Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 20, 2020

A message to the government

Filed under: comedy,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

February 5, 2020

Jimmy Dore, Joe Rogan, and the left

Filed under: Bernie Sanders,comedy,Green Party,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 11:02 pm

On October 17, 2018, the Socialist Worker newspaper—the voice of the disbanded ISO—published an article titled “The Independent Left Must Oppose Islamophobia.” It called attention to a statement of the NY branch of the ISO condemning Howie Hawkins’s “decision to welcome the endorsement of political commentator and comedian Jimmy Dore and to feature Dore alongside Howie at a livestream event this September in Brooklyn.”

Howie was running for governor against Andrew Cuomo that year and obviously had no reason to disavow Dore, who—as the ISO correctly pointed out—was a supporter of Bashar al-Assad. The ISO also took potshots at the Green Party’s 2016 vice presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka, who had written several articles about Syria that were not nearly as toxic as Dore’s podcasts, although certainly wrong. What the NYC ISO failed to point out in its statement was the lack of any evidence that Baraka used his campaign to promote Assad.

The purity of the ISO comrades is most admirable but perhaps they should have applied the litmus test to themselves, especially Haymarket books that published no less than 8 books by Roland Boer. Granted the books were only his turgid ruminations on the relationship between Protestantism and Marxism but perhaps they hadn’t noticed that his blog Stalin’s Moustache had been an open sewer of support for suppressing the Uyghurs, the Tibetan right to self-determination, and other offenses even more grievous than Jimmy Dore’s. While I would never put John Bellamy Foster in the same category as the slimy Roland Boer, the online publication MR has operated for the past 20 years or so has been both a propagandist for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad. When ISO’er Phil Gasper wrote a flattering review of Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology,” it didn’t occur to him to slap Foster’s wrist—as well as it shouldn’t.

So why the special treatment for Howie Hawkins, who, unlike Baraka, never said a word endorsing Assad either in print or in a speech? In fact, he has opposed him ever since the revolution began in 2011.

I have a suspicion, although I can’t prove it, that the NY ISO’ers were already beginning to go through a road to Damascus conversion about the value of “democratic socialism”, which requires as an article of faith rejection of candidates running to the left of the Democratic Party. We’ll never know, of course.

The ISO statement turned Syria into a litmus test, which a Green Party campaign email failed since it described Dore as “one of the most courageous and funniest political voices we have today.” Scolding the Greens, the ISO’ers retorted, “In fact, he is a vocal supporter of the worst variety of Assadist and Islamophobic conspiracy theories on the Syrian conflict.”

In fact, about 90 percent of the left today, including Noam Chomsky, Bhaskar Sunkara, and other well-known figures, would fail that litmus test as well. Dore, who might be described as a funny version of Max Blumenthal, happens to be a trenchant critic of the Democratic Party. So are the people who write for Black Agenda Report. For that matter, probably 90 percent of the people who have written for CounterPunch since 2011 line up with Jimmy Dore. Many believe that this reflects the editorial outlook of editors Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank but in reality it simply indicates the dominance of pro-Assad support of those who submit articles. What is the possibility that a united revolutionary left can be built in the years to come in a deepening capitalist crisis that is based on a litmus test of something like the Syrian revolution? Almost zero.

I hadn’t given much thought to this controversy since 2018 but a recent flap about Bernie Sanders and Joe Rogan brought it back to mind. Rogan is a lot like Jimmy Dore but with a much larger megaphone. Starting out as a stand-up comedian, he has become one of the most listened-to podcasters. Like Dore and the Chapo Trap House crew, he has tapped into a broad audience that likes its commentary raw and funny—even if it is at the expense of weak and marginalized communities. Like Dore, Rogan is a conspiracy theorist who understands the appeal of such a discourse for the average American. His Joe Rogan Experience averages 16 million downloads a month, which can represent a potential goldmine for the politician who appears on his show.

On August 6, 2019, Bernie Sanders made a guest appearance on Rogan’s show that Jacobin’s Luke Savage described as being consistent with his speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or his town hall appearance on Fox News. What’s interesting is that Savage lumped Rogan together with the rightwing Christian school and Rupert Murdoch’s shitty news channel. That changed in a few months when Rogan decided to endorse Sander’s candidacy and Sanders tweeted that endorsement with no qualifications.

Some Nation Magazine writers have been favorable to Bernie Sanders while others lean toward Elizabeth Warren. Unlike Jacobin, the magazine, which tends to buy into the New Deal legends wholeheartedly rather than half-heartedly, was in no mood to rationalize Sanders playing footsie with Rogan. Donna Minkowitz, who Newsweek Magazine listed as one of “30 gay power brokers” in 1993, lashed out at Sanders in an article titled “Bernie Broke My Heart When He Embraced Rogan’s Endorsement”:

In 2018, he told frequent guest Gavin McInnes, founder of the violent white supremacist and misogynist gang known as the Proud Boys, that people often become gay or lesbian because of “molestation at an early age.… it seems to be a real factor.”

And Rogan, who has reveled in using the N-word, said that going to a black neighborhood made him feel like he was visiting “the Planet of the Apes.” He likes to use the word “faggot,” has announced that queer women “don’t have the lower back muscles” to give other women “a proper fuck,” and says campuses are being too aggressive in prosecuting sexual assaults. He also claims that “feminism is sexist.”

