Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 18, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

Ayten and Lotte

Opening at the Film Forum Theater in New York on May 21, Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven” is unfortunately cut from the same cloth as Paul Haggis’s “Crash” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel”. These sorts of films, with their combination of far-fetched coincidence and liberal pieties, seem to be irresistible to film festival award panels. “The Edge of Heaven” won four German Oscars, including one for Best Film. I imagine that New York film critics will fall all over themselves praising it, but that’s nothing new. “Crash” and “Babel”, another two pretentious Message movies, were also hoisted on their shoulders. My intention, as always, is to dig beneath the hype.

Fatih Akin is a 33 year old Turk who was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. Since his last film “Crossing the Bridge” was an excellent introduction to the Turkish music scene, it can at least be said that “The Edge of Heaven” is distinguished by the inclusion of some terrific background music attributable to the director’s obvious expertise. The acting and cinematography are also first-rate, including some wonderful scenes of Istanbul streets and the starkly beautiful Black Sea region of Northern Turkey. It is too bad that the screenplay is utter nonsense.

The film begins with the elderly Ali Aksu prowling the red-light district of Bremen, where he discovers the forty-something Yeter, a fellow Turk who has spent decades in Germany just like him. Yeter is the Turkish word for “enough”, a name supposedly given to the last child born to overly large families, according to the wiki entry on the film. After several trips to Yeter, Ali invites her to come live with him. He will make sure that she gets the same money she got in the brothel.

All this takes place in the first ten minutes or so of the film and it is the best part by far. Ali is played by Tunçel Kurtiz and Nursel Köse plays Yeter. These are two veteran Turkish actors and they really are quite believable as the characters they play. I was looking forward to their continuing interaction, but was dismayed to see Ali accidentally kill Yeter during a drunken rage. He is hustled off to jail and she simply disappears as a character.

The movie then shifts abruptly to two other stories that rest on utterly implausible coincidences involving their relatives. Ali has a son named Nejat (Baki Davrak), who teaches German literature in Hamburg. When we first see him, he is lecturing on Goethe’s aversion to revolution. As he is speaking, we see a young woman asleep at her desk in the back row. She turns out to be Yeter’s long-lost daughter Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) who Nejat learned about just before Yeter’s death.

It seems that Yeter became a prostitute just to pay for her daughter’s higher education and Nejat is inspired to devote himself to tracking down Ayten and funding her graduate studies. So consumed is he by the need to find Ayten that he moves to Istanbul and buys a German-language bookstore just to keep him going. If you have trouble believing that a tenured professor would throw away his job in order to devote himself to finding a woman that he never met, welcome to the club.

Apparently, Akin wanted to communicate a Message to the audience through the relationship between these characters. In the press notes, he states that “Literacy, education, plays a profound role” in his movie and that “the key element” in the film is reading. Very high-minded stuff. It is too bad that it is not reflected through dramatic action. You’re better off reading John Dewey.

As if to confirm Goethe’s anti-revolutionary musings, Ayten turns out to be a rather unlikable urban guerrilla who has just fled Istanbul after she and her comrades were caught beating up an undercover cop and firing guns at a May Day demonstration, hot damn. After spending some time in safe houses in Istanbul, she gets a fake passport from her comrades and flees to Hamburg where she ends up in the very classroom of the son of the man who has just killed her long-lost mother. I personally would be embarrassed to write such a ridiculous twist of fate into a screenplay, but then again I have no ambition to be lionized by film festival award panels.

On the very day that Ayten ends up in Nejat’s classroom, she also runs into Lotte Staub (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a graduate student who has just returned from India. Ayten is panhandling on the campus and Lotte turns out to be more than generous. She invites her back to her house and the two women become lovers almost immediately. Lotte’s mother Susanne (played by long-time Fassbinder lead actress Hanna Schygulla) is put off by Ayten, understandably so since the young woman is a walking bundle of off-putting leftist jargon. I have not seen such a cardboard cutout of a radical in a movie since “Forrest Gump”.

One night Ayten and Lotte get stopped by police in a routine check. When Ayten flees from the scene, she is apprehended by the cops and sent back to Istanbul. Lotte leaves Germany to fight for Ayten’s release. And guess where she ends up there? Bingo. You got it, right in Nejat’s bookstore, where the two strike up a friendship. He invites her to rent a room in his apartment while she struggles to free her lover, whose identity is unknown to Nejat.

In a trip to prison Lotte discovers that Ayten is much more interested in having her retrieve a pistol that she hid on a nearby roof fleeing from the cops during the May Day protest than in getting released from prison. As a dedicated revolutionary, the Cause is more important to her than anything else. It is too bad that Akin lacks the knowledge of radical politics that would make Ayten’s behavior plausible. The mission to retrieve the pistol serves more as a device to move the plot forward than anything else.

Throwing caution to the wind, Lotte picks up the gun and as she is walking down a slummy street in Istanbul, she is mugged by a band of street kids who she then pursues. When she catches up with them in a back lot, one of the shoots her dead with the stolen pistol and she dies on the spot. This creates an international incident just like the one that occurred in “Babel”.

Reading comments from Fatih Akin in the press notes, one is struck by his naiveté. Here’s what he has to say about the “Art of Loving”:

Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” influenced me a lot. I’m fascinated by human relationships. Not just boy meets girl or in a sexual sense, but also between parents and children. All human relationships. I believe that all the wars in the world are the result of not using love in the way that humanity should. I think evil is the product of laziness. It’s easier to hate someone than to love them.

And here am I with my silly notion that the capitalist makes war in order to acquire markets and raw materials. What must I have been thinking? By now, I am getting used to these high-falutin’ and didactic intentions in films such as “Crash” and “Babel”.

Speaking of the racial reconciliation in “Crash”, Paul Haggis opined: “It snows in Los Angeles every 30 years. If it can snow in Los Angeles, anything can happen. And that’s what this movie is about, that we contain these possibilities within us, for good or for ill. I think it’s a very hopeful movie, for that reason.”

Meanwhile, “Babel’s” Alejandro González Iñárritu offers up his own plea for love and peace in this fashion: “Traveling with my family, observing all these different cultures, made me realize how good most of the people in the world actually are. And that’s what gives me hope. It’s just one percent of the population who are enough to ruin the whole party. And yes, that one percent definitely exists — but so do all the others.”

Reading this mush from liberal directors is enough to make me want to club a baby seal to death.

February 7, 2012

Chris Hedges and the black bloc

Filed under: black bloc idiots — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

Yesterday Chris Hedges wrote an attack on the black bloc on Truthdig.com that has gone “viral” in the sense that the Internet is all abuzz about it. Resonating with the sickness metaphor, the appropriately titled article “The Cancer in Occupy” begins:

The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists—so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property—is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

As most people realize, the people that Hedges is writing about are not really interested in defending themselves politically. From its inception back in the European autonomist movements of the 1980s, the black-clad activists refuse to answer anybody outside of their ranks. Within the “affinity group”, everything is cool. Outside of it, who gives a shit? Ironically, this kind of elitism is not that different from the “vanguard party” posture which puts the needs of the sect above that of the mass movement.

The European black bloc “autonomy” literally meant that they were not accountable to the rest of the left, particularly the traditional socialist parties and the trade unions that were viewed as the enemy in pretty much the same fashion as “third period” Stalinism. Just a brief history lesson on this. Stalin characterized the period of the late 1920s as the “third period” of capitalism in which communism would be triumphant against both capitalism and a sell-out left that collaborated with it. This led the German CP—infamously—to back a Nazi-initiated referendum to remove a Socialist Party elected official in Saxony.

I would say that trying to persuade a black bloc activist that they are harming the left would be as much of an exercise in futility as persuading a German Stalinist to unite with the SP in the 1920s.

It has been pretty much left up to people outside the “affinity group” to defend its antics against Hedges, who is seen as a liberal sell-out. The defense of the black bloc is mounted in total disregard of whether the tactic is effective and frequently in the most hysterical manner as this comment to my blog:

I identify with the Black Bloc because nuclear power killed my father and made me and my sister sick. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t want to smash something that would stop the madness.

That prompted me to respond:

I would tend to think that mass demonstrations against nuclear power plants would be more effective than spray-painting “Fuck the nuclear energy” on the walls of a Con Edison building. But then again, I am a Marxist and tend to believe in the power of the masses rather than adolescents in black levi jeans acting out.

Some of Hedges’s article is weak. For example, he tries to make the black bloc into some kind of hard-core enemy of the EZLN based on some selective citations, whereas in fact a lot of the black bloc posturing seems to be an idiotic attempt to emulate the Zapatistas, especially the donning of masks. In the 1960s, some of the student left fashioned itself after the Red Guards. Something of the same sort is going on here, I’m afraid.

Perhaps the best part of Hedges’s article is the words of Derrick Jensen, who told him:

Their thinking is not only nonstrategic, but actively opposed to strategy. They are unwilling to think critically about whether one is acting appropriately in the moment. I have no problem with someone violating boundaries [when] that violation is the smart, appropriate thing to do. I have a huge problem with people violating boundaries for the sake of violating boundaries. It is a lot easier to pick up a rock and throw it through the nearest window than it is to organize, or at least figure out which window you should throw a rock through if you are going to throw a rock. A lot of it is laziness.

I wouldn’t change a word of this. I would also concur with Chris Hedges’s take on the psychological dimensions of the black bloc:

The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship.

Some of the angry comments underneath Hedges’s article make the cases that there are plenty of gays and women in the black bloc. One supposes that you have to take them at their word, whether or not that makes the women or gays acting out any less hypermasculine. But more to the point, who knows who is behind the black mask? It is not as if someone put up a Youtube video about the day in the life of a black bloc participant. Can you imagine the intro? “Meet Kenny Goldstein, a web developer by day and a brick thrower by night. Kenny, can you tell us why you got involved with the black bloc?” “Sure, I just came to the conclusion that a spray-painted Whole Foods window is just the thing that can bring capitalism to its knees.”

I also agree with Hedges when he writes:

The Black Bloc’s thought-terminating cliché of “diversity of tactics” in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans. The state could not be happier. It is a safe bet that among Black Bloc groups in cities such as Oakland are agents provocateurs spurring them on to more mayhem. But with or without police infiltration the Black Bloc is serving the interests of the 1 percent. These anarchists represent no one but themselves.

My only quibble is whether the black bloc is responsible for the “diversity of tactics” mantra as much as the people who are out in the open as coalition-builders. I am afraid that their sense of “diversity” is drawn from the nonprofit world they inhabit in which weekend retreats in Aspen are devoted to examining how some university or foundation can be more “inclusive”. Horsefeathers, I say.

One of the reasons there has been such a reaction against Hedges from the fellow-travelers of the vandalistas is that he is a highly respected figure. Here is somebody who could have been making millions of dollars a year as a top NY Times reporter or editor and he gave it up because of principle. As someone willing to get arrested for the movement and a good friend of the Occupy movement, he is not easily dismissed. Getting called a cancer by him is something you would prefer to avoid even if you and your posse brag that nobody outside your ranks really matters.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the left has grown terminally weary of these people, whoever they are.

It is also important to understand that other voices, while not as well known as Hedges, have also come down fairly hard against the black bloc.

Whatever problems people have with Counterpunch, the last thing that can be said about it is that it is “liberal” or that it has a fetish over nonviolence. With that in mind, it was of some significance that they chose to publish an article by Osha Neumann, a Berkeley lawyer who is an advocate for the homeless, titled “It’s Okay to Take Off Your Gas Mask — Occupy Oakland: Are We Being Childish?”  Neumann is the son of Frankfurt School luminary Franz Neumann, whose study of Nazism titled “Behemoth” is peerless. In the 1960s, he got involved with a small affinity group called the Motherfuckers that had a certain affinity with the Weathermen. In other words, he knows the ultraleft territory fairly well. This is what he has to say:

How could it have been different? The goal of taking over the Kaiser Center for community use was admirable, even brilliant, but in the end the point of what was billed as “Move-in day” got lost in meaningless rumbles with the police and the trashing of City Hall. (A note of caution here: Since no was arrested in the City Hall trashing, we cannot rule out that it was the work of agents provocateurs. Be that as it may, the failure to obtain our objective and to control the meaning of our actions cannot be blamed on infiltrators.) What if, instead of a group within Occupy picking a target and then calling for a day of action, we had initiated a campaign to make that building available for community use? We could have gone out into the neighborhoods, held meetings, where we would discuss whether people liked the idea of occupying the building and what they would like to see happen in the space. With our numbers swelled and diversified by those we had organized, we could make demands to the mayor and the city council in the name of the people.

