Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 7, 2020

Homage to Charles Bukowski

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 2:42 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 7, 2020

Among my favorite writers, Harvey Pekar and Charles Bukowski share an uncommon distinction. Despite having lowly jobs as a Cleveland veterans hospital file clerk and sorting mail in the post office, they received the highest accolades for their work. In a 1985 New York Times book review, David Rosenthal wrote that “Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s, and it is easy to see why.” As for Bukowski, Jean-Paul Sartre described him as “America’s greatest living poet today,” although his biographer Howard Sounes discounts that as a tale Bukowski circulated. As for me, I don’t need Sounes’s imprimatur to evaluate Bukowski’s literary merits. I regard him as one of our best writers of the past half-century, and the kind of writer that helped me keep me feeling less isolated in a mammon-worshiping nation. Writers who have held down regular jobs like Herman Melville on a whaling ship or Jack Kerouac as a railway brakeman are closer to our reality than those churned out on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop assembly line.

Charles Bukowski died in 1994, not from cirrhosis of the liver but leukemia. Well-known for his alcoholism, it surprised me that he made it to the age of 73. As was also the case with Pekar, it was like losing a friend. As I read all of Pekar’s comic books, I always made time to read a new Bukowski novel. Since both writers mined their workaday lives, disappointments, and loneliness for deeply affecting literature, you felt as close to them as if they were good friends. Moreover, once they became celebrities, you appreciated how ambivalent they were about such glory. Pekar refused to make any more appearances on the David Letterman show, even if it meant cutting into comic book sales.

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July 31, 2020

Queens Noir

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 31, 2020

As a long-time fan of Nordic Noir detective stories, I never expected to see a home-grown version. You might call Michael Elias’s “You Can Go Home Now” Queens Noir since it is set mostly in that dreary stretch of two-story houses and strip malls that will be familiar to anybody who has left Manhattan on their way to the airport. I confess never having stepped foot in this wasteland and only know it as the place that Archie Bunker personified in the 1960s and 70s. I even wonder if Elias knows this area except as a background for his breakthrough novel. To render it accurately might have taken the same kind of dedication that would go into a story about a serial killer in the French Riviera, except with a lot less opportunity to savor local restaurants. For some of the characters in “You Can Go Home Now”, McDonald’s is a night on the town.

Written in the first person singular, “You Can Go Home Now” tells the story of Nina Karim, a cop working in the Long Island City police department. Like just about every cop featured in a Nordic Noir novel or a TV series based on one, Karim is not typical. She reads the refined short stories of V.S. Pritchett rather than the pulp fiction of V.C. Andrews that is ubiquitous to airport bookstores. After Andrews died, a novelist named Andrew Neiderman became her ghostwriter and a very successful one at that. I should add that Neiderman and Elias were a few classes ahead of mine in Fallsburg Central High school in upstate New York.

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July 24, 2020

Matt Taibbi, the Harper’s Open Letter, and the Intellectual Dark Web

Filed under: Counterpunch,Harper's Open Letter,journalism — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 24, 2020

Just a day before the Harper’s Open Letter appeared on July 7th, Osita Nwanevu wrote an article for The New Republic on “The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism” that made Matt Taibbi sound as if his name would show up there the next day. Indeed, in a convivial Rolling Stone podcast that Taibbi and his partner Katie Halper did with Thomas Chatterton Williams, the godfather of the letter regretted that he didn’t have Taibbi’s email address otherwise he would have been invited.

Nwenevu’s article addressed the widespread assault on identity politics that makes it sound like the greatest threat to American democracy is diversity training seminars by Robin Diangelo, the author of “White Fragility.” Indeed, Matt Taibbi described the philosophy behind her book as positively “Hitlerian.”

This furor over “cancel culture” or what used to be called “political correctness” is not exactly new. I saw it as early as 1991 when Nat Hentoff was on the warpath against efforts to reduce racism at universities and the media, just as is happening today:

For 2 1/2 years, I have been interviewing students and professors across the country for a book I’m writing on assaults by orthodoxies — right and left — on freedom of expression. Many specific incidents of political correctness — with names — have been printed in this column from those interviews.

One very bright young man at Brown, for example, told me he finally gave up offering his questions on affirmative action — like “What has it done for poor blacks?” — in class. He got tired of being called a racist, in and out of the room.

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July 17, 2020

Thoughts on Bayard Rustin nostalgia

Filed under: african-american,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

Bayard Rustin

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 17, 2020

A Dustin Guastella article on Nonsite dated July 9th generated controversy because it opposed defunding the cops. Like Bernie Sanders, another opponent of defunding, Guastella proposed reforms that would satisfy everybody since they would lead to less crime. If there were massive increases in federal social spending, there would be more jobs and hence less desperation leading to crime. Such “class-based” measures might have made it possible for George Floyd to avoid being killed as Cedric Johnson argued in Jacobin: “His alleged use of counterfeit money reflects the criminally inadequate provision of income support.”

