Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 11, 2020

Sea Fever

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Recently, I’ve begun to be invited to cover films originally destined for NYC theaters that are now shut down because of COVID-19. Instead, they will be available as VOD, including “Sea Fever” that can be rented on Amazon Prime for $6.99.

Written and directed by Neasa Hardiman, a young Irishwoman who earned a Ph.D. in film theory from Trinity College, “Sea Fever” appears to be a horror film cut from the same cloth as “The Thing” or “Alien”. It stars Hermione Corfield as Siobhán, a Ph.D. student specializing in marine biology. The film begins with Siobhán boarding a fishing trawler set to depart from an Irish port with her tagging along to conduct a field study of how sea creatures are adapting to changing conditions.

There’s a culture clash at the outset when crew members are put off by her red hair, supposedly bad luck. To accommodate them, she keeps her hair under wraps but is not shy about offering her views on how to deal with an unforeseen crisis. Hundreds of miles from shore, the ship has been disabled by a huge, jellyfish-like creature that has wrapped its tentacles around the hull as if the ship was its prey.

In addition to stopping the ship dead in its tracks and short-circuiting its communications systems, it begins to discharge a luminous venom through cracks in the vessel that has a deadly effect. Crew members begin dying off as a result of horrifying reactions to the venom, including exploding eyeballs. Those who dread undergoing such a fate commit suicide.

After the creature is dislodged from the ship through an electrical charge generated by a powerful on-board battery, it regains mobility and begins heading back to shore. Worried that the infected remaining members, including herself, might spread the disease once back on land, Siobhán sabotages the ship to force it to remain quarantined on the open sea.

Her logic is impeccable. Why would they risk killing millions for their own survival? Additionally, she has the temerity to describe the creature as simply following its own survival instincts by attacking the vessel, which it mistook for a whale—its customary prey. Indeed, the captain had steered the ship into restricted waters in the hope of reaping a bountiful and profitable catch.

Unlike “The Thing” or “Alien”, the film is not about fending off a murderous intruder. Instead, it is about coping with a set of circumstances provoked by ignoring the laws of nature. As a Ph.D. student, Siobhán’s main interest is obviously in trying to see how homo sapiens and nature can co-exist.

“Sea Fever” was obviously not made in order to exploit the coronavirus pandemic but if you watch it, you’ll see the connection. Neasa Hardiman is not your typical filmmaker. She read James Joyce’s “Ulysses” when she was nine years old! In an interview with SciFi Pulse, she described the monster in “Sea Fever”. I am sure that if she was interviewed now for her views on the pandemic, she’d describe Donald Trump and Boris Johnson as the real monsters.

Yanes: The creature in Sea Fever felt like an amazing combination of the aliens from John Carpenter’s The Thing and James Cameron’s The Abyss.  How did you go about shaping this creature?

Hardiman: All the animal’s qualities are based on real marine phenomena. The animal in the story is an amalgam of many different animals’ attributes. I wanted our animal to be beautiful, mesmerizing, but at a scale that made it scary. It’s based on the morphology of cnidaria, or jellyfish. It’s bioluminescent, like a lot of deep-sea life. I wanted it to feel unknowable, with a black hole at the centre, so there was nothing we could recognize as a ‘face’. I wanted its tendrils to be like a jellyfish: not muscular and prehensile like a squid, but thin, elegant, like neural fibres reaching out to explore the world. And when you see it from the top, I wanted it to look a little bit like the pupil and iris of a human eye.

Astonishingly, only two days ago an article in Global News referred to a creature similar to the one Hardiman scripted:

Scientists call it a siphonophore Apolemia, but you can call it the world’s longest “long stringy stingy thingy,” the giant alien tentacle or just “the entity.”

An international team of ocean researchers says it may have discovered the longest living … thing … in the world, although the thing’s alien nature makes it hard to call it a single animal. It’s actually a giant colony of tiny, genetically identical clones that work together to create a larger, jellyfish-like predator in the deep sea.

The creature was spotted about 630 metres below the surface, in the darkness of the ocean’s depths.

Researchers at the Schmidt Ocean Institute shared footage of the largest siphonophore Apolemia specimen they’ve ever seen earlier this week, after recording it in a “UFO-like” feeding coil deep beneath the Indian Ocean west of Australia, in a region known as the Ningaloo Canyons.

“It seems likely that this specimen is the largest ever recorded,” the Schmidt Ocean Institute researchers wrote on Twitter.

A huge siphonophore Apolemia sea creature is shown in this close-up view. Schmidt Ocean Institute/Instagram




April 10, 2020

The SWP and Social Distancing: a Study in Abnormal Political Psychology

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19,cults,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm


In the photo below, dated March 15, 2020, you will see a group of mostly senior citizens defying the call for social distancing. Who could they be? Rightwing Christian evangelists? Libertarians standing up for liberty?

Nope. Instead, you are looking at members of the Socialist Workers Party at a memorial meeting for one of their members who died last month. The Militant newspaper reported that more than sixty people were in attendance. That’s probably about half the membership, and 1,900 less than when I was a member back in the 1970s. What happened to all these people, including me? Most either drifted away or became victims of a purge in the early 1980s when they fought to preserve the party’s Trotskyist heritage. Over the past decade, the dropout rate accelerated mostly as a result of the party adopting increasingly peculiar positions. Of the remaining 100 or so, their activism mostly consists of going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses peddling the books and newspapers of what most would view as a cult.

Was there some sort of death-wish at work in this March 16th memorial meeting? If you are a typical member, there might be some relief in such an outcome. Many have jobs at Walmart despite college degrees and professional past. That in itself does not earn them brownie points with the long-time cult leadership that lives in Manhattan high-rises even more pricey than my own. Under social pressure, members must send in “blood money” to sustain the SWP. Such donations come from the paltry bonuses they receive at Walmart and other low-paying venues. Maybe, in the back of their minds, an end-run on a ventilator would be welcomed as euthanasia.