Neumann is describing the patient hard work that a genuine revolutionary gets involved with. Going out into the street and spray-painting a Whole Food window does not require any special talents or training unless of course you need to be able to identify the business end of a spray can correctly. After all, no self-respecting black bloc militant wants to ruin a perfectly good mask with red paint.

Now it is entirely possible that Osha Neumann is as fatally compromised as Chris Hedges. I have no way of knowing how the black bloc arrives at its enemy list since they have so little interest in justifying themselves (rather like the police, one might say.)

That is why I found Asad Haider’s article “Building the Red Army: The Death and Forbidden Rebirth of the Oakland Commune” in Viewpoint so compelling in light of the fact that only two months ago he complained:

All over the internet liberals are warning of agents provocateurs who are trying to discredit the movement, or condemning the dangerous anarchist element that seeks confrontation with police. Such positions could be debated if they had any bearing on reality.

From the sounds of that, you’d think he’d be having the black bloc’s back. Not so fast actually. He writes:

It’s understandable that a clash with police has a marked effect on the adrenal glands. But there was nothing resembling a victory in this. The stated goal had not been achieved, and the police are familiar with the aggressiveness of activists in Oakland. They expect it. In fact, the Oakland Police Department is on the verge of federal receivership, an unprecedented move, because the OPD really likes violence, and seeks it out as part of a policy of state-sponsored gang warfare. And the insistence on “Fuck the Police” marches in Oakland leading up to yesterday could only shift the emphasis from the occupation itself to the clash.

He also has a very good assessment of how the black bloc and Moveon.org complement each other (even though he does not refer to the black bloc by name.)

A century later, insurrectionary anarchists and reformists like MoveOn vie for hegemony over the movement, each advancing street-fighting and voting not as tactics, but as the ultimate goals. And we have to be clear that it is an alliance between social democrats and ultra-leftists that has driven this movement, in spite of their public scorn for each other.

Exactly.

Like a lot of the problems on the left, ultra-leftism has been around for a very long time. Lenin’s brother was a Narodnik who chose the “propaganda of the deed” so he had a personal as well as a political stake in convincing idealistic young people in Czarist Russia to choose mass action.

In 1970, when I was 25 years old, my party had its hands full with the same sort of problem. Peter Camejo, who I regard as my greatest mentor, gave a talk titled “Liberalism, ultraleftism or mass action” that had a big impact on our own ranks as well as antiwar activists who had grown wary of SDS type adventures. It is very much worth reading in its entirety but I want to conclude with Peter’s observations about ultraleftism:

There’s another point of view, and that is ultraleftism. This represents a small section of the student movement, but a much larger proportion of those who call themselves radicals or socialists.

Now basically an ultraleft is a liberal that has gone through an evolution. What happens is this. They start out as liberals, and suddenly the war in Vietnam comes along. Now, what does a liberal believe? He believes that the ruling class is basically responsive to his needs. So he demonstrates.

You know, in the beginning when the antiwar movement first started there were very few ultraleftists. Most of the ultraleftist leaders of today were people who were organizing legal, peaceful demonstrations back around 1965.

But after they called a few demonstrations against the war, they noticed something was wrong. The ruling class was not being responsive. Not only that, they understood for the first time that the US was literally massacring the Vietnamese people. This frightened them. It was as if you all of a sudden found out that your father was really the Boston Strangler. That’s what it was like for these people. They were liberals, who believed that Johnson was better than Goldwater, who had worked and voted for him only to find out that he was the Boston Strangler.

February 27, 2018

Polluting Paradise

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Like fellow German filmmaker Werner Herzog, Fatih Akin, who was born to Turkish parents in Germany 44 years ago, is equally adept at making narrative and documentary films. Also, like Herzog, he has a deeply humanistic sensibility so sadly lacking in commercial films today. My introduction to his work was the 2005 “Crossing the Bridge”, a fantastic survey of Turkish music ranging from Arabesque to heavy metal available on Youtube and the most recent being “In the Fade”, a narrative film about neo-Nazis in Germany that was voted best foreign-language film of 2017 by NYFCO.

Thanks to the good people at Strand Releasing, a film distribution company dedicated to offbeat films, you can now see his 2012 documentary “Polluting Paradise” that is based on the struggle of the villagers of Çamburnu to remove a garbage landfill just a quarter-mile from the place that one, an elderly woman, described as a paradise.

Çamburnu sits on top of the hills overlooking the Black Sea in Trabzon Province of Turkey’s northeast. Most of the villagers appear to be small-scale tea producers and typical of the Turkish countryside: religiously observant and tradition-bound. For my urbane relatives in Istanbul,  life in Çamburnu  is as remote from theirs as it is from mine. Despite that, as soon as they discovered that a landfill was going to be foisted on them by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bureaucrats, they demonstrated a willingness to struggle that you might have associated with small town residents of Vermont learning that a nuclear power plant was being built in their midst. Seeing mostly elderly women in scarves confronting the engineer supervising the construction project will remind you why Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule rests on shaky grounds.

If you’ve seen “Kedi”, the inspiring story of how Turks look after street cats in Istanbul, you’ll be motivated to watch “Polluting Paradise” (VOD/DVD information is here) as it allows ordinary people to make extraordinary statements about their way of life. Turks, whether illiterate or PhD’s, have a way of expressing themselves eloquently. In “Kedi”, they spoke from their heart about why caring street cats made them feel both human and closer to God. In “Polluting Paradise”, they talk about their love of village life that is under threat from capitalist development everywhere in the world. Throughout China, villages are being sacrificed to the needs of the country’s rapacious productive forces while Çamburnu was a sacrificial lamb to Turkey’s consumerism. When Trabzon’s governor was looking for a place to dump the province’s household trash, Çamburnu appeared an easy mark. However, the film demonstrates how rural folk can fight like tigers when their way of life is threatened.

In the press notes, Akin describes how the idea for “Polluting Paradise” originated:

In 2005 I was looking for a new idea for a film. I was working on The Edge of Heaven, but was still at the beginning. At the time I had just seen Martin Scorsese’s film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. I was so inspired by the phenomenon of Dylan that I then read his biography “Chronicles”. And that’s when I found out that Dylan’s grandmother had originally come from Trabzon. My paternal grandparents also originally came from Trabzon, but were forced to leave the place. My grandmother’s parents were against her marriage to my grandfather so the two eloped and settled down 1000 km away further west. I really wanted to see this place and so in 2005 I traveled with my father to Çamburnu. The beauty of this place blew me away. It was a hot and humid summer and everything was so lush and green. You could immediately see that Turkey is an Asian country, the place looked like some- where in Cambodia or Vietnam. I kept walking around saying: “This place is paradise!” But then the villagers said to me: “Not for much longer. They’re building a waste landfill here soon.” They showed me the site, which had once been an abandoned copper mine, and this immediately triggered my sense of justice. No, no landfill is going to be built here; let’s all try and prevent it together! People had protested long before I came there for the first time but this small village had no lobby. I then organized demonstrations and brought TV press to Çamburnu. And because I loved the nature and landscape so much, I integrated it into the ending of The Edge of Heaven. In the same year we began working on the documentary about the waste landfill.

 

 

December 13, 2017

In the Fade

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Last Sunday I took part in the yearly awards meeting of NY Film Critics Online. The winners are here. I was generally okay with the choices except for “Mudbound” and “Lady Bird” that I considered overrated. But then again, I consider capitalism overrated.

When it came time to vote for best foreign language film, I had to ask a colleague what “In the Fade” was about, the hands down winner. He told me it was about a German woman named Katja seeking justice after a bomb kills her Kurdish husband and their young son. Oh, that one. I had completely forgotten about it. That’s what happens when you get to be my age.

At first, the cops conduct an investigation assuming that the man was killed for political reasons but change gears after it becomes clear that he was no activist despite his Kurdish origins. Next they surmise that it might have been a hit carried out by the Turkish, Kurdish or Albanian mafia since he had once spent four years in prison for a drug trafficking conviction. Katja tells them that he would not jeopardize their lives by dealing drugs. She added that she suspected it was Nazis who set off the bomb on the doorstep of the street level tax processing office he worked out of in a neighborhood that was home to many immigrants.

It turns out that she was right.

I am glad that my NYFCO colleagues chose this film otherwise I probably never would have bothered to watch the DVD that I received from Magnolia, the film distribution company behind it. I have seen nearly every film made by the Turkish director Fatih Akin who grew up in Germany. Except for “The Edge of Heaven”, I had rated them all as “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes but was put off by the mediocre 55% “fresh” rating there for “In the Fade”. As a rule of thumb, I generally find any film with those kinds of numbers not worth bothering with, even if directed by someone for whom I generally have a high regard.

While I still might have picked “Happy End” and “Other Side of Hope” over it, it is top-notch Fatih Akin and it doesn’t get much better than that. Akin is a politically committed filmmaker who often gets bad reviews because he defies conventional tastes. For example, his “The Cut” also received a mediocre rating (58%) on Rotten Tomatoes but I saw it anyhow since it was about the Armenian genocide. Needless to say, when a Turkish filmmaker makes such a film, he deserves our support. Not only was it a much-needed plea for justice for the victims, it was also a well-made film as I pointed out at the time.

I will have some comments on the negative reviews of “In the Fade” made by some leftist critics after making my own case for the film that should be available as VOD before long.

Most of the film is set in a courtroom where the lawyer defending the accused neo-Nazi husband and wife team is as disgusting as them. Since there is a mountain of evidence linking them to the bombing, his defense revolves around making Katja look bad. In her testimony, she identifies the wife who left a bicycle carrying explosives in front of her husband’s office. This links her to her husband whose garage was filled with bomb-making material.

Early on, even before the bombing, we learn that Katja liked to get high. There is nothing genteel about her. Her body is covered with tattoos and she likes to dress in all-black punk rock attire. It was natural for her to hook up her Kurdish husband since he sold drugs on her college campus. Despite their rebellious appearance, both had lived staid middle-class lives for many years even if that includes recreational drugs.

The lawyer defending the neo-Nazis successfully wins an acquittal by making the case that she was too high on the day of her husband’s death to really be able to recollect the appearance of the woman who planted the bomb. Devastated by the decision, Katja then begins to explore ways that she could make them pay for their crime even though that entails becoming a killer herself.

Katja is played by Diane Kruger and would have earned my nomination for best actress of the year if I had seen the film in advance of the NYFCO meeting. Torn apart by both grief and rage, her character requires her to convey those emotions without melodrama. Kruger delivers such a performance in spades.

Fatih Akin decided to write the screenplay for “In the Fade” after seeing a similar miscarriage of justice in Germany. In 2000, die Dönermorde–the kebab murders—began taking place in immigrant neighborhoods just like the one depicted in “In the Fade”. The Guardian reported:

In the beginning, they were known as die Dönermorde – the kebab murders. The victims had little in common, apart from immigrant backgrounds and the modest businesses they ran. The first to die was Enver Şimşek, a 38-year-old Turkish-German man who ran a flower-import company in the southern German town of Nuremberg. On 9 September 2000, he was shot inside his van by two gunmen, and died in hospital two days later.

The following June, in the same city, 49-year-old Abdurrahim Özüdoğru was killed by two bullets while helping out after hours in a tailor’s shop. Two weeks later, in Hamburg, 500km north, Süleyman Taşköprü, 31, was shot three times and died in his greengrocer’s shop. Two months later, in August 2001, greengrocer Habil Kılıç, 38, was shot twice in his shop in the Munich suburbs.

The victims were Turks living in Germany just like Fatih Akin and the killers were members of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) that the cops failed to pursue. Instead, just as was the case in Akin’s film, they tried to persuade Enver Şimşek’s widow that the Turkish mafia was responsible.

The assassinations continued in seven different German cities for six years and the cops were unable (or refused to entertain the possibility) that they were connected. Like the southern cops during the days of Jim Crow (and, sadly, even now), there were well-grounded suspicions that the German cops were looking the other way when the racist attacks were taking place. A member of the German intelligence service was at the scene when one of the murders took place and others involved in the investigation were German KKK members.

In 2007, as investigators began to suspect ties between the cops and the NSU, the police department shredded files pertaining to the recruitment of fascists as snitches. Were they covering up evidence that such recruits were actually being used as death squads? After Der Spiegel learned that the officials ordering the shredding were in the BfV (the German counterpart of the FBI), it wrote:

For intelligence officials, investigations into the files have become increasingly embarrassing. The documents make clear just how chaotic the situation related to purging and exchanging files had become. This has resulted, for example, in discrepancies between the list of files that BfV officials sent to Saxony and the list of those that have now turned up there.

