Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 5, 2020

The Grayzone and the facts of the Ltamenah gas attacks

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Aaron Maté and Max Blumenthal

As a rule of thumb, the Syrian dictatorship’s chemical attacks only become a cause célèbre when there is a significant loss of life. For the better part of 8 years, Assad has dropped barrel bombs on hospitals, fired missiles into working-class tenements, starved rebel supporters into submission and generally pursued what are commonly understood as war crimes. It is only when chemical weapons are used, and, more importantly, result in a significant loss of life that American presidents get on their high horse.

The first incident occurred on August 21, 2013 in Eastern Ghouta when up to 1,729 poor people opposed to the dictatorship died from a sarin gas attack. This incident set the pattern for Assad’s apologists that continues to this day. People such as Seymour Hersh, Theodore Postol, David Bromwich, Robert Parry, Patrick L. Smith and Tariq Ali all came to Assad’s rescue, arguing that he had no motive to use sarin gas. There was a cruder battalion following these distinguished gentlemen who emphasized the “false flag” narrative, which made the case that the rebels gassed their own supporters in order to give Obama an excuse to implement “regime change”. Names like Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, and David Icke come to mind. Despite Obama bending over backwards to allow the “normal” war crimes to continue, this crowd was always on the lookout for the next incident that would allow them to posture as peace activists over the dead bodies of Syrian civilians.

The next incident occurred on April 4, 2017 in the town of Khan Shaykhun, this time when Donald Trump was in the White House. Once again it was a sarin gas attack that left 89 dead and more than 541 injured. Once again, the false flag brigades went to work, acting as if Trump’s retaliatory strike on a Syria airbase were the opening round of WWIII. In reality, the dictatorship only got a slap on the wrist. The missiles that Donald Trump fired on Shayrat air force base 3 days later had little impact. To start with, the runway was not damaged—something that was never even part of the plans—and jets and helicopters took off a few hours afterward. According to Wikipedia, even the Russian defense ministry said that the “combat effectiveness” of the attack was “extremely low” and that only 23 missiles out of 59 fired hit the base, destroying six aircraft. It did not know where the other 36 landed. Russian television news, citing a Syrian source at the airfield, said that nine planes were destroyed by the strike but that they were inoperative at the time.

Probably the most widely covered attack took place in Douma on April 7, 2018. This time it was chlorine gas that cost the lives of 40-50 people huddled in the lower floors of a tenement. Since chlorine is heavier than air, it descends downward with devastating effects. This was not the first chlorine gas attack in Douma. There were three earlier attacks that made lots of people sick but without any deaths. Indeed, there have been hundreds of chlorine gas attacks in Syria that might have killed a few people but nothing that would prompt the White House to act. In my view, Trump had to retaliate once again in Syria to “save face”. After he bombed a couple of buildings, people like Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal made it sound like Trump was LBJ escalating the war in Vietnam. Somehow, Trump’s decision to cut off all support for the rebels that year must have escaped them.

On April 8 this year, the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) released a report that concluded that the dictatorship had used both sarin and chlorine gas in Ltamenah on three different occasions in 2017, just around the time that Khan Shaykhun was attacked. Frankly, I don’t remember having much of a reaction at the time since this was one of those “low-keyed” affairs that only left 60 people hospitalized. Sure, a doctor did die from a chlorine bomb that fell through the roof of his hospital but that’s hardly something to write home about.

Leave it to Grayzone to push the “false flag” conspiracy bullshit once again, this time relying on an OPCW whistleblower who, despite his CV, seems to be an even bigger idiot than Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté, who prefaced his attack on the findings.

Like all these people from Tariq Ali to Vanessa Beeley, the whistleblower cast doubt on the dictatorship’s culpability since it was winning the war:

They didn’t use sarin during the desperate times when they had their backs to the wall and were close to being overrun by opposition groups; but for some reason chose a time when they were back in control.

Somehow the whistleblower must have forgotten that Assad used sarin gas in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, when he was on the ropes. And, then again, this asshole probably is sure that the jihadi were ready to kill 1,729 of their supporters on the gamble that Obama would intervene. I remember during the Vietnam War when the NLF was accused of using its soldiers as cannon-fodder because “Oriental” people did not put the same value in human life as us civilized Westerners. Some things don’t change when it comes to what Edward Said called “Orientalism”.