Continue reading

April 8, 2020

Daraa, March 2011: the birth of a people’s revolution

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm

(The events described below are found in chapter 9 of Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country”. Like the NY Times’s Anthony Shadid, Dagher was one of the few seasoned, Arab-speaking, professional journalists on the ground in Syria. Unlike Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk, he was not interested in triangulating between the dictatorship and the masses. It has now been just over 9 years since the events he describes below took place. Although I have been following events in Syria very closely over the past 9 year, I wasn’t prepared for the level of detail and the deep insights Dagher provides. In March 2011, the people one activist in Daraa described as “high school dropouts, laborers, farmers” decided to challenge the mafia state that Dagher analyzes in the chapters preceding this one. I use the term mafia advisedly. Syria was run by a family of gangsters who used their power to get rich. For those of you who only know Syria as a desolate piece of real estate fought over by Turkey, Russia, et al, this reporting is essential since it will give you an idea of the pent-up revolutionary anger that will explode again sooner or later.)

Notwithstanding these resentments, over the years the regime built a sizable class of loyalists and cronies in Daraa who held senior posts in the Baath Party and government in Damascus and were granted concessions and privileges locally. These people were generally older tribal leaders and businessmen. The regime never imagined a rebellion could start in Daraa, or the “Baath’s southern citadel and bastion,” as it was called in propaganda. Hardly any attention, though, was paid to the youth, the impoverished, and those who were enraged about the wide gap between rich and poor and the practices of the police state and mukhabarat.

When protests erupted in Tunisia in December 2010, Aswad and other regime opponents in Daraa started meeting clandestinely. They were joined a few times by the Damascus-based Mazen Darwish and some of his colleagues.

“We used to say to each other, ‘Let’s go eat mlaihi,” said Mazen, referring to a traditional Daraa dish of lamb and warm yoghurt on a bed of bulgur. “As we ate we discussed how we could take advantage of what was happening around us. We wanted to have a civil and peaceful revolution against the regime. You want to call that a conspiracy? Sure.”

Nobody spoke about Bashar’s departure. The discussion was centered around the same issues that Mazen and his friends were talking about in Damascus: ending the state of emergency, releasing political prisoners, and freeing political life and media, among other things.

Aswad and some twenty other veteran opponents in Daraa, many of them elderly and previously imprisoned by the regime, tried to air these demands on March 15 in front of the city’s main courthouse, but they backed off when they saw the number of heavily armed security force personnel swarming the area.

That same day, some 200 people, mostly young men and women, marched through the alleyways and souks of Damascus’s old quarter chanting for freedom and dignity in response to a call to protest on Facebook. The whole thing barely lasted thirty minutes before security forces and pro-regime thugs dispersed the crowd and arrested protesters. The following day, March 16, saw the demonstration for the release of political prisoners organized by Mazen and his colleagues outside the Ministry of the Interior in Damascus. A few activists came up from Daraa to take part and added their demand for the release of the boys who had sprayed the graffiti. Protesters were viciously attacked by pro-regime thugs and many were arrested.

On March 18, activists and regime opponents in Daraa were hesitating until the last minute about whether to protest or not after Friday prayers, given the heavy security presence in the city and the way Mazen and others had been violently dealt with in Damascus.

Aswad, who was not a particularly religious man and rarely prayed or went to a mosque, was home with some of his like-minded friends when his phone rang. It was a relative.

“Things have kicked off in Al-Balad!” said the excited relative and hung up.

Aswad understood that a protest had started in the city’s old district, called Al-Balad. He and the others got into their cars and drove toward the protest.

In other parts of the city, men were returning home from Friday prayers at their neighborhood mosques. (Women usually prayed at home and prepared lunch.)

Word of the protest was spreading, but it had not yet reached the home of eighteen-year-old Sally Masalmeh, who was among those eager for what many in the Arab world were calling thawra, or revolution, to come to Syria, too. Not far from Sally’s home lived Malek al-Jawabra, a young man she did not know at the time but would meet a few years later in circumstances that neither of them could have ever imagined.

Malek, a twenty-one-year-old law student, was getting off his motorbike as his cousin Ahmad rushed toward him.

“Do not you know what happened?” said an excited and breathless Ahmad.

“No,” said Malek, alarmed.

“A protest left the Hamza and Abbas mosque and it has reached the Omani mosque,” said Ahmad.

“Okay, let’s go!” said Malek.

Malek restarted his motorbike and Ahmad hopped on behind him.

By the time they arrived, several hundred people were on the street outside the Omani mosque, a city landmark that was more than a thousand years old. It was built with the area’s distinctive dark volcanic rocks and had a clock-tower-like minaret. More people kept arriving. There were a lot of teenagers and young men. They were the most fired up. There were also many fathers with their sons and a few elderly people in tribal dress, but not a lot. There were no women, but things would soon change.

It was more of an impromptu gathering than an organized protest, and even had a carnival-like air. People whistled, cheered, sang, and clapped. “Hurriyeh, hurriyeh!” (“Freedom, freedom!”) they shouted. Malek and his cousin joined in.13 There were no real political slogans or even articulate demands. Many people were there because they hoped this could pressure the mukhabarat to release the boys who had sprayed the graffiti.

There was one thing, though, that almost everyone present that day had in common: a sense of collective exhilaration and liberation. A people unshackled.

They were finally speaking out after being told all their lives to keep their mouths shut and mind their own business—otherwise they and their families could get into real trouble.

Ba’ad el your-n ma fi khoul” (“No more fear after today!”) they shouted that day in Daraa. Nobody covered their faces. People held up their cell phones and took photographs and videos. It felt like emancipation after decades of servility.

“Young men, calm down, just write down your demands and we will read them,” said a voice over a loudspeaker coming from inside the Omani.

One hour earlier, Bashar’s cousin and mukhabarat chief, Atef Najib, had summoned the mosque’s influential imam, Ahmad al-Sayasneh. He wanted the respected and well-liked cleric to pressure the crowds to go home. “Sheik Ahmad, all your demands will be met in a week, God willing, but we want you to calm people down,” Najib told Sayasneh, adopting a conciliatory tone in total contrast to his earlier belligerence .