These new reports might very well lead the parliamentarians on the investigative committee to wonder whether additional files with possible relevance to the NSU trio have also been destroyed. One list itemizing the deleted files indicates that a comparatively large number of dossiers related to right-wing extremism were destroyed after the terror cell had resurfaced. The itemization says that there were seven cases of document destruction in November 2011, 12 for December and seven more in early 2012.

Given the rise of the neo-Nazi AfD in Germany, Akin’s film is not just ancient history. It is a warning that new threats to immigrants can be posed by shadowy ties between the state and those determined to reinstate the Third Reich.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see how so many Rotten Tomatoes critics failed to appreciate “In the Fade” when it clearly lived up to the honor given to it by NYFCO members. I was stunned to see that two of them were leftists like me, or at least claimed to be.

Dennis Schwartz complained, “What is not mentioned is that the greater threat to the population is from Islamist extremists and not neo-Nazis.” Huh? Maybe if Schwartz were a Muslim in Germany, where AfD is on the rise, he’d have a different outlook. Out of curiosity, I checked Schwartz’s background and to my astonishment discovered this: “The critic who influenced him the most was Walter Benjamin, not a film critic but one of the truly great literary critics of the 20th century. The lesson to be learned from him and other serious critics is that all true art is subversive and unsettling.” Maybe Schwartz wasn’t aware that Benjamin killed himself rather than being returned to Nazi-controlled France in 1940? Talk about the betrayal of the semi-intellectuals.

Then we have Richard Porton who complained about Akin being “heavy-handed”. His “ultra-schematic plot foregrounds evil neo-Nazis with a yen for terrorism”. Porton a NYU film studies professor who wrote “Film and the Anarchist Imagination” for Verso and articles for leftie publications like Cineaste and In These Times. Since Porton has also written that “Battle of Algiers” is one of the 10 greatest films ever made, I wonder why he didn’t complain about it featuring evil French officers torturing Algerian captives. On second thought, who cares? The one thing that “In the Fade” cannot be accused of is heavy-handedness. Despite the temptation presented by the neo-Nazi characters and the failure of the criminal justice system in Germany, this is a film mostly about the emotional turmoil of a widow. I didn’t have to be lectured about the evils of fascism but I did get a lot out of the dramatic recreation of what one of the widows of NSU’s victims had to endure. That’s why Akin chose the words of the song “In the Fade” by Queens of the Stone Age for the title of his film rather than those of Martin Niemoller of “First they came for the Jews” fame.

Cracks in the ceiling, crooked pictures in the hall
Countin’ and breathin’, I’m leaving here tomorrow
They don’t know I never do you any good
Laughin’ is easy, I would if I could

Ain’t gonna worry
Just live till you die, want to drown
With nowhere to fall into the arms of someone
There’s nothing to save I know
You live till you die

 

September 17, 2015

The Cut

Filed under: Armenians,Film,genocide,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Opening today at Lincoln Plaza in New York is “The Cut”, a film by Turkish director Fatih Akin that uses the Armenian genocide as a backdrop for a family drama that is the director’s best work by far. It is notable for its unstinting depiction of Turkish bestiality and is particularly welcome at this point given the AKP’s eagerness to resort to ethnic cleansing once again on the most cruel and cynical basis, namely to corral votes from nationalistic minded Turks for the upcoming election.

In the city of Mardin in 1915 a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) lives with his wife and his twin daughters who are attending elementary school. At dinner, the Manoogians and their guests are anxious about reports of Armenians being rounded up but Nazaret assures them that they have nothing to worry about since they are no threats to the existing order.

A few days later Turkish soldiers pound on the door in the middle of the night demanding to be admitted in the name of the military. Seizing Nazaret, they claim that he and other Armenian men are being rounded up for the draft. This turns out to be a lie. Instead they have been dragooned into building roads in the desolate countryside of eastern Anatolia near the border with Syria. This period was integral to the formation of the modern state of Turkey that rested on the slavery and mass murder of Armenians. It was the tragic fate of the Armenians to be subject to both forms of oppression, combining forced labor of the kind that existed in the Deep South with Andrew Jackson’s forced march that cost the lives of countless Cherokees.

The Armenians spend their days breaking rocks under the desert sun just like convict labor in Jim Crow days. When weaker men fail to keep up with the backbreaking pace, Turkish overseers casually beat them to death. Relief from the hellish chain gang finally comes but at a terrible price. They are told that they will be spared if they become Muslims. While Akin probably wrote his script before the current madness began taking place in Iraq and Syria, you cannot help but be reminded of Daesh since those men who refuse conversion will find themselves taken out and executed, including Nazaret.

As the Turkish soldiers look on, a Turkish convict is ordered to cut the throats of the men one by one since they don’t want to waste a bullet on an Armenian. When he comes to Nazaret, he cuts his neck but not deeply enough to kill him. Later in the day, as Nazaret lies wounded among his dead comrades, the convict returns and gives him water and food. He explains that even though he is a thief, he is not a killer.

Although his life has been spared, the cut of the convict’s knife was deep enough to damage his vocal chords. From this point on in the film, Nazaret is rendered mute. Tahar Rahim delivers a stunning performance using his hands and facial muscles to convey a character whose suffering is oceanic. Rahim, an Algerian who grew up in France, starred most recently in “The Past”, a film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi that I considered the best in 2013. I would rank Rahim as one of the top five actors in the world and is at his best in Akin’s film.

The two men head toward Syria and finally part ways when the convict must return to his village. Once in Syria, Nazaret learns that his wife died in a Turkish concentration camp but not before she had a chance to turn her daughters over to Bedouins who would pass them off as their own children to protect them from the Turks. The kindness of many Syrians is stressed in “The Cut”, including the solidarity shown toward Nazaret by an Arab soap merchant who identifies with the Armenians despite having a different faith. There is a tension throughout the film between solidarity and ethnic cleavage.

Resisting the temptation to demonize Turks, Akin depicts the expulsion of ordinary citizens from Syria in early 1920s as the Ottoman Empire was unraveling. As they parade in silence through the main streets of Aleppo, Arabs pelt the Turks with stones. The expression on Nazaret’s face is one of disgust as he sees how the victims can so easily become victimizers.

Seeking assistance from an Armenian social service agency, he learns that his daughters are no longer with the Bedouins but are now in a foster home somewhere in Syria. Thus begins a search to find them that takes him into the Armenian diaspora with desperate trips to Cuba and the northern plains of the United States where his poverty and loss of speech make his task all the more difficult. Those who have seen John Ford’s “The Searchers” will see a clear resemblance even though this was probably not Akin’s intention.

Although Akin takes pains to differentiate his work from ones that are more narrowly focused on the social and political origins of the first genocide of the 20th century, there is little doubt that the audience will sympathize for the community’s demand to be compensated by the Turkish state for their suffering.

As I have pointed out in previous articles, it is to the everlasting shame of the Zionist state that it sided with the Turks in dismissing Armenian claims. In an article dated April 19, 2015 I referred to the work of an Israeli historian:

But the State of Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the genocide of the Armenian People. Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled, In 1982, the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an inter-national conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film. “Journey to Armenia,” was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.

“The Cut” is the final installment in a trilogy that began in 2004 with “Head-On” and continued with “The Edge of Heaven” in 2007. He refers to the three films as “Love, Death and the Devil”. “Head-On” is a tale about a middle-aged Turkish man living “down and out” in Germany who hooks up with a much younger Turkish woman on the basis of a phony marriage that would allow her to leave her repressively conservative family life. Theirs is a grim sadomasochistic relation that will remind you of Sid Cox’s “Sid and Nancy”, about the Sex Pistol bassist and the girlfriend he killed. Although I regarded the film as pointless despite Akin’s profession that it was a statement about Turks being caught between German and Turkish identity, 90 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes thought it was “fresh”.

I reviewed “The Edge of Heaven” when it came out and dismissed it as a derivative attempt to cash in on a trend set by films such as “Babel” and “Crash” that I referred to as having a combination of far-fetched coincidence and liberal pieties that seem to be irresistible to film festival award panels.

None of this prepared me for the power of “The Cut” that left me just this close to sobbing in the final minute.

“The Cut” is a remarkable film on many levels. Technically, it is a demonstration of the lasting power of 35 mm film with Akin insisting on the use of Cinemascope. In the scenes shot in eastern Anatolia, mountains and the desert have an immediacy that would not be achieved using a digital camera.

It is also a work that gives you a feeling of being transported into a remote time and place as if you have traveled in a time machine. In the press notes, Akin reveals a dedication to “getting it right” that is virtually heroic:

I think I’ve read about 100 books on the topic, even the diary of an Armenian who emigrated to Cuba. Documents about orphanages, stories about the brothels in Aleppo. I also travelled to Armenia for the first time and visited the genocide memorial in Yerevan, where I met the memorial’s director, Hayk Demoyan. He told me that a lot of Armenians had emigrated to Cuba to reach North America. There are lots of Armenians who don’t even know this! So I incorporated that into the film.

This is a film of uncompromising integrity with a commitment to both a victimized people and to the higher calling of filmmaking. Look for it in your better theaters across the USA and elsewhere since it is of paramount importance particularly given the dynamics of a looming catastrophe in Turkey once again.

 

September 8, 2017

Trophy; Company Town

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Long before the threat of large scale animal extinction became front page news, a film titled “The Roots of Heaven” appeared in theaters back in 1959. This was a John Huston film based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conduct nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa. It was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

Three years later, a book titled “Silent Spring” began to be serialized in the New Yorker that linked the looming extinction of large-scale predators like the condor to the use of DDT in killing the pests that fed on crops in places like California. When the eagles or condors fed on the toxin-laden insects, their eggshells became too thin to bear offspring, The underlying message of Rachel Carsons’s book was that capitalist development threatened not only animal life but that of humanity itself.

Opening at the Quad Cinema in New York today, “Trophy” poses the provocative question of whether big-game hunting in Africa is the best way to save elephants, rhinos, buffalo and other endangered species. Focusing on South Africa and Zimbabwe, the film interviews white ranchers who have discovered that there is big money to be made by allowing hunting safaris to pay up to $250,000 for killing an elephant on their land. So much money can be made that these former masters of the native peoples began raising endangered species rather than cattle. Like many whites who were part of the colonial elite, they have a fondness for the Africa of yore when elephants and rhinoceros roamed freely in great numbers like bison in the northern Plains.

The directors of “Trophy” were wise enough to avoid editorializing. They pose questions that you most wrestle with. What are you to make of John Hume at his rhino ranch about a 100 miles east of Johannesburg where he keeps 1,500 rhinos protected from poachers, part of which involves armed guards patrolling his vast holdings? Hume also dehorns the beasts to make them less valuable for the sordid trade that capitalizes on the irrational beliefs of the Chinese and Saudi rich that the horns are an aphrodisiac. Hume is licensed to sell 264 horns per year to anyone in South Africa, the revenues of which helps him pay $170,000 per year on security.

We also see a Texas sheepherder named Philip Glass who is life-long hunter and devout Christian (clearly not the Jewish composer who wrote “Tefilim”) who has paid big bucks to go on his yearly hunting safari on private lands where large animals are sheltered from poaching. We see him tracking down a massive and elderly lion that he has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of killing. He sees himself in the same way that Theodore Roosevelt or Ernest Hemingway saw themselves when the white race ruled the world, enjoying the privilege of killing massive amounts of wildlife. Standing over the lifeless lion, he begins to shed tears and talk about why creationism must be true. God’s obvious plan was to have man enjoying dominion over the animals. Just as the case with John Hume, the money that Glass paid goes to protect other lions and other endangered species lucky enough to be spared the bullets from his high-powered rifle.

The most interesting interviewee in the film is Craig Packer, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota and director of the university’s Lion Center. Packer places the dwindling numbers of large-scale predators in the same context as Rachel Parsons—victims of capitalist development. In a New Yorker profile on Packer that was triggered by the killing of a protected lion by an American dentist, he defends the need for trophy hunting as a necessary evil:

It is his position, as the story begins, that the lions of the Serengeti need sport hunters to survive; that Cecils must die if prides are to endure. The lions’ existential threat is not American machismo but the slow spread of traditional cattle ranchers, some of whom have been forcibly removed from their lands in order to make room for game parks, and who will poison or spear cattle-killing lions with or without government sanction. The semi-nomadic Maasai kill lions that kill their livestock, kill lions that kill their children, and kill lions to prove themselves brave. That more than a quarter of Tanzania has been given over to hunters means that it has not been given over to people trying to make a living—so there is still hope for the lions within. “Take away the incentive for hunters to grow a healthy crop of lions, and the king of beasts would be eliminated from most of its remaining range,” Packer argues, recalling the early days of his monomaniacal quest to save Tanzania’s remaining animals. “Lions needed trophy hunting as much as trophy hunting needed lions.”

