Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 17, 2020

The best films of 2019

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 9:39 pm

What a genuinely radical movie looks like:

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 17, 2020

This is now the third “Best of” survey I have posted to CounterPunch. It might be subtitled “The anti-Oscar awards” since none of the films listed would have ever been nominated for an award in the Tinseltown-dominated ceremony.

As was the case in my 2017  and 2018 “Best of” round-ups, these are all films that were screened originally at art houses in New York or Los Angeles but can now be rented for less than $5 on Amazon Prime. Thanks to Jeff Bezos (and for little else), they enjoy a second life.

As a member of New York Film Critics Online, I receive well over fifty DVD’s at year-end for consideration of an award in our December voting. This allowed me to evaluate the kind of films that dominate the Academy Awards. Except for “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story”, I found them uniformly dreadful. Among the most disappointing were “Parasite”, “Joker” and “1917”  that each will likely walk off with a wheelbarrow full of Oscar statuettes.

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January 16, 2020

What does Bernie Sanders mean by political revolution, anyway?

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Something’s been nagging away at me for the longest time. I was reminded of it when reading Daniel Denvir’s “What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Would Look Like”, article number 7,631 reminding Jacobin’s readers to vote for the democratic socialist. He writes:

Sanders consistently argues, “Beating Trump is not good enough.” This is an understatement. The world quite literally depends upon a political revolution. And only Sanders has a plan for that.

So, what exactly does a political revolution involve? Outside of the Trotskyist movement, Marxism does not refer at all to such a phenomenon. Whether it is people who come out of the pro-Moscow, pro-Beijing, or pro-Coyoacán cathedrals, the word revolution stands on its own. It is qualified by bourgeois or socialist, with France 1789 or Russia 1917 being accepted by all Marxists as examples of such revolutions.

For Trotsky’s followers, the term political revolution entered the vocabulary as a way of describing mass movements trying to overturn Stalinist bureaucracies but that left post-capitalist economic structures intact. Suffice it to say that there have only been attempts at consummating a political revolution, such as Czechoslovakia in 1968. Generally, such movements have either petered out or been suppressed, leaving behind a passive, undemocratic, neoliberal regime in their place.

You can find numerous references to political revolution in Jacobin, a journal that, in its fan-boy (except for Meagan Day) devotion to Bernie Sanders, refers to it as constantly and as fervently as Maoist newspapers of the 1960s referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

For Branco Marcetic, it is tantamount to seizing power as indicated by the title of his article “Bernie’s First Political Revolution” that puts his election as Mayor of Burlington in 1981 almost on the same level as Fidel Castro riding victoriously on a tank into Havana in 1960. A “a deeply entrenched city establishment” was replaced by one that would “place that power in the hands of the working people of the city”, according to Sanders—making it sound like the Paris Commune to continue with the analogies. Sanders did push through some badly needed reforms, such as adjusting the property tax burden to fall more on corporations than on homeowners. While the local New England Telephone Company was probably pissed off about paying higher property taxes, I doubt that they worried much about being nationalized like the oil refineries in Castro’s Cuba. When Shell Oil refused to pay the new, higher taxes needed to build socialism, he made their refinery public property. That’s what you call a real revolution.

For Keeanga-Yamahtta and Taylor Maurice Mitchell, the political revolution was the election campaign of Working Families Party (WFP) candidates Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke who were running for city council in Philadelphia last November. Brooks and O’Rourke promised “affordable housing, school funding, wages, and a local Green New Deal.” I am not exactly sure if promising “wages” is particularly revolutionary but perhaps the Jacobin authors were just overlooked by the eagle-eyed editorial assistants at America’s leading democratic socialist journal. With respect to the WFP, I don’t want to sound like a Debbie Downer but it is not exactly the kind of party that has revolution on the agenda, either in Sandernista or Marxist terms. In 2018, the NY WFP, the most powerful in the country, allowed Andrew Cuomo’s name to appear on their ballot. To return the favor, he pushed for a new law that would make getting ballot status so onerous that it effectively shut off the electoral access to any party to the DP’s left.

In Jacobin’s most recent contribution to political revolution theory, Chris Maisano maintains that “If we want to make Bernie Sanders’s political revolution a reality, we can’t just propose bold policies to make people’s lives better — we have to rebuild popular confidence in the possibilities of politics itself. And we can’t rebuild that confidence without democratizing the United States’s decidedly undemocratic political institutions.”

Written as a way of avoiding Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to be elected, Maisano urges the Sandernista movement to avoid his big mistake: tending not “to foreground a vision of radical democratic reform and popular political empowerment.” Yes, Corbyn did propose economic benefits to the working-class but as long as they remained alienated from electoral politics, there was always the danger that they would vote for a slug like Boris Johnson. To avoid Donald Trump beating Bernie Sanders in 2020, it is not sufficient to call for Medicare for all. You must energize the masses, something that Sanders has made happen:

Sanders has made a massive contribution to the cause of political regeneration by introducing the concept of “political revolution” to American political discourse. This is the sort of overarching, integrating theme the Corbynite project lacked and which the British right found in Brexit. It also differentiates him from Democratic Party politicians who have no problem proposing ambitious spending programs but lack Bernie’s lifelong commitment to a genuinely insurgent, anti-establishment brand of politics.

Looking back into American history, Maisano believes that the abolitionist movement could be a guide to fleshing out “political regeneration”:

How might we start making “government of the people, by the people, for the people” a substantive reality and not just a line from a textbook? One possibility is the formation of a convention movement to discuss and promote measures for overhauling our country’s broken political system. It would take inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement that swept northern black communities before the Civil War, which articulated numerous demands and promoted the establishment of new political organizations. These would be informal gatherings lacking official sanction, but over time they could potentially gain legitimacy and serve as a source of popular pressure and demands that politicians would ignore at their peril.