Next, he questions the efficacy of the attack since Assad “did this by supposedly dropping a couple of sarin bombs on fields; agricultural lands in the middle of nowhere.” Is this guy for real? In the middle of nowhere? WTF?

The OPCW puts the attack into context. Contrary to the whistleblower, this was a hotly contested area:

The Idlib Governorate (together with parts of Hama Governorate, north of Hama city) was effectively under the control of a number of rival factions, rather than a single group, since it fell to armed groups in 2015 and throughout 2017. The area was regarded as the front line between the territories controlled by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic to the south and the land to the north, and known generally as the “Greater Idlib Region”. The strategically vital M5 highway goes from Aleppo in the north, southwards through Saraqib just outside of Idlib, Khan Shaykhun to Hama city, then onto Homs city, the capital Damascus, and all the way to the border with Jordan.

Specialists in military operations consulted by the IIT concur that controlling the M5 highway is an important objective for military operations in the area as it connects major cities including Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. When the Syrian Government recaptured eastern Aleppo city in late 2016, the highway’s strategic value further increased. Since at least 2012, there have been reports that villages and cities along the M5 highway were constant targets for conventional air strikes, as well as (more sporadically) chemical weapon attacks.

For Christ’s sake, even the Russian media understood the importance of the M5 highway in 2017. This is from the Interfax News Agency in Moscow, dated September 13, 2017:

The national reconciliation committee in the Syrian province of Rif Dimashq met with the opposition to discuss the unblocking of the M5 highway linking the country’s northern and southern regions, the Russian center for reconciliation of opposing sides in Syria told Interfax.

“In the Rif Dimashq province, the national reconciliation committee held a meeting attended by representatives from the armed opposition group Jaysh al-Islam to discuss how to open the section of the M5 road [between] Harasta al-Basal [and] Muhayam al-Vafedin,” the center said.

Like the other whistleblowers, but even more explicitly, he describes the chemical attacks, at least the two days in which sarin was used, as a “false flag”:

This, if intended to support the assertion that Syrian sarin was implicated, or that staging by the use of “spiking” chemicals was unlikely, is bordering on ludicrous. What possible reason could there be for the staging organizers, supporters (or advisors) to provide anything other than chemical samples carefully prepared by using the same precursors and sarin synthesis pathway as the well-known Syrian method? That chemistry has for many years been no secret; it is universally known and (apart from the use of hexamine as the acid scavenger) one of the “standard” ways of making sarin. That immediately defeats the “chemical marker” argument presented by the IIT. It is quite staggering that this argument has been taken seriously by any qualified or competent scientists.

Reading this malarkey, I wonder if maybe Blumenthal and Maté wrote it themselves since it is so detached from the chemical realities of sarin gas. If anything, it is the same crapola Seymour Hersh came up with to absolve Assad in 2013. He told CNN on December 9, 2013, “It’s not hard to make sarin. You could mix it in the backyard. Two chemicals melded together.” This, of course, begs the question—if it is so easy to make, why haven’t the rebels used it except to kill their own supporters? Are they pacifists when it comes to Assad’s military? I don’t think so, especially al-Nusra.

There’s some devastating gaps in the logic of this chemistry not being a secret. You can say the same thing about the atom bomb. It is not that there’s a “secret” to it. Rather, it is a function of being able to create the infrastructure in which the bomb and the explosives can be assembled.

While sarin gas is easier to put together than an atom bomb, this picture of the laboratory used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult for their terrorist attack on Tokyo subway passengers might give you some idea of how ludicrous the whistleblower sounds:


Overhead view of the Satyan-7 chemical weapon facility. (Wikipedia)

Finally, in addition to the OPCW report, I urge you to read Eliot Higgins on the Ltamenah attacks just below. Unlike me, he did not let the relative absence of a significant death count lull him. On April 21, he offered a summary of the OPCW report with a recap of his findings in 2017. This will give you an idea of how Eliot Higgins gets taken seriously while people like Blumenthal and Maté are viewed as dumb and dumber.

