Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2010

The comeback kid and bipartisan attacks on working people

Filed under: aging,Obama,workers — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Almost immediately after Obama persuaded the Democrats to support an extension of the Bush tax cuts, the mainstream media began to trumpet his new-found effectiveness. Even before the deal was approved, the NY Times opined that a “political lift” for Obama was in store. The article reasoned that “In the Senate, Democrats were quicker to accept that Mr. Obama’s tradeoff could help reverse the party’s political misfortune, in which important swing voters, especially independents and women, turned toward the Republicans.”

And afterwards, the consensus began to mount that Obama was a “comeback kid” like President Clinton. USA Today put it this way:

Is Barack Obama the new Comeback Kid?

Six weeks after he acknowledged taking a “shellacking” at the polls, President Obama is on the verge of what may be a political rebound.

Late Thursday, he scored a big victory in Congress when the House followed the Senate in approving a deal he struck with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts for two years for all Americans, including top earners.

Despite his ultraright politics or perhaps because of them, Charles Krauthammer told his Washington Post readers that he agreed with USA Today:

If Barack Obama wins reelection in 2012, as is now more likely than not, historians will mark his comeback as beginning on Dec. 6, the day of the Great Tax Cut Deal of 2010.

Obama had a bad November. Self-confessedly shellacked in the midterm election, he fled the scene to Asia and various unsuccessful meetings, only to return to a sad-sack lame-duck Congress with ghostly dozens of defeated Democrats wandering the halls.

Now, with his stunning tax deal, Obama is back. Holding no high cards, he nonetheless managed to resurface suddenly not just as a player but as orchestrator, dealmaker and central actor in a high $1 trillion drama.

Also basking in new-found glory is Senator Harry Reid, who, according to NY Times blogger John Harwood, a disgusting and ubiquitous presence on cable news shows, “boasted” that the tax-cut compromise was ”some of my greatest work”.

So, what will be act two as a follow-up to preserving a tax break for millionaires that Democrats railed against for so long? It will be an attack on deficits apparently, as Reid indicated in Harwood’s post: “His interpretation of the midterm election message: voters want both parties to cooperate on reducing the deficit.”

Obama and Harry Reid are united on the need to cut the deficit. If it is obviously not going to be solved by making millionaires pay taxes at the same rate as during the Eisenhower or even the Reagan presidency for that matter, how else do you expect the budget to be balanced except by taking out of the hides of working stiffs?

In a visit to Mr. Krauthammer’s employers on January 16 2009, Obama assured the Post’s editors that Social Security and Medicare were badly in need of “reform”:

President-elect Barack Obama pledged yesterday to shape a new Social Security and Medicare “bargain” with the American people, saying that the nation’s long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs.

That discussion will begin next month, Obama said, when he convenes a “fiscal responsibility summit” before delivering his first budget to Congress. He said his administration will begin confronting the issues of entitlement reform and long-term budget deficits soon after it jump-starts job growth and the stock market.

“What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further,” he said. “We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.”

While most of my readers are aware that Obama appointed former Republican Party Senator Alan Simpson and centrist Democrat Erskine Bowles to come up with some solutions that would victimize working people, the more important body to beware of has received less scrutiny. In my view, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) should be seen in the same light as the Project for the New American Century that had a major responsibility for crafting the war plans against Saddam Hussein. In one case, the Iraqi people were the enemies; now, in the latest phase of capitalism in decline, the American people are targeted. Such think-tanks, endowed with millions of dollars, are a crucial element of policy formulation. In the case of the Project for the New American Century, the fingerprints of the neoconservative movement were impossible to miss. In keeping with the agenda of the wretched Obama White House, the Bipartisan Policy Center falls all over itself to establish its “broad-based” credentials to the American people, who after all tend to vote for both parties on a habitual basis.

The BPC describes itself in the same terms as the idiotic No Label group that met recently in New York:

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) is a non-profit organization that was established in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell to develop and promote solutions that can attract public support and political momentum in order to achieve real progress. The BPC acts as an incubator for policy efforts that engage top political figures, advocates, academics and business leaders in the art of principled compromise.

Too often partisanship poisons our national dialogue. Unfortunately, respectful discourse across party lines has become the exception – not the norm.

Now Baker and Dole are key players from the Republican Party before the Tea Party began to leave its indelible stamp on the GOP. These are exactly the sort of people that Obama had hoped to build some kind of partnership with, not anticipating the venomous politicians who question whether he was born in the U.S. and who routinely brand him as a socialist. It is clear that Obama’s latest deal with the Republican Party will have an effect on isolating such elements:

The Tea Party dissent on tax cuts was clear in the House, where the movement’s supporters like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. — founder of the Tea Party caucus — voted against the bill. Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky said he would lean against voting for it if he were in office, while Tea Party darling Sarah Palin called it a “lousy deal.”

As for Tom Daschle, you are dealing with someone very much in keeping with the Obama White House’s basic governing philosophy. Considering the fact that Daschle was forced to step down from consideration as Secretary of Health and Human Services due to his failure to pay $120,000 in back taxes, it makes perfect sense why he got together with the Republicans over cutting entitlements. As a rich bastard seeking to avoid paying his fair share to the IRS and as someone who was a high-profile supporter of Obama’s pro-insurance company health plan, he has exactly the right background.

George Mitchell is best known for his foreign policy exploits, including a major role in convincing the British ruling class that Sinn Fein could be a willing partner in keeping Northern Ireland a semicolony. He might be a cynical bourgeois politician, but he certainly is shrewd enough to help craft a plan that will screw American workers out of a decent retirement.

The Board of Directors of the Bipartisan Policy Center is a rogue’s gallery of long-time operatives in the National Security State and Wall Street. Here’s some scum off the top of the fetid pond:

  • Larry Higby
    Chairman, New Majority California; Retired CEO, Apria Healthcare
  • Norman R. Augustine
    Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (ret.) Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • John W. Rowe
    Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

Just the kind of people you’d expect to see advocating a retirement age of 75 or so.

The BPC has dozens of people working for it, all busily preparing white papers that NPR, PBS, the NY Times and the Washington Post can study in order to come up with high-minded arguments about why old folks might not be so bad off eating cat food.

The BPC is basically a retread of the Concord Coalition, another bipartisan effort to attack entitlements that was launched by Peter G. Peterson, the Wall Street billionaire who has been railing against Social Security for decades now. Like the BPC, the Concord Coalition’s top officers come from both capitalist parties.