This historical reference brings us back to the question of how Marxists view the term revolution. For them, it boils down to class war with the stakes of property relations placed on the agenda with burning intensity. For black Americans, this meant abolishing slavery as part of a thorough-going bourgeois revolution that placed the class interests of northern industrialists, yeoman farmers, workers, and slaves above that of the plantation owners bent on extending their form of property relations into the western states.

If you were serious about taking inspiration from the Colored Conventions Movement, you’d have to make abolishing wage slavery a top priority even if it discomfited Nancy Pelosi or Tom Steyer for that matter. That’s what Eugene V. Debs campaigns stressed, after all. The democratic socialist—or I should say, revolutionary socialist—who would never resort to circumlocutions like a “political revolution” that boiled down to electing progressive Democrats, WFP’ers or any other careerist hoping to make the kinds of millions that Bernie Sanders has stashed away.

IN THE struggle of the working class to free itself from wage slavery it cannot be repeated too often that everything depends upon the working class itself. The simple question is, can the workers fit themselves, by education, organization, co-operation and self-imposed discipline, to take control of the productive forces and manage industry in the interest of the people and for the benefit of society? That is all there is to it.

The capitalist theory is that labor is, always has been, and always will be, “hands” merely; that it needs a “head,” the head of a capitalist, to hire it, set it to work, boss it, drive it and exploit it, and that without the capitalist “head” labor would be unemployed, helpless, and starve; and, sad to say, a great majority of wage-workers, in their ignorance, still share in that opinion. They use their hands only to produce wealth for the capitalist who uses his head only, scarcely conscious that they have heads of their own and that if they only used their heads as well as their hands the capitalist would have to use his hands as well as his head, and then there would be no “bosses” and no “hands,” but men instead—free men, employing themselves co-operatively under regulations of their own, taking to themselves all the products of their labor and shortening the work day as machinery increased their productive capacity.

Such a change would be marvelously beneficial all around. The idle capitalists and brutal bosses would disappear; all would be useful workers, have steady employment, fit houses to live in, plenty to eat and wear, and leisure time enough to enjoy life.

That is the Socialist theory and what Socialists are fighting for and are ready to live and die for.

–Eugene V. Debs, “Labor’s Struggle For Supremacy”, International Socialist Review , Vol. XII, No. 3. September 1911

 

January 15, 2020

Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:01 am

Last November, I discovered a new source of progressive documentaries in New York as a result of covering the Other Israel Film Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC. Now, only two months later, the JCC is presenting another important film festival called the Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival. Opening this Thursday and running through Monday, January 20th, it features nine documentaries with one narrative film on the closing night, the newly released “Harriet,” a biopic about Harriet Tubman. After having seen five of the documentaries, I recommend the entire film festival to New Yorkers since it is an antidote to the mind-numbing crap featured in your local cineplex. Given the political stakes we face in a decaying capitalist society, these are the sorts of films that help orient you to the real struggles taking place in the USA.

Scheduling/ticket information is at https://jccmanhattan.org/arts-film/film/cinematters

“American Muslim” encapsulates the spirit that guides these JCC programs. Focused on the Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of New York City’s outer boroughs, it integrates questions of faith, social identity and political imperatives in a period of rising Islamophobia. Adam Zucker, a 61-year old Jew, was inspired to make this film as a way of challenging Trump’s agenda by introducing viewers to the city’s Muslims, about whom he knew next to nothing starting out. In a profile that appeared in the Times of Israel, he said, “New York has a very large Muslim population, and I am a lifelong New Yorker, but I hadn’t really met any Muslims.” The same goes for me and probably many of you.

The film takes us on a tour of Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, Jamaica, and Ozone Park, all of which have substantial Muslim populations. The first thing you will learn is that most come from South Asia rather than the Middle East. Among them is Shamshi Ali of Jamaica, Queens, an Imam who emigrated from Indonesia, a nation that has more Muslims than those in the entire Middle East. We discover that the film got its title from his observation that pressures to unite as Muslims in the USA for political reasons create a dynamic where your country of origin and its culture will begin to matter less. Like the American Christian or the American Jew, the American Muslim will become a unified body. More importantly, it is likely to be a progressive-minded component of a society that needs all the help it can get. Reaching out to Jews, Ali confesses to Zucker that it sometimes feels like he is spending more time in synagogues building bridges to Jews that reject Donald Trump than he does in mosques.

We also hear from Debbie Almontaser, another Muslim on the front lines fighting on behalf of immigrant rights and the broader struggle against racism. A Yemeni-American, she lost her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s Arabic-themed school, after she was defended the use of the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan. Like Shamshi Ali, she is knowledgeable about the true spirit of Islam and the reactionary tendencies imposed on it by conservative elements, especially patriarchal norms that prevented women from driving cars in Saudi Arabia until recently.

As for the true spirit of Islam, you can see it manifested by the outreach program of Mohamed Bahi, an Algerian-American who founded and still directs Muslims Giving Back, a volunteer effort located at the Muslim Community Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Bahi organizes fund-raisers for newly arrived Muslim immigrants at the community center, including, as the film shows, Syrians that just arrived from Turkey. Fled might be a better word than arrived since the Turks were hostile to them despite sharing Muslim beliefs. Originally from Aleppo, life had become unbearable until they arrived in Sunset Park just before Trump’s Muslim ban. Destitute, they ended up sleeping on the floor until Bahi arrived one morning with a truck full of furniture. Bahi believes that Islam is more about deeds than beliefs, a lesson lost on the nativist Turks, Bashar al-Assads and Mohammad bin Salman.

Like Flavio Alves’s narrative film about a transgender female, “Changing the Game” is a much-needed documentary that will open your minds to one of the most despised minorities in the USA. In this film, we meet a trans male and two trans females who are high school students competing in wrestling and track respectively. As you may know, this has become a major controversy lately as parents of cisgender athletes demand their expulsion from competitions. Mack (born Mackenzie) has been forced to compete with cisfemales even though his deepest desire is to wrestle other boys. That mattered much more to him than becoming the 110-pound class Texas state champion in 2017 and 2018. What makes this film so great in addition to the utter honesty and magnetic personalities of its principals is the support they get from their parents or, in Mack’s case, the grandparents who adopted him after his mom could not provide adequate financial support. They are quintessential Red State personalities but utterly on his side. The grandmother is a cop and the grandfather is a good old boy in bib overalls but don’t let their appearance fool you. Every word out their mouth spells compassion in capital letters.

