Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 10, 2018

Chris Hedges, Glen Ford and the “diversity” question

Filed under: racism,sexism — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

As a follow-up to his February 5, 2018 assault on “identity” politics titled “The Bankrupcy of the American Left”, Chris Hedges now takes aim at “diversity” with Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford as an all-too-willing accomplice. The July 8th Truthdig article titled “The Con of Diversity” allows the two to defend what they see as a class-based politics against the liberal Democrats using “identity”, “diversity”, “multiculturalism” and other tricks to sidetrack the necessary fight against the capitalist system.

Diversity in the hands of the white power elites—political and corporate—is an advertising gimmick. A new face, a brand, gets pushed out front, accompanied by the lavish financial rewards that come with serving the white power structure, as long as the game is played. There is no shortage of women (Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Donna Brazile), Latinos (Tom Perez and Marco Rubio) or blacks (Vernon Jordan, Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson) who sell their souls for a taste of power.

To his credit, Glen Ford emphasizes the need for affirmative action even though for some on the left, starting with Walter Benn Michaels, it is just as much of a con game. However, he complains that somewhere along the line it mutated into diversity and as such no longer served the needs of the Black community. “Stripped of its core, affirmative action morphed into ‘diversity,’ a vessel for various aggrieved groups that was politically versatile (and especially useful to the emerging Black deal makers of electoral and corporate politics), but no longer rooted in Black realities.”

The one thing that surprises me in this put-down of diversity is how tone-deaf it is when it comes to the most urgent issue of the past year or so, namely the #metoo movement that is taking on the sexual assault culture that exists in some of the key sectors of the American economy from the film industry to restaurants and the media.

As a film critic, I have been paying closer attention to the abuses that have been around since the 1920s through the “casting couch”. For the past 90 years Hollywood management has been male-dominated in a way that other industries have not been. Unlike finance, for example, Hollywood producers can rely on an “old boys network” that would not be allowed in banking or the brokerage business after the 1970s forced human resource departments to act on complaints by women being treated as sex objects and denied opportunities. All you need to do is look at the statistics for 2016. Women accounted for only 17 percent of all the directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors who worked on the top-grossing 250 domestic films. Blacks did not fare much better. Across the 100 top movies of 2017, only 6 directors were Black while 92 percent of all top executives are white.

What this means is that it is easier for a bastard like Harvey Weinstein to force himself on women trying to work in film and for the top studios to put obstacles in the way of Black directors and actors. As must be understood, film is one of the most powerful ways in which mass consciousness is shaped in the USA. For every Ava DuVernay, there are a dozen hack Caucasian directors who feel no particular need to address the racism that has brought us Donald Trump. Obviously, having women, Blacks and Latinos in powerful management positions in the film industry will not lead to socialism but on the other hand if it has some mitigating influence on the sexism and racism of this empire in decline, why treat their presence as if it were an insidious plot to preserve the status quo?

A lot of the reasoning embodied in the Hedges/Ford collaboration is reminiscent of what I heard around the time proposals were being made to allow gays in the military. If you are for allowing gays in the military, this must mean that you are a supporter of American imperialism. This absurd argument did not engage with the reality that many people join the armed services because they had no other employment options. Gay teens in some isolated rural village were not likely to read some advanced revolutionary thinker before going down to the recruitment station on a main street filled with empty stores, after all. And even if they did, the revolutionary rhetoric would not put food on their table.

Once inside the military, they had a right not to be killed by homophobic soldiers as was the case with Private Barry Winchell who had begun dating a transgender showgirl in 1999. When he was sleeping, another soldier crept up next to his bed and smashed his skull with a baseball bat. All this happened during Bill Clinton’s homophobic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. What was needed then and what is needed now is the kind of diversity and diversity training that makes such acts impermissible. If homophobic soldiers cannot be educated to respect their gay comrades, they can at least understand that a gay captain or a gay general might have the power to put their ass in the stockade for a few months for stepping out of line. This would have been the kind of thing The Weinstein Company needed or Mario Batali’s restaurant empire as well.

If there’s anything that cries out more for some diversity, it the underrepresentation of Muslims across the board in American society. It is especially egregious in the military where Muslims have to put up with treatment that is even crueler than what gays and Blacks have put up with on occasion.

Two years ago Raheel Siddiqui, a Marine recruit of Pakistani origin, committed suicide after putting up with months of harassment from a drill instructor who forced him into a dryer multiple times. The drill instructor ended up being sentenced to a long prison term but why submit any soldier to this kind of abuse even if there are stiff punishments associated with it? The presence of Muslim captains and generals can go a long way in preventing such behavior even if risks being denounced as a capitalist trick in Truthdig.

Until we have a new society based on respect for every human being, there are measures that can be taken to uphold such respect even if they are being meted out by managers or by judicial writ as is the case with affirmative action. When a Hollywood studio, a media company or a restaurant empire decides to carry out preferential hiring and promotion practices to help ensure that the upper ranks reflects the ethnic, racial and gender make-up of the lower ranks, we have no business opposing that. Such “diversity” policies are in their own way a reflection of the same social forces that produced affirmative action. In a perfect world, working people would have the good sense not to mistreat their fellow workers but in country like the U.S. that has been built upon racism, colonialism, and the secondary status of women, a little force is advisable whether by statutes or by managers intent on punishing wrong-doers.

Let’s never forget what happened in Cuba after the revolution triumphed. Fidel Castro declared that refusing to cut an Afro-Cuban’s hair was now a crime. That, much more than stirring speeches about racial equality, helped to elevate the status of Black people in Cuba even though racism continues to this day. Racism took hundreds of years to take root in Cuba and even a revolutionary government cannot uproot it overnight.

July 7, 2018

Donate to Philly Socialists Fund-drive

Filed under: DSA,electoral strategy,racism — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

Reading about the Philly Socialists participation in a sit-in at ICE headquarters in Philadelphia was all the motivation I needed to donate $100 to their fund-drive. Rewire.news reported:

Hundreds of protestors in Philadelphia on Monday night set up camp with tents, tarps, lawn chairs, and beach umbrellas. They organized a space for volunteer medics and a people’s kitchen, providing free first aid and food to those at the camp. They received so many supplies they had to start rejecting and moving the supplies to an off-site location.

“From the beginning of the camp, from its inception, the tactic that we agreed upon was like strict non-violence,” a member of Philly Socialists who asked to remain anonymous told Rewire.News. “I was really proud because when it came time to do that [tactic], everyone did it and no one broke. Everyone stuck to the tactic.”

This is exactly the type of activism we need today, one that is based on militancy but at the same time non-violence, although my tendency would be to use the word mass action rather than non-violence. During the Vietnam War, mass actions never sought confrontations with the cops although they were organized to be defended against both police repression or ultraright attacks.

I have no idea whether Philly Socialists is bigger or smaller than the DSA in Philadelphia but there is one thing I am sure of. They never would have gone overboard supporting the “radical” lawyer Larry Krasner for District Attorney.

Jacobin, the voice of the DSA, was thrilled with Krasner’s election as should be obvious from this article posted last November crowing over Larry Krasner’s victory.

But as any revolutionary could have told you, once in office Krasner would make sure to toe the line. As part of his “transition team”, he named former Philadelphia District Attorney and State Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille, a Republican who denied Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeals repeatedly. His animus directed against the “cop killer” was so obvious that in 2016 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Castille violated Mumia’s rights when he reinstated an execution order against him as a Supreme Court justice after the order had been vacated and after he’d already argued for his execution while prosecuting the case as district attorney. Instead, he should have recused himself from the case, especially since it is considered unorthodox for a judge to rule on a case he has previously prosecuted.

