Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 25, 2017

Menashe

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

Opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday (locations are here), “Menashe” is an extraordinary film on a number of levels. To start with, it is the first Yiddish-language film in nearly 70 years. The earlier films catered to Eastern European immigrants who were interested in being entertained just like English-speaking audiences but in their native language. As such, the plots were often fairly conventional with at least one Western that might remind you of “Johnny Guitar”.

Since the audience for “Menashe” will likely be people who do not speak Yiddish, there are subtitles. Indeed, the only people who speak and read Yiddish nowadays, except for scholars, are the Hasidic Jews who live in Brooklyn and who do not go to movies, watch television or even go on the Internet. As the Jewish version of the Salafist sect in the Muslim world, the Hasidim are authoritarian-minded religious zealots who live in an insular, male-dominated society.

As it happens, that is exactly the world that is portrayed in “Menashe”, which has a nonprofessional cast of Hasidim that took considerable risks in taking part in a film that while being respectful toward their traditions challenges some of their key practices. That indeed constitutes the central drama of the film. Menashe is a man in his late 30s who is attempting to raise his 10-year old son Rieven by himself after his wife has died. However, the sect he belongs to will not permit single parenting. A full year after her death, he is under intense pressure from his brother-in-law Eizek and religious authorities to turn Rieven over to Eizek.

While Rieven prefers his loving father to the cold and remote uncle, he is savvy enough to understand that Menashe can barely take care of himself, let alone keep their family going after the death of his mom. Since there are strictly segregated sex roles in Hasidic families, Menashe has little idea of how to do what his wife once did. So breakfast now for Rieven might consist of a piece of cake and a cola drink. When he is preparing a dinner for the day of his wife’s memorial, he has to call on a neighbor to find out how to make a kugel, an egg noodle dish that is a Hasidic staple and that he burns.

When Rieven tags along with his father for a male-only drinking and singing party, he is appalled to see his father down three shots of vodka in rapid succession and obviously become tipsy. When his father isn’t looking, Rieven grabs his cell phone and calls Eizek to be rescued from Menashe who lashes out as his son as a snitch the next day.

Like John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever”, Menashe has a low-paying job as a clerk in a retail store—in his case a small supermarket owned by a fellow Hasid. He owes his landlord back payments on rent and is constantly hitting up his boss for loans. In the first hint that the film is not romanticizing Hasidic life, Menashe argues with his boss about selling unwashed lettuce to a Hasidic housewife, a violation of strict Jewish dietary laws. He is told that the store’s profits are more important than following scripture.

Throughout the film, there are other signs of fissure inside the tightly circumscribed Hasidic world. In a visit to Eizek to pick up his son, Eizek’s daughter is heard complaining about why she can’t go to college. There are also arguments about why Hasidic women cannot drive a car. These are disputes that are going on right now in Hasidic neighborhoods and as the case in Saudi Arabia, there are voices for reform pitted against the hardliners. Despite the film’s bold attempt to address these conflicts, its main purpose is to reveal the daily rhythms of Hasidic life from the recitations of prayers during mealtime to dates arranged by a matchmaker.

The film was directed by Joshua Weinstein, a secular Jew who has only made documentaries in the past. The script was co-written by Alex Lipschultz, a secular Jew like the director, and Musa Syeed, the son of Kashmiri immigrants.

The story of how the film originated is told in a January 18, 2017 Los Angeles Times article titled How did a Sundance filmmaker shoot a scripted movie in the insulated world of New York’s Hasidim? I urge you to read the entire article but this excerpt should give you an idea of the challenges that faced Weinstein:

Weinstein, who attended a Conservative Jewish day school in suburban New Jersey, knew little of these groups growing up. He makes his living as a cinematographer, often on far-flung documentaries. But as he walked through the Hasid-rich Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park earlier this week, he spoke of his inspiration for the movie. In 2014 he had just completed a series of difficult shoots involving subjects such as poor villages in India and end-of-life care in the U.S. A more humanist story, in his own backyard, seemed appealing.

Without even knowing what story he wanted to tell, he began hanging out in Borough Park, bringing his notepad to the streets, stores and synagogues of this bustling neighborhood, often wearing a large black yarmulke to blend in. (Thank God for hipster filmmaker beards.) He also connected with several members of different Hasidic communities who’d left but retained roots in it, and linked up with a Chabad-affiliated casting agent who could bridge two worlds.

Matters would soon go awry. Would-be performers would sign on and drop out, realizing that it wasn’t worth the fallout at their synagogue or children’s school. Even now, Weinstein has declined to reveal the names of nearly all the actors apart from Lustig, knowing they could face blowback from the tight-knit community.

Financing was tricky too — money came from sources in the larger Jewish community, but in dribs and drabs. Weinstein would shoot for a few days or weeks at a time, put down his camera, go back to his day job, raise money, and then return to production. (The film was shot over a period of nearly two years.)

Locations would also fall through, as some store owners would get cold feet, fearing negative communal publicity.

“That’s the supermarket we shot in,” Weinstein said, as he gestured to a large store on a major thoroughfare. “Well, one of them. We got kicked out of four supermarkets, I think. They all form one supermarket in the movie.”

Meanwhile, only a small percentage of the people who came in to read for parts had even seen movies — and even then they tend to be locally sourced “kosher” recordings, low-budget productions with spiritual messages. Some had honed their chops at so-called “Purim Spiels,” a kind of Hasidic Chitlin Circuit of seasonal skits centered on the springtime masquerade holiday. Still, those were big, broad comedies — not exactly useful for a lo-fi drama. Weinstein asked performers to enact stories or behaviors from their own lives, wrote scenes around them, then fit them into the script.

Key to the film was Lustig. A member of the Skver sect, the 38-year-old had stirred up minor celebrity — and controversy — in his community after posting a series of slapsticky home videos on YouTube. Weinstein met Lustig and was struck by his talent and back story. Lustig had moved to London when he married his wife, a Hasidic Brit, around 2000. His wife would die several years later, and Lustig returned to New York with his then-4-year-old son. Like the widower character he plays, a family member had sought to keep custody of his son. Weinstein heard the tale and built his movie around it. Then he convinced the Hasid to take a starring role.

“I don’t feel I’m being rebellious,” said Lustig, as he waited in the lobby at a pre-festival reception in Manhattan that evening, in his trademark beard and conservative garb. “I just think if someone has talent — if God gives you talent — because you’re a Jew you’re not allowed to use it? It doesn’t make sense.”

Ilan Halevi wrote an authoritative Marxist study titled “A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern, history of the Jews” that places the Hasidic movement in the context of economic and social dislocations of 19th century Europe:

There is one area where Hasidism not only did not challenge orthodoxy, but outbid the rabbinical discourse: the crucial area of the cleavage Jews and non-Jews. The eschatological justification of difference as essential. Difference was one of the constantly recurring themes of rabbinical Judaism: Separation (havdalah) was a key concept. God separated Israel from among the Nations and this extraction was of an ontological nature:

‘Like day from night, like the sacred from the profane.’ Talmudic law pushed the horror of the mixing of species to the prohibiting any grafting of vegetable species. Kabbalistic literature was full of such expressions of national pride and messianic particularism. But the intellectual practice of the Mediterranean Kabbala could, through exegesis, lead to heretical questionings of this basic distinction, which cannot simply be reduced to the divine guarantee of the ethnic superiority chosen group. The rabbinical caste, indeed, was dependent on it for relations with the princely rulers and the stratum of intermediaries. The weight of this dual relationship tempered the cosmological tribalism of the Law. It had even, under the tolerant Islam of the Abbassids, allowed this tribalism to harmonize its language with the surrounding civilization, which was itself fascinated by Greek Reason.”

