Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 6, 2021

Edge of the World

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

“Edge of the World” is a biopic about James Brooke, the British ex-officer who became the Rajah of Sarawak in 1842. The film allows you to have a look at an obscure figure who was something of an outlier in the emerging British Empire even if it is through a funhouse mirror. He is portrayed as a benign figure who only agreed to become a Rajah to put an end to the slavery and beheading in a region in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo.

When he read a reference to Brooke in a footnote in a George MacDonald Fraser novel back in 2009, screenwriter Rob Allyn became consumed by the idea of making a film about a “good” colonist. When the film begins, Brooke and several other British army veterans arrive on the beach in Sarawak with the sole intention of collecting rare plants and animals, not extending the rule of Queen Victoria. If you’ve seen “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, you’ll be struck by his similarities with Russell Crowe’s ship surgeon who was far more interested in discovering new species than in seizing territory on behalf of the Crown. Not only that, Allyn’s Brooke repeatedly referred to his disillusionment with the role the British played in India—like Daniel Ellsberg breaking with imperialism after seeing the reality of Vietnam as a Marine.

Despite being an obscure figure, Brooke excited the imagination of writers far more important than Allyn. He was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”, a 1888 story about two British soldiers who become “kings” of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. A very good John Huston movie based on the Kipling story starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine came out in 1975. Ironically, despite Allyn’s Brooke denouncing the idea of a “white man’s burden”, his character has far more in common with colonialism than Kipling’s grifters.

Brooke also became the model for Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”, even if only in the second half of the novel. Despite any reference to Conrad having prior knowledge about Brooke, the similarities between his plot and the White Rajah are so pronounced that scholars will always be looking for hard evidence. Unlike Brooke, Jim is a common sailor like Kipling’s characters, endears himself to Malaysian villagers by fending off a bandit that has been terrorizing them after who the fashion of “Seven Samurai”. For his efforts, they begin to refer to him as “tuan” Jim, or Lord Jim. Postcolonial scholars don’t see the novel as advanced politically as “Heart of Darkness”, but they do see Jim as an example of Kipling’s “civilizing mission”.

Allyn not only portrays Brooke as renouncing imperial ambitions but as someone who “goes native” after the fashion of “Dances with Wolves” or the disabled lead character in “Avatar” who chooses to leave his human shell to become a big blue avatar. A key feature of the film is Brooke’s bromance with a Sarawak prince who clearly has a homosexual desire for the British Rajah that is never requited. However, most Brooke scholars surmise that he too was a homosexual who enjoyed sex with his subjects.

The main conflict in the film is between Brooke and Mahkota, a Sarawak warlord who coveted the title of Rajah and routinely beheaded the pirates that preyed on the island’s villagers. Law and order hardly meant very much in a place that was marked by a very loose interpretation of Islam and animistic beliefs. In the concluding scenes of “Edge of the World”, Brooke learns that he has to abandon his semi-pacifist ideals and destroy Mahkota to save “his” Sarawak. He ends up beheading the warlord and making Sarawak an idyllic place both for the natives and British investors exploiting its resources. Brooke and his descendants ruled Sarawak until WWII when the Japanese occupied Borneo.

Suffice it to say that most of “Edge of the World” is pure hokum. Brooke wrote a letter in 1846 in which he revealed his true goals. “Sarawak is very flourishing, and I look forward to a fair revenue from it in a few years without distress to its inhabitants”. In the film, the White Rajah’s mansion Astana is anything but. It sits on stilts and is about the size of a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, but windowless and sans indoor plumbing. In reality, Brooke’s mansion looks like this:

As for Allyn’s fixation on Brooke after reading a reference to him in a George MacDonald Fraser novel, I wonder if it is the one below since his character is obviously consistent with Fraser’s shrewd assessment:

 Brooke was one of the Victorians who gave empire-building a good name, whose worse faults, perhaps, were that he loved adventure for its own sake, had an unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race, and enjoyed fighting pirates. His philosophy, being typical of his class and time, may not commend itself universally today, but an honest examination of what he actually did will discover more to praise than to blame.

Of course, Allyn chose to ignore the business about Brooke’s “unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race” when writing his screenplay. That would only undermine his hagiographic film.