It should be understood that this onslaught against the two pillars of Democratic Party liberalism, Social Security—a gain of the New Deal–and Medicare, a legacy of the Great Society–is not primarily motivated by hatred of workers or the poor. Ever since the recovery of Western Europe and Japan after WWII, the U.S. has been forced to adjust by cutting government spending. To remain competitive, it has to reduce expenditures on housing, hospitals, roads, schools and all the other accoutrements of the Welfare States just as much as Britain, Sweden, France and Germany are forced to do. This is a race to the bottom that will have no winners except the filthy bosses who expect nothing out of us except as a cheap supply of labor power.

July 24, 2010

Are recessions better for the right or the left?

Filed under: aging,economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Phil Gasper

Doug Henwood

This is a contribution to the debate between Phil Gasper, a philosophy professor and long-time member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and Doug Henwood who really needs no introduction.

In the latest issue of International Socialist Review, the ISO magazine, Gasper has an article titled Economic crisis and class struggle that poses the question whether recessions are better for the right or the left, which is directed at Doug’s article on MRZine that begins:

For a long time, I’ve been critical of the left-wing penchant for economic crisis.  Many radicals have fantasized that a serious recession — or depression — would lead to mass radicalization, as scales simultaneously fell from millions of pairs of eyes and the imperative of transcending capitalism became self-evidently obvious.  I’ve long thought that was nonsense, and now there’s empirical support for my position.

Doug bases his conclusion on a paper by Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner that shows “recessions boost the vote for extreme right-wing and nationalist parties.” The authors promised to send Doug statistics for left-wing parties but he has not posted anything about it yet on his website. I doubt if those numbers will do anything to change Doug’s mind but my sense of European politics is that both the extreme right and the radical left are growing. In France, the NPA has probably quadrupled in size in the past 5 years or so, while Die Linke in Germany and other such parties are making headway. Meanwhile, Greece is going up in flames even if there is no meaningful way of correlating that to the growth of the electoral left, a questionable criterion perhaps in light of the tendency of the mass movement to vote with its feet.

Doug concludes his article with a warning about a repeat of the 1930s, which many socialists have an attachment to as the last hurrah of the industrial working class:  “And that Great Depression didn’t do much for the left in Europe.  So please, let’s put this one away and stop hoping for the worst.”

In a sense, it is difficult to answer something like this since it turns the economic meltdown of the 1930s into some kind of catalyst that is expected to produce predictable results, like throwing a match into a jar of gasoline. It doesn’t work that way. Economic crisis simply polarizes society into warring camps, as the street battles of the Weimar Republic bear out. The victory of the left rests on its ability to fight intelligently. As Phil Gasper pointed out, the left could have triumphed over Hitler in Germany if it had simply run a common electoral slate.

In some ways, attempts to establish a direct link between economic collapse and the triumph of socialism err on the side of economic determinism and its second cousin vulgar Marxism. That being said, it is understandable why Marxists would be riveted on economic crisis since it does have an impact on the way people view society. In Marx’s own writings, there are frequent references to the connections between crisis and revolution, including an article co-written with Engels that appeared in the 1850 Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue. They write a bit breathlessly, sounding like our friend Patrick Bond:

The results of the commercial crisis now impending will be more serious than ever before. It coincides with the agricultural crisis, which began with the abolition of corn tariffs in England and has increased as a result of the recent good harvests. For the first time England is experiencing at the same time an industrial and an agricultural crisis. This dual crisis in England will be accelerated, widened in scope and made even more explosive by the convulsions, which are now simultaneously imminent on the Continent; and the continental revolution will take on an unprecedentedly socialist character as a result of the repercussions of the English crisis on the world market. It is a known fact that no European country will be hit so directly, to such an extent and with such intensity as Germany. The reason is simple: Germany represents England’s biggest continental market, and the main German exports, wool and grain, have by far their most important outlet in England. History is most happily summed up in this epigram addressed to the apostles of order: while inadequate consumption drives the working classes to revolt, overproduction drives the upper classes to bankruptcy.

Now as it turned out this was a bit simplistic. The first genuinely socialist revolt took place 21 years after this article was written and the immediate cause was working-class unrest in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war that was not specifically related to an economic crisis. The revolt grew out of long-standing grievances over exploitation in general.

If economic suffering, such as the unemployment and home foreclosures taking place today–what Marx and Engels refer to as the “inadequate consumption” that “drives the working classes to revolt”–can lead in some cases to radical action, then perhaps recessions are “good for the left” in a perverse sense.

There is a long-standing tradition that leans in that direction, a tendency that might be described as “the worse, the better”. If Doug is taking aim at that mistaken view, then I am with him one hundred percent.

The man likely to have coined this phrase is one Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, a founder of Russian populism who lived from 1828 to 1889 and who was a major influence on Lenin and Emma Goldman, among others. He is reputed to have used the phrase “the worse the better” to indicate that the worse that social conditions became for the poor, the more inclined they would be to launch a revolution. Chernyshevsky wrote a novel “What is to be Done” whose title Lenin borrowed for his 1903 pamphlet. The highly informative wiki on Chernyshevsky states:

The novel was an inspiration to many later Russian revolutionaries, who sought to emulate the novel’s hero, who was wholly dedicated to the revolution, ascetic in his habits and ruthlessly disciplined, to the point of sleeping on a bed of nails and eating only meat in order to build strength for the Revolution. Among those who took inspiration from the character was Lenin, who wrote a work of political theory of the same name, and who was ascetic in his personal life (lifting weights, having little time for love, and so on).

I never knew about Lenin lifting weights or having little time for love. Is that an urban legend possibly, like him saying that the “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”? Hmm, I wonder.

If there is one thing that militates against “the worse, the better”, it is the experience of Africa over the past 25 years or so. In country after country, the standard of living has dropped precipitously but without leading to revolution anywhere. Mostly you see internecine warfare, xenophobia in South Africa, and a general social atomization. In this respect, I think that Doug is quite correct. Immiseration is generally a guarantee of one thing and one thing only, that people will become miserable. How they react to that misery has a lot to do with pre-existing political conditions, which in Africa have been fairly weak.

Finally, I want to address the question of what Doug calls “hoping for the worst”. In my view, it is insane to welcome an economic crisis in the “worse, the better” sense. When the stock market tanked in 2008 and homes began being foreclosed at a record rate, I reacted the same way I reacted to the start of the war in Iraq in 2003 or to the news of the BP spill—with horror.

On a personal level, it has touched one of my oldest and closest friends in the most devastating fashion. This is a guy one week younger than me that I grew up with in the Catskills. Just over six months ago he lost his job as a salesman and went on unemployment. A year before he lost his job, he lost 50 percent of the value of his retirement plan. And two months ago when he was up in my apartment using my high-speed connection to look at some job-related websites, I noticed a tremor in his left hand. Perhaps being in denial, he had been ignoring it. When I asked him about the tremor, he said that he would make an appointment right away. He has since learned that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.