All of this is why I felt so hurt and angry when I saw my favorite candidate, Bernie Sanders, trumpet Rogan’s endorsement in a campaign commercial released on Twitter.

Taking an entirely different tack, Michael Brooks and Ben Burgis told Jacobin readers that “It’s Good That Joe Rogan Endorsed Bernie. Now We Have to Organize.” Unlike Luke Savage, the two cherry pick the Dr. Jekyll side of Joe Rogan rather than his Mr. Hyde:

In some contexts, ranging from Palestine to health care to Trump’s child separation policy he’s been a voice of reason and compassion. On that last subject, he’s gone so far as to say that if you don’t oppose what Trump has done to immigrant and refugee families, “you aren’t on the team” of the human race.

As for democratic socialism’s chief arbiter of what is politically correct, Bhaskar Sunkara assured Guardian readers that “the Joe Rogan endorsement is a good thing for Bernie Sanders.” In a confessional mode, Sunkara wrote:

I’m a Joe Rogan Experience listener myself, and I have been for a few years. But like most of the show’s seven million YouTube subscribers, I skip most episodes and only watch a few clips here and there. Rogan has a strange range of interests — and he’s had on thousands of guests that have aired millions of views, some inspiring, some cringeworthy or odious.

I normally end up watching the ones with comedians or pop-thinkers, and I morbidly can’t turn away from the ones with right-wing charlatans like Jordan Peterson, but avoid all the mixed martial arts stuff and Rogan’s updates on his diet, exercise regime, or bowel movements (this stuff constitutes much of JRE’s output). And, of course, I’ve never bought any of the medically dubious “nutritional supplement” hawked on the show.

Well, at least you can say that Howie Hawkins probably had very little knowledge of what Jimmy Dore stood for. In a reply to the NYC ISO statement, he wrote:

I had never even heard of Jimmy Dore before. I heard from no one during the campaign about Jimmy Dore and Syria except the NYC ISO, until the Friday before the election when a pro-Assad “anti-imperialist,” alerted by NYC ISO’s statement, posted an attack on my pro-Syrian revolution position on Facebook that began circulating among campaign supporters. I had to respond then, and it is appended at the end of this response.

To be honest, I had no idea who Jimmy Dore was until someone clued me in that he was an Assadist. As for Joe Rogan, I remember him from the days when he was a commentator on the mixed martial arts cable show,  the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I thought he was a loud-mouth back then but not much more so than anybody else who was connected to a “sport” I tired of after six months or so.

Frankly, if I had any influence on Sanders, I wouldn’t have advised him to disavow Joe Rogan. He seems a lot less harmful than the politicians he has been connected with in a long and somewhat contradictory career, including Hillary Clinton, the politician he endorsed for President in 2016.

Oh, and by the way, Jimmy Dore finally realized what a mistake he made by reaching out to Howie Hawkins, even if the ISO purists never corrected their own by stigmatizing him.

 

January 2, 2020

The Worldwide Church of Bashar al-Assad

Filed under: comedy,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

October 5, 2018

The Great Buster: A Celebration

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in New York is a documentary on the life and work of Buster Keaton titled “The Great Buster: A Celebration”. Celebration is the operative term since it is a heart-felt tribute to a great comedian and filmmaker whose best films were made in the 1920s and stopped abruptly just at the time “talkies” began. What happened to Keaton? Why didn’t his career continue to flourish? We learn from Peter Bogdanovich, who produced, directed and was the narrator of the film, that it was studio executives at MGM who were responsible.

To understand what happened, it is best to consider a more recent example of how commercialism can trump art. In many ways, Jackie Chan was the Buster Keaton of our era. In dozens of films made in Hong Kong, he combined comedy and action in films that capitalized on the haplessness of his character who always triumphed in the end. Like other highly successful Hong Kong cinema luminaries such as John Woo, he was lured by the big bucks to begin making Hollywood films that were lead-footed duds even if they made money. In Keaton’s case, the films he made for MGM were so awful that they effectively destroyed his career. Additionally, it was his own alcoholism and the collapse of a marriage that led to his being hospitalized by what they used to call a “nervous breakdown”. He ended up being taken to a mental hospital in a straightjacket evoking the same fate of Jonathan Winters years later. In such cases, an abundance of talent can often cause collateral damage in a world that does not appreciate the comedian’s gift.

While the film was certainly obligated to tell this part of his story, most of it is upbeat and a treat to anybody young or old who has never seen a Keaton film. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton made films that people will be enjoying centuries from now while Judd Apatow will likely be forgotten a few years after he has given up the ghost. Like Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton did all of his own stunts that were memorable not just for the great physical agility they took but how they served the narrative arc and character development. By contrast, the visual gags of most modern comedies are just thrown in after the fact to make sure the audience does not fall asleep.

Buster Keaton got started in vaudeville just like WC Fields, the Marx Brothers and other great comedians of the 20s and 30s. He started performing as a young kid whose parents integrated him into their act as the butt of what appeared to be child abuse. They threw him around mercilessly to the point that they were arrested for cruelty to children on occasion. However, he and his parents were skilled at making things look much worse than they really were, like professional wrestlers today. We see Keaton showing another comedian how to take a fall at one point, showing him how extended hands can soften the blow. Of course, just like professional wrestlers, he often suffered injuries carrying out a stunt. In one of them, he suffered a broken neck that he lived with for decades until a doctor asked him how he got it. Keaton replied that he had no idea he had a broken neck.