For an alternative take on Krasner/Castille, I recommend The Philly Partisan, the online journal of Philly Socialists. Titled “Thoughts On Larry Krasner’s Appointment of Ron Castille to His Transition Team for the District Attorney’s Office” and written by Kempis “Ghani” Songster (co-founder of the Redemption Project, Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute of Graterford), it should be all you need to read to convince to contribute generously to their fund-drive:

When a close friend of mine told me that a family member of his on the outside told him over the phone that Larry Krasner included Ron Castille in his Transition Team, I didn’t believe it. Then my friend said that, in fact, the report said Castille was Krasner’s first pick. I questioned the accuracy of the report he got from his family, i.e., his son, so hard that he started to question whether his son had read the report correctly. I mean, he started to doubt his own son and whether he himself heard his son right. That’s how hard I was defending Krasner. In my mind, there was no way someone who ran on an unprecedented, unapologetic, uncompromising “End Mass Incarceration” platform would seek and rely on one of the “purveyors of mass incarceration” to advise him on how to transition to what he promised, and what we hoped, would be a new culture in Philadelphia’s DA’s office.

Then I read the article myself in the Dec. 1 issue of the Daily News with my own eyes. I wasn’t totally surprised, which is sad, because I had seen this kind of thing before. Barack Obama campaigned aggressively on the lofty idea of Change, then when he was elected president he filled his cabinet with some of the unsavory characters who caused the problems he campaigned against. When I read the article about Krasner’s transition team, I was more like, “Deja vu. Here we go again. Politics as usual.” But, I wasn’t thinking that Krasner was flipping his campaign script and double-crossing the people who believed in him, voted for him, and put in super-hard yards to get him elected, as has been done by countless elected officials to their voters, time and time again. I was more like, “Noooo, Larry, you don’t have to do this. It’s unnecessary. You have a mandate!”

With respect to the rationale about “a symbolic transition team,” what does/would such a team with Ron Castille on it symbolize? What do We want, and what would We have, the transition team for Philly’s new DA symbolize or be “symbolic” of? What does Ron Castille symbolize? Is he a good symbol? One main campaign promise of Krasner’s was to change the culture of the DA’s office. Ron Castille does not represent/symbolize Change. Contrarily, he was one of the purveyors of the culture that Krasner promised to change and that the people elected him to change.

Castille was DA of Philadelphia from 1986-1990. He was the DA when his ADA Jack McMahon made the training video for and in front of young rookie prosecutors, schooling them on tactics for using peremptory strikes to exclude people of color from the jury in order to racially stack a jury prone to convict a defendant of color. That videotape was included in Castille’s office library for rookie prosecutors to check out and use as a training tool.

Castille was Chief Justice of the PA Supreme Court that ruled Miller v. Alabama/Jackson v. Hobbs “not retroactive” to JDBI [juvenile death by incarceration/life without parole] cases on collateral review. Castille wrote the opinion — Commonwealth v. Cunningham. He wanted to maintain DBI sentences for condemned children such as me who raised their JDBI issue on collateral. If Krasner includes Castille on the transition team, then he might as well include Lynne Abraham, too; and also Seth Williams, if he wasn’t in prison right now. Krasner’s election into the DA’s office should show that the people who put him there have won that particular institutional contest. But winning the symbolic contest is indispensable to an absolute victory in the institutional contest. Not only does the inclusion of a “symbol” such as Ron Castille in the “symbolic transition team” send mixed messages and confuse the people, but it symbolizes that we have not truly won the symbolic contest. That is, we have not won control of the narrative, the reshaping of the culture, and the meaning of all this.

If all Krasner did was appoint Castille in order to deflect charges that he was too radical (no, we can’t have that), it might be tolerable. But unfortunately, that was a prelude to a decision that makes DSA and any other “democratic socialist” think long and hard about their orientation to the Democratic Party. One of his assistant DA’s found that there was no bias in Castille’s rulings on Mumia despite the opinion of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. So the trail of broken Democratic promises continues.

 

September 13, 2017

The Deuce

Filed under: racism,television — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

I have just spent probably the longest 90 minutes of my life watching the first episode of “The Deuce”, an HBO series that examines prostitution and pornography in New York City in 1971. The show is co-written by George Pelecanos and David Simon, the creative team behind “The Wire”, another highly acclaimed HBO series that I could never stand for more than 5 minutes. Both shows are highly exploitative. In the name of gritty realism, they pander to the tastes of an educated urban middle-class that gets its kicks out of gaping at society’s lower-depths, especially African-American petty criminals who are stereotyped in this fare. In “The Wire”, it was drug dealers; in “The Deuce”, it is pimps and prostitutes. Despite the lofty pretensions of the men and women behind this series, it is nothing but Blaxploitation tailored to the carriage trade. All this would be forgivable if there was something dramatic going on. Sitting through the first episode was analogous to watching paint dry, to use a hoary cliché. How something as lurid as pimps and whores going about their business could turn out to be so humdrum and predictable indicates to me that Simon and Pelecanos’s reputation has been overblown to the nth degree.

“The Deuce” includes Richard Price and James Franco as executive producers, who likely had an influence on the story’s narrative arc. Price, a one-time very good novelist, began a steep decline once he began writing policiers like “Clockers”, a 1992 novel based on the cat-and-mouse games played by cops and African-American drug dealers. Expecting something approaching Dostoyevsky based on the rave reviews, I couldn’t get past page 50 or so. This novel evidently qualified Price to begin writing for its first cousin “The Wire” ten years later. Price also adapted the very fine British Criminal Justice TV series about a young man falsely accused of murdering a woman he met on a one-night stand into the mess called “The Night Of”. Like “The Wire” and “The Deuce”, it was mostly a way for Price to highlight repulsive and grotesque African-American characters.

In addition to executive producing “The Deuce”, James Franco plays twin brothers Vinnie and Frank Martino. Vinnie is a bartender from Brooklyn while his brother is a Vietnam vet with a gambling addiction. Evidently the two of them become pioneers of the porn industry but I don’t have plans to stick around to watch the characters “making it”. I find pornography in and of itself to be a crushing bore so I don’t expect a film about its rise to break the mold.

Like Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal is both an executive producer and an actor. She plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a street-walker in Times Square, where most of the action takes place. Unlike the other whores, she works on her own.

Setting the tone for the sort of pimps that are featured in “The Deuce”, we meet C.C. and Reggie Love hanging out in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They are dressed in the garish costumes featured in Blaxploitation films of this period, conked hair and all. The predictably named Reggie Love, who has returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, is singing the praises of Richard Nixon whose ability to intimidate the Vietnamese makes him a fellow pimp in spirit. From there the conversation turns to how they want to line up some white bitches for their stable. Listening to the dialog between the two characters is a revolting experience akin to that produced by the scene in “Dumbo” where crows are stand-ins for Black people.

When C.C. spots a young woman who has just deboarded a bus from Minnesota, he strides toward her with a cane in his right hand. No, he is not disabled from a tour of duty in Vietnam, only using it as a fashion accessory. It is obvious that subtlety is not a word found in Simon and Pelenacos’s vocabulary.

Leaving aside the message of this dubious product, there are stylistic choices that strike me as boneheaded. In the ninety minute pilot for “The Deuce”, there are 46 separate scenes, most lasting no more than a minute. They all involved different characters, sometimes overlapping in the by-now overused “coincidence” fashion of films like “Crash” or “Amores perros”. You know the sort of film I am talking about, right? It is one in which 25 different characters cross each other’s path beating the kind of odds you would find in the NY State Lottery. The hub for all of these coincidences is the House of Korea, a restaurant in Times Square where Vinnie works as a bartender that is favored by pimps, prostitutes, cops and businessmen far more interested in getting drunk than eating some of the best cuisine on earth.

Additionally, to appear faithful to the period, nearly every character smokes cigarettes during the dialog. It becomes a huge distraction since it is so italicized. As I said, Simon and Pelenacos are not into subtlety.

Since the device of having such brief scenes is meant to draw you into the texture of Times Square society in 1971 rather than to develop the characters psychologically, you begin to tire of the fragmentation. Price used the same approach in “The Night Of”, which he clearly borrowed from “The Wire”. I much prefer something like “The French Connection” or “The Godfather”. If that makes me a moldy fig, so be it.

