Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2017

Predatory Journals and Predatory Skeptics

Filed under: feminism,religion,science,sociobiology — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

On the Skeptic Magazine website there’s an article titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies” co-authored by Peter Boghossian, Ed.D. and James Lindsay, Ph.D. that details how they suckered a “peer-reviewed journal” into publishing a bunch of gibberish filled with postmodernist jargon.

The article appeared in Cogent Social Sciences, a division of Taylor and Francis that along with Sage, Springer and Elsevier represent the top-drawer of academic publishing. Or at least has such a reputation. A representative paragraph appears in the Skeptic article:

We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.

The references are as bogus as the rest of the article, including one for the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded.

They have to admit that the article was rejected by NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, a Taylor and Francis journal whose editorial board is dominated by Scandinavian academics. An recent article suggests that the journal is strongly influenced by 1970s type feminism: ‘We wouldn’t be boys if we weren’t clever with our hands’ – childhood masculinity in a rural community in Norway.

Considering that is it not included in the top-ranked 115 journals in Gender Studies, being rejected by NORMA indicates a failure to leap a hurdle 6 inches above the ground. As is often (or perhaps universally) the case with being rejected by a Taylor and Francis journal, you get an autoreply inviting you to submit the article to a journal in their open-access Cogent Social Science series that despite the Taylor and Francis imprimatur functions like a predatory journal. Basically, you pony up $1,350 (the hoaxers paid half the normal fee for some reason) and Cogent will be happy to put any crap you write on their website.

Because I have been published in Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, a Taylor and Francis journal, I ended up on some mailing lists that periodically generate mass invitations to the recipients asking them to submit something to open-access predatory journals (Internet-based) as opposed to the far more expensive and exclusive print journals found on JSTOR . For a number of years, University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beal maintained a list of such journals that totaled 1,155 as of December 31, 2016. Beal took down his website in January 2017, providing no comment why. One surmises that he got fed up with being harassed by the conmen operating in this field, including an outfit in India that threatened him with a one billion dollar law suit.

One of the more outrageous predatory journals that solicited an article from me had the gumption to include the name of a professor I knew quite well on its editorial board. When I wrote him to inform him about his name appearing there, he was shocked and wasted no time demanding that they remove it. Typically, the worst of the journals don’t even include a phone number and use a bogus street address for their office. Others are more genuine but don’t really subject an submission to the serious peer review that is typical of academic journals. They also charge hundreds of dollars for the article to be published, a way for them to make a fast buck. Is there much difference between the way they operate and how Cogent Social Science operates?

The hoaxers claim that there is a difference since Cogent is included in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Clearly being included in the directory can be a transitory event since 3,776 were deleted from dataset of 12.595 since its inception, including 376 for ethical lapses. Japan is the worst offender apparently.

Why are these journals called predatory? Since I have become acquainted with many tenure-track professors over the years, I can tell you that they are under enormous pressure to accumulate a paper trail of publications—publish or perish, in other words. Some inevitably succumb to the temptation of paying hundreds of dollars for appearing in a journal that is borderline predatory. Does any of this have anything to do with enhancing humanity’s body of knowledge? I can tell you that even for the best journals coming out of an Ivy school, the number of people who read these JSTOR type articles is vanishingly small.

Unlike Alan Sokal, who received almost universal acclaim in 1996 except from those postmodernists he spoofed, Boghossian and Lindsay have gotten bad press. Salon notes that in making an amalgam between predatory publishing and gender studies, the authors neglect to mention that Cogent Social Sciences lacks a single editor in the field. They are experts in tourism, criminology, development planning, geography, sport management and communication sciences—hardly fields that qualify them to evaluate an article on gender inequality. The hoaxers made a self-righteous case against gender studies:

Our aim was smaller yet more pointed. We intended to test the hypothesis that flattery of the academic Left’s moral architecture in general, and of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies in particular, is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field. That is, we sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.3

I am not exactly sure what evidence they are talking about since the endnote pointed to “countless examples documented on the anonymously run Twitter feed @RealPeerReview”. A cursory glance of this Twitter feed will reveal this sort of thing: “Seems that many academics dislike the wonderful Martian movie (and probably @andyweirauthor’s book it’s based on)”. As a rule of thumb, anything that appears on Twitter is hardly worth considering so it is no surprise that the two hoaxers cite it as proving their point.

Since Boghossian has cultivated a career as a professional atheist, it is no surprise that he used Skeptic Magazine as a platform, where Dawkins is considered a leading exemplary.  Boghossian is a featured speaker of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and wrote a book titled “A Manual for Creating Atheists” that repeats the arguments made by Dawkins in his own book “The God Delusion”. His writing partner James Lindsay wrote one of those books himself. Titled “God Doesn’t; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges”, it tries to show that a belief in God is fed by social needs that people do not know how to meet. Since those social needs will exist as long as capitalism exists, I doubt that such books will do much good.

I get a chuckle out of Skeptic Magazine upholding hard scientific values against postmodernist mumbo-jumbo since its editorial board is a virtual hotbed of sociobiologists, including the aforementioned Dawkins, Jared Diamond and the infamous Napoleon Chagnon. Additionally, the hoax got the endorsement of Stephen Pinker, who like Jared Diamond believes that hunting and gathering societies were far more capable of genocide than Adolph Hitler. Why? Because it is in our genes evidently. Survival International summed up the beliefs of of this unsavory crew:

Steven Pinker (‘evolutionary psychologist’)

In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker promotes a fictitious, colonialist image of a backward ‘Brutal Savage’, which pushes the debate on tribal peoples’ rights back over a century and is still used to justify their destruction. Read more about why Pinker’s ‘science’ is wrong.

Napoleon Chagnon (anthropologist)

Steven Pinker would arguably not have been able to reach the conclusions he does about tribal violence without the highly controversial work of a single anthropologist: Napoleon Chagnon studied the Yanomami tribe from the 1960s, calling them ‘The Fierce People’. But are the Yanomami really fierce?

Napoleon Chagnon’s view that the Yanomami are ‘sly, aggressive and intimidating’ and that they ‘live in a state of chronic warfare’ has been widely discredited. Nonetheless, both Diamond and Pinker’s conclusions about tribal violence rely heavily on his work.

Jared Diamond (geographer)

Jared Diamond’s 2012 book, The World Until Yesterday is ostensibly about what industrialized people (whom he calls ‘modern’) can learn from tribal peoples (he calls them ‘traditional’). His book, however, carries a false and dangerous message – that most tribes engage in constant warfare, both needing and welcoming state intervention to stop their violent behavior. Read more.

As far as Dawkins is concerned, we can assume that he was eager to publicize anything that smacked of hostility to feminism given his track record. In 2011, he got in a flame war with feminists as reported by The Atlantic:

Richard Dawkins made an unexpected appearance in the comments section of biologist PZ Myers’ post at Scienceblogs.com last week. Myers was commenting on Rebecca Watson’s recent experience being propositioned in a hotel elevator by a male attendee of a conference at which Watson had just spoken in Dublin. Dawkins got himself into hot water by commenting in the form of a sarcastic letter to a Muslim woman, pointing out how trivial Watson’s experience in the elevator was compared to the abuses Muslim women deal with on a daily basis. “Stop whining will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery,” he wrote. “But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.”

Then in 2014, he Tweeted that women should not get drunk if they want to avoid being raped:

Two years later he was disinvited from a conference organized by skeptics for Tweeting a sexist video:

Finally, with respect to the Sokal hoax. Back in 1996, I was thrilled by the news that those masters of obfuscation and critics of Marxist grand narratives were finally getting their comeuppance and from a volunteer who had gone to Nicaragua with a Tecnica delegation I had helped to organize. It was only a few years later when I discovered the background to the con job he pulled on Social Text that I woke up:

I had never really given much thought to Alan’s relationship to Marxism. I, like most people, just assumed that he had gone through volume one of Capital, etc., in the way that young orthodox Jews learn to read Hebrew. Anybody who describes himself as a “socialist” repeatedly in debates with Andrew Ross et al, clearly MUST have at least familiarity with, if not commitment to, the Marxist intellectual tradition.