We also meet Sarah Rose Huckman, a cross-country skier from New Hampshire. Referring to the state’s motto “Live Free or Die,” Sarah insists that her only wish is to be free to live her life without putting up with ignorance and hatred. That’s also the wish of Andraya Yearwood, an African-American runner from Connecticut, a state that permits trans teens competing in sporting events based on their sexual identity. Considering that 40 percent of all trans teens attempt suicide at one point in their lives, Connecticut’s attitude is most welcome. Even more welcome is Michael Barnett’s film that deserves the widest possible audience in a period of deepening intolerance. Rated 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, this documentary deserves its accolades.

Like “Changing the Game,” “The All-Americans” focuses on teen athletes targeted by Donald Trump’s bigoted administration, in this instance Mexican-American high school football players in East Los Angeles.

Each year, there is a big game called “The Classic” that pits two traditionally Mexican-American dominated high schools against each other, Roosevelt and Garfield. If playing football is a daunting task for any student trying to keep up with geometry, even more daunting is staying a step ahead of La Migra and helping your parents make ends meet in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. In addition to being a traditional sports documentary of the kind that would be produced by ESPN, it is a guided tour of a neighborhood like those we see in “American Muslim”. Although I’ve been to LA at least 15 times in my lifetime, I’ve never gone far from Hollywood, just as I’ve never been to Sunset Park or Jamaica in New York City.

Like the best documentaries, “The All-Americans” opens your eyes to peoples you’ve met and places you’ve never been. When I used to come back from Nicaragua in the 1980s, I was always struck by how despite being materially poor, the country was spiritually wealthy. As soon as I got off the plane, I was always reminded that it was just the opposite of the USA—materially rich and spiritually impoverished. After you’ve met the football players and their families in “The All-Americans,” you’ll understand why Trump wants to build a wall. It will be the only way he and his bigoted supporters can slow down the eventual and inevitable salvation of the country.

“Always in Season” is a study that reinforces the conclusion of Project 1619 that racism is in the DNA of the USA. It is both an investigation of the possible lynching of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year old African American teen who was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina, on August 29, 2014, as well as an overview of lynching in the USA.

This is a debut film by Jacqueline Olive, an African-American filmmaker with fifteen years of experience in journalism and film.

Lennon’s mother Claudia and his brother Pierre insist that he had no reason to kill himself. So do his classmates and friends. The only people who are fixed in their opinion about this being a suicide are the local cops, no big surprise there.

In addition to covering the events that took place prior to August 29, 2014, Olive shows us the yearly reenactment of a notorious lynching that took place at the Moore’s Ford Bridge near Monroe, Georgia in 1947. Like the Civil War reenactments that has men dressing up like Yankee or Rebel soldiers, these reenactments have white men and women playing those who shot two married black couples in 1947, also played by local blacks. They were tied to a tree while a white mob shot them sixty times. After the pregnant wife of one of the men was dead, a racist carved a fetus out of her womb.

To show that some whites have repudiated the past, one of the women reenactors was the daughter of a KKK member and takes part as an act of solidarity. After seeing her father participating in a lynching when she was three years old, she decided that racial hatred was not in her DNA, at least.

Unsurprisingly, the cops have refused to reopen the mysterious hanging of Lennon Lacy as well as deciding in 2015 that there were no sufficient grounds for prosecuting anybody involved with the Moore’s Ford Bridge murders.

Directed by BBC reporter Leana Hosea, “Thirst For Justice” is as timely as the other films reviewed above. It is about the contamination of the world’s waters with spotlights on three occurrences. First, uranium waste seeping into the water of New Mexico’s Navajo peoples; second, lead in the water of Flint, Michigan; and finally, the petroleum industry’s forcing American Indians to abide by the presence of a pipeline funneling fracking output through the sacred Standing Rock burial grounds.

With a clear identification with the struggles against the polluters, Hosea interviews activists and victims of the contamination. In New Mexico, the contamination led to a cancer epidemic while in Flint, it led to neurological illnesses, especially in children.

In a Close-Up Culture interview, Hosea is asked what inspired the film. Her reply:

This journey really started in 2010 when I first visited the South West to do a story for the BBC on the proposed resurgence of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area.

As part of the report I visited the nearby Navajo reservation, where I heard there had been some historic uranium mining from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. But nothing prepared me for what I saw.

Communities were living amidst some 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and piles of waste. When the uranium price crashed in the mid-1980’s the big mining companies declared bankruptcy and left behind piles of mine waste and open pit mines, which filled up with rain water. Children swam in them and the sheep – the food staple of the Navajo – drank the water and so did the people.

Helen Nez, now an elderly lady, told me that her sheep were born with deformities, some without eyes. Then her children were born with a DNA depleting disease and died painful deaths at a young age.

Instead of investigating environmental factors, the white doctors told her it was because Indians practice inbreeding and labelled the disease Navajo neuropathy. This disease has now been linked to uranium contamination.

I had an interview with a lady one morning, but she didn’t turn up. With the roads as terrible as they are on this impoverished community, I assumed she had got a flat tire and didn’t think anything of it. But a week later I found out she had died the morning of our interview of kidney cancer. Drinking uranium contaminated water has been linked to kidney disease and reproductive cancer.

I knew this story was big and that I needed to spend more time to investigate it to do it justice. Soon after I returned to London as I got a BBC posting to the Middle East – just in time for the revolution and spent a number of years there. But I didn’t forget my time on the Navajo.

