Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2018

What They Had

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

A couple of weeks ago a publicist asked me to have a look at a documentary titled “Distant Constellation” set in an Istanbul old age home. I warned her that I had misgivings about such a film but would give it a shot since I have valued her efforts on behalf of non-commercial films. Within fifteen minutes, however, I realized that the film was too close to home. The residents of the nursing home were either suffering from dementia or unable to present a cogent account of their lives there. The title of the film derives from one of the elderly patient’s speculations about life on other planets.

The Guardian review of the film begins with a Philip Roth quote: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” That summed it up for me.

When the publicist asked me why I bailed on the film, I explained that it was too close to home. Two years ago my father-in-law Hasan, now deceased, got on a minibus in Istanbul without any idea where he was going. His wife Meral grew increasingly frantic in his absence until she got a phone call from a good Samaritan who had figured out that Hasan was suffering from dementia and asked him politely to show him his wallet, which he did. That led to the phone call and the realization that he could only go outside their building accompanied by the live-in caregiver. Until his death a few months ago, the stress of caring for him weighed heavily on both my mother-in-law and my wife. Massacre, indeed.

Until my mother’s death a decade ago, I visited her fairly regularly at the upstate nursing home she had been living in for two years or so. Until the day she died, my mom did not suffer from any cognitive deficits. Her problem was mostly circulatory, a function of never doing the slightest bit of exercise, not even walking. A visit was always a pleasant experience but compromised by the sight of so many patients her age suffering from dementia or stroke-induced paralysis. Massacre, indeed.

Yesterday I watched a screener for “What They Had”, a film that had been sent to me under consideration for NYFCO’s annual awards meeting in December. This is a narrative film about a family dealing with an elderly woman’s descent into the final stages of Alzheimer’s with her husband fighting to keep her at home while his son and daughter try to persuade him that the best thing would be for her to be placed in a nursing home.

The woman, named Ruth, is played by Blythe Danner, who was a close friend of mine at Bard College that I lost touch with after I graduated, which was the case with just about everybody I knew at Bard except for a former girlfriend and my close friend Jeffrey who is my regular chess partner and a dispenser of valuable but free psychological advice over the years.

As was also the case with Chevy Chase, who dated Blythe briefly at Bard, I have tried to follow her career for the past 53 years. This did not necessarily mean seeing some of the forgettable films or TV movies she appeared in over the years but at least reading any article covering her latest appearance. In her earliest roles, she played the ingenue, typically as in the Broadway play “Butterflies are Free”, where she was the ditzy next door neighbor of a young and handsome blind man.

It was this play that left her with the raspy voice that probably narrowed the range of characters she would play over the years. In an interview with Susan Wloszczyna on the Roger Ebert website, she explained how it happened: “I hurt my voice while doing my first Broadway play. I had a very high voice and I lowered it for my character. I didn’t know it would get me in trouble. So I’m stuck with a raspy voice.”

I remember Blythe before the raspiness kicked in. She was a great singer who could have made it as a recording artist. In 1965, I brought Bill Evans up for a solo concert at Bard and he agreed to accompany Blythe for a couple of songs, which was very generous for a celebrity like Bill.

Her parents gave her the name that befit her personality. She certainly was a “blithe spirit”, almost like one of Shakespeare’s fairies in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. To this day, I still have vivid memories of sitting on the lawn at Bard after smoking some pot and watching her and another theater major doing a highland fling just ten feet away. The sun shined on the two, with Blythe’s flaxen hair reflecting the sunbeams magically.

I used to sit alone in the dining commons at Bard, mainly because I felt anti-social most of the time. On numerous occasions, Blythe would join me at the table and confess her insecurities. She always felt inadequate academically and feared that people thought she was “ditzy”. I always tried to reassure her that she was very bright and level-headed but somehow I got the feeling that until she became a theater and film star, that feeling of inadequacy never disappeared.

Old age has a way of sneaking up on you. About five years ago, Blythe started doing commercials for Prolia, a medication for treating osteoporosis, an ailment she was suffering from herself.

It always felt strange to see the flaxen-haired ingenue of my youth appearing in such a commercial but that didn’t prepare me for “What They Had”, a story in which most of her dialog is off-kilter as you’d expect from her character. In one typical scene, when she hears the phone ringing, she comes back with an open stapler next to her ear, asking “Who’s there?” In another scene, she drinks the holy water in the Catholic church she, her husband and two children attend on a Sunday morning for old time’s sake. During the priest’s homily, she turns around and flips someone the finger for no apparent reason and then, a few minutes later, comes on sexually to her son. He is played convincingly—as always—by Michael Shannon. The daughter is played by Hilary Swank, who is more reluctant than Shannon’s character to place her in a home. Ruth’s husband is played by Robert Foster, an outstanding actor who captures the stubborn devotion his character has to a woman who can barely tell if he is her husband or not.

To be honest, “What They Had” is barely a step up from one of those Lifetime Cable “problem” movies that are geared to the network’s female audience. It was written and directed by the actress Elizabeth Chomko who was at least able to draw from personal experience in making the story so close to what families have to deal with when one of their number has to be institutionalized (there’s really no other word to describe it.) A slashfilm.com interviewer told her that the film came across as very personal. Chomko replied:

Yes. It is definitely personal—inspired by my grandparents, my family, and what we all went through coping with my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and loving her through all the subsequent memory loss and the ways in which it sort of—the caring for her—caregiving—the way in which it brought us to closer together and pulled us all apart. I think in the film everyone is reckoning with their memories and their own sense of time gone and past. I think when you start to witness someone losing their memories it really prompts—at least for me—a sense that memories are precious and that we take them for granted a little bit. So I think for all the characters, it prompts just a sense of coming of age. I think coming of age is something we do over the course of our life many times. I wanted to write something it felt like three generations kind of coming of age and in particular, the character that Hilary plays—a woman sort of reckoning with the decisions that she’s made and why she’s made them and does she want to continue down the path that’s led her on or not.