I discovered that this is not true at all. Despite Alan’s assertion that he is a socialist, in reality he is a left liberal. I had lunch with him on New Year’s Eve in order to discuss my concerns about his defense of the “Kennewick Man” excavations near the Columbia River in Washington State. Alan had defended the scientists against the American Indian “creationists” in his debate with Andrew Ross and I hadn’t given it too much thought at the time. Now that I had become thoroughly immersed in such questions, his position gnawed away at me like a piece of undigested food.

In the course of our discussion, it was revealed to me that Alan’s defense of science has nothing to do with Marxism or socialism. It is virtually indistinguishable from everyday liberal concepts of the role of scientists in society. He said that bad science would expose itself in a free society, so there would seem to be little risk of running into the sort of horrors that took place in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia. All we have to do is criticize the excesses of archaeologists and everything would come out okay in the end. I sat there sipping my wine in a mood of total shock. Alan’s trust in capitalist society was touching but a bit naïve. After all, this was a free country when anthropologists and archaeologists wrote all sorts of racist nonsense throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Leaving this aside for the moment, I had a completely different analysis of how science is conducted. As a stodgy old Marxist, I had become convinced long ago that the ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class. Science was not immune.

I asked Alan if he had ever read Richard Lewontin or Richard Levins, co-authors of “The Dialectical Biologist.” No, he had taken the book out of the library, but never read it. This was astonishing to me. How could Alan Sokal have become regarded as some kind of defender of Marxist rectitude when he had utterly no engagement with the main experts in the field. In his new book “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science,” co-authored by physicist Jean Bricmont, there is no index entry for Marx, Lewontin or Levins. In the one chapter that deals with their own views on the science wars, as opposed to the follies of the pomos, they analyze Thomas Kuhn, not the Marxist analysis of what Lewontin and Levins call the “Commoditization of Science.” That is the real issue, not what Lacan thinks of pi.

In point of fact, the Social Text issue that Alan’s spoof appeared in is one of their better efforts. It is available now under the title “Science Wars” and contains first-rate articles by Levins and Lewontin. It turns out that the original Social Text issue was basically a rejoinder to Norman Levitt, Alan Sokal’s ally in the so-called science wars. Alan told Lingua Franca that his spoof was inspired by Levitt’s efforts to expose irrational tendencies in the academy.

Directing his attention to Levitt and co-author Paul Gross’s “Higher Superstitions,” Lewontin writes:

What Gross and Levitt have done is to turn their back on, or deny the existence of, some of the most important questions in the formation of scientific knowledge. They are scornful of ‘metaphor mongers,’ yet Gross’s own field of developmental biology is in the iron grip of a metaphor, the metaphor of ‘development’ To describe the life history of an organism as ‘development’ is to prejudice the entire problematic of the investigation and to guarantee that certain explanations will dominate. ‘Development’ means literally an unrolling or an unfolding, seen also in the Spanish desarollo, or the German Entwicklung (unwinding). It means the making manifest of an already predetermined pattern immanent in the fertilized egg, just as the picture is immanent in an exposed film, which is then ‘developed.’ All that is required is the appropriate triggering of the process and the provision of a milieu that allows it to unfold. This is not mere ‘metaphor mongering’; it reveals the shape of investigation in the field. Genes are everything. The environment is irrelevant except insofar as it allows development. The field then takes as its problematic precisely those life-history events that are indeed specified in the genome: the differentiation of the front end from the back end, and why pigs do not have wings. But it ignores completely the vast field of characters for which there is a constant interplay between genes and environment, and which cannot be understood under the rubric of ‘development,’ Nor are these characters trivial: they certainly include the central nervous system, for which the life history of the nerve connections of the roundworm is a very bad metaphor.

This is the kind of discussion that matters most in the so-called science wars. Instead of shooting fish in a barrel, Alan Sokal should be responding to these arguments. Instead, he has constructed strawmen that are easy to knock down.

August 12, 2016

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Filed under: feminism,Film — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

Opening today at the Village East theater in NY and the Arclight in Los Angeles, “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is as the title indicates a documentary that consists entirely of interviews with women from Missouri who have been forced to get an abortion in Illinois because of restrictions in their own state. Under the impact of conservative legislators, Missouri only has one abortion clinic now and forces women to go through a 72-hour waiting period before undergoing the procedure and does not even make an exception for rape or incest.

Although Republican Party legislators justified passing the law in September 2011 on the basis that it would facilitate reflection on the part of the pregnant woman about going through with an abortion, the real impact is economic coercion. Such laws, which exist also in Utah and South Dakota, force women to travel long distances and take time off from work to reach a clinic. Right now the only one is in St. Louis. Since economic hardship is one of the main driving forces behind getting an abortion, the loss of a couple of day’s work can create havoc for women, especially those without a partner. The anti-abortion movement cynically calculates that some women will decide to have the baby and give it up for adoption, a hollow victory except if your belief system rests on the idea that heaven and hell exist, with angels, devils and all the rest.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, who hails from Missouri but lives now in California, filmed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Illinois. Her interviews were not only with women from Missouri who have made the trek but with a wide range of women connected to the clinic in various capacities. That includes not only the medical staff but the security guard, an African-American female who can barely contain her disgust with the protestors who haunt the clinic, including a Black pastor who she gives hell to. As is the case with most of these clinics outside of sinfully enlightened metropolitan centers like Manhattan, the fetus fetishists, who get equal time in Tragos’s film, are a permanent fixture like a chronic disease such as herpes. The Illinois clinic relies on a volunteer group of escorts who help the anxious women make it past the screaming, beady-eyed zealots.

Tragos’s emphasis is on the “stories” as she makes clear in the press notes:

I have met women contemplating abortion who have tremendous potential and who deserve dignity and respect: a student who wants to stay in school; a mother who is doing the best she can to care for the children she already has; a woman who is carrying a fetus that she very much wants, but would never live outside the womb; a young mother who believes abortion is wrong, but whose life is in danger if she carries her pregnancy to term. I have met a woman who stands on a street corner and prays, who believes that “God is amassing an army” to save babies in utero. As sharp as her rhetoric is, she is lonely and welcomes conversation and companionship on a cold winter day. I have met a woman frustrated by the lack of unity in the reproductive rights movement, who desperately wants to change the conversation but feels powerless to have an impact. I have met the pregnant doctor who performs abortions, despite danger and threats.

My only regret is that the film lacked commentary from experts who have been tracking the origins and goals of anti-abortion movement. It is understandable that Tragos’s had a specific focus but the viewer is left wondering what forces are assembling nationally to ensure that Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land.

For example, the structure of the film excluded a discussion of the campaign against Planned Parenthood that became front page news a year ago when secretly made videos supposedly proved that fetal tissues were being sold for profit. So outrageous was the right wing intervention that even Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, said that Planned Parenthood was innocent of the charges being made against it.

To give you an idea of the bogus credentials of Rand Paul, who is beloved by some “anti-imperialists”, he had legislation prepared in advance to defund Planned Parenthood. Who knows? Maybe he has been inspired by Putin’s Russia that has banned all abortions after 12 weeks.

As might be expected, Hillary Clinton was a staunch defender of Planned Parenthood but given the steady erosion of abortion rights over the past eight years, one wonders how much confidence we can have in an administration correctly understood by both her and her critics on the left as a continuation of the status quo.