As I have said on numerous occasions, the people who make such films are the true vanguard of our time. My only hope is that the rest of the left can catch up with them. Without major financial backing assured, they risk arrest or hardship in making films at a place like Standing Rock, where journalists were considered enemies. Leana Hosea was arrested there and can likely be expected to be arrested again in some other filming project where the class struggle is at a fever pitch, god bless her.

January 12, 2020

1917

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization,WWI — louisproyect @ 9:33 pm

Unlike WWII, films about WWI tend to be bitter antiwar commentaries. This includes the 1930 “All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1937 “The Grand Illusion,” one of the greatest films ever made, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory.” Since WWI was such an obviously imperialist affair, it would be difficult to represent it as a heroic defense of freedom—even if the propaganda surrounding the war tended to make the “Huns” a demonic force.

Since, as Alexander Pope put it, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, it was no surprise that Sam Mendes would make a film titled “1917” that, while not nearly an attempt to turn the two British soldiers it features into freedom-fighters, does make their efforts to warn off their comrades from a surprise German trap look like a noble sacrifice.

“1917” is basically a two-character drama. As the film begins, we meet Blake and MacKay, two young lance corporals in a British unit embedded within a trench. The commanding officer calls in Blake, who has map-reading expertise, to lead a two-man operation that will inform another unit that the Germans are preparing a deadly trap. Blake has an added incentive to go on this mission since his brother is a soldier there. He is told to pick out someone to accompany him and he chooses MacKay, who has seen intense combat in trench warfare prior to this and earned a medal for his valor. Blake factors this into picking a seasoned soldier even if MacKay has lost his appetite for combat and, moreover, in seeing the medal as anything special. He tells Blake that it is just a ribbon.

The film evokes any number of smash hits in recent years that must have persuaded the Golden Globe judges to name it best film of 2019. The Golden Globe is made up of foreign correspondents in the USA whose taste, like the Academy Award judges, is mostly in their mouth. With separate awards for drama and comedy/musical films, “1917” won best drama although I guffawed at it a number of times. In 2018, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was named best dramatic film, one I bailed on after 15 minutes.

First and foremost, “1917” tries to stir the same emotions produced by “Saving Private Ryan,” Stephen Spielberg’s tribute to the “greatest generation.” Like the two lance corporals, Tom Hanks and his men are trying to locate Private Ryan before he dies in combat like his three brothers. It also assumes that people would buy tickets to a film that promises the same flashy but empty battlefield scenes shown in “Dunkirk,” which director Christopher Nolan shot in 65 mm large-format film stock. Finally, it has the same kind of plot that worked so well in  Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Revenant.” For most of that film, the main character, a hunter played by Leonard DiCaprio, is trying to get back to civilization after being mauled by a bear. On his own for the most part, the drama is generated by DiCaprio trying to avoid American Indian warriors or hunger on the barren plains of the north during wintertime. In “1917,” except for banal conversation between the two lance corporals, they are mostly like the main character in “Revenant”, just trying to stay alive to deliver their message rather than being delivered from wilderness hazards.

If Nolan relied on a wide-screen perspective to wow his audience, Sam Mendes uses another technological trick to keep your eyes glued to the screen. The film is shot in a single take from beginning to end, something that I only realized after reading about it after the screening. The goal was to immerse you in the experience of the two soldiers even though for me it was much more like a video game. I have to add that I have never owned one but looked over my wife’s shoulders as she played them on her new iPhone after she begin using it for the first time. Typically, the hero of a video game—often a soldier like in Mendes’s film—has to pass through increasing difficult stages in order for victory to be declared. In a video game, this involves fire-breathing dragons. In “1917,” it involved dastardly Huns. She got bored with these games after a month, just like I got bored with “1917” after 15 minutes.

In a crucial scene, “1917” veered off into the propaganda realm. Blake and MacKay have taken temporary respite in a French farm that, like much else in no-man’s-land, is depopulated. From inside a barn, they watch a dog-fight between two British biplanes and one German that is shot down. The flaming plane heads straight for the barn in just one of many artificially choreographed “thrilling” scenes and crashes just in front of the two Brits. Showing the true mettle of the civilized Anglo race, Blake climbs on the burning wreckage and rescues the German pilot who takes out his knife and stabs his rescuer to death. From that point on, MacKay is forced to soldier on alone.

In addition to getting a Golden Globe award for best dramatic film, Sam Mendes picked up best director. In my view, the most appropriate award for Mendes is most confused motivation for making a film last year. In an article about the film in the NY Times last month, Mendes made the senseless, imperial bloodbath sound like a noble cause:

After directing the James Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” Mendes was having trouble mounting a new film project. His agent Beth Swofford suggested that he explore the World War I stories he had once told her. In 2017, a year after the Brexit vote, Mendes found further inspiration. “I’m afraid that the winds that were blowing before the First World War are blowing again,” he said. “There was this generation of men fighting then for a free and unified Europe, which we would do well to remember.”

Is this guy for real? Those winds that were blowing had to do with blocs of capital defending their narrow class interests. Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire for narrow economic gains such as providing easier access to its African colonies and to trade markets in India. Meanwhile, the Ottoman ruling class picked Germany as an ally but might have just as easily teamed up with England, which was not open to such alliance. Wikipedia states that Talat Paşa, the Minister of Interior, wrote in his memoirs: “Turkey needed to join one of the country groups so that it could organize its domestic administration, strengthen and maintain its commerce and industry, expand its railroads, in short to survive and to preserve its existence.” That’s what WWI was about, not “fighting for a free and unified Europe.”

