Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2020

Me and the Calvinists

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm
John Calvin

The other day I was both startled and pleased to see a scorching attack on “The Cult of Christian Trumpism” by Michael Horton, a Calvinist theologian. It began:

On Saturday, December 12, a bizarre rally was held on the Washington Mall. Shofars were blown. A flyover from Marine One was cheered by shouts of praise to the Messiah (evidently distinguished from Jesus). My Pillow founder Mike Lindell shared prophetic visions of Donald Trump.

I was pleased to see any hard-core Christian trashing the rightwing evangelicals who form Trump’s main political base but why was I startled? It turns out that this was not my first exposure to Horton. Decades ago, I used to listen to a radio show on WMCA, NY’s all-Christian station, called the White Horse Inn that featured Horton and his fellow Calvinists discussing the finer points of original sin, predestination, and how to live a Christian life.

The show got its title from a 16th century pub in Cambridge, England where Lutherans met to discuss how they could advance the goals of the Reformation. Horton and his cohorts paid homage to the pub because they see themselves a spearheading a New Reformation, the title of a magazine that promotes their views, most of which are at odds with the Prosperity Gospel and all the other decadent Protestant institutions that they see as being badly in need of purgation. If the original Reformation was aimed at the excesses of the Catholic Church, Horton sees a New Reformation as one targeting Joel Osteen, et al.

Like Marxists, these Calvinists are deeply committed to making their teachings accessible to a wider audience. Like me trying, for example, to make V. 1 of Capital meaningful to a 21st century audience, they try to rescue someone like Jonathan Edwards from obscurity. Edwards, an 18th century Calvinist, wrote a sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that is both a theological classic as well as work literary scholars have studied for its power:

There is no Fortress that is any Defence from the Power of God. Tho’ Hand join in Hand, and vast Multitudes of God’s Enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in Pieces: They are as great Heaps of light Chaff before the Whirlwind; or large Quantities of dry Stubble before devouring Flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a Worm that we see crawling on the Earth; so ‘tis easy for us to cut or singe a slender Thread that any Thing hangs by; thus easy is it for God when he pleases to cast his Enemies down to Hell.

To their credit, the White Horse crew hold Edwards to the same standards as any other human being despite his great renown among Calvinists:

The ugly truth is that Jonathan Edwards was a slave owner. I hate typing those words, since much of my professional and academic life has been spent studying this man’s best thoughts and writings. I am also slightly concerned that some readers of this article might run to the nearest Edwards-related plaque or historical marker and deface it with spray paint or tear it down entirely. In my view, neither idolizing Edwards nor eliminating his legacy from the annals of history is appropriate. But we can start with this fact in bold print: Edwards owned slaves. Several. We know this because he actually wrote down some of the purchase records, including credits and debits in his famous Blank Bible, as well as his “Last Will and Testament,” where he recorded financial matters from time to time in lieu of a digital Excel Spreadsheet. We also know at least three of the Edwards family slaves’ names, Venus (a fourteen year old girl), Leah (converted during the revivals) and Titus (an African boy).

There’s quite a bit of irony in this since David S. Reynolds’s biography of John Brown mentions how this sermon was read repeatedly by Brown throughout his life and gave him the resolve he needed to make war on slavery, as if any were needed.

So why would a Marxist like me be a regular listener to White Horse Inn? I’ll let you into a little secret. I was not only a religion major at Bard College but someone fixated on Christian theology. My senior thesis was on St. Augustine’s “City of God”, although looking back in retrospect, I was far more interested in his Confessions.

In the early 60s, existentialism was a big thing. People read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to get up to speed. From there, it was Camus, especially “The Stranger”, and Sartre, even though his radicalism lessened him in our eyes. From Kierkegaard, it was a short hop to the German Christian existentialists like Paul Tillich and Karl Jaspers.

Although I long ago put all this behind me, courtesy of LBJ’s war, there are times I reminded of my studies, especially with John Brown’s Calvinism and this surprising turn of events from Michael Horton.

Probably, the association remains strongest with ex-Calvinist Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” that in its odd way featured a John Brown type figure in Travis Bickle who felt justified in killing a pimp. More directly related to Schrader’s theological studies at Calvin College is “First Reformed”, a 2017 film I nominated for best that year. Like John Brown and Travis Bickle, Ethan Hawke’s priest was ready to blow up a bunch of fat cats at a fundraiser for a Prosperity Gospel type church.

From my CounterPunch review :

Made forty-two years after “Taxi Driver”, “First Reformed” depicts the inner turmoil of men upset with the state of the world, at least the world that confronts them respectively. For Travis Bickle, New York was a Sodom and Gomorrah that impelled him to rain down destruction on its sinners since it was clear that no supernatural being could do much about 13-year old girls working as prostitutes. For Father Toller, it a different kind of degradation that must be confronted. At one point, we see him looking balefully at a lake polluted by the toxic waste flowing from Balq Industries, the largest donor to Abundant Life. The incestuous ties between corporate mammon and the prosperity gospel are staring Toller in the face.

Now seventy-one, Paul Schrader has made a film that is not only the pinnacle of a long career but one that reflects his deepest worries about the future of the planet–the same ones of his characters. In an interview with Variety, Schrader explained why he chose to make a film about the environmental crisis:

We have this contemporary crisis of ecology, which takes all the historic, philosophic questions of meaning and puts them in boldface. Man has always wondered whether life has any meaning and what comes after death. Now that we can sort of see the end of the role in the physical world the questions have an added urgency.

A follow-up question is about Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. His reply:

I wouldn’t isolate these events. They’re part of the new normal. It’s not just hurricanes. The icebergs are falling into the seas. California’s on fire. It’s an accelerating process.

I would think that homo sapiens as we know them will not outlive this century. When they create a great museum of the animal world, hopefully the filmmakers will get a room.

Amen.

September 16, 2020

For They Know Not What They Do

Filed under: Film,Gay,religion,transgender — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

After having reviewed well over a dozen narrative and documentary films over the years making the case for gay, lesbian and transgender rights, none has moved me as much as “For They Know Not What They Do” (Jesus’s words at his crucifixion) that opened yesterday on iTunes, Amazon and virtual cinema. The documentary tells the story of four young people growing up in strict Christian households, who face both opposition from their families and society as a whole. They say that the key to a successful documentary is choosing subjects that an audience can relate to. That being the criterion, director Daniel Karslake, a gay man, is a pure genius. We meet in turn:

  • Linda and Rob Robertson, fervent evangelicals who put their 12 year-old son Ryan into conversion therapy.
  • Life-long Presbyterians, David and Sally McBride, who were shocked when their youngest boy came out to them as a transgender female.
  • Coleen and Harold Porcher, a mixed-race couple whose child suffered endlessly until they accepted her transitioning to a male identity.
  • Victor Baez and Annette Febo, whose Catholic tradition and Puerto Rican family values put them at odds with their gay son Vico, who was one of the survivors of the homophobic mass murder of people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

In “Anna Karenina”, Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” His classic novel created fictional characters whose pain spoke for the human condition universally. Karslake’s film speaks to the particular pain of both parents and children coping with the contradictions between the religious beliefs that sustain them and the right of their children to live as fulfilled human beings.