Over on CounterPunch, there is another perspective. Past and present members of Survival International who oppose traditional conservationist groups, especially for the premium they put on police action against poachers, have written articles against both trophy hunters and attempts to sustain nature preserves. As long-time defenders of indigenous rights, they obviously hope to keep pastoral peoples like the Masai masters in a state of nature even if that impinges on that of nature itself. For Stephen Corry, indigenous peoples are elevated over trophy hunters because they are tied to the land in a way that no safari ever could be:

Other big game hunters really should be grappling with a monumental theological crisis around subsistence hunting. On the one hand, they’ve always opposed it because it reduces “their” game, but on the other hand, tribal hunters surely deserve recognition as the original authorities, the respected “elders,” as it were. After all, tribesmen are infinitely more expert than anyone else at tracking and stalking, they have a much deeper understanding of their prey, and are far more respectful towards the animals – aspects which are also engrained in the beliefs of the big game hunters. Tribesmen are also of course highly skilled at making their own weaponry and, most importantly, their communities are better conservationists than anyone else.

This strikes me as a romanticized version of tribal life that has little resemblance to African realities. Lions, elephants, rhinoceroses et al are dwindling in numbers in part because their habitat is being encroached upon by subsistence farmers whose cattle are being eaten by lions or whose crops are being trampled by elephants. They have no interest in an ecological balance with such beasts who are regarded as a nuisance in the same way that a cattle rancher in Montana regards wolves as the enemy. Also, by chopping down trees and clearing bush, they are destroying the habitat of large animals in the same way that replacing the prairie with wheat killed the bison just as efficiently as rifles.

For a solution to these contradictions on top of contradictions, it will have to begin with a vastly ambitious reorganization of our relationship to nature, starting with a more equal distribution of people and resources between town and countryside. Subsistence farming is on the increase in Africa because there are so few jobs in the city. If labor could be better integrated into the production of use values in cities with a much lighter footprint than today’s Johannesburg, tribal peoples would not feel the need to kill elephants or to destroy the plant life they subsist on.

“Trophy” does not and really cannot address the future world that is so necessary but it is a powerful examination of the current hell we are living in.

“Company Town” made me so enraged at the Koch brothers that I went to the Lincoln Center website to track down the names of people on the board of directors to send a mass email denouncing them for taking money from the men who were responsible for a cancer epidemic in Crossett, Arkansas. After cooling off, I decided that my time would be better spent advising my readers to see a powerful documentary that takes up one of the most outrageous cases of environmental racism that can be imagined.

In 2005 the Koch brothers bought Georgia-Pacific that produces a wide range of commodities based on timber. This includes paper goods like Brawny, Dixie, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern and Vanity Fair that you should not buy under any conditions. It also produces a wide range of chemicals. The biggest G-P plant was in Crossett, Arkansas and employed a largely African-American workforce from the town and the surrounding Ashley county that began to suffer from a cancer epidemic clearly related to the plant dumping toxic byproducts into the soil and earth around the plant—illegally.

The star of the film is a retired African-American G-P worker named David Bouie who is also a pastor in a Crossett church. When people living on the streets in his neighborhood began dying one by one, he began looking into the possibility that toxic dumping might have been responsible, especially since nearby streams that were formerly clear and pure now were filled with gunk whose odor could make you gag.

He teamed up with a local woman who was a river-keeper for local streams in the same that Pete Seeger was for the Hudson, as well as environmental scientists to prove that G-P was acting on Koch brothers behalf to boost profits at the expense of the well-being of people living in Crossett. Most importantly, a whistle-blower from G-P came forward to tell Bouie and his fellow activists that company policy was to dump chemical byproducts into the streams and fields near Crossett under the cover of night.

Eventually they teamed up with EPA officials, who happened to be African-American just like most of the people working at G-P. Let’s put it this way. If they weren’t getting paid off by the Koch’s, they were doing the best they could to make such an impression.

In one scene that makes you want to scream, the local activists and G-P management were supposed to have a phone conference but at the last minute G-P bailed. When Bouie expressed his dismay at their refusal to discuss how toxic dumping could end, the EPA chief tells them that it might be a good idea to be less aggressive. After all, he advises, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Granted that the Koch brothers are like houseflies, this was obviously a way of telling them to accept the status quo, including more cancer cases.

The Crossett case has been widely covered in the press. I strongly advise you to see the film at Cinema Village but if that is not possible because of prior engagements between today and the 14th, I urge you to read Jane Mayer’s article that appeared in the New Yorker a year ago. (). Titled “A Whistle-Blower Accuses the Kochs of “Poisoning” an Arkansas Town”, it is likely one that Lincoln Center’s board members chose to ignore. Mayer is the author of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”, an investigative report on the Koch brothers and their cohorts. She writes:

In June, Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the billionaires Charles and David Koch, launched a new corporate public-relations campaign called “End the Divide,” to advance the notion that Koch Industries is deeply concerned by growing inequality in America. An ad for the campaign urges viewers to “look around,” as an image of an imposing white mansion is replaced by one of blighted urban streets. “America is divided,” an announcer intones, with “government and corporations picking winners and losers, rigging the system against people, creating a two-tiered society with policies that fail our most vulnerable.”

The message was surprising, coming from a company owned by two of the richest men in the world, who have spent millions of dollars pushing political candidates and programs that favor unfettered markets and oppose government intervention on behalf of the poor. But no trouble appeared to have been spared in the commercial’s creation. It features a cast of downtrodden Americans of all colors and creeds. To portray corporate greed, it includes a shot of a Wall Street sign, followed by a smug businessman looking down at the camera, dressed in a flashy suit and tie. But, according to Dickie Guice, who worked as a safety coördinator at a large Koch-owned paper plant in Arkansas, the company need not have gone to such lengths. Instead of scouting America for examples of social neglect, the Kochs could have turned the cameras on their own factory.

This summer, Guice decided to speak out about the paper mill in Crossett, a working-class town of some fifty-two hundred residents ten miles north of the Louisiana border.* The mill is run by the paper giant Georgia-Pacific, which has been owned by Koch Industries since 2005. According to E.P.A. records, it emits more than 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals each year, including numerous known carcinogens. Georgia-Pacific says that it has permits to operate the mill as it does, and disputes that it is harming local health and safety. But as far back as the nineteen-nineties, people living near the plant have described noxious odors and corrosive effluents that have forced them to stay indoors, as well as what seems to them unusually high rates of illness and death. Speaking by phone from his home, in Sterlington, Louisiana, Guice pointed the finger directly at the mill’s owners, and described a corporate coverup of air and water pollution that he says is “poisoning” the predominantly African-American community.

Guice made his début as a whistle-blower in a new documentary film, “Company Town,” about the pollution of Crossett, which premièred in June at the L.A. Film Festival. Natalie Kottke-Masocco, the film’s director, and Erica Sardarian, its co-director, spent some five years in Crossett, and over time they coaxed Guice to go on camera. “I was warned that I’d never get hired again,” he told me, when I asked why he was coming forward. “But I thought, What the heck, what are they going to do, kill me? It had to be done.”

As Guice tells it, he started working at the Crossett plant in February, 2011, when Larco Inc., a local heavy-equipment and construction firm, where he worked, was contracted by Georgia-Pacific to handle disposal of the paper plant’s waste. According to Guice, the contract called for his company to spread two hundred thousand cubic yards of “ash” dredged from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill’s sediment ponds across four hundred acres of property that it owned in the town. He says that Georgia-Pacific supervisors told him to spread the waste in layers in pits that were sometimes forty feet deep, and then to cover it with six inches of dirt, “so that it looked like a regular piece of land.” The land often flooded, Guice told me, and runoff would flow into trenches that fed into a local creek, which ran behind a residential area. He said that Georgia-Pacific would also dump “big plastic tanks” of untreated liquid waste. “It looks like brown liquor,” he said. “And steam comes up from it, sometimes all day.” Within a few months of starting at the paper plant, Guice said that he fell ill from exposure to the waste, developing respiratory problems. “My doctor told me to get out of there,” he said. “But I needed that job.”

July 26, 2017

The Forest Brothers and the holocaust

Filed under: Fascism,genocide,Stalinism,war — louisproyect @ 5:06 pm

For many on the left, the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—are the epitomes of Cold War villainy. Belonging to NATO, they are poised like daggers on the edge of Russia just as they were when it was the USSR. We are constantly being told that they were Adolf Hitler’s allies during WWII and that the CIA continued to back them during the Cold War as counter-revolutionary bastions. Like Ukraine and Poland, they have no redeeming qualities with some leftists probably considering the possibility that they are congenitally reactionary after the fashion of Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”.

Needless to say, those on the left who are either unreconstructed Stalinists or are rapidly moving in that direction like Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton view their role as fighting the good fight against jihadists, Baltic fascists and anybody else who would deter Vladimir Putin from his mission of saving the world from Western imperialism. In a nutshell, they are to journalism what Oliver Stone’s interviews with Putin are to film.

Since there will obviously be a smaller market for their Pamela Geller-style articles denouncing the Wahhabi/Salafi/ISIS/al Qaeda threats to Enlightenment values now that Trump has backed Russian goals to the hilt and cut off all support to Syrian rebels, they will likely swerve in the direction of finding new enemies of the Kremlin to denounce.

Evidence of that is an Alternet Grayzone article by Norton titled In Flashy New Film, NATO Celebrates Nazi Collaborators Who Murdered Jews in the Holocaust that reads as if it were written for Sputnik or RT.com. It is aimed at an 8-minute documentary about the Forest Brothers produced by NATO.

The Forest Brothers were a guerrilla army made up of volunteers from all three Baltic states that fought against the Red Army and even alongside Nazi troops at times. The brunt of Norton’s article is to categorize them as murderers of Jews even though this charge is not based so much on what the guerrillas did but on supposedly the past history of “many” of its members. Citing Dovid Katz, an American professor based in Lithuania endorsed by Norton, you might wonder whether there was anything they could have done to be found innocent of these charges except to join forces with the Red Army:

Many of the members of the Forest Brothers “were fascists, including some recycled killers from the 1941 genocide phase of the Latvian Holocaust,” Katz explained. The group “served to delay the Soviet advance (in alliance with the United States, Great Britain and the Allies) that would liberate the death camps further west.”

Based on Norton’s time-tunnel, it is absolutely impossible to figure out why Baltic men and women would want to deter the Red Army since it destroyed Nazism, something that people like Oliver Stone remind us of every chance they get. Did Baltic youth read Mein Kampf in grade school? What made them so evil? Since for people like Stone and Norton, history begins at the point when the Forest Brothers took up their fight, you really have no idea what made them tick.

As I pointed out in my review of “The Fencer”, a Finnish film that reviews some of this history, Estonia was a piece of real estate ceded to Stalin as part of the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact as was Lithuania, Latvia and the eastern half of Poland. If you’ve learned from the history of Stalin’s rule—as Norton did before he prostituted himself—you’ll know that millions died in Ukraine and the USSR during the 1930s before a single Jew died in a Nazi concentration camp. Comparing Nazi Germany in the 1930s to Stalin’s Russia in the same period might have even led some people in the Baltic states to see Nazism as a lesser evil especially in light of Stalin’s brutal transformation of these nations into Soviet satellites in 1940. While not genocidal, it had the same character as his rape of the Ukraine. Indeed, in his “Why the Heavens did not Darken”, distinguished historian Arno Mayer described Nazi treatment of the Jews before the Wannsee conference as comparable to the treatment of Blacks in the Deep South.

As I pointed out in my review of “The Fencer”, Estonia lost 8,000 people in the year following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, victimized as “enemies of the people” in the Soviet occupation’s wide net. If this nation had the same population in 1940 as the USA today, that would have represented the loss of 2.4 million of its citizens.