As for England, it demonstrated an uncommon disregard for the lives of its soldiers in real life as opposed to the myth-making of Mendes’s film. As lionized in both “Darkest Hour” and “Churchill”, the Tory politician deserves a thorough debunking, especially for his role in the Gallipoli disaster. Convinced of their military (and likely racial) superiority, Churchill ordered British troops to land on Ottoman soil Normandy-style, where they expected the enemy to flee for its lives. Led by Australian and New Zealand troops, they were annihilated by Turkish troops led by Mustafa Kemal. The British lost up to 20,000 men in June/July 1915, while the entire campaign to open up a safe passageway between England/France and its Russian allies cost the lives of 53,000 British and French soldiers. Which leads me to mention another key film about WWI futility. Now available on Youtube for $2.99, Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” features Mel Gibson as a doomed soldier in the 1981 film, a time when he had not drunk the Christian/rightwing Kool-Aid. He remarked at the time, “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war.”

Dirty little trench war. That says it all.

 

January 11, 2020

A head’s up to stalkers and trolls

Filed under: Trolls/stalkers — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm

Apparently the idiot who I banned for using a Cambodia IP address has tried to write the same kind of personalized attacks with a new email and IP address: atariram@gmail.com / 174.128.242.250. I don’t mind the personalized attacks about living on the Upper East Side, etc. as much as I do the bogus credentials. Each time you post comments to this blog for the first time, they are held in a moderator’s queue. From now on, I will be running a new IP address through a proxy checker to make sure it is valid. Here’s the results from the obsessed, pathetic idiot who has no life apparently except for lodging Vyshinsky type accusations against me as an enemy of the people.

 

January 10, 2020

Earth

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

A case can be made that Nikolaus Geyrhalter is the most important living documentary filmmaker. As well, a case can be made that his latest film “Earth” (Erde) that opened today at the Anthology Film Archives in New York is his most important. As the film begins with a panoramic shot of the San Fernando Valley in California, the following words scroll across the screen: “Every day 60 million tons of surface soil are moved by rivers, wind and other forces of nature. Humans move 156 million tons of rock and soil per day, making humankind the most decisive geological factor of our time.” With this as a preface, Geyrhalter then takes us on a world tour of major excavation sites with closeups on the machinery and the women and men who operate them. On his last stop that he makes in Fort McMurray, Canada, he will not be able to film machine dreadnoughts because the tar sands extraction bosses prevent filming. However, in a perfect denouement to a film made to arouse public opinion against unbridled capitalist development, he walks the outskirts of the drilling sites with two Dene Indians whose land has been despoiled by fracking.

My first exposure to Geyrhalter’s work was in 2006 when I saw “Our Daily Bread”, an ironically titled film that takes us into the assembly-lines of meat and poultry factories, as well as the greenhouses and fields of agribusiness, where Taylorism reigns supreme. A decade later, I reviewed “Homo Sapiens” that like “Our Daily Bread” lacked narration. As a general strategy, Geyrhalter is a strict believer in showing rather than telling. In the case of “Homo Sapiens”, we see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. You surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located.

Perhaps as a result of the environmental crisis, Geyrhalter’s latest abandons the austere cinéma vérité technique of the earlier films and has him interviewing workers participating in the massive assaults on earth in the name of progress. While by no means as intrusive as Michael Moore, he is clearly interested in drawing out whatever pangs of conscience they have about being accessories after the fact in what threatens to become the Sixth Extinction.

The interviewees are a varied lot. A heavy equipment operator in the San Fernando Valley, who is leveling mountains to make way for a new development of tract housing, shopping centers and other symbols of civilization, is not particularly perturbed. If the choice is between flattening a mountain and the preservation of nature, he shrugs his shoulders and tells Geyrhalter that it is necessary since people need a place to live. If you live in California, you are probably aware that suburban sprawl is bringing mountain lions, bears and other wildlife to the brink of extinction. The worker probably understands this with a fatalistic acceptance of this eventuality made easier by good pay.

In Italy, Geyrhalter visits a marble quarry where he meets a worker who has other motivations for working there besides money. He tells the filmmaker that because the work is so dangerous, he gets an adrenaline rush everyday he is there. It has the same effect on him as a drug. On the weekends, when he is away from work, the peace and quiet leave him feeling empty.

At Rio Tinto, an open-pit copper mine in Spain, he encounters workers who, despite making a livelihood in one of the most ecologically destructive forms of mining, reassure Geyrhalter that their advanced machinery is not harmful to the nature around them and remind him that copper is necessary for electricity. We can’t go back to living in caves, after all. They sound like the grinning Koch Industry workers featured in their employer’s TV commercials.

In the first sign that Geyrhalter is ready to confront such lies, he also interviews Luis Iglesias Garcia, an archaeologist whose interest in the mine is scholarly rather than commercial. Since Rio Tinto goes back to the Roman Empire that mined silver and copper from the ground beneath them, he is on the lookout for any relics that are dug up by accident. He does not see much of a future in copper mining or any other of the earth transformation projects the film casts its eye upon:

I don’t think that Earth is giving us anything easily. We extract everything in a way, you mentioned blasting before, that is rather violent. Extracting anything from the soil is a really violent process. It is quite aggressive. Everything related to resources is done with violence. Either we change our business model to a concept that is more in line with nature conservation and the rational consumption of resources, or this system will not exist much longer. Clearly, we can either change or vanish.

Humankind doesn’t learn, neither from history nor from anything else. I don’t know why.

The archaeologist is far more detached from the murderous assault on the planet than the two Dene Indians we meet in the final episode. They have been told by the authorities not to eat more than one or two fish a month since the river that runs through their reservation has been contaminated by the toxic byproducts of fracking. Jean L’Hommecourt tells him: “For me in my culture being a Dene means people of the land, so we are of the Earth and we need the Earth to survive, to exist as a human being. In our culture we believe that every element of Earth has a spirit.”

In the only visit where mining is not currently taking place, Geyrhalter goes to a salt mine in Wolfenbüttel, Germany that has been converted into a repository for nuclear power plant radioactive waste. When they first began storing drums of the toxic byproducts in the sixties, the engineers thought they were living up to governmental regulations. The salt mine must be resistant to hazardous accidents or human malfeasance for a million years. Less than fifty years had gone by when they learned that ground water seeping into the mine would risk eating away the drums and causing a Chernobyl type disaster. During his visit, he met with the man and woman in charge of relocating the drums who did not seem sure what guarantees there could be for safe storage for the next million years anywhere on earth. Maybe it’s up to Elon Musk to transport the drums in a rocket up to Mars after he has built a brand-new world for humans there.