Thanks, Russia

November 2017 led to a number of significant developments in the investigation into the nature of Syria’s Sarin bombs, ironically due to the Russian Federation’s attempts to defend its Syrian allies against allegations of Sarin use.

In early November 2017, the OPCW FFM had released a report on their investigation into a number of chemical attacks, including the March 30, 2017 attack in Al-Lataminah. This report included photographs of debris recovered from the site of the Al-Lataminah attack, including measurements of various debris. One of the pieces of debris measured and photographed included not one, but two filling caps recovered from the site of the March 30 attack:

This proved significant, as the filling cap recovered from Khan Sheikhoun had also been measured:

It was also possible to see that both sides of the caps were identical in design, and with the measurements, exactly the same dimensions:

It was now possible for us to state categorically that the design and dimensions of the filling caps recovered from the March 30 attack in Al-Lataminah matched perfectly with the filling cap documented at the Khan Sheikhoun impact site, which the OPCW-UN JIM report had described as “uniquely consistent with a Syrian chemical aerial bomb.”

The next major clue in our investigation was provided by the Russian Federation. In a November 2, 2017 press conference responding to the OPCW-UN JIM report on Khan Sheikhoun, the Russian Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry for Industry and Trade presented various information that they used to claim the Khan Sheikhoun attack was not the responsibility of the Syrian Arab Republic. During that presentation, they displayed a slide with a diagram of two Syrian chemical bombs, the M4000 and MYM6000:

Remarkably, the Russian Federation had just provided the first public details on the nature of these two types of bombs, including details of the internal mechanisms of the bombs, and measures of the width and length of the bombs that would prove to be crucial in identifying the type of bomb used in Syria’s 2017 Sarin attacks. The top two images of the diagram showed an MYM6000 chemical bomb before and after the filling process was completed. The filling process was described in a June 2017 Mediapart article by a former member of the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC):

“It also meant that engineers from the SSRC also had to design bombs that were specific for sarin, and which were quite different to ordinary munitions. “On the outside, they resemble conventional bombs of 250 and 500 kilos of TNT,” explained one of them. “But inside they were totally different, divided into two compartments. The first, at the front, carried the DF. The second, at the rear, [contained] the isopropyl and hexamine. This mixture is stirred together by a stirring rod that can be activated by sort of crank at the rear of the bomb. When the two compartments are filled up, a technician winds the crank which advances the stirring rod to the point it breaks the wall of mica. The sarin synthesis reaction is set off inside the bomb, placed under a cold shower and maintained within a very precise temperature range which is controlled by a laser thermometer,” continued the former SSRC source. “After which, all that’s left is to introduce, in the allocated hold at the point of the bomb, the explosive charge and detonator – altimetric, chronometric or other – and to place the bomb under the wing of the plane. The load must be very precisely measured. If it is too big, the heat given off can cause the decomposition of the product, or the formation of a cloud of gas too far from the ground, which would render it ineffective. In principle, a 250-kilo bomb contains 133 litres of sarin, a few kilos of TNT and a ballast to preserve the aerodynamic characteristics of the weapon. A 500-kilo bomb contains 266 litres of sarin. The ideal altitude for the explosion of the bomb is about 60 metres.”

May 3, 2020

Neil Davidson (1957-2020): an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Neil Davidson

I just learned that Neil Davidson has died after a year-long battle with brain cancer. At the bottom of this post, I am including the words of his wife Cathy that Sebastian Budgen forwarded to FB. Neil was a long-time member of the SWP in England who seems to have affiliated with a network of people who had left the party in the aftermath of the rape crisis. Known as RS21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century), they have an announcement on his death and a pending obituary that I am sure will fill in the details on his life and political career.

Davidson was a FB friend. I knew him hardly at all except for a couple of email exchanges in the past 15 years or so related to his scholarly expertise in matters that were of great interest to me. Davidson is the author of the 840-page “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, a book that I have never read from cover to cover but have consulted dozens of times over the years. I am not familiar with all his work but I would describe this as a magnum opus that goes to the heart of major debates within Marxism since the 1970s.