Between the thirties and forties, Keaton was a sad, neglected figure—a comic version of the character dramatized in Michel Hazanavicius’s neo-silent film “The Artist”. Things turned around in the fifties when he began making commercials and appearances on various TV shows, including Ed Sullivan’s variety show. None of them, of course, could compare to the great films he made in the 20s but they at least allowed him to live in comfort with his wife Eleanor who comes across as a guardian angel.

Eleanor Keaton was a good friend of Richard Lewis who is among the comedians that pay tribute to Keaton in the film. We hear Mel Brooks acknowledge Keaton as a major influence on his own classic comedies. Other filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Quentin Tarantino having little connection to comedy describe Keaton as a great director, even transcending the comedy genre. One of the most unexpected fans is none other than Samuel Beckett who made a 1965 short titled “Film” that Keaton was happy to star in, even though he admitted he had no idea what it was about. Like just about everything else that once appeared on film, it can now be seen on the Internet and even for free.

September 21, 2018

Fahrenheit 11/9

Filed under: comedy,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 21, 2018

Michael Moore fans will be happy to hear that “Fahrenheit 11/9”, which opens today at theaters everywhere, is his best film in years, even in spots achieving the brilliance of “Roger and Me”. As pure entertainment, it is on a par with the best of Saturday Night Live, the Stephen Colbert show or any other pop culture attempts to rally people against Donald Trump even if it is unlikely that any such comedy so wedded to the Democratic Party will have any effect.

The film is a blunderbuss attack on the Trump administration and the Democratic Party establishment that includes Bill and Hillary Clinton. Even Barack Obama gets the Michael Moore treatment in an obvious display of buyer’s remorse. If you’ve seen the 2009 “Capitalism, a Love Story”, you might recall that the film portrays him as a knight in shining armor. Two days after Obama was elected for his first term Moore said, “The Republicans aren’t kidding when they say he’s the ‘most liberal’ member of the Senate. … He is our best possible chance to step back from the edge of the cliff.” In keeping with the general drift of the left, Moore now regards him as a total sell-out. In a lengthy segment on the Flint water crisis, we see Obama as a total jack-ass making a “joke” at a mass meeting of parents worried sick about their children’s health by asking for a glass of water. He repeats this stunt at another meeting with doctors and community leaders.

For Moore, the original sin was Bill Clinton becoming the equivalent of a moderate Republican in his first term. Since organized labor was not as powerful as it was in the past, especially in places like Moore’s hometown Flint, Clinton decided to cater to big business that would provide the necessary funding for him to be elected and then re-elected. This meant putting an end to Glass-Steagall, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other policies falling under the rubric of neo-liberalism.

Continue reading

April 30, 2018

Michelle Wolf full performance

Filed under: comedy,Trump — louisproyect @ 1:22 pm

November 15, 2017

Mr. Roosevelt

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

With the subject of male comedian bad behavior being discussed widely under the impact of Louis C.K.’s masturbatory aggressions, it is a relief to see what a female comedian is capable of. After walking away from C.K.’s tasteless and singularly unfunny train wreck of a movie “I Love You, Daddy” with a bad taste in my mouth, Noël Wells’s “Mr. Roosevelt” is a reminder that sexism in the film and television business is not only a crime against women but against all humanity for preventing the cream from rising to the surface. Wells is not only ten times smarter and funnier than C.K. but a welcome relief from the dyspeptic and misogynist strain that is found not only in C.K.’s work but across the board with male directors and screenwriters like Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, and James Franco.

Wells not only wrote the screenplay for “Mr. Roosevelt” but stars as Emily Martin, a young woman living in Los Angeles trying to make a career as a comic actor with mixed results. Rather than supporting herself as a waitress, she does film editing by day, a job that supposedly gives her the freedom to make it to auditions during working hours. This is essentially how Wells operated until she was discovered by SNL, where she became part of the cast in 2013 but not kept on after that. Another boneheaded move by Lorne Michaels, especially in light of Wells’s killer impersonation of Lena Dunham.

One day Emily gets a phone call from Austin, Texas, where her hopes for a career in show business began. After the call ends, she turns to her boss and says that a medical emergency requires her to fly to Austin immediately. In the next scene, we see her rush into a hospital and tells the receptionist breathlessly that she is there to see  Mr. Roosevelt. The receptionist informs her that it is too late to see him. He died earlier that day. It is only a minute later that we discover that Mr. Roosevelt was her pet cat and that he was at a veterinary hospital being treated for a kidney ailment. Since I have developed a deep affection for the Norwegian Forest Cat that is a guest in my apartment, I can totally empathize.

Mr. Roosevelt was not the only loved one she left behind in Austin. He was kept by her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune), who was trying to make it as a rock musician in a city filled with many such hopefuls. Perhaps being more realistic about his prospects, he stayed behind in order to weigh his options in a place where the arts were increasingly being replaced by high technology firms and real estate developers.

When she spots Eric in the waiting room, she runs up and throws her arms around him, partly to be consoled for the loss of her beloved Mr. Roosevelt and partly because of lingering affections. Within seconds he pushes her back for a good reason. Also in the waiting room is his new live-in girlfriend Celeste who symbolizes everything that she hates about the new Austin. Celeste works in high technology developing social media platforms for corporate customers and embraces the creepy New Age mentality found among the entrepreneurial class in Silicon Valley. Her yuppie values have even been embraced by Eric who now keeps his guitar stashed in a garage behind the house that he and Emily used to live in together. Music is part of the past. His new dream is to become a real estate agent and become part of Celeste’s world.

