Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2018

What They Had

Filed under: aging,Film — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

A couple of weeks ago a publicist asked me to have a look at a documentary titled “Distant Constellation” set in an Istanbul old age home. I warned her that I had misgivings about such a film but would give it a shot since I have valued her efforts on behalf of non-commercial films. Within fifteen minutes, however, I realized that the film was too close to home. The residents of the nursing home were either suffering from dementia or unable to present a cogent account of their lives there. The title of the film derives from one of the elderly patient’s speculations about life on other planets.

The Guardian review of the film begins with a Philip Roth quote: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” That summed it up for me.

When the publicist asked me why I bailed on the film, I explained that it was too close to home. Two years ago my father-in-law Hasan, now deceased, got on a minibus in Istanbul without any idea where he was going. His wife Meral grew increasingly frantic in his absence until she got a phone call from a good Samaritan who had figured out that Hasan was suffering from dementia and asked him politely to show him his wallet, which he did. That led to the phone call and the realization that he could only go outside their building accompanied by the live-in caregiver. Until his death a few months ago, the stress of caring for him weighed heavily on both my mother-in-law and my wife. Massacre, indeed.

Until my mother’s death a decade ago, I visited her fairly regularly at the upstate nursing home she had been living in for two years or so. Until the day she died, my mom did not suffer from any cognitive deficits. Her problem was mostly circulatory, a function of never doing the slightest bit of exercise, not even walking. A visit was always a pleasant experience but compromised by the sight of so many patients her age suffering from dementia or stroke-induced paralysis. Massacre, indeed.

Yesterday I watched a screener for “What They Had”, a film that had been sent to me under consideration for NYFCO’s annual awards meeting in December. This is a narrative film about a family dealing with an elderly woman’s descent into the final stages of Alzheimer’s with her husband fighting to keep her at home while his son and daughter try to persuade him that the best thing would be for her to be placed in a nursing home.

The woman, named Ruth, is played by Blythe Danner, who was a close friend of mine at Bard College that I lost touch with after I graduated, which was the case with just about everybody I knew at Bard except for a former girlfriend and my close friend Jeffrey who is my regular chess partner who has dispensed valuable but free psychological advice over the years.

As was also the case with Chevy Chase, who dated Blythe briefly at Bard, I have tried to follow her career for the past 53 years. This did not necessarily mean seeing some of the forgettable films or TV movies she appeared in over the years but at least reading any article covering her latest appearance. In her earliest roles, she played the ingenue, typically as in the Broadway play “Butterflies are Free”, where she was the ditzy next door neighbor of a young and handsome blind man.

It was this play that left her with the raspy voice that probably narrowed the range of characters she would play over the years. In an interview with Susan Wloszczyna on the Roger Ebert website, she explained how it happened: “I hurt my voice while doing my first Broadway play. I had a very high voice and I lowered it for my character. I didn’t know it would get me in trouble. So I’m stuck with a raspy voice.”

I remember Blythe before the raspiness kicked in. She was a great singer who could have made it as a recording artist. In 1965, I brought Bill Evans up for a solo concert at Bard and he agreed to accompany Blythe for a couple of songs, which was very generous for a celebrity like Bill.

Her parents gave her the name that befit her personality. She certainly was a “blithe spirit”, almost like one of Shakespeare’s fairies in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. To this day, I still have vivid memories of sitting on the lawn at Bard after smoking some pot and watching her and another theater major doing a highland fling just ten feet away. The sun shined on the two, with Blythe’s flaxen hair reflecting the sunbeams magically.

I used to sit alone in the dining commons at Bard, mostly because I felt anti-social most of the time. On numerous occasions, Blythe would join me at the table and confess her insecurities. She always felt inadequate academically and feared that people thought she was “ditsy”. I always tried to reassure her that she was very bright and level-headed but somehow I got the feeling that until she became a theater and film star, that feeling of inadequacy never disappeared.

Old age has a way of sneaking up on you. About five years ago, Blythe started doing commercials for Prolia, a medication for treating osteoporosis, an ailment she was suffering from herself.

It always felt strange to see the flaxen-haired ingenue of my youth appearing in such a commercial but that didn’t prepare me for “What They Had”, a story in which most of her dialog is off-kilter as you’d expect from her character. In one typical scene, when she hears the phone ringing, she comes back with a stapler next to her ear, asking “Who’s there?” In another scene, she drinks the holy water in the Catholic church she, her husband and two children attend on a Sunday morning for old time’s sake. During the priest’s homily, she turns around and flips someone the finger for no apparent reason and then, a few minutes later, comes on sexually to her son. He is played convincingly—as always—by Michael Shannon. The daughter is played by Hilary Swank, who is more reluctant than Shannon’s character to place her in a home. Ruth’s husband is played by Robert Foster, an outstanding actor who captures the stubborn devotion his character has to a woman who can barely tell if he is her husband or not.

To be honest, “What They Had” is barely a step up from one of those Lifetime Cable “problem” movies that are geared to the network’s female audience. It was written and directed by the actress Elizabeth Chomko who was at least able to draw from personal experience in making the story so close to what families have to deal with when one of their number has to be institutionalized (there’s really no other word to describe it.) A slashfilm.com interviewer told her that the film came across as very personal. Chomko replied:

Yes. It is definitely personal—inspired by my grandparents, my family, and what we all went through coping with my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and loving her through all the subsequent memory loss and the ways in which it sort of—the caring for her—caregiving—the way in which it brought us to closer together and pulled us all apart. I think in the film everyone is reckoning with their memories and their own sense of time gone and past. I think when you start to witness someone losing their memories it really prompts—at least for me—a sense that memories are precious and that we take them for granted a little bit. So I think for all the characters, it prompts just a sense of coming of age. I think coming of age is something we do over the course of our life many times. I wanted to write something it felt like three generations kind of coming of age and in particular, the character that Hilary plays—a woman sort of reckoning with the decisions that she’s made and why she’s made them and does she want to continue down the path that’s led her on or not.

These strike me as very wise observations. Suffice it to say that the film embodies them even if it is not great filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination. You can expect the film to show up on VOD in a few months. As long as you don’t expect Orson Welles and as long as you can identify with the ordeal the family in the film have to deal with, it is worth watching.

Naturally, the question of dementia likely faces most of my readers, especially those closer to me in age than the average DSA’er. Over the past 10 years I find myself increasingly unable to remember the names of people, a “lapse” that is ubiquitous to senior citizens and not necessarily a sign that you will be drinking holy water at some point. As a way of doing sit-ups for my neurons, I play chess all the time on my computer and do the most difficult crossword puzzles I can find, especially the Saturday cryptic puzzles on the Wall Street Journal that would fry the brain of most people whatever their age. I also play a word game that does not require a pencil or a computer. I choose a category like jazz musician and then to through the alphabet trying to name as many as I can for each letter (Adderly, Ammons, Allen, Abrams, etc.)

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. it kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. So we are talking about a very frightening illness that will turn us into something like a zombie. The thought of losing your identity, your independence and your ability to use your mind productively is enough to keep you awake at night.