Nothing like this, no modification of rabbinical ethnicism was at work in universe of the Hasidim: the fact was that the persecution of the community was occurring in conditions that were unique in the history of this Law. The de facto separation of the Shtetl from the surrounding society, a separation that was not only religious and social, but linguistic and spatial, found in this the theological weapons it needed to assert itself. While postponing to an indefinite future the hopes for a political messiah, Hasidism also expressed, by its outright denial of time and place, the historical subjectivism of the Shtetl which could later fuel the growth of Jewish nationalism.

The internal crisis of the Shtetl, whose roots are to be found in the crisis of Polish feudalism, was exacerbated and radically aggravated. The domain of Polish sovereignty was shrinking rapidly. A kingdom that had stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea grew smaller and smaller as around it tsarist Russia, the Hapsburg empire and the German states grew larger and larger. The Polish question became the European question and centuries-old Polish Jewry saw its territory carved up among several states Austria, which took Galicia, lightened the conditions of Jews there: but Russia, having seized the Ukraine and Byelorussia, oppressed them there, said Lenin, ‘more harshly than the Negroes’. The Napoleonic conquest, short as it may have been, precipitated the disintegration, inducing a general upheaval in the empires of the centre and east. Following the French occupation, the whole map of the region was transformed. The new frontier of Austria and Russia, which shared the whole of what remained of Poland in 1815, cut the Ashkenazi world in two, divided the dynasties of Hasidic rabbis, and determined new sub-problematics. The sociological unity of Ashkenazi Judaism was beginning to fracture.

These upheavals deepened in the 20th century and at their nadir plunged the Hasidic population into Hitler’s concentration camps, where they died alongside their secular relatives. After WWII came to an end, they relocated to America, led by their Rabbis. When they came here, not only were they in a state of shock but were not sure how they would relate to American society.

At first they did not adopt the familiar Hasidic garb. The men were clean shaven and both men and women wore normal clothing. The only thing that made them stand out were their tattoos, which they received in concentration camps. I recall seeing them up in the Catskill Mountains in the early ’50s. The assimilated Jews referred to them as “the refugees.” I remember how shocking the tattoos seemed to me at the time. No Jew was supposed to get a tattoo because it meant that you couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Jewish religious codes dictated that you had to leave the world in the same way that you came into it. The only tattooed Jews I knew were merchant marines who got them when they were on a drunken binge in some port.

Eventually the Hasidic leaders made an interesting decision which goes against the grain of the American melting pot. They decided to recreate the Hasidic world in urban New York. During the 1950s, when there was enormous pressure to assimilate, when xenophobia was at an all-time high under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when anti-Semitism was expressed openly around the Rosenbergs trial, the Hasidim made the decision to reject American culture and society. They would create an enclave of everything that was “non-American” within the American heartland.

Not only did they decide to look non-American, they decided to reject the temptations of American success. Hasidic youth were directed not to go to college, since worldly temptations existed there. Also, during a time of enormous popularity for television and movies, they rejected both as impious. Most Hasidic families are tightly constrained by economic duress. When you have 10 to 12 children–a typical family size–and the breadwinner is a truck-driver or clerk like Menashe in a Hasidic-owned business, food and lodging expenses alone are onerous.

I have only gotten to know one Hasidic person in my life, and then only on a casual basis. This was Joe, a free-lance computer programmer I used to work with at Metropolitan Life. He had 9 kids and lived in a housing project. He said that it was extremely rare to see a Hasidic computer programmer like him because you generally needed a college education. He got into the field when this wasn’t necessary. He was a very likable guy with a sense of humor. He made no attempt to proselytize me. If anything, I was more of a nuisance to fellow employees because of my Trotskyist politics.

The Hasidim are a complex subject. On one hand they evoke admiration for their steadfast refusal to blend in. It was this stubborn “un-Americanism” that appealed to Philip Roth. One of the most memorable stories in “Goodbye Columbus” is about the resistance of assimilated Jews in a suburban town to the presence of a Hasidic yeshiva. The main character goes through an identity crisis/nervous breakdown in the course of the fight and decides to don a Hasidic black robe and parade through the town’s main street to everybody’s shock.

On the other hand, their exclusionism when mixed with power politics can lead to some highly toxic chauvinism. The clashes with blacks in Brooklyn and with Palestinians in the Mideast indicate how the historical pariah and underdog can become the oppressor given sufficient military and economic clout.

July 21, 2017

Taxi Searchers

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

I had never made the connection between John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” but found myself saying “of course” after Stewart pointed out that both involve anti-heroes trying to “rescue” women who don’t really feel any such need. Another important insight found in Taxi Searchers is their proximity in time to two important reversals of imperial fortune. Ford’s film was made just two years after the French were defeated in Vietnam and Scorsese’s came out just a year after the Vietnamese kicked the imperialists out once again.

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July 20, 2017

Midnight Return

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 11:00 pm

Opening at the Laemmle theater in Los Angeles tomorrow, “Midnight Return” is a documentary about the narrative film “Midnight Express” that came out in 1978 and which was based on the actual escape from a Turkish prison by Billy Hayes, a hash smuggler. I saw the film that year and was shocked by the brutality of prison life, the sadism of everybody involved in the judicial and penal system, and walked out of the theater persuaded—like most people—that the Turks were monsters.

Writer-director has a lengthy background in soap operas, something that might have habituated her to extract the maximum amount of melodrama in tale that needs none. It is a remarkable tale of how an American hippie from Long Island was arrested in the Istanbul airport with 4.4 pounds of hashish taped to his midsection in October, 1970. At the time, Istanbul, like Kabul, was a magnet for many people my age who were looking to elevate themselves spiritually either with or without drugs. Most people left Istanbul with a gram or two of hashish but Billy Hayes clearly hoped to make a living out of drug dealing for the time being. What he didn’t anticipate was stepped up security for terrorism, which was triggered by the PLFP’s hijacking of a jumbo jet a month earlier. When he was being patted down by airport security, they immediately concluded that he was packing explosives rather than hashish.

Hayes was sentenced to four years in prison but three weeks before his release, the high court in Ankara reviewed his case and decided to re-sentence the 27-year old kid to life in prison. Even before his escape, Hayes had become a cause célèbre internationally with the NY Times publishing a lengthy article about the need to be wary of repressive drug laws overseas.

Once he learned that he would have to spend the rest of his life in prison, Hayes began plotting his escape from an island prison that was as isolated as Alcatraz. In a daring “midnight express”, he commandeered a rowboat and fled to safety across the border into Greece.

Once back in the USA, he was approached by publishers to tell his story but they considered such a blockbuster that the contract stipulated a 3-month schedule. It was clear that they saw a movie deal in the works. They were correct. Just after they were finished, they were approached by British producer David Puttnam of “Chariots of Fire” fame and fellow British director Alan Parker, who had a previous career in advertising.

They hired an American named Oliver Stone to write the script, his first major job that led to an academy award and the launching of his career in Hollywood. While his screenplay was intensely dramatic, it was also a racist hatchet job on the Turks that will remind you of how Arabs have been portrayed in more recent films. Besides making every single Turk look like a fat, sadistic misanthrope, Stone introduced fictional elements that made an already sensational story go into orbit. Instead of writing a climax that portrayed Hayes’s quite dramatic escape on a rowboat, he had him killing a guard and running off unnoticed. It seems that the producer was okay with this since his budget would not accommodate filming on the open waters. One of the signature moments of the film has Hayes denouncing the Turks after the life sentence had been handed down. Played by Brad Davis, his character calls the Turkish nation a bunch of pigs.

Stone, who certainly knows how to write starkly dramatic confrontations between good and evil in films such as “Platoon”, never thought much about the consequences of his script. Interviewed for the film, he says he regrets the consequences on Turkish society (tourism went into steep decline after the film was released) but—shrugging his shoulders—said it “was only a movie”.

That didn’t sit right with the real William Hayes who felt guilty about the demonization of the Turks and sought ways to become reconciled. Eventually, he made it back to Turkey and tried to set things right—thus the title of the film “Midnight Return”.