However, even his superiors in Queen Victoria’s court found him taking advantage of his power, even charging him with using what amounted to war crimes against the indigenous pirates who were far less lethal than the ships the Europeans sent around the world. After all, Brooke arrives on the shores of Sarawak with a sloop appropriately named “Royalist” with its six cannons used to subdue both pirates and warlords.

“Edge of the World” is available as VOD on June 21. Only recommended for those like me with a morbid curiosity.

May 21, 2021

Film reflections on the opioid crisis

Filed under: Columbia University,Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

When a publicist sent me a press release and screener for Nicholas Jarecki’s “Crisis”, I looked forward to covering a film by a director who I acclaimed as making one of the best films of 2012: “9. Arbitrage – Don’t tell Oliver Stone that I said so, but this is much better than his “Wall Street” sequel.”

One of his personal quotes on IMDB will give you a sense of what motivated him to take aim at a fictionalized version of the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma infamy in “Crisis” as well as a billionaire arbitrageur who kept his role in the death of his mistress a secret a la Ted Kennedy/Chappaquiddick in the earlier work. “I think that people need to become more educated about money. We need to stop creating systems that benefit only the most-cutthroat sharks.”

“Crisis” is the first narrative film to tell the story of how both criminal gangs and prestigious philanthropist families worked to extract blood money from American families in recent years through the sale of opioids like Oxycodone. Set in Detroit and Montreal, it begins with the arrest of a man in a white camouflage suit dragging a sled full of pain-killers across the Canadian border.

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May 19, 2021

There is No Evil

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

Currently available as VOD from Kino-Lorber, “There is No Evil” is an Iranian film by Mohammad Rasoulof about the political and existential toll capital punishment takes on his country. Made without the permission of censors, this film and earlier ones by Rasoulof in the same vein led to a five year prison term. While the sentence is being appealed, just as had been the case with his fellow director Jafar Panahi, Rousolof remains under house arrest. Panahi and Rasoulof represent the most uncompromising wing of the Iranian film industry and thus forced to operate secretly. Panahi is the most well-known of these rebels, with a body of work that also marks him as a great filmmaker. “There is No Evil”, the first film by Rasoulof I have seen, now distinguishes him also a key member of the film industry’s resistance to censorship and the clerical dictatorship that imposes it.

One might assume that a film decrying capital punishment would be focused on the plight of someone on death row—similar to Sean Penn in “Dead Man Walking”. Instead, Rasoulof is interested in the men who carry out the executions who in many cases are forced to carry them out by dint of their service in the military. The one exception to this is a “professional” executioner whose devotion to his family is in marked contrast to the grizzly, impersonal manner in which he pulls a lever to hang six men at once.

The 150-minute film is broken down into four different short stories with in one case a soldier being driven to desperation after he is slated to carry out his first. In the barracks, he tries to find a substitute but none want to replace him, even for a small fortune. They argue back and forth about their “duty” as soldiers but one would understand why they would be so averse. Being an executioner in these circumstances amounts to pulling a stool from beneath the prisoner’s feet.

The structure for “There is No Evil” was dictated by the need to evade the police state’s interference as Rasoulof explained to the Hollywood Reporter:

To make There Is No Evil despite the government-imposed ban, Rasoulof had friends submit the applications for shooting permits on his behalf. “My name didn’t appear anywhere on the paperwork,” he says. “And I set up the movie as four short films, each with its own director, its own production unit, just like four separate movies. Because the government doesn’t pay as much attention to shorts. It’s easier to get things through.”

Although the film is ostensibly about the Islamic Republic’s widespread capital punishment system, it is just as much about the manner in which state-sponsored killing becomes acceptable. The soldiers, except for the one referred to above, would as soon refuse to pull the stool as they would refuse peeling potatoes as part of KP or mopping up the latrine. One of its characters is a soldier who enjoys the three-day leaves he gets for volunteering to be a stool-puller.

In the press notes, the director explains the motivation for making “There is No Evil”:

Last year, I spotted one of my interrogators coming out of the bank as I was crossing a street in Tehran. Suddenly, I experienced an indescribable feeling. Without his knowledge, I followed him for a while. After ten years, he had aged a bit. I wanted to take a picture of him on my cellphone, I wanted to run towards him, reveal myself to him, and angrily scream at him all of my questions. But when I looked at him closely, and observed his mannerisms with my own eyes, I could not see an evil monster.

