Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 25, 2018

Requiem for a mountain lion

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, May 25, 2018

Last Saturday, an emaciated mountain lion (50 pounds underweight) killed a mountain biker on the foothills of the Cascade Range near North Bend, Washington, a small town not far from Seattle. The city’s name is an anglicization of Chief Si’ahl, a Suquamish leader best known for what was likely an apocryphal speech addressed to the territory’s governor Isaac Stevens that warned about the threats to mother nature and native peoples posed by capitalist development. It was occasioned by the 1855 Treaty of Port Elliot that Stevens forced on them at the point of a gun:

Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The red man has ever fled the approach of the white man, as the changing mists on the mountain side flee before the blazing morning sun.

American history is replete with stories of Indian removal and species extinction. After all, they go hand in hand. Perhaps the first occurrence was in upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains, an area I am intimately familiar with. I grew up in Sullivan County, the home of the Borscht Belt in the southern Catskills. While I loved the countryside growing up, there were hardly any Catskill mountains to speak of. We were blessed by the presence of the Shawangunk Mountains that I could see from our living room window. After graduating high school, I entered Bard College and eventually lived in a dorm that overlooked the Catskill Mountains proper just across the Hudson River.

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December 22, 2017

Wind River; Hostiles

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 22, 2017

“Wind River” and “Hostiles”, two of this year’s highly praised films and clear-cut Oscar bait, have a number of things in common. They both feature bankable white male stars in leading roles as good-hearted saviors of indigenous peoples in the time-honored (speaking charitably) tradition of “Dances with Wolves”: Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale. They also were directed and written by white males who made the transition from acting careers: Taylor Sheridan and Scott Cooper. And, finally, they are both marred by political and artistic shortcomings. After making the case for them being rated “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I will conclude with some thoughts on what might go into a Hollywood film about native peoples although I doubt The Weinstein Company (the distributor of “Wind River” that was cut loose by Taylor Sheridan after news broke about its sexual predator boss) would be interested.

This review will reveal the endings of both films but I doubt that by the time you get to that point in the article, you’ll have little interest in seeing either of them.

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October 6, 2017

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:43 pm

On September 30thNew York Times reporter Simon Romero profiled the thief who had severed the bronze right foot from a statue of Don Juan de Oñate twenty years ago as a protest against the genocide of American Indians. Even the normally sedate “gray lady” could not help but refer to Oñate as the “despotic conquistador” of New Mexico. Indeed, the theft of the foot was highly symbolic since Oñate had once ordered the chopping off of the right foot of 24 Indigenous captives.

Romero got a chance to interview the foot thief through a rendezvous set up by Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre who made “Skins,” a 2002 film that climaxes with red paint tossed in George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore.

Romero analogized these protests with those against the statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. Eyre referred to the president’s complaint about these disrespectful acts: “Trump asked if all this stops with Washington or Jefferson. For me, that’s actually where it starts because we need to go back a whole lot further to examine the crimes upon which these lands were claimed.”

Trump is well-qualified to defend Washington and Jefferson since he harbors the same sort of racist attitudes that these Indian-killers embodied as early architects of Manifest Destiny. When he was building up his gambling casino empire in the early 90s, he claimed that Indian reservations were run by the Mafia. He secretly paid for more than $1 million in ads that depicted the St. Regis Mohawks in upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals around the time that they were seeking to build a casino in the county where I grew up. He even told the notoriously racist shock jock Don Imus that they were probably not real Indians, stating that he might have more Indian blood than them.

Besides the St. Regis Mohawks, there was another Indigenous group seeking permission to build a casino–the Munsee Lenapes. They were ethnically cleansed from Sullivan County, where I grew up, in the 1800s. Monsey, New York (now a predominately orthodox Jewish enclave) was named after the people who lived in the area while the city of Muncie, Indiana was where they were forced to go. Frankly, I would welcome a return of all the Munsees to their original homeland. They certainly would have more respect for a beautiful part of New York state that is being sacrificed at the altar of capitalist development and its consequent environmental despoliation.

When some on the left seek to contextualize Washington and Jefferson, it usually follows the line of reasoning that despite being slave-owners, they were also founding fathers of a democratic republic that was the envy of the world. While this might not sit well with the descendants of the slaves they owned, it also carries the burden of sweeping Indigenous peoples under the rug.

After reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, you will conclude that all these great White leaders should be condemned to the ashbin of history. Published as part of the Beacon Press’s Revisioning American History series (there are also books about gays, the disabled and Blacks/Latinos in American history), it is very much in the vein of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”. While the term “revisionist” is often applied to works such as these, I am persuaded that “revisioning” is a far more appropriate term since it points to both past and future. If we do not have a vision of how the United States should be governed, our future is bleak.

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September 29, 2017

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the Ulster-Scots

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:37 pm

Reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” for a CounterPunch review, I came across this extraordinary passage that deals with the Scotch-Irish, who can more properly be described as Ulster-Scots. They were the Scots that the British used to colonize Ireland—the ancestors of those who marched under the Orange flags during “the troubles”. In the same way that they were the shock troops for colonizing Ireland, they helped to dispossess the American Indian. When I first got wind of Roxanne’s book, I mistakenly referred to it as a history of indigenous peoples. She corrected me on the spot—it was instead a history of the USA from the perspective of those who were living here and doing quite nicely at the time. It is a sorely needed complement to Howard Zinn’s history and one that deserves to be on everybody’s collection of essential radical histories of this misbegotten settler state.


The core group of frontier settlers were the Ulster-Scots—the Scots-or “Scotch-Irish,” as they called themselves.” Usually the descendants of these Scots-Irish say their ancestors came to the British lies from Ireland, but their journey was more circuitous than that. The Scots-Irish were Protestants from Scotland who were recruited by the British as settlers in the six counties of the province of Ulster in northern Ireland. The British had seized these half-million acres from Ireland in the early seventeenth century, driven the indigenous Irish farmers from it, and opened it to settlement under English protection. This coincided with the English plantation of two colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America and the beginning of settler colonialism there. These early settlers came mostly from the Scottish lowlands. Scotland itself, along with Wales, had preceded Ireland as colonial notches in the belt of English expansion. Britain’s colonization of Indigenous lands in North America was foreshadowed by its colonization of northern Ireland. By 1630 the new settlers in Ulster—21,000 Britons, including some Welsh, and 150,000 Lowland Scots—were more numerous than British settlers in all of North America at the time. In 1641, the indigenous Irish rebelled and killed ten thousand of the settlers, yet Protestant Scots settlers continued to pour in. In some formerly Irish areas, they formed a majority of the population. They brought with them the covenant ideology of Calvinism that had been the work of the Scotsman John Knox. Later John Locke, also a Scot, would secularize the covenant idea into a “contract,” the social contract, whereby individuals sacrifice their liberty only through consent. An insidiously effective example, the US economic system, was based on Locke’s theories.”

