Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 5, 2012

Thoughts on the passing of Earl Shorris

Filed under: conservatism,Jewish question,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:23 am

Earl Shorris

The NY Times obituary on Earl Shorris is an admiring tribute to an exceptional human being:

Earl Shorris, a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy, died on May 27 in New York. He was 75.

The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Anthony said.

Mr. Shorris, who wrote a dozen books during the first 35 years of his career, many sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Established in 1995 with 25 students at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the East Village of Manhattan, the program offers the disadvantaged a 10-month curriculum of philosophy, history, art, literature and logic. It earned Mr. Shorris the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

Read full obit

I held Shorris in the highest esteem as both a principled left-liberal and a master essayist. As a literary genre, the personal essay’s first and greatest exponent was Michel Montaigne who always proceeded from the personal to the universal. Another master of the form is Philip Lopate whose essay on taking his incontinent aging father to a Chinese restaurant evolves into a transcendent meditation on fatherhood and death.

Earl Shorris’s last essay before his death appeared in Harper’s, a magazine that he has had a long association with. It is the quintessential personal essay titled “American vespers: The ebbing of the body politic” that begins with his latest hospitalization for the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that would shortly kill him and ending with commentary on another cancer, the military-industrial complex that is killing America.

In the middle of the night, when the hospital is in its deepest dusk, a confusing loneliness sets in. If there is no motion in the room, no sound, no sense of life in the pallid darkness, the little tremblings stop: in the perfect stillness, hope subsides; death presents itself in the guise of an analgesic. As if she knew this about the night, Sasha Stanton appeared carrying a small cup of lemon ice. It was the first food I had eaten in some days, and I took it not for hunger but for company.

Death was growing inside me. It defies the mind, like magic, for it was only death because of what had been described as the immortality metastasizing within. I was overcome by a kind of attraction to it. Nothing else had ever beckoned so! Not even the love of my wife or the faces of my sons.

Like a sonata in one movement, the piece shifts gradually toward a look at the “body politic”, with cancer a perfect metaphor for the state of things in 2012. I first heard such a metaphor from Joel Kovel, who in a talk on ecology at the Brecht Forum about 20 years ago described unregulated capitalist growth as a metastasizing tumor. Shorris writes:

Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways. With no ethical component to national politics, President Obama could deliver his 2011 State of the Union speech without ever mentioning the word “poverty,” although one in every five American children lived in poverty. Without a commitment to Hutcheson’s idea of the greatest good, which is at the core of the original American philosophy in Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence, this may no longer be the brilliant experiment. If happiness is for the few and it produces unemployment approaching that of the Great Depression, then the shadow of evening is here.

Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death. When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.

I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.

No nation is forever.

The NY Times obit neglected to mention perhaps Shorris’s best-known and most controversial books, “Jews Without Mercy”. Written in 1971, it was the first open challenge to Jewish neoconservatives written by somebody not connected to the hard left.

Today I took the book out of the Columbia University library and scanned in the first chapter titled “Apology to Mr. Singer, Slayer of Chickens, May He Rest in Peace.” Like all of his other essays, it starts with the personal:

You were decorated with blood and feathers, praying and killing in the back room of a store on an empty block in a failed section of the town. The butcher pointed to you as if you were an advertisement. He asked if the boy wanted to watch Mr. Singer do his work. I declined to step behind the counter and through the unpainted wooden gate that led to your slaughterhouse. My grandmother laughed. She knew chickens, she knew children.

She prepared chickens in the tiny kitchen of her apartment, reaching into the hollow cavity to remove the liver, heart, and kidneys; tearing the fat from the flesh; and depositing the yellow clumps in a saucepan. She burned the feet in the fire of the stove, blackening the ends of the truncated toes. While the chicken soaked in salt water she spoke of you: You dassn’t be afraid of Mr. Singer. He’s a very learned man. When the Rabbi has a question, you know where he goes? To Mr. Singer!

This has a special meaning for me since I used to watch a Mr. Singer at work when I was a young boy. There was a ritual kosher chicken slaughterhouse in the back yard below my apartment in upstate NY and I used to watch the shochit in awe and wonder—this was before my parents bought their first TV. From my memoir scheduled to be released in August 2065:

Before long Shorris transforms himself into a kind of shochet, slicing the throats of the neocons:

Many of the converts have told of the journey across the political spectrum, although not with the detail or the honesty of Norman Podhoretz. Most of the others have begun with rationalization rather than confession, attempting to hide their newfound preference for vulgarity. Almost all of them have said that it is because they are Jewish that they have become neoconservatives. They speak for each other; they help each other with grants, consulting fees, and introductions to money and power. It is a close camaraderie for all but Daniel Bell, who resigned as coeditor of The Public Interest after he and Irving Kristol founded the magazine, and who was given into the hands of Michael Novak in the July 1981 issue of Commentary to be drummed out of the corps as one whose “imagination still operates within a Marxian horizon.” Novak, a Polish Catholic and the publicist of “ethnic interests,” the new euphemism for racism, delivered the coup de grace earlier in the same paragraph: “Bell is said to have quipped that he is a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics, and a conservative in culture. The single most systematic strength in his thinking—and simultaneously, the single most glaring weakness—is that the socialist in him frequently overwhelms both the liberal and the conservative.” The club is warm and supportive, but it is restricted. Daniel Bell, the best mind among the neoconservatives, cannot be considered a neoconservative: He simply could not bring himself to trade ethics for vulgarity.