How do autocratic rulers metamorphose people into becoming mere components of their autocratic machines? In authoritarian states, the sole purpose of the law is the preservation of the state, and not the facilitation and regulation of people’s relations. I come from such a state.

In Iran, kidnapping may be punishable by death but so is “waging war against God” and “spreading corruption on Earth.” Iran is fifth in the world per capita, just 3 places behind its fellow theocracy Saudi Arabia. In taking direct aim at one of Iran’s most repressive institutions, the director broke with the allegorical tendencies that prevailed among its sharpest critics of the system, even in his own work. He told the Hollywood Reporter, “This allegorical style has its roots in our culture, which goes back centuries, in our poetry, our art, which tends not to say things directly. But I want to break with that, because I think this allegorical aesthetic has become a form of submission, a way of accepting the oppression of the regime.”

“There is No Evil” has a 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is the best narrative film I have seen this year and likely to surpass any of the crap Hollywood churns out.

May 11, 2021

Paris Calligrammes

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:06 pm

Now showing as virtual cinema at the Film Forum in New York, “Paris Calligrammes” is a self-portrait of Ulrike Ottinger, a 78-year old German filmmaker who adopted Paris as her artistic, cultural, political and psychological home. Arriving there at the age of 20, she became a Boswell to her chosen Samuel Johnsons, namely the admixture of Marxist intellectuals, Dadaists, Surrealists, bibliophiles, and outsized personalities that made Paris so irresistible to young, aspiring artists and bohemians. Indeed, replace London with Paris and Johnson’s observation captures her feelings as well: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

The entire film consists of footage Ottinger shot over the years, most of which is in stunning black-and-white and reminiscent of the golden age of La Nouvelle Vague. Much of it depicts the street life of the Left Bank as young Parisians flock to nightclubs featuring African-American émigré jazz musicians or to other nightspots that are counterpart to Greenwich Village in the early 60s.

In 1962, she had access to some of the giants of 20th century radical thinking and art, such as Max Ernst, Marcel Marceau, Paul Célan, Walter Mehring, Hans Arp, Jean Genet, Albert  Camus, and Juliet Greco. If you’ve read Ernest Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast,” a wondrous posthumous memoir by Ernest Hemingway that recounts his bohemian youth in Paris in the 1920s, you’ll see Ottinger’s film as a kindred spirit.

It will come as no surprise that Ottinger is a life-long radical. There are eye-opening scenes of Vietnam antiwar demonstrations, the May-June 1968 events as well as penetrating critiques of France’s imperial legacy. It is astonishing to see Moroccans and other colonized peoples marching in parades celebrating their French identity.

Interspersed throughout the film are excerpts from Ottinger’s earlier films that at least to my eyes seem like the counterpart to the underground film movement in the USA with a particular resonance with a work like Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures”, especially the earliest signs of a “camp” sensibility. Like Smith, Ottinger is gay. After seeing the brief examples of her work in the film, I am motivated to track them down especially in light of how Wikipedia described her artistic mission as having “constituted a one-woman avant-garde opposition to the sulky male melodramas of Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog.”

April 27, 2021

8 Billion Angels; The Land of Azaba

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

In his review of “Seaspiracy”, a Netflix documentary about the threat commercial fishing poses to the survival of ocean life, Joshua Frank refers to the role of population growth:

Not surprisingly, as the human population exploded over the past 100 years, industrialized fishing increased right along with it. In many communities around the world, fish still provide essential nutrients. In the U.S. and Europe, eating fish may be a luxury, but for many of the world’s impoverished nations, fish are a necessity. Tabrizi does not even attempt to face this fact, perhaps because it’s overly complex, or perhaps because it creeps into neo-Malthusianism territory, which has haunted the environmental movement for decades. Either way, any important analysis of the over-fishing of our world’s oceans, as uncomfortable as it may be, must broach the topic.

When I first began writing about ecological limits on Internet mailing lists, the charge of neo-Malthusianism was raised against me especially by James Heartfield, a member of the self-described Marxist collective led by Frank Furedi. Furedi gave up on Marxism in the early 2000s and his followers went along with a libertarian turn that convinced the Koch brothers to fund Spiked Online, the new voice of these ex-Marxists.