So it was that the Ulster-Scots were already seasoned settler colonialists before they began to fill the ranks of settlers streaming toward the North American British colonies in the early eighteenth century, many of them as indentured servants. Before ever meeting Indigenous Americans, the Ulster settlers had perfected scalping for bounty, using the indigenous Irish as their victims. As this chapter and the following one show, the Scots-Irish were the foot soldiers of British empire building, and they and their descendants formed the shock troops of the “westward movement” in North America, the expansion of the US continental empire and the colonization of its inhabitants. As Calvinists (mostly Presbyterian), they added to and transformed the Calvinism of the earlier Puritan settlers into the unique ideology of the US settler class.” In one of history’s great migrations, nearly a quarter-million Scots-Irish left Ulster for British North America between 1717 and 1775. Although a number left for religious reasons, the majority were losers in the struggle over Britain’s Irish policies, which brought economic ruin to Ireland’s wool and linen industries. Hard times were magnified by prolonged drought, and so the settlers pulled up stakes and moved across the Atlantic. This is a story that would repeat itself time and time again in settler treks across North America, the majority of migrants ending up landless losers in the Monopoly game of European settler colonialism.

The majority of Ulster-Scot settlers were cash-poor and had to indenture themselves to pay for their passage to North America. Once settled, they came to predominate as soldier-settlers. Most initially landed in Pennsylvania, but large numbers soon migrated to the southern colonies and to the backcountry, the British colonies’ western borders, where they squatted on unceded Indigenous lands. Among frontier settlers, Scots-Irish predominated among settlers of English and German descent. Although the majority remained landless and poor, some became merchants and owners of plantations worked by slaves, as well as politically powerful. Seventeen presidents of the United States have been of Ulster-Scots lineage, from Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party, to Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama on his mother’s side. Theodore Roosevelt characterized his Scots-Irish ancestors as “a stern, virile, bold and hardy people who formed the kernel of that American stock who were the pioneers of our people in the march westwards.”16 Perhaps as influential as their being presidents, educators, and businessmen, the Scots-Irish engendered a strong set of individualist values that included the sanctity of glory in warfare. They made up the officer corps and were soldiers of the regular army, as well as the frontier-ranging militias that cleared areas for settlement by exterminating Indigenous farmers and destroying their towns.

The Seven Years’ War between the British and the French (1754-63) was fought both in Europe and in North America, where the British colonists called it the French and Indian War because it was mainly a British war against the Indigenous peoples, some of whom formed alliances with the French. The British colonial militias consisted largely of frontier Scots-Irish settlers who wanted access to Indigenous farmland in the Ohio Valley region. By the time of US independence, Ulster-Scots made up 15 percent of the population of the thirteen colonies, and most were clustered in majority numbers in the backcountry. During the war for settler independence from Britain, most settlers who had emigrated directly from Scot-land remained loyal to the British Crown and fought on that side. In contrast, the Scots-Irish were in the forefront of the struggle for independence and formed the backbone of Washington’s fighting forces. Most of the names of soldiers at Valley Forge were Scots-Irish. They saw themselves, and their descendants see themselves, as the true and authentic patriots, the ones who spilled rivers of blood to secure independence and to acquire Indigenous lands—gaining blood rights to the latter as they left bloody footprints across the continent.

During the last two decades of the eighteenth century, first- and second-generation Scots-Irish continued to pour westward into the Ohio Valley region, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. They were the largest ethnic group in the westward migration, and they maintained many of their Scots-Irish ways. They tended to move three or four times, acquiring and losing land before settling at least somewhat permanently. Scots-Irish settlers were overwhelmingly farmers rather than explorers or fur traders. They cleared forests, built log cabins, and killed Indians, forming a human wall of colonization for the new United States and, in wartime, employing their fighting skills effectively. Historian Carl Degler writes that “these hardy, God-fearing Calvinists made themselves into a veritable human shield of colonial civilization.”18 The next chapter explores the kind of counterinsurgent warfare they perfected, which formed the basis of US militarism into the twenty-first century.

The Calvinist religion of the Scots-Irish, Presbyterianism, was in numbers of faithful soon second only to those of New England’s Congregationalist Church. But on the frontier, Scots-Irish devotion to the formal Presbyterian Church waned. New evangelical off-shoots refashioned Calvinist doctrines to decentralize and do away with the Presbyterian hierarchy. Although they continued to regard themselves as chosen people of the covenant, commanded by God to go into the wilderness to build the new Israel, the Scots-Irish also saw themselves, as their descendants see themselves, as the true and authentic patriots, entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice.

 

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 7, 2016

The political economy of American Indian gaming casinos

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:29 pm

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 8.27.14 AM

Episode 42 of “The Sopranos” opens with gangster boss Tony Soprano and his henchmen complaining about a protest threatened by American Indians at the upcoming Columbus Day parade in Newark. When Christopher (Michael Imperioli, who wrote the script) reminds them that native peoples were massacred, Silvio (Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s one-time guitarist) replies “It’s not like we didn’t give them a bunch of shit to make up for that like land, reservations and casinos.”

Tony decides to consult with Chief Doug Smith, who operates a casino in rural Connecticut owned by the “Mohonk” tribe (a fictionalized version of the Foxwoods resort owned by the Mashantucket Pequots). If the chief could make some phone calls to have the protest called off, Tony would use his mob ties to benefit the casino. Over dinner at the casino, when Tony tells the chief that he doesn’t look like or act an Indian, he replies with a smirk on his face that despite his 1/16th blood quotient he had an “awakening” that led him to claim his indigenous roots and start the casino. You are left with the impression that there’s not much difference between a Mafia don and a phony Indian. It’s all about the money.

In 1995, seven years before the “Sopranos” episode, Sixty Minutes aired an “exposé” of Foxwood that made the same point, namely that Indian casinos were a scam. The target of their investigation was Skip Hayward, the Pequot chairman who had been working as a pipefitter until he got the idea that running bingo games could improve his people’s economic situation. The bingo games proved very successful and led to the formation of Foxwoods with Malaysian seed money. The right of people with only a 1/16th blood quotient to benefit from casino profits outrages Sixty Minutes. Since a smallpox epidemic wiped out 90 percent of the tribe in 1633, it is remarkable that any have survived even on a 1/16th basis, especially when the colonists would wipe out even more Pequots a mere 4 years later with gun and sword.

The name Pequot might ring a bell since that is identical to the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s boat. Did Melville intend to evoke the tribe that was a victim of genocide? I would like to think so since he was a powerful advocate of indigenous rights in the South Pacific.

The question of Indian gaming casinos is close to me, having grown up in a tiny village in Sullivan County just 90 miles north of New York City. After many years of legislative wrangling, the county has received the green light from Governor Cuomo to open up a casino that will benefit an area hard-hit by the collapse of the tourist industry. For local residents, casinos represent a life preserver thrown to a drowning man just as does fracking, another proposed solution to the county’s economic misery. When I check my local newspapers each morning, there’s either an article on casinos or fracking. After following the Indian gaming casino discussion in Sullivan County newspapers for over 25 years, I am convinced that local opposition to the former probably has more to do with the message of the Sopranos episode than anything else. If there’s anything that white racists hate more than a poor Indian, it is evidently a rich Indian.