These strike me as very wise observations. Suffice it to say that the film embodies them even if it is not great filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination. You can expect the film to show up on VOD in a few months. As long as you don’t expect Orson Welles and as long as you can identify with the ordeal the family in the film have to deal with, it is worth watching.

Naturally, the question of dementia likely faces most of my readers, especially those closer to me in age than the average DSA’er. Over the past 10 years I find myself increasingly unable to remember the names of people, a “lapse” that is ubiquitous to senior citizens and not necessarily a sign that you will be drinking holy water at some point. As a way of doing sit-ups for my neurons, I play chess all the time on my computer and do the most difficult crossword puzzles I can find, especially the Saturday cryptic puzzles on the Wall Street Journal that would fry the brain of most people whatever their age. I also play a word game that does not require a pencil or a computer. I choose a category like jazz musician and then go through the alphabet trying to name as many as I can for each letter (Adderly, Ammons, Allen, Abrams, etc.)

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. it kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. So we are talking about a very frightening illness that will turn us into something like a zombie. The thought of losing your identity, your independence and your ability to use your mind productively is enough to keep you awake at night.

Two days ago, the NY Times reported on how “Dementia Is Getting Some Very Public Faces” prompted by the news that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had released a letter announcing that she’d been diagnosed with dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. The Times tries to put the best possible spin on how public acknowledgement of the disease can remove the stigma and reduce the isolation most patients have to endure but the real issue that is never confronted in such articles is the right to die. If someone still has a grip on reality but is just at the cusp of losing it, there should be an exit door that is available. Instead of forcing family members to spend their entire savings to keep a loved on in a nursing home long after they have no idea who they are, let alone their children or loved ones, people should be allowed to spare themselves the difficult choices forced upon the family in “What They Had”.

As should be obvious, the same reactionary forces that prevent women from controlling their own bodies also prevents us from ending our lives gracefully. If we lived under socialism, the expenses would be far less since the profit motive would be eliminated from the health industry. However, there is still the existential question that each of us face and that has to be resolved through our own free will. That takes a combination of Karl Marx and his contemporary Schopenhauer to navigate successfully.





October 28, 2017

The hairdo hall of shame

Filed under: aging — louisproyect @ 1:26 am

(Men, when you reach old age, wearing the hairstyle of a 21-year-old will not make you look younger. It will only make you look like a clown.)

Leon Wieseltier: arch-Zionist, social climber, crappy writer and sexual predator

Graydon Carter: Vanity Fair editor who turned into everything he satirized in Spy magazine

Ernest Moniz: Obama’s Secretary of Energy, who argued that fracking is good for the environment

Richard Branson: Rich bastard who sends rockets into space with atomic fuel that have already blown up.


Steven Pinker: sociobiologist who defends the idea that capitalism is a great advance over every social system that preceded it.


Ken Burns: documentary filmmaker who views Vietnam war as a tragic mistake rather than a deliberate imperialist grab.

December 18, 2015

Youth; 45 Years

Filed under: aging,Film — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

If you follow my writings on film, you are probably aware that I tend to review documentaries and foreign-language films with a focus on politics. As a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I try to catch up with commercial films starting in late November through the DVD’s and press screenings the studio’s publicity machine churns out. Most years I go to NYFCO meetings and abstain on many categories for the simple reason that something like “Zero Dark Thirty” was beyond the pale for me.

This year I was pleasantly surprised by the number of quality films that came my way, including an animated feature titled “Inside Out” that was in some ways the best film of 2015. Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting reviews of some of the best starting today with a couple that are by no means political but speak to me on both on an artistic and existential basis since they deal with the question of aging, a preoccupation of many baby boomers. Just about all of the films that I will be writing about are still playing in local theaters, including the two considered below.

Although it is an English-language film featuring American and British actors, the ironically titled “Youth” is really an Italian film. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, it is basically a two-character drama featuring Michael Caine as a composer named Fred Ballinger and Harvey Keitel as film director Mick Boyle. They sit around the hotel restaurant or swimming pool in a combination luxury hotel and health spa in the Swiss Alps discussing their various health problems, including enlarged prostate glands. They have been friends for decades and are acutely aware of having entered what Tom Brokaw called the “mortality zone”.

Ballinger has pretty much given up on new projects and spends much of the film fending off a representative of Queen Elizabeth who wants him to conduct one of his most famous compositions, “Simple Songs”. Boyle hasn’t given up yet and is working with a crew that has gathered at the hotel on a film intended to be his swan song. As grim as this sounds, it is mostly played as wistful comedy with Michael Caine at the top of his game.

Much of the film was shot on the premises of the Hotel Schatzalp, the same place that is featured as a TB sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain”. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Cancer Ward”, such frameworks lend themselves to philosophical/political dialogues between the main characters. “Youth” has this aspect but it is blended with Felliniesque touches that are far sunnier than the gloom of Mann and Solzhenitsyn. For example, a monstrously obese actor plays Argentine soccer player Maradona whose daily waddle into the hotel swimming pool prompts catty commentary by the two old friends.