In 2007, Karslake directed “For the Bible Tells Me So” that covered the same territory. It featured interviews with several sets of religious parents with gay children, including former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and his wife, Jane, and the parents of Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Robinson is featured in “For They Know Not What They Do”, making the case for tolerance. Robinson is famous for being the first openly gay priest to be consecrated as a bishop in a major Christian denomination, in his case the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Although the film says nothing about his background, one gleans that Robinson’s class background disposed him toward a genuine Christian sensibility based on the notion that the meek shall inherit the earth. His parents were poor sharecroppers working the tobacco fields in Kentucky. Wikipedia reports that the family used an outhouse, drew water from a cistern, and did laundry in a cast-iron tub over an open flame.

Although I found the story of all four families compelling, Sarah McBride’s store brought me close to tears. Born as Tim McBride in 1990, he sat at his computer when he was 12 years old sending an email to his mother announcing that he wanted to be a girl. Despite society’s animosity toward trans people that the film rightly likens to the attitudes gay people had to put up with before Stonewall, Sarah was self-assured and willing to put up with abuse. While the abuse hurt, it even hurt more to be trapped in a body that does not feel you belong in.

McBride is currently the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. Today the New York Times reported that she is set to be the nation’s highest-ranking transgender official, having won a primary for a safely Democratic seat in Delaware. As much as I detest the Democratic Party, I was happy to see footage in the film of her  being the first transgender person to speak at a major party’s national convention in 2016. Hint, it wasn’t the Republican convention.

The film includes a segment that would likely inspire guffaws from Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. While working at the Center for American Progress, McBride met a staff lawyer named Andrew Cray who she felt attracted to and vice versa. As it happens, Cray was born a female and transitioned into a male. When you watch the two walking hand in hand, you wonder what makes people like JK Rowling tick, whose new novel makes an amalgam between crossdressing and its main character, a serial killer. Not long after the two were married, Cray developed multiple forms of cancer and died in 2014. Just before his death, the two got married with the ceremony led by Bishop Gene Robinson.

There was a time when Hollywood made movies about gay people, largely as a nod in the direction of diversity. None were any good, no doubt a function of the dominance of straight people in the driver’s seat either as director, screenwriter or lead actor. It takes a documentary like this to not only do justice to gay and transgender identity but to tell a totally involving story. Not to be missed.

December 7, 2018

Boy Erased; The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 7, 2018

This year two narrative films shared the same subject matter: the damage that conversion therapy does to gay people following a regimen based on Christian fundamentalism and bogus psychotherapy in order to “change”. “The Boy Erased” had a bigger budget and a more conventional Hollywood distribution path than the indie “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” that played in arthouses but both are excellent. The first is currently playing in theaters everywhere, advertised heavily, and considered as possible Oscar-bait while the second that opened over the summer can now be seen as VOD. I made a point of seeing both films after watching a segment on Sunday Morning CBS News a couple of months ago about conversion therapy, a practice that struck me as utterly barbaric. After saying something about the two films, I will conclude with some observations about how the “sky religions” have managed to maintain utterly inhuman practices based on a couple of sentences in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, notwithstanding shifting attitudes toward same-sexers over the eons.

Continue reading

December 29, 2017

The Fearless Benjamin Lay

Filed under: Counterpunch,religion,slavery — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 29, 2017


A decade ago I reviewed “Amazing Grace”, a hagiographic biopic about William Wilberforce, the parliamentary opponent of the slave trade in Great Britain. Since I am far more interested in a film’s politics than tracking shots, I saw it as an opportunity to cut Wilberforce down to size:

The film was meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the passing of the bill that banned the slave trade in the British Empire, an event that constitutes the climactic scene.

What it does not make clear is that the bill did not abolish slavery itself, which would persist in Jamaica and other British colonies for another 30 years. When younger and more militant abolitionists pressed Wilberforce to enter legislation to that effect, he replied that because of the effect “which long continuance of abject slavery produces on the human mind…I look to the improvement of their minds, and to the diffusion among them of those domestic charities which will render them more fit, than I fear they now are, to bear emancipation.” In other words, the slaves were not ready for their freedom.

If my goal was to cut Wilberforce down to size, this article seeks to demonstrate that Benjamin Lay, a working-class hunchback dwarf born 72 years before, was a giant when it came to abolitionism. Unlike Wilberforce, Lay was a radical who demanded that the Quaker elite free their slaves and take a principled stand against slavery when the peculiar institution was far more in the interests of a rising empire than during Wilberforce’s years in Parliament when free trade was being adopted during the rise of economic liberalism.

Continue reading

May 23, 2017

Predatory Journals and Predatory Skeptics

Filed under: feminism,religion,science,sociobiology — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

On the Skeptic Magazine website there’s an article titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies” co-authored by Peter Boghossian, Ed.D. and James Lindsay, Ph.D. that details how they suckered a “peer-reviewed journal” into publishing a bunch of gibberish filled with postmodernist jargon.

The article appeared in Cogent Social Sciences, a division of Taylor and Francis that along with Sage, Springer and Elsevier represent the top-drawer of academic publishing. Or at least has such a reputation. A representative paragraph appears in the Skeptic article:

We conclude that penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ, or as a male reproductive organ, but instead as an enacted social construct that is both damaging and problematic for society and future generations. The conceptual penis presents significant problems for gender identity and reproductive identity within social and family dynamics, is exclusionary to disenfranchised communities based upon gender or reproductive identity, is an enduring source of abuse for women and other gender-marginalized groups and individuals, is the universal performative source of rape, and is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change.

The references are as bogus as the rest of the article, including one for the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded.

They have to admit that the article was rejected by NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, a Taylor and Francis journal whose editorial board is dominated by Scandinavian academics. An recent article suggests that the journal is strongly influenced by 1970s type feminism: ‘We wouldn’t be boys if we weren’t clever with our hands’ – childhood masculinity in a rural community in Norway.