I think Ishmael Reed had the last word on this crap in an interview he gave to Wajahat Ali on Counterpunch:

ALI: Let’s talk about the media. Here are some popular examples of media content and personalities that have gone mainstream and are successful: Oprah. Will Smith. Jamie Foxx. Tyra Bank. Tyler Perry. The Wire. Barbershop. American Gangster. You’re known as a vociferous critic of mainstream media and its tendency to stereotype. So, why complain now? You guys– African Americans – have made it.

REED: The Wire– you know, David Simon [the creator of The Wire] and I have a running controversy for years. It all stems from a telephone call I made to KPFA [Pacifica radio] when he was a guest there in the 90’s on Chris Welche’s show. He was going around the country with a Black kid from the Ghetto to promote something called The Corner– it was all about Blacks as degenerates selling drugs, etc.

ALI: Was that HBO?

REED: Yes. HBO does all this kind of stuff. I called in and told Simon, “You’re using this kid.” Later I said it [was] like Buffalo Bill going around the country exhibiting Indians. He got really pissed off and went to the New York Times, where he has a supporter there named Virginia Hefferman, another Times feminist who, when it comes to Black urban Fiction, can’t tell the difference between the real and the fake; she’s his supporter. She said that George Pelecanos, David Simon, and Richard Price are the “Lords of Urban Fiction,” when the Black Holloway authors like Iceberg Slim can write circles around these guys when it comes to Urban fiction.

Simon, Price and Pelecanos’ Black characters speak like the cartoon crows in those old racist cartoons [“Heckle and Jeckle.”] Henry Louis Gates knows this about “The Wire,” yet his right wing blog, The Root, carries an ad for “The Wire” today and a glowing article about this piece of crap. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is an intellectual entrepreneur all right. He condemns my work as misogynist yet supports Simon’s Neo-Nazi portrait of Black people. “The Wire” and novels by Price and Pelecanos should be submitted to the Jim Crow museum at Ferris State University– this is the website: www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/, where they can have a honored place alongside of some of Robert Crumb’s Nazi cartoons.

When I was researching my novel Reckless Eyeballing, I attended a lecture sponsored by the San Francisco Holocaust Museum, March 26,1984. The program said that the stereotypes about Jewish men in the Nazi media was similar to that about Black men in the United States. I thought, what on earth are they talking about? And then I went out and examined some of this junk, especially the cartoons in the newspaper Der Sturmer – see Julius Streicher Nazi Editor of the Notorious Anti-Semite Newspaper Der Sturmer by Randall l. Bytwerk. I was shocked. Jewish men were depicted as sexual predators, raping Aryan women. They were exhibited as flashers. Both Bellow and Phillip Roth’s books include Black flashers. Jewish men especially those immigrants from Russia were depicted as criminals. Jewish children were seen as disruptive, a threat to German school children and so on.

If any one looks at this stuff for example, you’ll find a perfect match for the way that David Mamet, David Simon, George Pelecanos, Stephen Spielberg and Richard Price portray Blacks. They are very critical in their projects about the way Black men treat women, yet none of them has produced a project critical of the way that men of their background treat women.

December 10, 2016

Hidden Figures; The Man Who Knew Infinity

Filed under: african-american,Film,india,racism,science — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

When two screeners submitted to NYFCO members for consideration as best film of 2016 happen to deal with racism against people of color who are gifted mathematicians if not outright geniuses, your first reaction might be to consider it a coincidence. But upon further reflection, despite all of the gloom about the election of Donald Trump, the film industry still sees such stories as eminently marketable rather than Rambo retreads. Not only are the films marketable, they are first rate.

“Hidden Figures”, which opens everywhere on January 6th, 2017, tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and who had to deal with both racial oppression and sexism. Of the three, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) receives most of the attention. Now 98, she calculated the launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission. As the daughter of a lumberjack in segregated West Virginia, she had many obstacles to overcome. Although I have little use for President Obama, I thought he exercised good judgement when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

While its venue was in art houses last April, where features generally make a fleeting appearance unlike the Multiplexes that will screen “Hidden Figures”, my readers will certainly want to take advantage of “The Man Who Knew Infinity” now on Amazon streaming. This is the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel), who grew up poor in Madras, India and demonstrated a mastery of mathematics from an early age. Working as a lowly clerk after the fashion of Bob Cratchit, his supervisor was struck by a notebook of formulas he kept, so much so that he encouraged him to send letters with a sample of his work to universities in England. After Cambridge don G. H. Hardy (played to perfection by Jeremy Irons) reads the material, he invites Ramanujan to come to Trinity College and fulfill his dreams. Like NASA, however, the institution is racist to the core and almost crushes Ramanujan into the dust.

While both films have most of the well-trod inspirational elements you would associate with such tales, they rise above the genre and soar. This is mostly a function of their faithfulness to the historical context, informed to a large extent by the well-researched books they are based on. Written this year, Margot Lee Shatterly’s “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” was sparked by conversations she had with her father, who was an African-American research scientist at the NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia where the women in “Hidden Figures” worked. As for “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, the source material was a book of the same name written in 1991 by Robert Kanigel, who worked as an engineer before becoming a free-lance writer in 1970. In 1999, he became professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he helped start its Graduate Program in Science Writing, which he directed for seven years. So clearly, we are dealing with authors who are very much wedded to the stories they write about.

In addition to Katherine Johnson, the other two Black women facing discrimination at NASA are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Vaughan was the supervisor of the West Area Computers section at NASA that despite the name consisted of African-American women whose job it was to do tedious calculations and check the mathematics of other employees, almost like fact checkers at the New Yorker Magazine. Known as “computers”, they had to be much more rigorous than those working for a magazine since the lives of astronauts depended on it. The West Area was segregated from the main buildings at in Hampton—separate and unequal. The women could not even use the bathrooms on the main campus or even the water fountains. When Katherine Johnson ended up working with the white scientists, she had to walk a quarter-mile to return to the West Area to go to the bathroom. When Mary Jackson decided to become an engineer to get away from the drudge work of being a human computer, she found out that no college in Virginia would accept a Black person. Undaunted, she took a night class in a high school after winning a legal case to gain such a right.

In some ways, the film will remind you of “The Imitation Game”, which was also about a crash program run by mathematicians and engineers. But unlike “The Imitation Game”, “Hidden Figures” is much more of a human drama since there is a daily battle by the women to be recognized as equals to whites and to men. In the most stirring scene in the film, Katherine Johnson explains to her boss (played capably by Kevin Costner) that she disappears a couple of times a day from her desk in order to go to the bathroom in a segregated area. Appalled by the waste of time and the disrespect to a fellow worker, he goes around NASA and tears down all the signs indicating facilities for the “colored”.

As another coincidence, the film climaxes with the successful orbital flight of John Glenn (Glen Powell) in 1962. Glenn died two days ago at the age of 95. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate his orbit around Earth, Johnson was called upon to verify the numbers because Glenn refused to fly unless Katherine verified them first.

When Ramanujan arrives at Trinity College, he is met by racism from every quarter. Even his champion G.H. Hardy mixes well-intended paternalism with jibes about sending him back to India if he doesn’t make the grade.

In many ways, Hardy is a more interesting character than Ramanujan because he is constantly being forced to reckon with the disjunction between his prejudices and the reality of the young man in front of him who he finally acknowledges as the Mozart of mathematics—a man who could penetrate to the heart of a math puzzle and solve it as easily as Mozart could write a sonata.

In one scene, Ramanujan is sitting in a lecture that Hardy has pressured him to attend in order to compensate for ostensible deficiencies in his autodidactic training. When a professor asks him why he is not taking notes, he replies that it is not necessary since he understands the material on the blackboard completely. Not believing him, the professor goads him into explaining what the formulas on the blackboard are about. Nonplussed, Ramanujan arises from his seat, goes to the blackboard and provides a sophisticated solution to the problems being posed by the professor. This does not result in congratulations but instead being thrown out of class for his perceived arrogance. Apparently he doesn’t know his place.