“I have nothing to do with what’s going on,” said the blind, sixty-five-year-old cleric, who wore a white embroidered skullcap.

“No, they will listen to you,” insisted Najib.

Sayasneh came back to the mosque and told protesters massed outside to hand him their demands so he could pass them on to local officials.

“Liars, liars, liars!” was the crowds’ answer to the call for calm. “Thieves, thieves, thieves!”

As the pleas for them to disperse persisted, the chants became more animated and bold.

“Down with Atef Najib! The people want to topple the governor! The people want to tear down corruption!”

The crowd kept swelling. By afternoon, there were several thousand people clogging the street in front of the Omani. They moved toward the provincial government headquarters on the north side of the city, a section called Al-Mahata. They hoped more people would join the protest as it made its way down the hill from the mosque toward Al-Mahata. The more-organized and politically minded in the crowd even thought they could present the governor with a set of written demands.

The crowd passed a metal archway with a portrait of Bashar in the middle.

Some looked up and began chanting: “The people want to bring down the regime!”

“No, no, no! The people want to reform the regime,” shouted others in the crowd, hoping to drown them out. There was a large contingent who advocated for more-measured change focused on ending corruption and releasing prisoners.

The chant grew louder and louder: “The people want to reform the regime!”

In the meantime, Najib called Damascus and the regional mukhabarat headquarters in Suwayda to send him reinforcements to deal with the protest. He had already mobilized all the forces at his disposal in Daraa, including regular police, military police, and civil defense. The uniformed forces were divided into packs, each commanded by one of Najib’s mukhabarat henchmen, all in plainclothes. Many wore tracksuits and sneakers and carried pistols.

As protesters came down the hill and reached an area called Al-Karak, they were met with a hail of tear gas cannisters fired by these forces. People responded by throwing rocks and stones at them. A couple of vehicles belonging to the security forces were quickly surrounded, and after their occupants had fled, the cars were smashed by angry protesters determined to press ahead.

A cat-and-mouse game ensued, with protesters trying to go down the hill and security forces pushing them back up again. Some protesters were caught by security forces. These unlucky ones were beaten, trampled on, kicked, dragged on the pavement, and then bundled into mukhabarat vehicles parked at the bottom of the slope. This only made protesters angrier and more defiant. Fire trucks tried to repulse the crowd by hosing people down, but that did not work either. By late afternoon the reinforcements that Najib had asked for reached Daraa, streaming in by helicopter and bus.

“That’s the big boss,” said some Daraa residents as they spotted a swarm of helicopters touching down briefly inside the city’s soccer stadium and then taking off again.22 They thought that perhaps it was Bashar himself coming to Daraa to calm things down.

Shortly thereafter, masked gunmen in black began arriving at the scene of the standoff with protesters. They were members of an elite security force never previously seen in Daraa.

Some protesters started shouting “Allahu akbar!” (“God is greatest!”) to try to give people courage and make them hold their ground. Others honked the horns of their motorbikes. People burned tires and threw large rocks at the security forces to try to thwart them.

Malek and his friends and relatives watched from the side. The black-clad forces started shooting in the air. The barrage of gunfire lasted a few minutes. Many protesters scurried back up the hill. Others were determined to stand firm and even charged forward.

Sharpshooters among the black uniformed forces were now perched on a hilltop overlooking the scene. There was more gunfire, this time more intense and sustained. Most of it was still into the air, but some of it was now being aimed directly at the crowd. Malek could see people being hit in their legs and arms. Then he saw his relative Mahmoud al-Jawabra collapse to the ground. Another man standing nearby also fell. Mahmoud was hit in the neck. His T-shirt was soaked in blood. He was dead.

“One guy has DIED!” people began shouting as they frantically rushed up the hill toward the Omari mosque.

A couple of people carried the bodies of Mahmoud and the other man, who was killed with a shot in the head. They bundled them into cars and sped away. Malek fled on his motorbike with his cousin.

People scattered as the black-uniformed forces chased them. There were more forces waiting for protesters on the hilltop next to the mosque. They were surrounded from all directions. The cars with the two dead men were stopped. Security personnel snatched the bodies and arrested everyone.

Malek and his cousin escaped, but two other relatives were arrested. Everyone found on the streets that day was swept up by security forces.

“They just killed people like that—impossible!” said Sally when the news reached her home.

Her family, like many Daraa residents, did not know whether a protest was going to come out for sure that day. Yes, the situation was tense after the arrest of the boys, and yes, everybody was wondering when protests would start in Syria, like in other countries, but nobody thought people in Daraa could overcome their fears and take to the streets, just like that. And for people to be killed on the first day was also hard to fathom for Sally and others who were not yet born when Hafez crushed the rebellion against his regime.

Sally had a connection to the two slain young men. Mahmoud al-Jawabra’s mother was related to Sally’s mother. Sally casually met Mahmoud at a few family gatherings. His father had died when he and his siblings were very young. He was the eldest. He dropped out of school to support his family and later opened a small grocery store. He was a well-liked young man; many in Daraa knew him because he played for the local soccer team. The other man, Husam al-Ayash, was the brother of one of Sally’s friends. He also came from a poor family. Like many in Daraa, he had gone recently to the Gulf to work and had come back to Daraa to get married before leaving again.

“God help us all,” said Sally’s mother as the family gathered in the living room. “We are not going to get off easy—it’s going to be just like Hama,” she added, referring to Hafez’s siege and destruction of the rebellious city in central Syria in 1982. The older generation had never forgotten Hama.

The next day, elders from the tribes to which the Ayash and Jawabra families belonged went to meet with Bashar’s cousin Najib. He was ready to hand over the bodies of the two dead men on this condition: They should be buried quickly and quietly without any elaborate funeral processions or protests.