Ultimately “Youth” is as much about the cinematography and film score as it is about plot or dialogue. If you want to spend a couple of hours immersed in a stream of jaw-dropping tableaus assembled by a director/screenwriter with a mastery of his art form second to none, I recommend “Youth” highly.

Like the two main characters in “Youth”, the British film “45 Years” features a couple of old friends who have known each other for about the same amount of time. It also so happens that they are married. As I know from first-hand experience, a solid marriage is based on friendship more than anything else.

Tom Courtenay plays the husband Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling is his wife Kate. Another main character is their German Shepherd Max that Kate walks each morning. Well into their seventies, their day is spent listening to music, eating meals with each other and puttering about their small but attractive house on the outskirts of a bright and prosperous looking town in the British countryside. As a retiree, I am familiar with the drill.

Their placidly quotidian existence is interrupted by a letter that Geoff receives one morning a week before their 45th anniversary informing him that the body of his companion prior to meeting Kate has been discovered at the bottom of a precipice in the Swiss alps. The two had been hiking when in their early 20s and she stepped into the precipice accidentally. As next of kin (he and his lover identified themselves as husband and wife in more straight-laced times), he received the news with a sense of finality.

Haunted now by her memory, he acts to put the anniversary on the back burner. He loses interest in his current affairs to the point of backing out of a big celebration his friends have organized. Not only is Kate disturbed by his decision, she is even more upset to discover that Geoff might be making plans to travel to Switzerland to see her body. When Geoff begins spending time in the attic pouring through the boxes that contain photos of he and the woman, she confronts him: if she had lived, would they eventually wed. His answer: yes.

Andrew Haigh, a gay man who produced and wrote for “Looking”, the HBO series about gay men, wrote and directed “45 Years”. It is as sign of his brilliance that despite his sexual orientation he was able to make a film about heterosexual marriage that is about as realistic as any I have seen in my life. He has the daily rhythms of married life nailed down perfectly, from the minor quarrels to the major dramas that naturally occur over the course of a life together.

The screenplay was adapted from a short story by David Constantine titled “In Another Country”. Constantine lectured on German literature at Oxford University for twenty years and was the editor of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation so we are dealing with source material that is obviously a cut above the junk that most commercial films are based on. It would be well worth your time to read the story at https://books.google.com/books?id=5WRwCgAAQBAJ. It would be an even better use of your time to see this amazing film that probes the depths and heights of human experience.

Is there a place for films starring septuagenarian characters? I would hope so since everybody will find himself or herself there at one point or another—if you are lucky. With so much crap coming out about geezers, from the stereotypical crotchety “get off my lawn” performance of Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” to Alan Arkin’s performance of an out-of-control grandfather in “Little Miss Sunshine”, there is a need for films that depict people in their seventies and eighties as essentially the same people they were in their youth. As I told a good friend yesterday who I have known since 1961, there’s not much difference between the man I am today and back then—of course excluding the enlarged prostate.

July 20, 2015

Still Alice

Filed under: aging,Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

“Still Alice” is now the fourth narrative film that I have seen dealing with Alzheimer’s and by far the best. (Brief summaries of the other three appear at the end of this review.) Starring Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a 50-year old Columbia University linguistics professor with early onset, the film is blessed by an exceptionally intelligent screenplay and direction by the late Richard Glatzer whose wife died of ALS. Some critics feel that his own family tragedy helped him shape the material but probably the most important element was the novel upon which it was based.

Written by Lisa Genova in 2007, the novel not only benefited from the author’s expertise as a neuroscience researcher with a PhD from Harvard but her familiarity with the mandarin life-style of her characters. Given the main character’s lofty perch in an Ivy League school, her husband’s own privileged status as a medical researcher, and their familiarity with Manhattan’s exquisite but pricey restaurants and other luxuries, her descent into an illness that would rob her of both her livelihood and—worse—her identity is unimaginably steep. In a key scene, when she and her husband are at their Hamptons summer home, she wets her pants because she cannot remember where the bathroom was.

Moore’s performance won her an Academy Award for best performance by an actress in 2014 and was one I would have supported if I had seen the film that year. Now that is available on Amazon streaming, I cannot recommend it highly enough. At the age of 55, Moore manages to convey the desperation of a world-class intellectual trying to keep her wits about her in the face of insurmountable odds. Her life begins to revolve around her IPhone, which is used to remind her of how to bake a cake or to take the pills she needs for a suicide when the smart phone no longer can bail her out.

Alex Baldwin, who plays her husband, is also very good as a man who does his best to run interference for his wife but finally comes to the sad realization that nothing will make up for her not being able to recognize her own daughter after she has seen her perform in an off-Broadway production of a Chekhov play.

Given the ineluctably predictable nature of the disease, any such film will lack the suspense element that is found in most tragedies. Indeed, it is open to question whether a film about Alzheimer’s can be called a tragedy since it lacks the “fatal flaw”, especially hubris, which is common to the classic tragedy from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

Some scholars believe that King Lear suffered from dementia although it impossible to pin down which kind. What made his downfall a tragedy was not his illness but his hubris, demanding more from his daughters than they were willing to give. There is an element of this in “Still Alice” to be sure. Alice constantly nags her youngest daughter Lydia (played superbly by Kristen Steward, the star of the insipid Twilight vampire movies) about abandoning her career as an actress and doing something more practical. When Lydia finally makes it relatively big in a Chekhov play, mom cannot recognize her—at least momentarily.