The clash between Celeste and Emily over Eric’s affections and over commerce versus art drives the narrative forward. Mr. Roosevelt is scheduled to be cremated in a couple of days and the couple iinvitesEmily to stay in their guest room until then. Over those two days, the confrontations between Emily and Celeste reach a comic crescendo during a brunch to memorialize Mr. Roosevelt’s passing. Drunk and sick of the new Austin, Emily grabs the urn containing Mr. Roosevelt’s ashes, runs out of the house, gets on her bicycle that had been sitting in the shed next to Eric’s guitar, and pedals away madly with the attendees in pursuit.

When Emily is not battling Celeste and arguing with Eric about his conversion to a New Age yuppie lifestyle, she is hanging with old Austin’s denizens who are depicted with great affection but with warts and all. When Emily has a one-night stand with a pothead, she takes umbrage at his comment about her being “quirky”. Why am I quirky, she asks. That is a word reserved for men. If I was a man, you wouldn’t call me quirky. You’d call me “eccentric”. He replies that maybe the right word is “bitch”. I’d give anything to see Noël Wells being interviewed about Louis C.K. and sexism in the comedy business.

“Mr. Roosevelt” will receive my nomination for best first film by a director in the NYFCO awards meeting in early December. It will also likely be nominated for best female actress and screenplay. Right now, it has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and unlike most hyped films really deserves it.

In spirit, the film is closely related to Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Look Twice”, a 2016 film about the hardscrabble life of people in the lower tiers of the comedy business. Just like Birbiglia, this is a world that Wells knows firsthand. And just like Birbiglia, she has made it to the upper echelons. And, finally, like Birbiglia, she has not lost her humanity—unlike Louis C.K.

“Mr. Roosevelt” opens at the Arena Cinelounge in L.A. on November 17th and at the Landmark Sunshine theater in NYC on the 22nd. It is not to be missed.

 

July 24, 2017

Chapo Frat House

Filed under: comedy,sexism,social democracy — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Chapo Trap House boys from left to right: Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, Will Menaker

I am gay and I voted for Obama
I am a shill for the Clinton campaign and the leftwing mainstream press
I’m a pussy who gets fucked right up the ass

I am a cuck
I am a libtard
I am a fag who was blessed to live amongst us
And Arabs to have equal rights.
I have no love of country and the white folks are not all bad
And the Albright folks are tacky
It makes me sad

I am a cuck
I am a libtard

Don’t talk of Trump ‘cause nothing scares me more
I really should call him daddy
He could be the savior and will go down in history
And save us all from douchebags like me

I am a cuck
I am a libtard
A cuck has no fun
A libtard always cries

Choosing a Chapo Trap House podcast to listen to for the first time, I picked a show that featured an interview with Shane Bauer. Bauer is a journalist who has written for Mother Jones and who I follow on Twitter, partly because he has a very good understanding of what’s happening in Syria. Perhaps that’s a function of spending two years in an Iranian prison accused of being a CIA agent. He and two others were hiking in Iraq (don’t ask me why) and inadvertently strayed in to Iranian territory.

Bauer was being interviewed on his going undercover to gather material on rightwing militias for a Mother Jones article and for the first half-hour, I found nothing objectionable even if it was hardly the sort of radio (or podcast) that I would make a habit of.

At the thirty-minute break, the song above came on. Sung ostensibly by the Chapo Trap House principals, I wondered what was the point. Was this something in the spirit of Sasha Baron Cohen singing “Throw the Jew Down the Well” at a Texas roadhouse in “Borat”? The point of Borat’s exercise was to demonstrate that Texas was filled with anti-Semites but what was their point? Maybe they didn’t have any except to show that they were “bad boys”.

Ironically, in another podcast I sampled earlier, they were riffing on Bill Maher’s use of the “nigger” word to show how disgusting he and HBO were. So exactly what’s the difference? I don’t see any unless it is okay to call people “fags” as a joke but not to use the word “nigger”. What about “kike”? That might get a few laughs.

I first heard about this show from a puff piece that appeared in The New Yorker magazine on November 18, 2016 that quoted Matt Christman, one of the three men who started Chapo, on what the goal of the “dirtbag left” is: “to offend the sensibilities of ‘leftist’ language police whose only goal is sabotaging social solidarity in order to maintain their brands as arbiters of good taste and acceptable speech.” Oh, I see. How about throwing in some “kikes” and “niggers” somewhere along the line to push the envelope even further.

For me, the mystery was how Chapo ever got such a glowing testimonial in a magazine that hates the left. The New Yorker, for example, published an article by Jill Lepore trashing Howard Zinn, as well as one promoting GMO. The editor is David Remnick, a Sovietologist who Alexander Cockburn once referred to as “a third-tier talent who has always got ahead by singing the correct career-enhancing tunes, as witness his awful reporting from Russia in the 1990s.”