Some of the elders were loyal to the regime and were eager for damage control. They did not want to drag the names of their tribe and family further into the camp of those seen as agitating against the regime. They assured Najib that they would carry out his orders.

In the meantime, hundreds of people flocked to the homes of the two dead men. Elders arrived with the bodies and informed the grieving families of their deal with Najib. Heated exchanges broke out at both homes. How could they make such an agreement with Najib? Younger members of both families saw the fallen men as martyrs. They were determined to hold a fitting funeral. At the Jawabra home the arguments turned into scuffles, with some young men destroying a traditional funeral tent set up outside the house, where condolences were to be received during the mourning period. They said that no condolences would be accepted before a proper funeral procession and burial.

Eventually the youth in both families prevailed over the tribal elders. From the first moment, the struggle against the regime was a standoff between the younger generation that wanted to challenge and break free from fear and tyranny, and the older generation that still remembered Hafez and the heavy price he made Syrians pay for defiance.

The Ayash and Jawabra families agreed that the funeral processions bearing the coffins of the two young men would meet outside the Omani mosque, there they would merge and head toward the cemetery. The bodies were wrapped in blankets and placed in open coffins carried by relatives. Women ululated and threw rice grains and splashed rose water at the large procession as it passed by, rituals reserved for special occasions.

Sally stood on the balcony of her home facing the Omani. Many other women did the same. Some were on the street in front of their homes. Custom prevented them from going to the cemetery with the men, but they were eager to participate in their own way, too. Thousands of men joined the combined procession, and as their numbers swelled a massive anti-regime protest emerged.

“We sacrifice our soul and blood for you, martyr,” people chanted as they clapped and pumped their fists in the air.

“He who kills his own people is a traitor!”

Sally was determined to catch up with the procession as it headed toward the cemetery. She did not want to miss a thing. She told her mother that she was going to her aunt’s house, which was near the cemetery, and ran out the door before her mother could stop her.

From the rooftop of her aunt’s house Sally saw a sea of young men, children, and some elders moving toward the cemetery. They must have been in the tens of thousands.

“Revolution, revolution against tyranny and aggression!” they chanted in one voice.

That day—March 19, 2011—Republican Guard general Manaf Tlass was at his base in the mountains around Damascus. He had barely slept the night before as he and his aides tried to gather information about events in Daraa and decide what precautionary measures they needed to take in Damascus, which was a mere sixty miles away from the southern city.

What Manaf pieced together was that, on March 18, Atef Najib had called his cousin Hafez Makhlouf, who headed one of the mukhabarat branches in Damascus to let him know that he needed help to break the protest.32 Hafez agreed with other mukhabarat chiefs, including Jamil Hassan, who commanded the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, to immediately assemble a strike force and fly it down to Daraa to deal with the protest. Manaf concluded that those who had opened fire on protesters must have belonged to this force.

The shoot-to-kill orders given were in keeping with Hafez Makhlouf’s bloody tendencies and disdain for average Syrians. Hafez, who turned forty at the start of the uprising, was the second of the Makhlouf sons after the eldest, Rami. Unlike his business-mogul brother Rami, Hafez rarely appeared in public and most Syrians did not know what he looked like. He had miraculously survived the 1994 car accident that killed Bashar’s older brother, Bassel. Hafez’s slight-build, clean-cut appearance, and calm persona belied a murderous megalomaniac, according to those who interacted with him.

Following the death of the two protesters, Bashar and his brother, Maher, and their cousin Hafez decided on March 19 to dispatch more forces to Daraa, as well as two senior mukhabarat officers, Hisham Ekhtiyar and Rustum Ghazaleh, to establish a crisis cell there to deal with the situation. Ekhtiyar and Ghazaleh, a Daraa native, were given firm instructions to do whatever it took to restore order in Daraa and prevent the situation from escalating any further. Bashar also sent civilians, including his deputy foreign minister and Daraa native Faisal al-Mekdad and another Baath Party apparatchik who was from Hama, to speak in a more conciliatory tone.

“His excellency [Bashar] considers Daraa to be in the forefront in its loyalty to the regime… He was shocked and so were we about what happened,” Ghazaleh told the Daraa elders and officials he had summoned to the local Baath Party headquarters.

The next day, March 20, Bashar called Manaf at the base. It was their first contact since the deaths in Daraa. Bashar decided to follow the advice of hard-liners like his brother, Maher, and cousin Hafez on how he should deal with Daraa, but he still wanted to sound out other people close to him. Maybe there were other ways to bring the situation under control. Maybe he was missing something or was not being given the full picture by the hard-liners. He also wanted to see where everyone stood on what just happened in Daraa —who was in favor of a tough response and who was not.

“What’s your decision?” Bashar asked Manaf.

“My decision is that you throw Atef Najib in jail and sack the governor. Go down to Daraa tomorrow and make peace with the people,” said Manaf. He told Bashar that families of the dead should be generously compensated and all those detained in Daraa, including the boys who had sprayed the graffiti, should be released immediately.

“What do you know about the dead?” asked Bashar.

“They were killed during the protests. They’re not from powerful families, but still you should go down and be conciliatory,” said Manaf. Manaf explained that this would quickly bring the situation under control—the idea being that Bashar’s gesture would mean a lot to Daraa’s people, who were seen within the regime as simple and emotional tribal folk.

“These are generous and good-hearted people,” said Manaf.

“Okay,” said Bashar before ending the call.

Back in Daraa, events were moving fast. After the burial of the two young men killed on the first day of protests, angry youth were determined to stay on the streets to defy regime forces. They decided to head to Sahet al-Saraya, or Serail Square, in the northern section of the city, Al-Mahata. They wanted to organize a sit-in there in front of the provincial government palace, Baath Party headquarters, and other symbols of authority located around the square.

“To the Mahata, to the Mahata!” they shouted after the funeral. They were immediately confronted by security forces. More people were shot dead and many more were wounded or arrested.