So here we have a sixty-five year old guy with a major medical condition who needs to work since the Social Security payments and unemployment are insufficient to make ends meet. He has lost over $100,000 in the Wall Street casino through no fault of his own. And lately he has been worried about whether Washington would extend unemployment benefits.

This is happening in one form or another all across the country. It is suffering on a mass scale. I have no idea whether this will lead to the growth of the left. All I know is that the left has an obligation to put forward a strategy for the unemployed and the working class that is in their interests rather than big capital.

We do not “hope” for such disasters. All we know is that they occur with alarming frequency in the period of capitalist decline. Rather than speculating on whether such events are to our benefit or not, we should think about how to get off the treadmill once and for all, so that everybody—including my old friend—can lead decent lives without worrying where their next meal is coming from.

July 21, 2010

From a January 2010 interview with Harvey Pekar

Filed under: aging,comedy — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

One of the best things I ever did is called “Huntington, West Virginia on the Fly” which is sort of biographies of friends of
mine, but they’re told from my point of view. That was supposed to come out in September, but now, for all intents and purposes, it’s just gotten indefinitely postponed. I have another one that I wrote for Random House called “The Unrepentant Marxist” which is a biography of a guy I met in New York who was a member of a Trotskyist organization for a really long time, and he put up with a whole lot of bullshit until he finally got to where he couldn’t take it anymore. I’m really interested in that stuff. It was apparently accepted but I don’t know when that’s supposed to come out. I don’t know if I’ll live that long.

full: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=24421

May 31, 2010

Sex and the City #2

Filed under: aging,feminism,Film,Islam,television — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

The vitriol directed by critics against “Sex and the City #2” (SATC #2) is unprecedented. The last movie to bear the brunt of such an Orwellian “minute of hate” was Michael Cimino’s 1980 “Heaven’s Gate”, a movie that eventually led to the collapse of United Artists.

Now my tendency is to put a minus where mainstream critics put a plus. And occasionally, the reverse. If that makes me a sectarian film critic, so be it. My take on “Heaven’s Gate”, although I never wrote a review about it, is that it is a masterpiece on a par with the best work of Luigi Visconti, an acknowledged influence on this Marxist western about the Johnson County range wars.

Now I am not going to put SATC #2 on that plane, but this much I can say. I went to see a press screening with my wife before the reviews came out and therefore with an open mind. Admittedly the two of us were huge fans of the HBO show and therefore inclined to cut it some slack. But no amount of slack would allow me to refrain from trashing the movie if it deserved it. My reaction to the movie when it was in progress and even now is this. It is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, even if you are not a big fan of the show. It is basically fluff, much more so than the TV show, and includes some genuinely funny moments.

My favorite is when Samantha, the oldest of the four female lead characters who is on a date with a Danish architect in a hookah bar in Abu Dhabi, begins to suck on the mouthpiece of the water pipe as if it was a penis. When the aroused architect stands up, you can see the outlines of his erect penis through his trousers, thus infuriating observant Muslims at the next table. If this is not the thing that you would find funny, then don’t bother seeing the movie. I can say this, however. The movie is about as potent a weapon against Islam as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road to Morocco”. Indeed, this is where SATC #2 was filmed.

Oddly enough, mainstream film critics have rallied around this question of Islamophobia in a way that is truly remarkable given the steady stream of poison that comes out of Hollywood about “the war on terror”, including “The Kingdom”,  “Body of Lies”, and “Hurt Locker”, the truly rotten recipient of the Oscar for best picture in 2009.

The other thing that struck me as hypocritical was the outrage over the lavish lifestyle of the heroines, starting with their staying in a $22,000 per night hotel. The NY Times’s A.O. Scott assumes the posture of James Agee in finding the movie insensitive to our current economic crisis: “But the ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense.” Scott also appears to have read Karl Marx at some point in his life based on this observation: “The Emirate to which the four friends repair is an oasis of gilded luxury in a world that has grown a little ambivalent about unbridled commodity fetishism.”

Excuse me. Am I missing something? If there’s any media outlet that should not be talking about “unexamined privilege” and “unbridled commodity fetishism”, it is the NY Times that is almost singlehandedly responsible for backing the yuppification of the island of Manhattan. This is a newspaper with society pages gushing over $10 million weddings and whose restaurant reviews are strictly devoted to venues that will cost you $150 per meal.

Leaving aside the obvious political charges of Islamophobia and “unexamined privilege”, there is an element of the hatred directed against the movie that is a bit beneath the surface in most reviews. It does raise its nasty head above the surface briefly, however, in Scott’s review where he writes, ” the party girls of yesteryear are tomorrow’s Ladies Who Lunch.” For those who know something about the life-style of elderly Manhattan dowagers, the phrase “Ladies Who Lunch” is a clear reference to Scott’s disappointment that the movie treats women in their 40s and 50s as if they still had a libido. The wiki on the term states:

Ladies who lunch is a phrase to describe slim, well-off, old-money, well-dressed women who meet for lunch socially, normally during the working week. Typically, the women involved are married and non-working. Normally the lunch is in a restaurant, perhaps in a department store during shopping. Sometimes there is the pretext of raising money for charity.

Rex Reed, a gay film critic and a colleague in NYFCO, writes what A.O. Scott and other more respectable scribes will not, for fear of being accused—rightly—of ageism and sexism:

The women-too old now to pout, whine and babble about their wet dreams, affluent and successful for reasons that are never clear-are all vain, narcissistic, selfish, superficial and really rather stupid. The actors work hard to perform triage, but they’ve been playing these roles so long they’ve grown moss.

There are some out there that have figured this angle out, most notably a certain Balk who wrote:

My theory is that the radical aversion to the current installment of Sex and the City says something about the way we look at elderly women in modern American society. We would prefer that, if we must indeed be subject to their representation in popular culture, they be confined to small supporting roles in which they play spinster older sisters or embittered, loveless career women. The idea that we are not only supposed to pretend that the shriveled harridans we see on the screen might still engage in the act of sexual intercourse but that we are supposed to celebrate their enjoyment of such defies both credulity and good taste.