While raising the problem of population growth has prompted the charge of being “Malthusian”, there is little support for this amalgam in his writings according to Giorgos Kallis, the author of “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care”. In his discussion of Malthus’s “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Kallis corrects the record:

Despite his reputation, Malthus opposed “artificial modes of checking population…for their tendency to remove a necessary stimulus to growth.” Also, unlike Paul Erlich, who famously bet Julian Simon that resources like metal would grow scarcer, Malthus claimed that “for commodities, the raw materials are in great plenty.” He added that “a demand for these will not fail to create them in as great a quantity as they are wanted.”

Generally, the critics of Malthusianism, a made up term having little to do with his actual beliefs, the focus is on food since that is the most immediate requirement for human survival. Pointing to the chemical-dependent Green Revolution, they claim that it made worries about overpopulation unwarranted. While I had my own objections to the Green Revolution based on its deleterious impact on biodiversity, I posed the question to Heartfield on whether there were enough tuna in the sea to satisfy an ever-growing population. You can add chemical fertilizer to the soil but no amount of chemicals could spur an explosion of tuna schools to keep up with 10 billion people, the number projected by the end of the 21st century.

These questions are taken up in a crucial new documentary titled “8 Billion Angels” in which director Terry Spahr confronts overpopulation without mincing words on the film’s website: “All of our efforts, up until now, have amounted to stop-gap measures that distract us from the fact that we add 80 million more people every year to the earth, who together consume more resources faster than the world can replenish, and emit more waste than the earth can naturally absorb.”

Up until recently, overpopulation was generally identified with the Club of Rome and other think-tanks funded by Nelson Rockefeller and other “liberal” politicians and capitalists who thought that China, India and other such “backward” countries could provide a better life for their people if they controlled population growth. A leading Chinese scientist named Song Jian was so persuaded by these reactionary ideas that he convinced the government to adopt and strictly enforce a one-child only law that caused enormous suffering as pointed out in the documentary “One-Child Nation” that I reviewed in 2019.

“8 Billion Angels” is adamantly opposed both to such forced measures as well as the sense of complacency that allows the ruling class to accept a status quo that threatens a Sixth Extinction not only threatening marine life as depicted in “Seaspiracy” but just about every form of life on the planet. Both homo sapiens and our animal co-dwellers on this planet rely on biodiversity but a dubious economic and demographic growth under capitalism (unlike “Planet of the Humans, the economic system is only implicit in the film) is undermining biodiversity at a frightening speed.

If the film refrains from directly referring to the system eco-socialists target, there is a clear orientation to radical alternatives, even if they operate within the confines of private property. A segment filmed in India offers up a society that seems bent on destroying itself. The Ganges River is an open sewer for exactly the same reasons the Thames was in the days of Karl Marx. The much-heralded Green Revolution created class inequalities in the countryside that forced impoverished farmers to flock into Delhi just like the peasants who came to London after losing their farms under the Enclosure Acts. Without proper infrastructure support, the river became vulnerable to both corporate polluters and poor people finding no other way of disposing of their waste.

If Delhi and the Ganges are the fate we must avoid, the director points to Kerala as a possibility for a better future not only for Indians but the entire planet. In the early 19th century, education for both boys and girls became mandatory, largely through efforts of missionaries to promote mass education, one of the few good things they ever carried out. In the 20th century, these reforms were deepened by both the Congress Party and the Communist Party that in 1957 was the first such party to win an electoral contest. The CP encouraged equality between men and women and made contraception easily available. This combination made it possible for women to be happy with smaller families, unlike China where repression governed. The film makes the eminently logical point that the solution to the stranglehold population growth has on our future revolves around persuading humanity to reduce family growth in exchange for enjoying a higher standard of living, including a beautiful world where the loss of biodiversity is no longer threatened.

While this was an urgently needed film, it fails to come to terms with the nature of the economic system that is for unconstrained growth, not only in terms of commodity production, but in the consumer market for the commodities. Just by coincidence, today’s NY Times reported on the slowest decade of population growth in the USA since the 1930s. This is not a good sign for those who live by the values of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Times quotes Ronald Lee, a demographer who said  “This is a big deal. If it stays lower like this, it means the end of American exceptionalism in this regard.” Guess what American exceptionalism means. The right to have five kids and a car for each one.

The film website has a Screening Toolkit & Discussion Guide that is very much worth reading. But the section on the “Financial System” needs a lot of work. It states:

Under any existing financial system it is very difficult to personally reduce one’s consumption. If you choose to stop driving a car, you consume fewer of the resources needed to build and operate it. Without car payments, insurance and gas costs the average American can save approximately $6000 in savings a year. What happens to these savings? It typically gets shifted to other economic or consumptive activities such as taking a vacation by airplane, renting a larger apartment, turning your heat up in the winter or your A/C down in the summer, or just buying more stuff.

