Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 3, 2010

Rethink Afghanistan: women’s rights under Karzai

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

Read more here

May 31, 2010

Sex and the City #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 21, 2009

One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur

Filed under: feminism,literature — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

While not nearly as well known as “On the Road”, Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur” is just as great a masterpiece. Written in 1951 and published 6 years later, “On the Road” marks the beginning of Kerouac’s career, a time of great joy even as he lived in poverty. Written in 1960 and published 2 years later, “Big Sur” was Kerouac at the pinnacle of his fame and fortune but totally miserable. Indeed, the main lesson of “Big Sur” is that fame can drive you crazy.

Kerouac fans and those who are interested in the creative process in general will surely want to get their hands on the documentary “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur”, directed by Curt Worden.  But even more it can be seen as a meditation on the corrupting influence of money and success on the arts. In one of the most revealing moments, Patti Smith reflects on the ambivalence that artists have about such matters. Speaking over the image of a Time Magazine cover, she says that Kerouac both hated what had become of him—the bad-boy “beatnik” darling of the mass media—as well as addicted to the very things that transformed him into such a commodity.

The movie has an outstanding cast of interviewees. Some are Kerouac’s contemporaries like Laurence Felinghetti, Kerouac’s girl friend Joyce Johnson (an outstanding writer in her own right; her “Minor Characters” is a must-read for those curious about the beats), Carolyn Cassady, and Michael McClure. There are also younger admirers of Kerouac like Smith, Tom Waits, and Sam Shepard. Every single one of them, it should be added, is intimately familiar with the corrupting influences of fame. Poor Sam Shepard, once one of the most gifted playwrights in the U.S., long ago became a mediocre Hollywood actor. One supposes that he makes more money in one film that he made as a playwright over a 2 or 3 year span. What a waste.

Kerouac’s novel was based on his experiences living in Big Sur as he tried to get over his addiction to alcohol and return to his roots as literary/mystical seer. He lived by himself in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin near the ocean and struggled largely in vain to stay away from San Francisco, where his fame could always draw a crowd of admirers at a North Beach saloon, as well as free drinks. After spending a weekend in debauchery at such places, Kerouac would return to his cabin and feel miserable for days on end. At the end of the novel, after one too many weekends in hell, he has a nervous breakdown that is described with great emotional and literary power.

The movie visits the cabin where Kerouac stayed as well as the North Beach neighborhoods that were his perdition. Interspersed are readings from “Big Sur” by John Ventimiglia, the actor who played Artie Bucco on “The Sopranos”. Ventimiglia, like everybody else, is a great admirer of Kerouac and manages to sound exactly like the writer but without the affectations usually associated with such performances.

Like millions of other teenagers, I became a big Kerouac fan after reading “On the Road” in 1959 or so. Ironically, I only discovered that Kerouac existed from reading Time Magazine, my periscope into a world different from the suffocating small town that I lived in. Two years later I was at Bard College, a kind of beat generation outpost in the early 60s along with other “alternative” colleges. Needless to say, Leon Botstein has made that place more “respectable” while draining all the energy and creativity out of it.

With a title like “Big Sur”, I expected Kerouac’s new novel to be one long feast of bebop, drugs, poetry and madness. It turned out there was madness but not the kind I expected. To this day, I have vivid memories of Kerouac’s harrowing confessional outpourings. Unfortunately, not much of the book is available on the Internet but these few observations/quotes from the Rainblessed website should give you an idea of what’s in Kerouac’s most powerful novel:

Towering cliffs, fog-banked canyon, roaring surf and the little cabin near the meadow and creek: Jack Kerouac went to Big Sur to escape his clamorous fans and the resulting circus of his life in Long Island. He went for peace and to write a poem about the sea sounds, a kind of Beat Jazz Serenade of Nature. Briefly, among premonitions of madness, he found a gentle peace.

Although Jack loves people and long talks, his new fame is incredibly stressful. As much as he enjoys rollicking orgies of booze and conversation, it seems to pull him down into mornings-after of despair.

…Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils …Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realizing I was surrounded and out numbered and had to get away to solitude again or die

I wake up drunk, sick, disgusted, frightened, in fact terrified by that sad song across the roofs mingling with the lachrymose cries of a Salvation Army meeting on the corner below “Satan is the cause of your alcoholism, Satan is the cause of your immorality, Satan is everywhere workin to destroy you unless you repent now” and worse than that the sound of old drunks throwing up in rooms next to mine, the creak of hall steps, the moans everywhere –Including the moan that had awakened me, my own moan in the lumpy bed, a moan caused by a big roaring Whoo Whoo in my head that had shot me out of my pillow like a ghost.

Alone in the Big Sur cabin, he is able to shake off his demons here and there. But always, bittersweet and dangerous, there are people hunting him down, firing him up, but also exhausting him.

Big Sur also has a tender image of Dean Moriarty (called Cody in this story) in case you wondered about him some years on from On the Road. Cody seems relatively softened and clarified following two years in San Quentin prison (for marijuana possession) and a return to wife and children:

…in the same cell with a murderous gunman…I expect him to be all bitter and out of his head because of this but strangely and magnificently he’s become quieter, more radiant, more patient, manly, more friendly even –and tho the wild frenzies of his old road days with me have banked down he still has the same taut eager face and supple muscles and looks like he’s ready to go anytime –But actually loves his home, loves his wife in a way tho they fight some, loves his kids …wants immediately to challenge somebody to a chess game but only has an hour to talk to us before he goes to work supporting the family by rushing out and pushing his Nash Rambler down the quiet Los Gatos suburb street, jumping in, starting the motor, in fact his only complaint is that the Nash wont start without a push –No bitter complaints about society whatever from this grand and ideal man who really loves me moreover as if I deserved it…

Movie website: http://www.kerouacfilms.com/onefastmove/index.html

August 15, 2009

Alexander Cockburn: fetus fetishist

Filed under: feminism — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

For the past 25 years or so Alexander Cockburn has been flirting with the American ultraright. I first took note of how he put a positive spin on the militia movement in the 1980s, a typically contrarian position that probably reflected his evolving social position as a country squire in Northern California. It also probably reflected his hatred of “big government” tied to a protracted battle with the IRS.

When he began publishing Counterpunch, the symptoms grew apace. From his dalliance with Ron Paul to his inexplicable decision to run economic commentaries on a weekly basis from Paul Craig Roberts, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, who advised his readers on lewrockwell.com:

President Ronald Reagan’s stature will grow as his achievements come to be more widely recognized.

Few Americans realize that President Reagan’s economic policy won the cold war by rejuvenating capitalism. Members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, with whom I spoke in Moscow during the Soviet Union’s final months, agreed that it was President Reagan’s confidence in capitalism, not his defense buildup, that caused Soviet leaders to lose their confidence.

This is not to speak of his climate change skepticism which has drawn from the poisoned well of bogus science, including from a character who has written numerous articles for a Lyndon Larouche magazine.

But a new chapter is being written apparently. For the first time, Cockburn is echoing the complaints of the anti-abortion movement. He feels that since women have gotten the right to a safe and legal abortion, the fetuses have gotten the short end of the stick. In the latest Counterpunch, he writes the following in an article dealing with health care reform:

The liberals are howling bout the unfairness of these attacks, led by Sarah Palin, revived by her “Death Panel” talk and equipped with a dexterous new speech writer who is even adding footnotes to her press releases.

But what is a conservative meant to think? Since the major preoccupation of liberals for 30 years has been the right to kill embryos, why should they not be suspect in their intentions toward those gasping in the thin air of senility? There is a strong eugenic thread to American progressivism, most horribly expressed in its very successful campaign across much of the twentieth century to sterilize “imbeciles.” Abortion is now widening in its function as a eugenic device. Women in their 40s take fertility drugs, then abort the inconvenient twins, triplets or quadruplets when they show up on the scan.

In 1972, a year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion on demand nationwide, virtually all children with trisomy 21, or Down syndrome, were born. Less than a decade later, with the widespread availability of pre-natal genetic testing, as many as 90 percent of women whose babies were pre-natally diagnosed with the genetic condition chose to abort the child.