Sheik Sayasneh, the Omani mosque’s blind cleric, pleaded with protesters not to go to the government square and to stay in the city’s old section, Al-Balad, so they wouldn’t provoke further violence by regime forces. He told them they could have their sit-in at the mosque and make their demands from there. Surely there was enough respect for the mosque’s sanctity that security forces would not breach its threshold so easily. It would offer protesters some measure of protection from the deadly force being deployed on the streets.

Many accepted Sayasneh’s offer and moved to the mosque. But there was a limit to his ability to control people, given that this was still a spontaneous outpouring of popular anger and frustration led by the youth, with no clear leader and objective.

“This was a people’s revolution, not a revolution of the educated and the elite,” said Sally Masalmeh. “There were all sorts of people among us: high school dropouts, laborers, farmers, and so on. The youth were the hardest to control.”

Arguments broke out between sons and fathers, who wanted to hold back their children from risking their lives on the streets.

“Why should we listen to you? You were the ones who brought us to this miserable state,” sons told their fathers.

“Why did you not rise against Hafez? Why did you just watch him hand power to Bashar?”

Very quickly the Omani mosque and its courtyard turned into a base for protesters. They decided to set up a field hospital there to treat those wounded in ongoing confrontations with security forces. The city’s hospital was far away, and the nearby small clinics were reluctant to take in the wounded, fearing it could expose them to punishment by the regime. The only option was to set up the makeshift hospital at the mosque. Pharmacists and Daraa residents donated surgical packs, portable oxygen machines, stretchers, medicine, and other supplies.

This was an opportunity for some women who wanted to take a more active role in the uprising. Those with medical training and experience headed to the mosque courtyard to help. Sally had completed first aid and CPR training the previous summer, so she went, too, despite attempts by her parents to stop her.

“You could count the girls on one hand,” said Sally. “We wanted to help in any way we could. All the taboos were starting to crumble.”

There were still limits, though. All the women left at sundown, and only men spent the night at the mosque to keep the sit-in going. Foam mattresses and blankets were brought to the prayer hall. People took turns sleeping. They were starting to get more organized. They formed a media committee. They wrote their demands on cutouts of white bedsheets and hung them on the mosque’s outer wal1.

These demands included the following:

“End the state of emergency” which had been in place since 1963.

“Release prisoners of conscience.”

“Freedom of expression, freedom to protest.”

“Fight corruption and provide jobs to recent graduates.”

“Raise the minimum wage and salaries, and reduce taxes and improve living standards.”

The revolution that Sally and other young Syrians were watching unfold across the region had finally come to Syria, at least to Daraa.

While a revolutionary spirit gripped the city’s south side around the Omani mosque, there was a different mood on the opposite side of the city, where the regime was in control. At the Baath Party’s local headquarters off Serail Square, the mukhabarat commanders dispatched by Bashar huddled with Daraa officials and tribal notables loyal to the regime. The mukhabarat chiefs made it clear that the mosque sit-in could no longer be tolerated. It was March 22, now three days since the protesters they called “terrorists” had taken over the mosque. The children who were detained for spraying the graffiti had been released the day before, after many had endured horrific torture.

The president, Bashar, agreed to sack Daraa’s governor and review the protesters’ other demands, and as such those inside the mosque should leave at once, demanded the mukhabarat chiefs through mediators. Protesters scoffed at what the regime cast as major concessions. They knew that the governor had no real power and was conveniently being made the scapegoat. What about the one with the real power, the security chief and Bashar’s cousin, Atef Najib? What about all the people who had been killed and detained since March 18? They did not trust the regime.

One of the main mediators between the regime and protesters in the mosque was Muwafaq al-Qaddah, a Daraa native and rich businessman based in the United Arab Emirates. He was a self-made man who had built his fortune starting as a traveling salesman. Qaddah was among those courted by Bashar and encouraged to invest in Syria when Bashar launched his economic liberalization. Like most other businessmen, Qaddah partnered on several projects with Bashar’s cousin Rami Makhlouf. Despite his regime links, Qaddah was generally well respected and liked in Daraa. He was a local farmer’s son who had gone to the Gulf and done well.

Qaddah could not say no when Bashar asked for help in ending the standoff in his hometown Daraa. He immediately flew to Damascus and headed down to Daraa. There he was told to coordinate with the office of Bashar’s brother, Maher, who was overseeing the crisis cell in Daraa and was monitoring the situation hour by hour. One of Maher’s crony businessmen, Mohammad Hamsho, was friends with Qaddah. The two would keep in touch throughout the emergency.”

On the evening of March 22, Qaddah met for hours with protesters at the Omani mosque. Past midnight he thought there was a breakthrough. The protesters agreed to leave the mosque on condition that all those arrested since March 18 would be immediately released. The fate of those missing—dead, alive, or held by the regime—would also be ascertained. All other demands were subject to future discussions.

It was very late already. So Qaddah and his entourage got into their cars to head back to the crisis cell on the other side of the city to inform its leaders about the deal that they had just struck with the protesters.

As the peace delegation left the Omani mosque, the entire city was plunged into darkness. Streetlights were extinguished and power went off in all homes. Cellular phone service was also cut.

Sally was asleep. She was in bed next to her mother. Her father was still up in the living room.

Suddenly the crackle of heavy gunfire pierced the silence and darkness.

“Oh my God! Could they be storming the Omani?” said Sally as she jumped out of bed.

She ran into the living room. Her two younger brothers were already there with her father. Her mother came out from the bedroom.41

The mosque was a few hundred meters from their home. They could hear everything. The gunfire grew louder and more intense and sustained. It sounded like machine guns. The booms of explosions rang through the air.

Sally and her siblings started to cry. Her brothers wanted to run back to the mosque and be with their friends who were there. Her tearful mother barricaded their way and locked the front door. They would die if they stepped outside.

Allahu akbar, people of Daraa! Help us, we are being slaughtered!” cried a man over the mosque’s loudspeaker. “Persevere, my brothers—stay in your place, we will be victorious. We do not have weapons, we are peaceful.”

And then, addressing the security forces: “You killers, you mercenaries.”