What about Lithuania? On July 1, 1940 the country became a single-party state absorbed into the USSR. The 1,500 member Communist Party was the only one permitted to run in elections. Like Bashar al-Assad, they won a resounding victory. Prior to the election, 2,000 political activists were arrested. Another 12,000 individuals were imprisoned as “enemies of the people” soon afterwards. According to Wikipedia, “between June 14 and June 18, 1941, less than a week before the Nazi invasion, some 17,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia, where many perished due to inhumane living conditions”. Around this time, Lithuania had a population of 2.4 million. So once again using today’s population in the USA as a benchmark, this would have meant that the equivalent of 4.5 million people were victimized by Stalinist repression.

Not even Jews were spared. Eliyana Adler, an orthodox Jew who is Associate Professor in History and Jewish Studies at Penn State, wrote an article titled “Exile and Survival: Lithuanian Jewish Deportees in the Soviet Union” that began by describing Lithuania as having “established a unique and relatively tolerant relationship with what had been a fairly small Jewish community of about 150,000 people” in the intra-war period. Although Stalin was anti-Semitic, the main motivation for sending Lithuanian Jews to Siberia was their class origins. Adler writes:

On June 14, 1941, the Soviet security forces (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, hereafter NKVD) arrested about 30,000 Lithuanians, including 7,000 Jews, as ‘enemies of the people’. The action was well-planned. Two to three agents arrived at each home simultaneously, leaving no time for friends, neighbors, or relatives to contact and warn one another. Each family was given twenty minutes to pack their luggage and loaded into waiting trucks that brought them to the train station. They were then crammed into cattle cars, unable to say goodbyes, and with no knowledge of what awaited them.

What awaited them was what awaited most people who were exiled to Siberia and it took these Lithuanian Jews living in exile sixteen years to finally get the right to leave the USSR.

Latvia got the same treatment. Nearly 2 percent of the population was sent to Soviet gulags, including thousands of Jews.

Norton has the distinctly odd idea that none of this had any connection to anti-Communist armed struggles. He is so feckless as to make a stink about the Lithuanian organizers of collective farms being killed by anti-Soviet partisans. Is this guy for real? One imagines that at this point in his sorry career, he would endorse the forced collectivization of agriculture in both Ukraine and in Lithuania as the same way as Grover Furr or Roland Boer. In both cases, they were a total disaster. Farmers who resisted collectivization in Lithuania were deported to the USSR. Furthermore, as was the case in the USSR, agriculture suffered setbacks that it never fully recovered from.

Turning now to the question of Lithuania and the holocaust that is the main focus of Norton’s article, it is important to get the facts straight. The murders were carried out by a combined force of the Nazi Einsatzgruppe and Lithuanian auxiliaries who volunteered to be part of the killing machine. You can read Dina Porat’s account of all this in a chapter titled “The Holocaust in Lithuania: some unique aspects” that is included in David Cesarani’s “The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation” and can be read on Dovid Katz’s website.

The Lithuanian killers were organized as the Labour National Guard that was so extreme that even the Nazis sought to differentiate themselves from it. The Labour National Guard consisted of 8,400 men who also worked with the Lithuanian cops to systematically exterminate Jews in areas they policed. Porat cites a Nazi memorandum referring to how “the local population” was appalled by their bloodlust.

She speculates that a lot of the animus directed against the Jews had to do with widespread sympathies for the USSR:

One issue that lies outside the scope of this chapter concerns the explanations for the Lithuanians extreme conduct. In short, it was a combination of a complex of factors such as national traditions and values, religion (Orthodox Catholic, in this case), severe economic problems and tragically opposed political orientations. Lithuanian Jews supported the Soviet regime in Lithuania during 1940-1, being partly of socialist inclination, and in the full knowledge that life imprisonment [Soviet regime] is better than life sentence [Nazi rule], as in the Yiddish saying. By contrast, the Lithuanians fostered hopes of regaining, with German support, the national independence that the Soviets extinguished, as a reward for anti-Jewish and anti-Bolshevik stances. During the Soviet rule of Lithuania these feelings heightened and burst out following the German invasion. One might say that the Germans provided the framework and. the legitimation for the killing of Lithuania’s Jews„ while the national aspirations and the hatred for communism provided the fuel. Still, this is not a full explanation for such brutality, especially as there was no tradition of pogroms in Lithuania. Not all Lithuanians took part in the killings, and one cannot depict all of them as murderers. At least one thousand Lithuanians sheltered Jews, thereby risking their own and their lives. A few tens of thousands took active part in the mass murders while the rest were either apathetic or aggravated the misery of the Jews in lesser ways than actual killing. [emphasis added]

In my view, the blame for such inhumanity was WWII. You might as well ask what motivated well-meaning American citizens in uniform who under ordinary circumstances would not kill a fly to become enthusiastic participants in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Dresden, and other atrocities. Total war is an incubator of atrocities.

Finally, the origins of the Forest Brothers has to be addressed. They had no connection to the Labour National Guard although you can assume that some of its members joined the Forest Brothers at some point. It is, of course, impossible to pin down how many.

But the Forest Brothers in Lithuania emerged from a totally different dynamic. Its members were formerly part of the Territorial Defense Force who had disbanded with their weapons and uniforms and the Lithuanian Freedom Army, established in 1941. (Wikipedia). More importantly, the Forest Brothers did not take up arms against the Red Army until 1944, long after 95 percent of the Lithuanian Jews had been exterminated.

The Territorial Defense Force was hardly the sort of militia the Nazis considered trustworthy. In an article titled “Lithuanian Resistance To German Mobilization Attempts 1941-1944” written for a Lithuanian scholarly journal, Mečislovas Mackevičius describes the clash between Nazi goals and legitimate Lithuanian national aspirations [emphasis added]:

Since the brutality of the Germans was unpredictable, a special Lithuanian conference was convoked May 5, 1943 to ease the tensions. The Germans did not oppose the conference, especially since it was in favor of mobilizing against the eminent communist threat. The Red Army was gaining on the German Eastern front while the Eastern region of Lithuania was routinely harassed by communist partisans, supported and supplied from the Soviet Union. The Germans disagreed only with the conference’s references to Lithuanian independence. November 24, 1943, the first councilor (Pirmasis Tarėjas) convened a meeting of 45 select prominent Lithuanian figures. At the meeting, it was stated that a Lithuanian SS legion or any SS unit would be unacceptable in Lithuania as such groups are contrary to the Lithuanian spirit. Lithuanians can only accept and support a national armed force, the purpose of which would be Lithuanian national defense. The use of the term “Lithuanian Armed Forces” was completely unacceptable to the Germans. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that an SS legion would not be formed in Lithuania. Instead, simple armed Lithuanian forces would be established with the name Litauische Streitkrafte (Lithuanian Troops), acceptable to the Germans.

After long discussions and conferences, Gen. Povilas Plechavičius, Jackeln and SS Police Chief for Lithuania Maj. Gen. Harm signed a written agreement February 13,1944 for forming a local Lithuanian detachment (Lietuvos Vietinė Rinktinė).

The stipulations were as follows: Only Lithuanian officers would be in charge of the detachment, thereby preventing any German intervention. Such intervention was also specifically prohibited by the agreement. Lithuanian commands were to be formed all over the country, their work being limited to the territory of Lithuania proper. This ensured the detachment from assignment to foreign locations. Twenty battalions were planned with possible additions later. The soldiers would wear Lithuanian insignia on their uniforms. The detachment was to be formed only from volunteers. Additionally, the Germans agreed not to deport any more Lithuanians to forced labor as soon as the detachment was started.

February 16, 1944, Lithuanian Independence Day, Gen. Plechavičius, commander of the Lithuanian detachment, made a radio appeal to the nation for volunteers. It is noteworthy that all Lithuanian political underground organizations supported this solution. This was achieved through constant communication between Lithuanian commanders and resistance leaders. The February 16th appeal was enormously successful: More volunteers came forward than was expected. The Germans were very surprised and deeply shocked by the number of volunteers since their own appeals went unheeded, as described.

The Germans, worried by the success of the detachment, started to interfere, breaking the signed agreement. March 22, 1944, Jackein called for 70-80 thousand men for the German army as subsidiary assistants. Chief-of-Staff of the Northern Front Field Marshal Model pressed for 15 battalions of men to protect the German military airports. Plechavičius rejected the demand April 5, 1944. Renteln himself demanded workers for Germany proper. Other German officials also voiced their demands.

Finally, April 6, 1944, the Germans ordered Plechavičius to mobilize the country. Plechavičius responded that the mobilization could not take place until the formation of the detachment was complete. This greatly displeased the Germans since it was clear the detachment did not serve their immediate needs and interests.

The Germans decided to end the resistance of the Lithuanians and the formation of the detachment. Provocation seemed to be the best method to escalate the situation. Jackein demanded the detachment troops to take an oath to Hitler, the text of which was provided. Plechavičius rejected the demand. May 9, 1944, Jackein ordered the detachment units in Vilnius to revert to his direct authority. All other units of the detachment were to come under the command of the regional German commissars. Furthermore, the detachment was to don SS uniforms and use the “Heil Hitler” greeting.

The Lithuanian headquarters directed the detachment units in the field to obey only the orders of the Lithuanian detachment. It also ordered the Detachment Officer School in the city of Marijampolė to send the cadets home. May 15, Plechavičius, the commander of the detachment, and Col. Oskaras Urbonas, chief-of-staff of the detachment, were arrested together with the other staff members. They were deported to the Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia. Subsequently, 40 more officers of the detachment were arrested and deported.

The Germans acted ferociously in liquidating the detachment. For example, they publicly executed 12 randomly selected soldiers in a Vilnius line-up which consisted of some 800 men. En route to the city of Kaunas, while transporting some arrested members, one of the prisoners escaped. In retaliation, the Germans then selected non-commissioned officer Ruseckas for execution on the spot. Since the German regular army guards were stalling the execution, a German SS commissioned officer did the actual shooting.

The cities of Vilnius, Panevėžys, Marijampolė, and others were deeply affected by the dismantlement of the Lithuanian detachment. Any resistance resulted only in suffering and greater sacrifice: 3,500 were arrested. A part of those resisting were sent to forced labor camps in Germany. Some of the armed soldiers inevitably reached the forests and undoubtedly joined the newly formed armed Lithuanian underground to fight the second Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

These were kind of men who joined the Forest Brothers, not the cops and thugs who took part in the mass murder of Jews. In its attempt to turn the criminal into the victim and the victim into the criminal, the Russian state press is sweeping this history under the rug. Why someone who was educated in Marxist politics like Ben Norton would pick up a broom on their behalf is a mystery. That is, unless the pay is really, really good.

June 19, 2017

Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and terror: separating fact from fiction

Filed under: Islamophobia,terrorism — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

John Wight channeling the Henry Jackson Society

In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks in London, you could hardly tell the difference between what Douglas Murray, the Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, wrote for Rupert Murdoch’s ultraright tabloid “The Sun” and John Wight’s article in CounterPunch. Murray is the author of the 2005 Neoconservatism: Why We Need It and a brand-new book titled The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam that can best be described as even more nativist than the National Front. As for the Henry Jackson Society, this is a think-tank that became infamous for its all-out support for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Murray’s article is patented “they hate us because of  our freedom”, a genre that blossomed fulsomely after 9/11:

At Wahhabi schools — known as madrasas — in the UK paid for by the Saudis, students are taught to hate the modern liberal West.

They are taught to despise and look down on us and our freedoms. The same message is taught at Wahhabi mosques across the world. The Saudis pay for the buildings and appoint the clerics.

Today across Europe there are thousands of such institutions of education and religion which exist because they are paid for by the Saudis.

We should have stopped the Saudis being allowed to spread their hatred here a long time ago. But a combination of greed for oil and fear of false charges of “Islamophobia” have stopped any British government to date from confronting this.

Last Wednesday we were reminded of where this disgusting ideology can lead. Perhaps now we can finally face it down. For all our sakes.

Here is John Wight doing an impeccable Douglas Murray impersonation in his June 6th article titled “London Terror Attack: It’s Time to Confront Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia”:

It is time for an honest conversation about Wahhabism, specifically the part this Saudi-sponsored ideology plays in radicalizing young Muslims both across the Arab and Muslim world and in the West, where in the UK people are dealing with the aftermath of yet another terrorist attack in which innocent civilians were butchered and injured, this time in London.

The most concerning development in recent years, however, vis-à-vis Saudi influence in the West, is the extent to which Riyadh has been funding the building of mosques as a way of promoting its ultra-conservative and puritanical interpretation of Islam, one completely incompatible with the 21st century.