I quite agree. I also agree strongly with another colleague at NYFCO, the estimable Prairie Miller who summed up the hatred against SATC #2 this way in an email to me:

Here’s the opening statement I added to my review at Critical Women. And when I mention Hillary, it’s not because I admire her, which I don’t, but because of the way she was ridiculed as a woman during the campaigns:

The hostile, emotionally charged critic assault on SATC 2 is really a ‘veiled’ attack on the power of older women. And gives the strange impression that females are pariahs more here than in the Middle East, women – not men – who confront sheik sexism and burka blues in the movie. If only those ‘make war not love’ critics were as outspokenly outraged against the US military in that region, as they are against these women. And the fact that women are showing up in droves without men for SATC 2, says it all about the gender divide right here at home. Not since the nasty sexist campaign to drive Hillary Clinton out of the presidential race, has there been such an attack on anything expressing female political or sexual empowerment…

And, finally, here’s my February 26, 2004 review of the original HBO series that you can rent from Netflix:

* * *

Back in 1994 Candace Bushnell began writing a column in Arthur Carter’s weekly NY Observer called “Sex and the City”. Since Carter’s upscale salmon-colored publication was being given away for free on NYC’s Upper East Side at the time, I would pick it up to satisfy my unquenchable reading addiction. I was also curious to see where Carter was going with his NYC paper, which seemed to be modeled on his Litchfield County Times–an outlet for coverage on antique auctions, debutante balls, yacht races and other WASP foibles in Connecticut.

I was puzzled at the time why Arthur Carter would also be the publisher of the Nation Magazine, a journal that I had a strong identification with in the late 1980s and even sent donations to from time to time. Of course, it is much clearer to me in hindsight that Carter was part of a process to shift the magazine to the right, where it now sits as a kind of Kerberos of liberal orthodoxy.

I remember Bushnell’s column leaving me cold at the time. It was a hodge-podge of fictionalized references to the nightlife of Eurotrash, investment bankers, models and freelance writers that she had access to. Her columns left me cold because I had some familiarity with this world as well and what I saw left much to be desired. Escorted by an old friend from Hollywood and the Catskills, I had spent enough time in Nell’s (a trendy disco), the Hotel Chelsea (a Warhol hangout) and art galleries to know that these were not places to have an intelligent conversation, which for me is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Bushnell’s columns were transformed eventually into the highly acclaimed HBO series, which had its final episode last week. Co-Producer Sarah Jessica Parker played Carrie Bradshaw, who is loosely modeled on Bushnell. The three other lead characters were single females who like her were on a nonstop hunt for sexy men, great restaurants and drop-dead designer clothing. You never find any reference to the other NYC in this show. The stars never take subways, they are never confronted by homeless people and they never worry about AIDS. In other words, their NYC has about as much connection to the real thing as a Woody Allen movie, or its antecedent in another troubled time, the movies of Fred Astaire.

I would also have to confess that I became a big fan of this show over the past few months. I will explain why momentarily.

For people who had been watching the show for a long time, especially women who identified with the four co-stars, the final episode was a major event. People gathered together to watch it. The New York Times reported:

What better way to mark the end of “Sex and the City” than a ménage à 50?

Across New York, people commemorated the end of the cable television show that romanticized New York City for six seasons by massing together and tuning in. Bars pushed “Sex and the City” parties. Friends gathered at one another’s apartments. Out-of-towners bereft of cable posted desperate messages on Internet bulletin boards.

One party that captured the spirit and meaning of the show could be found inside a loft on West 49th Street. Fifty women, some in their 20’s and some in their 50’s, some friends and some strangers, piled onto couches and sat on the floor to watch the last unfurling of a television show that seemed always to be about them.

They got slightly drunk on wine and pomegranate-red Cosmopolitans, laughed at the same moments and cried through the ending. Some hooted and others clucked when the main character, a sex columnist named Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), decided to abandon her boyfriend in Paris and return to New York with a recurring love interest, known, until last night, only as Mr. Big (played by Chris Noth).

The show’s final punch line – that Mr. Big’s name is John – drew shrieks all around.

As people trickled into the cavernous white loft, they marveled how, over its six years, a show that began with jokes about oral sex and orgasms had become such a part of their lives.

“It’s a sad night for us,” said Jalande James, 29, who organized the party at the rented loft as part of Just Us Girls, a social network for women in New York. “We’ve lived with it for so long. When I moved here from Florida, I knew nobody. I’d watch ‘Sex and the City’ and think, ‘Oh my God, they have such wonderful lives.'”

In Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels”, a screwball comedy made in 1941, the eponymous lead character is a Hollywood director who has become highly successful making comedies, but who is frustrated with the studio’s refusal to allow him to make serious films about the working class. In other words, Sullivan appears to be a fictionalized representation of Sturges himself. Sullivan decides to go on the road disguised as an unemployed worker in order to learn about the working class firsthand. In a string of comic mishaps, he learns that workers are somewhat different than the idealized notion he had of them. In the stunning climax of this classic film, they show one of Sullivan’s comedies to an audience of chain gang prisoners. They laugh until they cry. This becomes an epiphany to Sullivan, who realizes that the gift of laughter is precious and that it helps us get through life.

That is my reaction to “Sex and the City”. In a time of deepening social and economic crisis, war and environmental despoliation, you need to laugh in order to keep from crying, as the title to a great Harry Edison jazz record once put it.

“Sex and the City” is one of the few laugh out loud comedies you can enjoy anywhere. With the collapse of Woody Allen, there are very few adult entertainments out there. Comedy has become cruder and more misanthropic, with the films of the Farrelly brothers setting the standard. As escapist fare, it ranks with the stories of P.J. Wodehouse that depicted a world of dotty English aristocrats having about as much relationship to reality as the glittery world of “Sex and the City”.

Here’s a summary of a typical week’s episode. If you think that you might enjoy this sort of thing–not everybody’s cup of tea I would be the first to admit–you can find all of the episodes in your local DVD/Video shops.

The girls are invited to the unlikely wedding of Carrie’s supposedly gay friend, flamboyant lounge singer Bobby Fine to society lady Bitsy Von Muffling. Stunned by the news, Carrie thinks about what it takes to make a relationship work. She asks: When it comes to saying ‘I do,’ is a relationship a relationship without the zsa zsa zsu (aka: that special something that gives you butterflies in the stomach)?

Charlotte’s new ‘just sex’ partner, Harry, invites her to be his date for the big Hamptons wedding. Charlotte worries about his crass behavior, but accepts provided that hairy Harry wax his back. In another not so clear relationship, Miranda inexplicably finds herself having sex with Steve. Meanwhile, Samantha calls upon the services of her ex, Richard, in another way: she arranges to throw a party at his house in the Hamptons.