Unlike nearly every film I have seen about scientific matters or chess, this is one that makes very clear what made Ramanujan such a genius. He was the first to crack the “partition” problem that the film elucidates.

Take the number four. There are four ways to calculate the number of paths to that number using simple mathematics:

  1. 1+1+1+1
  2. 2+2
  3. 2+1+1
  4. 3+1
  5. 4+0

But what if the number was 3,789,422 instead? Was there any way to use a formula to arrive at the number of ‘partitions’ and bypass manual calculations? This is a problem that has vexed mathematicians forever until Ramanujan solved it. I have no idea what the practical application of such a formula would be but Ramanujan, unlike most men at Trinity College including Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) who were atheists, was deeply religious and once told Hardy that god gave him the insights to solve such problems. For him, solving math problems and praying complemented each other.

The Wikipedia entry on Ramanujan, who died of TB at the age of 32, is most informative:

During his short life, Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3,900 results (mostly identities and equations). Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct. His original and highly unconventional results, such as the Ramanujan prime and the Ramanujan theta function, have inspired a vast amount of further research. The Ramanujan Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was established to publish work in all areas of mathematics influenced by Ramanujan.

Deeply religious, Ramanujan credited his substantial mathematical capacities to divinity: “An equation for me has no meaning,” he once said, “unless it expresses a thought of God.”

After seeing both of these films, I could not help but be reminded of one of the main reasons I became a socialist in 1967. When it is such a battle for the women of “Hidden Figures” or Ramanujan to rise to the top, think of all those who were not fortunate to be given a chance. What a waste of humanity when class divisions require a mass of workers to be treated little better than a horse or any other beast of burden. I put it this way in my review of a documentary about Ousmane Sembene, the brilliant Senegalese film director who was thrown out of grade school for assaulting an abusive teacher:

I became a socialist in the 1960s largely on the belief that capitalism held back civilization by preventing a large majority of the world’s population from reaching its maximum potential. If the children of Asia, Africa and Latin America could enjoy the same benefits of those in rich countries, especially a top-notch education and the leisure time to develop innate talents, that could enhance the possibility of a great artist like Picasso or the scientist who could find a cure for cancer emerging out of formerly neglected regions.

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

December 2, 2016

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

Filed under: Counterpunch,New Deal,racism,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

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She argues that affirmative action divides the working class

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

It goes without saying, that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans – all of that is ENORMOUSLY important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen. But it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class in this country and is going to take on big-money interests. And one of the struggles that we’re going to have…in the Democratic Party is it’s not good enough for me to say we have x number of African Americans over here, we have y number of Latinos, we have z number of women, we are a diverse party, a diverse nation. Not good enough!

As someone who had little use for Hillary Clinton or any Democrat for that matter, there was something a bit troubling about the “class trumping identity” plea since it reminded me of contradictions that have bedeviled the revolutionary movement from its inception. While the idea of uniting workers on the basis of their class interests and transcending ethnic, gender and other differences has enormous appeal at first blush, there are no easy ways to implement such an approach given the capitalist system’s innate tendency to create divisions in the working class in order to maintain its grip over the class as a whole.

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July 26, 2016

Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life

Filed under: racism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

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If you like me appreciate good writing about what it means to be a working stiff, don’t waste any time. Send in a check to subscribe to Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life that is edited by Noel Ignatiev, a long-time revolutionary scholar, journal and activist. A check for how much, you are probably asking. Unlike many journals on the left, particularly the high-toned ones that are peer reviewed, the operating principles for Hard Crackers is—how shall we put it?—socialistic. As they say on the inside cover, “There is no set price for either single issues or subscriptions. Pay what you can. Bulk orders are particularly appreciated.”

Send checks and printed material to:
Hard Crackers, PO Box 28022, Philadelphia, PA 19131
Communications to noelignatiev@gmail.com

There is something decidedly old school about Hard Crackers. There is no website, a gesture that is consistent with the esthetic of the magazine that has the redolence of the factory floor, the billiards parlor, the bowling alley and the saloon whose juke box features Hank Williams and Hank Ballard.

The articles in the premiere issue of Hard Crackers were just the kind that I dote on. They remind me of Harvey Swados’s classic 1957 Bildungsroman “On the Line”, a collection of stories about being an auto worker in the Mahwah Ford Plant. Or Michael Yates’s In and Out of the Working Class. Or even the novels and short stories of Charles Bukowski, who while by no means being a Marxist, conveyed through his fiction the observation made by Karl Marx in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

It is not just about the experiences of workers. It is also about what Ignatiev refers to in his Editor’s Introduction: “virtually every article in this issue of Hard Crackers deals directly or indirectly with race—no surprise since race remains a major concern in the U.S.”

As it happens, I cited Race Traitor, the journal that Hard Crackers grew out of, in my review of the new movie “Free State of Jones” since the main character Newton Knight was the ultimate race traitor, a Mississippi farmer who joined with the Union army to break the back of the Confederacy. I had never read Race Traitor but knew enough about Noel Ignatiev to understand that the connection was real. Indeed, so did he, as evidenced by what he wrote in the introduction:

Southern non-slaveholding whites played an important part in bringing about the downfall of the Confederacy, resisting the draft, deserting the army in large numbers and joining the general strike of white and black la-bor. The alliance between those who owned thousands of acres and hundreds of people and those who eked out a hardscrabble existence on the poorest land was unstable and could not endure.

The intersection between working class existence and racial oppression is at the heart of Ignatiev’s own contribution to the first edition of the magazine, a chronicle of one of his factory jobs as a drill press operator titled “Influence”. It deals with the experience he had with a genial old-timer named Mike who was just the kind of white worker who now supports Trump. Mike was a loyal employee all too ready to cooperate with speed-up at the small manufacturing plant, as well as to assert his role in the microcosm of American society on the shop floor:

As I was going over in my mind plans for getting the guy to slow down before he killed the rate on the job (including breaking his other eight fingers if necessary), one of the assemblers, a black man, turned the corner to head into the shop. Mike muttered something.

My mind elsewhere, I didn’t hear him clearly. “What did you say?” I asked.

“Are you from out of state or something?” said Mike. “I called him a nigger. Don’t they use that word where you come from?”

“Well, I don’t,” I said.

“Oh, I forgot, you’re at the University. They’re all liberals there,” he said with a laugh.

Before I could reply, the buzzer sounded, calling us to our devotions.

Now Mike, although brought up in a neighborhood world-famous for its resistance to school integration, lived on a street where the majority of residents were black. In response to questions from whites on the job, he simply explained that he liked living with black people. He got along well with most of the black workers. I wanted to learn more about how he thought. But first, I would have to straighten something out: no one was going to get away with calling me a University liberal. When mid-afternoon break came around, I walked over to Mike’s work station and said, “I want to ask you a question and I want you to think before you answer. I’ve spent twenty years in places like this. Do you real think that a couple of years of college makes that much different in what I am?”

I strongly urge you to take out a subscription to Hard Crackers. It is much closer to the grass roots than some of the other trendy Marxist journals that get fawned over in the NY Times and elsewhere for its millennial bloodlines. Since Ignatiev was born in 1940, he certainly couldn’t be mistaken for one.

If you need any other motivation to take out a sub, you might want to read the editor’s invitation that appeared in CounterPunch in February:

Attentiveness to daily lives is absolutely essential for those who would like to imagine how to act purposefully to change the world. During the 1940’s and 1950’s The New Yorker ran a series of profiles by Joseph Mitchell of characters around New York. Mitchell wrote, “The people in a number of the stories are of the kind that many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to as ‘the little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.” The profiles are collected in Up in the Old Hotel. A reader will find there hardly a single “political” reference, yet there is no doubt that Mitchell and many of the people he wrote about would have happily adapted to life in an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

There is a need for a publication that focuses on people like the ones Mitchell profiled. It would not compete with publications that analyze developments in the capitalist system and document struggles against it, nor with groups formed on the basis of things their members oppose and things they advocate; still less would it substitute for participation in actual struggles. It would be guided by one principle: that in the ordinary people of this country (and the world) there resides the capacity to escape from the mess we are in, and a commitment to documenting and examining their strivings to do so.