In 2015 Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel came out in public and accused the Saudis of funding mosques in which extremism is regularly promoted. In an interview with the German magazine Bild am Sonntag, Mr Gabriel said, “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over. Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.”

We can assume that Wight must also endorse Gabriel’s January 19, 2017 call: “Salafist mosques must be banned, communities dissolved, and the preachers should be expelled as soon as possible.” What better way for public security to be guaranteed than to dissolve communities? One can imagine both Murray and Wight leading a throng of torch-bearing Christians determined to send the riffraff back to where they came from.

You might have noticed above that Gabriel refers to Salafist and Wahhabist mosques without bothering to distinguish between the two belief systems. At the risk of sounding like a pedant, it is worth making a distinction. Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth-century preacher and activist, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who lived through nearly the entire 18th century. It was similar in spirit to Hasidism for Jews and Calvinism for Christians, a literalist interpretation of sacred texts that demanded an austere lifestyle. Ironically, despite its medieval character, Wahhabism was seen as a “reform” movement in Islam that opposed the de facto sainthood of its leaders that involved pilgrimages to their tombs, etc. Long before the state of Saudi Arabia was created, the Saudi princes adopted Wahhabism as their official religion and imposed its rules on its subjects after taking power in 1932.

Salafism emerged at around the same time as Wahhabism and derives its name from advocating a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (the salaf). Scholars tend to believe that Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism, just as the Lubavitchers are a sect within Hasidism. For most Salafists, their religion is just a way of living a “holy” life. If Hasidism requires men to wear black suits and side-curls to enter heaven, Salafism has its own strictures such as forbidding tobacco, alcohol, playing cards and listening to music.

In its early years, Wahhabism was just as bloodthirsty as ISIS. In 1801, the Wahhabis sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq and acting as infidel-purging takfiri left 4,000 Shia Muslims dead. Of course, the Christians were no slouches themselves. During the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Orthodox Christians were persecuted across Eastern Europe. Polish Catholics killed up to 80,000 of their fellow Christians who did not follow the Pope. So cruel was the crusade against the infidels that the leader of the Orthodox church declared: “God perpetuate the empire of the Turks for ever and ever! For they take their impost, and enter no account of religion, be their subjects Christians or Nazarenes, Jews or Samaritians; whereas these accursed Poles were not content with taxes and tithes from the brethren of Christ…”

In the 20th century, religious wars became far less common. Mostly, they were about defending the “nation”, an act that cost far more lives even if the justifications were based on Enlightenment or even Marxist values. When it came to Saudi Arabia going to war to defend Wahhabist values, you’ll find little evidence of that. The wars had nothing to do with eradicating tobacco and everything to do with keeping the oil wells flowing such as when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. With little interest in the  Sunni faith it shared with the Iraqi rulers, some of whom have reappeared as ISIS members, Saudi Arabia supported George Bush’s war to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.

If you do a search on “Wahhabi” and “terror” in Lexis-Nexis, you will get links to 997 articles. All but 9 of them are dated after September 11th, 2001 and of those 9, not a single one refers to Saudi-sponsored terrorism. Three do refer to Russia’s justification for its war on the Chechens but I will cover that matter in a separate post dealing with Oliver Stone’s moronic interview with Vladimir Putin.

When 15 of the 19 hijackers were revealed to be Saudi citizens, the left—especially Michael Moore—jumped to the conclusion that the royal family was behind 9/11. This conspiracy theory was not driven by a class analysis of the Saudi state and its deep tentacles in the imperialist system both economically and militarily but by a kind of amalgam between the Wahhabi beliefs of the men who carried out the attack and their patron Osama bin-Laden.

What complicates this interpretation is the fact that despite their Saudi citizenship, they were from Yemenite tribes whose territory was seized by Saudi Arabia in a 1934 war having more to do with state formation than religion. Like the Mexicans who lived in the southern part of Texas, the people of this region resented the powerful nation that had absorbed it through military conquest. Although most of the story is reported in Akbar Ahmad’s “The Thistle and the Drone” that I wrote about last year in a piece titled “Was Saudi Arabia behind 9/11?”, you can find other references that bear this analysis out such as an article that appeared in the March 3, 2002 Boston Globe. Despite the title (“Why bin Laden plot relied on Saudi hijackers”), the article makes clear that 12 of the 15 Saudis were from the southwest region of Asir that manifested “deep tribal affiliations” and suffered “economic dis-enfranchisement”. Reporter Charles M. Sennott describes life in Saudi Arabia’s hinterlands, which have very little to do with the opulence of those who ruled over it no matter the shared Wahhabi faith:

The path to understanding this culture which bore the hijackers – almost none of whom had any deep links to Islamic militant movements much before Sept. 11 – lies somewhere along this road. On maps it is ”Highway 15,” but to Saudis it is commonly known as ‘”The Road of Death.’” Stretching south from the lowlands around Mecca into Taif and the woodlands of Al Baha province, and then climbing up to the mountains of Asir, it is considered the most dangerous road in a kingdom which officials say has an extraordinarily high rate of fatal car crashes. Highway 15 alone claims hundreds of lives every year, and thus its name.

It has become known as a strip of asphalt where disaffected, middle-class Saudi youth climb into large American-manufactured Buicks and Chevrolets and race at speeds over 120 miles per hour. They say it is a way to vent their rage against the limited economic opportunities in the kingdom as well as the crushing boredom and confining strictures of life under Saudi puritanism.

Interestingly enough, the pilot of the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon was exactly the sort of Saudi youth who was trying to lift himself up out of this morass. Hani Hanjour was 29 years old when he took part in the 9/11 attack but his flying skills originally had nothing to do with jihad. He was a frustrated young Saudi who trained to become a pilot for the Saudi national airline but could not land a job. Sennott reports:

His frustration at failing to get the job he dreamed of derailed him for nearly a year, his friends said. He spent hours online at a family-owned Internet cafe. He read voraciously about piloting, and increasingly turned his attention toward religious texts and cassette tapes of militant Islamic preachers.

Al Watan, a newspaper in the Asir region, was far more probing than the mainstream press in its investigative reports on the local youth who joined the 9/11 plotters. It is to Sennott’s credit to cite Al Watan’s reporting and how bin Laden tapped into the deep-seated resentments of the Asiri tribes that were as ready to make war on Riyadh as they were on Washington, even more so:

US and Saudi officials say they believe bin Laden exploited the Saudis, paying particular attention to their tribal backgrounds, and convincing them that they would be making their tribes proud in the jihad against America. On the videotape, bin Laden pointedly boasts of the names of the tribes, repeating the name Alshehri seven times, and also the Alghamdi and Alhazmi tribes on several occasions.

Bin Laden knew that selecting these families from the southwest would send a message to the monarchy and the ”Naj’dis” – elitist families from the center of the country who savor their connections to royalty and tend to look down upon the southwest’s tribal culture as primitive. US and Saudi officials suggest that bin Laden was letting that elite know he had deep support in the southwest for his jihad against the United States. But more ominously for the palace, the sources add, bin Laden was letting it know he had support for his oft-stated desire to dethrone the House of Saud, because of what he sees as its corruption and its treasonous ties to the United States.

Not only did bin Laden disavow the Saudi rulers politically, he had built a network called al-Qaeda based on the religious and political beliefs of a man that built a movement regarded as their mortal enemy. With all the facile attempts to blame Wahhabism for the 9/11 attacks, there is overwhelming evidence that it was inspired by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian poet and Islamist theorist who led the Muslim Brotherhood in the 50s and 60s. Qutb was devoted to the idea that Muslims had to launch a jihad against its enemies. When he came to study in the USA in 1948, he was repelled by the churches that he saw as “entertainment centers and sexual playgrounds.” I guess he had the foresight to anticipate Jimmy Swaggart et al.

He returned to Egypt in 1951 where he joined the Brotherhood. In 1954, he and his comrades were rounded up by Nasser just as has happened under General al-Sisi more recently. Qutb spent 10 years in prison. After being released in 1964, he was rearrested in 1965 after the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser. He was tortured before being brought to trial and then hanged on August 29, 1966.

Qutb was above all political. He was for Salafist values but that was not enough. If you were a devout Muslim, you had struggle against the corrupt oil sheikhs and nationalist dictators, either Wahhabist like the Saudi royal family or secular like Nasser or al-Assad. In an article on Qutb that appeared in the October 31, 2001 Guardian, Robert Irwin described bin Laden’s attraction to Qutb’s idea of jihad:

In the context of that global programme, the destruction of the twin towers, spectacular atrocity though it was, is merely a by-blow in al-Qaida’s current campaign. Neither the US nor Israel is Bin Laden’s primary target – rather it is Bin Laden’s homeland, Saudi Arabia. The corrupt and repressive royal house, like the Mongol Ilkhanate of the 14th century, is damned as a Jahili scandal. Therefore, al-Qaida’s primary task is to liberate the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from their rule. Though the current policy of the princes of the Arabian peninsula seems to be to sit on their hands and hope that al-Qaida and its allies will pick on someone else first, it is unlikely that they will be so lucky.

As for the spate of ISIS-inspired or sanctioned terrorist attacks in Europe and the USA, there is little connection to al-Qaeda, which has not been known in recent years for the sort of atavistic attacks on civilians that occurred on 9/11. In 2014, al-Qaeda disavowed any ties to ISIS and its franchise in Syria has had numerous armed confrontations with the group, especially in Qalamoun where dozens of ISIS members were arrested or killed in May, 2015.

This leaves us with the question of ISIS’s ideological roots. It combines Qutb’s apocalyptic worldview with Salafist orthodoxy but its wanton terrorist attacks on civilians has little to do with Islamist groups in the Middle East except for Hamas that used to set off bombs in Israel restaurants and buses in an ill-conceived response to Israeli state terror.

To understand ISIS, you simply have to extrapolate its tactics in Iraq during the American occupation when suicide bombers were targeting Shia mosques on a regular basis. These methods were associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who sought to turn a war against American occupation into a Sunni-Shia war. It was his barbarian beheadings, car bombs and other forms of terror that made it impossible for anti-imperialist fighters to build a united front. It was al-Zarqawi’s ruthless occupation of Sunni cities following the same pattern as ISIS today in Mosul and Raqqa that made it possible for the American military to persuade tribal leaders to join General David Petraeus’s Anbar Awakening.

Like many of the low-lives who have stepped forward to knife people out for an evening stroll or to drive vans into their midst, al-Zarqawi had nothing in common with a figure like Sayyid Qutb. In a profile for Atlantic magazine, Mary Anne Weaver reported on his youthful days in Jordan:

Everyone I spoke with readily acknowledged that as a teenager al-Zarqawi had been a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp in Zarqa’s underworld. He was disruptive, constantly involved in brawls. When he was fifteen (according to his police record, about which I had been briefed in Amman), he participated in a robbery of a relative’s home, during which the relative was killed. Two years later, a year shy of graduation, he had dropped out of school. Then, in 1989, at the age of twenty-three, he traveled to Afghanistan.

Although al-Zarqawi left all this behind when he arrived in Afghanistan to join the jihad, there is little evidence that he ever became much of a Wahhabist except to follow the same austere strictures as everyone else. Mostly his ambition was to be a fighter and in this he  succeeded. Based on his military prowess and leadership abilities, he was able to put together one of the more formidable anti-occupation militias called al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. This group undoubtedly spawned ISIS as should be clear from this incident reported by Weaver:

Al-Zarqawi courted chaos so that Iraq would provide him another failed state to operate in after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He became best known for his videotaped beheadings. One after the other they appeared on jihadist Web sites, always the same. In the background was the trademark black banner of al-Zarqawi’s newest group: al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, or Monotheism and Jihad. In the foreground, a blindfolded hostage, kneeling and pleading for his life, was dressed in an orange jumpsuit resembling those worn by the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Al-Zarqawi’s first victim was a Pennsylvania engineer named Nicholas Berg. In the video, five hooded men, dressed in black, stand behind Berg. After a recitation, one of the men pulls a long knife from his shirt, steps forward, and slices off Berg’s head.

What accounts for such madness? Is it Wahhabism or is it the brutality that became so universal in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of which did not take the form of beheadings but Russian and American air power that dropped high explosives on lightly armed fighters and civilians with impunity? In Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia”, he explains Pol Pot as the logical outcome of dropping more tons of explosives in Indochina than the total dropped by the combined air forces during WWII:

This bombing went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible, psychological damage. So, five years of bombing…and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.