In an interview with Geyrhalter in the press notes, he considers such a quandary:

Germany is still trying to find suitable storage facilities. We are really talking here about our treatment of the Earth’s surface on a massive scale. It’s not just that we take things out: we also bury things inside it. You have to bear in mind that in 100 years we have created nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for the same length of time as the total history of mankind on our planet. We can’t escape from the problem of nuclear waste – but we still don’t have any concept for getting rid of it. The problem horrifies us, and we wonder how such a situation could come about… while we constantly benefit from the advantages it gives us. Just becoming outraged about things is too easy. Each of my films contains criticism of civilisation, and at the same time I would like people to understand why things are the way they are… because the population of the world is about 7.5 billion people. We can try our best to live in a way that reduces our impact, that postpones the destructive process, but essentially the world works the way it works. And apparently, unfortunately, it only works this way – no other way.

I don’t blame Geyrhalter for his fatalism. Many mornings, I wake up feeling this way myself especially after watching a few minutes of CNN. The reason things “are the way they are” is capitalism, not overpopulation. Capitalism creates commodities that can generate profit, whatever their impact is on the planet. Ironically, population growth is accelerated by capitalist-imposed poverty. Peasant families tend to be large because the children become unpaid labor. In countries that are prosperous, population tends to be stable or even decline. In any case, the answer to our problems is the intelligent use of resources. Geyrhalter may not be the person to listen to when it comes to the broader questions of ecological living but his films are a wake-up call for what awaits us as our unintelligent ruling class plunges us into ruin.

Project 1619 and its detractors

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

Sean Wilentz, pal of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in a united front with World Socialist Web Site

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 10, 2020

Last August, the New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted an entire issue to Project 1619, an attempt to root today’s racism in the institution of slavery dating back to the seventeenth century. In 1619, British colonists in Point Comfort, Virginia bought twenty African slaves from Portuguese traders who had landed there, fresh from a body-snatching expedition. Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote the introduction to ten articles in the magazine that focused on different aspects of Black oppression, such as Traymaine Lee’s on the wealth gap between black and white Americans.

Four months later, five prominent historians of the Civil War signed a letter demanding that the newspaper correct “errors” and “distortions” in Project 1619. Rumor has it that Princeton professor Sean Wilentz wrote the letter and lined up four others to co-sign: Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon S. Wood. I would only add that Bynum wrote a book that chronicled the armed resistance to wealthy slave-owners by poor white southerners and served as a consultant for the inspiring movie “The Free State of Jones”.

Continue reading

January 9, 2020

The NY Giants new coach and NFL racism

Filed under: racism,sports — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

I haven’t watched a football, baseball, or basketball game for its entirety in over 25 years at least. But I am an avid listener to the sports talk stations in NY, WFAN and ESPN. I also like to read the sports section in the local papers. Even if football is a barbaric sport that should be outlawed, I am glad to see the hapless NY Jets or NY Giants when they are doing well. For those who follow sports, you are probably aware that they have been doing poorly for over a decade.

Recently, the Giants have been a search for a new coach after having finished the season with a 4-12 record. The sports stations have been following this closely since the outgoing coach Pat Shirmer was blamed for the losing record. Many of the hosts and callers-in blame the team co-owners and general manager as well. The co-owners are John Mara and Steve Tisch. Mara’s grandfather Tim Mara founded the franchise in 1925 with money he had made as a bookmaker—a criminal enterprise. His son Wellington took over the team until his death in 2005. His John Mara functions as the CEO of the team with Steve Tisch mostly operating in the background. Tisch is the son of former co-owner Robert Tisch, who was Wellington’s partner. Tisch bought his share in the Giants with money he made through the Loew’s theater and hotel business. Most of Steve Tisch’s time is spent producing movies, such as “Forrest Gump”. Most fans blame Mara rather than Tisch for the team’s woes since Tisch functions pretty much as a silent partner.

The Giants were prepared to offer Baylor University coach Matt Rhule the job but the Carolina Panthers beat them to the punch, offering Rhule a 7-year, 60 million dollar contract. Just after the Giants learned of the deal, they made an offer to Joe Judge, the special teams and wide receiver coordinator of the New England Patriots, an AFC division team that have up until this year been either Super Bowl winner or at least AFC champions for most of the past decade. With their dynastic record, anybody associated with the Patriots is considered good coach material.

Despite this, WFAN and ESPN hosts were surprised to hear of Judge’s hiring since he was not on the radar for the coaching jobs that were being filled over the past few weeks. But it was only ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, an African-American, who raised holy hell about no blacks being considered. The Giants did interview a couple of black coordinators early on but it was mostly to show that they were honoring the Rooney Rule.

The rule was adopted by the NFL in 2003 as a way of making the GM and coaching positions open to minorities. It was named after Dan Rooney, the head of the league’s diversity committee and a former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Rooney’s and the Mara’s have amounted to family dynasties of the two teams and often considered model owners for their franchises’ stability and excellence. Wikipedia describes the circumstances of the rule’s adoption in the aftermath of the firing of two black coaches:

It was created as a reaction to the 2002 firings of head coaches Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings, at a time when Dungy had a winning record and Green had just had his first losing season in ten years. Shortly afterwards, U.S. civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran released a study showing that black head coaches, despite winning a higher percentage of games, were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white counterparts. Former NFL players Kellen Winslow and John Wooten then put together a self-described “affinity group” of minority scouts, coaches, and front-office personnel, to advocate for the rule’s creation.