The book is an attempt to refute the arguments of a group of people around Robert Brenner, who became known as “political Marxists”. Their core belief rests on two premises. First, that capitalism originated in the British countryside in the mid-1400s and as a contingent outcome of a class struggle that put lease farming in control of the countryside. They reject out of hand that slavery and colonialism were key to the origins of capitalism.

Additionally, they argued that there is no such thing as a “bourgeois revolution”. Much of this rests on the scholarship of French revisionist historians such as François Furet, who was a member of the Communist Party when young. He came to the conclusion in the 1970s that the French bourgeoisie was not a revolutionary class in 1789 and that the assault on the monarchy was led by disaffected aristocrats.

I first came across Davidson’s ideas on the bourgeois revolution in an HM article written in 2005 with the same title as the book he was working on. While he would become much sharper in his debates with Brenner and his acolytes over the years, the article was an opening salvo. He wrote:

In effect, members of the Brenner school do not seem to recognise that there is an abstract model in Capital. Brenner himself apart, they think that England was the only site of endogenous capitalist development and therefore assume that Marx takes English development as a model for the origin of capitalism because, in effect, it was the only example he had. Now, I do not dispute that England was the country where capitalism developed to the greatest extent. It was for this reason that Marx made it the basis of his analysis, in the same way that he always took the most developed form of any phenomena as the basis of his analysis. But, in his mature work, Marx repeatedly states that capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time.

When Davidson presented sections in the Grundrisse to members of the Brenner school, including Wood, that stated that “capitalist development took place beyond England in space and before England in time,” they would “pretend that they mean something else.” For his part, PMer George Comninel issued “disapprovingly admonitions about Marx’s failure to understand his own theory.” Davidson expresses some bemusement over the gaps in the Brenner thesis:

I understand how the Brenner school accounts for the establishment of capitalism in the English countryside. I also understand how the Brenner school accounts for the spread of capitalism beyond Britain. I do not understand how capitalist social-property relations spread from the English countryside to the rest of England. Nor, for that matter, how the same process took place in Holland or Catalonia, the other areas where Brenner himself thinks that capitalism existed.

For Davidson, the answer is recognizing that for Marx, the transition to capitalism was as much an urban phenomenon as it was agrarian: “Urban labour itself had created means of production for which the guilds became just as confining as were the old relations of landownership to an improved agriculture, which was in part itself a consequence of the larger market for agricultural products in the cities etc.” (Grundrisse, p. 508)

Another interesting insight from Davidson is that Brenner’s conception of capitalism is shared by an odd bedfellow:

For the members of the Brenner school, capitalism is defined by the existence of what they call market compulsion ­ the removal of the means of production and subsistence from the direct producers, so that they are forced to rely on the market to survive. There is, of course, a venerable tradition of thought which defines capitalism solely in market terms, but it is not Marxism, it is the Austrian economic school whose leading representatives were Ludwig von Mises and Frederick von Hayek.

That was something I had noticed myself, but not exactly on this basis. If capitalism is defined as resting on market compulsion, then vast areas of obvious capitalist exploitation are invalidated according to this narrow approach. For example, apartheid South Africa would be ruled out with its pass system, etc. So would Nazi Germany which involved slave labor on a grand scale. Of course, the libertarian would agree that such societies are not capitalist. Von Mises and von Hayek both regarded Nazi Germany and Communist Russia as noncapitalist since both societies involved statist control of the economy, etc. Needless to say, this is a superficial analysis but one that was pervasive in the academy.

Davidson also has some pointed observations on Wood’s explicit statement of a theme that is implicit throughout Brenner’s writings, namely that capitalism in England emerged in the countryside prior to the historical formation of capital-wage labor social relations. If a system of tenant farming could in and of itself be the key launching pad for capitalist property relations, how then was surplus value produced? He wrote:

If capitalism is based on a particular form of exploitation, on the extraction of surplus-value from the direct producers through wage-labour, then I fail to see how capitalism can exist in the absence of wage-labourers. Where does surplus-value come from in a model which contains only capitalist landlords and capitalist farmers? Surplus-value may be realised through market transactions, but it can scarcely be produced by them.