Two days ago, the NY Times reported on how “Dementia Is Getting Some Very Public Faces” prompted by the news that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had released a letter announcing that she’d been diagnosed with dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. The Times tries to put the best possible spin on how public acknowledgement of the disease can remove the stigma and reduce the isolation most patients have to endure but the real issue that is never confronted in such articles is the right to die. If someone still has a grip on reality but is just at the cusp of losing it, there should be an exit door that is available. Instead of forcing family members to spend their entire savings to keep a loved on in a nursing home long after they have no idea who they are, let alone their children or loved ones, people should be allowed to spare themselves the difficult choices forced upon the family in “What They Had”.

As should be obvious, the same reactionary forces that prevent women from controlling their own bodies also prevents us from ending our lives gracefully. If we lived under socialism, the expenses would be far less since the profit motive would be eliminated from the health industry. However, there is still the existential question that each of us face and that has to be resolved through our own free will. That takes a combination of Karl Marx and his contemporary Schopenhauer to navigate successfully.





November 13, 2018

Whither Poland?

Filed under: Poland — louisproyect @ 11:20 pm

A banner reading “Independence March — Death to the enemies of the homeland” in Warsaw on Sunday. Credit: Radek Pietruszka/EPA, via Shutterstock

On November 11th, 250,000 rightists marched in Warsaw to celebrate Independence Day, which honors the creation of a Polish republic in 1918. There were effectively two contingents, one led by President Andrzej Duda, and the other trailing behind it by a couple of hundred yards organized by a coalition of neo-Nazi groups, including the National Revival Party that featured the slogan “Fascism? We are Worse” when it ran candidates in parliamentary elections in 2007. The NY Times reported on the neo-Nazi contingent:

Last year, the neo-Nazis marched by themselves,  chanting, “Pure Poland, white Poland,” and “Refugees, get out!”. Some carried banners with the slogan “White Europe of brotherly nations.”

Duda models himself on Viktor Orban, the ultraright president of Hungary who shares his xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies, so much so that he once declared his intention to turn Warsaw into Budapest. Like Donald Trump, both men have a way of winking at groups like National Revival while insisting on their status as law-abiding if nationalist right-centrist parties. Steven D’Arcy, a Canadian Philosophy professor, wrote an article titled “Two-Track Fascism: Notes on the Collusion of Far-Right Demagogues Like Trump with Street-Level Fascists” that calls attention to the informal ties between someone like Duda, who can be described as Poland’s Donald Trump, and the more openly fascist groups like National Revival or the Proud Boys. Perhaps my only cavil with D’Arcy’s article is whether the ruling class in any country is ready to throw its weight behind neo-Nazis rather than figures like Donald Trump or Andrzej Duda. For the time being, the latter-day stormtroopers are just pawns in a chess game.

Largely because of my survey of Andrzej Wajda’s films, I got up to speed on Polish history and politics in the period leading up to and including the division of the country between Hitler and Stalin. Since it is obvious that Poland has become a breeding ground for neo-Nazi groups just like Ukraine, I became convinced to do some reading about the period between Poland’s exit from the Soviet bloc until today. In many ways, the emergence of the Law and Justice Party in Poland was just as predictable as the failure of Poland to satisfy the hopes of its citizens in the post-Communist period through neoliberalism.

Indeed, the growth of neo-Nazi parties mirrored what has happened in East Germany as angry and frustrated men and women blame liberal democracy and the EU for their diminished expectations. The Law and Justice Party owes much of its 40 percent support to the rural and small town denizens of the country’s east and south. While the benefits of integration into the EU were always dubious, that was much truer for those like Adam Kalabis, a coal miner who was interviewed in Le Monde Diplomatique two years ago.

Kalabis works a seven-and-a-half-hour day, five days a week for the publicly owned KW company and receives 2,900 zloty (less than $740) a month. “My wages have increased by 150 zloty [$38] in 15 years. Even so, I’m better off than some. The widow of a friend who was killed in the Halemba methane explosion [which caused 23 deaths in November 2006] got compensation for six months and then nothing. Everyone in my family has worked in the mines, for generations. But I’m the last. My wife cleans public toilets. It’s a junk contract — 800 zloty [$200] a month, full time.” (In Poland “flexible contracts” are more commonly known as “junk contracts”.)

Like most on the left, I stopped paying attention to Poland not long after it became clear that the leadership of Solidarity had no interest in “socialism with a human face” as was the case in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Lech Walesa was more or less the same kind of opportunist trade union leader as Lula and his intellectual partners in the Solidarity leadership showed a shocking tendency to betray the egalitarian impulses that drove the Gdansk shipbuilders and miners like Kalabis to struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Adam Michnik was arguably the worst of them. In an interview with Michnik conducted by Dissent’s Jo-Ann Mort, he blithely refers to the circumstances that led to Duda’s rise as if it were something like a change of weather: “I don’t know what neoliberal policies were in the Polish context, because we had a transition from a centralized to a market economy and of course, there were winners and losers. It’s a feature of a market economy.”

In 1990, Lech Walesa became Poland’s first President. Once in office, he recruited Jeffrey Sachs to push through the same “shock therapy” he would prescribe for the Russians four years later. Walesa had about the same contempt as Sachs for the workers he once led, not that they had the muscle to resist his austerity measures. Under Walesa’s watch, Solidarity went from 10 million members to just 1½. Unemployment rose to 20 percent and mostly affected older workers, many of whom were like Adam Kalabis. Once you lose a job as a miner or a shipbuilder, there is little chance that you will ever have a good-paying job again.

According to some Jeffrey Sachs fans, especially at the NY Times and the Washington Post, Sachs’s measures reached their goal and by 1992, the economy went on the upswing thus vindicating the neoliberal turn.

Obviously disgusted with shock therapy, Poles decided to “vote the bum out” in 1995. Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist, ran as a Social Democrat promising “to cope with the problems of unemployment, of the poor and with the situation of Polish women.” To show that he was for Polish national unity, he resigned from the Social Democracy after taking office and then embarked on the same exact neoliberal path as Walesa, except at a somewhat slower pace. Furthermore, Poland enjoyed significant growth under Kwasniewski , even if it was limited to the metropolitan centers and in finance, high technology and other growth sectors of this period blessed by an expansion of world capitalism at the time. Finally, he was such a relief from what had preceded him that he was rewarded with a second term in 2000.

However, those in the rural east and south continued to suffer. On top of that Poland was hit by a significant economic downturn in 2004 that laid the groundwork for the Law and Justice breakthrough. The candidates in 2005 were Donald Tusk, the candidate of the Civic Platform that was similar to Christian Democratic Parties in Western Europe and perhaps the old guard Republican Party of George Bush ’41. His opponent was Lech Kaczyński who founded the Law and Justice Party and who had been active in Solidarity. As mayor of Warsaw, he also blocked the LGBT parades in 2004 and 2005. To give you an idea of the ingrown character of Polish politics, both the Civic Platform and the Law and Justice Party emerged out of the Solidarity movement (of course, long after it had become detached from an increasingly fragmented and weak trade union movement, a casualty of shock therapy.

Among the most prominent Marxist analysts of Poland’s integration into Western economic financial and national security networks is Jane Hardy, the author of “Poland’s New Capitalism”, a 2009 Pluto book. Although I have not had a chance to examine the book, I was able to consult one of her articles behind the JSTOR paywall. (Contact me for a copy). Titled “The New Competition and the New Economy: Poland in the International Division of Labour” (Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 59, No. 5, Jul., 2007), it refers to the relatively dynamic growth of Poland in the early 2000s that helped Kwasniewski be elected to two terms. It also discusses the faith that Polish economics had in the “new economy” based on high technology that would supposedly replace the shipbuilding and mining industries that were so closely linked to the trade unions and Solidarity. Supposedly Poland would ride the wave of this dynamic and all-encompassing economic revolution that was facilitated by its close integration with the West.