Like Jacobin, Chapo has the knack of getting accolades from the most powerful newspapers and magazines in the USA. The next big publicity shot in the arm came in the form of a July 5, 2017 New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “Hated by the Right. Mocked by the Left. Who Wants to Be ‘Liberal’ Anymore?” The author was Nikil Saval, a founder of n+1 magazine that is often mentioned in the same breath as Jacobin—namely, a Young Lion pretender to the throne of Marxism. I generally enjoy reading n+1 but found Saval’s prolix account of working on the Bernie Sanders campaign pretty objectionable from a Marxist standpoint. As might be obvious, the Chapo/Jacobin/n+1 milieu takes Sanders’s “socialism” at face value.

The brunt of Saval’s piece is to call attention to liberal-bashing of the sort that Chapo Trapo House specializes in. Saval mentions that they spend a lot of airtime “making fun of liberal cultural life, with one common target being fervor for the musical Hamilton.” Well, with the price of tickets for the Broadway smash hit, most of their listeners would not be able to pay for a ticket so the jokes might have sailed over their heads. However, with the $70,000 per month the boys are making from their podcasts, I assume that they might want to go see it for themselves. I just hope they don’t yell any racial epithets at the performers even if they are tempted to call Javier Muñoz, the HIV-positive star, a fag.

Just this week a feud broke out between the boys and The New Republic’s senior editor Jeet Heer who faulted them for trafficking in “dominance politics”, which means using mean-spirited humor against the Clinton wing of the party that The New Republic identifies with. Heer advocates reconciling the Sanders wing of the party that Chapo belongs to with the centrist old guard, something obviously not on Chapo’s agenda.

In a Twitter war between Heer and the boys, Chapo host Felix Biederman tweeted that he is “not reading Jeet’s article about how rude we are until he takes David Frum’s dick out of his mouth”. Both Heer and Frum are heterosexuals, while Frum is a longtime neoconservative who voted for Hillary Clinton. It is really difficult for me to understand how in 2017 this kind of gay-baiting can take place. I was around to see the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and welcomed the rise of a Gay Liberation movement. In the radical movement of that period, you could have gotten expelled for using that kind of language unless, of course, you were in Avakian’s sect. Now it seems that it is not only permissible in the DSA/Jacobin milieu but perhaps helps to generate $70,000 per month. Other times, other manners, I suppose.

While not exactly an A-List bourgeois newspaper, the Guardian certainly has the readership that might pay for a Chapo subscription. Yesterday, they published an article titled “Leftwing Breitbart? Chapo Trap House is strong new voice in resistance to Trump” by Edward Helmore that took Chapo’s side in the conflict with Heer and The New Republic.

Helmore’s article has the benefit of placing Chapo into an ideological context:

The hosts, who are aligned with the Brooklyn arm of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), met on social media, gaining followers with their offbeat humor and views on what is termed “left Twitter”.

That led to a series of podcasts on the popular Street Fight Radio before the launch of Chapo Trap House, named for Sinaloa cartel head Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the hip-hop term for a drug house.

One DSA member familiar with the thinking of the podcast producers offered the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism as an ideological reference, and said the spat with the New Republic illustrated the resistance of neoliberals to warnings that a hard left turn is necessary to counter the rise of the so-called alt-right and avoid continued electoral defeat.

Yes, indeed. How did I miss the parallels between Chapo Trap House and Theodore Adorno, especially given the chapter on fags in “Dialectics of Enlightenment”. I should have realized that DSA members would have been attuned to the Frankfurt School, given Stanley Aronowitz’s role in the organization’s ideological journey. Maybe at the next Left Forum, the boys can do a performance of “I am a cuck”. I’ll bet it will go over great with the bitches and the fags. Oh, did I mention that in the closing moments of the Shane Bauer podcast there was an elevated discussion of the Trump-Putin connection with the new president being referred to as Putin’s “bitch”?

Helmore is also very astute in sizing up Chapo’s role in electoral politics, referring to John Mason, a political science professor in New Jersey:

“Who is the most popular politician in the United States right now?” asked Mason. “Bernie Sanders! The ground has shifted and this is really the centre of the Democratic party. The people who have been marginalised, especially after this defeat, are those who belong to the Clinton-Obama wing.”

The far left, Mason said, is articulating itself in new ways. He pointed to a recent meeting of Sanders and Al Gore and the emergence of anti alt-right groups such as Redneck Revolt. Last week, the DSA published an electoral strategy guide; it anticipates strong or record attendance at its convention in Chicago next month.

So, let me get this straight. The “socialist” wing of the Democratic Party is now its center and proof of that is Bernie Sanders meeting with Al Gore? And what about that electoral strategy guide? Written by Joseph M. Schwartz, a political science professor at Temple University and national vice-chair of DSA, it proposes the same “inside/outside” electoral strategy that not only defines social democracy in the USA but that of the Communist Party as well:

DSA should not be in the business of solely working to secure Democratic majorities for the purpose of pressuring them from the left. But many of our allies in the black, Latino, trade union, LGBTQ, immigrant, Muslim, and feminist communities will be mobilized in 2018 to flip Republican state legislatures, to expand Democratic majorities in Democratic states, and to take back, at least, the House at the national level. We can’t simply ignore what those constituencies who would constitute a multi-racial and class-based left will be doing.

Thus, in my view, DSA should deploy its limited resources primarily to build social movements and, where possible, shore up a progressive electoral pole (a more multi-racial and labor-based version of the post-Sanders trend) that opposes the corporate, neo-liberal dominance of the Democratic Party.