On the way out to the Hamptons, Carrie runs into Jack Berger, who tells her he broke up with his girlfriend. Carrie can’t help but feel that zsa zsa zsu. At Samantha’s fabulous pool party, Carrie and Berger have a heart to heart about relationships past, but it’s too much for Berger to handle and he departs suddenly and swiftly. Carrie wonders if she should just throw in the towel and settle for a so-so relationship. Samantha struggles to enjoy herself because of the appearance of three of Richard’s bikini-clad bimbo babes. She accuses the party-crashers of freeloading but realizes that she herself is still hurting over the end of her affair with Richard.

At Bobby and Bitsy’s wedding, the girls find themselves moved by the mutual love of the bride and groom. It appears Bobby and Bitsy do have the zsa zsa zsu. Obviously inspired, Charlotte tells Harry mid-dance that she may be falling in love with him. He says he shares her feelings but that he’s Jewish and he has to marry a Jew. Also on the dance floor, Berger tells Carrie that he’d like to go on a date with her before they break up. Carrie is reminded why she refuses to settle for anything less than butterflies.

Sex and the City website: http://www.hbo.com/city/

April 23, 2010

Pressure drop update

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 7:53 pm

To start with, I want to thank my well-wishers.

I was examined by my ophthalmologist yesterday and she told me that my right eye’s pressure was still at 26, the same as it was a week earlier. Frankly, I was more worried that it was going to shoot up again to 37, the reading that led to emergency laser surgery.

The left eye was in better shape at 21, the high point of a bell curve that starts with 12. If you are within this range, you are okay. Of course, the left eye has a worse cataract than the right so I am not out of the woods.

She prescribed Xalatan for my right eye. This is taken through an eyedropper and is the most widely prescribed medication for glaucoma.

I also learned, although I am sure that they told me about this before, that I had closed angle glaucoma. If you are thinking in terms of geometry, you might be confused as I was initially. The term angle, however, refers to the part of the eye next to the iris that is used to drain fluids from within the eye. If it is closed, the chances of serious damage are greater. So they generally use lasers to drill a hole to drain off the fluids. If the laser treatment is inadequate, they prescribe something like Xalatan. In any case, as long as I take the drops I should be okay.

But without that loose screw, who knows what would have happened. Shudder.

There might be some nice side-effects from Xalatan, by the way. They make your eyelashes grow! So I might look like the young Elizabeth Taylor at some point. So effective is the medication that they have adapted it for cosmetic purposes. If you’ve seen the Latisse ads on television, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This clip refers to a product called Lumigan which has the same ingredient as Xalatan.

Wall Street Journal December 26, 2008, 12:32 PM ET

Want Longer, Fuller Eyelashes? There’s a Drug for That!

You thought there was a drug for everything. But — at least until today — there wasn’t.

Allergan said today that the FDA has approved its drug Latisse for “hypotrichosis of the eyelashes.” The company, which also sells Botox, helpfully explains that this is “another name for having inadequate or not enough eyelashes.” It’s a prescription drug that’s applied daily.

As the WSJ notes, Latisse is the same compound the company sells under the brand name Lumigan to treat glaucoma, an eye disease. They noticed during clinical trials that one of the drug’s side effects was making eyelashes longer, thicker and darker.

Some more research, an FDA panel and a new cosmetic drug is born.

Bonus Lash: Earlier this year, a California entrepreneur raised the ire of Allergan and the FDA for selling an eyelash enhancer that contained an ingredient similar to the active compound in Lumigan.

April 9, 2010

Pressure drop

Filed under: aging,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

This post is a departure from my usual socio-political analysis so those not interested in personal drama should go no further. Still here? Go on with you now.

In what amounts to pure kismet, a loose screw on a pair of eyeglasses probably saved me from going blind. About six weeks ago when a tiny screw came loose in the left temple (the things that fit over your ears) of my fancy Robert Marc glasses, I brought them into the store for tightening. They did tighten it but advised me that it would be best to leave them there and have them sent to the lab for a permanent fix. They said that they would be ready the next day.

I left them there and proceeded to stumble homeward. My eyesight has been deteriorating over the past five years, with a cataract turning up in the left eye at my last exam two or so years ago. I also have floaters in both eyes, which I have gotten used to although some people are driven to such distraction with them that they actually become suicidal.

Once I got home I was totally beside myself since I could neither read nor watch television. The guy at Robert Marc suggested I get a second pair for just such occasions. I realized that I could not wait around for three or four days when I needed a new prescription for the glasses next time and decided to spend the big bucks I needed for a second pair. Robert Marc has very trendy and expensive frames that I order with thin, progressive lenses—also expensive—so we are talking about a major purchase. I justify this expense to myself since it is the only luxury good I pamper myself with nowadays in my post-Goldman Sachs existence. No more Mount Blanc pens or Paul Stuart suits, etc.

Since the cataract had already been identified at the time of my last exam, I decided to go to an ophthalmology clinic in the neighborhood that would do a thorough evaluation as well as prescribe new lenses. After putting me through a battery of tests around a month ago, the optometrist informed me that I had a cataract in my right eye as well. Great. But the real news was the possibility that I also had optic hypertension, or even glaucoma. Tests revealed that the pressure in my right eye was 27 (normal is about 12), and the left eye nearly as bad. I was supposed to come back on April 8th for a field of vision test, which is used to determine if you have the kind of nerve damage associated with glaucoma.

So I took the field of vision test yesterday that consists of clicking a button whenever you see a pinpoint of light on a dark background. If you miss the lights on a consistent basis, it means that you have permanent nerve damage. Even though it is a painless test, I found it very stressful considering what was at stake.

After the field of vision test was done, the optometrist rechecked my eye pressure. She was alarmed to see that the right eye had gone up to 37–300 percent of what is considered normal. She told me that I would probably require laser surgery to allow the fluid to drain properly and relieve the pressure. She then called in an ophthalmologist, also a woman, from the next office to review the results. She redid the test and asked me how soon I could do the laser surgery. When I asked if next week was okay (I was just buying time), she said that it should not wait.

Interestingly enough, optic hypertension presents the same kind of invisible threat that circulatory hypertension does. There is no pain or symptoms involved. If you don’t learn about the problem through a test, you might just risk getting a heart attack or blindness.

I went home to collect my thoughts and then went back to the clinic to get zapped. After having eye-drops administered, I went into the laser room, sat down in the chair, and had a special lens put over my right eye. The doctor then brought the business end of the laser right up to the lens and drilled away for about 3 minutes into my iris, at the right-hand corner of my eye. I felt a slight pinch as the laser beam did its work, but nothing worse.

Next I went back into her office where she reexamined me. Good news. The pressure had dropped to 17. Unlike the Toots Hibbert song, this was good news.