In reality, Poland had more or less the same relation to Germany that Mexico has to the U.S. Cars might be made in a less developed country but except for the wages paid to assembly-line workers, the real benefits accrue to the imperialist centers:

The automotive industry has invested heavily in Poland in terms of both producers, assemblers and component manufacturers. Between January and September 2005 Poland produced 76% more cars than in the same period in the previous year. The fact that 84% of passenger cars and 90% of vans were exported suggest that Poland is becoming a major export platform for car production. However, the extent to which technology has been transferred is highly variable depending on both the place of the firm in the value chain of the parent company and the particular corporate strategy of the firm. While Volkswagen now undertakes a large part of its engine production for its global industrial system in Poland, in 2002 all parts were imported from Germany and there was no local sourcing. Volvo undertakes core research and engine production in the home country, but their decision to source supplies locally transferred quality down the value chain. The point here is that spillovers cannot be automatically assumed and claims of technology transfer have to be treated cautiously. The impacts of foreign investment in the automotive sector are highly mixed, and range from examples of high level ‘knowledge-based’ production to the manufacture of simple components for global networks.

To put it bluntly, Poland was not much more than a maquila zone to Germany and other more advanced Western nations.

In comparing Trump’s Republican Party to Law and Justice, one thing is important to note. Unlike Trump’s rhetorical lip-service to workers suffering from a stagnant economy, Lech Kaczyński carried out policies that had teeth in them. Like the Workers Party in Brazil or Ortega’s quasi-Peronist remake of the FSLN, he and Duda have both followed redistributionist polices that made a real difference in working-class households. Furthermore, they have cracked down on private firms even converting some of them into state property.

For many Poles who have nostalgia for the stability and social protections of the Communist era, the Law and Justice Party is a welcome relief from the insecurities and hardships of the previous governments. To get an idea of the significant withdrawal from neoliberalism but maintaining its commitment to capitalist development, Krzysztof Jasieckil’s “The Nature of Capitalism in Poland” that appeared in the Corvinus Journal of Sociology and Social Policy Vol.8 (2017) offers some useful data.

Jasieckil refers to a 2016 book by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris titled “Trump, Brexit, and Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash” that provocatively refers to Law and Justice, as well as Orban’s party, as “left-wing populist” on the basis of its rejection of the “neoliberal model of economic policy and its ideas about small state and free market, deregulation, low taxation and individualism.”

Jasieckil describes a policy of renationalization (what the government calls “repolonization”) that recalls the sort of policies associated with the “import substitution” strategies of progressive economists in Latin America like Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado, perhaps ones that can be called fall under the rubric of “Poland First”. Jasieckil writes:

For example, having taken over the private Alior Bank and PKO SA from the Italian Credit Union Group, domestic capital (controlled mainly by the government) now owns more than 52% of the banking sector. Over 60% of electricity in Poland is currently produced by the state energy sector (Blaszczyk 2016). The media context of “repolonization” has clear political connotations, as some PiS politicians argue that foreign owners, predominantly German ones, “carry deliberately unfavorable coverage of the current government in an effort to undermine it.” The president of Employers of Poland notes that the taking over of media by the state can foster to reduce freedom of expression in public debate.

In addition, Law and Justice has provided generous social benefits. After taking power, it provided a stipend of 500 zlotys, or around $148, a month for every child after the first child and for every family in the country. It also reversed a deeply unpopular decision to raise the retirement age to 67, reducing it to 60 for women and 65 for men. Finally, it has provided new housing subsidies and worked to reopen shut state factories.

In many ways, Poland has the same array of social and political forces as in the USA except that the right-wing government has a much more secure base for the simple reason that the working-class and farmers have made real gains under the nativist, homophobic and anti-democratic regime. Whether this state of affairs will last much longer is open to question. The ability to provide benefits to workers and farmers is constrained by the country’s ability to sustain economic growth. After all, Venezuela’s government became deeply unpopular after oil prices dropped. Since Poland is not a commodity-exporting nation, it remains to be seen how it will fare in the next occurrence of a global slowdown that is inevitable.

As for the left in Poland, it is not much more powerful than here in the USA. Podemos seems to have inspired a similar effort there called Razem (Together). Whether it has much staying power is open to question. Until workers begin to challenge Law and Justice, it is doubtful that a group made up primarily of college youth, professionals, etc. will have much traction (the same thing can be said about the DSA, of course.) I’d refer you to an interview with two Razem members Marcelina Zawisza and Maciej Konieczny that appeared in European Alternatives (https://euroalter.com/2016/new-left-poland-podemos). It reflects the challenge facing people on the left in confronting a state that blends deeply reactionary and racist policies with those that a Bernie Sanders or a Jeremy Corbyn would gladly endorse:

Q: Talking about social policies, the current government – led by Kaczyński’s party Law and Justice – is quite an interesting case. It is for sure an authoritarian, xenophobic, illiberal government, on a collision course with the EU. But it is, nevertheless, passing some measures that could be seen as traditionally leftist: reduction of the retirement age, maternity allowance, social housing. What do you think about it? Is this a new kind of nationalist socialism?

A: We must say we are surprised as well. We thought the social agenda mentioned during the political campaign would be forgotten once elected, as it had happened when the same party had the chance to govern previously. But now they are really doing it! They are way more nationalistic and authoritarian than the first time, but they are also way more social. For the first time we have assisted to a growth, rather than to a reduction in welfare provisions. The new maternity law will drastically reduce child poverty from 28% to 10%, an issue closely linked to large families here in Poland. And for the first time, the most of public spending will go to the poorest: 6 billion szloty to the poorest 10% of the country, only 300million to the richest 10%.

Q: So, for the first time there are redistributive policies.

A: And we will not be the ones criticising them. A social housing program was launched, not giving resources to banks or big building companies, but giving resources for controlled rents. And there is more: the taxation system is undergoing a modification that will make it more progressive, flat tax is being abandoned together with regressive taxes for the richest. But at the same time, the government is extremely authoritarian. A militia with semi-automatic weapons is about to be created, mostly made by components of far-right groups. A bill against terrorism is about to pass, creating a permanent state of emergency. Not to mention the gag that has been put on the press or all attacks to the independence of the Constitutional Court. It is quite frightening.

Additional resources:

The Promise of Prosperity | The Nation:

The Puzzle of Poland | Dissent Magazine: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/puzzle-poland-right-wing-populism-media-pis-michnik

Jan-Werner Müller | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/02/11/kaczynski-eu-problem-with-poland/

The Polish Right Can Be Defeated | Jacobin Magazine:

Poland’s Iron Consensus | Jacobin Magazine: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/11/poland-october-elections-kaczynski-law-justice-party/

The Law and Justice Party and Poland’s turn to the right | Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal:

Populism or Capitalist De-modernization at the Semi-periphery: | nonsite.org: https://nonsite.org/article/populism-or-capitalist-de-modernization-at-the-semi-periphery

Poland’s rightwards shift, by Dariusz Zalega (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, September 2006):

Poland’s populist revenge, by Cédric Gouverneur (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, March 2016):


November 10, 2018

Craig Carton and the American malaise

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

Craig Carton

One of the reasons for a happy marriage now in its sixteenth year is that my wife and I have similar pop culture tastes as well as leftwing politics even when they clash. For example, we have both enjoyed listening to shock jocks in the morning for about as long as we have been married.

