Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 17, 2020

The background to the NY Times article on Adolph Reed Jr. and the “cancelled” meeting

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,DSA — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Adolph Reed Jr.

On August 14, NY Times sports reporter Michael Powell weighed in on the virtual meeting for Adolph Reed Jr. that fell through in May after DSA’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus demanded a debate instead. On June 12, Reed and co-thinker Walter Benn Michaels did an interview with Bellows magazine in which Reed stated that he did not need the stress of listening to hostile comments in a virtual meeting, so he decided to withdraw.

The left has been trying to figure out why the Times decided to report on this controversy, with many concluding that it was an attempt by the paper to weaken our movement. Since the NY Times has been one of the biggest supporters of the DSA, this seems unlikely to me. My guess is that they were simply trying to sell newspapers since this “cancel culture” business has been hot ever since the Harper’s Open Letter. They have mined this culture wars vein in the past with ample coverage of Alan Sokal’s spoof, for example.

One can understand why Bellows would have provided a friendly platform for Reed and Michaels. Self-described as an online Marxist magazine, it has the same contrarian bullheadedness as Reed and Michaels. Just check an article on the home page titled “The New Cultural Revolution” that describes the George Floyd protests as a conspiracy orchestrated by “transnational capital and its petit bourgeois enforcers”. Although I haven’t had time to check all the content on Bellows, it strikes me as a leftwing version of Quillette. Reed might have thought twice about being interviewed by a Quillette contributor like Matt Taibbi did but perhaps Bellows has less of a reek about it.

The clash between Reed and DSA’s Black caucus was to be expected. This has been a simmering dispute since 2017 when Reed went for their jugular on Adam Proctor’s Dead Pundits Society podcast to talk about “Race, Class and the DSA”. The bulk of it was an attack on the resolution the caucus submitted to the 2017 DSA convention that endorsed BLM and reparations, both of which Reed considers a roadblock to building class unity.

Basically, Proctor, an ideologue in the Dustin Guastella mode, and Reed saw eye-to-eye on what a threat the resolution was to the DSA’s social democratic agenda. There was no pretension about the term democratic socialism in their conversation. Both men expressed deep nostalgia for Bayard Rustin and agreed that the left took a wrong turn in 1965 when it abandoned social democracy for black power. As is generally the case with these ritual bows to Rustin, there is no attention paid to his refusal to support the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 DP convention or Rustin keeping mum on the Vietnam War in order to placate wealthy liberal donors and trade union bureaucrats.

Reed dismissed BLM as inconsequential and having no organic ties to the Black community. If they weren’t happy with the class-unity, social democratic strategy of the DSA, they should just get out, to use Jordan Peele’s terminology. The best thing for this “little authoritarian enclave” is to have their caucus dissolved and its members disseminated into class-based efforts by the DSA such as ringing doorbells for democratic socialist candidates.

Adam Proctor makes no efforts to be respectful to BLM activists or Black caucus members. He favors a scorched earth approach even more brutal than Reed’s, describing the caucus as immersed in “melatonin” politics. He is cozy with people like Amber A’Lee Frost and Angela Nagle who joined him in a discussion of “How the left got lost in puritanism and in-group policing and the right took advantage.” In other words, the same agenda as Thomas Chatterton Williams and Matt Taibbi. If that wasn’t bad enough, he allowed Rania Khalek and Ben Norton to hold forth on “How Kinky are Salafists In Syria?”. They must had a thousand laughs about bombing hospitals and killing tens of thousands of men in Sednaya Prison.

One of the interesting points made by Michael Powell was about Reed’s co-thinkers who “see the current emphasis in the culture on race-based politics as a dead-end.” One of them is Bhaskar Sunkara. Since that is explicitly a barb aimed at BLM, Sunkara must have a short memory in light of what he wrote in “The Socialist Manifesto”:

Now history seemed to be repeating itself in Ferguson: Wilson absurdly maintained he felt like a “five-year-old” next to Brown’s “Hulk Hogan” and said he fired to protect his life. Less than a day later, Ferguson was gripped by massive protests that turned into violent confrontations at night as police tried to disperse the demonstrations. The actions lasted for weeks and inspired solidarity protests in cities around the country.

This was the inaugural moment of the nation-wide Movement for Black Lives (MBL), which called for an end to racist law enforcement. MBL challenged accepted realities about state violence and harassment faced by black Americans. After Ferguson, as unarmed people continued to die at the hands of US police—with some of it caught on cell phone cameras similar protests rocked cities like Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Chicago, and New York. The demands advanced by the protesters in Ferguson and their counterparts around the country—including an end to police impunity and the creation of poverty-alleviation programs in black neighborhoods—were broadly social-democratic and garnered widespread sympathy.

So BLM raised demands that “were broadly social-democratic and garnered widespread sympathy.” How deep was Sunkara’s analysis if he could change politics like underwear? Was it a good marketing choice to extol MBL (same as BLM) in his book and now a better one to write it off? Since the guy’s main goal in life is to build a publishing empire, I can’t say I blame him.

While Michael Powell does not end up squarely in the Harper’s open letter camp, it is clear that his goal is to portray Reed as a victim of cancel culture:

Amid murmurs that opponents might crash his Zoom talk, Professor Reed and D.S.A. leaders agreed to cancel it, a striking moment as perhaps the nation’s most powerful Socialist organization rejected a Black Marxist professor’s talk because of his views on race.

The truth, of course, is that they called for a debate that clearly the organizers would not have agreed to. As I said above, Reed dropped out because he didn’t want to deal with hostile comments in a virtual meeting.

Yesterday, Roger Berkowitz, a Bard professor who signed the Harper’s letter, understood Powell’s intentions even if most of the left could not. He wrote:

If you want an example of the inability to see the absurdity of a situation and a complete aversion to reality, the story of how the Democratic Socialists of America have canceled a speech by Adolph Reed is at the top of the list. Reed grew up in the segregated South and organized poor Black people and war resisters. He has been a leading socialist fighter for the rights and dignity of the poor. And he is an esteemed professor. But Reed’s belief that the root of oppression today is based in poverty rather than race runs afoul of contemporary pieties. As Michael Powell explains, this has led to the truly unreal situation where he has been prevented from speaking to the Democratic Socialists.

His article concluded: “Amid murmurs that opponents might crash his Zoom talk, Professor Reed and D.S.A. leaders agreed to cancel it, a striking moment as perhaps the nation’s most powerful Socialist organization rejected a Black Marxist professor’s talk because of his views on race.”