Cause a pressure drop, oh pressure
Oh yeah pressure drop a drop on you
I say a pressure drop, oh pressure
Oh yeah pressure drop a drop on you

Next Wednesday I go back to get my left eye treated. If things go according to plan in a best-case scenario, I don’t have to worry about glaucoma. If for some reason the pressure builds up again, I will start taking eye drops. No biggie. The problem with glaucoma is if you catch it too late. An old friend from my Trotskyist days is blind in his right eye from unattended glaucoma. He told me that his left should be okay as long as he takes his drops.

Then there’s the fucking cataracts. The one in my left eye is much worse than in the right. If I try to read something just using my left eye, it is nearly hopeless. I will try to work up the nerve to have it removed in January. Everybody who has had it done, including my late mom, tells me that it is no big deal. My problem is that I never got over watching some idiotic 3D movie in 1958 that showed the main character getting eye surgery. You see the stupid knives coming right at you in 3D.

I suppose I have nothing to complain about compared to the millions of people in the 3rd world who can’t afford surgery. An article in the NY Times reported a new breakthrough that allowed lasers to remove the cataract, a much less expensive approach. According to the optometrist, this is not the best possible solution since there is no permanent lens put in place of the lasered tissue. This means that you have to wear extra-thick glasses. Better than being blind, you can be sure.

Looming over the medical issues, however, is the bigger question of my mortality. If you had asked me 20 years ago what turning 65 would involve, I would have responded with arthritis, heart disease, cancer, early Alzheimers, or a host of other nasty things that account for the billions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid expenditures. When I was at the eye clinic yesterday, it seemed like everybody there was in their 60s and up.

But I never expected to deal with major eye problems that sneaked up on me like a sniper. My advice to younger people who read this blog is to wear sunglasses. Cataracts apparently result from being exposed to direct sunlight over a lifetime. I am no sun worshiper but I never protected myself. They also told me at the clinic that the optic hypertension problem probably resulted from dislocations inside my eye resulting from the cataracts. So if you can prevent such problems, please do.

As much of a drag all this is, I am so relieved to have received proper medical attention before it was too late. If it had not been for a loose screw, I might be blind today since I had not planned to get a new prescription for another year or so. If my eye pressure was 37 yesterday, then who knows what it would have been a month or two from now. I was a walking time bomb. Thank god, if one existed, for my good luck.

February 10, 2010

Remembering Laura Kronenberg

Filed under: aging,Friends — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

Laura Kronenberg

Yesterday I received word that one of my oldest and dearest friends died. Although we had a parting of the ways around 12 years ago, she still meant a lot to me. From what I can glean from people who have stayed in touch with her, she had lost the will to live. A couple of days ago she took a nasty fall that resulted in a head injury. Despite its seriousness, she refused to go to a hospital. Her ex-husband had phoned her Brooklyn apartment repeatedly only to get no answer. He then he asked a neighbor to check in on her, who discovered that she had passed away.

Laura was a year or so older than me and grew up in the same little village in the Catskill Mountains. I became friends with her when taking a seniors English class in 1960 in order to get the extra credit I needed to graduate a year early. My mother had grown increasingly alarmed about my alienation from the high school scene and decided to send me off to Bard College as a 16 year old freshman. Although Laura was not as much of a misfit as me, she had begun to develop an interest in the bohemian/beat culture that we had learned about from reading Time Magazine. She appreciated my take on the poetry we discussed in class, from Dylan Thomas to T.S. Eliot, and soon adopted me as a kindred spirit.

Given my general hostility and ill manners, it was no surprise that her Republican golf-playing parents looked askance at me. Her mother, who was a regular customer at my father’s fruit store, once told Laura that I had an “amorphous” personality. We both had a big laugh over that. I may have been cold and obnoxious but there was nothing “amorphous” about me. At the age of 16 I had already developed the jagged, sharp-edged personality that has helped define me on and off the Internet, for better or for worse.

In 1961 we went off to college. Laura went to Boston University to study art and I went to Bard College. These places served as a kind of bohemian finishing school where the two of us got up to speed on all the cultural icons of the age, from Williams S. Burroughs to Lenny Bruce. It was also when both of us began to smoke pot, which at the time was almost as transgressive as drinking absinthe.

In the summer of 1961, when her parents were off vacationing somewhere, I dropped by her house to smoke some weed. We got totally blasted and took a tour of the house, including a look her father’s tie collection which both of us found totally hilarious. Later that night—still totally blasted—I turned on the TV in the basement apartment at my parent’s house that I had turned into a “beatnik pad” and watched Ella Fitzgerald scat-singing “How High the Moon” on the Ed Sullivan show. That evening was one of the first in my life when I felt truly happy.

Not long after I graduated Bard, I got involved in Trotskyist politics and pretty much turned my back on the bohemian scene even though I had absorbed enough of it to prevent me from becoming thoroughly assimilated into the SWP. Thank goodness for William S. Burroughs. Laura had married a sculptor named Tony Long and the two of them lived in a loft on the Bowery which I used to visit from time to time. She had a job at Grove Press, one of the hippest publishing houses in the U.S. that had challenged obscenity laws involving “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”, “Tropic of Cancer” et al. One of the senior editors was Harry Braverman who co-edited American Socialist in the 1950s, a magazine that I strongly identify with.

Laura had begun to spend her evenings at Max’s Kansas City in New York, a “happening” scene where Andy Warhol and his entourage held court. She gravitated immediately toward this milieu and developed a friendship with Viva, who appeared in his movies. Years later, in tow with Laura, I met Viva at the Chelsea Hotel in New York and found her pleasant enough. But I didn’t understand her mystique.

The scene at Max’s Kansas City testified to the breadth of the cultural and political revolution going on at the time. For those too young to remember the sixties, it is easy to reduce it to the radical movement and the hippies. But there was another undercurrent that Max’s and the Chelsea Hotel symbolized. It was the world of Patti Smith, the Warhol groupies, the downtown art scene and hard drugs, all of which had not that much to do with the “groovy” vibe of Woodstock and Vermont communes.

In 1970 I went up to Boston in order to get involved in a faction fight developing in the SWP and lost touch with Laura who would soon break up with Tony and marry Frank Cavestani, a Broadway actor who had just completed his service as an artilleryman in Vietnam. Frank and Laura shared an enthusiasm for making videos, using equipment that had become affordable by the early 1970s.

Frank had returned from Vietnam as an opponent of the war and sought Laura’s help in making a groundbreaking documentary on the protests at the 1972 Miami Republican Party convention titled “Operation Last Patrol” that I reviewed here. The movie featured Ron Kovic, whose autobiography “Born on the Fourth of July” was made into a movie by Oliver Stone, who hired Frank to supervise the protest scenes. Frank also had a small part wheeling around Tom Cruise during the movie’s reenactment of the Miami protests.