Both the Pequots and another tribe, the Stockbridge-Munsees, put in bids for a casino in Sullivan County but withdrew after learning that Orange County, a good 30 miles closer to New York City, got the green light as well. It is a universal rule that casinos succeed when they are in proximity to large cities. If a casino is closer to New York, it will get the lion’s share of the profits. This is one of the reasons that so few tribes start casinos. For example, there would be little reason for the Lakota, the Blackfoot or any other remnant of the once-proud plains Indians to open one up since they are so many miles from major cities.

Like the Pequots, the Munsees are a tiny shard of a once populous tribe (despite the controversy around this term, it is simply a description of a pre-state social formation and not intended as a sign of backwardness. In fact, there is more “tribalism” among advanced capitalist societies, when defined as irrational belief in one’s racial superiority.)

Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.

Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states: “The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.”

You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been transported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.

In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of “Gotham”, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting Sixty Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.

New York State was anxious to cut a deal with the Munsees in 2004 that would grant them the right to build a casino in Sullivan County. In exchange, they agreed to forego their claims to 300,000 acres in Oneida and Madison Counties in central New York. As anybody with a familiarity with Lenape history would attest, the whites robbed them of their land in the 19th century. As might be expected, a judge ruled against their claim, giving them a sop in the form of the right to open a casino in Sullivan County.

As opposed to the version presented by Silvio and Sixty Minutes, native peoples were never given the right to open casinos on a silver platter. They only came into existence through struggle. Furthermore, Indians have conducted one battle after another to defend their rights to keep them going.

As might be expected, someone like Donald Trump had a vested interest in keeping them out of New York State since they would be competition to his Atlantic City properties. In 1993 he told a Congressional Committee “it’s obvious that organized crime is rampant on the Indian reservations. This thing is going to blow sky high. It will be the biggest scandal since Al Capone, and it will destroy the gaming industry.” In an April 4, 2011 Huffington Post report on Trump’s testimony before Congress, Marcus Baram noted:

Trump neglected to mention that his initial partners on his first deal in Atlantic City reputedly had their own organized crime connections: Kenneth Shapiro was identified by state and federal prosecutors as the investment banker for late Philadelphia mob boss Nicky Scarfo according to reports issued by New Jersey state commissions examining the influence of organized crime, and Danny Sullivan, a former Teamsters Union official, is described in an FBI file as having mob acquaintances. Both controlled a company that leased parcels of land to Trump for the 39-story hotel-casino.

The best account of the origins of Indian gaming casinos can be found in Jessica R. Cattelino’s “Tribal Gaming and Indigenous Sovereignty, with Notes from Seminole Country” that appeared in the Fall-Winter 2005 American Studies journal. Although she is ethnically related to Tony Soprano and his goons, her real loyalties are with the Indians who have used their economic power to reduce poverty and increase their political clout.

In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allowed casinos not only to be built on reservations but also to be exempt from federal taxes and regulations. For many people, including the racist enemies of Indian sovereignty, this piece of legislation was an act of charity intended to make up for past sins as Silvio put it in the Sopranos episode. In reality, it was recognition of facts on the ground that had been established by various Indian tribes, including the Seminole.

In the 19th century the Seminole were driven from Florida into Oklahoma just like many of their Creek and Cherokee brethren were driven from states to their north. The Seminoles fought against the American army in three separate wars in the 19th century and put up a stiff resistance. The word Seminole is likely a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrón, which means “runaway” or “wild one”, an apt description for tribes that happily accepted runaway slaves into their arms. Unlike other Indians, they never signed a peace treaty with the United States.

In 1979 the Seminole opened the first gaming casino without anybody’s permission—just as you would expect from such a militant group. It was dedicated to bingo, the first type of gambling ever hosted by most tribes and one that paved the way for the slot machines and roulette tables at Foxwood.

The Seminole saw this initially as an experiment that would pay off economically. In the past they had tried light manufacturing, cattle ranching, land leasing, and tourism but these ventures either failed or produced very modest profits.

But their casino, named Hollywood Bingo (after the Florida city, not tinseltown), turned a profit almost immediately. By 2001 five Seminole casinos were generating $300 million a year. The economic impact of this revenue has been remarkable. The proceeds fund health clinic, law enforcement (a serious concern on reservations where poverty has bred vicious crimes), the K-12 Ahfachkee School, and housing. It has also funded cultural enterprises such as the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, craftwork, language classes, festivals and other programs.

And like any other capitalist, the tribe has diversified economically. Profits from he casinos have been plowed into sugarcane and citrus fruit plantations, cattle ranching, ecotourism at the Billie Swamp Safari, and even airplane manufacturing. None of this is a result of government handouts. Instead it is a Horatio Alger story that if not vindicating the usefulness of capitalism at least is a testimony to native grit.

This is not to say that gaming casinos are a bed of roses. As expected, when millions of dollars are involved, there are men more than happy to separate Indians from their wealth, and none more so with such satanic duplicity than Jack Abramoff.

While Abramoff’s plot is far too complicated to review here in any detail, suffice it to say that he extracted millions of dollars from the Coushattas in Louisiana and the Tiguas in Texas by playing them against each other. In exchange for millions of dollars in fees, he promised them that he would lobby Congress to make sure that their casinos would go unmolested by the state and also protected from competition by each other. In an email message to his right-hand man Mike Scanlon, Abramoff wrote: “Fire up the jet baby, we’re going to El Paso!!” (The Tigua reservation and casino were near El Paso.) Scanlon replied: “I want all their MONEY!!!” In other emails, Abramoff referred to his clients as “morons,” “troglodytes” and “monkeys.”

After serving his prison sentence, Abramoff has tried to restyle himself as a reformer, speaking at various Washington confabs at presumably exorbitant fees. This has not impressed Indians who suffered the most from his heinous acts, especially the Tiguas who were essentially left bankrupt. After watching him in action at the Press Club in Washington, DC, Rick Hill, a member of the Oneidas, told the Huffington Post “It’s all bullshit. … You look at Jack — though he took money from my elders and our kids, and now he comes here, and he gets to prop himself up, and it’s an acceptable part of D.C. culture. He wouldn’t stand a minute on the reservation.”

Market forces, the sine qua non for capitalist production including that taking place on the reservation, generated the rivalry between the Coushattas and the Tiguas. The access to riches has made the blood quotient all-important. There are constant conflicts over who is really a member of a tribe that enjoys casino wealth.

On December 3rd, 2004, the LA Times reported:

Before the Indian casino opened here, few people had any interest in joining the Chumash tribe.

But now that each member collects close to $350,000 a year in gambling revenue, nearly everyone with a drop of Chumash blood wants in.

“A lot of people found out they were Indian,” joked George Armenta, chairman of the Chumash enrollment committee.

Infighting over lineage is tearing apart many tribes with gambling operations. Fueling the disputes is simple math: If tribal enrollment shrinks, each remaining member will collect more money.