As should be obvious, this was prompted by the same resentment of white domination that made Colin Kaepernick decide to take a knee during the national anthem. It is worth mentioning how John Mara reacted to Kaepernick being on the job market after his protest made him persona non grata for the NFL owners, who tend to be rightwing fucks. He told Sports Illustrated that Giants fans would never forgive him for hiring Kaepernick, even though the aging QB Eli Manning needed to be replaced. However, Mara did not fire white kicker Josh Brown after he revealed that he was a wife-beater. In the NFL world, kneeling while the Star Spangled Banner is being played is a cardinal sin while wife-beating is a peccadillo.

John Mara was evidently following the example of his grandfather Tim, who didn’t care for black people very much as well. Like the gentleman’s agreement by team owners that blacklisted Colin Kaepernick, black players were excluded from the NFL between 1934 and 1946 for the same reason that blacks never played professional baseball: racism. Back then it was players getting shafted; today it is potential coaches or general managers. As Project 1619 put it, racism is in the American DNA.

George Marshall, the owner of the Washington Redskins (no connection to the Marshall plan architect), convinced other team owners to organize a two-division league, consisting of five teams each and culminating in a championship game between the two teams with the best records. Marshall stated publicly that he would never employ black athletes. His Redskins were the last NFL team to desegregate, holding out until 1962.

In an article for the Winter 1988 Journal of Sports History titled “Outside the Pale: The Exclusion of Blacks from the National Football League, 1934-1946”, Thomas G. Smith wrote:

Professional football owners, like their baseball counterparts, denied the existence of a racial ban. “For myself and for most of the owners,” Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers explained decades later, “I can say there never was any racial bias.” George Halas of the Chicago Bears declared in 1970 that there had been no unwritten exclusionary agreement “in no way, shape, or form.” Tex Schramm of the Los Angeles Rams did not recall a gentleman’s agreement.”You just didn’t do it [sign blacks] – it wasn’t the thing that was done.” Wellington and Tim Mara of the New York Giants also denied that minorities had been blackballed. Despite the disclaimers, however, blacks had disappeared from the game.

 

January 7, 2020

You

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

On Christmas Eve, the NY Times ran an article about a Netflix series that caught my eye:

“You,” one of television’s more addictive treats, returns for a second season on Thursday. It has moved to a different shelf of the candy store — it’s now a Netflix series, after premiering on Lifetime — but it’s as tasty, and as bad for you, as ever.

The first season won a rabid following, and a lot of critical attention, for its clever fusion of the conventions of the romantic comedy with the conventions of the bluebeard serial-killer tale. As Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) — cute, courteous, literary and deranged — pursued his quest to be the perfect New York boyfriend, the bodies piled up, and the rom-com was shown to have been a horror story all along. The distance between the genres vanished.

Addictive is the right word. After my wife and I watched the first episode of Season One, we were hooked. With a superficial resemblance to “Dexter”, the Showtime series about a serial killer, it stars Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, the young, handsome, and amoral manager of an Upper East Side antiquarian bookstore who kills a bunch of people throughout the two-season series. Like “Dexter,” there is almost continuous voiceover as the main character ruminates on the challenges he must overcome in order to maintain a relationship with the women he meets and then falls in love with. When he runs into a rival for their affections or someone bent on keeping them apart, he does not think twice about murder. Unlike Dexter, who only killed people who deserved to be killed—usually for having beaten a rap like O.J. Simpson—Joe Goldberg’s standards are set at a lower bar. When someone gets in the way of consummating a romance, he becomes deadlier than a puff adder.

“You” got its title from a novel written by Caroline Kepnes, a 42-year old Brown University graduate. You understand why after reading the first paragraph:

YOU walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are. You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me—hello—when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?

These are the thoughts of Joe Goldberg as Guinevere Beck—the You—enters his store. The reference to “Charlotte’s Web” is a tip-off that Joe is a bibliophile. Called Beck by her friends, she is a writing major in Columbia University’s graduate school. Like the author, she is a Brown graduate whose best friends graduated with her. The best way to describe them is as characters from Lena Dunham’s “Girls” but much richer and much more obnoxious. The ringleader of this clique is named Peach Salinger, a descendant of J.D’s clan who lives in a mansion on the Upper East Side and spends much of her time and energy trying to convince Beck that she is too good for a measly bookstore manager.

“You” manages to combine elements that you’d never think possible. Besides being a portrait of a psychopath, it skewers the pretensions of Manhattan’s privileged quasi-bohemia. Besides Peach, there’s Benjamin “Benji” J. Ashby III, who Beck has been sleeping with at the time Joe becomes her suitor. As a committed and expert stalker, Joe is in the habit of finding out as much as he can about his heart’s desire before making his first move. When he spots Benji having sex with Beck through her ground-floor studio apartment window from across the street, it doesn’t take long for Joe to plot his rival’s demise. As is generally the case with his victims, Benji is a total phony. Like Peach, he is a trust fund bohemian who is trying to get an artisanal soda business off the ground. Artisanal soda? Brilliant.

The class distinctions between Joe, who for all we know never went to college, and this crowd almost make you cheer for him. When I was watching the first season of “You,” I mentioned to my wife that Joe reminded me of the eponymous character in Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” In a film based on her novel, Matt Damon plays Tom Ripley, a New Yorker barely scraping by. His main talents seem to be buttering up to wealthy people who might help him put together some kind of career. Luckily for him, one rich bastard hires him to go to Italy and persuade his wastrel son Dickie, who lives on a yacht, to return to the USA. When Ripley’s mission fails largely because of his kowtowing to Dickie’s every whim, the father cuts off his funds. In desperation, Ripley kills the son and assumes his identity. Written in 1955, Highsmith’s novel is distinguished by her anti-hero’s ability to elude capture through his skills as a liar and a killer. Highsmith would have considered Caroline Kepnes a kindred spirit.