Clinton’s VP candidate is the first concern. Timothy Kaine, a Catholic, is anti-abortion but supposedly respects the Roe V. Wade decision. That is a bit hard to square with his past support for the Hyde amendment that bans federal funding for abortions. On July 27th he changed his mind and said he would support its repeal. For those concerned about how politicians change positions in the way some people change a hairdo, keep in mind that in 2012 Hillary Clinton, who has somehow earned the reputation of being for regime change in Syria, stated that the rebels were basically al-Qaeda.

Like Clinton, Barack Obama makes all sorts of statements about a woman’s right to choose but somehow that didn’t inspire him to issue an executive order that would have made it possible for federally funded humanitarian aid agencies to provide abortions to women raped in zones of conflict. The Helms amendment of 1987 excluded such a possibility but Obama could have easily superseded it. Sierra Sippel of CHANGE issued this statement: “As long as President Obama continues to walk away from women raped in conflict, his legacy on gender equality is incomplete. To remain silent and fail to act is unconscionable, deadly and damages his legacy.” I would quibble with this. As far as I am concerned, it is entirely consistent with his legacy.

June 17, 2016


Filed under: feminism,Film,india — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Opening today at the AMC Empire 25 in NY and the Laemmle in LA, “Parched” is a militantly feminist Indian movie that has elements of “Thelma and Louise” and women’s prison genre films like the 1950 “Caged” except that the prison in this instance is a poor and isolated village on a dusty plain where men treat women like slaves. The Gospel of St. John refers to the word being made flesh. “Parched” essentially makes flesh the words of Frederick Engels in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”:

The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.

In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy, without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat.

Director Leena Yadav’s characters are the lynchpins of a melodrama but they are also representative of how women are victimized in a brutally sexist society either in the village depicted in “Parched”—a woman’s prison without bars—or India’s biggest cities where gang rape is a common occurrence.

With one exception, the men in “Parched” are monsters that defy conventional film-making strictures calling for complex characters even when villains. That being said, the women are deeply flawed themselves—a result of conforming to ancient customs such as arranged marriages in which the bride is often 14 years old as was the case with Rani, the film’s main character now a 32-year old widow. She is seen in the beginning of the film on her way to a nearby village with her close friend Lajjo to pick up a 15-year old girl named Janaki who was effectively “bought” for her loutish son Gulab through a dowry secured by a loan. Once the “bounty” is returned to her household, a hut really, she is expected to serve her son sexually and herself as a domestic servant.

The cash nexus defines relations between the sexes in this film as surely as it does define broader social relations in the Marxist-informed Italian neorealist classics of the 1950s.

Lajjo is married to a man who beats and controls her in the same manner as mass murderer Omar Mateen treated his first wife. She is slapped and even punched for any and every offense, with the most damaging blows a frequent punishment for her infertility.

Rounding out the trio of flawed heroines is Bijli, who dances at a local tent show in a nearby town in the fashion of “hoochie coochie dancers” at county fairs in the 1950s. Men crowd into the tent to watch her perform a Bollywood version of a pole dance, kept more chaste than Western versions. Afterwards they can pay for sex with her, where the chastity is dispensed with entirely. At the age of 35, her value as an exotic dancer and prostitute is beginning to fade but she refuses to take crap from any man including her pimp. The message here is obviously that a modicum of independence is only possible when the cash nexus governs sex. Or to paraphrase A.J. Liebling, freedom of the vagina belongs to those who own it.

The only decent man in these parts is Kishan, the owner of a handicrafts shop that employs Rani and Lajjo in piece-work done in their homes just as was the case in the earliest days of capitalism. He is married to an educated woman named who comes to the aid of a young woman who has fled a deeply oppressive marriage that was also arranged in the same fashion as Janaki’s. She cries out in the village courtyard surrounded by elders determined to return her to her proper “owners” that her husband never makes love to her and that she is simply passed around to different men as a piece of flesh to be exploited sexually, including her father-in-law. For the villagers, Kishan and his wife are outsiders who will taint their culture through their belief in the rights of women, including the right to be educated.

Some Marxist scholars view these words found in the Communist Manifesto to be widely misunderstood:

The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.

For example, Hal Draper argued that a more appropriate English version of Marx and Engel’s words would be “the isolation of rural life”. Whatever the case may be, idiocy and isolation both apply to the social relations found in “Parched”. People are trapped into paternalistic and self-destructive patterns that victimize women primarily but also harm men. Rani’s son Gulab resisted the idea of an arranged marriage but was forced into it because the heavy weight of tradition acted upon his mother and made his own resistance impossible. His only satisfaction is in getting drunk and paying for sex with Bijli.

It is worth quoting the comments of director Leena Yadav in the press notes at some length:

The Inspiration behind ‘Parched’

In the winter of 2012, I went searching for stories in the parched dessert of Kutch, Gujarat. This is a remote stretch of scenic land in North—West India, home to 2 million people living in small clusters and villages, governed by ancient patriarchal “norms” decreed by the village council, that is largely made up of men. The landscape of Kutch called out to me, with it’s barren cracked earth and brightly dressed women.

The Women of ‘Parched’

In one village I met a woman called Rani. She invited us into her hut, cooked lunch for us and shared her story. She had been widowed at age fifteen. Already a mother by then, Rani has since then dedicated her life to bringing up her children. Her story was real, even funny at times. The decisive moment for me as a storyteller was when Rani held my hand and said, “I haven’t been touched in 17 years. I have buried all my own needs so I can do the right thing for my children.” Her words shocked and moved me. What is ‘right’? Is it ‘right’ to order a child of fifteen to spend the rest of her life wearing black and single—handedly raise kids born from a child—marriage that was enforced upon her? Why was the right to color and/or human touch taken away from her? Who decided these societal ‘norms’ and why did Rani accept them?

Another day, a young lady sat with us giggling and chatting, like she had not a care in the world. Her face and arms were speckled with bruises. When I got up the nerve to ask her if she’s alright, she shrugged it off. “He works hard and gets frustrated sometimes. Who else will he take out his anger on? This is my life…lets talk about something else.” She smiled brightly into my face. That smile inspired me to write the character of LAJJO

I met hardworking women who cooked, cleaned, raised children alone, did back— breaking farming work by day and earned extra money from making handicrafts— delicate embroidery designs that are stitched by hand, and eventually sold in cities at high price— by the lamplight at night. These women are brainwashed to believe that their contribution is zero and it is the men who are the real providers. “Poor thing, he works hard all day and comes back tired at night, so its alright if he enjoys with a drink,” the women would say of their drunk husbands, many of whom are seasonal truckers.

The Stories of ‘Parched’ are Universal

It started when I first sent the script of ‘Parched’ to a handful of friends living in different parts of the world. Each reader (male or female) inadvertently sent back a long impassioned email, venting their own story, or sharing a story of someone close to them, that ran parallel to the stories of these women in remote Kutch. I received deeply moving and personal stories from Delhi and Mumbai, London, New York and Turkey. This trend has continued through the making, completion and now the release of the film. Almost every person who watches ‘Parched’, identifies it to an aspect of their own life, or that of someone they know.

It is clearly to me that the experience of watching ‘Parched’ touches a raw nerve and starts a dialogue the world desperately wants to have.


June 13, 2015

Blood Ties

Filed under: anthropology,feminism — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm

Recently I received a query from someone who follows my blog:

What does Marxism say about blood ties? My understanding is that Marx and Engels thought the family was a product of capitalism and that it would wither away when capitalism destroyed itself of its own internal contradictions. I’ve always had a problem with that. Of course, the specific form that the family takes in capitalism is unique to this economic system, but to me, the primacy of blood ties supersedes all else, and if capitalism should fall, there will always be the reality of blood kin. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll see this: kinship is all.