What’s apparent to me is an inability of the DSA to have clarity around these issues, which is the function of its unresolved position on race/class. I can see at least three distinct outlooks. The Black caucus sees things pretty much in the way that revolutionary socialists have viewed them going back to the time of Lenin. Reed spent a fair amount of time scoffing at the idea of self-determination for Black America that was popular in the 1960s. Where are the borders of their country, he laughed. In 1920, Lenin wrote a resolution for the Comintern that stated “All communist parties must directly support the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights (for example Ireland, the Negroes in America, and so forth), and in the colonies.” As for trying to make sense of how this applies to the USA today and BLM, I would only say that having a mass movement that focuses on specific Black demands is much more in line with the Comintern than Reed’s Bayard Rustin platitudes.

Probably, the big majority of the DSA goes along with the sort of analysis found on the Bread and Roses website and in magazines like In These Times and Jacobin (excluding the Reed and Cedric Johnson junk). They support any movement against racism but, like Reed and Sunkara, feel that the most effective strategy is finding demands that are in the interest of Black and white workers alike.

Finally, you have the Philly DSA and the LES DSA branch that sponsored Reed’s talk. They are totally into the whole Bayard Rustin nostalgia trip. Let them take that ride while the rest of us move forward to socialist revolution.

August 16, 2020

Socially Relevant Film Festival documentaries on Black Voices

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Film — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

I will be moderating the Black Voices panels on Monday and Tuesday. More information at https://www.ratedsrfilms.org/.

August 14, 2020

Marxmail 2.0

Filed under: Counterpunch,Marxmail — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm


You may have noticed a reference to the Marxism mailing list in the tag-line at the bottom of my CounterPunch articles. I want to take this occasion to tell you about a recent crisis that nearly put this 22-year Marxism forum out of business and recount its history. Assuming that you are one of the kinds of people that Alexander Cockburn once described as a dwindling number of leftists “who learned their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules,” the mailing list might be right up your alley. Maoists and independents, of course, are also welcome. 9/11 Truthers, no thank you.

In a crowning irony, the Marxism list—better known as Marxmail—was hosted on a University of Utah server. So, you might ask how the Mormon church and Marxism could ever co-exist. Oddly enough, the economics department housing the server was one of the few in the country that was hospitable to Marxism. Hans Ehrbar, now a professor emeritus, invited us to take advantage of the department’s hospitality, so how could we resist?

Continue reading

August 12, 2020

How leftist conspiracy-mongers ended up on the same side of the barricade as the alt-right

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,conspiracism,COVID-19,Donald Trump,Fascism,Trump — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

Why would anybody in their right mind think that a color revolution conspiracy was targeting him?

That is what totalitarianism is, this desire to establish complete control over everything and everyone, every thought, emotion, and human interaction. The character of its ideology changes (i.e., Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc.), but this desire for complete control over people, over society, and ultimately life itself, is the essence of totalitarianism … and what has taken over the minds of the New Normals.

–CJ Hopkins

This is not the benign, Bernie Sanders, work-within-the-system-type socialism. This is Bolshevism, there’s a big difference. The smoldering downtown corridor and the ruined lives of thousands of merchants attests to that difference. What we’re seeing is the resolute actions of a thoroughly-committed group of violent extremists who want to obliterate the system and impose their own vision of socialism.

–Mike Whitney

These are excerpts from articles that appeared on The Unz Review website, named after its owner Ron Unz. I can’t provide the links since it has been banned on Facebook for promoting white supremacy, we can assume. You will find the articles by concatenating unz and com. Once there, you can do a search on both of the authors above and the articles will show up. Hopkins’s “new normals” is a reference to the people protesting against the cops, whose side he takes. As for Whitney, he is against rioting even though most of the protests against George Floyd have been peaceful. This smear, of course, is straight out of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

It is important to understand that Ron Unz’s website is one of the most prominent neo-Nazi websites with a ranking of 15,537 on Alexa. That’s six times as much traffic as Stormfront, which ranks 96,704 as a long-time promoter of holocaust denial, racism and nativism. It’s also almost three times the traffic of CounterPunch, where both Hopkins and Whitney’s articles appeared before it cleaned house.

The question before us is why someone who once wrote for CounterPunch, like I do, would want to be associated with Ron Unz. When I challenged Hopkins for crossposting to Unz’s website while he was writing for CounterPunch, he defended himself by saying that Unz used to be a major contributor to CounterPunch, as well as writing for it occasionally. Of course, if you look up his articles for CP, you’ll see that they’re nothing like the white supremacist propaganda he writes today. Like Hopkins, Whitney had been crossposting to both CP and Unz all along but I never asked him why. Anyhow, the important thing to understand is that both of them have drifted to the far right once their connections to CP were severed. Today, nothing they write has the slightest tinge of leftism and more recently it is unvarnished defense of Donald Trump against BLM protests.

Other former writers for CounterPunch have also been moving in this direction. Max Parry only wrote 3 articles for CP but has flooded various leftwing websites for ages now promoting a conspiracist worldview. On off-Guardian, a COVID-19 denialist and 9/11 truther outlet, Parry has an article that makes an amalgam of Assadism and anti-BLM propaganda. Titled “The Battle of Seattle was Fought by the Pro-war ‘Left’ in Northern Syria”, the article sounds like it could have been written by someone on Tucker Carlson’s staff:

What began as protests against police brutality were not only derailed into efforts to set-up communes in major cities but a nationwide debate on statues, after the wave of demonstrations and rioting across the country led to the Taliban-style destruction of historical monuments perceived as glorifying racism.

Taliban-style, really? As if tearing down a Confederate General’s statue has something in common with the Taliban’s horrendous destruction of Buddha statues.

Kurt Nimmo, who had dozens of articles published on CP but none later than 2004, now writes mostly for Global Research, a conspiracist cesspool with a lot in common with off-Guardian. Recently, he wrote something titled “Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Neoliberal Color Revolution in America” that was a riff on William Engdahl’s “America’s Own Color Revolution” and that also appeared on Global Research. Engdahl was a former member of Larouche’s organization who retains pretty much the same politics he once had. Implicit in writing about a “color revolution” in the USA is the idea that Donald Trump is some kind of post-Soviet nationalist like Milosevic or Shevardnadze. This is a preposterous idea as if “neoliberalism” and the Trump White House were on a collision course. One might understand Engdahl taking this position since Larouche PAC virtually worships Donald Trump.

Conspiracism pollutes much of “radical” journalism on the net. If you see it as concentric circles getting more and more nutty and reactionary as you move toward the hub, Grayzone and Consortium News would be further away from the center, even if they overlap to some extent with Global Research. For Max Blumenthal, everything is simple. Just read what Nicholas Kristof writes and take the opposite tack. If Kristof condemns the Chinese government for putting Uighurs into concentration camps, your task is to write that concentration camps do not exist.

