march. If the liberal good guys are all telling us we already have too much, isn’t it that much easier for the bosses to tell us the same thing?

Well, they’re wrong. Nothing’s too good for the working class, including a nice, cool, air-conned bedroom on a blazing summer’s eve. To the tumbrels with the fans of ceiling fans!

You might ask yourself why Spiked, a libertarian cult around sociology professor Frank Furedi, and Jacobin would be making the same kind of arguments. I often wonder whether Bhaskar Sunkara might have a soft spot for the magazine they put out until it went bankrupt, the casualty of being on the losing end of a £375,000 libel case. A couple of TV reporters had sued LM for accusing them of fabricating a story about Bosnians being kept in concentration camp conditions.

The magazine, originally called Living Marxism and shortened to LM in the 1980s, was sold at a bookstore near Columbia. I used to glance at it from time to time, impressed by its state-of-the-art graphics as this photo would indicate. Could Jacobin be its heir, at least visually?

But when I got past the cover, the articles were a real turn-off. Defenses of GMO, fox-hunting, unprotected sex, fast cars, nuclear power plants, assimilation of native peoples, etc. It was enough to make you throw up.

Guess who once contributed an article to Spiked Online, the successor to LM? None other than our air-conditioning advocate Leigh Phillips. Titled “A Leftwing Case Against Environmentalism”, it repeats the standard libertarian horseshit found in Spiked and its American counterpart Reason Magazine but made more palatable by radical phraseology:

Today’s campaign against economic growth and overconsumption should have no place on the left. While its current austerity-ecology incarnation appears to many progressives as a fresh, new argument fit for the Anthropocene, it is in fact the descendent of a very old, dark and Malthusian set of ideas that the left historically did battle with. It is not that our species does not face profound environmental problems. Indeed, it is precisely because human society confronts such genuine ecological threats that the focus must be on the real systemic gremlins responsible for our predicament, not growth, let alone progress, industry or even civilisation itself.

Quite the opposite of all this misanthropy is what is imperative. There will need to be more growth, more progress and more industry, and, above all, we will need to become more civilised, if we are to solve the global biocrisis.

The air-conditioning article is now the eighth written for Jacobin by Phillips. They are universally in this vein, combining a gee-whiz attitude toward science and technology reminiscent of General Electric commercials on TV in the 1950s with the sort of crude productivist version of Marxism you will find in the Spartacist League and Furedi’s sect from 25 years or so ago before its libertarian turn.

Phillips recognizes that climate change is for real, even as Spiked finally does. To understand how he differs from the revolutionary left, it is crucial to hone in on this statement: “As the climate changes, we have to place as much emphasis on adapting to the warming that is already locked in as we do in mitigating its causes. And as part of this adaptation, we should view air-conditioning in most locations as a right.”

Adapting? Mitigating its causes? Maybe the right course of action is building a mass movement that can force the corporations to stop creating greenhouse gases as part of an overall movement to expropriate the expropriators. But don’t expect Phillips to have anything to do with doom-sayers like John Bellamy Foster or Naomi Klein. His affiliations should make it clear that his solutions are within the capitalist system.

Phillips is involved with the Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank founded in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. On their website you can find articles hailing fracking as a model for alternative energy development and nuclear power. The board of directors includes Reihan Salam of the National Review and Rachel Pritzker, from the Chicago billionaire clan that was one of the main backers of both the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. So, you can see the six degrees of separation without trying too hard. Jacobin>Phillips>Pritzker>Democratic Party>Jacobin.

Phillips sees air-conditioning as a basic human right that the state should guarantee, something equivalent to health care, housing and education under socialism. Unfortunately, air-conditioning requires a different infrastructure than supplying aspirins or antibiotics. It is based on energy consumption that is creating the greenhouse gases that are heating up the world. Most people would understand that as a contradiction unless you are a latter-day Doctor Pangloss like Leigh Phillips.