Once one establishes that the transition to capitalism in England was a function of inexorable economic processes in the countryside quite early on (the 1400s at least), then the bourgeois revolution becomes trivial, if not irrelevant. Brenner wrote:

First, there really is no transition to accomplish: since the model starts with bourgeois society in the towns, foresees its evolution as taking place via bourgeois mechanisms, and has feudalism transform itself in consequence of its exposure to trade, the problem of how one type of society is transformed into another is simply assumed away and never posed. Second, since bourgeois society self-develops and dissolves feudalism, the bourgeois revolution can hardly play a necessary role.

According to Davidson, Brenner’s magnum opus “Merchants and Revolution” is basically an attempt to demonstrate that feudal relations had been wiped out by 1640 so the notion of a Great Revolution is besides the point. Davidson’s article concludes with a discussion of English history in the 17th century intended to show that Brenner’s dismissal of the need to effect a social revolution is based on minimizing class conflict between the forces led by Cromwell and the gentry.

Davidson wasn’t finished with the PMers. He wrote a second part for HM that year, which really captured my political imagination. Like Jim Blaut, Davidson became a crucial resource in trying to understand and refute Robert Brenner and his followers. In the first article Davidson focused on the peculiar analysis of capitalism originating from tenant farming. In his follow-up, he honed in on the question of whether there was such a thing as a bourgeois revolution.

Davidson starts off by trying to establish Marx and Engels’s attitude toward the notion of a revolutionary bourgeoisie. He makes the essential point that the Communist Manifesto, despite its rather rapturous description of the modernizing capabilities of the capitalist class, says very little about its political role in leading revolutions against feudalism.

When Marx described the role of the bourgeoisie in the German revolution of 1848 –as opposed to the French revolution of 60 years earlier– he was unimpressed. He took note of a vacillating bourgeoisie more willing to confront the aroused working class than its ostensible feudal enemies. If and when revolutions took place, they tended to be “from above” and bypassed the masses that were at center stage in 1789.

These distinctions were not lost on Lenin who saw Russia at a crossroads around the turn of the century. The revolution might unfold like France’s in 1789 and like the American civil war–a result of a thoroughgoing and plebian assault on the old order–or it would look more like the Junkers “revolution from above” that consolidated the rule of the bourgeoisie while retaining many aspects of the feudal era. The abolition of serfdom in Russia was an example of how the exploiting classes in Russia would connive to maintain the status quo while giving the appearance of attacking it. In the 1907 article “The Agrarian Question and the Forces of the Revolution,” Lenin wrote:

All Social-Democrats are convinced that, in its social and economic content, the present revolution is a bourgeois revolution. This means that it is proceeding on the basis of capitalist production relations, and will inevitably result in a further development of those same production relations. To put it more simply, the entire economy of society will still remain under the domination of the market, of money, even when there is the broadest freedom and the peasants have won a. complete victory in their struggle for the land. The struggle for land and freedom is a struggle for the conditions of existence of bourgeois society, for the rule of capital will remain in the most democratic republic, irrespective of how the transfer of ‘all the land to the people’ is effected.

Such a view may seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with Marx’s theory. Yet it is not hard to see that it is the correct view—one need but recall the great French Revolution and its outcome, the history of the ‘free lands’ in America, and so on.

You’ll note, by the way, that Lenin refers to a “bourgeois revolution” above, and not to a “bourgeois-democratic revolution.” This is a key point for Davidson. Since the conflation of bourgeois and democratic is so widespread in Marxist discourse, it is necessary to explain how it came into existence, especially given its absence in the writings of both Lenin and Trotsky.

In a survey of theories of bourgeois revolution, Davidson identifies a tendency in the late 19th century to search for historical antecedents in the struggle against capitalism–a native radical tradition so to speak. This led to a search for a unifying theme in which “the people” were eternal actors against entrenched interests. That theme became democracy. As Davidson puts it:

It became important to identify struggles that could be retrospectively endorsed and assimilated into a narrative of democratic advance, the closing episode of which had opened with the formation of the labour movement. In most cases, the radical traditions were directly inherited from left liberalism, particularly in those countries – above all Britain, but also France – where Marxism was initially weakest and where liberal connections with labour were political and organisational as well as ideological. In effect, these traditions tended to become a populist alternative narrative to what one early radical liberal historian, John Richard Green, called ‘drum and trumpet’ histories.