Considering that is it not included in the top-ranked 115 journals in Gender Studies, being rejected by NORMA indicates a failure to leap a hurdle 6 inches above the ground. As is often (or perhaps universally) the case with being rejected by a Taylor and Francis journal, you get an autoreply inviting you to submit the article to a journal in their open-access Cogent Social Science series that despite the Taylor and Francis imprimatur functions like a predatory journal. Basically, you pony up $1,350 (the hoaxers paid half the normal fee for some reason) and Cogent will be happy to put any crap you write on their website.

Because I have been published in Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, a Taylor and Francis journal, I ended up on some mailing lists that periodically generate mass invitations to the recipients asking them to submit something to open-access predatory journals (Internet-based) as opposed to the far more expensive and exclusive print journals found on JSTOR . For a number of years, University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beal maintained a list of such journals that totaled 1,155 as of December 31, 2016. Beal took down his website in January 2017, providing no comment why. One surmises that he got fed up with being harassed by the conmen operating in this field, including an outfit in India that threatened him with a one billion dollar law suit.

One of the more outrageous predatory journals that solicited an article from me had the gumption to include the name of a professor I knew quite well on its editorial board. When I wrote him to inform him about his name appearing there, he was shocked and wasted no time demanding that they remove it. Typically, the worst of the journals don’t even include a phone number and use a bogus street address for their office. Others are more genuine but don’t really subject an submission to the serious peer review that is typical of academic journals. They also charge hundreds of dollars for the article to be published, a way for them to make a fast buck. Is there much difference between the way they operate and how Cogent Social Science operates?

The hoaxers claim that there is a difference since Cogent is included in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Clearly being included in the directory can be a transitory event since 3,776 were deleted from dataset of 12.595 since its inception, including 376 for ethical lapses. Japan is the worst offender apparently.

Why are these journals called predatory? Since I have become acquainted with many tenure-track professors over the years, I can tell you that they are under enormous pressure to accumulate a paper trail of publications—publish or perish, in other words. Some inevitably succumb to the temptation of paying hundreds of dollars for appearing in a journal that is borderline predatory. Does any of this have anything to do with enhancing humanity’s body of knowledge? I can tell you that even for the best journals coming out of an Ivy school, the number of people who read these JSTOR type articles is vanishingly small.

Unlike Alan Sokal, who received almost universal acclaim in 1996 except from those postmodernists he spoofed, Boghossian and Lindsay have gotten bad press. Salon notes that in making an amalgam between predatory publishing and gender studies, the authors neglect to mention that Cogent Social Sciences lacks a single editor in the field. They are experts in tourism, criminology, development planning, geography, sport management and communication sciences—hardly fields that qualify them to evaluate an article on gender inequality. The hoaxers made a self-righteous case against gender studies:

Our aim was smaller yet more pointed. We intended to test the hypothesis that flattery of the academic Left’s moral architecture in general, and of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies in particular, is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field. That is, we sought to demonstrate that a desire for a certain moral view of the world to be validated could overcome the critical assessment required for legitimate scholarship. Particularly, we suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.3

I am not exactly sure what evidence they are talking about since the endnote pointed to “countless examples documented on the anonymously run Twitter feed @RealPeerReview”. A cursory glance of this Twitter feed will reveal this sort of thing: “Seems that many academics dislike the wonderful Martian movie (and probably @andyweirauthor’s book it’s based on)”. As a rule of thumb, anything that appears on Twitter is hardly worth considering so it is no surprise that the two hoaxers cite it as proving their point.

Since Boghossian has cultivated a career as a professional atheist, it is no surprise that he used Skeptic Magazine as a platform, where Dawkins is considered a leading exemplary.  Boghossian is a featured speaker of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and wrote a book titled “A Manual for Creating Atheists” that repeats the arguments made by Dawkins in his own book “The God Delusion”. His writing partner James Lindsay wrote one of those books himself. Titled “God Doesn’t; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges”, it tries to show that a belief in God is fed by social needs that people do not know how to meet. Since those social needs will exist as long as capitalism exists, I doubt that such books will do much good.

I get a chuckle out of Skeptic Magazine upholding hard scientific values against postmodernist mumbo-jumbo since its editorial board is a virtual hotbed of sociobiologists, including the aforementioned Dawkins, Jared Diamond and the infamous Napoleon Chagnon. Additionally, the hoax got the endorsement of Stephen Pinker, who like Jared Diamond believes that hunting and gathering societies were far more capable of genocide than Adolph Hitler. Why? Because it is in our genes evidently. Survival International summed up the beliefs of of this unsavory crew:

Steven Pinker (‘evolutionary psychologist’)

In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker promotes a fictitious, colonialist image of a backward ‘Brutal Savage’, which pushes the debate on tribal peoples’ rights back over a century and is still used to justify their destruction. Read more about why Pinker’s ‘science’ is wrong.

Napoleon Chagnon (anthropologist)

Steven Pinker would arguably not have been able to reach the conclusions he does about tribal violence without the highly controversial work of a single anthropologist: Napoleon Chagnon studied the Yanomami tribe from the 1960s, calling them ‘The Fierce People’. But are the Yanomami really fierce?

Napoleon Chagnon’s view that the Yanomami are ‘sly, aggressive and intimidating’ and that they ‘live in a state of chronic warfare’ has been widely discredited. Nonetheless, both Diamond and Pinker’s conclusions about tribal violence rely heavily on his work.

Jared Diamond (geographer)

Jared Diamond’s 2012 book, The World Until Yesterday is ostensibly about what industrialized people (whom he calls ‘modern’) can learn from tribal peoples (he calls them ‘traditional’). His book, however, carries a false and dangerous message – that most tribes engage in constant warfare, both needing and welcoming state intervention to stop their violent behavior. Read more.

As far as Dawkins is concerned, we can assume that he was eager to publicize anything that smacked of hostility to feminism given his track record. In 2011, he got in a flame war with feminists as reported by The Atlantic:

Richard Dawkins made an unexpected appearance in the comments section of biologist PZ Myers’ post at Scienceblogs.com last week. Myers was commenting on Rebecca Watson’s recent experience being propositioned in a hotel elevator by a male attendee of a conference at which Watson had just spoken in Dublin. Dawkins got himself into hot water by commenting in the form of a sarcastic letter to a Muslim woman, pointing out how trivial Watson’s experience in the elevator was compared to the abuses Muslim women deal with on a daily basis. “Stop whining will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery,” he wrote. “But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.”