While the film is primarily a character study of how a dreaded illness takes down a very successful and self-possessed overachiever, it is also has universal meaning for any human being, particularly those over the age of sixty. 1 out of 9 Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease, increasing to one out of three over the age of 85. Scary odds. A week ago on the first night of my wife’s arrival at her parents’ home in Istanbul, her 87-year old father wandered off and ended up in a neighborhood far from home. When it became obvious to a young couple on a bus that he was lost, they were fortunate enough to find his phone number in one of his pockets. He is safe and at home now, much to my relief.

I hold out hope that my mother’s genes will hold me in good stead. Just a few days before her death in 2008, she was as lucid as ever. It was her circulatory system that was her undoing, an outcome of the wrong foods and a long time lack of exercise. Of course, sooner or later something will do you in whether it is Alzheimer’s, a circulatory system collapse, cancer or some other event associated with being in the “mortality zone” as Tom Brokaw put it in a column dealing with his battle against multiple myeloma.

In one key scene, Alice bemoans the fact that she has Alzheimer’s rather than cancer since at least cancer will not rob you of your identity. It is a disease like no other in that it transforms you into a stranger as if a zombie has taken possession of your body. Perhaps the best way to describe films such as “Still Alice” is as a subcategory of the horror movie with the monster being made up of the plaque in your nervous system rather than one stalking you with a butcher knife.

Other films in this genre:

The Savages”: a brother and sister cope with an ailing father in a nursing home. It is bittersweet comedy/tragedy directed by Tamara Jenkins who had the experience of putting her own father into a nursing home when she was in her 30s. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney turn in fine performances as the feckless brother and sister. The DVD can be purchased for pennies on Amazon.com.

Away from Her”: Based on an Alice Munro short story, the wife has entered a nursing home and soon falls in love with another Alzheimer’s patient leaving her husband in the lurch. When he visits her, she has no idea who he is and prefers the company of her new companion. I found the film preposterous but you can make your own evaluation through Amazon.com streaming.

Memories of Tomorrow”: A Japanese film about a successful and hard-driving “salaryman”, who the disease takes down, just like Alice. It is much more of a love story than a tragedy since he depends on a newly kindled relationship to his long-neglected wife to help him through his vicissitudes. Ken Watanabe, one of Japan’s best-known actors, plays the lead character. It is a very fine film that can be only be seen through a Netflix DVD rental.

February 18, 2014

Notes on a staggering ISO

Filed under: aging,Counterpunch,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 11:03 am

Counterpunch February 18, 2014

The Slow Death of “Leninism”

Notes on a Staggering ISO


It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.

In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.

Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.

read full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/18/notes-on-a-staggering-iso/

February 1, 2014

The downside of aristocracy

Filed under: aging — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Screen shot 2014-02-01 at 12.47.23 PM

That’s Prince Charles, three years younger than me. But he looks nearly old enough to be my father. Just look at my photo below with my wife’s cousin Ceyda’s dog Daisy in Izmir. Prince Charles has spent a lifetime on the decks of yachts, skiing in the Alps, playing polo, etc. By contrast, I have spent my time indoors pouring over the Grundrisse, etc.


March 15, 2013

Notes on China’s New Left

Filed under: aging,China,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

Recent articles about China in Harper’s and N+1 remind me that there will always be a need for print publications, as long as they can deliver in-depth and trenchant analysis of the sort that is harder to find on the web. Before discussing the articles, it would be worth saying a word or two about the two magazines.

Harper’s has been around since June 1850 and is the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S. after Scientific American. I took out a subscription in the early 80s around the same time I took out one to the Nation. Eventually I grew tired of the tepid liberalism of the Nation and did not renew my subscription. Harper’s can best be described as close to Ralph Nader type politics with a strong patrician streak that was most pronounced under the editorship of Lewis Lapham who I adored. Roger Hodge, whose book on Obama, “The Mendacity of Hope”, is a great read despite its odd affinity for Thomas Jefferson, replaced Lapham in 2003. Hodge got on publisher John MacArthur’s wrong side and was fired in 2010. MacArthur is heir to a family fortune and apparently runs the magazine in a rather imperious fashion. Despite that, I find it a great read and especially value the monthly “difficult” crossword puzzles.

N+1 is published 3 times a year out of Brooklyn and has ‘tude to spare. Benjamin Kunkel, who has written for The Nation and Dissent, two mainstays of left-liberalism, was one of the founding editors. In an N+1 article commemorating Christopher Hitchens, Kunkel began:

In high school I was, like many incipient writers, too high-minded and self-involved to take any serious notice of the world as described by journalists. Wars, elections, and revolutions were trivial events beside the development of literature and my part within it. Later, as a college freshman, when I first discovered politics, it was on a summit of vertiginous abstraction.

I suppose I never got a paying job as a journalist because putting together a phrase like “a summit of vertiginous abstraction” is simply beyond me. My goal in writing has always been to express myself in exactly the same way that I speak to people. I suppose having read Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” back in 1961 also had something to do with it: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

“The Unraveling of Bo Xilai: China loses a populist star” appears in the March 2013 Harper’s. Written by Lauren Hilgers who lives in Shanghai, it—like most Harper’s articles—is behind a paywall. My feeling is that as long as such articles continue to appear in Harper’s, I will continue to be a subscriber. I had been following the Bo Xilai saga in the N.Y. Times but found it all totally confusing. I knew that he was one of China’s richest men and that his wife had been charged with the murder of a British citizen but the politics—you couldn’t figure out a thing from the Times.