These worries are based on the idea that personal choices drive the economic system rather than a 500-year old economic system that is based on the need to generate profits on an ever-expanding basis. It is not the family unit that is the problem. Instead, it is the ability of the bourgeoisie to extract surplus value from workers that limits us from the kind of transformation the filmmakers hope for. If the competition between blocs of capital and nation-states became superseded in the same way feudalism was superseded 500 years ago, the possibilities are endless. For the first time in human history, we will be able to create a world in which every living thing can fulfill its destiny in a real-world version of the Garden of Eden. If not, we will surely perish.

You can find a virtual screening for “8 Billion Angels” here.

While not exactly a Garden of Eden, the biodiversity experiment in Azaba, Spain comes damned close. This village on Spain’s western border is home to an experiment that tries to reverse the long-term despoliation of the land produced by commercial ranching. Nestled among dozens of such ranches, the Campanarios de Azaba Biologica Reserve tries to replicate the rich variety of animals, trees and plants that thrived there about a thousand years ago. About the closest analogy to such a project was the Blackfoot Indian rancher I visited in Montana about 20 years ago, where bison were allowed to roam freely within his property. There was a fence surrounding the land but only meant to keep the animals from wandering onto a road where they might be struck by a car. Additionally, the native grasses of the high plains were allowed to grow once again, the natural food for the bison and that were wall-adapted to the windy and arid conditions.

In Azaba, this approach is taken as well but on a grander scale. Deer were reintroduced into the reserve in order to attract predators like the lynxes and the wolves that kept them from overpopulating the land. Trees once native to the region were also grown in order to attract the birds that disappeared once the land was denuded in order to allow pigs to become a crash crop. Once a natural balance was established, Azaba even attracted buzzards that hadn’t been seen in many years. A dead deer was irresistible to nature’s garbage disposal unit. Regular visits to the reserve by local ranchers has resulted in a rethinking of how they interact with nature. It is obvious that they are Spain’s version of regenerative agriculture.

The documentary was directed by Greta Schiller, best known for “Before Stonewall”. Showing a natural affinity for a film about restoring natural balance, Philip Glass supplied the music. In 1982, he wrote the film score for a documentary titled “Koyaanisqatsi”, which means “life out of balance” in the Hopi language. In the film, three Hopi prophecies are sung by a choral ensemble:

  • If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.
  • Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.
  • A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.

The “qatsi” trilogy that Glass supplied music for are augurs of our doom. “The Land of Azaba” is a prophesy of a better world but one that is only possible through political struggle.

The film is now available as VOD at Kino Now

April 17, 2021

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Filed under: african-american,art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Yesterday, “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” opened at the Film Forum in New York, the Laemmle in Los Angeles, and through Kino-Lorber’s Virtual Cinema network across the country. Traylor was a self-taught Black artist born on a small-scale slave plantation in Alabama in 1853 who did not make his first drawing until 1939, when at the age of 86, he produced over a thousand in just over three years. He died in 1948. Unlike a young artist professionally trained who comes to New York or Los Angeles in their early 20s to “make it”, Traylor only created such works out of some deep longing in his soul and arguably to make sense out of a life that was that of the prototypical southern slave and then sharecropper. Like William Blake or Vincent Van Gogh, the drawings he created were tantamount to being dictated to him by some divine presence.

In telling Traylor’s story, director Jeffrey Wolf and writer Fred Barron also tell the story of the Deep South. If not for his art, Traylor would have died in obscurity. By bringing his story to life, Wolf and Barron bring to life the pains and joy of Alabamans who suffered through slavery, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow. Despite it all, they found ways to express themselves through religion, art and political solidarity. Although obliquely, Traylor’s drawings chronicle that dark history, with many insights into how Black people managed to make the most out of meager circumstances.