Then in 2014, he Tweeted that women should not get drunk if they want to avoid being raped:

Two years later he was disinvited from a conference organized by skeptics for Tweeting a sexist video:

Finally, with respect to the Sokal hoax. Back in 1996, I was thrilled by the news that those masters of obfuscation and critics of Marxist grand narratives were finally getting their comeuppance and from a volunteer who had gone to Nicaragua with a Tecnica delegation I had helped to organize. It was only a few years later when I discovered the background to the con job he pulled on Social Text that I woke up:

I had never really given much thought to Alan’s relationship to Marxism. I, like most people, just assumed that he had gone through volume one of Capital, etc., in the way that young orthodox Jews learn to read Hebrew. Anybody who describes himself as a “socialist” repeatedly in debates with Andrew Ross et al, clearly MUST have at least familiarity with, if not commitment to, the Marxist intellectual tradition.

I discovered that this is not true at all. Despite Alan’s assertion that he is a socialist, in reality he is a left liberal. I had lunch with him on New Year’s Eve in order to discuss my concerns about his defense of the “Kennewick Man” excavations near the Columbia River in Washington State. Alan had defended the scientists against the American Indian “creationists” in his debate with Andrew Ross and I hadn’t given it too much thought at the time. Now that I had become thoroughly immersed in such questions, his position gnawed away at me like a piece of undigested food.

In the course of our discussion, it was revealed to me that Alan’s defense of science has nothing to do with Marxism or socialism. It is virtually indistinguishable from everyday liberal concepts of the role of scientists in society. He said that bad science would expose itself in a free society, so there would seem to be little risk of running into the sort of horrors that took place in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia. All we have to do is criticize the excesses of archaeologists and everything would come out okay in the end. I sat there sipping my wine in a mood of total shock. Alan’s trust in capitalist society was touching but a bit naïve. After all, this was a free country when anthropologists and archaeologists wrote all sorts of racist nonsense throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Leaving this aside for the moment, I had a completely different analysis of how science is conducted. As a stodgy old Marxist, I had become convinced long ago that the ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class. Science was not immune.

I asked Alan if he had ever read Richard Lewontin or Richard Levins, co-authors of “The Dialectical Biologist.” No, he had taken the book out of the library, but never read it. This was astonishing to me. How could Alan Sokal have become regarded as some kind of defender of Marxist rectitude when he had utterly no engagement with the main experts in the field. In his new book “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science,” co-authored by physicist Jean Bricmont, there is no index entry for Marx, Lewontin or Levins. In the one chapter that deals with their own views on the science wars, as opposed to the follies of the pomos, they analyze Thomas Kuhn, not the Marxist analysis of what Lewontin and Levins call the “Commoditization of Science.” That is the real issue, not what Lacan thinks of pi.

In point of fact, the Social Text issue that Alan’s spoof appeared in is one of their better efforts. It is available now under the title “Science Wars” and contains first-rate articles by Levins and Lewontin. It turns out that the original Social Text issue was basically a rejoinder to Norman Levitt, Alan Sokal’s ally in the so-called science wars. Alan told Lingua Franca that his spoof was inspired by Levitt’s efforts to expose irrational tendencies in the academy.

Directing his attention to Levitt and co-author Paul Gross’s “Higher Superstitions,” Lewontin writes:

What Gross and Levitt have done is to turn their back on, or deny the existence of, some of the most important questions in the formation of scientific knowledge. They are scornful of ‘metaphor mongers,’ yet Gross’s own field of developmental biology is in the iron grip of a metaphor, the metaphor of ‘development’ To describe the life history of an organism as ‘development’ is to prejudice the entire problematic of the investigation and to guarantee that certain explanations will dominate. ‘Development’ means literally an unrolling or an unfolding, seen also in the Spanish desarollo, or the German Entwicklung (unwinding). It means the making manifest of an already predetermined pattern immanent in the fertilized egg, just as the picture is immanent in an exposed film, which is then ‘developed.’ All that is required is the appropriate triggering of the process and the provision of a milieu that allows it to unfold. This is not mere ‘metaphor mongering’; it reveals the shape of investigation in the field. Genes are everything. The environment is irrelevant except insofar as it allows development. The field then takes as its problematic precisely those life-history events that are indeed specified in the genome: the differentiation of the front end from the back end, and why pigs do not have wings. But it ignores completely the vast field of characters for which there is a constant interplay between genes and environment, and which cannot be understood under the rubric of ‘development,’ Nor are these characters trivial: they certainly include the central nervous system, for which the life history of the nerve connections of the roundworm is a very bad metaphor.

This is the kind of discussion that matters most in the so-called science wars. Instead of shooting fish in a barrel, Alan Sokal should be responding to these arguments. Instead, he has constructed strawmen that are easy to knock down.

February 2, 2017

Donald Trump’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast

Filed under: religion,Trump — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

(From Steven Salaita on FB)

Here’s a transcript of Donald Trump’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast:

Thank you, thank you everybody, thank you. It’s great to do my first prayer breakfast. We’ve got seven more to go, at least seven more. Who knows. I’m winning so much they may have to change the Constitution. Next time we’re gonna win even bigger. My people have done the calculations, we’ve looked at the polls, we expect 107, 108 percent of the vote. And we’re just getting started. But the reason we’re here is because of Jesus.

[APPLAUSE]

I mean, Jesus is great. Some say the greatest. Moses is pretty great, too. Parted the sea. Did it without the EPA, too. I’ll close it down soon, the EPA. Moses would have hated it. Abraham, he was tough. He didn’t cut that kid in half, Isaac I think, or was it Isaiah. Doesn’t matter. I’d do it to Eric or Junior, but Abraham chickened out, blamed it on God. Isaac and Isaiah didn’t grow up to be as successful as Eric and Junior, either, but that’s okay, they didn’t have a strong father figure, like the blacks, who love me more than they love Jesus, by the way. They really love me, okay. And how about Ezekiel. What a name, Ezekiel. Led the NFL in rushing this year. Then there’s Gabriel, who’s totally underrated. I mean, he performed IVF on Mary. Great prophet, that one. Solomon, Joseph, Adam, good prophets. Mohammad, not so much.

[APPLAUSE]

And what a book, the Bible. It’s the second bestseller of all time, a few million copies behind Art of the Deal. People love that book. In Mexico, everybody reads it in sixth grade. They read it in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, that other country over there. It’s like their Bible. But anyway the other Bible. Wonderful book. Amazing book. I really like the story about Sodom and Gomorrah. God destroyed those sinful places. My friend Rudy did the same thing in Times Square, put in a TGI Fridays, a very successful restaurant. I’m gonna do him one better, though, build the best resort in Israel. Dead Sea water will come out of the faucets. Wonderful for exfoliation. You’ll get the best exfoliation there. Tons of old stones laying around the country, too, almost like they used to be part of houses. We’ll use those to make the place look like old Israel, from the fifties and sixties. And we’ll dress Arabs up as camels and let the kids ride them. It’s gonna be spectacular. They’ll write a new Bible story about it one day.