Social science might look for patterns in these sorts of genocidal spasms that coincide with an all-out war when civilized norms go by the wayside. That might explain the Khmer Rouge as well as setting off a bomb while teenaged girls are leaving an Ariana Grande concert.

Appendix:

Just about 10 years ago, CounterPunch published an article titled “The Wahhabis are Coming, the Wahhabis are Coming!” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2007/10/27/the-wahhabis-are-coming-the-wahhabis-are-coming/) that holds up rather well. It makes a rather good retort to John Wight, who has succumbed to the Islamophobia the author was diagnosing. Here are the more salient points but I urge you to read the entire article.

Although I will not suggest that this rhetoric is hegemonic, there can be no doubt that the idea of a ‘Wahhabi Conspiracy’ against the ‘West’ has, since 9/11, become lodged in the colloquial psyche of many in the US and beyond. The collective argument, however, can be reduced to three pieces of ‘evidence’:

1) Usama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 highjackers were Saudi Arabians;

2) Saudi Arabia funds Wahhabi madrasas (schools), masjids (mosques) and imams (preachers) from South East Asia to Europe and North America, creating an ideologically and operationally coherent ‘network’ in which Al-Qaeda plays a leadership role; and,

3) Wahhabism is not only ‘puritanical,’ it is ‘militantly anti-Western.’ In short, Wahhabism is identified as the theology behind ‘Islamo-fascism.’

Yet, there are a number of glaring omissions in this perspective, beginning with the fact that the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia–the sole state sponsor of Wahhabism–routinely issue decrees condemning jihad against the European and North American states, while Usama bin Laden has vociferously castigated renowned clerics (including Wahhabis) as ‘slaves of apostate regimes’ like Saudi Arabia.

As well, although Saudi Arabian funds have been used to establish various religious institutions across the globe, not only are they in the minority from state to state, but the most militant madrasas, etc., are not Saudi funded or Wahhabi in intellectual orientation. For example, in Pakistan (noted by the above governmental, media and pseudo-academic sources as a breeding ground for militant Wahhabism), an International Crisis Group study conducted in 2002, found that ninety percent of the madrasas catering to one and half million students, were proponents of South Asian ‘Deobandi’ or ‘Barelvi’ thought, while the remaining ten percent could be shared between ‘Jama’at-i Islami’ (Maududian), ‘Shi’a’ and Wahhabi organizations. The handful of madrasas promoting militancy (including the Taliban Movement) are not Wahhabi, but Deobandi, and their initial funding came from the US during the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989), extending to textbooks produced by USAID and Ronald Reagan’s reference to their students as ‘the moral equivalent of the founding fathers [of America].’ Even a recent USAID report (2003) acknowledges that the link between madrasas and violence is ‘rare,’ and the same perspective has been forwarded to the US Congress in at least two Congress Research Services reports updated in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

The most damning indictment of the non-scholarly perspective, however, is the fact that Al-Qaeda’s leadership is well known in scholarly circles to have been largely inspired by the ideology of Sayyid Qutb (d.1966), a late leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, while within the ‘Salafi’ fold, the Brotherhood, Wahhabism, Qutbism, Deobandism and Maududism, differ on issues as fundamental as the defensive or offensive nature of jihad, the legitimacy of ‘suicide bombings’ and civilian targets, the status of women, the legitimacy of electoral politics, nationalism, Pan-Islamism, Shi’ism and Sufism in Muslim society.

October 22, 2016

Before the Flood; The Ivory Game

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,Film,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio

Two documentaries with the imprimatur of Leonardo DiCaprio can be seen in New York City and likely in theaters around the country given his clout as one of Hollywood’s superstars. Both of the documentaries are timely and excellent. They also raise questions about the role of tinseltown progressives. With DiCaprio, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Angela Jolie, John Cusack and others not so well known picking up where Jane Fonda left off years ago, it is a good time to consider their role in social change. Since there is a natural and even reasonable tendency on the left to regard such personalities as superficial phonies, a close look at DiCaprio’s trajectory would be useful.

“Before the Flood” opened yesterday at the Village East Cinema in New York and features DiCaprio in a kind of Michael Moore narrator/main character role. (The film will also be shown on the National Geographic channel on October 30th.) As the title implies, this is about climate change and certainly a follow-up to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that helped to draw attention to arguably the most important environmental question we face today even as Gore’s film failed to provide adequate answers. Whether DiCaprio’s film succeeds in answering them is open to question although it is undeniable that the average audience member will come out the theater with a much better idea of the problems we face.

The film is a kind of odyssey with DiCaprio meeting with people all across the planet who are on the front lines of climate change. Mostly he is content to allow people to speak freely even when they come close to denouncing him as part of the problem. When he meets with Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, he allows her to excoriate the West for demanding sharp cutbacks in fossil fuel usage across the board when her country and others like it are mired in poverty. After we see an Indian peasant turning cow dung into a patty that is used almost universally in the countryside as a primitive stove fuel, Narain remonstrates with DiCaprio:

Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future. We have 700m household using biomass to cook. If those households move to coal, there’ll be that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone tells you that the world’s poor should move to solar and why do they have to make the mistakes we have made…I hear this from American NGOs all the time. I’m like, wow. I mean, if it was that easy, I would really have liked the US to move to solar. But you haven’t. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.

There was nothing like this in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and as such makes this new film far more credible.

One of the things you will learn from “Before the Flood” is that Western Europe is making great strides in developing alternative energy sources. Not only that, so is China which is far Greener at least on climate change than the USA. To some extent, this is likely the result of China’s need to reduce air pollution from coal-burning plants even if it had nothing to do with the coastal flooding that can put cities under water everywhere, including China. Since protests against unclear air have roiled China, the Communist Party must have felt a need to defuse the situation. Furthermore, since lung cancer does not discriminate between rich and poor, the elite obviously would prefer to enjoy its wealth in good health.

If advances are being made in alternative energy sources, there continues to be profit-driven assaults on the world’s great rainforests that serve to absorb carbon dioxide and hence slow down climate change. One of the more shocking examples is the deliberately set forest fires in Borneo, a first step in clearing land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a key ingredient of junk food. When DiCaprio visits a shelter for orphaned orangutans, you really have to wonder what kind of mad world we are living in when a bag of Lays potato chips can fuel the extinction of such a gentle and intelligent beast.

There are three interviews that epitomize the shortcomings of a Green outlook that is not rooted in a critique of the capitalist system. DiCaprio gives Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw a platform to advocate for a carbon tax that he feels will reduce its use just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking. We assume that the inclusion of Mankiw, a life-long Republican who served in George W. Bush’s economic advisor, is meant to illustrate the possibility of uniting all sides of the political spectrum in a battle against extinction.

The carbon tax is based on the idea that markets can be the solution to climate change after the fashion of Obama’s cap-and-trade that provides incentives for reducing carbon emissions. But as long as the market system prevails, there will be enormous pressures to be cost-effective. This might entail allowing big corporations to offset the expense of a carbon tax by drilling in areas of the world where labor costs are minimal, like South Sudan for example. Indeed, even as China is converting to alternative energy sources within its borders, it is stepping up drilling in the South Sudan.

As it happens, Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax but this might have something to do with the fact that it would likely benefit more than its competitors from a carbon tax that favors cleaner-burning natural gas over coal. Guess what. ExxonMobil has the largest natural gas reserves of any U.S. company.

As another example of progress in the fight against climate change, DiCaprio talks to Elon Musk in his “gigafactory” in the Nevadan desert. Upon its completion in 2020, it will produce 500,000 electric vehicles per year and batteries/cells equal to 85 GWh/yr. Musk is also a proponent of the carbon tax as this exchange reveals:

Elon Musk: What would it take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy? What kind of throughput would you actually need? You need a hundred gigafactories.

Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?

Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…

Elon Musk: No, the whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!

Elon Musk: The whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That’s it?! That sounds manageable.

Elon Musk: If all the big companies do this then we can accelerate the transition and if governments can set the rules in favour of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly. But it’s really fundamental: unless they put a price on carbon…

Leonardo DiCaprio: …then we are never going to be able to make the transition in time, right?

Elon Musk: Only way to do that is through a carbon tax.

It is too bad that DiCaprio did not follow up with a question about lithium mining since this is the primary ingredient of the batteries he will be producing. I first became aware of its environmental impact in a film titled “Salero” that examined the life of a salt extractor in Bolivia whose way of life was threatened by the transformation of the salt flats into a huge lithium mine. Friends of the Earth details the possible outcome, which amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul:

Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. Holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface, leaving it to evaporate in ponds. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.

The salt flats where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities. The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, local communities claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used for humans, livestock and crop irrigation.

Finally, there is the interview with Barack Obama in which the chief executive worries about scarce resources becoming subject to competition between populations. This amounts to a national security issue according to the Pentagon. In a way, this has already taken place if you consider the possibility that the revolt in Syria was fueled to some extent by climate change. You can read about this in the December 17, 2015 Scientific American:

Kemal Ali ran a successful well-digging business for farmers in northern Syria for 30 years. He had everything he needed for the job: a heavy driver to pound pipe into the ground, a battered but reliable truck to carry his machinery, a willing crew of young men to do the grunt work. More than that, he had a sharp sense of where to dig, as well as trusted contacts in local government on whom he could count to look the other way if he bent the rules. Then things changed. In the winter of 2006–2007, the water table began sinking like never before.

Ali had a problem. “Before the drought I would have to dig 60 or 70 meters to find water,” he recalls. “Then I had to dig 100 to 200 meters. Then, when the drought hit very strongly, I had to dig 500 meters. The deepest I ever had to dig was 700 meters. The water kept dropping and dropping.” From that winter through 2010, Syria suffered its most devastating drought on record. Ali’s business disappeared. He tried to find work but could not. Social uprisings in the country began to escalate. He was almost killed by cross fire. Now Ali sits in a wheelchair at a camp for wounded and ill refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

If there is anything that casts doubt on the ability or willingness of American imperialism to preempt “national security” issues stemming from climate change, it is the situation in Syria that has deteriorated to hellish levels. The USA had zero interest in reducing conflict in the entire Middle East and North Africa, which to one extent or another is suffering from extreme weather conditions. Its general strategy is to support the status quo with one or another dictatorship keeping men such as Kemal Ali from getting out of hand. Oil will be sent from Saudi Arabia while men like al-Sisi and Assad keep the rabble in line. This is the shape of things to come in the 21st century and nothing will stop it except the revolutionary action of working people and farmers who have nothing to lose but their chains. This is a showdown that will force men and women in Leonardo DiCaprio’s social position to choose sides. I’d like to think on the basis of the convictions displayed in “Before the Flood” that he can be won to our side.

In the early moments of “Before the Flood”, DiCaprio recollects how as a young boy he began thinking about environmental questions. He became preoccupied with animal extinctions and wondered how they happened and how they could be prevented. Since we are part of the animal kingdom ourselves, we have an obvious interest in eliminating any environmental threats to our own existence.

Moving from those early musings to the current day, we see him in conversation with Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of “The Revenant”, a very fine film about one man’s struggle to reach civilization after being mauled in the wilderness by a grizzly bear. In a way, this was nature’s revenge since the man was a hunter who like thousands of others in the early 1800s helped to bring many creatures to the edge of extinction. We see director and actor looking in horror at a photograph of one of these hunters before a small mountain of pelts. DiCaprio shakes his head at this gruesome spectacle and asks why such men could not see the impact that they would have on nature.

That kind of irrational, cruel and ultimately self-destructive behavior is the subject of the documentary “The Ivory Game” that opens in theaters everywhere on November 4th as well as on Netflix. DiCaprio served as executive producer for the film that is directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson.

As the title implies, this is about the wholesale destruction of African elephants through poaching. The main market for their tusks is China, where the nouveau riche value artwork made of ivory. Like the rhinoceros tusks that end up in useless cures for a variety of ailments ranging from impotence to cancer, China is a primary cause of the enormous loss of living natural resources that cannot easily be replaced.

The film follows some of the men and women involved in eliminating the black market for ivory in both Africa and China. We meet the cops who are in pursuit of Shetani, a kingpin in the poaching business whose name is Swahili for Satan—appropriately enough. We also meet a young Chinese man who after being horrified as a boy by the slaughter of small animals in an outdoor market decided to take up their cause. He became an investigative journalist covering the ivory game as well as an undercover operative who secretly filmed the Chinese and Africans who take part in this sordid business.