There are some problems with the film as might be expected from a first-time director but the story itself compensates for that. Angelenos, put this one down on your calendar.

 

Clancy Sigal (1926-2017)

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

I just learned on Facebook from Clancy Sigal’s wife Janice that he has died. Born in 1926, he was an important voice of the left and well known to CounterPunch readers for his many contributions over the years.

Although I never met Clancy in person and regret not having done so, I considered him a real friend like others I have met and communicated with through email and Facebook. It was Clancy who initiated contact with me 14 years ago over a cringe-worthy matter. I had written a hatchet job on a film titled “Frida” about the artist Frida Kahlo that must have gotten under the screenwriter’s skin:

When I write film reviews, I try to apply the dictum of my late father who used to say, “If you can’t say something good about a person, say nothing at all.” I made an exception last week for “The Quiet American”, which I regarded as a disappointment both in terms as an adaptation of Greene’s novel and the novel itself.

Now I turn to an all-out disaster, although like “The Quiet American” it received rather favorable reviews when it came out. “Frida” is a really stupid biopic based on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and feminist icon who was married to Diego Rivera, the famed muralist. Since it touches on modern art and includes Leon Trotsky as a character, two subjects close to my heart, it is necessary for me to address the profound injustice done to them and to the rather interesting personality of Kahlo herself, who is reduced in this film to a cursing, drinking and brawling eccentric whose motivations seem driven more by her sexual/reproductive organs than her brain.

The screenwriter was Clancy Sigal.

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July 19, 2017

The Fencer

Filed under: Film,sports,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, “The Fencer” is an Estonian-language film made in 2015 by Finns that tells the story of a fencing instructor named Endel Nelis who led an underdog team of children to victory in a competition held in Leningrad in the early 50s. In doing so, he took considerable risks since he had been drafted into the Estonian contingent of the Nazi army after Hitler invaded Estonia. Torn between self-preservation and dedication to his students, he chooses them. There was a real person named Endel Nelis who died in 1993 but the film’s plot takes liberties with his story. There is no evidence that he was wanted by the KGB even though Estonians paid dearly for being dragooned into Hitler’s killing machine. While the film has a fictional narrative, there is a larger truth about the USSR and Estonia that I will address after saying a few words about this altogether stirring film.

As a genre, “The Fencer” has a lot in common with both documentary and narrative films I have seen about kids from poverty-stricken circumstances winning chess tournaments, especially “Dark Horse” that came out the same year as “The Fencer”. “Dark Horse”, a New Zealand film, was about a troubled Maori man named Genesis Potini who trained Maori children to compete and win in chess tournaments against children from elite schools. “The Fencer” will also remind you of “The Karate Kid” since fencing and karate are both one-on-one combat sports.

However, the focus is mostly on Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) who has arrived in the poor and rural village of Haapsalu, Estonia from Leningrad in order to avoid detection by the Soviet police. He interviews with the principal of the local school for a sports instructor position that he hardly looks forward to. The gym lacks equipment and the children are not very athletic. In an early scene, 1 out of 5 boys run around vaulting equipment rather than leap over it. When Nelis decides to take them out skiing, the principal informs him that the skis are currently being used at a military base for training.

Missing the fencing competition he excelled at in Leningrad, he begins working out with a fencing foil on his own in the school’s gym in his spare time only to be discovered by a pre-teen girl named Marta who becomes totally fixated on his balletic moves.

Can you teach me to do that, she asks. Finally discovering something that might motivate his students, Nelis begins a fencing class that starts out on the most elementary basis. The children are lined up like they were recruits in basic training and put through the abc’s of fencing—except without a weapon. Once he realizes that they are determined to become fencers, he takes them into a nearby forest where they cut down branches that are the length of a fencing foil and equips them with an ersatz handle.

The film includes a romance between Nelis and the school librarian who stands behind his work, even though that puts her at odds with the principal who regards fencing as “feudal”. In a PTA type meeting, he urges the parents to support his decision to drop the program using Stalinist rhetoric about the “needs of the proletariat”. The grandfather of Nelis’s star student stands up to remind him that Karl Marx was a fencer when young.

“The Fencer” is an old-fashioned film with a script that borders on the melodramatic. What makes it compelling is the performances by the leading characters and enough of the actual art of fencing to carry you along. In plucky underdog films such as this, you can surely expect a happy ending.

As someone who had just finished a survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, I found myself wondering about the historical backdrop for the film. As I had mentioned in my review of “Katyn”, how was it possible for the USSR to organize the execution of 22,000 Polish officers for the crime of being officers? By the same token, what kind of justice is it to put men in concentration camps who had been forced to fight on the side of the Nazis? In a key scene between Nelis and his librarian lover, he tells her that he managed to flee from the army not long after being drafted without being caught. The other men in the unit, who were friends and neighbors from Estonia, were not so lucky. They were apprehended and killed.

According to Wikipedia, the majority of Estonian men volunteered to join the Nazi military and comprised a 70,000 strong force. An Estonian Legion was led by Franz Augsberger, a high-ranking German SS commander. In a key battle between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Battle of Narwa in January, 1944, Estonian soldiers were key to holding off the Red Army. Soviet scorched earth tactics helped to keep Estonia in the Nazi camp. Two months later, Soviet bombers attacked the capital city of Tallinn and left 40 percent of the homes burned to the ground.

If your knowledge of Estonia is based on these bare facts, you would tend to regard its citizens as a reactionary mob despite what is depicted in “The Fencer”. Indeed, whenever I heard about Estonia in the 1960s, it was always written off as hotbed of fascism in the same way as Ukraine, another Nazi ally supposedly. But like Ukraine, Estonia was not reflexively predisposed to anti-Communism. In some ways, writing Estonians off as “bad seeds” reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s argument that Germans were innately anti-Semitic.

Like Poland, Estonia was ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After forcing the Estonian government to accept Soviet military bases and 25,000 soldiers on its soil, the country quickly came under total Soviet control when an additional 90,000 Soviet soldiers were sent in as reinforcements. A puppet government was installed and a Red flag replaced the Estonian flag over the nation’s capital. Shortly afterwards, tribunals were set up to try “enemies of the people” against a backdrop of demonstration elections that recorded a 92.8% preference for the Communist Party, the only one on the ballot of course. Economically, the country was transformed overnight. Everything, including small shops, was nationalized and trade with the West came to an end.

During the first year of Soviet occupation over 8,000 people, including most of the country’s leading politicians and military officers, were arrested and 2,200 of those arrested were executed on the spot in Estonia. The rest were sent to prison camps in the USSR, from which very few returned. 8,000 doesn’t sound like very much but in 1939 Estonia had a population of 1,122,000, just a bit larger than San Jose, California. Can you imagine the trauma suffered by such a city if 8,000 of its residents were killed for no other reasons than being “enemies of the people”? Or think of it this way, if Estonia had a population as large as that of the USA’s today, the proportionate number of victims would have been 2,400,000.

Considering the fact that the Nazis had never killed a single Estonian until it invaded the country on its way to the USSR, it is understandable why many young men who were politically naïve might have seen them as the lesser evil.

Last Thursday, RT.com published an article titled “‘Perversion of history’: Russian officials blast NATO film glorifying Nazi collaborators” that attacked an 8-minute film produced by NATO about the Forest Brothers, a Baltic-wide guerrilla movement that fought alongside the Nazis against the Red Army. Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova wrote: “Don’t remain indifferent, this is a perversion of history that NATO knowingly spreads in order to undermine the outcome of the Nuremberg Tribunal and it must be cut short!” She also correctly stated that many of the Forest Brothers were former Nazi collaborators and members of the Baltic Waffen SS.

The problem with much of RT.com reporting is that it operates in a time-tunnel that begins with, for example, Nazi alliances with Estonian nationalists but not with the secret protocols that gave the USSR free rein to seize control of Estonia and murder tens of thousands of its citizens only because it saw that as necessary for securing a buffer against the West, which at that time did not include Adolf Hitler.