[APPLAUSE]

As everybody knows, I’m a religious man. Pray twenty, thirty times a day. Huge prayers. I even pray for all the losers in the media. Maybe God will convince them to stop with the fake news, am I right? I haven’t been able to do it. But miracles are important, that’s why I have beautiful buildings all over the world, miraculous properties. Maybe we’ll see a miracle. God owes me a few. More than a few, but I’ll settle for two or three. I’ve been negotiating with God all my life. That’s really what prayer is. And I pray to win.

[APPLAUSE]

I know you have churches to go to, flocks and stuff, great flocks, terrific flocks. Like my man over here, Jerry Falwell Junior. People know his father, but let me tell you, the son is like that other son we admire so much. Wave to the crowd, Eric. Good boy. Jerry is gonna advise me about college. He’s at Liberty. It’s not as highly rated as Wharton, where I went, by the way, but he really knows what he’s doing. Our universities are gonna be the best in the world. Not just in sports, either. We’re gonna have fantastic universities, very special campuses. Right now they’re terrible. They’re a joke, folks. Filled with communists, women, diversity. We need better universities. It’s terrible, this diversity. We’re gonna make them great again. No more classes that teach useless things like writing and public speaking.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you, everybody. It’s been great. You’re all special to me. God is special to me. Jesus. Very special, Jesus. My son in law doesn’t like him, but we’re working on that. Believe me, we’re working on that. Thank you, God, for being great, and for the food. Amen.

May 20, 2016

Almost Holy

Filed under: Film,religion,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

Opening today at the Village East in New York is “Almost Holy”, a documentary about a Ukrainian pastor named Gennadiy Mokhnenko who created the Pilgrim Republic, a home for drug addicted street kids in Mariupol in 1998. Mokhneko is a larger than life character with an absolute conviction that he is doing the right thing even if it involves what amounts to vigilantism. When he goes into a pharmacy that has been selling opiates to children and reads the pharmacist the riot act, you tend to view him in a positive light especially in a society like Ukraine where the cops are frequently nothing but criminals themselves. Although Jesus Christ was only a figure of legend, it is remarkable to see a contemporary Christian trying to emulate that side of the son of god who drove the money changers from the temple.

The film is also of interest as a running commentary on the civil war in Ukraine as Mokhnenko has to dodge rockets and artillery attacks to continue with his mission, which mostly consists of going into what amounts to the Ninth Circle of hell to reach 13 to 17-year-old boys and girls who are living in abandoned buildings or shacks with needle tracks running down their arms and nothing to live for until their next fix. Mokhnenko lays it on the line: Come with him to the Pilgrim Republic if they want to live. Oddly enough, it evokes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line in Terminator 2 especially since Gennadiy Mokhnenko looks like he is carved out of granite.

The film is a good companion piece to “The Tribe” that I reviewed almost a year ago. Like “Almost Holy”, it was set in a home for Ukrainian society’s marginalized youth—in this instance deaf teenagers who were trapped into gang life and prostitution by the men who ran the institution. Although it would have been obvious to anybody following the recent history of Ukraine, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiiy made it explicit in the press notes:

A boarding school is better than just a school because it is a closed system, which––like a prison––can be perceived to be a metaphor of the state even if that isn’t the intention. The Tribe is, to a certain extent, a metaphor of the arrangement of the Ukrainian state, at least the pre-revolutionary Ukraine. And the arrangement of the state of Ukraine was based on the principle of a Mafiosi group.

In “Almost Holy”, the children are victims more of neglect than direct exploitation by Fagin like characters. They have run away from impossible situations at home, usually the result of having alcoholic and abusive parents. Indeed, the social portrait that emerges is the same as Russia during Yeltsin’s rule when Jeffrey Sachs’s shock therapy was destroying the economy and driving millions of Russians into drug and alcohol addiction. Now that Sachs has recast himself as an “anti-imperialist”, he would obviously side with the Russian special forces that were bombing Mariupol when the film was being made. In a CNBC article, he justified Russian intervention in the Ukraine using the favorite talking point of the “realists” like Stephen F. Cohen or John Mearsheimer:

Some claim that each country has the “right” to choose its own military alliance: that this is simply Ukraine’s choice to make. Yet the U.S. has never allowed its own neighbors like Cuba (or Nicaragua, Granada, and several others) to choose their own alliances. To claim to Russia that Ukraine’s membership in NATO is Ukraine’s decision alone is the beam in the eye of the West.

So there we have it. If it was all right for the USA to blockade Cuba, it was also all right for Russia to launch a separatist war.

Apart from what it says about life in Ukraine, the film is documentary at its finest. Director Steve Hoover starts with a compelling main character, something that is essential to the success of most documentaries, and uses the camera and film score to sustain your attention for the film’s entire 100 minutes. This is a morality tale that will force many of my readers, who like me tend to be atheists and skeptical of organized religion except for the Latin American liberation theology current, to engage with a personality who in many ways has more in common with the Christian right in the USA. Gennadiy Mokhnenko is not a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church but a Protestant sect. For that matter, he doesn’t appear to be functioning as a pastor but much more as a kind of community activist. It should also be understood that he is an anti-Communist, endorsing at one point the trashing of a Lenin statue. As the son of factory workers, he probably came to resent not only the social distinctions of Stalinist society but its failure to at least satisfy the needs of the population as it reached its terminal stages in the 1980s.

In doing some background research on the director, I discovered that I had reviewed his last documentary, which was titled “Blood Brother” and had a main character resembling Gennadiy Mokhnenko:

When I first heard that the documentary “Blood Brother” was about a young American going to India to work with HIV-positive orphans, the first thing that entered my mind was “another Mother Teresa”. The only question is what would motivate someone to take what amounted to a vow of poverty and devote himself to people he barely knew and who were in such desperate straits. Was it religion? Was it a kind of AIDS activism that was prevalent in the USA during the early years of the outbreak?

It turns out that the protagonist, a lean and handsome youth named Rocky Braat who grew up in Pittsburgh, remained as much of a mystery as the film ended as when it began. This, however, is what makes it appealing. You are both impressed with his dedication but at a loss to figure out what makes him tick. In an age when people his age are desperate to find a job—any job—it is a mystery (in the original sense) as to why Rocky would reject that path and choose to live a Christ-like existence. As the press notes state: “Rocky endures a daily diet of rice, a rat infested hut, visa problems.”