Thanks to Ms. Hilgers, I finally have an idea of what was going on. Apparently, Bo was orienting to China’s “New Left”, a odd term for a group of people who express nostalgia for Mao. She writes:

Bo Xilai offered a potential solution— one that didn’t require real political reform. He relied on his populist appeal, his revolutionary bloodline, and an utter disregard for the law. He was undoubtedly corrupt, but in Chongqing, as in Dalian, he rolled out policies with something for everyone. Bo orchestrated a return to communist values, sending out mass text messages with his favorite Mao quotes. He promoted the singing of “red songs” and banned all primetime advertising on Chongqing’s television station, encouraging its executives to run patriotic films instead. Bo’s “red culture” campaign turned him into a figurehead for China’s New Left, a movement that lionizes Mao and looks to return to what adherents think of as a simpler, less corrupt era. Bo planted trees (Xilai trees), built low-income housing, and attracted investment. At the same time, Bo’s “Chongqing model” encouraged a greater economic role for China’s state-owned enterprises. His anti-mafia campaign, promoted with the slogan “Strike the black,” helped him wipe out his opponents and establish an extensive surveillance network— but it also helped Bo beef up the police force, making the city safer. Bo cast himself as a champion of China’s poor, a crusader against corruption, greed, and inequality.

Hilgers visited the Utopia Bookstore, an outpost of Maoist values and discovered broad support for Bo there:

The people at Utopia bookstore were Bo’s target audience. They wanted to be engaged; they worried about the fate of their country and were hungry for more information, whatever the source. And Bo, more than other Chinese politicians, was available. For them, a little accessibility went a long way. The regular old lady listed her concerns: Capitalism had made some people happy, but it had made some people rich and some people poor. It had also made people corrupt. Leaders weren’t concerned with equality or the poor. China bowed too easily to America’s demands. And Bo Xilai, she said, was the only leader addressing her concerns. “We all pretty much support Bo Xilai here,” a visiting volunteer from Shandong told me. He was a little bit suspicious of me and asked to be identified as a “reader.”

Bo Xilai was recently expelled from the CCP and his wife was arrested for murder. Clearly the party leaders were getting nervous about pretenders to the throne who were striking a chord in the restive population.

As I have pointed out to comrades on Marxmail recently, the Chinese boom appears to be coming to an end and the country faces a real estate bubble of biblical proportions. Under such conditions, having a Mao-spouting millionaire presents problems even if he doesn’t mean a word of it.

Nikil Saval’s N+1 article is titled “The Long Eighties” and deals with the problems facing the democrats in a country whose rulers seem to have stifled the mass movement through a combination of repression and state-managed economic growth.

It is a very probing and well-researched article that includes some insights into the affection the New Left had for a corrupt and demagogic millionaire like Bo Xilai:

Meanwhile the Chinese “New Left”—a loose assemblage of intellectuals that formed around the journal Dushu (Readings)—occupies the opposite position. The “New Left” is highly opposed to the country’s economic direction, yet its members are not only not in jail, but in some cases socially affiliated with the government. Its leading figure, Beijing-based intellectual historian and social theorist Wang Hui, has criticized intellectuals like Liu for remaining fundamentally unopposed to the neoliberal direction of the country. Wang argues that while China has the opportunity to craft an “alternative modernity,” a form of social democracy opposed to the creeping of market logic into every corner of existence, Chinese liberals simply accept a teleology of modernity that basically resembles America—a model that is visibly failing. Not that Wang is in fact against markets. On the contrary, following Braudel’s distinction between markets and capitalism, Wang argues that “a critique of an actual market society and its crises cannot be equated with repudiation of the mechanisms of market competition, as the principal task of critical intellectuals is to disclose the antimarket mechanisms within market society and to bring to bear a democratic and socialized conception of markets to counter the antimarket logic of actual market society.” Wang espouses, in other words, a kind of market socialism, which would preserve competition on a local, small-scale level, in contrast to China’s rather ostentatious collusion of government and business.

Unlike Liu, Wang has managed to stay aboveground and out of prison. (Though he is no longer editor-in-chief, Readings was and is published with state approval.) He teaches frequently in the US, and outside China his writing—unfailingly intelligent, though dense and laborious where Liu is fleet and lucid—has been best received among left-wing English and American academics, who are naturally skeptical of the liberals. (The liberals, meanwhile, attract the attention of every-one else.) Part of the reason Wang stays out of jail is the attitude he and his comrades display toward the political scene. Where Liu sees generalized abjection and totalitarianism, Wang and his collaborators see hope for criticism and a margin of openness in the political atmosphere. But they may be kidding themselves. The recent government has been in the habit of adopting “New Left” rhetoric while doing little to prosecute its aims. High-placed officials speak unctuously about equality and the continuing project of socialism while silently (but blatantly) cultivating their relations with factory owners and financiers.

While I generally find N+1’s articles compelling (except for the fiction that like most fiction leaves me cold), I do wish they would lay off the Young Turk posturing that can be found in a section at the front of the magazine called “The Intellectual Situation” that is obsessed with exposing well-established magazines like Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review as “old fogies”. They have a particular animus toward Harper’s. You can actually read the latest “The Intellectual Situation” here: http://nplusonemag.com/the-intellectual-situation-issue-15.

While the Atlantic hustles women for page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacat

Apparently the editor’s disparaging of people running Harper’s or other such moldy figs as “aged” annoys me to no end. After all, I am 68 but do not listen to Guy Lombardo or wear diapers. Some other old fogey got so fed up with some other such business they wrote N+1 a letter giving it a piece of its mind. I don’t know if it will do any good. You know how full of themselves young people can be.