First it was Howard Stern, an obvious sexist pig but a very funny one. When Stern moved to satellite radio, we switched to Don Imus, his arch-enemy. When Imus was fired by WFAN in 2007 for a racial slur, we decided to give his replacements a try. Despite being featured on a sports talk radio show, Imus was mostly about interviewing politicians and reporters—and very good at it. Taking over for Imus, ex-NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason and long-time radio talk show host Craig Carton also interviewed politicians but their primary focus was on sports. What made the show worth listening to was Carton’s shock jock antics that were obviously stolen from Howard Stern. Riffs on bowel movements, raising kids, impromptu restaurant reviews, etc. were interspersed with commentary on sports with the typical call-ins from “Vinnie from the Bronx” about a trade the Yankees should make.

Three days ago a jury found Carton guilty of conning wealthy investors into buying bulk tickets to concerts but only used the seven million dollars to pay off his gambling debts plus other personal expenses such as landscaping his 9,345 square foot mansion. He faces up to 45 years in prison but will likely get much less, my guess five years or so.

Carton was making huge bets at casinos. Witnesses told the jury that he borrowed money from loan sharks to fund these outings. One of them was Desmond Finger, the general manager of the Upper East Side strip club Sapphire 39, who testified that he made high-interest loans of up to $500,000 for each of his casino fixes. Carton probably worried much more about the money he owed to someone like Finger than the hedge funds he conned. It is not hard to imagine him getting roughed up or worse from one of Finger’s friends if he didn’t pay up. At least in prison, he won’t have to worry about his legs being broken–at least if he keeps his eyes opened and his big mouth shut..

Carton, like Stern and Imus, made lots of enemies because of his big mouth. Bob Raissman, a sports columnist for the NY Daily News, a one-time far-right tabloid now oriented to the Democratic Party, raked him over the coals. Referring to his attorney’s decision not to put him in the witness box, Raismann wrote:

How ironic that in the fight of his life, Craig Carton could not use his most lethal weapon — his mouth.

The same mouth that took him to radio’s mountain top. Morning-drive in New York City, making over $1 million per year working on WFAN with a celebrity/ex-jock/wheeler-dealer Norman Julius Esiason.

The same mouth that spewed invective, verbal sewage, loved by FAN’s target audience, the miscreants who showed up to watch him walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in a Speedo.

Many people, including me and my wife, could not figure out why someone doing so well would shoot himself in the foot. It was the same question I had about Bernie Madoff. After having made it big as a shock jock or a securities broker, why would anybody risk throwing it all away by committing a crime?

Madoff remains a mystery but it is clear that Carton had a very serious gambling addiction. Like drugs, tobacco or alcohol, it can destroy one’s life. I say this from personal experience having a very close friend who lost well over a hundred thousand dollars over the years betting on horse races. When we were in our late teens, he used to bet hundreds of dollars on the trotters at Monticello Raceway. Some nights he’d win, other nights he lost. I used to accompany him to the races but usually bought a book with me to read during the races. For me, gambling is a complete waste of time and money. One of the reasons I got out of the stock market was that it was too much like gambling.

If you listened to the Boomer and Carton show, you’d be struck by how much gambling permeated the conversation between the two. It was always about whether a team would cover the odds. All of these shows on WFAN have a big focus on the “over-under” on professional sports events especially on Friday, just before the NFL games on Sunday.

On May 14th this year, New Jersey, Carton’s home state, made sports betting legal. This measure had been pushed for years by the former governor Chris Christie, who was one of Carton’s best friends. Christie, a frequent guest, on the Boomer and Carton show, used to love talking odds with the hosts. FanDuel, a sports fantasy website, has also been given the green light for bookmaking.

On top of sports betting, lotteries have become ubiquitous in the USA. Even though a lottery ticket might cost only a couple of dollars, poor people can end up throwing money down the drain in the hope that they can become millionaires. As a vicious cycle, the lotteries only exist because state treasuries have been drained by tax cuts, thus making poor people even more needy.

The Wikipedia entry on “problem gambling” cites medical authorities who see it in the same terms as substance abuse even though it is described as an impulse control disorder rather than an addiction. The gambler can’t help betting when feeling distressed (e.g., helpless, guilty, anxious, depressed). Since this is the normal state of mind for most Americans, it is not surprising that billions of dollars are wasted on betting just as they are on opioids. Of course, gambling will only cost you your freedom while opioids will cost you your life.

Like Boomer Esiason, Craig Carton was a Trump supporter and a racist. The show constantly praised the cops and always took their side whenever someone like Trayvon Martin was killed. It is a crowning irony that a “law and order” man like Carton will end up in a New Jersey prison serving time with Black prisoners who might have heard him on one of his racist rants.

I continue to listen to Boomer Esiason in the morning, now that he has a new co-host, a guy named Gregg Gianotti who is the comic next to Esiason’s straight man just as was Carton. Thankfully, Gianotti does not seem that interested in politics. Mostly, he enjoys talking about sports. Naturally, my wife has bailed on the show since her interest in sports is zero.

I only wish that WBAI was not as bad as it is. For most of the 1980s and until 2000, I used to listen to it religiously and donate hundreds of dollars a year. A typical morning show would consist of great music and interviews by someone like Will Wilkens, a fellow member of CISPES and a good friend. This was the kind of programming Samori Marksman, a Caribbean Marxist, used to promote.

After Marksman died suddenly of a heart attack in 1999, there was a coup led by Utrice Leid that antagonized most listeners, including me. A listener revolt eventually led to her clique being ousted and the station converted into one based on “community control”. That conversion led to a new type of programming marked by conspiracy theories, medical quackery and tedious leftist sermonizing that was unbearable.

Anticipating this article a couple of days ago, I turned WBAI on just for a sample of what it was up to now. Confirming my worst suspicions, the host was on the phone with someone who was making the case for alchemy as a solution to diabetes, heart disease and other ailments.

The opening sentence of Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” reads as follows:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Of course, Dickens wrote the novel to demonize the French Revolution but some of this rings true as applied to the current period. I would only qualify it by saying that a new “Tale of Two Cities” would be much darker and would begin by simply stating: “It was the worst of times”.

November 9, 2018

Why Democrats are so okay with losing

Filed under: Counterpunch,two-party system — louisproyect @ 2:37 pm

Mikie Sherrill, the true, new shining star of the Democratic Party–not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez


Ever since the Democratic Party abandoned its New Deal legacy and adopted the neoliberal centrism associated with the Carter presidency and then cast in stone by the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985, each election loss has generated a chorus of remonstrations in the left-liberal press about the need to run “progressive” candidates if the party wants to win. The latest instance of this was a post to the Jacobin FB page that stated: “By running to the right, Democrats insist on losing twice: at the polls and in constructing an inspiring agenda. Bold left-wing politics are our only hope for long-term, substantive victory.”

The question of why Democrats are so okay with losing has to be examined closely. In some countries, elections have huge consequences, especially in Latin America where a job as an elected official might be not only a source of income for a socialist parliamentarian but a trigger for a civil war or coup as occurred in Costa Rica in 1948 and in Chile in 1973 respectively.