As difficult as it is for some people on the left to understand, the best defense of the USSR was working-class solidarity across borders, not the Metternichian foreign policy of Stalin in the past and of Putin’s Russia today. After WWII, Stalin retained control of the Baltic States with the full approval of the USA but as the Cold War began, they began to be courted by the CIA as possible allies. Instead of maintaining its domination of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Kremlin should have granted them the right to self-determination and offered them total political and economic support as independent states. That, in fact, was the original policy of the Soviet Union even though it is virtually unknown to people who rely on RT.com.

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

–V.I. Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”

 

 

July 17, 2017

George Romero (1940-2017): zombie politics

Filed under: Film,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

When “Night of the Living Dead” premiered in 1968, antiwar activists and socialists like me saw it mostly as escapist fun—a film like “The Wild Bunch” that would get our minds off the war and the difficulties of building the left in the USA. It was to the credit of documentary filmmaker Rob Kuhns to have discovered how close George Romero was to us politically. His “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Amazon video, connects his film to the political climate in the USA in a break with the zombie genre.

Before Romero’s film, the zombie was featured in movies set in Haiti or some other Caribbean Island far removed from reality. It was Romero’s breakthrough to make the film unrelentingly realistic, including scenes of zombies eating entrails or lurching toward their prey in that characteristic gait. Also, unlike the traditional zombie movie set in Haiti, Romero made a movie about a society in advanced disintegration fully aware that it reflected what was happening in the streets of Newark or Detroit.

Romero got his start making commercials in the Pittsburgh area. Even then he was willing to push the envelope, making the first beer commercial actually showing people guzzling down a drink. After he worked on a film that showed Mr. Rogers, the benign host of a PBS children’s show, getting ready for a tonsillectomy, he was inspired to do a zombie movie since Mr. Rogers’s procedure struck him as gruesome rather than reassuring. Before going down that road, Romero considered doing an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring”. Fortunately, he saw that as unmarketable and moved onto a more feasible project that would make his mark as a director.

Romero is the star of Kuhn’s film, a likeably self-effacing and witty figure. He talks about how the film was cast, drawing from local personalities including many of the clients of his advertising agency who worked for free and had a blast doing so.

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as Rick Grimes, the sheriff in “Walking Dead”, but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre. In the final scene Jones’s character is killed by a police-led posse that is as not that much different from vigilante squad just as the case today with an epidemic of cop killings.

After making a series of likable but inconsequential films for the next 37 years, Romero returned once again to the zombie genre with a film that I regard as his best and most political. As a blend of horror movie escapism and social commentary, his 2005 “Land of the Dead” succeeded wildly. (Available for $2.99 on Youtube linked above.) Romero audaciously used the conflict between the living and the ‘undead’ as a metaphor for the contradictions of late capitalist America but with sympathies for the zombie rather than those who were “protecting” private property.

The living dwell in a gated and heavily fortified city that is patrolled by centurions who have not earned the right to permanent residence there themselves. The centurions occasionally organize themselves into death squads and make forays into zombie territory where they kill at random and retrieve canned goods and booze for the consumption needs of the urban population. The shops in zombie territory are still staffed by the “stenches” who once worked there but who have only dim memories of their old occupations. An undead gas station attendant might hold up a nozzle but is clueless as to which end of the car it goes into; an undead gardener aimlessly pushes a lawnmower in circles in the middle of the street at midnight, and so on. These are lost souls who no longer fit into the commodity-producing scheme of things. What is worse, they subsist on eating the flesh of the living.

It is no accident that the city featured in the film is none other than Pittsburgh, director George Romero’s home town. This once bustling headquarters of America’s most powerful and prosperous steel companies was one of the first casualties of deindustrialization. It has been transformed into a citadel for service industries staffed by the college educated. The older, run-down working class sections of town that are home to unemployable steelworkers and other blue-collar workers made redundant by the “economic miracle” could easily have served as on-location settings for the zombie strongholds in “Land of the Dead.” (For economic reasons, however, most of the film was shot in Canada.)

Pittsburgh is ruled by Kaufman, a cynical capitalist played by Dennis Hopper. From a high-rise named “Fiddler’s Green” that dominates the city, he spies on the activities of the city’s population through television monitors. If anybody steps out of line, they will be picked up by the centurions, murdered and then dumped into zombie territory. This Pittsburgh has a lot in common with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” another rigidly divided class society.

For that matter, “Land of the Dead” has enough cultural references to provide fodder for a dozen MLA panels. For example, you will find suggestions of “Bladerunner,” “Mad Max” or any of a number of other dystopian films.

The film also hearkens back to earlier classics like the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films, mostly in its capacity to make you feel a degree of sympathy for the monster. In “Land of the Dead,” you can’t escape feeling sorry for the flesh-eating zombies who only mount an assault on Pittsburgh after suffering one death squad raid too many. Led by “Big Daddy,” an African-American zombie (played skillfully and solely through grunting or howling by veteran actor Eugene Clarke) who was a pneumatic drill operator in his previous life and who still wears the coveralls of his trade, they lurch toward the city to take revenge. It is to Romero’s credit that he can nearly make you cheer for this uprising of the flesh-eating dispossessed.

The only thing that stands between Pittsburgh and the advancing zombie army is a heavily armed and armored troop carrier nicknamed Dead Reckoning. It bears a strong resemblance to vehicles on the streets of Baghdad today. Dead Reckoning has been commandeered by Cholo (John Leguizamo), a centurion who seeks revenge against Kaufman for not allowing him to buy an apartment in Pittsburgh. As somebody who has spent some time shopping for a co-op in Manhattan, I can identify with this character. Unless Kaufman turns over millions of dollars in ransom to Cholo and his gang, he will open fire on the city.

Kaufman sends Riley (Simon Baker), Dead Reckoning’s former commander, out to thwart Cholo’s plans and to save the city, which is the source of his wealth. Riley has been jailed for interfering in a gladiator type combat between two zombies that has been staged in a Las Vegas-like casino within the city. He, like the GI’s speaking out against the occupation of Iraq today, is one of the few centurions that has not been completely dehumanized by Kaufman’s system. If Riley and his friends are successful, they plan to hightail it to Canada and leave Kaufman’s madness behind. Obviously, such a plan will resonate with any filmgoer who has taken note of our northern neighbor’s more civilized stance on matters such as gay marriage or the war on terror.

In an interview with Los Angeles Weekly, Romero explains the importance of Pittsburgh:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

For George Romero, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” was “a soap opera with a zombie occasionally”. It is hard for me to argue with that especially since I have a soft spot for nighttime soaps like “The Desperate Housewives” or Spanish television’s “Grand Hotel”. As much as I love George Romero, I think that the show is popular because it is both entertaining and because it is socially relevant, just like “Land of the Dead”.

Since its inception, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four the main characters led by ex-cop Rick Grimes try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and their gated community. The miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.

In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.

The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.

Lately life has begun to imitate art as protestors at the G20 Summit in Hamburg took on the appearance of zombies. One of the event organizers, Catalina Lopez, told Reuters TV: “The goal of our performance today is to move the people in their hearts, to give them the motivation to get politically engaged again. We want to create an image, because we believe in the power of images…we want to motivate people to take part. To free themselves from their crusted shells, to take part in the political process.”

While I have to give them credit for inspired political theater, becoming free from “crusted shells” will finally take place not because of their performance but when capitalist society reaches such a unlivable state that people will be forced out of their routine into the streets by the millions as occurred 50 years ago when I entered radical politics.