Excerpt from “Operation Last Patrol”

If Laura had one foot in the downtown, Warholian scene, she had another in the left even it had little to do with the kind of organized Leninist business I was involved with. She made a short video about Abby Hoffman making gefilte fish that is priceless.

Excerpt from “Abby Hoffman makes gefilte fish”

In the mid-80s, long after I had washed my hands of American Trotskyism, I attended a high school reunion in my home town. Laura showed up, much to my delight. I learned that she had a new husband (Frank) and had moved out to Los Angeles with him, where they were in the screenwriting business. She seemed totally happy with her life. For old time’s sake, we smoked a joint out on the terrace of the house where the reunion was being held and where we were joined by a former math teacher that students lived in fear of. The influence of the 1960s counter-culture was powerful enough to have mellowed out even him.

A couple of years later I made the first in a series of trips out to the West Coast to meet with Peter Camejo who had been booted out of the SWP and who was trying to launch a new non-sectarian network called North Star. At the same time I met with Michael Urmann, the executive director of Tecnica, the solidarity group working in Nicaragua whose East Coast recruitment efforts I was directing.

The trips included a visit to Frank and Laura’s place on Mulholland Drive, the famous neighborhood in Hollywood Hills that featured houses on stilts overlooking the canyons just like the one that Mel Gibson tore down in “Lethal Weapon 2”. Theirs, however, rested firmly on a small lot.

I looked forward to my stays with Frank and Laura, even if I realize now that it was very possibly an imposition on them. After having guests from Turkey staying at our apartment in New York, I understand now what a job it is to have company for more than a day or two. But I would have rather spent a week with them than any tourist hotel in the world for they were perfectly hospitable and great fun to spend time with. I remember spending hours on end chatting about politics with Frank who felt that the intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua was a repeat of the Vietnam War.

Laura had come into her own as a hostess for the Hollywood hipster/left community and threw memorable parties when I was there. Although the guests never included superstars like Mel Gibson (who would want that creep anyhow), they were much more interesting. I remember a conversation with director Michael Elias vividly. Elias, who had grown up in the next town from Laura’s and mine, was best known for silly comedies like “Young Doctors in Love”. Our conversation, however, revolved around American society and politics. Like Frank, he was unhappy with the Reagan presidency.

Laura never quite agreed with my socialist views and had particular problems with my anti-Zionism. She used to badger me about the need to be effective, which for her meant getting coverage in Time Magazine. Looking back in retrospect, I guess that her friendship with Abby Hoffman involved more than gefilte fish. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for me, there was nothing that I could have ever said or done to warrant attention from Time Magazine.

Although physically petite, there was nothing petite about Laura’s personality. She was brassy enough to take me on in political debate—something that takes a lot of guts from man or woman. She was also hard-laughing, hard-drinking, hard-eating and not above using recreational drugs of one sort or another. Most of all, she loved to party and lived as if each day was her last on earth.

Frank and Laura split up in the early 90s, as far as I can remember, and she returned to New York where she lived off an inheritance from her father. We began spending time together and I tried—not too successfully—to join her in late-night jaunts to places that were as “happening” as Max’s Kansas City once was. One night I went with her to a disco called Nell’s on 14th street and was shocked to see it filled with people dancing at 3am on a weekday night. Earlier in the evening we had visited Laura’s friend, a photographer who was famous for her portraits of John Belushi and who shared Laura’s (and Belushi’s) appetite for hard drugs.

As much as she enjoyed partying and the night life, Laura was unhappy being single. Now that she was over fifty, it was harder to find Mr. Right. One night in the mid-90s she met a painter half her age at a disco and the two of them hooked up immediately. After he moved in with her our friendship came to an end since he insisted that she could not spend time with me alone and I couldn’t stand his company.

Unlike her earlier marriages, this artist did not do much for her culturally or psychologically. I have only learned after her death that the two descended into a long journey into drugs and alcohol that left her in a state of despair. After he left their apartment a couple of months ago, she fell into a deep depression that eventually led to her untimely death. Laura was one of the most remarkable women I ever knew. I only regret that I lost contact with her nearly 15 years ago, if only to have provided some moral support in difficult times.

Ultimately, her fate was not that much different from many rebellious figures from my youth who have had lots of trouble adjusting to middle age and onwards. As we move into the autumn and now winter of our lives, it takes a lot more than booze and drugs to give you a lift. I only wish that Laura had found something more to keep her going in the past 10 years or so since she had so much to offer the world, and consequently herself.

UPDATE

I just received a couple of photos of Frank and Laura Cavestani from their old friend Fred Baker with this note:

I found and thought I’d share these photos of Laura and Frankie in Miami Beach during the Vietnam Vets VS The War & Anti-Re-Elect Nixon actions at The Republican National Convention of 1972.  They are relaxing with us near my mom and dads place in South Beach–Frank sporting an injured right eye and socket gotten the day before from the Miami Storm Troopers who pushed his camera into his face.
Laura looks fiesty enough herself…caught her in a moment w/her eyes shut unfortunately..but she does look great anyway.

May 16, 2008

Reflections on my mother’s death

Filed under: aging — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

Me and mom, from the mid-1980s

When the phone rang just after midnight on Monday evening, I knew what to expect. It was a doctor at the Catskill Regional Hospital in upstate New York informing me that my mother had just died in her room in the geriatrics ward. She was two months short of her 88th birthday and probably died of heart failure, although the doctor could not be sure.

I went upstate on Tuesday morning and returned Thursday evening, a few hours after the funeral. For those few days, I was immersed in grief and cried repeatedly. As a generally self-contained personality, I was surprised by how hard my mother’s death hit me. Over the years, I have spent summer days on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean near an old friend’s house in Rockaway. There is a strong undertow there and inexperienced swimmers drown every so often. I am not much of a swimmer and never venture much more than 50 feet into the turbulent waters but occasionally a powerful wave will wash over me and knock me off my feet into the ocean, where I struggle momentarily to reach the surface. That was what my grief felt like this week.

They say that the personal is political and that can’t be more true for people in my age bracket who were radicalized by the war in Vietnam. Now in our sixties, we find ourselves grappling with the problem of caring for aging parents. I wrote about this for MRZine a while back. Here are the first two paragraphs:

In May of 2004, my mother finally went into a nursing home after three years of mounting health problems. Many baby boomers besides me have also found themselves coping with the difficulties of looking after aging parents who can barely care for themselves, just as they near retirement age. It is analogous to the burden one assumes in raising a child, but without compensating joys. This generational drama involves intense personal and social pressures. Inevitably, questions of one’s own mortality, too, are posed for the middle-aged son or daughter of a parent struggling to remain independent. When you reach sixty, as I have, you begin to realize that you too are susceptible to failing health. You are also confronted with major economic challenges, since the costs of care for the elderly are enormous in a capitalist society racing to eradicate the last vestiges of the welfare state.