While this sort of thing was innocent enough in the late 1800s, it took a more destructive character during the rise of Stalinism which required the concept of a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution to buttress its class-collaborationist approach to politics, especially in the 3rd world where feudalism supposedly still prevailed.

It should be obvious from what I have written that my affinity for Neil Davidson was heavily focused on questions that first came to mind after coming into contact with Jim Blaut, who shared Davidson’s disdain for Political Marxism.

I hope that you will consult the RS21 article linked above that has a list of his most important works that can be read online. Davidson was a major voice in Marxism who tried to keep up with political developments even when cancer had slowed him down.

Like Erik Olin Wright, Davidson shared his clinical experiences dealing with cancer with his readers, trying to stay on an even keel. Like Wright, he was upbeat and politically engaged until the very end. Also, like Wright, he was an academic who never threw his credentials around. As an SWP member, he was committed to the socialist revolution—a stance that will become more and more popular as capitalism enters its own death throes.

(Posted on FB by Sebastian Budgen)

Neil Davidson – one of the kindest, most thoughtful, least pompous and one of the most brilliant comrades we will ever know – has left us, far, far two early. HM Books will, in due course, be publishing two of his new books and the journal will be making available his articles. A really terrible loss for us all.

From his partner Cathy:

Dear All – as you can see, this is to convey the sad news that Neil died this morning, peacefully here at home with me, eight months after his diagnosis with brain cancer.

We have been wonderfully supported during this last phase of his illness by our local District Nurses and West Lothian care teams, backed up by our GP practice, Marie Curie palliative care experts and others, all selflessly working on despite the pandemic.

Neil’s funeral will be in Aberdeen so that his family can attend and of course, current restrictions mean this can only be a small private event. I know that many of you will want, as will I, to have a much fuller commemoration and celebration of Neil’s life and exceptional achievements at a later date, and if possible when we can get together in person – I’ll be happy to hear any ideas for that in due course. I do find myself in possession of a library still overflowing with books – and also red wine… So perhaps some redistribution of all that might feature in forthcoming plans!

My sister Helen came down from her home in Shetland just before the lockdown and remains an invaluable support and comfort – she will be staying here for the duration of the restrictions in any case, so I am not alone. Springtime in the garden is a great solace too.

The many expressions of kindness, concern, support and appreciation for Neil that have come in over recent months were very gratefully received and I managed to convey most of your messages to Neil, which meant a lot to both of us. We may borrow some of the fine words used by some of you in what we put together to be said at his funeral and I know that will be very helpful to his family too.

There is no need at all to reply to this e-mail. I have tried to send it to as many of Neil’s (and my) friends and contacts as I have addresses for, but you may wish to pass it on to others I haven’t reached. If you do wish to be in touch with me, e-mail or post is fine – but I’m sure you will understand if I am not responding to much correspondence meantime. Also, I would appreciate no phone calls/texts and no flowers etc. sent here at the moment. Thanks.

Let’s remember the good times and keep working for better yet to come, as Neil would have wanted and did so much to inspire.

With best wishes to you all and hope you are keeping safe.



May 2, 2020

Bill de Blasio, the Hasidim, and COVID-19

Filed under: anti-Semitism,COVID-19,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio was pilloried for being anti-Semitic. On April 28, when hundreds of Hasidic Jews took part in a funeral procession for their rabbi, de Blasio rushed to the scene in Brooklyn to oversee the police trying to disperse the crowd. Some of the Hasidim were wearing masks but others were not. Even if everyone was wearing a mask, the procession would be in violation of ordinances City Hall had approved to implement social distancing.