Dear Editors, I am surprised by the ageism of “Big Babies,” in a magazine that otherwise seems conscious of social injustice and the power of language. The authors adopt old age as a metaphor for the stupid and repugnant, as women long were used as a metaphor for evil. Adjectives such as “old” and “retired” are thrown around as insults; “senilely” is meant to ridicule. The image of old people with “suit sleeves flopping” (yes, many of our wrists become skinny and bony, as the authors’ may, should they live to old age) is taken to be patently repellent. I thought that was the worst until I came upon the sneering depiction of the “Autocrat of the Senior Center” in a “second childhood” in which “someone wipes his spills.” The dis-abilities often associated with old age, “confusion and impotence” and being “forgetful,” are invoked to demean, while “Napoleon in Depends” is presented as the ultimate insult. It’s not the old who are disgusting but this rhetoric. The authors condemn misogyny and the war on women but happily enlist in the war on the old and disabled. I wish on those who wrote that section a long old age in which they—without, I hope, confusion, impotence, or Depends, but don’t bet on it—will have to slowly chew, swallow, and expel their indigestible words.

—Alix Kates Shulman

October 21, 2012

Bruce Springsteen victim of early Alzheimer’s

Filed under: aging,music,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 2:56 pm

August 2, 2012

Retirement miscellany

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Last Monday they had a little going away party for me at work with a gift clock to remind me of my workmates. You can’t see the words with the glare off the bronze but it says “Thanks Louis Proyect, from FINSYS”. Finsys is Financial Systems, the project I have supported for the past 15 years or so.

Although I am a pretty unsentimental bastard, I was genuinely touched by the tributes people paid to me. I was in an unusual position on the team, having functioned more or less as their technical support. Typically I was asked to create a Sybase table that could be used in testing by another programmer. So just as someone, for example, in the accounts payable department was their user, so were they mine. As so often is the case in information technology, the user tends to complain about the technical support they are getting. Accounts payable might complain about the service they were receiving from the rest of the team, and they had the same attitude toward me much of the time no matter how hard I tried to keep up with the requests. That is why I appreciated their thanks to me so much. I was leaving on a positive note. I told them as well that no matter how churlish I could be—and believe me, I can get very churlish—I was always grateful to work with such good people.

I told the group that there were three things that allowed me to work at Columbia University as long as I did. The first was the people I worked with, who like me tended to be at the school for reasons other than money. Because of their relative indifference to big bucks, they were a lot less aggressive and a lot less conniving than the people I used to work with on Wall Street.

The second was my boss who had a better knack for motivating her staff than anybody I’ve worked for in my 44-year career. She could ream you out if your work was not up to snuff but you never held it against her. Usually performance reviews were anxiety-provoking  in previous jobs over the years but that was not my experience working for her for the simple reason that you always knew where you stood. If she didn’t yell at you, you were doing your job. Over the past 10 years or so, I got yelled at very infrequently so I felt pretty secure most of the time.

Lastly there was the advantage of working at a university, which meant being able to take classes for free, the high point of which was the two years of Turkish language courses given by the irrepressible Etem Erol, who is now at Yale. With houseguests from Izmir here since July 25th, I find that I can follow much of the conversation although my speaking is limited to simple questions like “Yemek istiyor musun?” (Do you want something to eat?)

But of even greater importance was access to Jstor, Lexis-Nexis, and Proquest—three scholarly databases that I have used over the years to great advantage, as well as the Columbia University library. I will continue to have access to all of this as a retiree.

As part of my exit process, I spent time talking to a woman in personnel about my insurance options. With my last paycheck on Tuesday, I am no longer insured except for Medicare Part A, which is free and available to everybody over 65. I understood that I had to look into getting Medicare Part B or Part C, or whatever but needed her help in sorting things out. As it turns out, Medicare is not exactly free. Part A entitles you to hospitalization but only 80 percent. Part B is intended to help cover the costs of Part A as well as pay for doctor visits. Furthermore, if you have access to private insurance, as I would as a spouse added to my wife’s GHI plan, you should sign up for that rather than Part B.  As the woman in personnel began explaining all the ins and outs to me, my brain began to fog over. It reminded me of how Peter Camejo used to explain covered options, or butterfly spreads, to me. I could never figure out what he was talking about but trusted him to give me good advice.

When I asked her whether Part B was the way to go if it was cheaper than getting added to my wife’s GHI plan, she said that you get treated better if you have private insurance. Some doctors will not take Medicare patients.

At that point, I told her that she should excuse me for sounding political but it sounded to me like Medicare was not exactly cracked up to be as advertised, namely basically free medical coverage for retirees. The slogan of “Medicare for All” that is counterpoised to the new Affordable Care Act by some on the left might need to be rethought.

At that point, she opened up to me and started off by saying that she remembered me from my remarks to Robert Kasdin, Lee Bollinger’s chief of administration, at a meeting for IT, Personnel and Financial Systems employees held the day after a worker was killed during demolition of the building across the street from ours. I had told Kasdin that Columbia should make every effort to force the companies it was using for the Manhattanville expansion to follow OSHA rules to the letter. It was very bad for a leading liberal arts institution to give the appearance that it put construction costs over the lives and well being of ordinary working people.

Apparently this was the sort of thing others would like to hear at such at a meeting but only I had the brass to say.