What caught my eye in Guastella’s article was his reference to Bayard Rustin, who warned about activists’ “psychic inability to fend off leftwing slogans which result in right-wing policy.” One of those slogans is defunding the cops. Since polls indicate that defunding is unpopular with Blacks and whites alike, we are cutting off support. Of course, black lives matter wasn’t very popular a few years ago as well. For Guastella, the need is to rebuild the alliance between the Black movement and labor of the early to mid-1960s when Rustin was a key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. This march concluded in a rally where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Just as importantly, Rustin helped pull together the conference that met in the fall to adopt a Freedom Budget. In many ways, the Freedom Budget was the Green New Deal of its day. Just as the Green New Deal would abolish climate change, so would the Freedom Budget abolish poverty—both Black and white. To move forward with such ambitious projects, it was necessary to elect politicians who understood their needs.

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July 10, 2020

Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic

Filed under: Counterpunch,cruise missile left,repression — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 10, 2020

Cary Nelson, who signed Harper’s letter against cancel culture, also canceled Steven Salaita

You can imagine my chagrin when I discovered that Harper’s, a magazine that I have subscribed to since the early 80s, provided a platform for “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The open letter was a denunciation of “cancel culture” in the name of liberal values as if angry Tweets by mostly powerless young people had anything to do with state-sponsored censorship. Although I will say more about how and why this letter materialized, it is worth pointing out that one of its signatories is Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus at the U. of Illinois. In 2013, the board of trustees sent Steven Salaita a letter stating they were hiring him for a job teaching American Indian studies. Behind the scenes, Nelson and major donors connected to the Israel lobby had already begun a campaign to persuade the board to rescind the offer because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. He had already resigned a tenured position when the board caved into Zionist pressures. That left Salaita unemployed. Today he drives a school bus and will likely never teach again.

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July 3, 2020

Following the money is not a useful guide for understanding mass movements

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 3, 2020

Over the past fifty-three years as a socialist, I have seen repeated calls for purifying the left of capitalist influences, both governmental and corporate. The latest flare-up was a Jacobin article titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class” by Cedric Johnson, a black African American studies professor. Just as Deep Throat advised Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Johnson followed the money:

While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.

These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability. Most of the young people organizing the protests hardly seemed to be cooptation-bait as indicated by a New York Magazine interview with the female, teenage organizers of a Louisville protest that drew 10,000:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

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June 26, 2020

The Last Tree, Madagasikara

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 26, 2020

Two new films debut as Virtual Cinema today. Both address the hopes and the suffering of Africans, both in diaspora and on the continent.

“The Last Tree” is a coming-of-age story about Femi, a Nigerian boy growing up in a British housing estate. Despite the word “estate”, these buildings have much in common with housing projects in the USA and Paris’s banlieues. Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire as a result of negligence, was part of a housing estate. Coming-of-age films are not my favorite genre. “The Last Tree” soars above any I have seen since the sixties and is sure to be one of my picks for best films of 2020.

“Madagasikara,” the Malagasy name for Madagascar, documents the struggle for survival in an island nation just 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. This is a country of 26 million people with a per capita GDP of $471 per year, about half of Haiti’s. Although most people are aware of how Haiti became so poor, very little is known about Madagascar’s steep decline. Real income is only a third of what it was fifty years ago and imperialism is to blame.

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June 19, 2020

Icelandic Noir

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iceland,television — louisproyect @ 5:10 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 19, 2020

Over the past couple of months, I have been bingeing on Netflix like most house-bound CounterPunchers. In case you haven’t seen them yet, I highly recommend two series that originated on Iceland television: The Valhalla Murders and Trapped. Both are close relatives to the Swedish Marxist detective stories that I reviewed on CounterPunch in 2014. They succeed both as social commentary and art.

What’s surprising is that a tiny nation (364,134, a population smaller than Wichita, Kansas) can produce the type of television drama that not only competes with Sweden’s but leaves HBO and Showtime in the dust. After reviewing the two TV series and a couple of Icelandic films that also merit watching during these pandemic social isolation days, I’ll conclude with some thoughts about Iceland that CounterPunch author and Iceland citizen José Tirado helped stimulate.

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June 12, 2020

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2020 (virtual cinema)

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:20 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 12, 2020

While Hollywood remains moribund because of the pandemic, the noncommercial film world plows ahead. This year the Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be available to everybody through VOD. Starting on June 11 and ending on June 20, it offers documentaries on topics that go to the heart of the current crisis, ranging from immigration to the rights of indigenous peoples. I have seen five of the films and could easily nominate any one of them as best documentary of 2020 for the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting in December. We still don’t have word on whether this will happen or not in light of Hollywood’s shutdown. Unlike most of my colleagues, I review films that are as doggedly uncommercial as my politics. In this batch, you will meet real supermen and women far more compelling than any fictional character.

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June 5, 2020

Reflections on my COVID-19 antibodies

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 5, 2020

The last couple of months leading up to a Quest serology test that yielded “positive” antibodies for COVID-19 have been a roller coaster ride. Take a seat in the car behind me, strap yourself in, and let me recount a story that Agatha Christie might have written.

The tale began last October when I suffered through bronchitis for most of the month. This viral infection of the bronchial tubes is just another illness to which geezers like me are susceptible. It is usually not fatal but can lead to hospitalization. After recovering, I began taking measures to avoid getting sick again. They included using Purell, avoiding touching my face, and all the other defenses that should prevent exposure to any virus, including COVID-19. Being ahead of the curve, how the hell did I end up with antibodies?

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