As a further illustration of the insanity of the capitalist system, we learn that the men in the poaching trade and the shopkeepers in China who sell the handicrafts made of ivory want the elephant population to decline since that will drive up the price of their goods. Supply and demand, don’t you know? This becomes a vicious cycle that will eventually lead to their extinction.

As it happens, my earliest inklings into the conflict between capitalism and mother nature was a 1958 film titled “Roots of Heaven” directed by John Huston that I wrote about in July 2014:

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

So what do we make of Leonardo DiCaprio? To start with, it is good that he is involved with projects such as these. His name might help to fill seats in theaters that are outside the arthouse ghetto. It also helps that the two films have production values not ordinarily seen in documentaries.

Plus, the man puts his money on the line. He recently donated $1 million to an anti-poaching campaign. While he certainly can afford to make that kind of contribution, we can at least respect him for making it. I also invited you to visit his website where you can see other initiatives that he is funding. I am not sure if there is anybody doing more than him to protect wildlife and the ecosphere, at least in Hollywood.

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There were some autobiographical details in “Before the Flood” that I found interesting. It turns out that DiCaprio’s father was both a creator and marketer of underground comics and evidently part of the counter-culture. For some reason that only the father could explain, he put a poster of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” on his young child’s bedroom wall. DiCaprio became obsessed with the images, especially the one to the right that depicts hell. It is that image that evokes what our planet will look like unless the forces of destruction are not confronted and defeated.

Like most people in his milieu, DiCaprio is a Democrat as Wikipedia notes:

During the 2004 presidential election, DiCaprio campaigned and donated to John Kerry’s presidential bid. The FEC showed that DiCaprio gave $2,300 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the 2008 election, the maximum contribution an individual could give in that election cycle, and $5,000 to Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Well, the $5000 shelled out to Obama might have been wasted but the million dollars to save the elephants was much better spent.

On balance, we are better off with DiCaprio as a spokesman for causes we believe in rather than him standing on the sidelines doing cocaine and navel-gazing. In the final analysis, it is the working class and its allies that will transform the economic system that hastens climate change and the extinction of African elephants but we should be looking for all the help we can get in a monumental struggle upon which everything rests, including the survival of life on earth.

This is the speech he gave to the UN on April 22nd, 2016. I’d like to think he wrote it himself:

Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, for the honor to address this body once more. And thanks to the distinguished climate leaders assembled here today who are ready to take action.

President Abraham Lincoln was also thinking of bold action 150 years ago when he said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

He was speaking before the US Congress to confront the defining issue of his time – slavery.

Everyone knew it had to end but no one had the political will to stop it. Remarkably, his words ring as true today when applied to the defining crisis of our time – Climate Change.

As a UN Messenger of Peace, I have been travelling all over the world for the last two years documenting how this crisis is changing the natural balance of our planet. I have seen cities like Beijing choked by industrial pollution. Ancient Boreal forests in Canada that have been clear cut and rainforests in Indonesia that have been incinerated. In India I met farmers whose crops have literally been washed away by historic flooding. In America I have witnessed unprecedented droughts in California and sea level rise flooding the streets of Miami. In Greenland and in the Arctic I was astonished to see that ancient glaciers are rapidly disappearing well ahead of scientific predictions. All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me.

There is no doubt in the world’s scientific community that this a direct result of human activity and that the effects of climate change will become astronomically worse in the future.

I do not need to throw statistics at you. You know them better than I do, and more importantly, you know what will happen if this scourge is left unchecked. You know that climate change is happening faster than even the most pessimistic of scientists warned us decades ago. It has become a runaway freight train bringing with it an impending disaster for all living things.

Now think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we had the means of stopping this devastation, but simply lacked the political will to do so.

Yes, we have achieved the Paris Agreement. More countries have come together to sign this agreement today than for any other cause in the history of humankind – and that is a reason for hope – but unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough.

Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. An upheaval and massive change is required, now. One that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race, inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you.

We all know that reversing the course of climate change will not be easy, but the tools are in our hands – if we apply them before it is too late.

Renewable energy, clean fuels, and putting a price on carbon pollution are beginning to turn the tide. This transition is not only the right thing for our world, but it also makes clear economic sense, and is possible within our lifetime.

But it is now upon you to do what great leaders have always done: to lead, inspire, and empower as President Lincoln did in his time.

We can congratulate each other today, but it will mean nothing if you return to your countries and fail to push beyond the promises of this historic agreement. Now is the time for bold unprecedented action.

My friends, look at the delegates around you. It is time to ask each other – which side of history will you be on?

As a citizen of our planet who has witnessed so much on this journey I thank you for all you have done to lay the foundation of a solution to this crisis, but after 21 years of debates and conferences it is time to declare no more talk. No more excuses. No more ten-year studies. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that effect our future. This is the only body that can do what is needed. You, sitting in this very hall.

The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them.

Lincoln’s words still resonate to all of us here today:

“We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

That is our charge now – you are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it. Or we – and all living things we cherish – are history.

Thank you.

October 1, 2016

The 13th; The Birth of a Nation

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

While likely scheduled for distribution independently of each other, the pending release of “Birth of a Nation” and the selection of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” for last night’s opening of the New York Film Festival practically amount to joint appearances. The first is a narrative film written, directed by and starring Nate Parker as Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, that opens everywhere on October 7th, the same day that DuVernay’s documentary about the prison-industrial complex is released to Netflix.

Put succinctly, these are two films that must be seen as complements to each other. In explaining why forms of slavery linger on to this day, DuVernay’s film starts with the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and that was the centerpiece of Stephen Spielberg’s vastly overrated “Lincoln”. If you read the fine print of the amendment, you will see that it stipulates: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is that “except as a punishment for crime” that is key to understanding how the phenomenon of what author Douglas Blackmon called “Slavery by Another Name” continues to this day.

“The 13th” begins by describing the quandary faced by the southern bourgeoisie once slavery was abolished. Without Black people no longer in bondage and free to rely on subsistence farming, how could you secure the cheap labor that was necessary to get the economy going? The answer was convict labor. From the earliest days of reconstruction, laws were passed in the south to impose stiff prison terms on offenses as minor as loitering—used of course on a discriminatory basis against Blacks. As convicts, they could be forced to do the same kind of work they used to do as slaves and with even less concern about their comfort or their health.

The efforts at identifying Blacks with crime was an ongoing one. Key to that was depicting the Deep South as a victim of Northern aggression and the connivance of the freed slaves who were savages with nothing but criminal mayhem in their hearts, particularly raping white women. In 1905 Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote a book titled “The Clansman” that was key to the revival of the KKK. A decade later D.W. Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation” that was based on Dixon’s book and that became a wildly popular film in both the north and the south, so much so that Woodrow Wilson organized a private screening at the White House.

When asked by Filmmaker Magazine why he chose the same title as Griffith’s KKK propaganda, Nate Parker replied:

From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.

I will return to Ava DuVernay’s documentary but will now make the case for Nate Parker’s film being the first made by an American filmmaker that is both artistically and politically on the same level as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn”. Only 36 years old, Parker has made a breakthrough film that is my choice for best picture of 2016 that will almost inevitably not be dislodged from that status even as the director is now being dogged by controversy about a rape charge made against him in 1999.

Like “12 Years a Slave”, a much heralded 2013 film by Black British director Steve McQueen, much of “The Birth of a Nation” is a searing depiction of slaves being brutalized to the point where you need to cover your eyes. In one scene, we see a slave master using a hammer to knock out the teeth of a slave in chains who is on a hunger strike. Without the teeth, it is easier to put a funnel into his mouth and force-feed him just as is the case with 3 prisoners in Wisconsin this year who were protesting solitary confinement.

What distinguishes Parker’s film from McQueen’s is that it is not merely a grim parade of suffering that is the British director’s hallmark and something Armond White once described as follows:

For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.

For Parker, the real story is Nat Turner’s religious, moral and political evolution from a preacher hired out to plantation owners to pacify their slaves with hopes for the afterlife into a rebel determined to fight for his freedom until death.

The film begins with the young Nat Turner reading a book he purloined from his master’s library and reading by candlelight a la Abe Lincoln. When the master’s wife learns about his ability, she invites him into the library to see the books at leisure. When he approaches a shelf, she pulls him away and says that those will not be of use to him. He only needs to read one book, the bible that she slips into his hands.

At first he feels a sense of pride in being able to deliver sermons to the slaves that lifts their spirits but eventually the cognitive dissonance between the cruelty he sees delivered upon them diurnally and the “pie in the sky” he preaches reaches a breaking point after his wife is raped and beaten by a three men out patrolling for runaway slaves.

Besides the character development and dialog that are at a level much higher than any Hollywood film I have seen in years, “The Birth of a Nation” is a cinematographic wonder with poetic renderings of nature, humanity and the southern agrarian milieu. The white characters are universally despicable but not in the cartoonish way of most films about the slave epoch especially Quentin Tarantino’s stupid burlesque of the period.

Many of you are probably aware that William Styron wrote a novel titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967 during a period of deep Black militancy. Styron’s portrayal of Turner had little to do with Nate Parker’s film. He found Turner to be a “dangerous religious lunatic and . . . psychopathic monster” based on his reading of Turner’s confession to a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas Gray. Styron’s version of Turner was so offensive that a rejoinder titled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” eventually appeared. In anticipating his later morphing into a bigoted reactionary, Eugene Genovese wrote a long defense of Styron in the N.Y. Review of Books.

In reading a 2008 NY Times article about Styron and the Nat Turner controversy, I found myself wondering what Turner actually said in the confessions. As it happens, it has been posted on the Internet and is well worth reading. Much of it has the rhetoric of a sermon but there are a couple of sentences that help you to understand why Nat Turner became a rebel:

And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams–and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.”

For Styron, Nat Turner’s rebellion was not that much different than the advance of an unnamed former slave in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” upon a white southern belle who generates so much fear that she throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. The Wikipedia article on Styron’s novel describes his version of the scene that is the climax of Parker’s film:

From the very beginning, however, Nat’s rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat’s leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army.

Since rape is a key event in Parker’s movie as well, but more logically one involving a white assault on a Black woman, much has been made about the controversy that surfaced on August 16th when it was revealed that he was accused but then cleared of rape charges when he was a student at Penn State. His accuser committed suicide in 2012 when she was 30 years old. The news led the prestigious American Film Institute to cancel a screening. Parker is scheduled to appear on “Sixty Minutes” tomorrow night but I am not sure I am interested in hearing about the case.

Even if he was guilty of the heinous act, that does not make “The Birth of a Nation” any less worthy of the accolades it has received. Long after Nate Parker is dead and gone, people will be watching this film in the same way that others have viewed Griffith’s classic. Its message is toxic but it was an important film as even James Agee argued. While Griffith was never accused of such a crime, his film was arguably responsible in part for thousands of lynchings. The legacy of Parker’s film will be one as a significant contribution to the art of cinema and the Black struggle. His own life is incidental to that.

Returning now to Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece of a documentary, it overlaps in considerable ways with Parker’s film since they both are reflections on one of America’s original sins: slavery.

“The 13th” is a fearless work that is not afraid to take on sacred cows including Bill Clinton who was once referred to as “our first Black president” by Toni Morrison in 1996. DuVernay provides compelling detail about how a series of presidents have re-instituted “slavery by another name” by making black skin a signifier for crime.

It all started with Nixon’s “southern strategy” that went hand in hand with a war on drugs that has been essential to the carceration epidemic that has resulted in 1 out of 3 Blacks ending up behind bars in their lifetime as opposed to 1 out of 17 whites. Nixon’s aide John Erlichman put it this way:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Ronald Reagan’s aide Lee Atwater explained how you can be a racist without actually using words like “nigger”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Now everybody knows that people like Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and Donald Trump are racist pigs but what about Bill Clinton, the “first Black president”?

DuVernay calls  upon expert witnesses who are much less impressed with the former president and his wife now running for president who referred to young Blacks as “super-predators” in 1996, a term that had the same kind of loaded significance as a scene from D.W. Griffith’s film.

Leaving aside words, some of Clinton’s critics who appear in the film cite his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill as far more harmful than any legislation backed by Republicans. It was responsible for mandatory minimums and the “three strikes” life sentences that have filled our prisons.

Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, a book that has obviously influenced DuVernay’s film, is interviewed throughout the film and is one of many very informed and eloquent social critics that make “The 13th” must-viewing. In a Nation Magazine article  titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”, she explains why (it should be mentioned that she had problems with Bernie Sanders who also voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill):

An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn’t have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.

Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren’t looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars—out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics.

To make matters worse, the federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).

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