The film amounts to a visit to a gallery with Traylor’s art and expert commentary by a deeply informed board of experts, both Black and white. In keeping with the burgeoning cultural renaissance that maps closely to the resistance mounted by Black Lives Matter, Traylor is lauded as a symbol of the refusal to be defined by white society. For the three years he sat on a chair on Monroe Street, the heart of Montgomery, Alabama’s Black neighborhood, where he drew pictures of farm animals, cats, dogs, people dancing, people drinking—never with the intention of making money from them. Homeless at the time, he was taken in by the Monroe Street community and slept on a mattress on the floor of a funeral parlor alongside other homeless men. His daily meals were supplied from a kosher grocery store owned by the Katz family

His work only became known outside of this small world when a white artist named Charles Shannon discovered Traylor on his customary seat outside a fish market. Stunned by the beauty and soul of his work, Shannon not only supplied Traylor with the tools he needed to create his drawings but went on a one-man mission to make the art world in New York recognize Traylor as a unique talent. While grateful to Shannon for his support, Traylor preferred to draw on cardboard that he picked up around the neighborhood. If there was a semi-circular slit in the cardboard, he might have turned that into a smile on the face of one of his subjects.

At the time, a Traylor drawing might have gone for a dollar or two. Now recognized as one of America’s top Black artists, his work is collected by the very wealthy, including William Louis-Dreyfus, Julia’ father. Dreyfus’s foundation has sold Traylor’s work at auctions. In January 2019, “Woman Pointing at Man With Cane” went for a surprising $396,500 at Christie’s. According to her, he “likened Traylor to the greats — the Giacomettis, the Kandinskys.” As for me, I see a similarity to Matisse. Ironically, the image below comes from the cover of a Matisse book called “Jazz”, which of course is just one of Black America’s gift to our nation.

Since so much of the art world is commodified, it is hard to take this sort of business seriously. Perhaps the greatest value that comes out of his recognition was a scene at the conclusion of the film when all of his ancestors come to the erection of a headstone at his unmarked grave in Montgomery. The NY Times’s Roberta Smith paid tribute to him at the ceremony. Smith, who once called Traylor one of America’s greatest artists, told his gathered relatives: “It is not an overstatement to state that Bill Traylor was an American original and that his body of artwork that he left behind will remain an American treasure.”

April 16, 2021

WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,VOD/Streaming — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm


In the late 70s, I worked for a consulting company in New York called Automated Concepts Inc., mostly known in the industry as ACI. The CEO was a guy named Fred Harris who was well-liked by the staff, including me. It was also common knowledge that Fred used to attend EST workshops, where he supposedly learned the skills he needed to become a successful businessman.

EST stood for Erhard Seminars Training that was a mixture of founder Werner Erhard’s ersatz Eastern religious mysticism and Dale Carnegie type lessons on how to become a “success” in business. While certainly cultish, it was by no means as bad as Scientology. Fred used to take me out to dinner from time to time, mostly to be able to chat with someone who didn’t fit the mold of the propellor-heads who worked for him.

Even as the 60s/70s radicalization was dying out, the New Age lingered on in the corporate world as the idea of leveraging economic success with spiritualism proved seductive. With some leftists like Rennie Davis jumping the radical ship, it was the perfect place for them to land. You could simultaneously “make it” and feel superior to the grubbiness of American society. After becoming a disciple of Guru Maharaj Ji, Davis created the Foundation for a New Humanity, a technology development and venture capital company specializing in new technology.

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March 16, 2021

Genocide and Survival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

I moderated this panel discussion this afternoon. I think it went very well.

March 12, 2021

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2021

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm


Starting next Monday and ending on Sunday March 21st, the Socially Relevant Film Festival will present dozens of films through a virtual theater. Like last year, the pandemic has had an impact not only on this festival but all theaters in New York that cater to leading edge independent work. The big commercial theaters like AMC have opened under conditions of social distancing but the best leading-edge houses like Film Forum are streaming only. On the plus side, people everywhere will be able to see SR Festival films for $7 each, with a festival ticket available for $75. If you need any motivation to see one or all the films and have also found yourself appreciating films I recommended on CounterPunch, let me repeat my testimonial to the SR Film Festival in 2015. I would only add the words “unending economic crisis and pandemic”:

I had an epiphany: “socially relevant” films have a higher storytelling quotient than Hollywood’s for the simple reason that they are focused on the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and plight we can identify with. With a commercial film industry increasingly insulated from the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, it is only “socially relevant” films that demand our attention and even provide entertainment after a fashion. When the subjects of the film are involved in a cliffhanging predicament, we care about the outcome as opposed to the Hollywood film where the heroes confront Mafia gangsters, CIA rogues or zombies as if in a video game.