In the 2010 midterm elections, there was a massive loss of seats in the House of Representatives for the Democrats. In this month’s midterm elections, the Democrats hoped that a “Blue Wave” would do for them what the 2010 midterms did for the Republicans—put them in the driver’s seat. It turned out to be more of a “Blue Spray”, not to speak of the toothless response of House leader Nancy Pelosi who spoke immediately about how the Democrats can reach across the aisle to the knuckle-dragging racists of the Republican Party.

Continue reading

November 7, 2018

Three outstanding documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

Under consideration are three outstanding documentaries, two from the 9th annual NY Documentary Film Festival that opens tomorrow and one available on iTunes.

As part of the film festival (Tuesday, Nov 13, 5:15pm and Wednesday, Nov. 14, 10:15am at the IFC Center), “Patrimonio” documents the struggle of fishermen in the small town of Todos Santos in Baja California in Mexico in defense of their livelihoods—and thus, their existence—against the Black Creek Corporation that was trying to impose a development called Tres Santos over the very beachhead they have used to launch their small fishing boats for over a century. The centerpiece of the development was a “Green” hotel that would appeal to people who read the NY Times Sunday Travel section in search of exotic or novel resort areas. Instead of gambling casinos and steak, you get yoga studios and vegan meals.

This development threatened their “patrimonio” as one activist fisherman puts it. If New York Film Critics Online did not restrict nominations to films that have only opened for general theatrical release, this would be my choice for best documentary of 2018.

“The Providers” refers to doctors and paramedics working out of a clinic in northeastern New Mexico that serves a desperately poor and neglected rural population. Seeing three of its staff members on their rounds reminds you that some people join the profession out of a love of humanity rather than the dollar. It also will be screened as part of the festival on Friday, November 9 at 5:30pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea and on Monday, November 12 at 12:45pm at the IFC Center.

Finally, on iTunes and as a DVD, is “Resistance at Tule Lake” that tells the long-neglected story of 12,000 Japanese Americans who stood up to FDR’s mass incarceration during World War II. Condemned as potential traitors, they were put into a concentration camp at Tule Lake Segregation Center, where they protested the attack on their rights as Americans, whether they were citizens or not.

Before Black Creek, an American corporation, set its sights on Todos Santos, it had created hotels and condos all along the Baja California coastline that would appeal to wealthy people looking for an alternative to the openly touristic beachfront hotels found in Acapulco or Miami Beach. To establish its credentials, it entered into a partnership with Colorado State University that built a campus at Todos Santos. The CSU’s website describes its mission: “Educating students and community members about sustainable practices in tourism, agriculture, and other subjects has become a cornerstone for Colorado State University’s Todos Santos Center in Baja California Sur (BCS), Mexico.” As I just told the director of this outlet of CSU, she and the snakes who own colonized Todos Santos belong in jail cells next to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

In 2004, David Harvey wrote an article titled “The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession” that built upon the insights of Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Accumulation of Capital”. Following Luxemburg, Harvey theorized that the primitive accumulation that Marx wrote about did not come to an end in the 18th century with peasants being victims of the Enclosure Acts or in the 19th century when slavery was abolished. It was an ongoing feature of capitalist exploitation. No other film I have ever seen depicts this tendency more than “Patrimonios”. Using the combined power of the Mexican courts, the cops, and the government agencies charged with the mission of protecting both the fisherman and the land and resources being threatened by Tres Santos’s hyper-development, the working people of Todos Santos were destined to end up like the vagabonds wandering the roads of 18th century England trying to find a way to survive. Or, for that matter, like the peasants who were made redundant by the tsunami of American corn entering Mexican markets after NAFTA, most of whom, it seems, ended up as dishwashers or restaurant delivery boys in New York. Or, even as members of a Mexican drug cartel.

Tres Santos or its Mexican affiliates in MILA, a corporation owned by the family of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the ex-President of Mexico who turned his country into a neoliberal hothouse, bother to follow Mexican law. The corruption at work in their land grab makes Donald Trump look like Ralph Nader. They refuse to turn over documents that supposedly gives them the right to build the new hotel and keep stonewalling the fisherman’s co-op who go through legal channels to validate them. Meeting after meeting is called to resolve the dispute but it is only the fishermen who show up, even when they have been convened by Mexican government bodies. When you see photos of the same officials hanging out with Tres Santos, you understand why. It was a massive conspiracy that saw the fishermen as beneath contempt. As their struggle mounts, including a blockade against construction crews, they repeatedly refer to the power that money gives their adversary. One of their wives says bitterly that Tres Santos shows the need for a new Mexican revolution.

They are led by John Moreno, an attorney with deep roots in Todos Santos who is both legally and politically astute. As you watch this stirring documentary, you sit at the edge of your seat wondering if he and the ostensibly weak forces behind him will overcome formidable odds. The suspense is as gripping as any Hitchcock movie.

“Patrimonio” is co-directed by two women, Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale. In the filmmaker statement, Jackson writes:

I have been involved in documentary filmmaking ever since I left MIT film school in 1971, and my career has been one where every project has been an immersion in a different reality. And a total immersion was the only way to get the intimate footage that Patrimonio required: long days on the boat with Rosario, long nights shooting the blockade, endless meetings and rallies and vigils and never knowing if the next day would bring an intimidating lawsuit or a devastating high tide, a new baby or the death of a patriarch. And over the course of those years of filming my connection to the place and its people only deepened to the point where in 2016 I left New York City after 35 years and am now a permanent resident of Todos Santos and the fight to preserve this pueblo magico has become personal.

“The Providers” follows physician’s assistant Matt Probst, nurse/practitioner Chris Ruge, and physician Leslie Hayes as they visit indigent people being served by El Centro, a chronically underfunded and understaffed clinic in Española.

No matter how marginal the patient, all three offer the kind of “bedside manner” that is often lacking in wealthier, cosmopolitan centers. When an elderly patient asks Chris Ruge for $10 to help meet expenses until his next social security check arrives, he gladly opens his wallet and his heart. Ruge speaks to each of his patients as if they were old friends even when most people would have cut ties with the alcoholic who appears to be a lost cause. While his visit to the man’s house might have been satisfied professionally simply by a physical exam, Ruge spends time offering counseling to help him get to the source of his problems. Since his wife committed suicide some years earlier, he appears unable to cope.

Despite his last name, Matt Probst is a Mexican-American who grew up not far from where the clinic is located. He feels a personal connection with the lost souls he treats because his own father and sister were addicts. Like Ruge, he is compassionate and patient. We see him making a pitch to high school and college students to enter the medical profession in one capacity or another since there was a need for skilled people in northeast New Mexico. The sad reality is that a lack of jobs forces many young people to move to cities, leaving mostly the unemployed and the elderly to stay behind.

Finally, Leslie Hayes understands the need to treat those addicted to opioids as suffering from an illness rather than as criminals or worse. We learn from her that Española, New Mexico has suffered from an opioid epidemic on a scale with any other town or city in places we associate with the plague, like West Virginia. In 2016, she wrote an article describing her approach:

As a family physician in a small town, I treat a lot of health conditions.

I treat high blood pressure and asthma. I treat the flu. I make sure small children get their vaccinations.