Close to the innermost circle, you get off-Guardian, Global Research and Zero Hedge that share the Trump administration’s hatred for the BLM protests and laissez-faire attitude toward the pandemic. You’ll see article after article about how BLM is violent and why COVID-19 is not that big a deal. You’ll find plenty of anti-corporate rhetoric about how George Soros is funding the BLM and why Bill Gates wants to exploit the pandemic for personal gain, but you’ll also find Hitler railing against big business in “Mein Kampf”.

When I used to read Mike Whitney in CounterPunch, I never had any strong objections except to his support for the “axis of resistance”. As for Hopkins, there wasn’t much to pay attention to since he wrote the same article over and over, which boiled down to his defense of “populism”. Whether it was from the left or right, it didn’t matter since the only real enemy was the “deep state” that was so intent on bringing down Trump. Like Aaron Maté, Hopkins got a lot of mileage exposing “Russiagate” even though it was mixed with Putin worship.

This move toward the right has been gestating ever since Trump became president. You can see signs of it everywhere, with Max Blumenthal’s appearances on the Tucker Carlson show and Stephen F. Cohen’s many guest spots on the John Batchelor show on WABC radio, which is a carriage trade version of Rush Limbaugh. Carlson and Batchelor were determined to clear Trump of all charges of interference in the American elections, which in and of itself is not wrong. It is wrong, however, to amalgamate that with support for the eastern Ukraine secessionists as Cohen did ever since Euromaidan broke out.

No matter how malevolent these tendencies were in the past, they have become even more pronounced this year as the pandemic and the George Floyd protests divided America sharply along ideological lines. Hopkins and Whitney have decided to make common cause with the most reactionary circles, which Ron Unz champions on a daily basis to a large internet following.

On DissidentVoice, a conspiracist website not quite as bad as off-Guardian, you can read Hopkins’s take on the pandemic. He sounds exactly like a guest on the Tucker Carlson show: “Also, ‘we have no immunity against it,’ which is why we all have to remain ‘locked down’ like unruly inmates in a penitentiary until a vaccine can be concocted and forced onto every living person on earth.” Like his business about “Stalinism” controlling our lives above, the emphasis is on personal liberty—the same excuse people give for shopping maskless and punching, or even shooting, an employee who tells them to wear one or leave.

Whitney operates from the same premise: “The Covid-19 Scamdemic is an even more vile component of the 3-pronged offensive. The ‘fairly mild’ infection (that kills between 1 in every 200 to 1 in every 1,000) has been greatly exaggerated by the media to scare the public, undermine normal relations, prevent physical intimacies, and inflict maximum damage of the fragile psyches of millions of people worldwide.”

This blatant denialism goes hand in hand with their hatred of BLM protests, which they see as a “deep state” conspiracy funded by corporate America with the willing support of the Democratic Party. Hopkins writes, “The part where the mayors of major cities stood down and otherwise hamstrung their cops, and let the ‘peaceful protesters’ run amok, was particularly audacious, in my opinion.” Whitney is beside himself with anger over BLM protests, which at the time he wrote an article (July 20), had become overwhelmingly peaceful. He told Unz’s fascist readers “These aren’t protests, this is political warfare the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1960s.” Most people on the left have fond memories of the 60s, either from direct experience like me or from reading memoirs by people like Daniel Ellsberg. I guess that Whitney identifies more with the Silent Majority of the time. Who knows? This landscape company owner might have belonged to it at the time.

Let me conclude with a few words about the Socialist Workers Party, a group I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. At one time, it was the flagship party of Trotsky’s Fourth International with about 2,000 members at its height. Now, it is a tiny cult around Jack Barnes who has managed to expel or drive people to resign to the point that it consists of maybe 90 people as old as me. Their main political activity consists of going door-to-door like the Jehovah’s Witnesses use to, peddling the party newspaper The Militant.

Like the aforementioned people writing for The Unz Review, Barnes became a convert to the Trump cause in 2016. With only minor criticisms of the white supremacist, The Militant concentrates its fire (such as it is) on the Democratic Party and on activists opposed to Trump. Like Hopkins and Whitney, they minimize the pandemic and hate how “mobs” topple monuments to Confederate generals.

In one of the more bizarre offerings, the newspaper defends the “right to worship” in Nevada:

In a serious attack on the constitutional right of freedom to worship, the U.S. Supreme Court voted July 24 to refuse to suspend a public health order imposed by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak limiting attendance at church services. It was part of a series of edicts issued under the guise of stopping the spread of coronavirus.

This goes hand in hand with the SWP’s refusal to wear masks when it goes peddling its tracts and newspapers from door to door. You can never see a mask on a party member. Given their age, you’d think they’d be more careful. But at this stage of the game, anybody who has been a member for forty years or so, as is generally the case, you lost the capacity to think independently long ago.

August 11, 2020

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

Starting tomorrow, a digital restoration of Bert Stern’s documentary “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” will be available as Kino-Lorber Virtual Cinema. It captures the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which at the time was one of the most heralded venues for both jazz and non-jazz artists. Stern was not a documentary filmmaker. His claim to fame was as a fashion and portrait photographer, best known for his 1962 series of photos of Marilyn Monroe that became known as The Last Sitting. Decades ago, I saw a selection of the Monroe photos at a NY gallery with my old friend Laura Kronenberg that left an indelible impression. What makes his 1959 documentary a classic, besides the music, was a vivid portrait of Newport, Rhode Island at a time when the USA looked far different than it does today.

Besides seeing handsome young people applauding the musicians and dancing in the aisles, we see a yacht regatta that took place the same day. While I was a bit annoyed when footage of the yachts was superimposed over a Thelonious Monk performance at the festival, it is easy to understand why the average film-goer might not have complained. I’d rather have preferred seeing Monk’s fingers dancing across the keyboard but the boats gave the film the visual variety a straightforward concert recording might have lacked.

In a NY Review of Books blog post, J. Hoberman recommends the film with qualifications:

The music is mainstream even by 1958 standards (Stern did not deign to document Miles Davis or John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk is cut to a bare minimum). Still, Jazz on a Summer’s Day does conjure a peaceable kingdom—young and old, black and white, hip and square, rich and less rich—presided over by the most benign of founding fathers, Louis Armstrong, whose influence is evident on virtually all of the artists.