The Internet has its place, but paper carries a permanency and weight no digital form can equal. Before John Garvey and I published the first issue of Race Traitor, we sent a prospectus to everyone we knew, asking those who supported it to send us ideas, articles and money. We were so unsure of the future that we didn’t ask for subscriptions. By the third issue we had attracted a new kind of audience and had become part of the public discourse on race. Thus we were able to publish sixteen issues over the next twelve years—without once having to ask readers for financial contributions. I think something similar is possible today.

Right the fuck on.

UPDATE: There is a website for Hard Crackers as indicated in Noel’s comment below.

June 28, 2016

The Free State of Jones

Filed under: American civil war,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 10:25 pm

Like last year’s “Trumbo”, “The Free State of Jones” is guaranteed to earn my vote for best film of 2016 for its combination of film-making genius and political commitment. If “Trumbo” might have been a success with someone other than Bryan Cranston in the title role, it was his presence that made you feel like you were watching the legendary screenwriter himself rather than an actor. Matthew McConaughey elevates “The Free State of Jones” in the same way. Present in every scene, he is utterly convincing as the anti-secessionist guerrilla leader who was the walking embodiment of what Noel Ignatiev called the Race Traitor.

Written and directed by Gary Ross, “The Free State of Jones” is everything that the overhyped “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” were not. It is an honest attempt to engage with the historical period it portrays even if it takes liberties with the events surrounding the rebellion of Newton Knight. As I will point out later in this article, they made for a more powerful film with a singular vision even if the truth was sacrificed.

After covering the film, I will discuss the actual historical record contained in Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones”, upon which the film was based. While hardly a film to be taken seriously, I will also say a few things about “Tap Roots”, the 1948 film based on Mississippi journalist James Street’s novel of the same title that was a loose adaptation of the Newton Knight story. The film is entirely forgettable if not unbearable, as well as a symbol of Hollywood’s racism, even when it decided to make a film based on ostensibly anti-racist material.

We first meet Newton Knight in a bloody battle that is about as graphic as any Hollywood film I have seen since “Saving Private Ryan”. Serving as a medic, Knight is overwhelmed by the severed limbs and ruptured abdomens that are beyond any doctor’s ability to treat. When the battle subsides, he meets up with men from Jones County who have ended up in the same regiment as him, a common feature of the bond of geography and ideology in both North and South.

When Knight learns that soldiers who own “20 Negros” are being sent home to look after their properties, he is in disbelief. Like most men from Jones County, he owned nothing but the log cabin he lived in and the hogs and corn field he looked after. They were yeoman farmers with almost no class interest in dying on behalf of the plantation owners who seceded from the Union. As the cry went up from the guerrilla movement, they saw it as a “Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight”.

When a conscripted teenaged nephew is soon killed in another battle, he resolves to take the dead body back to Jones County where he can get a proper burial even if this means being charged with desertion.

Back on native ground, Knight soon becomes a target of local Confederate law enforcement for both being a deserter and interceding on behalf of neighbors who have been forced to turn over corn and pigs to the army as part of a hated wartime tax. When they pursue him with bloodhounds, he manages to find refuge in the swamp with a band of runaway slaves. He is led to them by a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who eventually becomes both his lover and a spy for the pro-Union armed struggle Knight will lead.

As the class conflict between poor farmers and armed Confederate tax-in-kind agents deepens, Knight decides that the only recourse is to build a popular resistance based in the swamp that the enemy’s horses cannot negotiate. Once they settle in, their headquarters becomes a staging ground for raids on the Confederate troops and the slave-owners whose interests they protect. It also becomes a place where their yeoman values are implemented in a kind of rough-hewn commune. Runaway slaves are treated as equals and when they are not, Newton Knight steps in to defend them against racism.

Seen in terms of genre, “The Free State of Jones” follows in the footsteps of “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, the 1938 vehicle for Errol Flynn, and the more recent “Braveheart”. When it comes to battles between yeoman farmers and an oppressive, bloodsucking elite, it is natural to cheer for the underdog. The Sheriff of Nottingham to Newton Knight’s Robin Hood is one Lieutenant Barbour who views the pro-Union guerrillas as the lowest scum on earth, particularly as race traitors. Another villain is James Eakins, the plantation owner who beats Rachel for the offense of eavesdropping on his daughters’ spelling lessons. Her only desire is to become literate, a crime in the eyes of the Mississippi slave masters.

The film tracks the battles between Knight’s militia and Confederate troops sent in to smash them and restore law and order in Jones County. Before each battle, Knight rallies the troops in speeches that are a mixture of scripture and Jeffersonian yeoman values. His commitment to racial and social equality continues even after the Civil War is over. He takes the side of former slaves as they exercise their right to vote even after it becomes obvious that the South will remain as oppressive as ever. His only recourse is to live among people, both Black and white, who share his values in the outskirts of the village of Soso in Jones County. If Mississippi and the USA for that matter choose segregation, he persists in building counter-institutions that correspond to his democratic and anti-racist values including the right of people to love each other whatever the color of their skin.

As a subplot that is thematically related but historically problematic, we see crosscuts to the trial of Davis Knight in 1948. He was the great-grandson of Newton Knight who was charged with violating the Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws. Not only is he a symbol of the ongoing fight against racism but a reminder that the Deep South was a deeply segregated place until recently. If Jim Crow disappeared in the 1960s, you cannot help but be reminded of the more recent period when cops can act like the KKK wearing a badge.

Before becoming a film-maker, Gary Ross worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. One might assume that there is a connection between his 2012 “The Hunger Games” and his most recent film, since both include protagonists taking on evil plutocrats. As it happens, the new film is based on American history even if Ross takes liberties.

Ross probably was conscious of rewriting a history that he was intimately familiar with. In an interview with Slashfilm, he describes his engagement with the Civil War scholarship:

It was a tremendous amount of research. I don’t think I did anything but read for a couple of years. And I mean scores of books. I was a visiting fellow at Harvard for a couple of years. I studied under the tutelage of a professor there named John Stauffer, who was head of the American Civilization Department. I spent a lot of time in Jones County visiting it and meeting the local people and getting the local flavor and doing kind of a visceral history.

He even understood that a version of the traditional happy ending for “The Free State of Jones” would have been a much worse falsification of history than any liberties he took with the events described in the film:

Well, you know, that version would have been the white savior movie. That version would have been, “Oh, there’s a triumphant victory, and everything is fine,” and we tie it up with a Hollywood bow and there’s a happy ending. But we all know there wasn’t a happy ending. No sooner was technical emancipation granted than the former Confederates got their land and their power back and began passing laws which were called The Black Codes that were a form of re-enslavement and driving people back to the plantation, driving freed men back to the plantation.

If Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones” is a benchmark for the film’s veracity, it gets high marks in many ways. First and foremost, it describes the social conditions of the county’s yeoman farmers accurately. These were people who relied heavily on the animals they raised and the corn they used to feed them, without which they faced certain ruin. Ross creates a world in his film that evokes the Piney Woods region of Mississippi that was inhospitable to cotton growing and as such made the rise of an agrarian bourgeoisie impossible.

Who were these remarkable people who went against the values of the slave-owners? Considering the stereotypical view of white Southerners that persists to this day, Gary Ross deserves to be honored for telling the kind of story that was not even found in Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. The name of Newton Knight does not appear at all.

The Knight family came from North Carolina, where they were small farmers and forced to seek new land in the deep south after tobacco plantations gobbled up most of the available land. Their ancestors were members of the Regulator Movement that was one of the first armed resistances to British rule in the colonies. Suffering from onerous taxation, they took up arms against the wealthy. In other words, it was exactly the kind of fight they would pursue decades later in Mississippi.