However, unlike most family physicians, I also treat patients with opiate addiction, or, as the medical world calls it, opiate use disorder.

Surprisingly to many people, they are the most satisfying patients I treat.

Even more surprisingly, I especially enjoy treating pregnant women.

In 25 years of practice, no one has ever thanked me for bringing their blood pressure under control. However, at least once a month, one of my patients with opiate use disorder thanks me for saving their life.

She, like the other two medical professionals, is the kind of doctor a socialist America would foster. Seeing this film is a reminder that human nature is good despite all evidence to the contrary.

“Resistance at Tule Lake” combines interviews with the elderly Japanese-Americans who were kept prisoner in one of FDR’s concentration camps with archival footage, including some shocking photos of army tanks that were deployed to suppress a non-violent prison revolt reminiscent of the armored vehicles that have shown up recently to intimidate or even kill Black Lives Matters protesters.

We learn from a remarkable spectrum of Tule Lake internees what they had to endure as their rights as citizens were being stripped during the anti-Japanese hysteria following Pearl Harbor. Among them is Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a renowned playwright and actor, who, when forced to fill out a “loyalty questionnaire”, refused to answer questions that implicitly questioned his citizenship. Rightfully refusing to them, he was charged with disloyalty, segregated with other “disloyals”, and even ostracized by other internees. Under pressure, he agreed to renounce his American citizenship and return to Japan on a boat with other “renouncees”, a fate that was a lesser evil to Tule Lake.

Needless to say, the film is both a badly needed chronicle of the Japanese-American experience during WWII as well as a reminder that Trump’s nativism was not a new phenomenon. As the most liberal president in American history, FDR was arguably much worse when it came to stigmatizing an entire nationality as “criminals or worse” as Trump might put it.

In 1959, with the help of attorney Wayne M. Collins, Kashiwagi had his United States citizenship restored. Kashiwagi would later dedicate his book “Swimming in the American: a Memoir and Selected Writings to Collins”, “who rescued me as an American and restored my faith in America”.

Collins son, named Wayne Jr., succeeded his father as a fighter for Japanese-American rights. He is seen speaking to an audience attending a ceremony where he received an award for his efforts. In an article for “Discover Nikkei (Japanese migrants and their ancestors) titled “Carrying the Torch: Wayne Collins Jr. on His Father’s Defense of the Renunciants”, Sharon Yamato writes:

I was fortunate to be at the biennial event ten years earlier in 2004 when the younger Collins had accepted an award on his father’s behalf from those who owed their very presence there to the man responsible for giving them back their citizenship. Collins’ son was responsible for taking on some cases his father left unfinished, including the defense of Iva Toguri who had been falsely accused of being a Japanese spy. As tears of joy and cheers of gratitude filled the auditorium, the younger Collins graciously accepted the award.

I remember thinking what a toll the relentless and selfless work that his father undertook must have taken on a young boy’s life. Yet he calmly spoke of his father’s around-the-clock work schedule and volatile temper as if they were necessary demons of a man fighting for something as important as democracy.

This is the same Wayne Collins Jr. that has been a Marxmail subscriber for the past 15 years or so. When I created the list, it was in the hopes that it would serve as a pole of attraction for people like Wayne. Seeing him the film is a welcome reminder that it has played a meaningful if modest role in uniting the left.

November 5, 2018

Round two in the Robert Brenner-Vivek Chibber fight

Filed under: Academia,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

A magazine with an editorial board made up of Vivek Chibber sycophants?

Last June I posted about the feud between Robert Brenner and his one-time disciple Vivek Chibber that had erupted over Brenner’s dismissal as co-editor of Catalyst Magazine. At the time, 15 well-known leftist academics protested Chibber’s power grab in an open letter. Soon afterward, Bhaskar Sunkara, the publisher of Jacobin and Catalyst, defended the move as necessary since it seemed that Robert Brenner not been keeping up with his editorial duties. Since Brenner is a professor emeritus, I wonder what he had been up to that interfered with his job with all that time on his hands. Going to the race track like Charles Bukowski, another elderly Angeleno?

In any case, Sunkara generously decided to keep him on as an associate editor, alongside fellow associate editor Mike Davis. Brenner said nothing doing and Davis quit the magazine as well. Sunkara was just as magnanimous in victory as he was with the ingrates from the Tribune magazine in England, the latest addition to the Jacobin publishing empire, who also felt like they had been cast aside like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”. When I was in a high school production of Miller’s classic, I played his boss Howard who gave him the bad news that he was no longer needed. Willy’s response: “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit!”

A new statement decrying Catalyst has just appeared but taking a different tack. The first one simply called for Brenner to have his old post back but this time the call is for a new journal of the left that will fulfill the original mandate of Catalyst:

We had hoped Catalyst would offer an arena where the complex strategic and theoretical issues arising from the strange new world of 21st century capitalism could be debated at length. The journal took important steps in this direction, yet still needed to expand its circle of editors and writers in order to involve a wider variety of anti-capitalist theoretical and political currents, as a well as a more diverse array of voices. Instead, it moved in the opposite direction, making it necessary to envision an alternative project.

Chibber forced the issue by explicitly refusing to work with Brenner unless he was granted full editorial authority over Catalyst’s direction and content. He has now created an editorial board of five to give the appearance of dispersing authority. But in view of the fact that three of the new members are his former students and one a close friend, it is evident that his purpose was only to tighten his stranglehold. We have been left with no choice but to see to the creation of a new publication ourselves.

So Chibber has named three of his former students and a close friend to rubber-stamp his decisions at Catalyst. Why would anybody expect anything different? Chibber is a product of the kind of authoritarian culture that prevails in academia. To succeed in academia, it helps to be a sycophant. Chibber was once the sycophant to Brenner and has now assembled his own bunch of yes men. You’d expect someone teaching at NYU like Chibber to follow in the norms that prevail there. Just look at one former student of the disgraced NYU professor Avital Ronell reported:

Last year I worked as a teaching assistant for Avital Ronell. I hadn’t sought out the appointment; I am a doctoral student in comparative literature at NYU, and that semester I was, per the handbook, guaranteed a teaching job. A few months before the position began, I received an email from one of my professors informing me that Ronell’s other teaching assistants were “all taking her class and working hard to familiarize themselves with her particular methodologies, texts, style, and so on.” I was “encouraged” to do the same. I was told this was “an important part of the process with Prof. Ronell.” After all, there were other students eager to replace me.

You get more or less the same thing from Andrew Marzoni, who told Washington Post readers that “Academia is a cult”  a few days ago:

Academics may cast themselves as hardened opponents of dominant norms and constituted power, but their rituals of entitlement and fiendish loyalty to established networks of caste and privilege undermine that critical pose. No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track. Follow the leader, or prepare to teach high school.

Can you imagine what would happen to one of Chibber’s dissertation students who had discovered in the course of his research that Political Marxism was a load of crap and had decided to write a thesis that said so? Fucking Chibber wouldn’t allow me to use the 3 minutes allotted to me at an HM conference at NYU a few years ago to make such criticisms so why would he put up with a dissertation student, who unlike a computer programmer like me, needed his support to move ahead professionally.

Most of the 180 people who signed the statement are academics like Chibber. Maybe Catalyst will surge ahead despite them but I wouldn’t count on that given the broad spectrum of opposition embodied in the statement that includes a number of Political Marxism devotees like George Comninel, David McNally, Charles Post, Benno Teschke, and Michael Andrew Žmolek.