I am not sure how much J. Hoberman knows about jazz but, while I would have loved to see Davis and Coltrane, there are gem performances in the documentary that do capture important trends in the mid to late 1950s, starting with a fabulous performance of Jimmy Giuffre’s tune “The Train and the River”, performed by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with him on alto sax, Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Jim Hall on guitar. You can see their performance below:

Giuffre, Dave Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and even Miles Davis were trying to move past bebop conventions at the time. This meant using unconventional combinations of instruments such as exemplified by Giuffre’s trio. It also meant experimenting with new rhythms and harmonies such as Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, an adaptation of  of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turka”.

To some extent this post-bebop style became identified as West Coast jazz since many of the practitioners like Shelly Manne were based in California. It also was sometimes dismissed as white jazz since in fact Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz were white.

But when you hear the Chico Hamilton quintet’s performance at the festival, you’ll understand how this reductionism does not really apply. Chico Hamilton was African-American as was Eric Dolphy, who while being part of the band, is not heard during their performance. Like Giuffre, Hamilton used a guitarist rather than a pianist to provide underlying harmonies. He also featured a cellist rather than a bass player, which gives the music a more intimate feel. Hamilton’s quintet was one of the most forward-looking bands of the period and we are blessed to see it in performance.

Festival impresario George Wien always made sure to feature non-jazz artists like Mahalia Jackson, whose gospel songs conclude the film. He also included Chuck Berry of all people, whose connections to jazz were even more distant than Jackson’s. However, in one of the more intriguing moments in the film, we see him playing “Sweet Little Sixteen” with none other than Jo Jones on the drums. Jones was Count Basie’s drummer and the last person I’d expect to be see backing up Chuck Berry. What’s even more unexpected is a wild solo that Pee Wee Russell takes on clarinet with Chuck Berry looking on transfixed. Pee Wee looks even more demented than Chuck and that ain’t easy. Pee Wee Russell was one of the more varied talents in jazz for well over five decades. He not only played alongside Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke in the 20s, his 1963 album “Ask Me Now” including tunes by Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. (I should mention that Russell was white.)

The Newport Jazz Festival was launched in 1954 with funding by Elaine Lorillard and her husband Louis, an heir to the Lorillard fortune that rested on tobacco. The 1956 film “High Society” depicted their romance with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in the leading roles. Louis Lorillard was a descendant of Robert Livingston, first Lord of Livingston Manor that a nearby village near my upstate NY home town was apparently named after. He was also descended from Pierre Lorillard, who founded the P. Lorillard tobacco company in 1760. Long before tobacco money helped found the Newport Jazz Festival, it was sponsoring the Paul Whiteman and Artie Shaw bands on the radio.

Elaine Lorillard got the idea for starting the festival through discussions she had with John Hammond, a top executive of Columbia Records who was sympathetic to the Communist Party in the 1930s. The fruit of their collaboration was a festival that incorporated the cultural and social ethos of New Deal liberalism that died many years ago. If you watch “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”, you’ll get a feel for the optimism of the time when American prosperity benefited all Americans, of course excluding those with Black skin not blessed with Louis Armstrong or Mahalia Jackson’s talent.

August 9, 2020

Bill Maher puts down the red carpet for Bari Weiss and Thomas Chatterton Williams

Filed under: Harper's Open Letter — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

Bill Maher, Bari Weiss, and Thomas Chatterton Williams

For those with both a strong stomach and an interest in the ongoing “cancel culture” debate, you might want to check out the podcast of Bill Maher’s chat with Thomas Chatterton Williams and Bari Weiss. Like all these podcasts taking the side of the Harper’s Open Letter, the other side of the debate is completely ignored. You are left with someone like Matt Taibbi being fawned over by Intellectual Dark Web personality Bret Weinstein. If anything, the Maher episode was even more nauseating. He insisted on calling Williams “Sir Thomas”.

Things kick off at 13:50 into Maher’s show. He introduces the discussion by referring to two open letters that was a kind of family feud between liberals. After having said that, there is zero reference to what the second letter stated. Apparently, he was referring to a July 10th letter that appeared on The Objective, a website devoted to “to confront inequities in coverage that have been recognized as rooted in the notion of ‘objectivity’ since the 1950s and continue today.” To this date, Chatterton Williams and company have yet to appear in a debate with anybody equipped to take them on like David Palumbo-Liu or Nikhil Pal Singh.

That’s the problem with Maher’s show. It never has a guest capable of defending a systemic critique of American society. The best you can hope for is flabby left-liberalism of the Michael Moore or Ben Affleck type. That’s the reason I stopped watching it five years ago. The political spectrum is Fox TV on the right and MSNBC on the left. Yawn.

The one thing I got out of listening to Williams is how narrowly constrained his interest in Black America is. A few weeks ago I began reading his stuff on Twitter and it revolves around his differences with two well-known pundits on “race questions”. One is Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility” and the other is Ibram X. Kendi, the author of “How to Be an Antiracist.” Until I began following the controversy around the Harper’s letter, I had no idea who they were.

DiAngelo is an academic specializing in “whiteness studies” who argues:

White people in the U.S. and other white settler colonialist societies live in a racially insular social environment. This insulation builds our expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering our stamina for enduring racial stress. I term this lack of racial stamina White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimal challenge to the white position becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves including: argumentation, invalidation, silence, withdrawal and claims of being attacked and misunderstood. These moves function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and maintain control.

She gives workshops on this stuff, probably for big bucks considering that her book has been on the best-seller’s list for 97 weeks. For people like Williams, Adolph Reed Jr. and Matt Taibbi, she is the devil incarnate. David Roediger reviewed her book for the LA Review of Books and offers this pointed observation: “The can-do spirit of the workshop and primer knocks against the sober accounts of the utter embeddedness of white advantage in structures of both political economy and of personality and character.” Structures of political economy. That’s a dimension missed in both DiAngelo and her critics, except maybe perhaps for Reed’s class-reductionist program that only sees Black people benefiting from programs targeting the poor in general. As for Williams, he could be less interested in political economy. The need is for civility but it is tough being civil when the man’s knee is on your neck.

Like DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi is an academic but far more rooted in the kind of issues that concern radicals, like how to end police brutality. Kendi has said that “The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.” This seems irrefutable even if Williams and DiAngelo sidestep questions of economic and political barriers to racial equality in their writing.