Indeed, all the shooting was done by regime forces: not a single bullet was fired from inside the mosque. There were only cries for help and shouts of defiance.

As regime forces closed in on the mosque, they started chanting: “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Bashar!”

A doctor and a medic who rushed over to the mosque in an ambulance were both shot dead by regime sharpshooters hunkered down on adjacent roofs. At least six people inside the mosque were also murdered, and many others were wounded.

Bashar’s cousin Atef Najib entered the mosque after it was taken over. He wore military fatigues and carried an assault rifle. He stood in the courtyard and began shooting in the air.

“You sons of bitches!” he shouted as he emptied one magazine after another.

He was surrounded by dozens of armed men, mostly in plainclothes. They were laughing, smoking cigarettes, and back-slapping one another .They looked like gangsters. Many spoke with the distinctive accent of Bashar’s Alawite sect.

“We killed them,” one of them announced before joining the others in a trancelike chant: “God, Syria, and Bashar!”

When the news reached Qaddah, he was stunned. He felt betrayed. He had been used as bait by regime forces. They were preparing the assault even as he was inside the mosque assuring protesters that a deal could be worked out and that their demands regarding detainees could be fulfilled. Qaddah called Maher al-Assad’s associate Hamsho from the crisis cell command center to express his anger.

Shortly after, Maher himself called back and asked to speak to Qaddah. He was on speakerphone. All the mukhabarat commanders who had overseen the storming of the mosque were sitting around and could hear Maher, too.

“So, Muwafaq, I heard you shit in your pants—ha ha ha!” said Maher as he laughed uncontrollably.

The next day Bashar and Manaf spoke again by telephone.

“How can this carnage happen?” demanded Manaf. “This is unreal. I thought Muwafaq Qaddah was your emissary and was negotiating on your behalf.”

Bashar said Qaddah was being played by the protesters who, he claimed, were armed and dangerous and part of a foreign conspiracy. He said he had spoken to his brother, Maher, and cousin Hafez Makhlouf before the order was given to storm the mosque.

“We had no choice but to nip this whole thing in the bud,” Bashar said.

After the call this thought occurred to Manaf: “They have wasted no time in taking the Hama manual out of the drawer.”


April 7, 2020

Why Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm

via Why Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19?

April 6, 2020

The Virtues

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

As long as New York’s movie theaters are closed, I will be pivoting toward VOD films that my socially-distancing readers should appreciate. With very little to keep you going except Netflix, et al, I hope to keep you abreast of films off the beaten track. With that in mind, I highly recommend “The Virtues” that is now available through Topic, a streaming service backed by First Look Media. First Look Media is part of Pierre Omidyar’s left-of-center media empire that also includes Intercept. Considered controversial by some, I find Omidyar generally on the side of the angels.

“The Virtues” appeared originally as a four-part series on Channel 4 in England in 2019. It is the story of Joseph, a working-class guy with a troubled past. In the first few minutes of the episode, we see him walking over to his ex-wife’s house in Liverpool to have dinner with her, her new partner and his 9-year old son from his former marriage. Joseph learns over dinner that they are leaving for Australia where they plan to start new lives. This means that Joseph will be left alone with no social ties, a grim proposition for an alcoholic.

After dinner, Joseph heads to a nearby pub and has one drink after another until he can’t think straight. Desperate for companionship, he begins buying drinks for everyone until the bartender cuts him off. A sloppy drunk, Joseph tries hard to create a festive mood but you cannot help to see him as someone who laughs to keep from crying. The scene inside the pub starts off on an up note but within a few minutes, you find yourself cringing at the sight of a man trying to buy the affection of strangers to replace the son who will be leaving for Australia.

The next morning we find him sleeping on his living-room floor, his shirt covered with vomit. Even when his boss comes by the apartment to pound on the door to wake him up, Joseph remains dead to the world. When he finally wakes up, he goes to the bathroom where he continues to be sick. In all the years I have been watching films that feature an alcoholic in a lead role, from “The Lost Weekend” to “Flight”, I have never seen a more realistic and more frightening depiction of what’s involved in a drunken binge.

In the next episode, Joseph makes an attempt to create a new social life for himself by traveling back to the small town in Ireland where his sister lives. When she and her husband come outside with their three young children in the morning, they spot Joseph sprawled out on the side of the road. He has not had another drunken spree. Instead, he is so broke that he could not afford a night in a hotel. As he approaches her and the family, they draw back not knowing what this stranger has in mind. We finally learn that he has not seen Anna in 30 years, when they were both at a local orphanage. For all she knew, he might have been dead.

Making up for lost time, the family accepts him with an open heart even as Joseph soon resorts to old habits. It turns out that he is walking around with a heavy cross to bear from a trauma that occurred at the orphanage. Coming home to Ireland might have brought him closer to a family’s warmth but only at the cost of reliving the suffering he endured at the orphanage.

As Joseph, Stephen Graham turns in a bravura performance. With his character’s self-effacing and warm personality, Graham realizes it completely. From a working-class family, he has struggled with depression and even tried suicide, as Wikipedia reports. He said, “In my early twenties, I suffered from really bad depression and tried to take my own life once. Thankfully, the rope snapped and I’m here today. But I know the loneliness, isolation and feeling you can’t cope in the world.”

“The Virtues” was directed by Shane Meadows who co-wrote the teleplay with Jack Thorne. Meadows, like Graham, had the kind of life experience that would help make such drama so palpably real. Born in 1972, he was the son of a truck driver who discovered the body of child murder victim Susan Maxwell. Initially a suspect in the murder case, his son suffered bullying at school that likely shaped the flashbacks of Joseph’s experiences in the orphanage.

Meadows’s work will remind you of the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. His characters are down-to-earth working-class people whose dialog is liberally scattered with four-letter words, including the women. Like them, their troubles are ultimately related to their economic frailty. However, it is not just economic conditions that throw up obstacles. In addition, they are victims of unresolvable family contradictions that remind you of the opening sentence in Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Subscriptions to Topic cost $5.99 per month and are well worth it, based on this selection. Like most VOD sites, you can have a seven-day trial subscription. Take advantage of it at least to see this powerful family drama.