While it is probably unreadable, Jimmy Carter wrote a historical novel titled “The Hornet’s Nest” that was a tribute to the Regulator Movement. The NY Times reviewed it in 2003:

”The Hornet’s Nest,” according to the book’s acknowledgments, was seven years in the making. And its somewhat sensational title refers not to Washington or Congress or even Camp David, but instead to an obscure and ferocious enclave of northern Georgia partisans and militiamen in the Revolutionary War, a guerrilla-like group to which, in his recent memoir, ”An Hour Before Daylight,” Carter says several of his ancestors belonged.

Another important element in the film that is consistent with Bynum’s book is the prominent role played by women as auxiliary fighters in Jones County. In one dramatic highlight, Newton Knight arms a mother and her two young daughters and steels their nerves to hold off a band of Confederate soldiers who come to their farm to carry off livestock and crops.

From the point of view of law and order in Jones County, the women were as much of a threat as the men especially Rachel, who was a fighter for Black emancipation as well as Newton Knight’s lover. Where Gary Ross took considerable liberties was making her the slave of the aforementioned villainous James Eakins whereas in fact she was actually his grandfather Jackie Knight’s slave. Despite his connections to the Regulator Movement, Jackie Knight had no problems adopting the mode of production that made the white race ready to fight for its survival. While by no means as wealthy as the big agrarian bourgeoisie, Jackie Knight had left yeomanry long behind him.

Another liberty taken with historical accuracy was the portrayal of Davis Knight as willing to go to prison for the love of his life. In reality, Davis Knight was interested in one thing and one thing only, to establish his white identity. Given the hell of Mississippi segregation, his decision was understandable.

What is more difficult to understand is the effort of Newton Knight’s ancestors to portray him as indifferent to Black lives and—worse—a common brigand. His son Thomas wrote a book titled “The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight” that embraced his Unionist stand but said nothing about his close ties to African-Americans. His grandniece Ethel Knight went much further. In 1951 she published “The Echo of the Black Horn”, a violent screed that accused him of being a thieving traitor to the glorious Confederate cause. Above all, she hated him for loving Rachel Knight—the act of a race traitor.

Unlike John Brown, Newton Knight was not an abolitionist prophet. His main grievance was effectively “taxation without representation” since he regarded the Confederacy as illegal. Would he have had a different attitude if he had been a man of property? Maybe so. At least he should be given credit for putting his life on the line for the principles that the Republic stood for, even if the Constitution regarded Blacks as only three-fifths of a man.

Ultimately the salient message of “The Free State of Jones” is that class trumps race. In the left’s perpetual engagement with the central conundrum of American politics, there is a tendency to lose track of what motivates whites to make common cause with Blacks. One of the most important points made in Victoria Bynum’s book is the importance of class during the Civil War for the people of Jones County that continued into the 20th century.

Abandoned by the Republican Party after the end of Reconstruction, the pro-Unionist yeoman farmers of Jones County were naturally drawn to the Populist Party that essentially reflected their class interests. In 1892 20 percent of Jones County voters cast their ballot for James Weaver, the Populist Party’s presidential candidate.

The most prominent leaders of the party in Jones County were the sons of Jasper and Riley Collins, two of Newton Knight’s leading lieutenants. At the statewide convention in 1895, they were elected delegates from Jones County. The racist Democratic Party press assailed the Populists as “disgruntled and disappointed office seekers” who hoped to seduce “Republicans and negroes” into voting for its candidates. It also identified them with Radical Republicanism during Reconstruction and warned that “the bottom rail will never be on top again in Mississippi.”

Like Thomas and Ethel Knight, the Populists eventually succumbed to racist pressures and abandoned their natural allies. As a sign of the confused politics of the Deep South, poor farmers voted for a bigot like Theodore Bilbo who backed progressive economic measures with racist invective.

James Street was a native Mississippian who grew up near Jones County and hated racial injustice but valued his Southern heritage. As such, it was natural for him to explore the Newton Knight story and turn it into a novel loosely based on his exploits. Wikipedia has a highly revealing story on his most unusual death:

Street died of a heart attack in Chapel Hill, N.C., on September 28, 1954, at age 50.

He was in Chapel Hill to present awards for excellence in radio broadcasting at a banquet, for which the main speaker was a “Reporter From the Pentagon” (as described by Scott Jarrad, a radio journalist who was to receive an award, who did not give the man’s name). According to Jarrad, the “Reporter from the Pentagon” made a pure power politics argument in favor of preventive war against the Communist nations. Street, who was to present the awards, speaking after that main address, vehemently attacked the position put forward by the “Reporter from the Pentagon,” in a spontaneous rant Jarrad described as “an explosion,” laced with mild profanity; “in a word, he was magnificent.”

Following that rant, however, again according to Jarrad, Street presented the broadcasting awards warmly and politely. Jarrad specifically mentioned the firm and affectionate handshake from Street at the presentation of the award. However, shortly after the ceremony, Street “laid his head on the table like a baby,” dead of a fatal heart attack. Jarrad speculated that the “explosion” of Street’s vehement rant may have been the stress that caused his fatal heart attack.

I can only say that I am surprised that “Tap Roots”, the 1948 film based on his fictionalized account of Knight’s pro-Union guerrilla warfare, didn’t do him in four years earlier.

This was a film that said virtually nothing about the pro-Union sympathies of the Jones County fighters. It revolved around the futile campaign of a plantation owner named Hoab Dabney to disaffiliate from the Confederacy because the people of Lebanon Valley only sought to work in peace. Dabney is played by Ward Bond, a vicious McCarthyite. When the Confederate cavalry annihilates his followers, a Whig newspaper man played by Van Heflin who fought on his side denounces him as a trouble-maker who misled his followers into a useless rebellion. In one of the odder scenes in this very odd movie, Dabney wanders about the battlefield talking to himself after the fashion of King Lear.

The screenplay was written by Alan Le May, the author of “The Searchers” that was adapted for John Ford’s classic film. The sheer stupidity and bad politics of this  film makes you wonder if “The Searchers” has been overrated, as I have long suspected.

Let me conclude with an excerpt from Victoria Bynum’s take on “Tap Roots”, which is contained on her invaluable website Renegade South.

The movie makers treated viewers to a sort of poor man’s Gone with the Wind—except that Hoab Dabney himself (the cinematic version of Newt Knight) appeared as anything but poor, living in his recently-departed father’s opulent mansion with slaves that he apparently inherited from dad! Never mind that neither the real Newt Knight—nor his father—owned slaves. I had to laugh, though, when Hoab Dabney first appeared on screen. Veteran actor Ward Bond appears as a wealthy, middle-aged Hoab, complete with mutton-chop sideburns, a crisp white shirt, black vest and cravat, and sporting a gold watch chain that hangs fetchingly across his portly mid-section!

Let’s just say that Ward Bond is no Matthew McConaughey. . . .

What were Tap Roots’ filmmakers thinking, you ask? They were thinking of Gone with the Wind, that’s what. Never mind that that wildly successful movie was dedicated to the principles of Lost Cause history, with its images of a solid white South and happy slaves. The plot lines, clichés, and characters of Gone with the Wind were shamelessly borrowed, but with a twist—and it’s only a twist—of Southern white opposition to secession from the Union. There is no people’s movement here—only the Dabneys’ assertion of their “freedoms” and dominion over their beloved Lebanon Valley. The men who join the provincial, hardheaded Dabneys in asserting their individual prerogative to remain “neutral” during the war display no agency and no ideas; they merely follow. Although the phrase, “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight,” is briefly flashed on the screen, it has no relevance to the story presented.

June 7, 2016

All the Way

Filed under: african-american,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Currently being featured on HBO, “All the Way” derives its title from LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan “All the Way with LBJ”. That year SDS urged a vote for Johnson but under the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. For some former SDS’ers like Carl Davidson, you can expect the slogan to be dusted off and used once again for Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump being the scariest Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater—or was it Ronald Reagan, I can’t remember.