One survey of 499 primary care physicians treating women carrying these babies, however, indicated that only 4 percent actively encourage women to bring Down syndrome babies to term. A story on the CNS News Service last year quoted  Dr. Will Johnston, president of Canadian Physicians for Life, reacted to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) pre-natal testing endorsement as another step toward eugenics. “The progress of eugenic abortion into the heart of our society is a classic example of “mission creep,’ ” Johnson said. “In the 1960s, we were told that legal abortion would be a rare tragic act in cases of exceptional hardship. In the ’70s abortion began to be both decried and accepted as birth control. In the ’80s respected geneticists pointed out that it was cheaper to hunt for and abort Down’s babies than to raise them. By the ’90s that observation had been widely put into action. Now we are refining and extending our eugenic vision, with new tests and abortion as our central tools.”

When Cockburn writes “Since the major preoccupation of liberals for 30 years has been the right to kill embryos”, one must ask the obvious question whether he is philosophically committed to the idea that an embryo is a living human being. This would lend credence to the idea that a ban on abortion prior to Roe-Wade made sense and that the state had the right to punish women and doctors involved in such medical procedures. Additionally, the idea of innocents being “killed” might inspire some ultrarightists to take the law into their own hands. If the state is immoral enough to allow innocent babies to be slaughtered, then an act of civil disobedience involving putting a bullet into an abortion provider could well be justified.

And what do we make of a supposed epidemic of women in her 40s taking fertility drugs, and only deciding to have an abortion when they discover that they will have twins, triplets and even more? To begin with, this does not exactly sound like “eugenics” but rather a woman’s decision not to bring children into the world that she is physically and psychologically incapable of rearing adequately let’s leave that aside for the moment. The real issue for me is how in the world can we make a judgment on Cockburn’s claim when he offers no evidence for such an epidemic? What are the numbers? How many 40 year olds? How many twins or triplets as a result of taking fertility drugs? How many abortions? If this is such a big problem, why haven’t we seen the cable news outlets reporting on it?

Indeed, a search on Lexis-Nexis reveals what Cockburn omitted. In the case of multiple embryos, a physician will occasionally use an injection to terminate all but one of them. This is called “selective reduction” in the medical profession and is often opted as a way to increase the health of the single birth. This is a matter of some urgency for married couples facing onerous medical costs and unsure economic situations in today’s world, a matter that Cockburn contemptuously dismisses as “eugenics”. Now none of this should be the business of the fetus fetishists, or their friends on the left like Alexander Cockburn, should it?

The final paragraph excerpted from Cockburn’s article cites a physician affiliated with the Canadian Physicians for Life, leaving no doubt where Cockburn’s loyalties lie.

I was so shocked by Cockburn’s newfound fetus fetishism that I scoured through Counterpunch to find early signs of dementia. This one from 4 years ago caught my eye. It was a nod of approval to Howard Dean. My emphases are in bold:

DNC Chairman Howard Dean told a student audience last week that “I think we need to talk about this issue differently. The Republicans have painted us as a pro-abortion party. I don’t know anybody in America who is pro-abortion. [But surely he’s read Katha Pollitt.] We do have to have a big tent. I do think we need to welcome pro-life Democrats into this party.”

He also approves of Dean’s comment that “a woman has a right to make up their own mind” but you have to wonder why he regards Katha Pollitt as “pro-abortion”. Does Katha Pollitt go around at Nation Magazine cocktail parties lecturing pregnant women to go get an abortion? Who the hell can figure out what this one-time crack journalist was trying to say?

For all of his animosity toward Christopher Hitchens, this is one issue that he and his fellow British expatriate have in common. Although both are formally in favor of a woman’s right to choose, at least for the time being, both are disposed to hand-wringing exercises when the question of “unborn children” comes up.

In a February 2003 Vanity Fair article titled “Fetal Distraction” (ha-ha), Hitchens makes a case for abortion as “killing”, just as Cockburn does:

As the evidence about early “viability” mounted, and as advances in medicine made it ever easier for even a distressingly premature fetus to survive outside its mother, the argument showed a tendency to shift. Suddenly, we were talking trimesters. And there was no longer much dispute about whether the unborn subject was alive. It certainly couldn’t be dead, since the whole battle consisted in how or whether to stop its growing and developing (not metastasizing). Now and then there would be a tussle over whether it was a fully “human” life, but this was casuistry. What other species of life could it be? Some states even announced laws on fetal personhood, conferring the moral equivalent of citizenship on every fertilized egg, thereby presumably extending to it the warm embrace of the equal-protection clause and voting rights at age 17¼.