And while we are on the topic of VOD, let me refer you to some items that have come my way:

Sea Fever: This is a horror movie set on the waters off the coast of Ireland with similarities to “Alien” or “The Thing” but much more reflective about humanity’s troubled relationship to the natural world, a theme obviously related to our current predicament. It will be available on Vudu on April 10th.

Kino Marquee: Kino-Lorber, a film distribution company, has been affected by the closing of arthouse theaters. To make cutting-edge films available as VOD, including Ken Loach’s great “Sorry We Missed You”, they are offering a service described here. Basically, for the price of a ticket you get to see films at home.

The Cinema Tropical Collection: This is the leading distributor of Latin American films in the USA that has now made its films available as VOD. Check the excellent library here.

Film Movement VOD: Like Kino-Lorber, this is a distribution company for arthouse films, including the first-rate “Corpus Christi” that I reviewed in February. As is the case with Kino Marquee, you get to see a film for the price of a ticket in the theater. (https://www.filmmovement.com/in-theaters)

Environmental Online Film Festival

ArtMattan Films Virtual Cinema: ArtMattan is the company behind the Africa Diaspora film festivals I have covered over the years. Rentals are roughly equal to a senior citizen’s ticket in a theater.

Mailchimp/Oscilloscope Laboratories offer free shorts from the latest SXSW film festival.

Film Festival Alliance: Theatrical-At-Home to present inaugural Film Festival Day on April 11.


April 3, 2020

COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On March 25th, N.Y. Times op-ed columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about “How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask.” The subtitle certainly went against the grain of what you’d read from a page dominated by Thomas Friedman: “A very American story about capitalism consuming our national preparedness and resiliency.”

Manjoo identified just one of many failures of the Trump administration to be prepared for the epidemic. Alex Azar, the HHS Secretary had testified that there were only about 40 million masks in our domestic stockpiles, around 1 percent of what would be required. Like much else, mask manufacturing had migrated to China in the same way as all other textile industries had long ago.

Continue reading

April 1, 2020

The conspiracist left and the far right: strange bedfellows on COVID-19

Filed under: conspiracism,coronavirus — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

Without missing a beat, some of the same people who have dubbed the Douma chlorine attack a false flag are now downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Peter Hitchens, the younger brother of Christopher (and like him an ex-SWP member) used his Daily Mail byline to promote the OPCW “whistleblowers”. Now, he writes bullshit like this:

It is more likely that the panic-mongers, having got their way by spreading alarm and frightening the Prime Minister, are now trying to get us to forget how ludicrous their original claims were. But first let me issue another warning. If the Government do decide to release us from mass arrest, they will say, as Prof Ferguson is doing, that this is because their repressive economy-wrecking measures worked.

We must demand proof, after a thorough independent inquiry, that this is true. For, if it is not, as I very much suspect, then we are in endless danger.

Any government, using the same pretext, can repeatedly put us through this misery, impoverishment and confinement. In the end, like the peoples of other despotisms, we will be grateful to be allowed out at all.

Also chiming in from the United Kingdom is one Piers Robinson, a co-director of Tim Hayward’s pro-Assad Organisation for Propaganda Studies that has been in the forefront of absolving the dictator of chemical weapons attacks. Robinson left his university post last year in order to spend full-time writing the same kind of bullshit as Peter Hitchens. In a March 28th article for the conspiracist Off-Guardian website, Robinson wrote:

The deep-rooted fear of contagious disease, hardwired into the collective consciousness by historical events such as the ‘Black/Bubonic Plague’ and maintained through popular culture (e.g. the Hollywood movies Outbreak and Contagion), means that people are without question highly susceptible to accepting extreme emergency measures whether or not such measures are rational or justified. The New York Times called for America to be put on a war footing in order to deal with Corona whilst former Army General Stanley McChrystal has been invoking his 9/11 experience in order to prescribe lessons for today’s leaders.

As for 9/11, Robinson is a Truther himself. In another article for Off-Guardian, he hailed David Ray Griffin and Elizabeth Woodworth’s “9/11 Unmasked” as a “diligent and painstaking work”. In a 2006 CounterPunch article titled “The 9/11 Nuts”, Alexander Cockburn referred to an earlier book by Griffin titled “The New Pearl Harbor” as part of the 9/11 conspiracy fever that “threatens to become the ‘socialism’ of the left, and the passe-partout of many libertarians.”

Early on, it became obvious to me that there was an overlap between 9/11 Truthers and the international Bashar al-Assad fan club. In 2012, I wrote a post titled “The Arab Revolt and the Conspiracist Left” that connected the dotted lines:

For some conspiracists, the Jihadist angle is paramount. Al-Qaeda is underneath every bed in the Middle East, a fear that originates with the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001. For people like Global Research’s Michel Chossudovsky and Voltairenet’s Thierry Meyssan, the revolts in Libya and Syria are just the latest evidence of CIA plots drawing upon willing Islamist assets.

Meyssan is the author of two “truther” books: 9/11: The Big Lie and Pentagate, a book that argues that a missile rather than a jet hit the Pentagon. Ordinarily, I would discount Meyssan as a typical nutcase but apparently he does have some traction with self-avowed Marxists like the PSL’s Diana Barahona who advised North Star readers:

For a good explanation of who the armed Syrian opposition really is, read “Who is fighting in Syria” by Thierry Meyssan, reporting from Damascus.

If Off-Guardian has been gung-ho on the pandemic being a plot to advance CIA interests globally, other conspiracist websites have demurred. Moon of Alabama, which is the mother-ship of all these pro-Assad, pro-Putin propaganda initiatives, is scared out of its wits. On March 11th, the webmaster, who is based in Germany and never writes in his own name, sounded the alarm in an article titled “Coronavirus – The Hidden Cases – Why We Must Shut Everything Down And Do It Now”. He wrote, “The key thing to do now is ‘social distancing’. As our governments do not act decisively to achieve that it is our personal responsibility to do that ourselves. Everyone must do this to the best of their abilities.”