I was pleasantly surprised to find her assessment of Medicare’s shortcomings in terms familiar to readers of Alternet or the Nation Magazine. It reminded me that the support for the Occupy Movement did not come out of the blue. Millions and millions of Americans have been profoundly impacted by the financial crisis to the degree that an unrepentant Marxist like me does not so nutty to a solid middle-class citizen.

The times they are a-changin’

Yesterday and today were the first post-retirement days. Today I had breakfast with a member of my wife’s dissertation board who is a lefty like me. The three of us had a pleasant chat, with her talking mostly about the ardors she faced getting tenure and me exchanging ideas about the political situation.

Afterwards, we came home and I sat down to write this article. As much as I liked being at Columbia University, I think I prefer things this way. Years ago, when I fantasized about retiring this was the image that always came to mind, Ferdinand the Bull smelling the flowers rather than dodging the matador’s sword:

I think I can get used to this.

April 3, 2012

Sugar: the bitter truth

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

A couple of months ago, after I began taking naps almost every night over a three week period—something that was unprecedented for me—my wife urged me to get a check-up. So alarmed was I about my changing sleep patterns coming at me with the force of jet lag that I broke with my ostrich-like aversion to medical exams and made an appointment. At the age of 67, I knew that it was better to find out about some frightening condition even if medical science lacked the means to overcome it.

My overall attitude toward such matters was profoundly fatalistic. I could not help but think that my body was like a car with over 100,000 miles on it. It might get me from point A to point B for the time being but eventually it would be done in by the organic counterpart of rust. To extend the motor vehicle analogy further, by the time I had reached the age of 50 I began feeling like Yves Montand driving that truck filled with dynamite in “Wages of Fear”. No matter how careful you were, death would catch up to you. I might have spent over 45 years defending socialist ideas, but before that I was a hard-core existentialist. It was hard not to think in existential terms, after all, when it came to matters of life and death.

By the time of the appointment, my sleeping patterns had returned to normal. But the report I got back from my blood test left me feeling a bit rattled. My cholesterol levels were high and the doctor recommended a change in diet and more exercise. About five years ago I took a blood-pressure test in a cafeteria at work and was told that it was slightly elevated. That persuaded me to cut down on salt and start using a butter substitute. With respect to exercise, there’s not much more I can do beyond the 10 to 12 miles per week that I have been jogging since 1970. I may not be very fast but I am consistent.

After getting this report, I tried to figure out where the bad cholesterol was coming from. Most nights, a typical meal at home is fish or some white meat with vegetables. I have a couple of eggs on Sunday morning and a bit of cheese in the evening before dinner, but that’s about it when it comes to dietary fat. I began to feel like someone who has been told that they are HIV positive. But instead of trying to figure out which one-night stand had made me ill, I looked back at some of my foolish flings with fast food. Was it the Kentucky Fried Chicken I used to eat 2 or 3 times a week when I lived in Kansas City in 1978? Or maybe all the slices of pizza I’ve enjoyed over the years in New York City? Like Christopher Hitchens telling an interviewer that he would have not have forsaken booze or tobacco, even if he knew early on that it would lead to esophageal cancer, I had difficulty imagining what life in New York would be like without pizza. Given all the shit you have to put up when living here, such small pleasures make it worth it.

Last Sunday’s “Sixty Minutes” had a segment that cleared things up for me. It turns out that sugar is the main cause of high cholesterol rather than fat nowadays. Titled Is Sugar Toxic?, it focuses on the crusade of Dr. Robert Lustig, a California endocrinologist whose main concern is with the impact of sugar on young people. Among the people interviewed is Kimber Stanhope who conducted an experiment on young people whose sugar intake was measured carefully hour by hour. This is what she reported:

But now, studies done by Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional biologist at the University of California, Davis are starting to back him up. She’s in the middle of a groundbreaking, five-year study which has already shown strong evidence linking excess high fructose corn syrup consumption to an increase in risk factors for heart disease and stroke. That suggests calories from added sugars are different than calories from other foods.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: The mantra that you hear from most nutritionists is that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.

Kimber Stanhope: And I think the results of the study showed clearly that is not true.

Stanhope’s conclusions weren’t easy to come by. Nutrition studies are expensive and difficult. Stanhope has paid groups of research subjects to live in this hospital wing for weeks at a time, under a sort of 24-hour lockdown. They undergo scans and blood tests – every calorie they ingest, meticulously weighed and prepared.

Kimber Stanhope: They’re never out of our sight. So we do know that they are consuming exactly what we need them to consume.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And they’re not sneaking any candy bars on the side.

Kimber Stanhope: Yeah, right, exactly.

For the first few days, participants eat a diet low in added sugars, so baseline blood levels can be measured.

[Research assistant: So remember you guys have to finish all of your Kool-Aid. ]

Then, 25 percent of their calories are replaced with sweetened drinks and Stanhope’s team starts drawing blood every 30 minutes around the clock. And those blood samples? They revealed something disturbing.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And what are you starting to see?

Kimber Stanhope: We found that the subjects who consumed high fructose corn syrup had increased blood levels of LDL cholesterol and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: How quickly did these changes occur?

Kimber Stanhope: Within two weeks.

Kimber Stanhope’s study suggests that when a person consumes too much sweet stuff, the liver gets overloaded with fructose and converts some of it into fat. Some of that fat ends up in the bloodstream and helps generate a dangerous kind of cholesterol called small dense LDL. These particles are known to lodge in blood vessels, form plaque and are associated with heart attacks.

Unlike most people, I don’t have a sweet tooth. I have a teaspoon of sugar with my coffee in the morning and a piece of cake or a cookie on Saturday afternoon but that’s about it. Perhaps the fact that I have had only one cavity in the past 20 years testifies to what I thought my ostensibly good dietary habits supported.