The movie is an adaptation of a three-hour play by Robert Schenkkan starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ that ran on Broadway in 2013. The NY Times faulted it for including too many characters to receive full development in such a short time so you can imagine how much worse the problem is when the play is reduced to a 132-minute teleplay.

“All the Way” received a Tony award for best play in 2014 but that’s setting the bar fairly low given the competition on Broaday. Probably most people went to see it because it starred Bryan Cranston. Nowadays big-name TV and Hollywood movie stars are often recruited for such roles to boost ticket sales. The HBO film was directed by Jay Roach, who directed the very fine film “Trumbo” that also starred Bryan Cranston. Since I loved “Trumbo”, I approached “All the Way” with an open mind even though I couldn’t help but feel that it would be an effort to salvage LBJ’s reputation, especially since it covers the period prior to the major escalation of the war in Vietnam and the ghetto uprisings that left LBJ’s legacy a pile of smoldering rubble.

Like “Selma”, a central part of the drama consists of LBJ and MLK Jr. butting heads over civil rights legislation, especially the need for one protecting voting rights. Unlike “Selma”, however, there is much more focus on the white racist opposition to this and any other reforms from southern Democrats like Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who is played by veteran actor Frank Langella. Russell was very close to Johnson who had him over for dinner many times in their 20-year friendship that came to an end over the 1964 Civil Rights bill that banned Jim Crow practices but fell short of guaranteeing voting rights.

As you might expect, a film could be more expansive in some ways even if it had to be curtailed in length from the play. All the action in the play took place in the oval office but the film shows debates taking place in the Senate over the proposed legislation. It is entirely possible that the words that came out of one racist politician’s mouth were written by Schenkkan, but you can’t exclude them actually being heard on the Senate floor. In arguing against the bill, he says that it would not allow a podiatrist to exclude someone who had smelly feet. It is the same kind of argument being used by bakers who refuse to serve gay wedding ceremonies and from essentially the same voting bloc except now they are Republicans rather than Democrats like Richard Russell.

My only exposure to Schenkkan’s work in the past was the screenplay he wrote for Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” back in 2002 that I found lacking:

Robert Schenkkan, one of the screenwriters, told the Boston Globe in February that he wanted to make Pyle [the eponymous character–a CIA agent] more believable and more sympathetic. Since he is also involved with terror bombings that are blamed on the communists, this requires a certain amount of literary license. Brendan Fraser [playing Pyle] added, “He couldn’t be capable of doing the awful things he does do. We had to show him some respect, to make him credible as someone who could take care of himself and have language skills.” Ultimately this doctoring of Greene’s prose yields an OSS agent who might be mistaken for a character on “Friends”. With his dog and baseball cap, this Pyle seems more like a frat boy than a killer.

As it turns out, “All the Way” flunks the Indochina acid test just as badly as this misuse of Greene’s novel set in Vietnam during the 1950s. Although most of it is concerned with civil rights, there is one scene that deals with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and rather badly at that. LBJ is depicted as being preoccupied by the murder of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney since it might cast a pall over the Democratic Party convention. When Robert McNamara comes into the oval office to apprise him of an unverified attack on an American destroyer by Vietnamese patrol boats, LBJ’s initial reaction is to let it slide. When McNamara tells him that his rival Barry Goldwater has been leaking news of the bogus attack to the press and warning that the administration was soft on Communism, LBJ caves in and authorizes air strikes.

Is it credible to believe that Barry Goldwater’s campaign speeches was what led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the horrors that would last for nearly another decade? Not if you have read the Pentagon Papers. The USA had intended to destroy the revolution taking place in South Vietnam long before Goldwater was a candidate. A war with the North was essential in order to cut off the NLF’s supply lines. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was manufactured in order to give the White House cover for launching a genocidal war that it has never fully atoned for or honored the need for reparations to the Vietnamese. It probably would have been better for Schenkkan to stick to the civil rights struggle rather than introducing a false account of American history, especially since the play was supposed to be historically accurate.

The most interesting and dramatically effective segment involves the failed attempt by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated at the 1964 convention. Led by Fannie Lou Hamer (played effectively by Aisha Hines), it pits LBJ against the civil rights activists who thought the delegation was the true voice of the DP rather than the bigots who were now seated. In effect, they were the Bernie Sanders of their day.

The MFDP was backed initially by Hubert Humphrey but since LBJ feared a walkout of all the Southern racist delegations if the MFDP was seated, he pressured Humphrey to withdraw his support. As was generally the case with LBJ, he offered material incentives to those he was pressuring–in this case the VP nomination. In order to close the deal with Humphrey and the liberal wing of the DP that backed the MFDP, LBJ gets Walter Reuther on the phone and orders him to lean on Humphrey, which he does. To give some credit to Schenkkan where credit is due, he makes Reuther look like a rat.

In one of the more dramatic scenes, we see MLK Jr. outside the convention cajoling the younger and more militant Black activists to settle for a token two-delegate observer status so as to preserve “party unity”. You don’t want the evil Goldwater to be president, do you? In essence, this is how the DP operated back then and operates today as Bernie Sanders and his supporters will learn this summer.

“All the Way” should be seen as an introduction to some important historical events even if it has to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt. Bryan Cranston, as always, turns in an impressive performance. If it motivates you to read some serious historical accounts of the period like Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” or Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63”, then it will have served a useful purpose.

The biggest problem, however, is that it might leave you with the impression that LBJ is now undervalued by the left, especially since he was the architect of the Great Society and two major pieces of civil rights legislation. Nostalgia for LBJ can be seen in certain quarters, especially Salon Magazine that wrote about “Lessons from All the Way: 3 big takeaways from LBJ’s victories that progressives can’t afford to ignore”:

Yet even though millions of liberals tuned in on Friday night to see Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of LBJ, polls continue to show that our era’s Johnson is in danger of losing to our era’s Goldwater because many progressives — who largely backed Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, for the Democratic nomination — are unwilling to support her in the general election. This is where “All the Way” specifically, and Johnson’s story in general, offers three instructive lessons.

“This ain’t about principles, it’s about votes. That’s the problem with you liberals — you don’t know how to fight! You wanna get something done in the real world, Hubert, you’re gonna have to get your hands wet.”

To really gauge LBJ’s role in American history, you have to have a more inclusive time-span than the one presented in “All the Way” that is bounded by JFK’s assassination and a victory party at LBJ’s ranch after the votes have finally been tallied making him the new president.

As a sign of how “we can overcome”, the voting rights bill of 1965 that is a cornerstone of both “Selma” and “All the Way” was enacted just five days before the Watts riots, the largest in American history. It was one thing for the Blacks to press for voting rights and another for them to throw Molotov Cocktails. LBJ’s reaction to earlier urban uprisings had been from a law and order perspective and now he would confront them as he confronted the Vietnamese peasants: with iron and blood.

The liberals he assigned to report on native restlessness were hardly distinguishable from the Southern racists. Harry McPherson, who was the White House counsel under LBJ, toured Bedford Stuyvesant and reported back to his boss:

[And] Bedford-Stuyvesant . . . is the home of what Marx called the lumpen-proletariat,'” an “incredibly depressing” cityscape with “every tenth car—as in Harlem—a Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera, or Chrysler, double-parked before a busted decaying house.” He offered a few po-litical impressions (“I am coming to believe that 95% of the Negro leaders in this country are West Indian”), but mostly stories of the sort that the Kennedys had ridiculed Johnson for telling. “A statue, in the park of a public housing project, of Lincoln—seated, with his hand around the shoulder of a Negro boy,” he wrote. “There is a lot of modern playground equipment in the park, but when we were there, the kids weren’t playing on the equipment; they were climbing all over the statue. It almost seemed as if they were trying to lift Lincoln’s other hand and put it on their shoulders. The statue’s bronze is worn to a light brown by thousands of children’s hands. It is the statue of a father—a powerful figure for kids without one at home.”