That evening de Blasio tweeted about the incident:

By simply referring to the “Jewish community”, he became the moral equivalent of Bernie Sanders, who became persona non grata in Hasidic circles for having “done more to legitimize antisemitism than any Democratic presidential candidate in recent memory.” That characterization appeared in the March 3, 2020 Algemeiner Journal, a newspaper marketed to the orthodox Jewish community. Like most rightwing Jews, the editors made an amalgam between being pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic.

Like any number of people over the past decade who use Twitter, de Blasio got caught in the unfortunate position of simplifying a complex situation. By referring to the “Jewish community”, he was supposedly judging an entire ethnic group. If I were Mayor, I might have tweeted something much more like this:

Last night there was a funeral procession for Rabbi Chaim Mertz who died from COVID-19. Over a thousand of his followers violated social distancing guidelines that might have kept him alive in the first place. The orthodox community has to do a better job of protecting itself.

One can understand the mayor’s frustration. Ever since the pandemic hit New York, some Hasidic sects have been as defiant of social distancing as the AstroTurf mobs funded by Charles Koch. On March 17th, the NY Times reported on “Defying Virus Rules, Large Hasidic Jewish Weddings Held in Brooklyn”. After the Fire Department busted the wedding, that did not prevent people from continuing to celebrate on the street outside.

A day later Pro Publica published an article titled “As Coronavirus Cases Rise, Members of Some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Communities Continue to Congregate”. Even when the headquarters of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect was closed at 770 Eastern Parkway, “a large group of men — numbering perhaps over 100 — had simply moved their prayers from inside the building to outside of it, crowding together.”

In a perceptive article on how Hasidic neighborhoods became the epicenter within a pandemic epicenter, the NY Times published an article on April 21 that offered an explanation of why there is a defiance of city ordinances. Basically, the Hasidic sects view the state itself as an infringement on its rights as a separate social entity that operates on its own legal codes. The Times put it this way:

That sense of defiance has been evident in neighborhoods like Borough Park and South Williamsburg, where some businesses and religious bathhouses have displayed signs written in Yiddish — a language not widely spoken outside the Hasidic community — informing patrons of hours and prices or instructing them to use an entrance not visible from the street.

Beyond this insular attitude, there is also a failure to come to terms with medical science. During a measles epidemic last year, the Hasidic sects were a bastion of resistance to vaccinations. A Brooklyn Orthodox Rabbi William Handler told Vox that the MMR vaccine used to guard against measles, mumps and rubella caused autism. He viewed parents who “placate the gods of vaccination” are engaging in “child sacrifice.” As is the case with COVID-19, orthodox Jewish children suffered because of adult inaction.

The irony in all this is that Bill de Blasio has been a long-time ally of the most rightwing and religiously obscurantist segments of the “Jewish community”. In 2013, after he announced his campaign for mayor, I blogged about these ties:

The first sign that de Blasio was traveling down a familiar road was his appearances on State Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s radio show on WMCA on Saturday night when he ran for City Council from the 39th District in 2001, that includes Borough Park, an area that contains many orthodox Jews who vote as a bloc and take their cues from Hikind. Hikind is one of the biggest scumbags in the Democratic Party in N.Y. who leaves a trail of slime going back to his days as a follower of Meir Kahane, an openly fascist leader of the Jewish Defense League.

Hikind went on to endorse de Blasio for Public Advocate in 2009 and now endorses him along with William Thomson in the DP mayor primary. In return, de Blasio has endorsed Hikind’s favorites, including Joe Lazar who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in the 39th District in 2010.

You can tell how important Borough Park votes are for de Blasio based on the stance he took on the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College early this year. In a McCarthyite campaign orchestrated by Dov Hikind, the school came under pressure to include a pro-Israel speaker. This was de Blasio’s statement:

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is inflammatory, dangerous and utterly out of step with the values of New Yorkers. An economic boycott represents a direct threat to the State of Israel–that’s something we need to oppose in all its forms. No one seriously interested in bringing peace, security and tolerance to the Middle East should be taken in by this event.