Unfortunately, given the sorry state of Hitchens’s journalism in the past decade or so, it is almost impossible to figure out if he is joking or not when he raises the possibility of “fetal personhood” enjoying the equivalence of citizenship. Who knows? Maybe he will someday back humanitarian intervention in abortion clinics in order to protect the rights of the human life under attack from the medical Milosevic’s of the world. That would be consistent with a worldview that went into the toilet long ago.

October 9, 2007

De jure discrimination and the capitalist system

Filed under: feminism,racism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Last Sunday MRZine editor Yoshie Furuhashi posted an article titled “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” on her Critical Montages blog that has led to a heated debate on Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list. Basically Furuhashi argues that the abolition of de jure discrimination brings the spirit of capitalism closer to the pure spirit of “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” that Karl Marx referred to in Chapter six of Volume One of Capital:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will.

While the abolition of Jim Crow laws might have removed barriers to the commodification of labor, Marxists don’t view this as some kind of capitalist plot. It is in the interest of workers to remove all legal/political barriers to their full right to sell their labor power, even if this brings them closer to some kind of 19th century liberal economic ideal. After all, Jeremy Bentham advocated the elimination of slavery for his own reasons. On the other hand, radical abolitionists in Great Britain saw emancipation from slavery as related to the general emancipation of the working class. We must not recoil from emancipation because Jeremy Bentham favored it, should we?

The same thing was true in the US in the 1970s. Bourgeois women wanted to move ahead in the corporate world, while working class women wanted the right to work in construction jobs, etc. that they had been formerly excluded from. Marxists would have supported the ERA even if it benefited both rich women seeking better-paying corporate jobs and working class women trying to break into the construction trades. We are for a united working class, even if the measures that promote such unity also allow some women to enter the ruling class. Concealed beneath Furuhashi’s ultraleft rhetoric is utter indifference to the need for working class unity.

Furuhashi links to another article of hers titled “Winning the Culture War, Losing the Class Struggle” that initially appeared on dissidentvoice.com. We learn that “our social and cultural victories have been made to serve an economic agenda that is against our class interests.” When women fought for equality with men in the 1970s, little did they suspect that they were preparing the ground for the assault on Aid for Dependent Children:

The partial victory of the women’s movement made new assumptions dominant: the assumptions that able-bodied women ought to work for wages rather than bear and raise children as the primary duty of women, and that mothers and fathers should bear equal financial responsibilities for their children, so fathers should pay child support instead of making mothers depend on the government. The assumptions are not so much feminist assumptions per se as liberal petit-bourgeois feminist assumptions in particular. In any case, the Clinton administration effectively exploited the newly dominant assumptions and abolished AFDC: poor women should work and make the fathers of their children pay and become economically independent of the government (or so went the ideology).

There are so many false premises packed into this paragraph that one hardly knows where to start. The idea that women ought to work for wages rather than bear and raise children is utterly disconnected from a movement that emphasized choice. In other words, women must have the same options as men. Furthermore, when Clinton went on the attack against AFDC, “liberal petit-bourgeois feminists” hardly joined in. On the very day that Clinton signed this racist bill, he was protested by these very people that the ultraleftist Furuhashi stigmatizes:

Attending to the accusation that he was severing his party’s New Deal taproot, the President declared, “The typical family on welfare today is very different from the one that welfare was designed to deal with 60 years ago.” In contrast to needy Depression-era Americans, he said, modern Americans who get aid “are trapped on welfare for a very long time, exiling them from the entire community of work that gives structure to our lives.”

As he signed the measure, a long line of protesters stretched along the block north of the White House, out of sight of the Rose Garden, in a rally organized by the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority. “We intend to fix the political climate that makes the President and Congress think they can get away with writing off the poor,” declared Patricia Ireland, president of NOW.