Does Marxism disagree?

Since others might have the same sorts of questions, I am posting a public reply.

Your question actually brings me back to discussions that were commonplace in the Trotskyist and feminist movements in the early to mid 1970s. Both movements viewed the nuclear family as a product of the capitalist system and one in which the man had the same relationship to the woman that a boss had to the worker. Engels’s “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” was one of the most popular Marxist classics among our ranks and in the woman’s movement.

Taking to an extreme, as it often was at the time, there was a belief that under communism children would be raised outside of the traditional family by “professionals”. We often liked to spin out fantasies about how it would work. Sperm and ovaries would be collected and fertilized in antiseptic nurseries in order to create the new generation. While nobody ever spoke in terms of eugenics, there is no doubt that this might have passed muster. Keep in mind that Leon Trotsky spoke highly of the practice in “If America should go Communist” as did the Swedish Social Democrats, including Gunnar Myrdal. With the Swedes, it went a bit further. They saw it as a way to weed out “undesirables”.

I first ran across these ideas long before I became a Trotskyist when I read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” in 1959 or so. The Wikipedia article states:

Human embryos are raised artificially in ‘hatcheries and conditioning centres’. The breeding and development of children destines them to fit into one of five castes named Alpha (the highest) through Epsilon (as in the Greek alphabet) which fulfill different economic roles. While Alpha and Beta fetuses are allowed to develop relatively naturally, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon fetuses are subjected to chemical interference to stunt their intelligence and physical growth. Members of lower castes (but not Alphas and Betas) are created using ‘Bokanovsky’s Process’ which allows up to 96 clones to be produced from one fertilized ovum.

For Huxley, this was anathema. His hero was John, a man who was raised on the Savage Reservation in New Mexico, a place that does not follow the norms of the Brave New World. When John leaves the reservation to confront the modern world, he has the same kind of reaction that Woody Allen had to the characters in “Sleeper”: what is wrong with these people?

I am not sure if you have read feminist literature of the 1970s but you will get more or less the same kind of approach. When I was in Boston in 1971, a group called Cell 16 put out a journal titled “No More Fun and Games”. One of the primary theorists was Roxanne Dunbar who I am contact with today mostly around indigenous issues (she is part Cherokee.) You can see the tables of contents listed here: http://www.greenlion.com/NMFG/nmfg.html

One of Dunbar’s most widely quoted articles was “Female Liberation as the Basis for Social Revolution” that can be read online here: https://www.waste.org/~roadrunner/RDO/_single_RDO_Female_Liberation_as_Basis_for_Social_Revolution.pdf. This is a citation that reflects the influence of Engels although Roxanne hated organized Marxism and the SWP in particular:

Where will this leave white men and “their” families? The patriarchal family is economically and historically tied to private property and, under Western capitalism, with the development of the national state. The masculine ideology most strongly asserts home and country as primary values, with wealth and power an individual’s greatest goal. The same upper class of men who created private property and founded nation-states also created the family. It is an expensive institution, and only the upper classes have been able to maintain it properly. However, American “democracy” has spread the ideology to the working class. The greatest pride of a working man is that he can support “his” wife and children and maintain a home (even though this is impossibility for many and means misery for most). The very definition of a bum or derelict is that he does not maintain a wife, children, and home.

Not a decade past when this article was written, radical feminism had largely disappeared and the SWP had made a “turn toward industry” that was strongly committed to “family values” even if there was no open acknowledgement as such. Couples began to get married and bring children into the world as a tactic to gain acceptance by fellow workers, even if I suspect an important part of this change was a yearning for a normal life.

Around the same time a number of Trotskyists either dropped out or having dropped out stopped supporting the SWP (including me). One person in particular began a serious scholarly study of marriage and the family based on both her reading of traditional Marxist literature and material in the sociology and anthropology discipline. I can’t recommend her work highly enough. Stephanie Coontz is the author of many books, including one that relates to your question as the title implies: “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage”. You can read an excerpt on her website (http://www.stephaniecoontz.com/) that I think will be helpful in coming to terms with your question. She is far better equipped to give an intelligent answer than me. I would only add that although she is talking about the relationship between men and women, it could equally apply to same-sexers.

Several small-scale societies in South America have sexual and marital norms that are especially startling for Europeans and North Americans. In these groups, people believe that any man who has sex with a woman during her pregnancy contributes part of his biological substance to the child. The husband is recognized as the primary father, but the woman’s lover or lovers also have paternal responsibilities, including the obligation to share food with the woman and her child in the future. During the 1990s researchers taking life histories of elderly Bari women in Venezuela found that most had taken lovers during at least one of their pregnancies. Their husbands were usually aware and did not object. When a woman gave birth, she would name all the men she had slept with since learning she was pregnant, and a woman attending the birth would tell each of these men: “You have a child.”31

In Europe and the United States today such an arrangement would be a surefire recipe for jealousy, bitter breakups, and very mixed-up kids. But among the Bari people this practice was in the best interests of the child. The secondary fathers were expected to provide the child with fish and game, with the result that a child with a secondary father was twice as likely to live to the age of fifteen as a brother or sister without such a father.32

Few other societies have incorporated extramarital relationships so successfully into marriage and child rearing. But all these examples of differing marital and sexual norms make it difficult to claim there is some universal model for the success or happiness of a marriage.

About two centuries ago Western Europe and North America developed a whole set of new values about the way to organize marriage and sexuality, and many of these values are now spreading across the globe. In this Western model, people expect marriage to satisfy more of their psychological and social needs than ever before. Marriage is supposed to be free of the coercion, violence, and gender inequalities that were tolerated in the past. Individuals want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex.

Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable. Although many Europeans and Americans found tremendous joy in building their relationships around these values, the adoption of these unprecedented goals for marriage had unanticipated and revolutionary consequences that have since come to threaten the stability of the entire institution.


February 22, 2014

Kurdish and Turkish films of note

Filed under: feminism,Film,Kurd,Turkey — louisproyect @ 11:26 am

Over the past several days I’ve looked at two Kurdish and two Turkish narrative films that would be of particular interest to my readers. The Kurdish films were filmed on location in Kurdistan, the new state taking shape in northern Iraq and the Turkish films in the remote Black Sea and Anatolian regions that are far from urbane Istanbul. Moreover, despite the intensity of the Turkish-Kurd conflict, the four films depict societies that despite their deep contradictions, especially involving the oppression of women against the backdrop of communal solidarity, are very much alike. Leaving aside their topical relevance, they are all examples of art film in the best sense of the term.

Opening yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York are two films by Jano Rosebiani, Kurdistan’s leading director. I use the term Kurdistan to indicate a people rather than an existing state although conditions are ripening in the Middle East that will make that a reality before long, both in Iraq and Syria.

Set in Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, “One Candle, Two Candles” is a comedy about a very serious topic: a young woman named Viyan (Kurdish for desire) is about to become the third wife of a local “headman” who is old enough to be her grandfather. As a car dealer, Haji Hemmo is about as close to a big businessman as you will see in Kurduva, the fictional name for Akre, a particularly beautiful town in Kurdistan where the film was shot. It is a jewel of the liberated territory that has extracted itself from the ongoing sectarian bloodbaths to its south.

In fact the bucolic charm of this town is a poignant reminder of what Iraq could have become if a combination of war and ethnic/religious sectarianism had not torn it apart. In a part of the world where state powers have become synonymous with brutality and economic greed, it is interesting to see how a historically stateless people can lead the way.

At the beginning of the film, Botan, a young, handsome and carefree artist from Zakho, the town that director Rosebiani grew up in, is sketching Viyan and her two companions while he charms them with allusions to ancient Kurdish history. He compares them to beautiful Nefertiti, the Hittite queen of Egypt who came from Zakho. Although the ancient history of the Kurds is not easily documented, there is no question that they originated in the territory occupied by the Hittite kingdoms.