As for Kepnes, she acknowledged Highsmith’s influence in an interview with Book and Film Globe. When the interviewer said that Joe reminded him of Tom Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith series, she replied:

When people ask about writers you’d like to have coffee with, I always think of Patricia Highsmith. She is just so excellent with classism. Ripley can pass with these people. Dickie’s dad pays him to go to Europe. It’s exhilarating. In You, I wanted Joe to be someone who doesn’t want to win these people over. Joe doesn’t want to “fit in”. He won’t endorse that value system. He wants Beck to shun it.

In addition to skewering Manhattan’s rich kids who went to Ivy schools, Kepnes—like Highsmith—is great at spinning a Hitchcockian yarn. If you might recall, “Strangers on a Train,” one of Hitchcock’s classics, is based on a Highsmith novel. Such is the state of popular culture that you can only find something that good on Netflix rather than in a movie theater. In nominating “The Irishman”, now streaming on Netflix, as best film of 2019, I can also recommend “You” as the best television series of the year. It is a tour de force of writing, acting and direction. You better start watching it now or I’ll kill you.

 

January 5, 2020

Fisking Douma

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Robert Fisk

All of Robert Fisk’s bad habits come into play in a recent Independent op-ed piece titled “The Syrian conflict is awash with propaganda – chemical warfare bodies should not be caught up in it” that is part of the aggressive propaganda campaign trying to absolve Bashar al-Assad from the chlorine gas attack in Douma last year. Along with Fisk, two other British journalists have been making a huge stink over alleged OPCW cover-ups. One is Jonathan Steele, who works for the liberal Guardian newspaper and the other is Christopher Hitchens’s brother Peter, who works for the rightwing Mail on Sunday. Their articles on Douma rely heavily on two OPCW whistle-blowers, Ian Henderson and “Alex”, who spoke at a conference sponsored by Courage Foundation, which is closely tied to Wikileaks. Since Julian Assange has been a long-time supporter of Assad, it is no surprise that his allies are doing everything possible to prove that jihadis organized a “false flag” in Douma in order to give the USA an excuse to bomb Syria.

Fisk starts off with an anecdote about a conversation he had with a NATO officer after giving a talk on the Middle East to European military officials in the Spring of 2019. After his talk, one of the officers cornered and then told him, “The OPCW are not going to admit all they know. They’ve already censored their own documents.” This kind of insider-knowledge should be familiar to anybody who has read Seymour Hersh for the past 8 years, until he became damaged goods to the LRB or any other reputable periodical. Just refer to some spook or General on the QT and you’ll wow your readers even if what they tell you cannot be verified. Unlike Hersh, Fisk couldn’t even get his informant to provide the usual “false flag” story. He writes, “I could not extract any more from him. He smiled and walked away, leaving me to guess what he was talking about.”

Luckily for Fisk, the NATO officer phoned him a few months later and said that he was not talking about the Henderson report. But, you might ask, what then was he talking about. Well, who knows since his informer then “immediately terminated” their conversation?

Apparently, it was Alex who once and for all established that the OPCW was in cahoots with the CIA in trying to make the unblemished Bashar al-Assad look like a war criminal. (Perhaps Fisk wasn’t aware that Douma had been attacked with chlorine gas three times already in 2018. He evidently saw no need to report about it since so few people died. So what if they were sick enough to be hospitalized? That’s what you deserve for living in a city that stubbornly resisted the dictatorship.)

The most damaging item in Fisk’s article turns once again to the chlorine tanks that were found in the upper floors of the apartment building where more than 40 dwellers were found dead on the lower floors:

Alex also said that a British diplomat who was OPCW’s chef de cabinet invited several members of the drafting team to his office, where they found three US officials who told them that the Syrian regime had conducted a gas attack and that two cylinders found in one building contained 170 kilograms of chlorine. The inspectors, Alex remarked, regarded this as unacceptable pressure and a violation of the OPCW’s principles of “independence and impartiality”.

I have no idea how informing the OPCW that two chlorine gas cylinders had been found amounted to “unacceptable pressure.” They had been widely acknowledged by the OPCW leadership on one side and the whistle-blowers on the other. They only differed on where they came from. The leadership said they came from a helicopter and the whistle-blowers said that jihadis carried these five-hundred pound tanks from some undisclosed location into the building and then up six stories in full view of the Douma population. You’d think that if this was the case, the dictatorship would have found someone from Douma to verify that a false flag did take place. Keep in mind that Assadists are making the case that these devilish jihadis released the gas in order to provide the necessary victims that Donald Trump needed to justify bombing some buildings in Damascus. Of course, if Trump was truly trying to punish Assad, he wouldn’t have cut off all aid to the rebels long before the Douma attack.

Ironically, the Independent article contained a video that had nothing to do with Fisk’s false flag bullshit. It was captioned “Syria war: At least 16 killed in ‘beyond sadistic’ missile attack on camp for displaced people” and depicted a slaughter in Idlib. For all we know, some of the dead might have come there from Douma. The day after the chlorine gas attack, those who were still living boarded buses and went to Idlib, a Gaza-like hellhole that was home to all the poor people who Assad wanted to quarantine from his religiously tolerant, state-socialist paradise.

Civilians gather next to a fragment of a ground-to-ground missile fired by Syrian regime forces (AFP via Getty Images)

The Independent covered the displaced people tragedy on November 21, 2019. Headlined with the same caption found beneath the video clip in Fisk’s article, it was the sort of reporting that the cynical and degraded reporter is no longer capable of:

The Syrian regime bombarded a camp hosting displaced people and a maternity hospital in the country’s northwest on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people, the vast majority of whom were women and children.

Dozens were injured and at least eight children and two women were thought to have been among those killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

Large parts of the camp were burnt and several fire brigades were called to the scene, with rescuers warning on Thursday that the death toll was expected to rise as more people succumbed to severe burn injuries.

The regime fired at least two ground-to-ground missiles, which caused “significant damage to the camp as well as the burning of tents of displaced people”, SOHR reported.

Fisk is no longer capable of such reporting because he became embedded in the dictatorship’s army in the same way that people like Judith Miller became embedded back in 2002. What a disgrace.

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