I believe that the best way of doing that is to run viable democratic socialist candidates either in Democratic primaries (see Ross Mittiga) or in local non-partisan races (see khalid kamau). But if the social movement groups we work with back a strong anti-corporate Democratic Party candidate of color or labor or another staunchly progressive activist, some locals will clearly consider working on those campaigns, too — particularly if they involve a primary challenge to a pro-corporate neo-liberal Democrat.

That’s what we are left with beneath all the “bad boy” shock jock humor at the expense of gay people. A business as usual orientation to liberal politicians like Bernie Sanders and Al Gore in the hope that the Democratic Party can serve as what? The vanguard of a socialist revolution? A return to the New Deal? Talk about utopian schemas.

I find myself in advanced years wondering what will take such people to break with the Democratic Party once and for all. If it wasn’t support for slavery, the invasion of the USSR in 1918, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean war and the Vietnam war, what will it take? At a certain point, you begin to wonder if maybe such people are not that opposed to the capitalist system, especially when you are making $70,000 per month sitting around making banal observations about American politics that relies on four-letter words to spice things up.

Update:

I have just learned on Facebook that “I am a cuck” was “a song by the comedian Tim Heidecker who wrote it to mock the alt-right kids who went after him for, among other things, siding against keeping an alt-right influenced show on Cartoon Network’s adult swim.” As I said, the song was likely meant in jest but so was Bill Maher’s wisecrack about being a “field nigger”.

December 7, 2015

Chester’s Zumbarg

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,repression — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Yesterday’s NY Times Sunday Book Review had an article on Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver’s “The Catskills: its history and how it changed America”. As someone who grew up in the southern Catskills in the so-called Borscht Belt and who went to college in Annandale-on-Hudson in the northern Catskills, the region has been a big influence on my life.

I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Stephen M. Silverman at a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side just after the book came out. The audience, like me, came mostly for what he would say about the Borscht Belt. Many had memories of going “to the mountains” in the 1950s when it was still a vibrant resort area.

When I was in high school I had heard about a hotel called Chester’s that had a reputation for being leftist and culturally advanced, featuring string quartets rather than Mambo bands. I never made it over there but was keenly aware that it existed. As I have mentioned in my comic book memoir, there was a leftist underground in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s that included certain hotels and bungalow colonies as part of its “liberated territory”.

Michael Elias is one of the people who knew Chester’s well. Five years older than me, he was the son of a leftist physician in South Fallsburgh, a nearby town. Michael made it out to Hollywood after graduating college and became a very successful director and screenwriter with films like “The Jerk” to his credit. I had a brief chat with Michael about 20 years ago on a trip out to tinseltown but never had any idea that he was a red diaper baby.

A few months ago, after legendary novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal mentioned that he was a friend of Michael’s, we began exchanging emails about growing up in the Borscht Belt. This led to Michael sending me a copy of his play “A Catskill Sonata” that was based on a weekend at Chester’s with a character named Dave who had been blacklisted from his job writing for the Arthur Godfrey show, a popular daytime talk show. Michael describes “A Catskill Sonata” as a “serious comedy in one act”. The owner of the hotel is named Anne Rosen, an obvious reference to Ann Chester.

Here is a brief excerpt from Michael’s play followed by Stephen M. Silverman’s discussion of Chester’s.

DAVE

Actually, Godfrey and I…actually CBS and I…how to say this…

RAE

You quit?

DAVE

Actually, it was more of a mutual thing. The producers fired me and I went along with their decision.

RAE

What about Godfrey? What did he say?

DAVE

He feels terrible. His assistant gave me the message personally.

ERNIE

When did this happen?

DAVE

A couple of weeks ago. Costello called me into his office, said my wife gave money to the Communist Party. So that’s where it went, I said. I told him Madeline and I have a deal. She doesn’t try to convert me to Marxism and I don’t make her watch your putrid show. Which, naturally, didn’t go over too well. But, as you know, my policy is to be brave as long as the situation is hopeless.

ERNIE

Can you get another show?

DAVE

They made it clear that I am not employable in television. Wait. Maybe I could repair them. If only I knew how they worked.

RAE

I’m sorry, Dave.

DAVE

It’s not all bad. Now that I’m blacklisted I don’t have to subscribe to The Daily Worker.

RAE

Can’t you write for Godfrey under another name?

DAVE

I don’t write that much. I mainly whisper clever things in Arthur’s ear between songs. No, I’m dead. Wait. There is one thing: I could turn in my friends. Give their names to the FBI. That would get my job back. I could become head writer. It won’t work. I don’t have any friends. Okay, I know a couple of comics who don’t care about my politics. I’ll survive. I’ll have to keep this from my dope dealer. He’s a rabid anti-Communist.

Stephen M. Silverman:

A HIGHLY REGARDED WRITER of scripts for television and film, Walter Bernstein penned the 1976 The Front, in which Woody Allen plays a practically illiterate bar cashier and part-time bookie who during the McCarthy era in the 1950s poses as a “front” for blacklisted television writers. “There were a bunch of us in New York in the entertainment business that were writers and directors and musicians and producers who were blacklisted as a result of Red Channels,” said Bernstein, who in the 1950s was only in his early thirties. “There were eight or nine listings for me, all true. Supporting Republican Spain. Some Russian friendship thing. African-American civil liberties. Writing for the New Masses, a couple of times. They were all accurate. You were blacklisted unless you went and cleared yourself. And that meant going down and testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities…. You could go there and say, ‘I’m sorry I did this. I would never join the organizations again. You know, they’re all terrible people.’ But unless you gave names—that was the mark of your sincerity—you stayed blacklisted.”