The statement outlines a number of pressing issues facing the left such as “How and whether movements can engage in electoral politics in ways that amplify (rather than weaken) working class power built in workplaces and the streets, and that avoid falling back into social democratic and other reformist frameworks, which have, under various guises, been complicit in administering austerity worldwide for decades.” As a new subscriber to Catalyst, I am wondering how long it will take for the magazine to defend the perspective Chibber put forward in Jacobin that called revolutionary struggles against capitalism as passé as a Nehru jacket. So far, there hasn’t been an indication of that.

What makes this ongoing drama so comical in my view is the utter refusal to understand that beneath all the leftist rhetoric, Sunkara is a businessman. He hires and fires at will just like any other businessman. Even Monthly Review, an institution that still breathes fire for all its faults, decided to can Ellen Meiksins Wood over some dispute that was never made public. All of these magazines, including New Left Review, Historical Materialism, Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, et al, are a curious hybrid of socialist politics and petty capitalist production.

Given the state of the left today, such journals fill a vacuum that was left by the demise of the “Leninist” parties of the 1960s. Except for the ISO in the USA, Solidarity, and the British SWP, I can’t think of a single magazine worth reading that has an editorial board responsible to the people who pay dues to a party organized along democratic centralist norms. Moreover, Against the Current, Solidarity’s magazine that includes Robert Brenner on its editorial board, can be read in full online, a feather in their cap. Frankly, this should be the standard for all magazines speaking in the name of socialism. Producing print publications necessitates chopping down trees, after all. And if you are going to sell print publications, at least make them affordable to the average worker.

The statement concludes with a preview of coming attractions:

The signers of this statement look forward to the launching of a new journal committed to openness, experimentation, and a spirit of wide-ranging debate that can seriously take up the questions of the transformed character of capitalism, as well as class power and strategy. It should go without saying that these must include vibrant debates about gender, race, and sexuality as distinctive features of capitalist class relations. Just such a project is currently in the works.

Well, good. I’ll take out a sub to that as well. I need something to fill up my days as a retiree. Between a run in Central Park in the afternoon and catching some movie sent to me by a publicist, there’s nothing that gets the digestive juices flowing more than some academic journal putting forward policy recommendations that reflect the vast distance between those who offer them and the actual lives of working people who will never pay attention to Jacobin or Catalyst even if it snuck up to them on the street and bit them on the ass.

November 3, 2018

Uzbek Jews and the Pittsburgh massacre

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Uzbekistan has been on mind for a while for a couple of reasons. To start with, I send nearly a thousand dollars each month to my mother-in-law to pay for the Uzbek housekeeper/caregiver we hired a couple of years ago to look after her husband who was suffering from dementia. After he died a few months ago, we decided to keep her on since it would make the mom-in-law’s life easier as well.

It is not unusual for Turks to employ emigres from the margins of the former Soviet Union. My wife’s brother-in-law had a maid from Moldova before he moved to the USA. Those women fleeing post-Soviet poverty frequently become prostitutes, operating in small brothels that are legal in Turkey, a legacy of Mustafa Kemal’s defiance of Muslim norms.

Some emigres end up in dead-end jobs despite the professional qualifications they accumulated in their home country. For example, the woman—a Muslim—who looked after my father-in-law was an accountant in a bank. When she arrived in Turkey, those qualifications made little difference.

A few days ago I had a chat with an Uzbek Jew who was cutting my hair. If you are looking for a great barber on the upper east side that charges only $16, I recommend Albert, the owner of L’Mosh Aliz. I have no idea what “mosh aliz” means but he is established enough as a barber to have been quoted in The Awl for his views on Donald Trump’s hairdo:

“If he’s a man, and wants to show he is a true leader, he would make it shorter. Take out the piece and walk like a businessman. Trim it close and keep it natural. Don’t try to cover it up.”

— Albert, L’Mosh Aliz Unisex Salon, Upper East Side

Those are my views exactly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a comb-over. I told Albert that I wanted him to use a number one razor that gives the closest cut and added that I liked the military look.

A minute into the haircut, I asked him a question that has been on my mind for years now. All of the barber shops in the neighborhood, as opposed to the hair-styling salons I used to go to, seem to be operated by Jews from the primarily Muslim, southern mountainous regions of the former Soviet Union, especially from Uzbekistan. It appears that some Uzbek Jews also end up running combination shoe and watch repair shops like the one my wife and I patronize a block away. How did that happen, I asked Albert?

He explained that barbering is a craft ideally suited to immigrants who have not mastered English. He said that for many, putting 3 or 4 pictures of different hair styles on the wall of a shop was sufficient. You’d ask someone sitting in the chair to point to a picture of the kind of haircut he needed and that was that. My guess is that the shoe repair business amounts to the same thing. My maternal grandfather had a shoe repair shop in Kansas City and never learned a word of English, as was the case with my grandmother who peddled clothing in the Mexican-American neighborhoods. In fact, her command of Spanish was much greater than that of her English as was the case with my mother when she was young.

Albert provided some details on how his family ended up in the USA. Working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the same group that provoked Robert Bowers to murder 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, his father was given the choice of immigrating to the USA or Israel. He chose the USA—a wise choice in my view. Like my mother-in-law’s housekeeper, his prior professional experience meant little. He taught music in a high school in Uzbekistan but ended up being trained as a barber, just like his son.

The other question on my mind was how Jews related to the national culture in Uzbekistan. I was under the impression that unlike Ashkenazy Jews they tended to adopt the cuisine, dress and broader cultural affinities of the Muslim majority. Albert confirmed that. His father played in a band that consisted mostly of Muslim men and could count on Muslims for friendship and support. The sizable donations that Muslim organizations provided to the synagogue in Pittsburgh reflects the affinity that has been lost in decades of Israeli depredation. Some analysts argue that as long as there is Islamophobia, Judeophobia will follow in its trail. I find this argument convincing.

After I returned home fresh as a daisy with my buzzcut, I decided to do a little research on Uzbek Jews. The findings were eye-opening. Although the July 24, 2004 Washington Post article referenced below does not mention Uzbekistan, the mention of Bukhara should indicate that it is talking about Albert and his countrymen. Bukhara is in Uzbekistan, as is Tashkent, the capital and largest city that was a cauldron of support for the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Rafael Fuzailov’s place is a traditional barbershop. The smells, both astringent and fragrant, are familiar. The steel chairs look as if they’ve been used for years. Once in a while, one of the men grabs a broom and cleans up. A sign out front advertises haircuts for $12.

But around a corner in the back of the shop, a Russian-language newspaper lies under a ceramic teapot. There is a silver-plated samovar against one wall, and the barbers’ accents are foreign — the shop is a long way from the cities of the Great Silk Road of central Asia where the men were born.

Rakhmin Izgelov, who is administering a trim, is from Tashkent. Working the chair next to him is Rafael’s son, Daniel Fuzailov, from Samarkand. They are Bukharian Jews, barbers transplanted to this shop far from the mountainous land that was home to their people for centuries.

“I never thought I would be here,” said Izgelov, a stocky man with a thick, neat mustache and a serious expression, who has been cutting hair since 1968. “The customers are different. But hair is hair.”