The film is structured around the rivalry between Botan and Haji Hemmo over Viyan as they each line up supporters. Viyan’s father has a vested interest in seeing her married to Hemmo since the dowry includes a car from his lot. The town menfolk live in fear of Kitan, a middle-aged woman who is nicknamed the “ball-buster” since she squeezed the life out of her husband’s family jewels on account of his abusive treatment. Although the Kurds have moved a long way towards achieving peace within their borders, the household remains a battlefield with women under siege. As Engels once said, within the family the husband is the bourgeois and the wife the proletariat.

When Kitan walks through town, men practically duck into an alley to avoid her punishing grip. In one of the film’s many slapstick moments, she spots Viyan’s father on a virgin spin in his new car. She then commandeers the car and forces him to a stop; the town’s avenging proto-feminist in pursuit of another deserving prey. If Norman Mailer considered feminists to be ball-breakers, Kitan would be his worst nightmare. It is too bad a Kitan never got her hands on him.

At times the film will remind you of magical realism. Viyan climbs a tree in a wedding dress to avoid Hemmo’s all-too-persistent advances, a scene that will remind you of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. But it probably makes more sense to see it in terms of a thousand-year old folk tale that Kurds might have told each other around campfires long before there was the novel, movies, television or the Internet.

“Chaplin of the Mountains” is listed as a documentary on the Quad Cinema website but it actually a narrative film. Perhaps the fact that its action consists mostly of some young film students making a documentary in Kurdistan leads to this confusion.

At a hotel in Erbil, a beautiful young Kurdish woman named Nazé, who grew up in France, strikes up a conversation with a group of young filmmakers who have come to Kurdistan to visit small towns and villages in order to document the reaction that people have to their screening of Charlie Chaplin films. Considering the Chaplinesque moments in “One Candle, Two Candles”, one can easily imagine them having the same outlook as director Rosebiani when he was a film student himself.

When Nazé’s flight back to Paris is cancelled, she decides to join the film crew on their tour and accepts their generous offer to help her find her mother’s village that was destroyed during one of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks.

As they wend their way through the countryside, the results are not quite what they expected. Although the children are amused by Chaplin’s antics, some of the elders question the value of comedy to a people trying to build a new nation. Even worse, when they use a temple wall as a screen for a Chaplin one-reeler, they come close to being charged with sacrilege.

As a classic road movie, “Chaplain of the Mountains” is more a series of vignettes than a conventionally plotted drama. To this viewer, what makes it most memorable is the portrait of ordinary Kurdish people shot on location in a remote but beautiful region. They are the real stars. Most of all, you will be mesmerized by a series of performances by Kurdish folk musicians and dancers who are celebrating the continuation of an ancient civilization against all odds.

Ten years ago, almost to the date, I wrote an article about the Kurds for Swans, an online magazine. Given that the USA had just invaded Iraq, I tended to bend the stick in the direction of backing the Sunni resistance, which meant referring to the Kurds as “pawns”. I would not write the article in the same way today. I would refer you to the article if for no other reason that it will stimulate you into learning more about a people with a unique history. At the time I wrote:

The Kurds are ethnically related to the ancient Medes, but only came into their own with the rise of Islamic power. A Kurd by the name Salah-ud-Din reconquered Jerusalem from Richard the Lionhearted in the 12th century. Better known as Saladin, he established the Ayyubid dynasty which ruled over much of the Middle East until the rise of the Ottomans.

Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World had an enormous impact on commerce in the Middle East, which would no longer serve as a lucrative link between Europe and East Asia. Among the casualties were Kurdish merchants and toll-collectors.

In addition to being economically marginalized, the Kurds were isolated geographically as well. Preferring to dwell in the mountains or rocky hills, they subsisted on sheep-herding and small-scale farming. In the strict Marxist sense, class formation of modern capitalist society never took place until late in the 20th century.

Perhaps the amity that now characterizes Kurdistan today is an expression of the belated development of class relations. That is a topic worthy of further investigation.

“Watchtower” is a 2012 Turkish film directed by Pelin Esmer that is now available from Film Movement, a Netflix for the cognoscenti. This is probably at least the third film I have reviewed from their inventory and continue to be impressed by their curatorial finesse. “Watchtower” is a hauntingly beautiful film that is Turkish art film at its very best.

Essentially a two-character film, it depicts a middle-aged man and a young woman drawn together through pure happenstance in the Western Black Sea region, a ruggedly beautiful area. Nihat, the man, has just taken a job as a fire spotter on a mountaintop watchtower. Seher, the young woman, has taken a job with a small bus company headquartered in the tiny village at the foot of the mountain where Nihat stands watch. When she is not serving as a hostess on the bus, she is doing odd jobs around the restaurant that serves the bus passengers during a rest stop.

Seher’s parents have no idea why she should have dropped out of college and taken a dead-end job in such an isolated place. She can only reveal to her mother that she has become pregnant and is due to give birth shortly. Being unmarried and pregnant is tough enough for a Turkish woman from a traditional Anatolian family but in her case there is the added complication of her having been raped by her uncle. The bus stop is a way for her to get the birth of the baby out of the way and allow her to return to a normal life.

After finally giving birth, she leaves the newborn at the gate in front of the bus stop in the same fashion as poor women leaving their baby on the doorstep of a police precinct or hospital in New York, if they are at least humane enough not to leave it in a garbage can as happens from time to time.

Seher does not realize that Nihat has spotted her from inside the restaurant. In response to a tragic loss he has just suffered, he brings mother and child with him into the watchtower as they embark on a complicated relationship. He tries to persuade her to take a more loving relationship to the child despite her frequent attempts to be free of the responsibilities of motherhood, all the more understandable given the circumstances of how it came to pass.

The cinematography of “Watchtower” is stunning, with constant long shots of the Turkish forests and mountains. And even more effectively, there is an inspired use of sound. Dispensing with a film score, the action is highlighted by the sound of automobile tires on the roads beneath the mountains and the rustling of the leaves in the forest, creating a forlorn mood that is the perfect accompaniment to the unfolding human drama.

Female director Pelin Esmer majored in sociology at an Istanbul university before launching a career in film. “Watchtower” is a work imbued with a humanism that is very rarely seen in American films, either Hollywood or indie. It reminded me of a Chekhov short story as if a Turk had written it. Although the film is definitely an art film, it is also a deeply touching story that reminds you of what was lost when young filmmakers discovered irony. A must-see.

I discovered “Bliss” trawling through Netflix trying to find a movie that is geared to those with more than an IQ of 25. It is a 2007 film directed by Abdullah Oğuz that like “The Watchtower” and “One Candle, Two Candles” deals with the oppression of women in Turkish and Kurdish society. If you are not a Netflix subscriber, you can also watch it on Youtube. Part one is above.

When the film opens, we meet Meryem, a 17-year-old woman who has been violated in some fashion in a rural village in Anatolia, the eastern part of Turkey that is hobbled by “traditional values”. Despite the fact that Meryem is the victim, she is deemed unclean and must kill herself as expiation for her sins. While I have doubts that such a punishment is at all prevalent in Turkey, there are reports of such barbaric treatment of women elsewhere in Muslim society. In 2008 a 13-year-old had been gang-raped in Somalia. Instead of punishing the rapists, she was stoned to death by a mob.

Just before Meryem is forced to hang herself in a makeshift cell, soldiers enter the town since it has become notorious for imposing its own vigilante version of Islam, disregarding—for example—the Koranic stricture against suicide.