Joining the conspiracist left is the Christian right and some Fox TV hosts like Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro. (Hannity has backtracked to some degree in keeping with his fealty to Trump, who has also backtracked.)

The most strenuous efforts to make the pandemic look like a Deep State conspiracy originate in Blaze Media, a company founded and headed by Glenn Beck. Like Off-Guardian, Blaze is a fountain of articles minimizing COVID-19’s threat. In a recent article there, it claims that “Coronavirus still much deadlier than the flu, but not as bad as previously reported.” Steve Deace, who has a Blaze TV show, is a total Jesus freak whose Twitter account is filled with daily helpings of disinformation drawn from the same well as Off-Guardian even to the point of echoing the sort of rhetoric associated with the left:

Like the campaigns waged by Off-Guardian to convince us that all chemical attacks in Syria were false flags, the new one minimizing the effects of COVID-19 depends on expert testimony. If Ted Postol and the OPCW “whistleblowers” were the go-to guys for absolving Assad, you see the same names cropping up now that lend credibility to conspiracist thinking.

I first noticed this when David Katz, a diet doctor basically, wrote an op-ed piece for the NY Times titled “Coronavirus Worse Than the Disease?” You get titles similar to this on Off-Guardian, like the one today titled “Could the Covid19 Response be More Deadly than the Virus?”, written by a 9/11 Truther named Kevin Ryan.

Katz wrote, “We have, to date, fewer than 200 deaths from the coronavirus in the United States — a small data set from which to draw big conclusions. Still, it is entirely aligned with the data from other countries. The deaths have been mainly clustered among the elderly, those with significant chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, and those in both groups.” From this observation, he draws the conclusion that it would be best to segregate the “clustered” minority and allow the rest of society to go to work in order to prevent the “near total meltdown of normal life — schools and businesses closed, gatherings banned.”

Naturally, neoliberalist meathead Thomas Friedman found Katz’s arguments most convincing even if other medical experts did not. The Dean of the Yale Medical School co-signed a letter to the NY Times taking issue with Katz’s letter. In the byline for his op-ed, Katz was described as a founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. To begin with, Katz no longer has any association with Yale. On top of that, Yale-Griffin has nothing to do with epidemiology. It’s mission is to research the possibility that nutrition can help stave off illnesses. As I said, Katz’s specialty is nutrition, not resisting pandemics.

A Guardian article described Katz as a gun for hire for big food companies, so is it any surprise that he would stump for industry as a whole right now? The article states:

A group of Yale epidemiologists swiftly wrote a letter to the Times, rebutting Katz’s piece. Others pointed out Katz’s lack of credentials and his links to big industry. He was once paid $3,500 an hour as an expert witness in a Chobani legal case to defend the sugar contained in its yoghurts.

Katz has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies including Hershey’s, Kind Bars, the walnut industry and Quaker Oats. The science journalist Nina Teicholz has written about how in some cases, Katz wrote positive articles about those companies after receiving grants.

In addition to citing Katz, Thomas Friedman also cites someone with better credentials, at least:

Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis, an epidemiologist and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center, pointed out in a March 17 essay on statnews.com, that we still do not have a firm grasp of the population-wide fatality rate of coronavirus. A look at some of the best available evidence today, though, indicates it may be 1 percent and could even be lower.

“If that is the true rate,’’ Ioannidis wrote, “locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.’’

To show how much of an overlap there is between the “left” conspiracists and ideological hacks like Thomas Friedman, Off-Guardian posted a video of Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis, just 3 days ago (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6MZy-2fcBw). Out of morbid curiosity, I watched the entire thing and was stunned to see this Stanford professor refer to the testing of NBA players and statistics drawn from Iceland’s population to buttress his argument that projections about COVID-19’s danger have been grossly exaggerated.

As should be obvious, not a single NBA player has died from COVID-19. For that matter, all of them are in perfect health and in their early 20s for the most part. What else would you expect?

As for Iceland, Ioannidis has written:

Getting information on representative samples of the population is very easy. It has been done in Iceland, where they have a cohort covering most of the national population looking at samples that have been provided. They see that they have an infection rate of 1.0 per cent, and up until now only two people have died. So, out of the 3,500 infected people in Iceland there have been two deaths, which corresponds to an infection fatality rate lower than the common flu.

In 1954, Darrell Huff wrote a book titled “How to Lie With Statistics” that anticipated Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis’s misuse of Iceland’s numbers. Huff maintained that “correlation does not imply causation”. To make sense of Iceland’s numbers, you have to take into account that this is a country that has embraced Scandinavian welfare state institutions. Even if the sparsely populated island has been moving away from the Scandinavian model, as has all the other countries falling within this rubric, it is still light years ahead of the USA. Among the five states, Iceland’s GINI coefficient is 0.246, ranking it as the most equal society following the Scandinavia model. By comparison, the USA’s is 0.391. Most importantly, Iceland has universal health care. With a population that can expect to receive full benefits from cradle to grave, it is likely to be much more capable of dealing with a pandemic.

In any case, Iceland has gone to great lengths to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to government officials, 11,727 individuals were tested by March 25th. This translates to 32,217 on a per million basis or 0.0322—the highest proportion of tests performed by any individual country. By comparison, the USA has tested one million by now, or 0.0026.

Is it possible that Ioannidis reflects the corporate bias of Stanford’s board of trustees that is headed by a Walmart family scion and that is composed of financial industry CEO’s? Sorry, if that makes me sound like a vulgar Marxist but as Bob Fitch once put it, vulgar Marxism explains 90% of what goes on in the world.

Capitalism is the Disease: Mike Davis on the Coronavirus Crisis

Filed under: coronavirus — louisproyect @ 12:48 am

Our Virally Porous Walls

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:42 am

via Our Virally Porous Walls

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