For Bernstein, who did not name names, this meant being out of work “for about eight or nine years in movies, and another year in television before it ended. It was not easy making a living. It was harder for the actors and directors than it was for the writers, because we could try to find ways to survive. We stuck together,” he said.

“One of the things that was very nice was that several hotels in the Catskill Mountains, the smaller ones in particular, would invite blacklisted artists to come for a free weekend. And in return for which they would ask us if we would conduct seminars or panels or give speeches or lectures on our particular subjects. The hospitality was very open. There was either a swimming pool or a lake. And lots and lots of food, all you could eat.”

Bernstein found refuge in “one small hotel that I went to several times … Chester’s. The full name was Chester’s Zunbarg, that’s Yiddish for Sun Hill.” Located down the road from Grossinger’s and started during the Depression by Anne Chester and her family when their real estate business collapsed, the no-guest-capacity hotel catered to an intellectual crowd, offering chamber music, workshops, discussion groups, and meditation sessions. African-American entertainers like Josh White and Paul Robeson stayed there as guests of the Chester family. Roberson, who frequented Chester’s, was taken there in 1949 after the notorious Peekskill riots, when a crowd of racists and anticommunists stoned his car before he was to perform a concert on the Lakeland Picnic Grounds at Cortland Manor in Westchester County.

Long a figure of controversy for his social and political stance, Robeson had been targeted on this particular occasion for expressing his gratitude toward the Soviet Union (about which he said, “Here I am not a Negro but a human being) and for his belief that African Americans should not serve in the military of a racist Western democracy. During the melee, Robeson escaped from one car to another to conceal his exit amid a seven-car convoy. “He was told to lie on the floor in case somebody tries to kill him on the way out,” remembered Pete Seeger.

Seeger also vividly recalled how the Klan surrounded the dirt road of the country club as if it were a battlefield and that signs had goneup throughout Peekskill reading, Wake Up, America: Peekskill Did. “The very moment of the evening of the attack, [the signs] went up,” said Seeger. “They were on bumpers of cars. In gas stations In windows. In houses. In stores. And, in Europe, they were horrified. They said, ‘Don’t you know that’s the same sign that went up in Germany after Kristallnacht? They said, Wake Up, Germany: Munich Did.'”

“Chester’s Zunbarg was a small hotel,” Bernstein said. “The woman who ran it, Anne Chester, was warm and very hospitable. What I remember mainly was the warmth. ‘Kinderlach, darlings, children, come, eat, eat!’ You know you were constantly trying to cut that sense of isolation that was forced on you by being black-listed. You knew you were the pariahs. There were people who I knew who would cross the street when they saw me coming.” This was not the case at Chester’s. “We went up there several times. Go up on a Friday, come back Monday morning. And we entertained. Some of the actors did comic routines.”

One of them was Zero Mostel. “I remember going up there once with Zero. He was the big star of the weekend. They knew him from his nightclub work. He had played the Borscht Belt. One time Zero asked if I would drive him up to a hotel in the Catskills called the Concord. Big hotel. He had been promised five hundred dollars to appear. Before he was blacklisted, he was pulling down something like two thousand dollars a night. But he needed the five hundred very badly.” So badly that when Mostel showed up, the manager informed him that the fee had been sliced in half “Even the two-fifty at that time was more than rent money, and he needed it,” said Bernstein. Mostel took to the stage as planned, before an audience of at least fifteen hundred. “And he was wonderful. He did his act in a rage. He was so angry at what was going on. And he insulted the audience in Yiddish. He called them names. And the more he did that, the more they laughed. The more they liked him. He was a big hit. They called him back several times, and he cursed out everybody.” Bernstein wound up putting Mostel to bed that night, though not before the actor had downed half a bottle of whiskey. When it became time to shoot The Front more than two decades later, Bernstein wanted Mostel, who played a black-listed TV star in the movie, to re-enact the entire real-life episode, only Mostel would have none of it. “It was still too painful for him to re-create that. And so we just show a snippet of his thing and then he does get angry afterward and attacks the manager. But he wouldn’t do that thing which was so awful and extraordinary to see, of him performing his comic act on the stage in such anger.”

 

May 21, 2015

I said goodbye to Letterman long before he said goodbye to his viewers

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

When “Late Night with David Letterman” came on the air at 12:30am in 1982, I became such a fan that I was willing to put up with the early morning grogginess that came with staying up so late. The show came on after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”, something that I had little use for at the time since it was so predictable. I ha no idea at the time that Letterman’s deepest desire was to become the next Johnny Carson and host the same kind of show.

In 1982 I was three years out of the SWP, working for a consulting company called Automated Concepts that was run by an EST devotee named Fred Harris, and working with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network. I watched almost no television at all except for the Letterman show and football games. Most of the time I listened to WBAI, which was probably at one of its high points artistically and politically. Although it is hard to believe, the Letterman show was just as edgy in its own terms as a few clips from the early period should illustrate. They reflect a distinctly “downtown” vibe that was in its way the TV counterpart of the thriving punk rock, performance art, and underground Super-8 movie scene.