July 14, 2017

Chasing Coral

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Richard Vevers was once a very successful advertising executive in London who made a career change by moving to Australia in order to start the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, which creates virtual ocean dives using special 360 degree still cameras to document life on the ocean floor around the world. Not long after he began this project, he began to notice that once-familiar marine life was disappearing at the same time that parts of the Great Barrier Reef were beginning to turn a sickly white. Was there a connection? As a rafter of scientists point out in the Netflix-produced documentary “Chasing Coral” that opened today at the IFC Center in New York, the world’s reefs are virtual nurseries for many fish lower down on the food chain that feed on the vegetation the reefs support. Naturally, the smaller fish get eaten by the larger fish as part of a biosphere that has been around for 10,000 years when the reefs started to materialize out of the tiny polyps that cohered not far from beaches all around the world. The polyps were related to their much larger relatives, the anemones and jellyfish, and were capable of building a limestone shell around itself after the fashion of clams and oysters.

In addition to opening at the IFC, “Chasing Coral” can also be seen on Netflix now. If Netflix has lost the capability of featuring leading edge narrative films, at least they can be given credit for producing important documentaries such as this, “The Ivory Game” (about poaching elephants), “The White Helmets” and Ava DuVernay’s “13th”.

Practically nothing can kill the polyps that exist on the borderline between animal and minerals except a small change in water temperature. So naturally you would expect that climate change is responsible for the death of half the world’s reefs today through “bleaching”, the death knell of millions of polyps that have formed massive colonies going back nearly 10,000 years. Not only will fish be impacted, so will the approximately billion people who depend on them as a source of protein.

“Chasing Coral” features Devers and a cadre of marine biologists setting up time lapse cameras to capture the transformation of reefs over a forty day period. The film is both ravishingly beautiful in its depiction of healthy underwater life and chilling as it illustrates their death. Watching miles of ghostly white reefs is scarier than any science fiction movie you are likely to see this summer.

Jeff Orlowski produced and directed “Chasing Coral”. He was the perfect choice for the job since he had also produced and directed “Chasing Ice” in 2012 that deals with melting glaciers using time-lapse cameras, something that was very much in the news this week as it was reported that a trillion ton ice shelf the size of Delaware had detached itself from Antarctica and began floating away into the ocean. Scientists believe that unless climate change is arrested, all of Antarctica will have floated away as soon as 200 years from now. For the people who rule the USA today and other industrialized countries, that hardly seems worrisome. Their concern is more on their quarterly earnings report.

But as Orlowski’s documentary points out, the life expectancy of coral reefs is thirty years. If a billion people lose a major source of protein, the results will be catastrophic. The urgency of this problem requires people to become informed about the issues, starting with seeing the film either at the IFC or on Netflix.

Five years ago, a book titled “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth” was published. Edited by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis, it warned that films like “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” trafficked in “catastrophism”, a tendency that undermined revolutionary politics by creating a sense of fatalism. In review of the book focused on Yuen’s chapter on global warming titled ‘Catastrophism’ book on environmental movement: a prescription for abstention and defeat, Ian Angus of the Climate and Capitalism website took issue with the author’s attempt to stake out a position so far to the left of people like Al Gore that it risked producing a sectarian abstentionism from mass movements in which such politicians took part. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of problem the antiwar movement faced in the 60s when SDS members disavowed mass protests because a liberal Democrat was a featured speaker.

While not exactly reproducing Yuen’s arguments, I found a Jacobin article by Daniel Aldana Cohen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, succumbing to the same “leftish” moods. Titled New York Mag’s Climate Disaster Porn Gets It Painfully Wrong, it is an attack on an article titled The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells.

Cohen complains that the word capitalism appears only four times in an 8,700 word article but quotes not a single word of the article itself. Unlike him, I think it is a good thing that an article like that appeared in a magazine devoted to sybaritic pleasures such as where to get the best hamburger in NY or how to find discounted Armani jackets.

Apparently Michael Mann has critiqued some of Wallace-Wells’s predictions that he finds overly pessimistic but that does not trouble Cohen as much as the failure of the article to address what he calls “eco-apartheid”. I am not exactly clear on what he means by that but it would seem to be referring to the possibility of the rich being able to build sea walls while the poor in places like Bangladesh drown or starve.

While Wallace-Wells does not offer any sort of political solutions in his article, least of all socialist revolution, it does at least recognize that the poor will suffer most:

It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks.

Maybe a little bit of history will be useful. In the late 50s, an anti-nuclear movement began to take shape largely because young people like me were scared about the possibility of a Third World War, which was much more palpable than the ridiculous articles that appear so frequently on the World Socialist Website. A group called SANE emerged that attracted many students who would begin to develop a radical analysis of American society based on the ruling class’s willingness to act on the basis that it was better to be dead than red. For those who became Marxists, it was activism on anti-nuclear and civil rights issues that were the first steps breaking with hegemonic idea during the Cold War.

David Wallace-Wells’s article might be the first one read by a New Yorker that serves as a wake-up call on the environmental crisis. Yes, it is great that a Jacobin article mentions the word capitalism forty times rather than four but in the final analysis size matters.

 

 

Andrzej Wadja’s Search for Freedom

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 12:26 pm

When Andrzej Wajda died last year at the age of 90 after having just completed “Afterimage”, he was one of the last of the great auteurs of the 60s and 70s, leaving only Jean-Luc Godard (now 86) the sole survivor. Demonstrating their appreciation of his role in this golden age of cinema, the European Film Academy presented Wajda with a lifetime achievement award, only the third director to be so honored after Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. His body of work would be a topic in itself worthy of consideration by CounterPunch readers but beyond his achievements as a filmmaker there is something else that recommends his films, namely their focus on one of the big political questions of our epoch–especially after a full century. What was the impact of the USSR on its own people and those like the Poles living under its control? Widely recognized as an anti-Communist director, he might be a polarizing figure to many who see the geopolitical divide as demanding alignment with the Kremlin—either pre or post-Communism. As such, his work demands attention, however you stand on this question insofar as his reputation and influence will persist long after his death. Was Wajda an enemy of communism or was his mission to create films that transcended narrow ideological considerations?

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July 10, 2017

Risk

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 8:42 pm

On July 22nd, Showtime will be premiering Laurie Poitras’s “Risk”, a deeply flawed and controversial film about Julian Assange that he has described as a “severe threat” to his freedom. Despite Assange’s words, the best way to describe the film is as a study in ambivalence. As the director of a documentary on Edward Snowden (“Citizenfour”), Poitras and Glenn Greenwald made clear that their sympathies were with the whistle-blower. In making what amounted to a companion-piece to that film, Poitras adopted a cinéma vérité style that was punctuated by her own commentary in very small but highly critical doses. The problem is that her negative feelings toward Assange are not exactly supported by the footage, which cover familiar territory. Most importantly, you are left wondering whether she agreed with James Comey and the Hillary Clinton camp that Wikileaks acted as a “cutout” for the Russians who provided hacked emails from the candidate’s campaign that supposedly elected Donald J. Trump.

As highly useful background to the film, a June 29, 2017 Guardian article  hints at why this might have been the case:

While Poitras is no fan of Hillary Clinton, she does question the timing of the Podesta emails (John Podesta was chairman of Clinton’s election campaign), thought to have been hacked by the Russians and published by WikiLeaks in October/November 2016 just before the election.

But the major cause of her disaffection was the charges brought against Assange for sex crimes in Sweden. In one of the more disturbing scenes in the film where Assange was hung on his own petard, he is discussing a PR campaign to help his cause with a Labour Party politician named Helena Kennedy who warns him against referring to a “feminist conspiracy” for his own sake. He shrugs this off and alludes to a “tawdry, radical feminist” plot instigated by a woman who launched a lesbian nightclub. Like Bill Maher and Donald Trump, Assange seems to lack what Freud called the super-ego, a mechanism responsible for conscience. Or it could equally be the case that as Assange built up a cult around himself, he lost the capacity for self-criticism. Considering how the British SWP shot itself in the foot over a leading member’s Assange-like behavior, it appears to be a communicable disease.