But it turns out that the real culprit was probably the fucking corn syrup that is almost universal nowadays in just about every product found on grocery shelves:

Lustig says the American lifestyle is killing us.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: And most of it you say is preventable?

Dr. Robert Lustig: Seventy-five percent of it is preventable.

While Dr. Lustig has published a dozen scientific articles on the evils of sugar, it was his lecture on YouTube, called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” that brought his message to the masses.

By “bad food” Dr. Lustig means the obvious things such as table sugar, honey, syrup, sugary drinks and desserts, but also just about every processed food you can imagine, where sugar is often hidden: yogurts and sauces, bread, and even peanut butter. And what about the man-made, often vilified sweetener, high fructose corn syrup?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Is it worse than just table sugar?

Dr. Robert Lustig: No. ‘Cause it’s the exact same. They are basically equivalent. The problem is they’re both bad. They’re both equally toxic.

Since the 1970s, sugar consumption has gone down nearly 40 percent, but high fructose corn syrup has more than made up the difference. Dr. Lustig says they are both toxic because they both contain fructose — that’s what makes them sweet and irresistible.

Dr. Robert Lustig: We love it. We go out of our way to find it. I think one of the reasons evolutionarily is because there is no food stuff on the planet that has fructose that is poisonous to you. It is all good. So when you taste something that’s sweet, it’s an evolutionary Darwinian signal that this is a safe food.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: We were born this way?

Dr. Robert Lustig: We were born this way.

Central to Dr. Lustig’s theory is that we used to get our fructose mostly in small amounts of fruit — which came loaded with fiber that slows absorption and consumption — after all, who can eat 10 oranges at a time? But as sugar and high fructose corn syrup became cheaper to refine and produce, we started gorging on them. Americans now consume 130 pounds per person a year — that’s a third of a pound every day.

Perhaps the widespread use of corn syrup might have something to do with all the commercials for products that contain it, including “Sixty Minutes” that has been sponsored by:

  • Campbell’s Soup
  • Lifesavers
  • Pepsi-Cola
  • Prego tomato sauce
  • Progresso
  • Werther’s butterscotch candies

If you go to Prego’s website, you will be deluged by all the “nutritional” buzzwords like organic and healthy, but except for its Heart Smart brand that only came into existence as a result of consumer pressure, all their products contain corn syrup.

Campbell’s, which owns Prego, has also adapted to consumer pressure but most of its soups contain high fructose corn syrup, including the Classic Tomato Soup I used to eat growing up.

Even if I was to be more careful in looking for corn syrup in anything I buy in the store, there’s not much I can do about the food I eat at lunch, which has come from Fairway’s kitchens over the past 5 years since I have been working on West 131st Street in West Harlem. Almost all their hot meals come with some kind of sauce that is calculated to taste good, even if it is larded with corn syrup (and salt for that matter.) I am trying to be more selective in what I take out from Fairway but in the final analysis I will have to wait until I retire to make sure that I control what goes down my gullet.

But ultimately sugar is a political problem rather than an existential one. In an article I wrote  five years ago on Sidney W. Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History,” I cited a passage that dealt with the role of sugar in the capitalist economy, especially as a way of “lubricating” the de facto machinery that human labor represents. It is well worth repeating:

Mintz sketches out the early consumption of sugar, which was a commodity as precious as gold. When the Venerable Bede died in 735 A.D., his fellow monks inherited his trove of spices, including a package of sugar. Besides its tastiness, sugar–like salt and other spices–had importance as a preservative. That is why it was important to the Venerable Bede and the average European. Until the “discovery” of the Americas, sugar was a luxury imported good from the East that was largely confined to the ruling classes. In 1288, the royal household consumed 6,258 pounds of sugar. (Does this explain the hit-or-miss quality of the British smile, one wonders.)

When the British East India Company was chartered in 1660, one of its chief goals was to increase tea imports into Great Britain. A century later tea was the drink of choice in Great Britain, even more popular than malt liquor–and considerably cheaper. The rural poor had used malt liquor to moisten their bread, but a tax on malt made it relatively expensive. Meanwhile, factory workers relied on tea and sugar for a jolt that could help them keep pace with the rigors of the assembly line.

Tea, by comparison to malt liquor or gin, was cheap. You just needed sugar to make it more palatable. Hence, the irony that two key consumer goods of the British lower classes–tea and sugar–relied on the super-exploitation of African slaves and Indian plantation workers. This obviously sets the pattern for Wal-Mart today. Sugar also supplied a cheap substitute for complex carbohydrates, just as it does today. Oatmeal porridge was mixed with molasses–so-called “hasty pudding”. Mintz’s description of consumption patterns in the 18th century seem depressingly similar to those today:

The first half of the eighteenth century may have been a period of increased purchasing power for laboring people, even though the quality of nutrition probably declined at the same time. Innovations like the liquid stimulants and the greatly increased use of sugar were items for which additional income was used, as well as items by which one could attempt emulation of those at higher levels of the social system. But labeling this usage “emulation” explains very little. The circumstances under which a new habit is acquired are as important as the habits of those others from whom the habit is learned. It seemes likely that many of the new tea drinkers and sugar users were not fully satisfied with their daily fare. Some were doubtless inadequately fed; others were bored by their food and by the large quantities of starchy carbohydrates they ate. A hot liquid stimulant full of sweet calories doubtless “hit the spot,” perhaps particularly for people who were already undernourished.

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