For Williams, the emphasis is on transcending race. A review of his memoir “Self-Portrait in Black and White” in Harper’s will give you an idea of where he is coming from:

Self-Portrait is Williams’s attempt to liberate his mind from the shackles of conventional racial designations once he realizes that his children will never be seen by anyone—not even, most likely, by themselves—as black. Williams, the son of a white mother and a black father, whom he calls “Pappy” and who serves as an intellectual and ethical anchor in Self-Portrait and a previous memoir, marries a white French woman, and their firstborn child, a daughter named Marlow, emerges in the delivery room with blond hair and blue eyes. Because Marlow will not share his racial identity, Williams decides that that identity no longer suits him. Instead of black, by the end of the book, he calls himself “ex-black”—which may be a bit like threatening to run away from home but never making it past the front porch.

There’s something vaguely musty about this sort of thing. Back in the late 1950s, we were all reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, a book with a Black nationalist villain and the main character on an existential search for true identity. His black skin undermines the efforts of others to relate to him as an individual, leaving him open to manipulations from whites and blacks alike. Both sides exploit the color line to gain power and domination.

In an LA Times Op-Ed, you can see how Williams identifies with Ellison:

Several years ago, I came across a Ralph Ellison quote that has stayed with me ever since: “Said a young white professor of English to me after a lecture out in Northern Illinois, ‘Mr. E., how does it feel to be able to go to places most black men can’t go?’ Said I to him, ‘What you mean is, how does it feel to be able to go to places where most white men can’t go.’”

Ellison’s way of thinking was honest and brave in 1970 and remains uncommon today. While prejudice and inequality have proven tenacious, if we take the expression “black lives matter” seriously, we must also accept when black autonomy, equality and even privilege exist. To do otherwise is like overprescribing antibiotics: a valuable defensive tool grows impotent through overuse. Our reflexive indignation fosters a laziness of thought that, paradoxically, can reinforce some of the very anti-black biases it hopes to wipe out.

Yeah, black autonomy, equality and even privilege exist. But so what? We’re talking about society, not individuals. There’s something creepy about Williams’s liberalism, reminding me of what Margaret Thatcher, a neoliberal counter-revolutionary, once said: “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

As Maher tries to eke out what Williams and Weiss mean by cancel-culture, they are hard-pressed to identify any of those humble souls who worry about being fired for saying the wrong thing. Williams refers to Justine Sacco as a virtual martyr to today’s version of the Salem Witch Trials. Sacco was a top executive of IAC, a holding company with over a hundred media and internet companies, including Vimeo, where I have a channel. (I didn’t say a word about her.) When Sacco was on a plane in 2014, she passed the time trying to be funny on Twitter. Visiting family in South Africa, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” You’d think after all the people who have gotten in trouble on Twitter, there’d be more caution. This tweet and other stupidities cost her job. Since she was the company’s PR director, how in hell did she think she’d be able to get away with this? The answer. If you want to make racist wisecracks, get a job with the police department. Well, maybe not more recently.

Bari Weiss came up with a different martyr, the Palestinian owner of the Holy Land grocery in Minneapolis named Majdi Wadi. She told Maher that the poor guy has been victimized because when his 14-year old daughter foolishly praised Hitler, everybody ganged up on him. He lost his lease and much of his business. How can anybody hold his daughter’s stupidity against him?

It only took me ten minutes to learn what was really happening. It was not a simple case of cancel culture as Sahan Journal points out, a local online magazine covering immigrant issues, particularly those affecting Somalis as Hibah Ansari reported on June 19, 2020. He interviewed Mahad, a Somali woman who worked at Holy Land:

Mahad started working at Holy Land in 2013 and asked to be identified by her middle name since she currently works with members of the Wadi family.

Mahad, who is Somali, alleged she was paid less than her Arab coworker who was hired around the same time as her and who once showed Mahad her paycheck.

“Nobody spoke out about it because our jobs would be on the line,” Mahad said.

If a white or Arab customer came to the store, Mahad was encouraged to “give them extra bread,” while customers of color, the majority of Holy Land’s clientele, weren’t treated as well.

According to Mahad, Lianne and her father would follow black customers to make sure they weren’t stealing. Comments from customers on social media echoed the same concern.

“Every time they would see a black family grocery shopping, [Lianne] would leave the cash register all the way on the other side, run and tail that black family just to see if they’re stealing,” Mahad said.

Hana Muse also said she witnessed Lianne follow black customers when she worked there in 2015.

“There were a lot of Somali families that would come to that restaurant,” Muse said. “They were treated like crap.”

Muse said she once came to work with her hair braided, but her managers told her to “take out your hair.”

“They were just so harsh,” Muse said. “I thought that this was how every work environment was, until I quit Holy Land.”

At the end of the night, Muse said Lianne would watch over any black employee counting the cash drawer.

Asked about the complaints regarding pay, Wadi said Holy Land pays employees in accordance with the law and the current market rate for the position.

“I can confirm that we have never paid anyone below the minimum wage,” Wadi said in a statement to Sahan Journal.

Employees subjected to possible discrimination should notify a manager or the human resources office, according to Holy Land’s employee handbook. Human resources would then investigate the allegations and implement corrective action.

Wadi said to his knowledge, no one has complained about any racist experiences in the past.

But Muse and Mahad both said the management perpetuated a “take it or leave it” attitude towards complaints. Neither of them ever felt comfortable filing a complaint about racism with a manager.

Now, I can’t say which side is telling the truth but how can Weiss simply omit the version that contradicts her own? Oh, I forgot. She’s entitled because she is in favor of free speech. At the risk of sounding like one of those cancel culture people, I am glad she and the NY Times parted ways. The paper is much better than it used to be, although it still must be read critically. Weiss and James Bennet are bad news. Let them go work for Rupert Murdoch where telling one side of a story is par for the course.


August 7, 2020

Song Without a Name

Filed under: Film,Peru — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm


Opening today as Virtual Cinema is a deliberately understated, black-and-white, art film titled “Song Without a Name”. Its potentially explosive theme is about the theft of new-born babies in Peru during the late 1980s in order to be sold on the adoption black market. Slowly paced and staying close to the historical record, it has little in common with Hollywood conventions. If Stephen Spielberg directed such a film, there would be danger lurking behind every corner, especially when an investigative reporter is told that the people running the baby-stealing ring are very dangerous. Whatever “Song Without a Name” lacks in dramatic impact, it more than makes for in authenticity.

Georgina and her husband Leo are expecting their first child. They live in a village in the highlands made up of fellow Quechuan Indians, who constitute the base of the Shining Path. Despite being poverty-stricken and without much hope for a better future, they eagerly await the infant’s birth. Each day they descend down a mountain into a nearby village where both make their livings from potatoes, the Incan food that the conquistadores brought back to Europe. Leo works for a wholesaler lugging bags of potatoes around and Georgina sells some in the local marketplace. The money they earn is barely enough to keep them alive, but revolutionary insurgency is the last thing on their mind. They are steeped in Quechuan rituals and only hope to enjoy the company of their first-born.