Whenever a valuable resource become available to a historically oppressed people, whether it is oil or roulette chips, it will trigger such fights. That being said, it is foolish to expect Indians to renounce either oil or gaming. In the best of circumstances, such as is the case with the Seminole (or Bolivarian Venezuela), it can be used for the common good.

The vain hope that Indians can live as they did before Columbus persists among those who would prefer that time stand still. The most extreme version of that is Jerry Mander’s 1992 “In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations”, a work that warns Indians about the hazards of computers and other new-fangled technologies. The only sort of Indians that Mander seems interested in are those who are completely untainted by the outside world. If an Indian lives in a city or makes a living as a miner on the reservation, Mander ignores him.

He only pays attention to the “pure” Indian who survives by hunting or fishing the way that he did a hundred or a thousand years ago. Hence, he devotes an entire chapter to the Dene Indians in Canada, who live in the Northwest Territories where the traditional economy revolves around caribou hunting and ice fishing. In the 1970s, they discovered oil on Dene land and pretty soon all the usual culprits descended upon them: oil corporations, lawyers and real-estate developers. What is Mander’s biggest concern, however? It is that television, of all things, will disrupt the Dene’s simple life. He worries that televised soap operas will replace traditional story telling.

After surviving hundreds of years of genocidal onslaught, American Indians have developed survival strategies geared to a time and place. The right to make money from gaming casinos is part of that arsenal, whether or not some critics view it as contrary to the image of the “pure” Indian. That Indian was virtually destroyed in the 19th century, just as was the bison that the plains Indians relied on for food, shelter and clothing. It will be up to the Indians to define their own identity in the 21st century just as they have in the past. Our responsibility as supporters of indigenous rights is to offer our solidarity, just as we would when the FBI was besieging Wounded Knee. The battlefield has changed but the goal is as it ever was—to defend the rights of America’s native peoples.

June 8, 2016

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016

Filed under: Film,immigration,indigenous,Peru,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Tomorrow is opening night of the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York that includes two documentaries that I had an opportunity to see at press screenings a while back and discuss below. If they are any indication of the quality of the scheduled films, I urge you to take in as many as possible. If they are not exactly entertainment (as if anybody with an IQ over 75 could be entertained by something like “X Men Apocalypse”), they are compelling reminders of the need to support all those struggling for a better life.

On Thursday, June 16th at 8:45 PM, you can see “When Two Worlds Collide” at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. As a rule of thumb, if you have tended to agree with my recommendations, this is one not to be missed. It is the chronicle of the struggle between indigenous peoples of Peru and the government of Alan Garcia over the 840 Law he rammed through in late 2006 that opened up indigenous territory to mining and oil extraction as part of a neoliberal blitzkrieg that began earlier in the year with a Free Trade Agreement with the USA.

If I were to write a narrative film, I doubt if I could come up with someone as villainous as Alan Garcia. Early on in the film you see him addressing an audience of potential investors from the USA about how Peru was welcoming foreign investment. To indulge in a bit of Marxist jargon, he is the quintessential comprador bourgeois.

This was Garcia’s second term as President of Peru. In his first go-round, he clashed with the guerrillas of the Shining Party, a Maoist insurgency whose dogmatic and repressive approach isolated it from the urban working class. Their members were Quechean Indians living in the highlands.

In his second term it was the Indians of the Amazon rainforest who got the shaft. Unlike Chairman Gonzalo of the Shining Path, the opposition to Garcia was led by Alberto Pizango, a member of the Shawi tribe who was committed to nonviolence but totally uncompromising when it came to the rights of indigenous peoples whose water was being fouled by the Peruvian state oil company pipelines and who feared that things would get much worse with the advent of Law 840. It allowed private investment in their territory and sacrificed their hard-won right to a modicum of sovereignty.

They say that the choice of a principal subject is key to the success of most documentaries. That being the case, co-directors Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel were fortunate to have complete access to Pizango as he rallied opposition to the multinational onslaught given red carpet treatment by Alan Garcia. He is a plain-spoken man but capable of stirring rhetoric when the circumstances call for it. He was exactly the sort of grass roots leader José Carlos Mariátegui must have had in mind when he founded the Communist Party of Peru in 1928 based on a program that synthesized Marxism and indigenous principles.

As it happens, Mariátegui only decided to become a Communist after becoming disillusioned with the APRA party in Peru in whose name Alan Garcia misruled. For APRA, anti-imperialism and “development” were to be pursued within the framework of capitalism even if it meant treating the indigenous people in the same way they have always been treated in the Western Hemisphere, as relics of a “savage” past standing in the way of progress and civilization.

Once the opposition to Law 840 began to develop a mass base and after it began organizing picket lines throughout Indian territory, Garcia and his cohorts began to refer them to as relics of the past who were defying the needs of the country’s majority. That, of course, is what inspired the film’s title.

The tensions between the ruling party and the indigenous peoples escalated until a pitched battle took place on June 5th, 2009 when the cops began firing on pickets assembled on the “Devil’s Curve” jungle highway close to Bagua, a town in the heart of Indian country. Not long after the first Indians fell to the ground mortally wounded, others seized guns from the cops or used their own and machetes to strike back at the cops. One of the most moving parts of the film involves the father of one of the dead cops who returns to Bagua to get help from the Indians in finding his son’s corpse or more optimistically winning his freedom. After he discovers that he had been dismembered and thrown into a nearby river, he calmly states that he does not blame the Indians but the overall climate of violence created by APRA politicians.

Although I would hardly describe the film as “entertainment”, the directors had a bird’s eye view of the clash on the Devil’s Curve and were skillful enough to turn the footage into some of the most hair-raising scenes I have ever seen in a documentary. The struggle continues in Peru as it is likely that Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has won the recently held Presidential election. He is a former World Bank economist and co-chairman of First Boston, so that says it all.

Next Wednesday at 8:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater and 9:15pm in the IFC Center in the Village you can see “The Crossing”, a powerful chronicle about a group of Syrians fleeing Assad’s reign of terror and taking a risky boat ride across the Mediterranean to Europe in search of political asylum.

It puts a human face on the ordeal facing millions of Syrians that is now only an abstraction in the mass media or—worse—a target of nativist violence and state-sponsored blockades through much of Europe.

If there is still a question of what drives refugees to flee Syria, all you need to do is listen to the journalist Angela—a Christian–who along with her husband and journalist partner was forced to flee the country when she became a target of the security forces in 2011 after writing articles in support of the Syrian revolution. She was arrested once and worried that the next time she might be killed.

You can also hear from IT expert Rami who was working in the UAE. When he was arrested at demonstration in support of the revolution by the emirate’s cops, he was ordered to leave the country. Since going back to Syria meant arrest or being killed, he opted to join Angela and about 20 others in an uncertain sea voyage.