In order to expedite the punishment, the town elder, a creep named Ali Riza who is cut from the same cloth as Haji Hemmo, orders his son Cemal to take Meryem to Istanbul where he will take her life. Since Cemal has just returned from serving as a commando in the Turkish military against Kurdish rebels, he presumably can be trusted to carry out another act of brutality.

In Istanbul, he takes Meryem to a bridge and orders her at gunpoint to jump. She asks only one favor, if he would allow her to make a blindfold out of her scarf. Just before she jumps, Cemal decides that her life is more important than a village’s rigid codes and pulls her back from the edge. It also helps that the two have become infatuated with each other on the way to Istanbul. Love conquers all.

From that moment on, the couple are fair game for Ali Reza who dispatches a couple of goons to track them down in order to carry out the punishment. Just one step ahead of the hit squad, Cemal and Maryem are fortunate enough to run into Irfan, a professor who is on an extended leave from the academy and the shallowness of urban life in Istanbul. He invites them to work on his yacht as first mate and cook as he sails from island to island in the Sea of Marmara, an inland body of water that is one of Turkey’s most beautiful natural assets.

Irfan develops a paternal affection for the couple, understanding that they are fugitives—not so much from the law but from those who would wish them harm. Essentially, a three-character drama, the relationships between the three intensifies throughout the film as the village hit men close in on them.

“Bliss” is based on a novel by Zülfü Livaneli, a 68 year old Turk who is also a composer, singer, and politician. In 1997 he performed before a crowd of a half-million people in Ankara, to give you some sense of his popularity.

Wikipedia reports:

During his political career in Ankara, Livaneli presented a legislative proposal for amending Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The amendment proposed that the concept of “Turkishness” should be replaced with that of the “Turkish nation” which would put an emphasis on the concept of “nation” which, as formulated by the Republic, unites under its umbrella people of different origins. With this amendment, there would no more be a stress on the notion of Turkish race.

It is in the hands of people like Zülfü Livaneli and Jano Rosebiani to lead the transformation of the Middle East and North Africa. As I have stated on previous occasions, it is the artist—and particularly the filmmaker—who is functioning as the real vanguard of social change. The four films under review here will give you a sense of the yearnings of a people to finally make the land that was the birthplace of civilization its crowning glory once again.

August 2, 2013

Our Children

Filed under: feminism,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

Opening today at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Theater in Lincoln Center, “Our Children” is based on a tragic incident in which a Belgian woman named Genevieve Lhermitte killed her five children during a period of extreme psychological stress. She lived with her husband Bouchaib Moqadem in the house of an elderly Belgian physician upon whom the couple was dependent. Director and screenwriter Joachim Lafosse has taken the bare bones of the story and transformed it into a general meditation on dependency with the elderly doctor serving as a symbol of colonialism and the wife as her Moroccan husband’s subject within the household. At first blush, the title “Our Children” would seem to refer to the four children (the film changes the number of offspring for no obvious reason) but upon further reflection points to the colonial and patriarchal relationships that taint this tragic household.

Leaving no doubt about the outcome, the film starts with Murielle lying in a hospital bed inquiring whether it would be possible for her murdered children to be buried in Morocco. It was not what the young lovers Mounir and Murielle would have expected years earlier, driving along in their car in perfect bliss. He proposes and she accepts. He then reveals his plans to his adoptive father, a physician named André Pinget who scowls upon hearing the news, adding that a young man should not get married to the first woman who gives him a blow job.

Despite his seeming aversion to a perfectly lovely young woman who has the advantage of being an educated woman of good Belgian stock, he ultimately accepts her as a daughter-in-law and even more generously as a resident in the apartment that he has shared with Mounir since he was a young boy. For reasons never explored in the film, Pinget has become entwined with a Moroccan family. After marrying Mounir’s older sister solely to allow her to become a Belgian citizen, he adopts Mounir, leaving his younger brother to languish in a backward Moroccan village. When his brother comes to France for the wedding, he lashes out at him in resentment, telling him that everybody in the village “knows” that he in an incestuous relationship with his adoptive father.

Despite earning a medical degree, Mounir is having trouble finding work. In an interview, a Belgian doctor tells him that his skills are inadequate. Once again, Pinget comes to the rescue in dubious fashion. He invites Mounir to work for him, thus tightening his control over the young man.

As Pinget’s grip over Mounir tightens, so does his over his wife. Within what appears to be a span of about six years, four children have come into the world—three girls and a boy, the latest arrival. Like one of the women profiled in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”, Murielle—an elementary schoolteacher forced to devote herself to child-rearing, cleaning, and preparing André and Mounir’s dinner—is growing increasingly desperate in a claustrophobic environment. After talking her husband into moving to Morocco, he broaches the subject with André who explodes at him: “I raised you for twenty years and now your are dumping me?” The solution is for the doctor and the family he controls with a tight leash is to move into a larger house. Of course, this is no solution at all and Murielle’s despair deepens.

In the press notes for “Our Children”, the finest narrative film I have seen in 2013, Joachim Lafosse touches on the subject of colonialism:

There is a colonialist dimension to the character: a European who has adopted a young North African…

Lafosse: Precisely. The problem with colonialism is that the colonizer doesn’t make his history with the colonized official, he doesn’t recognize it. It remains unofficial and secret for him. Doctor Pinget presents himself as Mounir’s adoptive father but he isn’t because he hasn’t given him his name. That’s why I would say instead that Mounir is Pinget’s protégé, with all the ambiguity that entails. That is one of the things that fascinated me. You don’t make a film with ideas but with characters. That’s the lesson that the Dardenne brothers teach us. And here the characters are what I care about. How do you break free of someone who has given you everything, who has been your protector, your teacher, your educator? It can be a dangerous gift. We can imagine that André Pinget finds it hard expressing his love, that he is concealing a fragile side of his personality. That is what I told Niels Arestrup who plays him: “Your character is like a little boy who has to hand out sweets all the time to have friends in the schoolyard! And if he doesn’t have any sweets, he thinks that no one will love him!” André can only imagine bonds from that angle. That is the tragedy of his life and it’s a vicious circle.

March 23, 2013

Kinder, Küche, Kirche propaganda in Bookforum

Filed under: feminism,journalism — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Nick “Shoe Polish” Gillespie

Jonathan V. Last–mugshot taken at time of intellectual prostitution arrest

Over the past couple of years I’ve taken out subscriptions to a handful of edgy, left-leaning print journals that satisfy my appetite for better quality writing that cannot be found on the Internet: Bookforum, The Baffler, and N+1. I generally ignore the fiction and reviews of fiction found there and look for the social and political commentary I am addicted to. There’s an overlapping group of writers and editors that can be found in these journals including the ubiquitous Chris Lehmann and Choire Sicha, both of whom I encountered first on awl.com, a website that incorporates the same Young Turk sensibility that can be found in these print publications but sometimes makes me wonder if their unstated goal is to become as influential as The New Yorker Magazine. I hope that does not sound too cynical.

Lehmann is the editor of Bookforum, a magazine that was the progeny of Artforum, a publication of little interest to anybody like me who steers clear of Chelsea galleries, the Whitney Biennial, etc. Two days ago the April/May issue arrived in my mailbox and the table of contents looked promising. There was an article by George Scialabba, a sort of intellectual’s intellectual, on Camus’s newly published “Algerian Chronicles”, a collection of his wartime journalism. As someone with an intense interest in the Sartre-Camus wars over pacifism, French colonialism, etc., I was looking forward to sitting down with a glass of Johnny Walker’s Black Label and the article.

But what was that just three entries below Scialabba’s in the table of contents? What the fuck? Nick Gillespie reviewing some book about “America’s Coming Demographic Disaster”? Gillespie is the editor of Reason Magazine, a Koch-funded libertarian publication that fancies itself “rebellious” after the fashion of Spiked Online in Great Britain. In fact Gillespie has adopted the slightly punkish look of many Spiked writers, wearing a black leather jacket for his occasional Bill Maher appearance. My only advice to this 50-year-old man is to stop dyeing his hair. The shoe polish tint is just a bit too Reaganesque.