Stupid enough to say these things on camera, Assange continued on his bumbling ways throughout. In one of the more grotesque scenes, we see Lady Gaga making a pilgrimage to the cult figure in the Ecuadorian Consulate where she seems a bit put off by his appearance in a suit and white shirt. Pointing to a closet with his piled up laundry, she says he should wear a “dirty, fucking T-shirt” so he’ll look like a rebel. She follows up with questions like “what’s your favorite kind of food”. It’s enough to inoculate you against Gaga, if her awful music wasn’t reason enough.

It seems that Assange has a preference for healthy food since another female sex symbol (erstwhile, admittedly) made another pilgrimage in December 2010 to bring him a vegan meal and words of support. That was Pamela Anderson, the 49-year old former star of “Baywatch” who condemned the “made up sexual allegations” against him.

Another sexual predator who has second billing to Assange in the film is one Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker who was a key lieutenant to Assange and a highly placed technician in the Tor Project that was designed to build a secure communications channel for activists. In June 2016, he was accused of sexual abuse by women working in the Tor Project. Like Assange, he has denied all the charges. Poitras mentions casually in passing that she had been “involved” with Appelbaum.

As might be expected, Assange still has his supporters, especially those who see him as a man on horseback in the geopolitical chess game that pits the West against Russia and its allies. Thomas S. Harrington, a professor of Iberian Studies in Trinity College in Connecticut, wrote a piece for CounterPunch titled “Risk”: a Sad Comedown for Laura Poitras that he described as “self-involved, reachingly [sic] melodramatic and filled with unfounded innuendo.” Harrington concludes that Gandhi was also a pretty awful guy in his own way but steers clear of assessing Assange politically. Since fools rush in where angels fear to tread, we might have expected WSWS.org to take up the fight against “Risk” on political grounds. They opine:

The various critics, wealthy and conservative, hardly make a secret of the fact they perceive Assange to be a disrupter of the social order and political system they hold dear. The most hostile of all are those remnants of the old protest generation, who still perhaps expressed opposition to the Iraq invasion in 2003. What they can never forgive Assange is that, for all his political limitations, he did not fold his tent, like they shamefully did in the mid-2000s, and join the pro-war, pro-imperialist camp.

Did I mention that they describe the sexual charges against Assange as “voiced by a noxious alliance of feminists, pseudo-leftists, establishment media figures, right-wing tabloid scum and various mouthpieces, acknowledged or unacknowledged, for the US State Department and CIA”? Well, at least they are consistent, having written profusely in defense of Roman Polanski when fled the USA to avoid arrest for having sex with a 13-year old girl.

Unlike Poitras, I have no problems with the Russians hacking Democratic Party emails and using Wikileaks as a cutout. If American politicians don’t want to be embarrassed by things they say privately, they’d better think about what they were saying in the first place.

The USA does this sort of thing on a scale that dwarfs Putin. It unleashed the Stuxnet worm on the Iranian computers used in atomic energy research that led to infections of computers in other countries as collateral damage. After the NSA developed malware to be used against its “enemies”, hackers got a copy and used it for a ransomware attack that infected computers used in critical care applications in hospitals around the world. This is not to speak of how it interferes in elections around the world, including Nicaragua when it was governed by the Sandinistas. The NED pumped millions of dollars into their opponents’ election campaigns without even bothering to cover it up. This takes the kind of brass that not even Putin would display.

Poitras’s documentary is very much worth seeing but it doesn’t begin to penetrate into the inner contradictions of Wikileaks that would have been present even if Assange had not been such a flaming asshole and sexual predator. A documentary should be made but not in the cinéma vérité style that suited Poitras’s someone subjective needs.

That documentary should cover matters such as how Wikileaks promoted a dump of hacked emails from Turkey that supposedly exposed wrongdoing by the ruling AKP. It turned out that no such information was present in the emails. Instead, as former Marxism list subscriber Zeynep Tukfeci pointed out, it contained “spreadsheets of private, sensitive information of what appears to be every female voter in 79 out of 81 provinces in Turkey, including their home addresses and other private information, sometimes including their cellphone numbers.”

It would also address Assange’s questionable personnel decisions such as designating Israel Shamir as its spokesman in Russia. Shamir is a disgusting pig who fits neatly into the emerging Red-Brown alliance being consolidated across Europe with generous support from the Kremlin. You have to ask yourself why Wikileaks would want to be associated with someone like Shamir who wrote an article on immigration and race that is filled with nativist trash like this: “In order to defend their policy of destroying society by influx of strangers, they invented and propagated a new blood libel, that of ‘racism’. People who resist the imposition of mass immigration are deemed ‘racists’ and precluded from participation in the scripted television discourse.”

Shamir urges immigrants to defer to the sensibilities of those whose turf they have penetrated: “Admittedly, I never tried to annoy the native inhabitants by playing loud foreign music, practicing strange customs in public, or purposely behaving in offensive ways.” When Shamir wrote a CounterPunch article 5 years ago supporting the Kremlin for cracking down on Pussy Riot for its “offensive” behavior, I answered him in my very first article on CounterPunch. As someone who first discovered himself culturally by reading William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, reading Shamir makes me wonder how such people can ever think of themselves as rebels. For me, the attitudes of people like Shamir remind me nothing more than the ignorant and racist garbage I heard from people in my very backward village that was accurately described once by Karl Marx as “rural idiocy”.

If you really want to understand Assange in political terms, the best place to look is not in the batshit crazy WSWS.org but in his first attempt to participate directly in electoral politics in the name of the Wikileaks Party that ran him for Senate in Australia in 2013. The party had a six-member executive committee that included Assange.

Another member was John Shipton who gave an interview to Sputnik News that sounded very much in line with Israel Shamir. When asked about Russia’s role in Syria, Shipton replied:

The Russian diplomatic skills are a triumph, and with the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, the BRICs last year in Far East and this year Syria and the Ukraine. There is diplomatic triumph second to none, and in our view the Russian President and Foreign Ministry people wish to bring peace to allow development.

But for me the biggest problem with Wikileaks is how it has fostered the growth of conspiracist thinking on the left ever since its inception in 2010. In November, 2006 Alexander Cockburn wrote an article titled “The 9/11 Conspiracists and the Decline of the American Left” that accurately sized up a malaise on the left attributable to the decline of Marxism:

These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatetic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.

What Cockburn neglected to mention, and what has been unfortunately reflected in CounterPunch all too often both under his editorial direction and Jeff St. Clair who succeeded him, is a reliance on the “smoking gun”, which is more often than not a Wikileaks cable from a US policy analyst or diplomat that supposedly proves that the Syrian revolution was hatched in Washington. You don’t need to learn political economy from Marx if you can find a cable that says something to the effect that Assad “has to go” or some such formulation. Also, how much difference is there between the “inside job” analysis on 9/11 and the “false flag” explanations of the two major sarin gas attacks in Syria? Is there that much difference between the WTC controlled demolition nonsense and Seymour Hersh blaming a bomb dropped on fertilizer for the death of 80 people and the wounding of 600 in Khan Sheikhoun?

Even a publishing house that is virtually synonymous with Marxist political economy eroded its own credentials by publishing a book like “The Wikileaks Files: The World According to US Empire” with an introduction by Assange himself. Verso sent me an advance copy of the book that I found totally useless for understanding the US Empire since I tend to prefer the sort of class analysis found in David Harvey or the late Peter Gowan, who was a veteran of a Trotskyist groupuscule when he joined the New Left Review editorial board just like Tariq Ali, who unfortunately has succumbed to conspiracy theory himself.

You can get a flavor of this book by reading professional liberal Robert Naiman’s chapter on Syria that was reproduced on Truth-out in 2015 as “WikiLeaks Reveals How the US Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria, Igniting a Bloodbath”.

Showing much less interest in class relations in Syria than in US State Department cables, Naiman cites one dated December 13, 2006 that was written by William Roebuck, the chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Damascus. Roebuck alluded to “actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send” that will bolster the opposition to Assad, including the Saudis providing media openings to Abdul Halim Khaddam, leader of the opposition-in-exile National Salvation Front.