In years past, elderly parents were taken into their children’s home. With the breakdown of rural life, this is no longer the case. Capitalist society is very good at turning people into individual economic actors but even better at destroying traditional bonds of solidarity and support.

On Tuesday I went up to my mother’s room and sorted through her papers trying–unsuccessfully–to find an obituary that she had written just for the occasion. I ended up writing one myself:

Sullivan County Democrat, May 16, 2008

Ann Proyect
Journalist, 87

Ann Proyect passed away on May 12, 2008 at the Skilled Nursing Unit facility at Catskill Regional Medical Center, where she always felt at home during her final years. She repeatedly paid tribute to the compassion and the expert care she received from the staff. She was 87.

Ann, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., moved to Woodridge shortly after the end of WWII with her husband Jacob who predeceased her. She was very involved with civic life in Woodridge, serving as an officer of Hadassah during the 1950s as part of a lifelong commitment to the Jewish state.

Ann was also very committed to Jewish values, especially as reflected in the reform Judaism of Temple Sholom in Monticello where she was an enthusiastic member of the congregation for over 20 years. She worked closely with fellow congregant and close companion Victor Gordon in organizing yearly yard sales to benefit the temple.

She was also a journalist who wrote a regular column about Woodridge for local newspapers, including the Sullivan County Democrat at one time.

Ann was well-known for warmth and generosity as well as her sometimes stubborn adherence to the values that sustained her over a lifetime.

She was predeceased by a son, Allen. Her son, Louis Proyect is a resident of Manhattan and a longtime employee of Columbia University.

Although I loved my mother dearly, her Zionism did drive me crazy. No matter how many times I asked her not to bring up Israel, she kept returning to the subject. Just a few days before she died, she mailed me a large envelope full of clippings from the local newspapers. Sandwiched in between such items as the status of Bald Eagles on the Delaware River was an article making the case for Israel. I told my wife that my mom was up to her old tricks.

It was clear that I had inherited her zealotry gene. Where she had devoted herself to an idealized Israel of kibbutzim and trees growing in the desert, I was just as stubborn in my own devotion to a socialist ideal. And, like my mother, I could be gracious to people who agreed with my vision and just as prickly when they did not. As the rabbi told the congregation during the funeral service, my mother was never shy about telling people what she thought. Neither am I.

From the minute I received the phone call Monday night to arriving at the cemetery, I was beside myself with grief. But not long after the coffin was lowered into the earth and the last shovel full of dirt placed on top of it, my spirits began to lift. A sense of closure lifted me from the ocean’s water.

It dawned on me later that the funeral service was the first of any kind of Jewish liturgy that I had participated in since 1970 when my father died. Obviously, I was obligated to go to a synagogue in such circumstances. This time around I paid closer attention to the sermon since I had a lot more emotional investment in my mother’s life than in my father’s, a cold and remote figure. The rabbi kept stressing how my mother would be with God now, an idea that obviously holds little water with me.

But I realized that whether or not she was six feet under or up in heaven, the experience of praying in her memory meant a lot to her fellow believers and even to me, the life-long atheist. As part of a ritual that the Monticello, NY Reform Synagogue she belonged to, attendees surrounding the burial plot were invited to take turns shoveling in some earth which the rabbi likened to a parent tucking their child into bed.

As Marx once said, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

In a life sometimes filled with tragedy, my mother turned to religion to help her with “real suffering”. In a life filled with political engagement, I found myself consoled by a religious ceremony that had little to do with my own analytical and materialist core beliefs. As such it was therapeutic.

I can’t say that this experience has turned me into a believer, but in years to come I will certainly be tempted to recite the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish on May 12th each year, the day of her passing: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.”

February 11, 2008

Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Coming of Age”

Filed under: aging — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

Beauvoir, Simone de: The Coming of Age G.P. Putnam, New York, 1972, 585 pages. (No ISBN but Library of Congress number is 75-189781.)

 (Swans – February 11, 2008)   Simone de Beauvoir has always been ahead of her times. In 1949, she wrote The Second Sex, a groundbreaking feminist text that would eventually become necessary reading for the women’s liberation movement two decades later. In 1970, just around the time that movement was taking to the streets, she wrote another book titled The Coming of Age that is equal to the first in terms of its profound understanding of the human condition. Now that many feminists weaned on The Second Sex have reached their sixties (Beauvoir was 62 when she wrote The Coming of Age) they might benefit from her wisdom, which as all wisdom deepens with age. This is not to speak of men of a certain age as well, who as members of the baby boomer generation are coping with the issues of aging.

On February 4, 2008, The New York Times published an article in the science section written by Jane E. Brody titled “A Heartfelt Appeal for a Graceful Exit” that defended assisted suicide. Brody, born in 1941, concludes:

I for one have made my wishes clear to my family. When the tortures of a continued existence with no hope of recovery outweigh the benefits of maintaining that existence, I want out. And I hope that those who love me will find a way to make that happen.

Although death is the climax of the aging process, Simone de Beauvoir’s main focus is on old age itself rather than dying, which she accepts in good existential fashion as an inescapable fate, much like the rock that keeps rolling back on Sisyphus. Using the same combination of Marxist sociology, phenomenological philosophy, and Freudian psychology that served The Second Sex so well, Beauvoir ranges across centuries and continents to render the definitive statement on growing old. In her preface, she writes:

Old age is not a mere statistical fact; it is the prolongation and the last stage of a certain process. What does this process consist of? In other words, what does growing old mean? The notion is bound up with that of change. Yet the life of the foetus, of the new-born baby and of the child is one of continuous change. Must we therefore say, as some have said, that our life is a gradual death? Certainly not. A paradox of this kind disregards the basic truth of life — life is an unstable system in which balance is continually lost and continually recovered: it is inertia that is synonymous with death.

It should be said at the outset that Beauvoir’s prose, as obvious from the quote above, is as pellucid as a mountain stream. Despite her training in continental philosophy, nobody could ever mistake her writing with Merleau Ponty’s or her long-time companion Jean-Paul Sartre. Although she is dealing with very complex subjects, often having contradictory aspects (and what can be more contradictory than the life/death duality?), she explains herself using language that should be a model for aspiring serious writers.

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