My first reaction to spotting this article in a magazine I paid good money for was akin to seeing a hair on an entrée that had just been delivered to my table at a pricey restaurant. It turned my stomach. At least in a restaurant I could send the dish back but what was I supposed to do with the Bookforum? Send it back to Chris Lehmann with instructions to replace Gillespie’s article by something written by Scott McLemee or Liza Featherstone? Fat chance of that.

After taking a swig of Kaopectate, I sat down to read Gillespie’s article. I figured that Lehmann, being a pretty smart young fellow, might have seen some wisdom in it that made it worth publishing. Boy, was I wrong.

The article begins with a reference to Paul Ehrlich, the neo-Malthusian who wrote a book about “the population bomb” in 1968. According to Jonathan V. Last, the author of “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster”—a book whose message Gillespie is touting, the opposite problem is looming:

As Jonathan V. Last notes in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Ehrlich was so way off that it’s stunning anyone ever took him and his neo-Malthusian assessment of overpopulation seriously. There were no mass starvations, and the famines that occurred all had political, not agronomic, causes. “What’s so wonderful about Ehrlich’s silly book,” writes Last, a senior writer at the conservative Weekly Standard,” is that he was wrong at the exact moment when the very opposite of his prediction was unfolding.” Total fertility rates, or the number of babies a woman is expected to bear over the course of her life, were already declining in the United States, but starting in 1968 “they sank like a stone.”

They continue to. By 1979 the global fertility rate was 6.0, and now it’s 2.52, according to UN data. All first-world countries are already below a 2.1 rate, the “replacement level” needed to keep a population constant, and fertility rates are plummeting through-out developing nations as well. “Today,” writes Last, “only 3 percent of the world’s population lives in a country whose fertility rate is not declining.” The UN projects that world population, currently around seven billion, will peak over the next eighty-five years between ten billion and twelve billion people before starting a long and inexorable decline.

I for one am worried more about the world’s population peaking at between ten billion and twelve billion in the next 85 years than I am about the “long and inexorable decline” afterwards. With the enormous strain on water and other natural resources with our current population of seven billion, what can we expect with a near doubling of that population, particularly in light of the greenhouse gases that will be produced to sustain the consumerist life-styles extolled by the idiotic magazine that Gillespie edits. Of course with funding by the Koch brothers, one can hardly expect that to matter much.

But the title of the book reveals Last and Gillespie’s true agenda: America’s loss of power due to a declining population. He cites Stalin’s attempt to increase the fertility rate in the USSR by awarding “Motherhood Medals” to women who bear six or more children, as well as Japan’s stipends and cash bonuses to women who agree to be breeders for the fatherland. Ah, just what an edgy magazine like Bookforum should be up to, giving space to books that fret over the consequences of women deciding that their bodies belong to them and not to the state.

Indeed, Last’s primary interest is in America being able to remain a hegemonic power in the face of declining population, as his April 23, 2012 Weekly Standard article would indicate. Even though it references Japan, it is clear that the U.S. faces the same dilemma:

Population is the wellspring of power, both economic and military, and the reordering of global power is…inherently destabilizing. Consider Japan. Faced with some of the lowest fertility rates on earth, Japan’s population has already begun aging and shrinking…In a sense, Japan could fall into the same trap that Western Europe already faces: the inability to formulate proportional military responses.

So you get the idea, American women have to have more babies in order to be able to police the world better.

Last also sides with the Catholic Church’s opposition to Obamacare on the grounds that its right to control a woman’s body took priority over any government health plan, biased as it was to corporate interests:

It is now a requirement of Obamacare that every Catholic institution larger than a single church—and even including some single churches—must pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and morning-after abortifacients for its employees. Each of these is directly contrary to the Catholic faith. But the Obama administration does not care. They have said, in effect, Do what we tell you—or else.

God, I feel like Larry David in that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode with the hair stuck in my throat. At least that hair was a result of enjoying oral sex with his wife. Mine is the result of reading Kinder, Küche, Kirche propaganda in a magazine that I spent good money on.

February 5, 2011

Mad Men

Filed under: feminism,repression,television — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm

Having finished watching season one of “Mad Men” a week or so ago, I had made plans to write something about it eventually. After reading a rather provocative attack on the AMC series–now in its third season–in the New York Review of Books, I decided to move it to the front burner.

Although this cable TV show has garnered lots of attention, I suppose it would make sense to provide some background on the show for readers who do not have cable. Season one of “Mad Men” begins in 1960 and takes place in the office of a mid-sized advertising agency in Manhattan and in the homes of its major characters.

The main character is Don Draper, who is the creative director of the agency and the most sympathetic member of a largely unattractive cast ensemble. Played to a tee by Jon Hamm, Don Draper is a strong silent type who would have been played by Robert Mitchum in bygone eras. He is the typical alpha male constantly putting down challenges to his authority from those lower in the pecking order.

His nemesis is a sniveling Ivy Leaguer and junior copywriter named Pete Campbell whose sense of privilege collides with his lowly status and constantly brings him into conflict with Don Draper who grew up in poverty but managed to climb his way to the top through dint of his ability to dream up ads that would seduce an American population hungry for consumer goods.

Two equally obnoxious partners, each in their own way, run the agency. Roger Sterling Jr. (John Slattery) is a fortyish roué who suffers a heart attack in season one. Since he is a chain smoker (like practically everyone else in the office) who eats red meat every chance he gets, his heart attack is practically anti-climactic.

The other partner is Bert Cooper, a seventyish character played by Robert Morse, a veteran stage actor. Cooper is an Ayn Rand fanatic who is devoted to everything Japanese. Employees are expected to remove their shoes before entering the office.

Two of the three lead female characters work at Sterling-Cooper and have to endure the sexism of all the male employees that is either expressed either through a smiling paternalism toward the “gals” or through growling viciousness and/or sexual harassment that would get any man fired on the spot today. One is Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), the voluptuous office manager who has been conducting a long-time affair with Roger Sterling. Her main role is to teach new female employees the ropes; this boils down to pleasing the men in the office.

The other is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a Brooklynite who started season one as Draper’s secretary but who is promoted to junior copy writer after offering some shrewd advice about how to pitch cosmetics to women. Peggy, who is a bit overweight and a frumpy dresser, worships the men at the agency and views her job at Sterling-Cooper with starry eyes. In many ways she is like John Travolta’s dancing partner in “Saturday Night Fever”, a working class girl who idolizes everything about Manhattan even when the objects of her worship are pigs.

Finally, there is Betty Draper, Don’s wife, who appears to have stepped out of the pages of “Feminine Mystique”. She is a former model who spends her day worrying about what to cook for the evening meal or which earrings would go nice with her hat. The emptiness of her life and Don Draper’s affairs with other women have brought on a deep depression that leads to psychoanalysis by a coldly aloof practitioner who advises Don that his wife is making progress when in reality their marriage is falling apart.