In 2012, director George Kurian was working as a photojournalist in Syria in the thick of the battles while buildings were being bombed to pieces. That led to the decision to make a film about the efforts of some to leave this hell. He put it this way:

“The Crossing” is about Syrian people speaking for themselves. Through it, we hope to join the debate about our electoral policies…Islam and its branches of fundamentalism will always serve as flashpoints in any discussion…[but] it’s these ideas that have kept us from acting. These concepts make us see refugees as a problem rather than a people who have a problem and who need our help.”

Although it is not part of the HRW film festival, I also urge you to watch the six-part series of nine minute videos about another group of Syrian refugees on the New Yorker Magazine website (http://video.newyorker.com/) directed by Matthew Cassel and executive produced by Laurie Poitras, who made the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden. Poitras is affiliated with Glenn Greenwald whose views on Syria are questionable at best. I am glad that he obviously had no influence on this film.

Unlike “The Crossing”, Cassel’s film, titled “The Journey from Syria”, does not address the question of what drove people to mostly walk from Istanbul to Macedonia to flee the horrors of Syria but you might suspect that it was the regime rather than jihadists that was responsible especially since they refer to bombing. As is obvious at this point after 5 years of war, it is the Syrian air force that is creating genocidal conditions, not the lightly armed rebels.

For an excellent review of Cassel’s film, I recommend Idrees Ahmad, one of the most committed and tireless defenders of the Syrian revolution we have:

The Journey, however, is more than the chronicle of an exodus. It is a human story about ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary circumstances. Its protagonists are normal people—a jeweller, a hairdresser, and a schoolteacher—who have to face dilemmas that jewellers, hairdressers, and schoolteachers do not normally face. The film is well constructed and tells its story with minimal editorialising. Through its relatable protagonists, it offers viewers a mirror to consider the choices they might have made had similar circumstances been thrust upon them.

This context is important for the kind of debate currently raging in Europe. The last segment of the documentary shows movements like Pegida and demagogues like Geert Wilders stirring up xenophobia. The refugee exodus has served as a boon for the European far right. Across Europe, far right parties are now ascendant. Refugees are routinely demonised.

But if the left has failed to challenge this wave, it is because they, just like the right, have been unwilling to address the root causes of the Syrian conflict. The organised left across much of Europe has shown little sympathy for Syrians fighting oppression. Some have tacitly supported the regime; others, such as the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have backed Russian military intervention while opposing safe zones for civilians. (Some of the tropes the right has used to stereotype refugees were first used by the left to demonise Assad’s opponents, painting them all as “extremists” and “jihadists”)

Read full review

Episode one of “The Journey from Syria” is on Youtube:

May 10, 2016

In the Land of the Headhunters

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 1:31 pm

Catching up on some screeners that have been piling up on my shelves for at least two years, I watched “In the Land of the Headhunters” yesterday, a film that despite its lurid title is as important to film scholars and students of American Indian history—both professional and amateur (like me)—as “Nanook of the North”.

It was made in 1914 by Edward Curtis, a famed photographer of American Indians, who recruited a cast of Kwakwaka’wakw Indians for a fictional film about love and war between rival clans set in the pre-contact era. If the name of the nation is unfamiliar to you, its handicrafts are likely not. These are the people who created the mammoth totem poles in their homeland in British Columbia as well as other striking works of art made of wood or feathers. The film is much more interesting as a display of Kwakwaka’wakw art and dance than as a narrative. While native peoples in the Pacific coast of Canada had been forcibly assimilated into white society by this point and had even adopted Anglo names like Stanley Hunt, who starred as the warrior Motana, the film is fairly scrupulous about depicting their early history authentically—mostly as a result of Curtis relying on co-director George Hunt, the brother of the star and a village elder.

Curtis is a fascinating character. At one point I had his The North American Indian on my bookshelf at home until I was forced to sell off a bunch of my books to focus on those that required immediate attention. In 1906 J.P. Morgan gave Curtis $75,000 to document native peoples photographically, a sum that would be at least $1.5 million today. This is an example of his work, a Cherokee mother and her baby:

Curtis hired Frederick Webb Hodge as a research assistant. At the time Hodge was one of the country’s top anthropologists who developed close ties with Franz Boas, a fellow scholar at Columbia University with whom he shared a commitment to understanding “primitive” peoples in relative terms, rejecting stereotypes about one race being more “civilized” than another. Despite the title of Curtis’s film, it was clear that he had absorbed Hodge’s values. Like “Nanook of the North”, this is a loving tribute to a people that were truly free and in harmony with nature. Like Robert Flaherty, Curtis veers in the direction of “noble savage” romanticism but given the racist portrait of American Indians in Hollywood films back in 1914 and for the better part of the following century, such films were badly needed.

As it happens, Boas was also a student of Kwakwaka’wakw culture and played an important indirect role in the making of “In the Land of the Headhunters”. George Hunt, Curtis’s co-director, was a consultant to Boas when he was doing field work in British Columbia. He and his brother were members of the Tinglit nation, one that shares many of the cultural norms of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, especially the totem poles. Boas taught Hunt the Kwakwaka’wakw language and he then helped to collect artifacts for display at the 1893 World’s Fair where a replica of a native village was built and where 17 members reenacted daily life in the spirit of Curtis’s film.

Unfortunately, Boas being a product of his time insisted on the Kwakwaka’wakw maintaining an appearance that they had abandoned long before 1893. This meant requiring them to wear their hair long just as was the case in Curtis’s film. In an astute commentary on Boas’s flaws, Douglas Wax, a radical anthropologist and director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame (!), pointed out how Boas ended up reinforcing social Darwinist ideology despite his “cultural relativism”:

Likewise, Boas’ Kwakiutl were performing rituals that at home were no longer practiced, and which had never been intended for the kind of display expected at the Exposition. Curtis Hinsley writes that “They were aiding Boas in his effort to recapture a presumed pristine, pre-Columbian condition” (350), a state of affairs that sat well both with Boas’ scientific predilection—later realized in his advocacy of “salvage ethnography”, the attempt to reconstruct as much as possible of a tribe’s pre-contact culture before its adherents disappeared under the onslaught of Western civilization—and the nationalist leanings of the Exposition’s directors, who wanted the ethnographic exhibitions to form a sort of “baseline” against which the modernity of Anglo-America could be measured. Ironically, in their quest for greater authenticity, the anthropologists of the Bureau of Ethnology and the Peabody often ended up inventing native culture for the natives themselves. R.H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School, later recalled of the Chicago exposition that “In some cases the ethnologists… had to show the Indians how to build and dress because none of the present generation in such tribes knew” (In Rydell 1984: 252 n. 51). The focus on the enactment of the past, coupled with the insistence that Indian culture was only “authentic” insofar as it was free from the “taint” of Western civilization, had the effect of presenting Indian culture as something static, unchanging, and doomed to disappear. There was no room in either the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the day or the germinal cultural relativism just beginning to take shape for Indian cultures that continued to exist and to adapt to the changing world around them.

None of this should dissuade you from watching “In the Land of the Headhunters” on Amazon streaming or a version sans musical background on Youtube. For only $3.99, the Amazon version is well worth it as a complete work of art as the trailer above would indicate.