NY Times, August 23, 1996

Of course, in Furuhashi’s mind the Patricia Irelands of the world are secretly backing Clinton’s attack while pretending to be sympathetic to his victims. Ireland is like those dastardly leftists who say that they oppose war with Iran, but give Bush the excuse he needs to start bombing when they call attention to the lack of democratic rights in Iran. People who love peace should understand that it is best to keep quiet when Iranian cops haul International Women’s Day demonstrators off to jail.

Some subscribers to LBO-Talk want to give Furuhashi the benefit of a doubt. They interpret her article as a call to combine the fights against de jure and de facto discrimination. Her most ardent defender has been Richard Seymour, better known as the “Lenin’s Tomb” blogger. He argues:

I suspect that Yoshie is arguing for what marxists sometimes call a ‘dialectical’ understanding of patriarchy and racism. In fact, the upshot is quite the contrary to what you suggest. It is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism should be subordinated to class struggle, but that these struggles are contiguous, and the attempt to separate them has been fatal, allowing the preservation of the worst forms of class rule, and patriarchy, and racism, while also stripping away the defensive aspects of traditional units of organisation, reducing people to atomised and practically defenseless agents in the face of a ruling class onslaught. It doesn’t mean we embrace patriarchy or defer the struggle against it, for example: it means we take it up as part of the class struggle.

If Seymour “suspects” a meaning that is not immediately obvious from Furuhashi’s words, he is not alone. Like a symbolist poem scrutinized by William Empson in “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” her article has led to multiple interpretations. In response to Doug Henwood’s criticisms, LBO-Talk subscriber Jim Farmelant wrote, “I am not at all sure that’s what Yoshie is saying. I think her point is that the struggle against de jure discrimination is insufficient for ending oppression.”

My advice to anybody involved in Marxist polemics, including Comrade Yoshie, is to strive for clarity. While academia, especially the postmodernist wing, encourages writing that invites multiple interpretations, the working class movement needs its writers to be direct and to the point. When the future of humanity rests on the outcome of our debates, it subverts our greater purpose to write murky prose.

This is the common failing of our “uniters”: they cannot give a clear answer to questions of the day; they do not themselves know what they want.

One thing is clear from their writings: they want to save the liquidators, and must therefore avoid clarity and precision in the formulation and solution of problems.

To the liquidators clarity and precision are the most dangerous things at the present time. Other articles in Yedinstvo bring this home to us still more forcibly.

But the workers want clarity, and they will get it, for they want to build up the unity of their organisation, not on the basis of diplomacy and equivocation, but on the basis of a precise appraisal of the political significance of the different “trends”. People who have two or even more opinions on this question are, poor counsellors.

V.I. Lenin, “Clarity First and Foremost!

Since Furuhashi’s musings have a somewhat detached, Platonic quality, one wonders whether she has actually bothered to check whether or not her thesis is backed up by the historical record. One gets the impression from her that the most far-sighted liberal ruling class figures seek to break the resistance of more reactionary figures who can’t understand the benefits of making Black and white workers equal before the law. If this was the case, we might expect the Kennedy White House to have been bent on smashing Jim Crow. This is not the case, however, as I discovered in my research on JFK:

Kennedy saw the Justice Department as the main instrument of his civil rights agenda, not the Civil Rights Commission that had been established in 1957 under Eisenhower as part of the Civil Rights Act. Several degrees to the left of Kennedy, the Commission was seen as something akin to Reconstruction and, therefore, unwelcome. In his best-selling “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy referred to Reconstruction as a “black nightmare…nourished by Federal bayonets.” When the Civil Rights Commission announced its attention to investigate racist violence in Mississippi, Robert F. Kennedy likened it to HUAC “investigating Communism.”

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

Even in their selection of voter registration as the least confrontational tactic in the South, the Kennedys were loath to put the power of the federal government behind it. When the KKK targeted civil rights workers trying to register black voters, Robert F. Kennedy bent over backwards to appear conciliatory toward the racists. He said, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.” This indifference was one of the main reasons the racists felt free to kill activists in the Deep South.

One such assassination took the life of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home. In keeping with his accomodationist policies, Robert F. Kennedy told the media that the federal government had no authority to protect Evers or anybody else. Such responsibilities rested with the state of Mississippi!