I will have a bit more to say about this momentarily but the show is basically a high-class soap opera like some of my other television favorites, including “Desperate Housewives” and “The Sopranos”. The show’s kinship with the latter should be obvious given the fact that the show’s creator—Matthew Weiner—also wrote for “The Sopranos”. In some ways, it is very much “Mad Men” and “Made Men”. If you like colorful characters, broad humor, a modicum of social satire, solid performances, and snappy dialog, then I strongly advise renting the series from Netflix as I plan to do.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s assault in the New York Review seems to be an exercise in knocking the show down to size. Perhaps he felt impelled to do this since tastemakers in all the usual places have hyped it. For example, in a long piece on the show that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on June 22, 2008, Alex Witchel spoke for most sophisticated television viewers when she wrote:

Weiner’s achievements with ”Mad Men,” which is produced by Lionsgate, are plentiful, starting with the storytelling. Setting it in the early 1960s, on the cusp between the repression and conformity of the cold war and McCarthy-era 1950s and the yet-to-unfold social and cultural upheavals of the 60s, allows Weiner an arc of character growth that is staggering in its possibilities. It also gives him the opportunity to mine the Rat Pack romance of that period, when the wreaths of cigarette smoke, the fog of too many martinis — whether exhilarating or nauseating — and the silhouettes specific to bullet bras only heightened the headiness of the dream that all men might one day become James Bond or, at the very least, key holders to the local Playboy Club.

Deepening the tension between that fantasy and reality, Weiner has put Sterling Cooper, the fictional ad agency that employs the show’s characters, on the old-school, WASP side of the equation, letting them revel in their racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. It was during that period that the creative revolution in advertising was taking off at agencies like Grey and Doyle Dane Bernbach, where Jews and some women held leadership positions. That Sterling Cooper’s creative director, Don Draper, is played by Jon Hamm, a leading man in the Gregory Peck mold who manages to make his sometimes oblique and often heartless character into a sympathetic figure (and won a Golden Globe for best actor), eases the pain.

Mendelsohn would have none of this. He writes:

As I have already mentioned, the actual stuff of Mad Men‘s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets; what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element. When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today. An unwanted pregnancy, after all, had different implications in 1960 than it does in 2011.

To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

Mendelsohn grudgingly admits: “I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal—to which I shall return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having been a child in the 1960s…” He also is a fan of Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights, two shows geared to the cognoscenti whose appeal somehow eluded me.

Despite his characterization of the show’s writing as “extremely weak”, he has no problem comparing it unfavorably to “The Sopranos”, a paradox given the fact that Matthew Weiner was a major creative talent in both series. For my money, the writing is the best thing about the show. For example, one of Don Draper’s flings is with a Jewish department store CEO who has come to his agency in search of talent that can help transform the store from a discount house into something more contemporary and upscale. For those who keep track of such ephemera, this was clearly inspired by the transformation of Barney’s. Without attempting to recreate the dialog between Draper and Rachel Menken, those who have tended to trust me on such matters should understand that the combination of attraction and revulsion between the two is sharply conveyed. Although Draper is no anti-Semite, he manages to put his foot in his mouth frequently with Rachel Menken—a function of his unfamiliarity with Jewish sensitivities rather than hatred. Their relationship is finely nuanced and a credit to Weiner’s ability to express psychological depth.

That being said, I don’t think that “Mad Men” is in the same league with “Revolutionary Road” or “Far From Heaven”, two movies that cover the same terrain: 1950s suburban angst, petty prejudices, and the straight-jacket of social convention.

For anybody who is curious about the 50s and early 60s, “Mad Men” is a great introduction. No matter how broad the characterizations and crude the satire, this is a show that will bring a smile to your face almost constantly. While most of us got into politics to oppose the war in Vietnam or fight racism in the 1960s, we should never forget how much our battle was one over the right to define ourselves freely.

The main thing that comes across in “Mad Men” is the invisible chains that drag each character down. Men are slaves to commodity fetishism and women are slaves to men’s expectations. You can’t escape the feeling that the characters are deeply impoverished no matter how much money they are making. All of them appear to be having a great time getting drunk and eating 16 oz. steaks, but they are on a slow march to ruin.

Although I never worked in advertising, this world was still very much the norm in 1968 when I went to work for Metropolitan Life Insurance in New York. Fellow programmers told me that the movie “The Apartment” was filmed there. In season one of “Mad Men”, there is an allusion made to Billy Wilder’s classic since it is very much about the world that they inhabit. “The Apartment” is about executives sexually exploiting women in the office, a norm before women’s liberation put such practices into the ashbin of history.

My boss at Met Life was a guy named John Falzon who came to work in a fedora every day, just like Don Draper’s. He was the kind of guy who referred to “gals” in the office and who probably enjoyed a martini or two at lunch.

But by 1968, the old ways had begun to change. There is nothing about the red scare in “Mad Men” but it would not be hard to imagine it coming up in one of the episodes, especially with a character like Bert Cooper who worshipped Ayn Rand. One day I got a postcard at work that came through office mail. It had been sent to me by the FBI but was written as if by an SWP organizer reminding me to the next meeting. As the FBI put it in the file that I retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act, it was an attempt to “embarrass” me and possibly get me fired (although they did not state this.)

When Falzon heard about the postcard, he called me into his office and told me that if I ever got a postcard like that again, he should be the first to know. He would find out who sent it and have them fired. Things had definitely changed, thank goodness.

January 24, 2011

Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

In 2009 HBO aired the documentary “Afghan Star” that followed contestants from start to finish on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”, including Setara Hussainzada, a young woman who scandalized the country by dancing—modestly–in her final performance and allowing her scarf to drop to her neck. This act was sufficient to cause her to be evicted from her apartment and to receive death threats.

On January 26th (8:00 to 8:45pm ET/PT) HBO will be presenting a follow-up documentary titled “Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star” that is a close-up study of what has happened to Setara since her ill-fated appearance.

As feisty as ever, Setara insists that she has done nothing sacrilegious. She now lives in Kabul, having left her native city of Herat where conservative Muslims continue to threaten her. Even in Kabul, there is constant harassment, even from the local authorities backed fully by the USA as a counterweight to the misogynist Taliban. During filming for the documentary, a squad of Afghan cops materializes at her apartment, supposedly to protect her. Setara views their intervention as nothing but a provocation and she berates them fearlessly.

One consolation is her marriage to a man who loves her and, just as importantly, defends her right to sing or dance without fear of reprisal. But he is forced to conceal his face from the camera in order to avoid being attacked by religious fanatics. They are expecting their first child as well, a prospect fraught with uncertainty.

I strongly urge you to rent “Afghan Star” from Netflix and to see this HBO follow-up on Wednesday. It is a reminder of the gender oppression that continues in Afghanistan despite efforts by the USA to associate abuses against women as solely the work of the Taliban.

These two fine movies directed by Havana Marking serve as companion pieces to Afghan legislator Malalai Joya’s “A Woman among Warlords”. She writes:

I am the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament, but I have been banished from my seat and threatened with death because I speak the truth about the warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Hamid Karzai. I have already survived at least five assassination attempts and uncounted plots against me. Because of this, I am forced to live like a fugitive within my own country. A trusted uncle heads my detail of bodyguards, and we move to different houses almost every night to stay a step ahead of my enemies.

To hide my identity, I must travel under the cover of the heavy cloth burqa, which to me is a symbol of women’s oppression, like a shroud for the living. Even during the dark days of the Taliban I could at least go outside under the burqa to teach girls in secret classes. But today I don’t feel safe under my burqa, even with armed guards to escort me. My visitors are searched for weapons, and even the flowers at my wedding had to be checked for bombs. I cannot tell you my family’s name, or the name of my husband, because it would place them in terrible danger. And for this reason, I have changed several other names in this book.

I call myself Joya — an alias I adopted during the time of the Taliban when I worked as an underground activist. The name Joya has great significance in my country. Sarwar Joya was an Afghan writer, poet, and constitutionalist who struggled against injustice during the early twentieth century. He spent nearly twenty-four years of his life in jails and was finally killed because he would not compromise his democratic principles.

Long live Setara! Long live Malalai Joya! Long live the struggle for freedom in Afghanistan!

August 3, 2010

Rethink Afghanistan: women’s rights under Karzai

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Read more here

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