Upon further investigation, I discovered what motivated Hoover to make “Blood Brother” and why that troubled some critics. It turned out that Braat and Hoover were both members of the evangelical Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, which is part of the International Churches of Christ. This is a church that deploys missionaries and proselytizes for beliefs that are probably not that far from Gennadiy Mokhnenko’s. Although it has no connections to the rightwing fundamentalists who follow politicians like Ted Cruz, it is not exactly an institution that most film critics would feel sympathy for.

Writing for PBS’s POV blog, Tom Roston offered a carefully nuanced assessment of “Blood Brother” and its ties to the International Churches of Christ:

Hoover says he did not have a Christian agenda making the film. It’s up to you if you want to connect the dots the way I have. But, I should add, these questions become more pointed when you remember that the credits direct viewers to the charity LIGHT. Is there an appropriate amount information provided by Hoover’s documentary, or even on LIGHT’s website, to make an informed decision to donate? Presidential candidate Barack Obama had to answer for his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He confronted those issues and was able to move on — and get elected. Hoover might not want us to go there, but I think this is the price of membership in his church.

I hope three things come from me raising this issue. One, that we can have a constructive discussion about when and whether a filmmaker’s personal life is relevant to a discussion about his or her film. Two, if Hoover puts himself in his next film, about a rogue Ukrainian priest who goes to extreme measures to get drug-addicted youth off the streets, that he considers acknowledging his past doing similar work and mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story. And, third, that Blood Brother gets that Oscar nomination. Hoover is a good filmmaker and Blood Brother‘s cause, as it is presented in the film, is more than just.

Keeping this background in mind, it is appropriate to quote Steve Hoover from the film’s press notes as to “mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story.” It is also a fascinating account of what it meant for Americans to make a film in a war-torn nation:

The journey of this film began in 2012 when some of my co-workers were commissioned to do a promotional video in Ukraine. While in Mariupol, they met Gennadiy Mokhnenko and spent a few days with him. After listening to his stories and witnessing his amorphous work, they returned with enthusiasm and proposed doing a feature length non-fiction film on Gennadiy. I wasn’t interested in the idea until they shared raw footage with me and further explained some of the context. I was struck by the character of Gennadiy.

Once in Ukraine, we encountered many challenges, the most obvious being that we don’t speak Russian. With the exception of the main subject’s broken English, almost all of the dialogue was Russian. While shooting, we relied heavily on a translator, observation and the main subjects’ limited explanations of events. We had four cameras; two of them were constantly rolling. We committed to filming everything we possibly could, which made for a difficult but rewarding post process.

My life has changed radically throughout the making of this film. Formerly, I was Christian, or I at least identified as one, but I no longer am. There’s a lot to the story. I was raised in a religiously apathetic, broken, Catholic family. I converted to a nondenominational church in college. To me, faith was a solution to the existential confusion I found myself in after a long, overindulgence in psychotropic drugs, which spanned my adolescence. As a teenager, I was obsessed with hallucinating and the drugs were boundless. The faith eventually helped me to pull myself together, giving me guidance, discipline and a moral framework, all of which I didn’t really have beforehand. It also dispelled an attraction I had to heroin. I had never used heroin, but I was always seduced by the idea and a step away from it, along with several friends who came to die from overdoses. My college roommate at the time was dealing and coaxing me with free dope. He has since overdosed and died.

Gennadiy’s former work with drug addled street kids in Ukraine struck a chord with my darker past. Had I been born in Mariupol, Gennadiy would have had me by the collar. I found deeper interest however, not in the kids I empathized with, but in a character I didn’t understand. The story could have gone in many different directions.

Eventually, I found myself standing in a van while our crew was being attacked by an angry Pro-Russian mob in Ukraine. I was both terrified and calm. I knew that if we made it out of the situation, my life would change – this time in a different way. Up until that point, for several years I had resisted coming to terms with the fact that my beliefs had changed. My cultural liberalism didn’t align with the faith, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze it in. I had grown weary of the behavior and practices of the church that I was a part of and increasingly uncomfortable with the social pressures that some of the members were asserting on me.

The van broke through the mob and after a short car chase, I found myself resolute. I would embrace my worldview and move on. I spent the remainder of the year, mostly alone with the edit. Working on the edit of the film was a means of catharsis for me.

Though the making of this film had a distinctive effect on my life personally, this is definitely not a call to action film; if anything, it’s more of a portrait. It is something to look at, reflect on and discuss. In light of current events, I hope it gives people a reason to research the conflict in Ukraine. Although this film isn’t designed to be a political tool, it has obvious relevance to the turmoil between the EU, Russia and Ukraine and offers some context. The film could develop additional relevance as the conflict progresses.

While the film was in development, I was told by different establishments that there was some controversy surrounding the film. Some felt the portrayal of Gennadiy was too objective and people wanted to know “how the director felt about him.” Some liked Gennadiy, while others were disapproving. I believe Gennadiy is confounding, so I wasn’t comfortable telling people how to think and feel about him. I wanted to show the complicated nature of this character and the world he lives in.

March 24, 2016

The meanings of Purim

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Last night Nova, a PBS program, aired a show titled “Secrets of Noah’s Ark” that can be seen on Youtube:

I think most people who have taken religion, civilization or world history classes in college know that the book of Noah was “borrowed” from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a classic of Babylonian culture. When it was written, Babylon was the largest city in the world with 200,000 inhabitants. Today its ruins can be seen about 53 miles south of Baghdad.

There’s a reference to the city in the book of Genesis, the so-called Tower of Babel that was in all likelihood the ziggurat known as Etemenaki, a pyramid-like structure that was the centerpiece of Babylonian architecture. In the Old Testament, the tower was made by people who all spoke the same language. Because the builders supposedly aspired to have it reach the heavens, the deity got mad at them for being prideful, forced them to speak different languages, and then scattered them across the earth. There’s some uncertainty about the etymology of Babel since in Hebrew it means confusion–implying that the reference to Babylon is inaccurate. Whatever the case may be, scholars generally agree that the story had the Etemenaki in mind, the 300-foot-tall ziggurat in Babylon.

In 578 BC, the Judeans stopped paying tribute to the Babylonians who took retribution by marching off their elite to the city of Babylon, the so-called Babylonian exile—an event that is described as a calamity by official Judaism.