The mass movement against racial discrimination continued unabated, without the support of the Kennedy White House. In 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama unleashed attacks by Police Commissioner Bull Connor who used nightsticks, police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses and mass arrests. JFK complained about the protests that they made the USA “look bad for us in the world.” His brother opined that 90 percent of the protestors had no idea what they were demonstrating about.

Now it is entirely possible that JFK had a secret agenda that went against his outward demeanor and words. He might have been like Patricia Ireland and those leftists who secretly yearn for war with Iran despite words to the contrary. Despite JFK’s laissez-faire attitude toward Southern racists, he might have had carefully concealed plans to hasten the end of de jure discrimination. You ask how? Here’s how: by cutting the KKK some slack, its outrages would increase public pressure to speed up civil rights legislation or something like that. Perhaps JFK had studied the history of the German Communist Party when he was at Harvard and sought to carry out an American version of “the worse, the better”. Bourgeois politicians can be very shifty, after all.

Speaking for myself, I ruled out this possibility after deliberating on it for 10 seconds or so. My reading of American history going back to the days of Reconstruction teaches me that support for de jure discrimination crossed party lines. The initiative to destroy Jim Crow did not come from some bourgeois politician who had been inspired by Jeremy Bentham but by Black workers who had participated in the CIO struggles of the 1930s, as should be obvious from this article that appeared in the April 1956 American Socialist magazine:

THE incident that touched off things happened simply and spontaneously. It was not a test case. On the night of December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a seamstress at a Montgomery department store, was returning home from work. She boarded the bus that would take her to the public-housing project where she lived. She was carrying a sack of groceries, bursitis racked her shoulders, and she was dead-tired. She sat near the front of the Negro section. After a few minutes she heard the driver order her to move to the back—where there were no seats vacant. She looked up and saw a white man waiting to claim her place. She didn’t move. The driver again called out. She still didn’t move. The driver then stopped the bus, announcing that he was going for the police. For thirty minutes the passengers remained in the halted vehicle. No one got out, no one—white or Negro—spoke to her. ‘It was the longest time of my life,’ Mrs. Parks recalls. The police came and she was booked for violating the segregation ordinance—although the law specifically states that the driver can only reassign passengers if there are other seats available.

E. D. Nixon, sleeping-car porter who is president of his union local, put up her bond. The following day he summoned the city’s Negro ministers and suggested organizing a mass protest. As former president of the Alabama NAACP and long-time fighter for the right to vote, Nixon had some claim on the consciences of the men of the cloth. And Mrs. Parks, too, was not unknown. For years she had been doing the drab secretarial and dues-collecting chores of keeping an NAACP chapter alive in Montgomery, without thanks or glory. Nixon suggested that Negroes stay off the buses on the day of her trial, scheduled for December 5. The proposal won the enthusiastic approval of the Rev. M. L. King, Jr., 27-year-old native of Atlanta and graduate of Boston University, and he persuaded the others. The following Sunday some twenty ministers passed the idea along to their congregations.

If you are at all familiar with the Montgomery bus boycott, you will know that Rosa Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for a white couple, Clifford and Virginia Durr. The Durrs became her friends and encouraged Parks to attend—and eventually helped sponsor her—at the Highlander Folk School, a school formed by leftists in 1932 in order to train labor organizers. Furthermore E.D. Nixon’s union was one of the most militant trade unions in the 1930s and 40s whose leader A. Philip Randolph was ready to organize a March on Washington during WWII in order to protest discrimination against Blacks in the Defense Industry.

Of course, if FDR understood that such discrimination prevented the capitalist system from achieving it full Benthamite possibilities, I am sure that he would have organized buses to bring people to Washington.

Fundamentally, Furuhashi is unable to understand how the capitalist system operates. She is much more of an economic determinist in the Charles Beard sense. For people like Beard and what is sometimes called “vulgar Marxism”, politics has a direct and unmediated connection to the operations of the capitalist economy. The fight against de jure discrimination is understood in terms of Karl Marx’s discussion of labor as commodity in Volume One of Capital; the “culture wars” are an element of the capitalist system’s tendency to increase the rate of profit, etc. If politics could be derived from such simple formulas, the capitalist system would have ended long ago. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for complex, dialectical thought no matter the temptation to dumb down Marxism in accordance with the steadily deteriorating intellectual climate of the American empire as it lurches toward oblivion.

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