(From Kenneth O’Reilly’s indispensable “Nixon’s Piano”)

When the Kerner Commission prepared a report that blamed social and economic conditions for the riots, LBJ would have none of it and even refused to invite the authors to meet with him at the White House. What was wrong with these ingrates was his reaction. After all, the Great White Father had bestowed the Great Society upon them.

A rival commission investigating the riots was headed by Arkansas Senator John McClellan, a typical racist who sought answers in law enforcement rather than redressing social conditions. His target was the OEO, a key part of the War on Poverty that many on the right viewed as instigating the riots even though only 16 of its employees were ever arrested during an uprising. For the most part, the OEO representatives in the Black community served as the eyes and ears of the government and could hardly be mistaken for H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael.

I will conclude with O’Reilly’s summation of the relationship between LBJ and McClellan’s McCarthyite investigation of poverty workers:

The riots also hardened Johnson’s soul. He embraced McClellan’s notion that subversives and criminals had instigated the riots, and “having earned recognition as the country’s preeminent civil libertarian” now seemed oddly determined “to become its chief of police” (McPherson’s words). Desperately trying to hold the Democratic party’s voting bloc together, the president dismissed the ghetto riots as the product of Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyites, Maoists. And he did so while trying to contain the growing conservative critique of his administration’s policies. Edwin Willis, the Louisiana Democrat who chaired HUAC, reminded him of how effective old Republican party tactics might be in the present. “Just like some years ago the Republicans made a dent in the Democratic column on the false issue that Democrats were ‘soft’ on Communism, so I regret to say that in my opinion they will try to portray Democrats in general, and you in particular, as being ‘soft’ on law enforcement and respect for law and order.”

 

May 23, 2016

Living on $2 per day

Filed under: poverty,racism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

In the latest NY Review of Books, there’s a review of Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” by one Christopher Jencks, a name I am familiar with even though I know next to nothing about his ideas or what he stands for. After reading the review titled “Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer”, I decided to have a closer look.

“$2.00 a Day” has been hailed by most reviewers. For example, William Julius Wilson concluded his NY Times review with this:

This essential book is a call to action, and one hopes it will accomplish what Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” achieved in the 1960s — arousing both the nation’s consciousness and conscience about the plight of a growing number of invisible citizens.

Jencks does appear in places to side with the authors, but in a highly qualified way. Last year he wrote an article in the NY Review claiming that “official” poverty statistics were misleading since they neglected to include food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that can yield a refund for the lower-income families that qualify. For Jencks, this has led to “roughly half the families now counted as officially poor” having “a higher standard of living than families with incomes at the poverty line had in 1969.”

But after reading Edin and Shaefer, Jencks is forced to admit that “the poorest of the poor are also worse off today than they were in 1969.” So, what accounts for the discrepancy?

Much of “$2.00 a Day” is devoted to reporting on the problems faced by poor women with children who used to depend on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) that was abolished by President Clinton in 1996 as part of a “welfare reform” that Hillary Clinton supported at the time and still supports.

AFDC was replaced by something called TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) that allowed states to shaft indigent mothers through a variety of methods, especially the right to reallocate TANF funds to financial aid for college students, etc. Many women give up on TANF because the application process is so discouraging, intentionally so. Jencks recounts what one woman had to put up with:

[Modonna] Harris looked for new jobs, without success. After her unemployment benefits ran out, a friend noticed that Harris had no food in her apartment for herself or her child and persuaded her to apply for TANF. The welfare office opened at 8:30 AM, so Harris showed up at 8:00. At least on that particular day, however, there were only enough appointment slots for applicants who had joined the line in the rain outside the welfare office before 7:30. After waiting most of the day, Harris left without having been given a chance to apply, convinced that TANF would never help her.

This is obviously related to the “discouraged workers” syndrome that led many men and women with good jobs all their life to remain permanently unemployed after losing jobs when they were in their fifties. It was just too demoralizing and pointless to apply for positions that they had no chance of nailing down. As it happens, such people are not considered to be unemployed by government agencies.

Jencks ultimately returns to his food stamp/EITC arguments in order to demonstrate that despite all the difficulties, Modonna Harris was not that bad off since the authors leave that out of the equation. There is another criticism I found positively chilling:

Another concern about Edin and Shaefer’s estimates of extreme poverty in $2.00 a Day is that they include families whose income fell below $2 a day per person for even one month. If a single mother loses her job, has no relatives, no close friends, no romantic partner, and no assets she can sell or borrow against, one month without income can be catastrophic now that TANF is so hard to get. However, a single mother who has just lost her job often has some of those assets, as $2.00 a Day shows. When that is the case, her first month without income does not always mean that her family will go hungry, much less that they will all be put out on the street for not paying the rent. The longer she goes without income, however, the more likely she is to exhaust her relatives’ sympathy, her boyfriend’s willingness to bring over pizza for dinner, or the cash she had left from her EITC refund for her work during the previous year. There is no “one-size-fits-all” rule for deciding how long a family can survive without income, but for some, at least, one month need not be disastrous.

I lingered for a minute on this sentence realizing that Jencks was trying to minimize the impact of trying to live on $2 per day for a month. This is a Harvard professor who has no idea what kind of suffering that entails. Plus the business about the “romantic partner” and “her boyfriend’s willingness to bring over pizza for dinner” smacks of the welfare investigator’s mentality that was embodied in the Clinton administration’s “welfare reform”.

Wikipedia indicates that Jencks is hardly the sort of person a “liberal” magazine like the NY Review should be calling upon to review such a book:

Jencks was on the dissertation committee of former member of The Heritage Foundation Jason Richwine, who completed his Ph.D. thesis, “I.Q. and Immigration Policy,” at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Widely discredited for the way it linked race to I.Q. levels, the thesis lost Richwine his job at the Foundation. Asked to pass comment on his involvement in what journalist and historian Jon Wiener calls a “travesty,” Jencks replied “Nope. But thanks for asking.”

The dissertation chair was one George Borjas, a conservative economist who writes about immigration for National Review and The Wall Street Journal according to Wiener but he had trouble understanding why Jencks would vote with Borjas on approving a dissertation whose last sentence was: “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”

This perplexed Wiener who described Jencks as “a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?, The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap.”

In 2004, Jencks co-authored an article with Scott Winship for Harvard Magazine titled “Understanding Welfare Reform”. ()  Winship was a Harvard grad student when he wrote this neoliberal article but he continued rightward until he finally settled into a position at the toxic Manhattan Institute where he writes articles like “Inequality Does Not Reduce Prosperity”. Nice.

Winship and Jencks argue that the Clinton abolition of AFDC was not so bad because of the provision of food stamps, EITC and Medicaid. In fact, poor people probably benefited from the changes:

Fast-forward to 2002, when the welfare legislation was set to expire. That year the welfare rolls were less than half their size in 1996. Female-headed families with children were less likely to receive welfare benefits than at any point in at least 40 years. The magnitude of the change surpassed everyone’s predictions. Even more remarkably, however, the official poverty rate among female-headed families with children — based on $14,500 for a woman with two children in 2002 — had fallen from 42 percent to 34 percent during this period. At no time between 1959 (when the Census Bureau first began tabulating such data) and 1996 had this figure dropped below 40 percent. Welfare reform is now widely viewed as one of the greatest successes of contemporary social policy. [emphasis added]

I have to give credit to people like Barbara Ehrenreich and Charles Platt who took minimum wage jobs to be able to write about what life is like when you are poor. This is something that Christopher Jencks obviously would never consider. Let him try to live on $2 for “only a month” and see what it is like.

Although I never did this myself, I got insights on what this meant when I worked for the Department of Welfare in Harlem back in 1968. This and the war in Vietnam was enough to turn me into a revolutionary. Here’s an excerpt from my memoir that is covered under fair usage law that covers this shattering experience:

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April 12, 2016

How the LA Times reported on UCLA athlete Jackie Robinson in 1939

Filed under: racism,sports — louisproyect @ 1:29 am

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(Hat tip to Ken Burns documentary that started this evening on PBS.)

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