He castigates a Washington Post reporter for questioning the wisdom of “Las Vegas, football in Phoenix” and other attempts to build unsustainable cities in the desert. He also defends the use of air-conditioning in shopping malls that Pope Francis included as one of the “harmful habits of consumption.”

After acknowledging the drawbacks to air-conditioning, including its huge appetite for electricity, Phillips believes that it is sustainable when alternative energy sources like nuclear power and hydroelectric dams are used. Of course, you might expect someone like Phillips to be a supporter of nuclear power but what about hydroelectric dams? Aren’t they okay? After all, “Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.”

My guess is that someone like Phillips is just as dismissive of indigenous peoples as his pals at Spiked are. For productivist freaks like Mick Hume and Leigh Phillips, what’s the point of living in “primitive” conditions. Tch-tch. So barbarian when you can move to a city in Ontario and live in an electrically heated apartment rather than in a seal-hunting village near the Arctic Circle.

In 2013, I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “The Inuit in a Melting World” that described the environmental impact on both cities and countryside by these massive dams. I cited the press notes for a documentary about Inuits living on the Belcher Islands in Canada:

Hydroelectric mega-projects near Hudson Bay send power to many cities in North America. Spring runoff from wild rivers is held behind dams and released into the bays in the winter months when energy demand is highest.

This reversal of spring runoff disrupts ocean currents and influences the dynamics of sea ice ecosystems in the bay, reversing the seasonality of the hydrological cycle. Belcher Islands residents have noticed the effects for many years, but many concerns continue to go unaddressed.

Due to winter input of freshwater from reservoirs, sea ice freezes and breaks up differently. The dynamics of these critical sea ice habitats for eiders and other wildlife, such as polar bears, are now less predictable. A number of winter die-offs of eiders have been documented, while the larger scale effects are poorly understood.

Indigenous peoples living near the dams are also in danger of being exposed to mercury, a poison that is accumulated in large bodies of water impounded behind dams as the article “Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities” points out.

Finally, hydroelectric dams are a major producer of greenhouse gases, a function of the vegetation at the bottom that accumulates just like mercury before being converted into methane. The Guardian reported that a billion tons of carbon emissions are produced each year. The critical literature on hydroelectric dams is extensive. I recommend Donald Worster’s books, most of all “Rivers of Empire”.

Worster takes aim at the mega-projects associated with the New Deal, a model for the kind of socialism Jacobin contributor Corey Robin identifies with. Most of all, Worster examines the unsustainability of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix whose air-conditioners are powered by the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. Author of a biography of John Wesley Powell, a 19th century explorer who was the first to look closely at the Southwest, Worster describes the way in which such cities were made possible against all ecological wisdom:

In 1878, Powell published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, which laid out a concrete strategy for settling the West without fighting over scarce water. Powell wanted to stall the waves of homesteaders moving across the plains and mountains. Instead, he wanted to plan settlement based in part on the cooperative model practiced in Utah by Mormon settlers, who tapped mountain snowmelt and the streams, lakes and rivers it created with irrigation ditches leading to crops. Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would force water users to conserve the scarce resource, because overuse or pollution would hurt everyone in the watershed. Powell believed this arrangement would also make communities better prepared to deal with attempts to usurp their water.

“Any city — Los Angeles, for example — would have had to deal with these local watershed groups and meet their terms,” Worster says. “For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains … hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place. So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”

Powell’s utopian vision also focused on self-reliance. Farmers would spend their own money, not government funds, on the dams and canals needed to get water to them, and their use of water would be tied to their land. They wouldn’t be able to sell their water separately to cities or syndicates. But that was all too much for a nation desperate to expand, says Worster.

“A number of Western congressmen said, ‘Oh wait, whoa, this is too radical. There’s too much planning in this. There’s too much regulation. There’s too much community control. This is not the American way.’ It would interfere with rapid development. It would interfere with free enterprise.”

John Wesley Powell was a prophet. That’s the kind of people our environmentalist movement of today needs, not people shilling for the nuclear power and hydroelectric dam industries.

 

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