What makes the PBS Nova show interesting is its departure from this narrative. If you go to 40:00 of the Nova video, you will hear from archaeologist Cornelia Wunsch who states that the Jews did “reasonably well” there. Another scholar concurs with her, saying that very soon after being integrated in the city, “things got good”. They became “well ensconced in the Babylonian economy and did well.”

Another scholar looks at a written record that describes a Judean as having both a Jewish and a Babylonian identity, indeed the kind of status that would be enjoyed by Jews in the Middle East and North Africa for millennia. Part of the Judean culture involved writing the stories that would be collected into the Old Testament or what the Jews called the Tanakh.

Irving Finkel, a British scholar of the period, believes that it was not just the Epic of Gilgamesh that influenced the Judean scribes. He points to the story of King Sargon, who was placed in a basket of reeds on the water to save him from those who would prevent him from becoming a monarch. Surely this must have worked its way into the story of Moses.

As it happens, today is a Jewish holiday that is considered minor by religious authorities. Falling on the 14th day of Adar in the Hebrew calendar, which is March 24 in the Gregorian, Purim is considered to be on the same level as Hanukah and pretty much devoid of the piety of Passover or Yom Kippur. Like Hanukah, it is a nationalist tale of the plucky Jews fending off the gentiles.

This time it is not the Babylonians who are the bad guys but the Persians. Haman, the Viceroy of King Xerxes, has decided to kill all the Jews living in Persia after their leader Mordecai got on his wrong side. Queen Esther, a Jew who had married the King without him knowing her ethno-religious roots, interceded on her people’s behalf and convinced the King to execute Haman. As is generally the case in these brutal Old Testament stories, the King gives the Jews the green light to kill anybody they considered their enemy:

The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King Xerxes was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar. (New International Version)

In the Wikipedia entry on Purim, we learn that some scholars believe that this story, like the ones alluded to above, was borrowed from Babylonian literature. Among them are Amnon Netzer and Shaul Shaked who argue that the names “Mordecai” and “Esther” are similar to those of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar (the same name of the Elaine May film that was crucified by critics but like “Heaven’s Gate” has gleaned more favorable reviews the older it gets.) Whether or not there is a Babylonian connection, few serious scholars believe that it is based on true events.

Sensing the contradictions of the Book of Esther, one Rabbi Irving Greenberg, went so far as to group Esther and Mordecai as assimilated Jews after the fashion of those who “did well” in the Babylonian exile:

Today, Purim is a quintessential Jewish holiday. To every little boy and girl who masquerades on Purim, Mordecai and Esther are arch-heroes of Jewishness. But a good case can be made that Mordecai and Esther, too, may have been quite integrated in Persian life and that Purim is the holiday brought to you by assimilated Jews.

What kind of Jews were Mordecai and Esther? Obviously, the answer has to be a speculation, and their record of saving the Jews speaks for itself. Still…

First, there is the matter of their names. Esther’s name probably is derived from Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, and Mordecai’s name from Marduk, a Babylonian god. Equivalent names today might well be Mary and Christopher. Of course, committed Jews in open societies also adopted Gentile names. My parents, Orthodox Jews, wanted an Anglo-Saxon name for their little son, Yitzchak–so they named me Irving. But Christopher!

Then there is that Miss Persia contest. Esther was entered into a competition to become queen by marrying a Gentile king. Imagine that the president of the United States gets divorced and there is a nationwide beauty contest whose prize is marriage to the president. What kind of Jewish women would enter? Not likely Hasidic girls or graduates of Stern College [the women’s college of Yeshiva University].

In 2003 they made a film titled “The Book of Esther” that appears to be part of the Christian Zionist lexicon, at least based on the trailer. Unsurprisingly, it hardly garnered an audience even among Ted Cruz voters.

Of somewhat more interest is the 1960 epic titled “Esther and the King” that is a joint American-Italian production that starred Joan Collins as Esther. It was directed by Raoul Walsh, best known for action melodramas like “White Heat” that starred James Cagney as a gangster (you were expecting a bedroom farce?)

I might have a go at that film courtesy of Youtube:

The only other thing worth mentioning is that these Biblical sagas about heroes and heroines like the Maccabees and Esther were harmless when the Jews were living powerlessly in the shtetls of eastern Europe but when they took over Palestinian territory and set up a Zionist state, got their hands on F-16s and billions of dollars in American aid, such stories began to serve the racist and brutal policies that deepen each year. This report from +972 magazine says it all:

Two individual Arab-Palestinian men were assaulted by mobs of Jewish teens in Jerusalem last Thursday night. Both incidents involved victims who were set upon and beaten so severely that they had to be hospitalized. And in both cases the Israeli Hebrew media outlets that reported the story specified that at least some of the assailants were drunk and in costume. Thursday was Purim in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the festival is celebrated by dressing in costume and drinking to excess.

One of the incidents, reported in a short item by Walla! News, is described as a “suspected nationalist incident.” The Walla! report notes that some of the teens were drunk, that there were about 15 or 16 of them out celebrating the holiday raucously, in the middle of downtown, very late at night. Several people asked the loud celebrants to be quiet, including one young man in his 20s who happened to be an Arab. The teens assaulted him because he spoke Hebrew with an identifiable accent. “I don’t remember much,” he told the reporter. “It hurt a lot.”

 

April 12, 2015

Scientology and the SWP: varieties of cult experience

Filed under: cults,religion — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Just as Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” helped to put a famous musician into perspective following the mannered and incoherent biopic “Get on Up”, he has come to the rescue once again with “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, another documentary this time about the infamous cult that bears little resemblance to that depicted in Paul Anderson’s equally mannered and incoherent “The Master”. Perhaps one can excuse Anderson for making a film that was purportedly not about Scientology if at least it was a good film. Not knowing that much about the cult nor much of a fan of Anderson’s self-indulgences, the film amounted to a sheer waste of time for me. In contrast, Gibney’s documentary that is currently running on HBO was totally riveting especially for someone like me who belonged to a political rather than a religious cult. When former members of Scientology discussed being “Disconnected”, a term for ostracizing those who give hostile interviews to the press or run blogs that expose the cult, I could identify completely.

“Going Clear” is a reference to the process in Scientology that is roughly equivalent to being “cured” through psychoanalysis. People who join the group are convinced that like the Oedipal Complex in Freudian theory, there is psychological baggage that we have carried around since early childhood that prevents us from a full flowering as a human being. What makes Scientology quasi-religious is the notion that the baggage actually predates our birth and is connected to cosmological battles that took place eons ago on planet Earth when our earliest spiritual ancestors (thetans) were seduced by the material world. As someone who spent a summer in a psychotherapy camp run by an orthodox Freudian in 1958 and a couple of years at Bard College studying Gnosticism, all this rang a bell.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard started off as a science-fiction writer so his business about thetans was probably no more nonsensical than much of the “Sky” based religions, especially Christianity that like Gnosticism absorbed much of the Neo-Platonism that was in fashion in Jesus’s day. When you combine a redemptive theology with pop psychology in a period of American history that was rotten ripe for the acceptance of that sort of thing, it is no surprise that the cult grew like wildfire.