One day as Georgina is hawking potatoes, she hears a nearby radio advertising free medical care for expectant women. Without thinking through the ramifications of anything free in a country where the capitalist class treats indigenous people like slaves, she shows up at the clinic in labor. As they advertised, there’s no cost in delivering a baby girl. However, they don’t give her the infant as promised. Instead, they escort her out of the hospital and lock the door behind them. The next day the clinic is shut and the staff and her newborn disappeared.

Georgina tries to file a report with the cops but they are totally uncooperative, a function no doubt of them being on the take. Growing more and more desperate, she barges into the newsroom of a major newspaper and begs to speak to a journalist. When told that she needs a pass to get to first base with a reporter, she breaks down sobbing with the words “they stole my baby” pouring out of her mouth. A reporter named Pedro Campos is touched by her grief and takes her aside to get the story. The remainder of the film consists of him trying to get to the bottom of the baby-stealing ring. As I said, this is not a detective story. Instead, it is a portrait of two people playing different parts in a society that has been marked by savage inequality since the days of the conquistadores. He is a righteous man standing up to the rotten and corrupt elites who hope for Shining Path’s defeat. You might even say that Pizarro’s colonial conquest was made easier by the feudal-like system of the Incas that included human sacrifice.

This debut film was written and directed by Melina León, a Peruvian graduate of the Columbia University film school. She is the daughter of Ismael León, a journalist who helped to found La República in 1981, a newspaper that broke the baby-theft story. The training she received at Columbia helped her make a technical decision that put its stamp on the film’s texture. As this excerpt from a press notes interview would indicate, she was influenced by the minimalism of earlier filmmakers of art films rather than by Stephen Spielberg. Of course, the irony is that Hollywood has ground to a halt, while the art films and documentaries are flourishing under Virtual Cinema.

With the black & white and the 4:3 frame, the film develops a very formal austerity. What made you and Inti Briones (the DOP) choose this sober style? Did you have influences to guide you? We really wanted to see the world as our characters saw it, so we figured that we needed to trap them. A wide landscape didn’t seem appropriate for those days when we felt so constrained. Since our budget was so limited, we didn’t have much control over locations so we figured we’d better use the format to achieve this feeling of entrapment.

Also, we felt that we needed to use every possible resource to contribute to transport people to the 1980’s and of course 4:3 was the TV format in those days.

The choice of black & white comes from my memory of the photographs in the newspapers of the 1980’s. They were not printing in color yet.

Inti and I watched films by Béla Tarr and Andrey Zvyagintsev and found our inspiration and common ground. We also talked a lot about Yellow Earth by Chen Kaige – which was shot by Zhang Yimou – and about the films of Jia Zhangke.


Homage to Charles Bukowski

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 2:42 pm


Among my favorite writers, Harvey Pekar and Charles Bukowski share an uncommon distinction. Despite having lowly jobs as a Cleveland veterans hospital file clerk and sorting mail in the post office, they received the highest accolades for their work. In a 1985 New York Times book review, David Rosenthal wrote that “Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s, and it is easy to see why.” As for Bukowski, Jean-Paul Sartre described him as “America’s greatest living poet today,” although his biographer Howard Sounes discounts that as a tale Bukowski circulated. As for me, I don’t need Sounes’s imprimatur to evaluate Bukowski’s literary merits. I regard him as one of our best writers of the past half-century, and the kind of writer that helped me keep me feeling less isolated in a mammon-worshiping nation. Writers who have held down regular jobs like Herman Melville on a whaling ship or Jack Kerouac as a railway brakeman are closer to our reality than those churned out on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop assembly line.

Charles Bukowski died in 1994, not from cirrhosis of the liver but leukemia. Well-known for his alcoholism, it surprised me that he made it to the age of 73. As was also the case with Pekar, it was like losing a friend. As I read all of Pekar’s comic books, I always made time to read a new Bukowski novel. Since both writers mined their workaday lives, disappointments, and loneliness for deeply affecting literature, you felt as close to them as if they were good friends. Moreover, once they became celebrities, you appreciated how ambivalent they were about such glory. Pekar refused to make any more appearances on the David Letterman show, even if it meant cutting into comic book sales.

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August 4, 2020

Mayor de Blasio’s doublethinking on Karl Marx

Filed under: Deblasio,housing,New York — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

Bill de Blasio

Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post made a splash on July 24 with an article titled “de Blasio quotes Karl Marx in WNYC radio interview”. This red-baiting exercise begins:

First it was Che Guevara — now it’s Karl Marx!

Mayor Bill de Blasio reached back to his salad days as a young radical to quote the father of communism on Friday.

As for the source of the Karl Marx quote, it was during the course of an interview that NPR’s Brian Lehrer asked de Blasio to comment on a Politico article that made the mayor sound like a fire-breathing radical. Instead of “reaching out now to business leaders in the city” for help with various problems, he shut the door on this possibility by focusing on “inequality and wanting to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers and things like that.”

de Blasio responded:

I think, look, there’s an underlying truth in the fact that my focus has not been on the business community and the elites. And bluntly – I mean, my predecessor certainly focused that way and many mayors have. And I think that’s, unfortunately – I think this is a profound problem. And I am tempted to borrow a quote from Karl Marx here when he says…that the state is the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.

If you didn’t continue reading the interview transcript, you’d think that de Blasio was what the Post described, an unreconstructed radical. To support that case, they cited three “business leaders” who found him uncooperative. Of course, you can find the top ranks of the police force blaming his “leniency” for a spike in homicides even though he has bent over backwards to placate them. Indeed, at the beginning of Lehrer’s interview, you’ll note that he cites an article  charging the mayor with being a tool of the real criminal element in the city: the police force. It is the NY Times, a respectable bourgeois newspaper as opposed to Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid joke, that has been holding De Blasio’s feet to the fire for giving the cops free rein.

Immediately after invoking Karl Marx, de Blasio turns around and says that he disagrees with him, something you’d never realize from the Post article:

…I actually read that when I was a young person, I said, well, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. The business community matters. We need to work with the business community. We will work with the business community, but the City government represents the people, represents working people and, you know, mayors should not be too cozy with the business community. Governors should not be too cozy with the business community. Respect them, listen to them, sometimes they have great ideas, sometimes they offer real help. There are more and more people in the business community, to be fair, who are seeing the problems and the inequalities, and actually are starting to speak up about it more. But I want them to act.