This and other such Wikileaks material leads Naiman to conclude:

We are told in the West that the current efforts to topple the Syrian government by force were a reaction to the Syrian government’s repression of dissent in 2011, but now we know that “regime change” was the policy of the US and its allies five years earlier.

What’s missing from Naiman’s chronology is the period immediately preceding 2011, when American policy had reversed itself from Bush’s much more aggressive policies. If you look at the two years just before the Arab Spring, there is every indication that Syria had come in from the cold.

On March 26, 2009, Robert Worth wrote an article for the NY Times titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” that was about as far from the spirit of Roebuck’s cable as can be imagined.

Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Today, Syria seems to be coming in from the cold. A flurry of diplomatic openings with the West and Arab neighbors has raised hopes of a chastened and newly flexible Syrian leadership that could help stabilize the region. But Syria has its own priorities, and a series of upheavals here — including Israel’s recent war in Gaza — make it difficult to say where this new dialogue will lead.

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

At the root of these changes is Syria’s alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other major Sunni Arab nations once hoped to push Syria away from Iran through isolation, and now — like President Obama — they appear to be trying sweeter tactics. For the Syrians, the turnabout is proof that their ties with Iran are in fact useful, and accord them an indispensable role as a regional broker. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries “have great stakes in maintaining good relations between Syria and Iran, because at difficult times they will find Syria helping them,” said Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s vice minister of foreign affairs, during an interview here.

The picture accompanying the article speaks louder than a thousand words, including all of those that appeared in Naiman’s stupid article.

Finally, let me conclude with a nod to Chase Madar’s review of “Risk” that appeared in the London Times, which although behind a paywall can be read on Madar’s FB page. Madar is the author of the “The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower” and would never be confused politically with someone like me. Here is a telling excerpt:

Poitras has been filming Assange for more than six years, from his press conferences to his (elective) confinement in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, after Interpol put out a warrant to question him on sexual assault charges in Sweden. She has turned from in-house video­grapher to critical journalist who has fallen out with Assange (though as she tells it in her voiceover, he asks her not to say that they have fallen out). Poitras has now been attacked by Assange’s lawyers for not allowing their client to review the final cut and for putting him at additional risk by bringing the raw footage to the United States where it might be subpoenaed.

The main narrative arc is how Assange went from being an icon of the global Left to becoming – temporarily, and surreally – the saviour of the American Right. “I love WikiLeaks!”, candidate Donald J. Trump grinned at a campaign rally last October when reading from the emails that some hacker had stolen from the Democratic National Committee and passed on to the website. (Trump mentioned or quoted Wikileaks’s Clinton leaks some 160 times in the last month of his campaign.) Assange, once the scourge of the American nationalist Right for publishing classified logs from the Afghan and Iraq wars as well as a quarter of a million classified State Department cables, suddenly became, in eye-rubbingly oneiric scenes, the bosom ally of Fox News media figures such as Sean Hannity.

Assange’s flirtation with the American Right didn’t stop there. His Twitter feed passed on the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a paedophilia ring in the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria and he oxygenated rumours that Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee intern who was murdered in an apparent botched robbery, had been the source of the DNC leaks – and paid for it with his life. This was eagerly taken up and, despite explicit entreaties to stop spreading the rumour from Rich’s grieving family who had to fend off the vigilante “help” of conspiracy loons, the “story” continued. The story of Julian Assange is in some ways a depressing study in how quickly Enlightenment heroes can turn into conspiracy-freak sideshow acts.

July 5, 2017

Four documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Alone among all nations in the Western Hemisphere, Costa Rica has no armed forces. In 1948, the country dissolved the military as part of an ambitious social democratic program that included free medical care and education and that led many to describe it as the Sweden of Central America. And like Sweden, this social democratic showcase was midwifed by a bloody struggle. In Sweden, a general strike in Adalen the rightist government drowned in blood in 1931 so repulsed working people that they voted for the first in a string of socialist governments that defined the “Scandinavian Model”.

In Costa Rica, the decision to dissolve the military was made by a most extraordinary politician whose militias had defeated its rivals in a civil war that was so violent and protracted that you can still see bullet holes here and there in San Jose, the capital city.

All of this is detailed in a film titled “A Bold Peace” that is available from Bullfrog, a distributor of leading edge documentaries. Bullfrog’s primary market is institutional sales but it sells the DVD at a reduced price to activist and grass roots organization. For peace groups and the left, this is a film that would be of enormous value since it demonstrates the benefits that social democracy can deliver, even if they only became possible through armed struggle.

Rafael Calderon was a Roosevelt-styled reformer who won the election in 1942 and proceeded to institute a number of progressive social measures including Social Security, a first for Central America. He had two powerful allies in this enterprise: the Catholic Church and the Communist Party of Costa Rica.

Despite his left-populist goals, Calderon was paternalistic and corrupt, so much so that he antagonized the country’s emerging urban petty-bourgeoisie. They preferred a more modern capitalism that was diversified and less oriented to export agriculture. Calderon’s corruption was not as blatant as Somoza’s but it was just enough to anger many Costa Ricans who found a spokesman in Jose Figueres, the founder of a think-tank called the “Center for the Study of National Problems” in 1948. It was sharply anti-imperialist and thought that Calderon’s export-oriented model ceded too much to the United Fruit Company and other foreign companies. They produced studies that fed into the popular discontent against Calderon.

Contrary to dogmatic Marxist formulas, Figueres had the support of the country’s oligarchs that felt threatened by Calderon’s reforms. In 1948, after Calderon lost the election to a candidate backed by Figueres, the legislature dominated by Calderon’s party overturned the results—thus leading to a civil war that cost the lives of 2,000 Costa Ricans. Fighting on Calderon’s side was the Communist Party, while Figueres’s forces were composed mostly of students and professionals funded by sectors of the bourgeoisie. Figueres sought not only to topple Calderon but to foment revolutions against the big three oligarchs in the region: Batista, Somoza and Trujillo. As should be obvious, attempts to pigeonhole Costa Rican history are doomed.

After taking power, Figueres vowed to continue with Calderon’s social programs and to deepen them under the new Social Democratic party he founded. From that point on, Costa Rica became the bête noire of American imperialism and its allies in the region. Despite the threat they posed, Figueres believed a regular army was not only unnecessary but an institution that could easily transform Costa Rica into just another oligarchy. Instead, he urged the creation of a citizens militia but only during a national emergency—an approach not that different from that of the founding fathers of the USA.

The film presents a detailed account of a period I am deeply familiar with, when President Óscar Arias sought to fend off Reagan’s counter-revolutionary attack on Nicaragua. He relied on diplomacy buttressed by close ties to Western European governments that at the time were much further to the left and that were actually providing most of the desperately needed material aid Nicaragua required.

The last twenty minutes or so of the film deal with the enormous pressures being put on Costa Rica to “get with the program”, which meant agreeing to free trade deals and even backing Bush’s invasion of Iraq as part of the “coalition of the willing”. Costa Rica went along with the first demand but rejected the second. As a willing partner in the Washington Consensus, Costa Rica is being transformed into a poster child for neoliberalism with Walmart stores replacing locally-owned small stores and five star hotels springing up everywhere to lure tourists.

One might quibble with the documentary’s embrace of the current president Luis Guillermo Solis whose election in 2014 had been hailed as if the country had become part of the “pink tide”. He announced, “We need to shift away from … a violence expressed in poverty, in inequality and in the utterly perverse form of corruption.” This is easier said than done unfortunately. Last August, The Tico Times, a Costa Rican daily, reported that his approval rating was lower than any president in the last 38 years.