The Bukharians trace their origins, through Iran and Iraq, to the Persian Empire, in the centuries after the kingdom of Israel was conquered and its inhabitants first forced into exile. Today, Bukharians live in Queens, part of a community of about 50,000 immigrants from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan and Kazhakstan. For generations, the barbers of central Asia were Jews.

The barbers at Rafael Barber Shop — nestled in its strip mall near a Starbucks and a hair salon — are following a hallowed immigrant path. They are working their way into American society with the skills they brought from their home countries, much as how Jewish tailors, Greek cooks and, years ago, Italian barbers have done.

“There are not too many Italians in the business anymore,” said Mike Zholendz of the American Barber Institute in Manhattan. “Now we have a new breed of people: The Bukharians are coming.”

It helps that it doesn’t take much capital to get into the business — as little as $10,000, said Gloria Blumenthal of the New York Association for New Americans, which aids immigrants. She said barbering is the Bukharians’ top profession.

Bukharians are barbering throughout Long Island, though it’s difficult to know exactly how many there are.

“I see a Jewish community. I like to work in a Jewish community,” Rafael said, explaining how he chose Plainview.

He does not work at the shop — he’s got his fingers in other enterprises, including buying and selling cars — but his son and his wife, Rachel, do. The Plainview store also does a little shoe repair, a little jewelry work — crafts that Bukharians dominated in the cities of central Asia.

“During Soviet times, most of the professions like barber, photographer, watch fixers, shoemakers, most of the jobs were controlled by Bukharian Jews,” said Peter Perkhasov, 26, a political science major at Queens College who is director of http://www.bukharianjews.com, one of a number of Bukharian Web sites. “There were barbershops where only Bukharian Jews worked, 20 or 30 people.”

Documentary photographer Frederic Brenner made a portrait of one such establishment in 1989 in Leninabad, Tajikistan, showing 10 Jewish barbers and their Muslim customers. Eight years later, Brenner found and photographed seven of the same barbers together in Israel. Along with the 50,000 or so in the New York area, there are an estimated 100,000 Bukharians in Israel, with a few thousand more in Austria, France, England, Australia and Argentina. Only about 2,000 are left in Central Asia.

Frederic Brenner: Barbershop Barbers, Left to Right, with Their Tajik Muslim Customers: Ibrahim, Roshel Ya’akobov, Arkadi Dadabayev, Sa’id Hudja, Joric, Shlomo Ya’akobov, Adina, Asher Dadabayev, Shmaya Mushayev, Abraham Ya’akobov, Leninabad, Tajikistan, USSR, 1989

The Bukharians lived in the cities along the Silk Road for hundreds of years, practicing their own, isolated form of Judaism and speaking a Tajik or Farsi dialect. As a result of continuous repression and persecution mixed with occasional periods of free movement, they lost touch with many of their religious roots.

According to lore, a rabbi from Morocco went to Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, in the 18th century and instigated a Sephardic religious revival. “He changed it from the Persian religious tradition to the Sephardic tradition, but we are not Sephardic Jews,” Perkhasov said.

The Bukharians are proud of their Jewish heritage, if not Orthodox in their observance — Saturday, the Sabbath, is one of the shop’s busiest days. Dmitri Izkhakov, who also works at Rafael Barber Shop, indicated clearly that he immigrated because he is Jewish. He arrived in New York in April 2002, because “there are now 15 [Jewish] families left in Samarkand. There were 10,000 families, and now the synagogue is closing because there is no minyan,” he said, referring to the 10 adult males needed to conduct prayer services.

Barbering is a bit different, both for the newcomers and customers who recall the old-time practitioners. The Bukharian barbers don’t strop their razors the way the old Italians did; they don’t use fragrant oils as much or keep their scissors and tools in alcohol-filled glasses. “The Italian guys are very slow and precise,” Izgelov said. “We have a little less attention to detail.”

And American customers are not the same as the Uzbeks. “In Tashkent, there is more a standard haircut — three types of haircuts,” he said. “Here, everybody is different, different kinds.”

Ultimately, though, a barber is a barber. Daniel Fuzailov carefully shaved Alan Sternberg’s head while Sternberg’s son Jake, 3, perched on his dad’s lap. Then Billy Hunter of Jericho, who had been the store’s very first customer, came by for his regular shave.

“There are very few barbershops that do shaves anymore,” Hunter said, settling back under Izgelov’s ministrations. “There’s a family atmosphere here. They make you feel right at home.”

Frederic Brenner’s photo above reminds me of what was lost when Jews became part of the nationalist project known as Zionism. For the better part of a thousand years, they were part of a culture that they were happy to assimilate into while retaining their particular religious customs. Under the various more enlightened Muslim rulers, especially in the Ottoman Empire, they flourished. In Europe, they benefited from the Enlightenment, so much so that the Reform movement in Germany was seen as a threat to the hegemonic Orthodox sect.

Not much has changed apparently. Israel, which has become an Orthodox bastion closely affiliated with the Christian right, has tended to line up with the Republican Party over the killings in Pittsburgh. In September 2017, Haaretz reported on how Netanyahu’s son had developed a mindset associated with both Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc:

When he shared a cartoon full of anti-Semitic imagery on his Facebook page over the weekend, the son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not have understood he would be playing straight into the hands of notorious Jew haters. After all, he discovered the image on a Hebrew-language social media site whose fans and followers appear to be Israeli.

The cartoon, which Yair Netanyahu – known by the pseudonym “Yair Hun” on Facebook – has since removed, featured a photo of George Soros dangling the world in front of a reptilian creature, which, in turn dangles an alchemy symbol in front of a caricature of a figure evoking the anti-Semitic “happy merchant” image.

Leaders of the anti-Semitic far right in the United States couldn’t have been more delighted. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, rushed to share the cartoon on Twitter, while The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi news website, called the prime minister’s 26-year-old son “a total bro” in an article headlined “Netanyahu’s son posts awesome meme blaming the Jews for bringing down his Jew father.”

Isn’t it obvious that class divisions in the Jewish population are sharpening today? Young Jews will have to make a choice between Zionism and socialism. I made that choice in 1967 and remain convinced that the only way to prevent murderous attacks like the one that took place in Pittsburgh will be the abolition of capitalism, a system that continues to exist because the ruling class learned hundreds of years ago how to divide and conquer. The answer to that is class unity and militancy in a period of capitalism rotting to its very foundations.

November 2, 2018

A Private War; Under the Wire

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:45 pm


On February 22, 2012, London Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin and her photographer Paul Conroy were in the ground floor of a multi-story building in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs, Syria, that was being used as a press center when a shell scored a direct hit that left her dead and Conroy badly wounded. Two new films are focused on their experience as the last foreign journalists reporting from Homs that was the first of the liberated areas to be reconquered by the regime mostly as a result of the asymmetric warfare that has drowned the revolution in blood. “A Private War” that opens in NY, Washington, and Los Angeles theaters today (screening information: https://www.aprivatewarfilm.com/) is a narrative film with biopic elements hoping to explain how a 56-year old woman with bad knees could have ended up in such a precarious situation. “Under the Wire”, a documentary that opens at Village East Cinema on November 16th, is much more Paul Conroy’s story and serves as a complement to the narrative film. Watching the two in tandem will remind you of the need for an independent press that is committed to telling the story of people under siege, particularly the women and children who Colvin made it her life’s mission to defend through her journalism.

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