 

April 2, 2016

Nanook of the North, revisited

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Introducing a screening of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece “Nanook of the North” at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York on March 3rd, 2013 Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq–there to provide musical accompaniment– warned the audience that her people were not cheerful despite the words that appear near the beginning:

The sterility of the soil and the rigor of the climate no other race could survive; yet here, utterly dependent upon animal life, which is their sole source of food, live the most cheerful people in all the world–the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.

When Flaherty began filming, the word documentary did not exist. If required to depict the Inuit in cinéma vérité fashion, the director would never have bothered since his professed goal was to show the Inuit as they lived before they became corrupted by outside civilization. This meant, for example, directing Nanook to hunt seals with a handcrafted harpoon rather than a rifle that was customary at the time.

In a 1990 documentary titled “Nanook Revisited” that does aspire to historical accuracy and that is unfortunately only available from research libraries today, the production team went to Inukjuak, the village in northern Quebec where Flaherty shot his film, to interview relatives of Nanook’s contemporaries as well as knowledgeable villagers. The manager of the local television station Moses Nowkawalk was both amused and annoyed by inaccuracies. For example, Flaherty had Nanook looking mystified by a phonograph player and taking a bite out of a record but Nowkawalk points out that the villagers had been listening to records for years. A cruder version of this scene took place in the 1980 narrative film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” with Kalahari Bushmen worshiping a Coke bottle tossed out of a airplane.

Much of “Nanook of the North” involves reenactment. For example, one of the most memorable scenes depicts Nanook building an igloo in the way it was done from time immemorial. After the job is completed, the family streams in and waits for night to descend. They tuck themselves into bed (a platform of snow covered by fur) looking as blissed out as models in a Sleepy’s mattress commercial. Since it would have been impossible to film inside the dark interior of an igloo, Flaherty instructed Nanook to create only half of one, leaving the interior exposed to light as well as bitter cold. Despite the “cheerful” look of its inhabitants, they are suffering—all for the cause of cinema.

The greatest fiction of all were the characters themselves, who understood that they were actors in a drama built on the premise that they were living the lives of their ancestors. Nanook, which means hunter in the Inuit language, was actually named Allakariallak. His two wives in the film were not really his. Instead, during the course of filming they became Flaherty’s mistresses, one giving birth to his son Josephie with whom Flaherty never made contact.

Paddy Aqiatusuk, who became a soapstone sculptor of international renown, eventually adopted Josephie Flaherty. In 1953 the Canadian government forced Paddy’s family and two other families to relocate to Ellesmere Island at the far northern reaches of Hudson Bay. Although only 87 Inuit were exiled, the cruelty and the racism matched that of the forced march of the Cherokees to Oklahoma known as the “trail of tears”.

In another documentary committed to the accurate portrayal of Inuit life titled “Martha of the North” (available on streaming from the National Film Board of Canada for $2.95), we learn about the suffering of those Inuit families. The Martha of the title is Josephie’s daughter and the main subject of the film. She is visiting Ellesmere Island for the first time since her childhood exile. After Martha Flaherty reached adulthood, she became one of the Inuit nation’s leading activists for human rights. One can understand the passion of her commitment given the terrible injustices she faced as a child.

The Canadian government, and more particularly the Royal Mounties who supervised the relocation, had a reductionist view of Inuit life. Since the natives were accustomed to frigid conditions and to hunting, why would they object to being moved further north?

For a companion guide to “Martha of the North”, it is difficult to imagine anything more sensitively written and well-researched than Melanie McGrath’s 2006 “The Long Exile”. Here she describes the initial reaction of Paddy and other Inuit to their new surroundings:

And so the days passed and after the second or third week of patchy hunting and endless trips into the mountains for ice and heather, Paddy Aqiatusuk, as camp leader, came to the conclusion that the Lindstrom Peninsula was unsurvivable. He had serious misgivings about the camp’s ability even to survive the winter unless they were moved. The shale beach was too narrow and steep and the sheer cliffs behind made it impossible to watch for caribou or polar bears. There was no proper water source and insufficient heather or plant material for fuel.

Growing more and more miserable with conditions on Ellesmere Island, Paddy convinced his stepson Josephie to join him in the far north. While Josephie was happy to be reunited with Paddy, he was appalled by conditions that forced him and his family to take desperate measures. With food in short supply, the Inuit families began to take long treks on a daily basis to find quarry. On one such trip, the two young sons of Thomasie Amagoalik fell through thin ice and drowned. Meanwhile Josephie brought his young daughter Martha with him on polar bear hunts, as she recounts in the documentary. It was a miracle that she managed to survive such ordeals. When game was not available, the Inuit had no other choice but to dig through the garbage dump of the Royal Mounties looking for scraps just like homeless people. In a very real sense, they were homeless.

If the “trail of tears” was a nation-building exercise on the part of the young and imperial-minded American neighbor to its south, Canada had similar ambitions. In 1953 the Arctic was a contested region with various great powers seeking to control as much territory as possible in the hope that precious resources were in the offing. In the forced settlement of Inuit families to the far north, the Canadian government hoped to establish a legal territorial claim through facts on the ground. This race is ongoing. In September 2012, a Russian submarine lowered a “holy memory capsule” blessed by an Archbishop into the water near the North Pole in a similar bid.

The “scramble for the Arctic” was a typical colonizing project. In “Nanook and His Contemporaries: Imagining Eskimos in American Culture, 1897-1922” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2000), Shari Huhndorf cites an article by Admiral Peary published in the December 1903 National Geographic:

As a matter of prestige [gaining the Pole] is worth while….

As a matter of patriotism based upon the obligations of our manifest destiny, it is worth while. The North American world segment is our home, our birthright, our destiny. The boundaries of that segment are the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Isthmus and the Pole…. Believe me, the winning of the North Pole will be one of the great milestones of history, like the discovery of the New World by Columbus and the conquest of the Old by Alexander…

Let us attain it, then. It is our privilege and our duty. Let us capture the prize and win the race which the nations of the civilized world have been struggling for for nearly four centuries, the prize which is the last great geographical prize the earth has to offer… What a splendid feat for this great and wealthy country if, having girdled the earth, we might reach the north and south and plant “Old Glory” on each Pole. How the imagination stirs at the thought!

Robert J. Flaherty, an Irishman, came to Canada in the same spirit. Before he became a filmmaker, he worked for a mining company surveying the land for marketable resources. In the course of his travels, he became infatuated with the Inuit and then decided to make a film about them. Combining art and commerce, he received funding from the Revillon Frères fur company in the same way that a documentary about the Olympics might get financial backing from Nike today.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was fascination with the Inuit who were considered unspoiled by an industrial society that was becoming less free even as it was capable of producing consumer goods by the truckload. The Inuit were seen as “noble savages” who were not only capable of living off the grid but being “cheerful” all the while. But in reality they were integrated into capitalist property relations just as most native peoples of Canada were. Companies like Revillon Frères relied heavily on the Inuit or the Blackfoot Indians to hunt and trap beaver and fox for the European luxury market. During the Great Depression, the price of fox pelts declined drastically, throwing the Inuit into economic ruin.