Returning to the NY Times obit, I was appreciative of Earl Shorris’s efforts on behalf of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities while feeling queasy about its funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, like so many of Bard’s philanthropic efforts. The Clemente center benefits poor Latinos, a program with the same good intentions as Bard’s Prison Initiative that allows prisoners to earn a BA while incarcerated.

If I ever had gotten to know Shorris, I would have like to ask him about Soros’s impact on the poor people of Hungary whose homes were foreclosed in the tens of thousands after the Central Bank suffered huge losses because of Soros’s insider trading. After watching the documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.”, I am more skeptical of deep-pocketed foundations than ever, I’m afraid.

There’s something about these programs that reminds me of George Bush ‘41’s “thousand points of light”. With American higher education going down the tubes, what real value is there in setting up Potemkin Villages that show off George Soros’s good will?

Ultimately, the worldview of the left-liberal, including the best of them like Gore Vidal or Earl Shorris, is moralistic and does not consider the possibility that “mercy” is not the solution to the nation’s problems but a radical restructuring of the economy so that everybody comes into the world on an equal footing.

September 13, 2011

Texas is a unique place

Filed under: capitalist pig,conservatism — louisproyect @ 3:07 pm

NY Review September 29, 2011
Republican Days of Wrath
by Michael Tomasky

The national press has largely pigeonholed Perry into the “Tea Party” category, a designation that is certainly not without merit. It was, for example, outside a Tea Party rally in April 2009 that Perry made his remark about the possibility of Texas seceding:

Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that America and Washington in particular pays attention. We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come out of that?

Yet calling Perry only a Tea Party candidate is misleading. He is also a candidate of the Republican establishment—the senior party members who raise millions of dollars and influence the party’s priorities—because that establishment today is itself quite right-wing. It is based chiefly not on Wall Street anymore but in Texas (and in Wichita, Kansas, where Koch Industries is located). The “tiny splinter group” of “a few Texas oil millionaires” whom Dwight Eisenhower famously disparaged in 1954 now is arguably the most powerful tendency within the party. The state’s rich Republicans have been the chief backers of everything from George W. Bush’s campaigns to attacks on Democrats like the Swift Boat ads used against John Kerry in 2004.


NY Times July 20, 2011
Child’s Play, Grown-Up Cash

APART from the open bar by the swimming pool, the main attraction at parties held at the Houston home of John Schiller, an oil company executive, and his wife, Kristi, a Playboy model turned blogger, is the $50,000 playhouse the couple had custom-built two years ago for their daughter, Sinclair, now 4.

Cocktails in hand, guests duck to enter through the 4 ½-foot door. Once inside, they could be forgiven for feeling as if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

Built in the same Cape Cod style as the Schillers’ expansive main house, the two-story 170-square-foot playhouse has vaulted ceilings that rise from five to eight feet tall, furnishings scaled down to two-thirds of normal size, hardwood floors and a faux fireplace with a fanciful mosaic mantel.

The little stainless-steel sink in the kitchen has running water, and the matching stainless-steel mini fridge and freezer are stocked with juice boxes and Popsicles. Upstairs is a sitting area with a child-size sofa and chairs for watching DVDs on the 32-inch flat-screen TV. The windows, which all open, have screens to keep out mosquitoes, and there are begonias in the window boxes. And, of course, the playhouse is air-conditioned. This is Texas, after all.

“I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40.


July 27, 2011

What do Alexander Cockburn and the Norwegian mass murderer have in common?

Filed under: conservatism,Fascism,media — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

The short answer to that is an affinity for the writings of paleoconservative William S. Lind. If you do a search on “by William S. Lind” on the Counterpunch website, you will come up with 16,500 hits. It should be understood that many of these hits refer to the same article, but clearly we are dealing with someone who was at one point as much of a presence there as fellow paleoconservative Counterpuncher Paul Craig Roberts is today.

Last October Alexander Cockburn defended this orientation to the right in an article that referred to me as an “old Trotskyist lag” in light of my unaccountable inability to appreciate the Tea Party:

Contrary to a thousand contemptuous diatribes by the left, the Tea Party is a genuine political movement, channeling the fury and frustration of a huge slab of white Americans running small businesses – what used to be called the petit-bourgeoisie…

Who says these days that in the last analysis, the only way to change the status quo and challenge the Money Power of Wall St is to overthrow the government by force? That isn’t some old Trotskyist lag like Louis Proyect, dozing on the dungheap of history like Odysseus’ lice-ridden old hound Argos, woofing with alarm as the shadow of a new idea darkens the threshold.