Brother Theodore (his last name was Gottlieb) was not just a comic genius; he was a genius period who led an extraordinary life as this Wiki entry should indicate. Can you imagine someone like that being featured on Jimmy Kimmel (not that I have ever watched that show.)

Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.

He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. He played a bit part in Orson Welles’s 1946 movie The Stranger.

Chris Elliot was the son of Bob Elliot of the radio show “Bob and Ray” fame who certainly inherited his dad’s sense of absurdist comedy. He was a regular on the Letterman show for a number of years and always pushed the envelope. To give you an idea of the affinity that Letterman had with WBAI, long-time early morning show host Larry Josephson curated the Bob and Ray shows for an acclaimed CD reissue.

No commentary is necessary

Sandra Bernhard was a lesbian standup comedian who was by the far the best at making Letterman squirm even though he knew that this was essential for the show’s success.

What can I say? Harvey was my favorite guest on the Letterman show if for no other reason that he expressed exactly what I would have said if I had been on the show myself. Years later when I hooked up with Harvey to do a comic book about my life, I was more excited to be working with him than to be a guest on the Letterman show.

When Letterman moved to the 11:30 slot in 1992, I was happy to be able to watch my favorite show and still get a good night’s sleep. But within a year or so, I realized that it was a different show. It did not happen all at once but it no longer became a place for Brother Theodore but more for some idiot actor or actress to talk about their next film. On top of that, the shtick that remained like the “Top Ten List” grew stale.

What had happened?

I got the answer in Bill Carter’s 1994 book “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night”. Carter explained in convincing detail that Letterman harbored a desire from an early age to be the next Johnny Carson instead of David Letterman. The 11:30 slot allowed him to drop the edgy guests who would have either bored or annoyed the people who expected the standard late night fare.

In August 2001 I posted some comments about Letterman to Marxmail that never made it to my Columbia University website (this was long before I began blogging or when blogs existed for that matter). This is the appropriate time to post them again.

Early in February, top CBS television president Les Moonves and six other top entertainment executives spent several days in Cuba with the approval of the U.S. government. The visit was capped by lunch with Fidel Castro. When news of the trip became public, Late Night host David Letterman began making fun of his boss relentlessly. Among the many rightwing jokes revolved around the “differences” between Moonves and Castro: “On one hand, you have a ruthless dictator surrounded by ‘yes’ men. And on the other, you have Castro.”

Another Late Night show pushed the envelope even further with a sketch titled “Lunch With Fidel.” And one of the entries on a recent Top 10 List was, “Last week, at Castro’s Grammy party, he let me beat a political prisoner.”

This follows a controversy surrounding the guest appearance of radical folk singer Ani DiFranco. Producers canceled her scheduled appearance tonight after the folk singer refused to substitute a more “upbeat” song for one about racism. DiFranco’s manager, Scot Fisher, told The Washington Post that the singer planned to perform “Subdivision” in the show’s final segment. The song begins, “White people are so scared of black people, they bulldoze out to the country.”

One can understand why Letterman would object to such a performance. Mostly what his shtick is about nowadays is projecting an out-of-towner’s fear and loathing of non-white New Yorkers to his dwindling audience. To preserve market share, Letterman makes sure to include at least one racist jibe each night about smelly foreign cab drivers or other aspects of its polyglot culture. The aging Letterman, who lives in Connecticut, is reverting more and more to his nativist Indiana roots. The state was home to the most powerful Ku Klux Klan chapter in the north throughout the 1920s. As the camera pans out to his sycophantic audience each night, you are hard-pressed to find anybody who is neither white, nor overweight for that matter. In his shift to the bland (and now racist) tastes of heartland America, he has attracted the audience he deserves: Corn-fed out-of-towners wearing fanny-packs, knuckle-head frat boys and visiting servicemen.

Letterman is a truly sad story. In the 1980s he was the inventive host of an NBC show that came on after Johnny Carson. Since this time-slot was traditionally (and still is) geared to a more adventurous programming, his bad boy creativity could find full expression. When he wasn’t interviewing quirky writers such as Hunter Thompson, he was skewering the pretensions of show business phonies like Cher. The rest of the show consisted of “found humor” like throwing watermelons off a 12 story building or “stupid pet tricks”.

When he made a bid for Carson’s time-slot after his retirement, NBC executives opted for Jay Leno instead whose conventional humor would satisfy the least common denominator and sell more beer and laxatives in the process. The jilted Letterman took a job with CBS in the same time-slot as Leno and vied for the same audience.

This meant changing his format. Instead of a Hunter Thompson, you would end up with some vapid B-movie actor promoting his or her next film. The conversation would inevitably revolve around how married life was treating them or what they did on their vacation. In other words, the same idle chatter that his audience has over dinner in their split-level homes in East Jesus, Nebraska. Nothing like making overweight white people feel at home. Meanwhile the “found humor” became ever more formulaic, following the same tendency found on Saturday Night Live. If an audience laughs at a sight gag, this becomes an invitation to repeat it every week until it becomes as irritating as a garden rake being dragged across a blackboard.

I suppose that Letterman’s turn to the right was inevitable. If you pander to middle-class fears and loathing about the NYC Casbah, you will naturally find yourself catering to the hysterical tics that define US foreign policy. Poor Letterman, he aspired to be the next Johnny Carson. Instead he has become the next Bob Hope.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.