This is not the first time that de Blasio has positioned himself as a “friend of Israel”. Raillan Brooks, a blogger at the Village Voice, revealed that de Blasio was opposed to Saudi airplanes landing at local airports:

Here’s a little morsel of insanity for your Tuesday morning: New York City Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio is trying to yank Saudi Arabian Airlines’ right to land at U.S. airports over its policy of not allowing Israeli citizens to board, starting with JFK. The director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines, Khalid Al-Melhem, shot back at de Blasio, insisting that it is merely the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries that is behind the policy. Al-Melhem’s claim that discrimination isn’t behind the ban is bullshit, but so is de Blasio’s outrage.

Brooks then posed the question: “Why is coverage of de Blasio so light on skepticism? Because the man has spent a career building a name for himself as a Defender of the Downtrodden, a bonny shroud for cold political calculus.”

In office, de Blasio bent over backwards to make sure that the medieval social norms of the Brooklyn were honored. Among the most disgusting concessions he made was easing the ban on metzitzah b’peh, or oral suction, adopted by his predecessor Michael Bloomberg. This is a controversial circumcision ritual that has been linked to herpes infections in infants.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, parents had to sign a consent form before the ritual, which involves the circumciser using his mouth to suck blood away from the incision on a boy’s penis. Orthodox rabbis called the consent requirement an infringement on their religious rights. By suspending it, de Blasio got the thumbs up from Rabbi David Zweibel, who stated, “It is to Mayor de Blasio’s eternal credit that he recognized how profoundly offensive the regulation was to our community.”

Weighing in for liberal Zionist opinion, the NY Times’s Bari Weiss took de Blasio to task in a meretricious article titled “Bill de Blasio Finds His Scapegoat”. Trying to speak out of both sides of her mouth, she reminded her readers that the mayor was a man “whose political instinct drove him to quote Che Guevara at a Miami union rally.” For me, that’s reason enough to tip my hat to Bill for having the balls to tell an audience the truth, even if it defied political expediency—something Ms. Weiss obviously doesn’t get.

She also biffed the Chapo Trap House, who—as far as I can tell—never got mentioned once in a NY Times op-ed. They aren’t Jacobin, after all. She wrote:

“Hassids own so much,” Felix Biederman, a co-host of the popular left-wing “Chapo Trap House” podcast, tweeted on Thursday. “Just zero regard for the rest of humanity or any idea of modernity and they’re also like yeah we need to live in the middle of this city for whatever reason.”

I guess all you can say is that Biederman is an equal-opportunity offender, just like Howard Stern. That’s how these people make $60,000 a month, after all. I’ve seen more offensive references on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and funnier as well.

Once she got finished with the left, Weiss made a point that was much sharper than de Blasio’s tweet:

“The failure of leadership here cannot be overstated,” said Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, a writer and the wife of an Orthodox rabbi, about those who encouraged the funeral. “This is almost reminiscent of the stories of Hasidic rebbes leaving their flocks during the Holocaust. Only this time, followers will be able to know exactly how they were abandoned and by whom, because now this information is public.”

Of course, nobody will bash Bari Weiss for referring to someone comparing these Brooklyn medieval leaders to Hasidic rabbis leaving their flocks during the Holocaust. She has too many brownie points for opposing BDS, disparaging Bernie Sanders as anti-Semitic, etc. I do appreciate her brief refence to rabbis “leaving their flocks”, however. That’s something worth following up on.

May 1, 2020

Socially Engaged Cinema in a Time of Social Distancing

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:07 pm


When New York movie theaters closed down on March 15th, so did invitations to the press screenings needed for my reviews. Unlike other film critics, I don’t cover Hollywood films. My beat consists of documentaries, foreign-language and American independent films that get screened in places like the Film Forum and Cinema Village in New York, the Laemmle in Los Angeles, et al.

This month, while Hollywood lies dormant and the entertainment press troubles itself over its impending doom, there are a number of films that came my way that CounterPunch readers should find interesting. While I have referred to them in the past as VOD, the film distributors, who are connected to the art theaters, have come up with a new term to describe the films under consideration below. They are part of the Virtual Cinema world, a term I guess that is meant to evoke virtual reality.

Whatever you call it, it is an opportunity to see leading edge cinema unlike most of the escapist fare featured on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, et al. Indeed, they are far more relevant to the current pandemic crisis insofar as they imagine that another world is possible.

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Films covered in review:

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