For people like Robert Flaherty, there was a tendency to view the Inuit as they used to be rather than as they were. While he was much more respectful toward them than Admiral Peary who regarded them as childish and backward (even as he relied on them to survive in the far north), he could not accept them on their own terms.

If Flaherty was a product of his age, the same can be said of the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, from whom a more enlightened attitude might be expected. Despite his professed objection to racism, Boas paid Admiral Peary to bring some “specimens” back to New York where they could be studied at the Museum of Natural History. Like Napoleon Chagnon’s Yanomami, the Inuit were supposedly a people who were a throwback to the stone ages even though they were accustomed to trading furs in exchange for steel knives and rifles. When the Inuit began dying from diseases for which they had no resistance, a survivor demanded that his father’s bones be returned to their homeland. Boas could not be bothered, telling a reporter “the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.”

Is it any wonder why Tanya Tagaq did not feel cheerful?

As part of a worldwide resistance to white domination, native peoples have been fighting for their rights everywhere in the world, including the Inuit. Among their greatest grievances was the exile to Ellesmere Island. In 1987 the Inuit filed a claim against the Canadian government seeking $10 million in damages and an apology. After stonewalling for over a decade, the government acceded to all the Inuit demands. On August 18, 2010 the Minister of Indian Affairs wrote:

We would like to express our deepest sorrow for the extreme hardship and suffering caused by the relocation.  The families were separated from their home communities and extended families by more than a thousand kilometres.  They were not provided with adequate shelter and supplies.  They were not properly informed of how far away and how different from Inukjuak their new homes would be, and they were not aware that they would be separated into two communities once they arrived in the High Arctic.  Moreover, the Government failed to act on its promise to return anyone that did not wish to stay in the High Arctic to their old homes.

Of even greater significance was the creation of the province of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This new Canadian province that included Ellesmere Island was to be the homeland of the Inuit people with their language enjoying the same status as English. Not long after Nunavut came into existence, a staff member of Nunavut Arctic College showed up on the Marxism mailing list I moderate. As someone sympathetic to indigenous struggles, I welcomed him eagerly. He identified the issues that confronted the Inuit historically in a post to the list:

The Hudson Bay Company from the UK was concerned with furs and instant wealth.  The original banalities of the original investors (aristocracy) couldn’t see the usefulness of Canada as a land, what they wanted was trading posts to supply the wealth from the north. The different clergy came along too, hanging on the coat-tails of mighty in order to establish their own bridgehead. There have been many stories told of sexual abuse of aboriginal kids who were forced away to residential schools by the clergy. They were forbidden to use their own languages and mistreated in different ways.

As a symbol of Inuit self-determination, Nunavut is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of a nation seeking to define its own culture and economic destiny. Although it was not intended to be a corrective to “Nanook of the North”, the 2001 narrative film “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (available from Amazon for a used DVD at around $6) was the first ever to be made by the Inuit. It is based on a tale handed down through generations via oral traditions. The screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who died in 1998 before the film was completed, gave an interview to Nancy Wachowich, a Scottish professor. In response to her question about whether the film will be different from others made about the Inuit, he replied:

There are a number of differences between what we are doing and other movies that have been produced regarding our Inuit culture. This movie will be based on an Inuit legend, and also it is all going to be in Inuktitut. And also, all of the actors will have to be Inuk. No Japanese or whoever else who pretend to be Inuit. You know. It will be done the Inuit way. We want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life. That is what we are going to do.

It will be done the Inuit way. That would be the best way to bring the Nanook saga to a just conclusion.

February 21, 2016

Rafael Correa and the Chessintern

Filed under: China,indigenous,Latin America,oil — louisproyect @ 9:55 pm

As most people probably understand, political analysis about a particular government leader is often largely driven by where they stand in the geopolitical chess game—most of all by the grandmasters who play it, namely the “anti-imperialist” left that is as single-minded ideologically as earlier generations of Kremlin apologists if not more so.

In my experience, Stansfield Smith is the Boris Spassky of this milieu. The tops at awfulness with no competition on the horizon. Back when he was on Marxmail, he never posted anything except talking points in line with the Pepe Escobar/Mike Whitney/Eric Draitser Chessintern.

To belong to the Chessintern, you have to master a few basic openings such as the need to defend every foreign policy initiative of the Kremlin or China and then to smear anybody who ends up on the other side of the chessboard as tools of the CIA or the NED.

Back in 2010, when Smith was still a Marxmail subscriber, he did everything he could to tarnish indigenous activists in Ecuador organized in CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) as tools of imperialism. That year there was a coup attempt in Ecuador that CONAIE supported. Rather than dealing with indigenous unhappiness with Correa, as I tried to do in an article on the Miskito rebellion in Sandinista Nicaragua, Smith approached the whole thing as a conspiracy in which NED payoffs to the Indians was the key factor. You don’t need Marxism to understand such conflicts, just Hal Holbrook’s line in “All the President’s Men”: “follow the money.”

Interestingly enough, the Chessintern-friendly CounterPunch ran a number of articles that year that refused to demonize the Indians. The late Roger Burbach called attention to a law that allowed for the privatization of water and that placed “no real restraints on the ravaging of rivers and aquifers by the mining companies.” Ben Dangl stated that Correa had been marginalizing the indigenous movements of Ecuador while Laura Carlsen seemed to have offered the most balanced approach: “Although Correa has required companies to pay a larger share of profits to the government as mentioned above, he promoted the extractive model of national development that encroaches on indigenous lands and rights and has led to massive environmental destruction.”

The same divisions exist in Ecuador today with indigenous people continuing to feel vitimized, especially when it comes to the exploration for oil in their territories. If you’ve seen “Crude”, you know how much damage oil companies can do to Ecuador’s water and soil. With the film’s  focus on the attempt of peasants to sue Texaco and Chevron’s for damages, it is not difficult to imagine that Indians would have the same kind of grievances even if the government was part of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement and that oil drilling in Indian country was being done in partnership with a Chinese oil company. That is, unless you were Stansfield Smith.

With a title like “Propaganda as ‘News’: Ecuador Sells Out Indigenous Tribes and the Environment to China”, you pretty much know what to expect. Whatever the question (Syria, Ukraine, Tibet, Xinjiang), you trawl the Internet for any links between some protest movement and the NED, the CIA or some Soros-funded NGO and that’s all you need to know. Case closed.

Foolish me. I tried to transcend Chessintern thinking when I wrote about the Miskito revolt:

The best presentation of the Miskito case comes from Charles R. Hale, an American anthropologist who was a Sandinista supporter. The more time he spent with Miskito people, the more he came to realize that the government in Managua had misunderstood their legitimate demands. His book “Resistance and Contradiction: Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987” is essential reading.