The four documentaries s under review below constitute just a tiny minority of the festival offerings. As is universally the case, I found all of them compelling. Except for the last, they deal with issues close to my heart and I suspect that they will be close to yours as well.

The Boys Who Said NO! (Monday, March 15, 4:00 PM)

Directed by Judith Ehrlich, who made the superlative “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” in 2009, the film is a history of the anti-draft movement that began in 1964 and lasted until 1972. While focused on the civil disobedience wing of the antiwar movement, it also serves as a terrific overview of the war and a reminder of why people my age were willing to go to prison for up to five years for burning a draft card or joining a “subversive” organization and risk careers because of a COINTELPRO. Hoover’s FBI provocations even caught me in its web.

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March 9, 2021

The People vs Agent Orange

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Just by coincidence, the documentary “The People Vs. Agent Orange” that opened on March 6th in virtual theaters could have easily been released to coincide with International Women’s Day that is celebrated on March 8th. The film is a profile of two women who have dedicated their lives to terminating the use of a deadly chemical herbicide that cost the lives of both Americans and Vietnamese. You might rightly assume that the Americans were GI’s serving in Vietnam like Leo Cawley, an economist who hosted “Fearful Symmetry” on WBAI-FM in the late 80s—the best program on a network that has lost its way. Leo died of complications from a bone-marrow transplant, the after-effects of being exposed to Agent Orange when he was a marine in Vietnam.

But you didn’t have to be in Vietnam to get sick or die from Agent Orange. Unbelievably, after its use was banned in 1971, it eventually was sprayed by the millions of gallons in Western Oregon upon the soil that once held millions of trees. After they were cut down, Agent Orange was used to kill the weeds left behind as an aid to reforestation.

Around that time, a woman named Carol Van Strum moved close to the forest with her four young children in a kind of “back to nature” retreat so common in the 60s and 70s as people my age sought a healthy and more spiritual life. Not long after building a house and a barn for the animals she was raising, the children began to complain about various illnesses that remained a mystery. It was only after driving her car closer to the clear cut forest that she noticed a sickly odor. Suspecting the worst, she took samples from the soil and water, sent it off to a lab, and finally learned that entire area was drenched with Agent Orange, whose main toxin is called dioxin. The EPA, which tends to give back-handed support to corporations like Dow Chemical that manufacture it, categorizes it as a carcinogen. As soon as she discovered the source of her children’s ailments, as well as others living near the forest, she went on a crusade against the corporations and the “experts” who sanctioned the poisonous herbicide.

One of these experts was Mike Newton, a Professor of Forest Ecology at Oregon State University College in Corvallis, OR, who labeled Dioxin as harmless in an article titled “I’ve Had More Exposure To Agent Orange Than Anyone: Here’s What I Know” that can be read on the American Council on Science and Health website. There you will find other pearls of wisdom such as “Prominent Anti-GMO Activist Changed His Mind After Learning The Science” and “(Nuclear) power to the people!”.

The film’s other fearless heroine is Tran To Nga, who is a septuagenarian like Van Strum. She comes from a family that opposed both the French and American colonizers, first as leaders in the Viet Minh and then with the NLF. Nga was in the Vietnamese forests when American planes were showering them with Agent Orange. As a result, her first-born child died in infancy. Her health has been affected as well. Long after the war ended, her body contains traces of Dioxin that some scientists view as much of a threat to human health for generations as plutonium.

She is now suing the American chemical industry for poisoning her in Vietnam – a lawsuit she filed in 2014 against the corporations that produced and sold the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. The suit includes U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by the German conglomerate Bayer.

The film was co-directed by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna. In the press notes, the directors state:

Documents are a leitmotif.  Storms, rain and flowing surface water are a recurring visual theme that evokes the lethal dioxin run-off and dioxin contamination.   Similar images tie together the contamination of Vietnam and America’s Pacific Northwest as helicopters spray the ancient mangrove forests of Vietnam and Oregon’s majestic conifers. The scenes of the deformed and handicapped Vietnamese child victims, difficult as they are to watch and as sensitively as we try to present them, are a stark testimony to the film’s core message. We chose not to shy away from images the world might rather not see. They are indelible evidence of corporate greed and man’s inhumanity to man.

I doubt I will see a documentary this year that is more powerful and more urgent than this one.

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