Who really, genuinely wants to abolish the Fed, to whose destruction the left pledges ever more tepid support. Sixty per cent of Tea Party members would like to send Ben Bernanke off to the penitentiary, the same way I used to hear the late great Wright Patman vow to do to Fed chairman Arthur Burns, back in the mid-70s. Who recently called the General Electric Company “an opportunistic parasite feeding on the expansion of government?” Who said recently, “There are strains in the Tea Party that are troubled by what they saw as a series of instances in which the middle-class and working-class people have been abused or hurt by special interests and Washington.” That was Barack Obama, though being Obama he added, “but their anger is misdirected.”

As has been revealed not long after it made its appearance on the worldwide web, Anders Behring Breivik’s 1500 page manifesto is pretty much a copy and paste job from other authors, including the Unabomber whose references to the hated “leftists” was replaced with “cultural Marxists”.

Breivik also borrowed liberally from William S. Lind. I first learned about Breivik plagiarizing from Lind in an email to the PEN-L mailing list by Tom Walker who blogs at Ecological Headstand where he wrote:

UPDATE: Plagiarism alert Breivik’s text on “Political Correctness” appears to be lifted almost entirely from a screed called “Political Correctness: a Short History of an Ideology,” by William Lind, “Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.”

I was so struck by Breivik’s rant on “political correctness” that I posted it on my blog the day before yesterday. When I subsequently learned that the words were Lind’s and that he was a frequent contributor to Counterpunch, I decided to do some poking around there.

To Counterpunch’s credit, nearly all the articles by Lind are strictly anti-war affairs of the sort that might have been written by Justin Raimando. It is not as if there were anything particularly wrong with them, only that they were unexceptional and mostly of interest perhaps because they were written by a paleoconservative.

But there’s one that’s more than a bit troubling. It appeared on July 12, 2007 and is titled “Old Bottles for New Wine: Not Fourth Generation Warfare“. Lind, who is an expert on Fourth Generation Warfare, warned Counterpunch readers:

On Friday, July 13, a Boyd Conference at the Quantico Marine Corps Base will devote a day to the subject of Fourth Generation war. As a panelist for one session of the conference, I have been asked to answer the question, “As one of the original authors and principal proponent of the 4GW concept, how well is it understood and acted upon by the West? By our adversaries?”

I will leave the second part of this question until Friday. As to how well the West grasps the concept of 4GW, the news, sadly, is bad on every level.

At the level of national governments, Western states not only do not grasp 4GW, they avert their eyes from it in horror, pretending it is not happening. In part they do so because they are the state, and the state does not want to admit that its own legitimacy has come into question. As Martin van Creveld said to me a decade or more ago, “Everyone can see it except the people in the capital cities.”

In larger part, they ignore the reality of 4GW because it contradicts their ideology, commonly known as “multi-culturalism” but actually the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. That ideology says that all the world’s cultures are wonderful, happy, peaceful cultures except Western culture, which is oppressive and evil and must be destroyed. In fact, Western culture is one of only two cultures in human history that has succeeded over millennia (the other is Chinese). 4GW theory warns that we now face a world of cultures in conflict, that we must defend Western culture and that many, perhaps most, other cultures are threats, especially when they flood Western countries with immigrants. Cultural Marxism welcomes immigrants who will not acculturate precisely because they are threats to Western culture.

To start with, why is it the worry of Counterpunch’s editors or its readers whether 4GW is “understood or acted upon by the West”? As it turns out, Lind co-authored a book with two-time presidential candidate Gary Hart titled “America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform.” Look, I don’t quite know how to put this, but I don’t want America to win. There, I said it.

The wiki on 4GW states:

The simplest definition includes any war in which one of the major participants is not a state but rather a violent non-state actor. Classical examples, such as the slave uprising under Spartacus or the assassination of Julius Caesar by members of the Roman senate, predate the modern concept of warfare and are examples of this type of conflict.

Not being up to speed on Julius Caesar, I am not sure what the Marxist position would be on this but I am damned sure that I would have been for the Spartacus-led slave revolts. And the last thing I would have been interested in is advising the military on how to defeat 21st century versions of such revolts.

But the thing that really sticks out is this:

4GW theory warns that we now face a world of cultures in conflict, that we must defend Western culture and that many, perhaps most, other cultures are threats, especially when they flood Western countries with immigrants. Cultural Marxism welcomes immigrants who will not acculturate precisely because they are threats to Western culture.

Was Alexander drunk when he read this article by Lind and gave it the green light? How in god’s name does one of America’s most well-known radical journalists fall asleep at the wheel and let such racist crap pollute a website that he has many reasons to be proud of.

Perhaps he published it as an example of the kind of sickness that pervades a certain sector of the American right. If that was the case, I would only ask that he include a brief introductory note the next time he favors us with such an item—something along the lines of this:

Dear Counterpunch readers

This article from regular contributor William S. Lind is not the sort that we usually include from him. It is not worthy of the kind of praise that his antiwar articles merit. We include it because it gives you an idea of the kind of nativism that affects a wing of the American conservative movement that could ultimately lead some of its furthest reaches—either here or abroad—to take violent action against its perceived enemies.

Alexander Cockburn

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.