This is a result of the same malaise affecting every agro-export country in the Global South as well as country’s failed experiment to become a high-tech manufacturing center. In 2014, Intel moved from Costa Rica to Asia in order to take advantage of lower wages. When Solis first began to emerge as an important politician a decade ago, he staked his reputation on opposing CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement just as Alex Tsipras campaigned against Eurozone austerity.

But on May 1, 2017 the Economist reported: “The administration of the president, Luis Guillermo Solís, is committed to capitalising on Costa Rica’s accession to the Dominican Republic-Central America Free-Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) and attracting new foreign investment.” One can accuse Solis of betraying his voters but no more so than any other pink tide politician. When enormous pressure is placed on a government by a worldwide capitalist system that is headed willy-nilly toward a confrontation with working people, it is impossible to expect much different from a left-centrist President. In covering the presidency of Oscar Arias, the film noted that the Costa Rican people were deeply opposed to the FSLN in Nicaragua even though it opposed Reagan’s military intervention even more. It is not out of the question that the Scandinavian model in Costa Rica will be sorely tested in the next big regional upsurge. Let’s hope that an army will not have been created in the meantime since it will surely be used against the people if they decide to take control of their own fate.

Opening at the Quad Cinema in New York on Wednesday, July 19th, and at Laemmle’s Music Hall Movie Theater in Los Angeles on Friday, July 28th, “Santoalla” is a crime melodrama that would have been beyond the ability of even the most imaginative screenwriter of fiction to dream. As is so often the case, documentaries are far more capable of revealing social dysfunction than any narrative film. Santolla, a tiny farming village in the mountains of the Galicia region of Spain, was at the most extreme edges of Spanish society and capable of forcing what appeared to be fairly normal people into a crucible with deadly results.

In 1997 Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, a Dutch husband and wife, came to Santoalla in order to live off the land—not unlike the people who moved to Vermont in the 1970s. They were not interested in starting a commune, only getting away from city life and working with their hands.

By that point, Santoalla had become a virtual ghost town. Like many Spanish farming villages, it had become a victim of competition from larger corporate-based agriculture. When the couple arrived, there was only one family still living there—the Rodríguezes, consisting of an 80-year old retired farmer, his wife and their two fortyish sons still living at home. The older son was the main producer, raising cattle and crops on the picturesque mountainside, while the other could only be relied upon for unskilled labor since he was developmentally disabled.

The village was a shambles. All of the houses were falling apart and the streets were littered with debris. That did not matter to the Rodríguez clan that embodied traditional values with a vengeance. When Martin Verfondern began tidying up the streets and repairing fences, they felt infringed upon and began to see the Dutch couple as invaders.

To some extent, there was a big culture clash with the Dutchman harboring dreams of transforming the tiny village into a showplace for the arts and progressive farming techniques. With his Protestant work ethic, he must have struck his neighbors as overbearing. Squabbles over relatively minor things escalated to the point where the two households stopped talking to each other. Tensions reached the boiling point when the Dutch couple challenged the Rodriguezes for the right to share in the common property of the village, an economic institution that might have dated back to medievalism. In court, the older son testified that Verfondern was only there a couple of months a year, a lie that was easily refuted. The judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Dutch.

On January 19th, 2010, Martin drove to a neighboring town to do some shopping. Afterwards, several people spotted his SUV headed back up the mountain toward Santoalla. It was the last time he was ever seen. The film consists mostly of Margo Pool reminiscing about the good times they had in the village as well as the dark period when tensions might have led to his disappearance—and possible murder.

As this true crime story unfolds, you will be galvanized by the search for what took place in 2010 and the versions put forward by Margo Pool and her adversaries. In the press notes, co-directors Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer state:

While the Rodríguez family revered the pueblo as a place that preserved centuries-old customs and traditions, Martin and Margo envisioned their adopted home as a location to build their own utopia and foster their progressive ideals. Despite their mutual love for the village, neither side accepted the other’s concept of what Santoalla should be. That’s when we knew that the film was about more than just a disappearance.

In fact that sounds like the sort of clash that is taking place all over the industrialized world today between urban elites and rural “deplorables”. The film is both a gripping crime story as well as a parable of social conflict in late capitalism.

Opening at the Film Forum on July 26th, “Rumble” gets it title from a Link Wray tune recorded in 1958 that was banned in New York and Boston since it might incite teenage gang violence. Like much else in the 50s, including the witch-hunt against EC comics, it was just another example of Cold War hysteria and fear of young people straining against its repression.

The song outlived the censors as both the film and Wikipedia relate. Iggy Pop says that when he heard the opening chords of “Rumble” in a college student union, he decided then and there to become a rock-and-roll musician. According to Rolling Stone, Pete Townshend of The Who once said, “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I never would have picked up a guitar.” Meanwhile, my favorite rock musician—Mark E. Smith of The Fall—has stated: “The only people I ever really looked up to were Link Wray and Iggy Pop. Guys like…Link Wray…are very special to me.”

What is much less known about Link Wray was that he was an American Indian from the Shawnee tribe in North Carolina. While never reaching the level of recognition as “Rumble”, Wray recorded three songs that celebrated his origins: “Shawnee”, “Apache”, and “Comanche”.

Combining groundbreaking musicology, including interviews with both native and non-native experts, and stirring excerpts from the recordings and performances of a panoply of American Indian musicians, “Rumble” is one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen.

Executive Producer Stevie Salas, an Apache who played guitar with Mick Jagger and Justin Timberlake at different points in a long and distinguished career, explained his motivation for making the film possible:

I am a Native American guitarist who has worked with some of the most amazing and diverse acts in history such as Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake, Jeff Healey, Public Enemy, George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Adam Lambert to name a few.

This whole thing happened because at a young age I was playing sold out arenas and stadiums with Rod Stewart and while on the road across America I started to wonder, why are there were no other Native Americans in the biz? So after a bit of digging I discovered there were indeed others who, for reasons unknown to me, people didn’t know about. In fact to my surprise I was playing guitar parts on Rod Stewart songs that were recorded by a Kiowa Indian named Jesse Ed Davis…and I had no idea!

Jeff Beck who is considered one of the greatest guitar players on the planet loves Link Wray and loves Native American culture. He even told me how he and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin would play air guitar to Link’s records as teens BUT he didn’t know Link Wray was a Shawnee Indian and yes he flipped when I told him.

“Rumble” is both great entertainment and a contribution to understanding American popular music that will have you smiling every single minute of the film. It is also a major contribution to American Indian studies that demonstrates how native peoples were able to preserve their musical traditions even though the white master race tried to destroy it. Not to be missed.

Until August first, PBS POV has made available a documentary on its website titled “The War Show” that is a 90 minute history of the Syrian revolution made from the footage of media activists who were in the middle of the action. Starting out with giddy expectations, they are now profoundly distressed by the outcome—except for those who were murdered by Assad during the period the footage was being assembled.

Early on we meet a group of college students who look exactly like NYU students and behave like them. The women do not wear hijabs and wear tight jeans. The men are bearded but it is in the hipster style rather than in compliance with Islamic norms. And they are constantly smoking, either tobacco or reefer.

As soon as the protests began in 2011, they went out into the streets and began recording the protests and putting them up on Youtube. The film depicts them traveling around Syria meeting up with other young people, including those who were army defectors joining the FSA in order to defend peaceful protests.

As the military conflict escalated, the rebels were forced more and more to rely on Arab states and Turkey for weapons and funding, which meant that those militias with an Islamist orientation had the inside track.

And all the while, the destruction of Syrian society grows apace. With the sectarianization of the struggle, people like those who made this film were either killed or driven into exile. In one of the key scenes in the film, we see a standoff between activists of the Kafranbel Media Center famous for their English-language banners protesting the regime and Islamists marching under slogans like “We need an Islamic state”.

Like other documentaries about Syria, I have seen in the past two years or so, this one leaves you feeling rather dispirited. It is doubtful that anything good can come out of Syria today but if it does, it will be because there are people like those who made the film finally reentering the public space to defend the values of the Arab Spring.

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