When de Blasio talks out of both sides of his mouth like this, he is using what George Orwell called doublethink in “1984”, the act of putting forward two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. Despite all his flaws, Orwell correctly singled out Stalin as a master of doublethink as evidenced in this quote from one of his speeches:

We are for the withering away of the state, and at the same time we stand for the strengthening of the dictatorship, which represents the most powerful and mighty of all forms of the state which have existed up to the present day. The highest development of the power of the state, with the object of preparing the conditions of the withering away of the state: that is the Marxist formula. Is it “contradictory”? Yes, it is “contradictory.” But this contradiction is a living thing and wholly reflects the Marxist dialectic.

Keep in mind that despite his reputation of being an anti-Communist, Orwell’s “1984” was just as much an attack on the false consciousness promoted in the West. Bourgeois politicians are masters of this kind of doublethinking, including Bill de Blasio.

When de Blasio says he wants the capitalists to act, what is that supposed to mean? To act against their own class interests? To continue with his doublethinking exercise, de Blasio refers to Rutger Bregman’s challenge to the rich bastards at Davos a couple of years ago, but without mentioning his name:

There was a New York Times article about Davos a few years ago. It was very telling and they said, you know, everyone was talking about the income inequality at Davos and they were all wringing their hands. But then when speakers got up and said, okay, so you need to raise wages and allow unionization of your companies, or you need to raise taxes on the wealthy, those ideas were immediately dismissed. And that’s been my experience. I’ve met with business leaders from day one, and I do have – some folks I’ve really found some good common ground with, and they really want to help New York City. But a lot of folks have just sort of hit a wall when I say, guys, you’re going to have to pay more in taxes, and we’re going to have policies that favor working people more like rent freezes, which we’ve done now multiple times, and things that really have to shake the foundations of our inequality.

In his pathetic run for president last year, de Blasio made raising taxes on the wealthy a cornerstone of his campaign, just as Sanders made Medicare for All. Understanding that he had zero chance of winning the primary, he raised such a populist profile in order to recapture some of the support he once enjoyed as mayor by breaking with the pattern of pro-corporate administrations going back for decades, both Democrat and Republican.

One major Democratic Party politician took issue with such a tax-raising measure, namely Governor Andrew Cuomo who has feuded with the mayor ever since he got elected. If de Blasio got elected by pretending to be on the left, Cuomo never fostered such illusions. Most New Yorkers understand that he is on the side of the rich but likely vote for him in the absence of a serious challenger. Just the other day, there were protests at mansions out in the Hamptons by pitchfork-wielding activists. They demanded that taxes be raised on the rich in defiance of the governor as Business Insider reported:

The economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus crisis has strengthened calls for a wealth tax, especially in New York, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex has proposed a special state tax on the ultrawealthy. The proposal has the support of at least 83 ultrawealthy people, including Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Jerry Greenfield and Disney heiress Abigail Disney, who penned an open letter arguing that such a tax would “ensure we adequately fund our health systems, schools, and security … immediately. Substantially. Permanently.”

Cuomo shot down the idea, saying that it would drive New York’s 118 billionaires out of state. At the same time, the governor announced cuts to state funding for schools, public housing, and hospitals amid a budget crisis brought on by the coronavirus crisis, sparking protests. Thursday’s march was the second protest in the Hamptons featuring pitchforks this month. The pitchforks used in the July 1 event were plastic ones purchased from a Halloween store, Patch reported at the time.

I first ran into Bill de Blasio back in 1989 when he was an aide to Mayor David Dinkins. Fresh back from a volunteer project in Nicaragua, de Blasio used to come to Nicaragua Network meetings in New York where he tried to be helpful. Not long after I wrote a “dossier” on de Blasio in 2013 during his first mayoral run, I was contacted by a NY Times reporter who was trying to red-bait him but with more sophistication than the NY Post. I referred him to some people that I used to work with in my activist days, seeing no reason why anybody would want to hide being a supporter of a revolution made on behalf of the poor. They helped him recreate the Bill de Blasio of the good old days as the NY Times’s Javier Hernandez reported:

Mr. de Blasio’s answering machine greetings in those days seemed to reflect a search for meaning. Every few weeks, he recorded a new message, incorporating a quote to reflect his mood — a passage from classic literature, lyrics from a song or stanzas of a poem.

Over time, he became more focused on his city job, and using the tools of government to effect change. The answering machine messages stopped changing. He no longer attended meetings about Nicaragua.

His friends in the solidarity movement were puzzled. At a meeting early in 1992, Mr. de Blasio was marked absent. A member scribbled a note next to his name: “Must be running for office.”

In office, de Blasio never wavered from serving the interests of the city’s powerful real estate interests. His rezoning legislation allowed the process of gentrification to proceed but even more effectively. Samuel Stein, the author of “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State” and a city planning expert, nailed de Blasio in a Jacobin article titled “De Blasio’s Doomed Housing Plan”. The subtitle hints at his doublethinking tactics: “By embracing inclusionary zoning, Mayor de Blasio gets to put forth a big, bold plan for reducing inequalities without challenging capitalists.” In a nutshell, inclusionary zoning allows real estate developers to get tax credits if they set aside 20 percent of a new building for working-class tenants. Michael Bloomberg pushed for this as Mayor and de Blasio did nothing except follow in his footsteps. Stein writes:

Inclusionary zoning is a fatally flawed program. It’s not just that it doesn’t produce enough units, or that the apartments it creates aren’t affordable, though both observations are undeniably true. The real problem with inclusionary zoning is that it marshals a multitude of rich people into places that are already experiencing gentrification. The result is a few new cheap apartments in neighborhoods that are suddenly and completely transformed.

de Blasio wants to use inclusionary zoning to create sixteen thousand apartments for families making $42,000. That’s just 3 percent of the need for such apartments in the city today, according to the plan’s own figures. At the same time, the mayor’s policies would build one hundred thousand more market-rate apartments in the same neighborhoods. What will happen when these rich people arrive? Rents in the surrounding area will rise; neighborhood stores will close; more working-class people will be displaced by gentrification than will be housed in the new inclusionary complexes.

Tom Angotti, the director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development, argues that inclusionary zoning’s proponents “deal with housing as if it existed in a free market — as if it were just a matter of individual apartments combined. But it exists in a land market, where values are determined largely by location and zoning capacity. In areas with high land values, the new inclusionary development will just feed the fire of gentrification.”

I met Tom Angotti at a Left Forum 4 years ago or so and raised the possibility of him doing a video with me about rezoning. I never followed up because my plate was filled. I do have a copy of his “Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, And City Planning In New York City” and recommend it highly.