Hale explains that Miskito unrest had preceded the Sandinista victory. The same economic forces that precipitated the revolution against Somoza were shaking up the Atlantic Coast. Large-scale commercial exploitation of the land for cattle-ranching and cotton production caused displaced peasants to arrive in the cities with dim economic prospects. When the earthquake hit Managua, these prospects completely disappeared and armed struggle seemed like the only reasonable path.

These peasants also moved eastward, putting pressure on communally owned Miskito land. The UN and the Alliance for Progress sponsored some large-scale projects in partnership with Somoza that the Miskitos resented, including the construction of a deep-water port. The construction interfered with traditional fishing activities. The Miskitos faced challenges on all front.

But mostly the Miskitos felt left out of the economic development that was taking place all around them. The Somoza family had pumped millions of dollars into nearly 200 industrial fishing boats on the Atlantic Coast. Commercial fishing accounted for 4 percent of foreign currency earnings in 1977, but nothing substantial flowed into Miskito improvement. The “trickle down” theory was as false in Nicaragua as it was in Reagan’s America. Capital to finance the expansion came from Cuban exiles in Miami and North American banks. All the stepped up economic activity was of no benefit to the Miskitos, who regarded the Spanish-speaking businessmen as little more than invaders. After the commercial fishers had taken the last lobster and shrimp out of the water, they would have gone on their merry way.

Essentially this is the same kind of clash in Ecuador today.

Smith’s article is an assault on Amazon Watch, an NGO that was supposedly the source of an article titled “Ecuador to Sell a Third of Its Amazon Rainforest to Chinese Oil Companies” that has made the rounds on the Internet. In Smith’s eyes, the article was “an invention” since to this date no land has actually been sold. He also believes that even if China began buying up land for drilling, the targeted area is practically the size of a postage stamp:

And, for comparison, the Alberta tar sands oil fields are 1,500 times the size of the small area Ecuador opened up for oil exploration in the Yasuni. In comparison, too, last May Obama approved oil drilling in the Artic Sea, where 20 billion barrels of oil and 90 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are now more available due to the melting of Arctic ice sheets.

I am not exactly sure how much drilling there will be in Yasuni National Park once the extractive juggernaut gets a full head of steam but it is bigger than the state of Connecticut. This does not even speak to the damage that will be done to a priceless natural habitat that Correa pledged to preserve after becoming president.

To wrap up his case against the indigenous peoples, Smith draws a contrast between their “corporate-backed funders” such as the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and China, which “provides loans at low interest rates, does not intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, respects other countries’ paths of economic and political development, and encourages South-South cooperation as a counter to Western hegemony.” I got a chuckle out of this since the organization I was involved with in the 1980s that trained Nicaraguans how to use high technology tried to get some donations from Mott. The executive director Michael Urmann, who died in 2012, told me about after going up to see Mott in his penthouse he was forced to listen to this knucklehead lecture him about world politics for an hour. That was bad enough but when no money came out of the visit, he was fit to be tied. Our attitude toward Mott, the Ford Foundation or any of a number of liberal charities was if they gave us money, it was their contradiction, not ours. Since both of us were sixties radicals (he was a Maoist), that is the way we looked at it. I have no idea what Smith was doing in the sixties but his inability to think in these terms suggests not very much.

But in terms of Smith’s ebullient description of Chinese beneficence, inquiring minds would naturally have to look a bit closer at the economic data to determine whether China is interested in helping the poor, especially since strikes and protests there set records in 2015. Worker militancy has led to increased wages in recent years, hence leading to a devaluation of the yuan to make Chinese exports competitive with other Asian countries that pay even lower wages.

All this has consequences for Ecuador. With a devalued yuan, which Ecuador uses, exports to China produce less revenue. When you take into account that the price of its main export—oil—has dropped precipitously in the last year or so, the consequences are drastic. Less money is available for social spending, the cornerstone of the oil-lubricated Bolivarian revolution. There is also the pain of increased prices on imported goods, including food and medicine. In other words, Ecuador is going through the same painful adjustment as other export-dependent Latin American countries and there is little that China or any other BRICS country can do to alleviate matters. We are dealing with a general crisis of capitalism, something that seems to escape the ideological framework of the Chessinturn. They have a classless notion of “development” that posits alignment with the BRICS as a kind of magic elixir that will vanquish poverty. Someone should remind these people that capitalism is a crisis-ridden system that has long outlived its usefulness even when it is practiced by someone who gave Julian Assange safe haven. We are for giving him safe haven but we are also for giving Ecuador’s Indians safe haven.

Finally, let me recommend what is probably the best left critique of Rafael Correa, an article by Marc Becker that appeared in the September-October 2009 Against the Current. Just to establish Becker’s bona fides, he is a major Mariategui scholar and considered to be a rock solid anti-imperialist. He even had the audacity to write an article putting the Shining Path in a relatively good light.

Titled “Ecuador: Left Turn?”, Becker’s article is quite even-handed. It refers to Correa as defending the idea that “socialism is both more just and efficient than capitalism” and promising to stand up for indigenous rights. However, the deeds don’t quite match the words as Becker points out:

Despite Correa’s attempts to mimic Chávez’s strategies, his policies are not nearly as radical as those of his counterpart. Of the many lefts that now rule over Latin America, Correa represents a moderate and ambiguous position closer to that of Lula in Brazil or the Concertación in Chile rather than Chávez’s radical populism in Venezuela or Morales’ Indigenous socialism in Bolivia.

The danger for popular movements is a populist threat with Correa exploiting the language of the left but fundamentally ruling from the right. It is in this context that a mobilized and engaged social movement, which historically in the Ecuadorian case means an Indigenous movement, remains important as a check on a personalistic and populist government. If Correa follows through on any of the hopeful promises of his government, it will be due to this pressure from below and to the left.

Correa continues to enjoy an unusually large amount of popular support in a region which recently has greeted its presidents with a high degree of good will only to have the populace quickly turn on its leaders who inevitably rule against their class interests. Chávez (and, to a certain extent, Evo Morales in Bolivia) have bucked this trend by retaining strong popular support despite oligarchical attempts to undermine their governments.

Correa is a charismatic leader, but in the Ecuadorian setting charisma does not secure longevity. José María Velasco Ibarra, Ecuador’s classic caudillo and populist, was president five times, but was removed from four of those when he failed to follow through on his promises to the poor. In recent history, Abdalá Bucaram was perhaps the most charismatic leader, but he lasted only seven months in power after winning the 1996 elections. Charisma alone does not assure political stability.

In the wake of Ecuador quickly running through ten chief executives in 10 years, Correa appears positioned to remain in power for 10 years if he can maintain his current coalition to win reelection in 2013. Correa has also said that it will take 80 years for his “citizens’ revolution” to change the country.

In quickly moving Ecuador from being one of Latin America’s most unstable countries to maintaining a strong hold over executive power, Correa appears to have been able to mimic Chávez’s governing style. Whose interests this power serves, and particularly whether it will be used to improve the lives of historically marginalized subalterns, remains an open question.

Needless to say, the drop in the price of oil since 2009, when this article was written, renders the question of enjoying an “unusually large amount of popular support” rather moot.

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