Unlike most of the liberal-left, I had no illusions that de Blasio would rock the boat. In a CounterPunch article dated September 25, 2013, I projected what his administration would be up to:

As de Blasio escalated up the electoral ramps in New York, he was careful to retain his liberal coloration even though he became an ally of Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn pol who once belonged to Meir Kahane’s terrorist Jewish Defense League.

When Hikind spearheaded a drive to force Brooklyn College to add a speaker reflecting Zionist policies to a meeting on BDS, de Blasio issued the following 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.”

Despite his anti-landlord rhetoric, he also endorsed Bruce Ratner’s downtown Brooklyn megaproject that ran roughshod over the local community’s needs. Originally based on a design by superstar architect Frank Gehry, the project so appalled novelist and Brooklynite Jonathan Lethem that he was inspired to write an open letter to Gehry calling the project “a nightmare for Brooklyn, one that, if built, would cause irreparable damage to the quality of our lives.”

There’s lots of excitement among liberals about the prospects of a de Blasio mayoralty. As might have been expected, the Nation Magazine endorsed him in the primary election as “reimagining the city in boldly progressive, egalitarian terms.” Peter Beinart, a New Republic editor who has gained some attention lately for veering slightly from the Zionist consensus, wrote an article for The Daily Beast titled “The Rise of the New New Left” that was even more breathless than the Nation editorial. Alluding to German sociologist Karl Mannheim’s theory of “political generations”, Beinart sees the de Blasio campaign as “an Occupy-inspired challenge to Clintonism.”

Most of Beinart’s article takes up the question of whether de Blasio’s momentum could unleash broader forces that would derail Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2016. Perhaps that analysis can only be supported if you ignore the fact that de Blasio was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager when she ran for senator from New York in 2000. The NY Times reported on October 7, 2000: “At the White House, the president, Mrs. Clinton and her campaign team can often be found in the Map Room or the Family Theater, drilling for her debates, or fine-tuning lines in some speech.” One surmises that Bill de Blasio was there.

Ultimately, what will create affordable housing and higher taxes on the rich is the kind of protests that took place out in the Hamptons. The rich have no worries about a Mayor de Blasio or even a President Bernie Sanders. As long as the capitalist state exists as the superstructure over capitalist property relations, the ruling class will have its way. Today, as at no point in American history since the 1930s, capitalist society is facing its deepest crisis. The liberal-left that backed Bill De Blasio, Bernie Sanders, and every other doublethinking politician is doing the best it can to steer people into futile DP election campaigns. The only thing that will work is a massive movement of the working-class and its allies against the two-party system that culminates in a new kind of state that governs on behalf of them rather than the rich. If de Blasio can quote the Communist Manifesto, so can we but without the doublethink:

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

August 3, 2020

Shanghai Triad

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

Tomorrow, a digitally restored version of the 1995 “Shanghai Triad” will be available on Virtual Cinema. For a $10 rental, you get a chance to see a film directed by Zhang Yimou, widely regarded as China’s greatest director.

Set in Shanghai in 1930 and within the triad milieu (drug gangs originating in the Boxer Rebellion), this is not the same genre that Hong Kong studios routinely churned out in the 60s and 70s. Instead, the two primary characters have only a tangential relation to the  gangsters, who are mostly secondary. One is a 14-year old boy named Shuisheng, whose uncle has brought to Shanghai for a job with the Tang clan. Unlike most mafia movies, the boy is not being trained to be a hitman. Instead, he is a servant to the boss’s mistress Bijou, who treats him like dirt. The gang’s godfather is a Tang, just like Shuisheng and his uncle. Like the Sicilian mafia, family ties go a long way in guaranteeing loyalty.

Throughout the film, Shuisheng is a passive observer of the chaos all about him. Bijou is not only abusive toward him, she also is in the habit of telling off boss Tang, a man in his sixties who does on the beautiful but churlish young woman, who is played by Gong Li—generally regarded as China’s greatest actress.

On his first day of work serving Bijou, Shuisheng makes the mistake of bringing tea and cakes into her bedroom without knocking first. She snarls at his lack of servant skills. She orders him to go out again and start over. He must knock first, and, while he is at it, announce himself as Shuisheng the bumpkin. Bijou is a nightmarish diva who performs as a songstress in boss Tang’s nightclub. If you’re familiar with Zhang Yimou’s body of work, you’ll know that he is a sucker for spectacle. Except for “Not One Less”, a great film about a young schoolteacher in China’s hinterland, his films are feasts for the eyes and ears. When Bijou performs, it is like being treated to a Chinese version of a Busby Berkeley musical.

Toward the middle of the film, boss Tang begins to play a bigger role after a rival gang launches a bloody raid on his estate that results in the death of Shuisheng’s uncle and others in his retinue. In keeping with Zhang’s overall approach, we don’t even see the rival gangs in combat. His interest is mostly in the tangled relationship between the boss and his mistress, and hers with the young and mostly passive servant who speaks no more than 25 words in the entire film. His acting skills are displayed entirely through his facial expressions.

After the raid, Tang takes Bijou, Shuisheng and a small detachment of his lieutenants to a remote island with zero amenities. Upon their arrival, Bijou begins to complain bitterly about being bored. Perhaps being tired of the gangster life, she begins to spend more time with Shuisheng, and a widowed mother and her young daughter, the sole inhabitants of the island. They live primitive but satisfying lives unlike the murderous gangsters who interfere with their peaceful conditions like Edward G. Robinson’s gang in “Key Largo”. We soon learn that Bijou was once a bumpkin like them, as the ties between them grow. She tells Shuisheng that once they return to Shanghai, he has to break with the gang and return to the countryside or else he will end up with his uncle.

The climax of the film consists once again of a showdown between the two gangs seen earlier but also, once again, sans pyrotechnics. Zhang’s main interest is in showing how the brutal, feudal-like society of Chinese triads make those at the bottom of the chain vulnerable. Unlike the Hong Kong actions films of the 60s and 70s, as great as they were, “Shanghai Triad” leaves you with the conclusion that wiping them out was one of the great gains of the revolution made by Mao Zedong.

In the press notes, Zhang is asked “What’s at stake in this film? Is the film a warning to the Chinese people with regard to their increasingly materialistic lifestyle?” His reply:

Absolutely. This story is the first time I have depicted a life of luxury and material wealth. In effect, I just wanted to say to my countrymen and to others that there is something more important than power and mere material possessions. What counts most in life is man’s capacity for love and generosity. That is why I did not want to make a traditional Mafia film. To my mind, this film speaks up for important issues.

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