Gibney’s film is two hours long with the first half devoted to L. Ron Hubbard’s career and the second to the rise of David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology who has the pretty face and chintzy charisma of someone like Joel Osteen. Like Osteen, Scientology is a religion of “success”. If Osteen’s sermons are mostly about living a “successful” life by following Christ, Miscavige’s approach is also geared to “making it”. That is why it became so important for him to groom Tom Cruise as a figurehead. With his successful career and devoted fan base, what better advertising could there be for the cult?

This ties in to what appears to be Scientology’s orientation to people in the film industry, a sector whose personnel is obviously subject to feelings of inadequacy. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the actors I have known in my life only feel whole when they are imitating someone else. Except for the rare individual like Marlon Brando who saw through the film industry’s bullshit, most are like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Priscilla Presley et al: plastic people that except for the ability to memorize lines and become someone else on stage would languish in obscurity. It would seem that most of these show business professionals got into the cult relatively early in their careers when a security blanket was necessary to get them through the lonely and difficult journey of becoming a star.

What is a bit more difficult to understand is why director Paul Haggis became a member since he was capable of making films as thoughtful as anything that Gibney ever produced such as “In the Valley of Elah”, one of the few Hollywood films about the war in Iraq that departed from the flag-waving norm. Interviewed throughout the film, Haggis comes across as a thoughtful soul who should have known better. His decision to break with Scientology was prompted by their opposition to gay marriage, a stance in line with their belief that homosexuality was a sign of not being “Clear”.

In a fascinating section of the film that focused on John Travolta’s membership, it was pointed out that he is submissive to the leadership because they have damaging information on his gay identity that could destroy his career. That is the stick. The carrot is the powerful legal and PR machinery they wield that can be deployed against tabloids that go too far in going after Travolta.

As a high-profile critic of the SWP cult, I felt a strong affinity with a group of men and women who have taken their case against Miscavige et al publicly. Chief among them is Mark “Marty” Rathbun who operates a blog called Moving on Up a Little Higher. Rathbun was once the inspector General of the group, a job that monitored the membership for deviations from the Truth. Under Miscavige’s rule, Rathbun’s staff became much more repressive and began to function like the Soviet secret police administering “reeducation” camps that featured intense brainwashing exercises and corporal punishment. He is now considered Scientology’s Public Enemy Number One.

As I sat watching the film, I could not help but wonder what the big difference was between Scientology and the “legitimate” religions. Is there anything that controversial about the IRS’s decision to grant Scientology a tax-exempt status? Gibney’s documentary points out that this has enabled it to build a real-estate empire but is there anything really new about that? Queen Elizabeth is number one in the 15 largest real estate landowners in the world with 6.6 billion acres but Pope Benedict is no slouch at number 3 with 177 million acres under his control.

In terms of dealing with dissidents, as bad as Scientology is, I doubt that we ever have to worry about them killing ex-members as is common in the world of Christian sects. Some historians argue that the Fourth Crusade that pitted the Vatican-backed army against the Byzantine Church’s garrisons in Constantinople was as ruthless as any directed against Muslims.

During his long and controversial but illustrious career, Alexander Cockburn was labeled a Scientology apologist. As a reality check, I tracked down one of his articles on the cult and found it rather convincing. Besides sharing their antipathy toward Prozac (I found the drug most beneficial so on this I am at odds with the late great Master just as I was on global warming), most of his energy seems devoted to defending their rights to exist like other religions. Written in 1997, his LA Times piece titled “Scientologists Take Offensive in Reich Land” makes some excellent points:

Never get on the wrong side of the Scientologists, as I often say to Heber Jentzsch, with whom I have spent many interesting hours discussing the evils of the CIA, brainwashers, shrinks, the pharmaceutical companies, Time and other pet peeves we share. Jentzsch is president of the Church of Scientology International and is now much preoccupied with their great battle against German politicians.

To people who remonstrate with me for having truck with Scientologists, I always say that folks who hate the organizations listed above can’t be all bad, and that there’s probably more psychic oppression in every 10 seconds of the life of the Roman Catholic Church (or–let’s be ecumenical–the Mormons, Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists) than in the career of the Scientologists since L. Ron Hubbard got them launched. Last time I heard, the Vatican (which has to OK every deal) was settling sex abuse cases against priests in the U.S. at about $1 million per.

Anyway, the provincial German government got up Jentzsch’s nose by being beastly to German Scientologists. They wouldn’t even let jazz player and Scientologist Chick Corea perform inside the country. In some German provinces, they won’t let the children of Scientologists into kindergartens. This is because Germans are constantly worried that unless vigilance is exercised, covert groups will take over the state, suck out their brains and turn them into zombies.

Jentzsch and his fellows have been fighting back, with considerable success. They ran big newspaper ads saying that the Third Reich is being revived. (The Nazis started persecuting Seventh-day Adventists before pressing on to the big task of killing all the Jews, gypsies and Communists.) There have been letters from Scientology supporters and adepts in Hollywood. There have been condemnations of Germany by members of Congress and finally some stern words about German abuses of Scientologists’ human rights from the State Department.

As I watched “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, I not only made comparisons with other religions but with the Socialist Workers Party that I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. Unlike Scientology, it was not a cult at the outset but only became one around the time I was ready to leave. I was uncomfortable with the new “turn to the working class” but just as much if not even more so by the willingness of the membership to vote for the turn without hesitation.

So fervent was the campaign and so deep the pressure to toe the line that I got up at a meeting of several hundred members in NYC and announced that I was “excited” to go to Kansas City and get a factory job even though I was crushed by the choice I had made. Unlike other members, however, I had inner doubts that would make it impossible for me to spend more than a few months giving the “turn” a try. Others found it so much to their liking that a life of poverty and political work that consisted of selling the Militant to indifferent workers was sufficient to keep them going for decades. I could barely stand six months of it.

The other thing that made me resistant to cult membership was my identification with the beat generation that remained with me even after joining the SWP. Although I joined out of political convictions that made me susceptible to the Messianic fervor endemic to the Trotskyist (and Maoist) movement, I always felt detached from the gravitational pull that lured many people my age to go on full-time and/or to live in semi-communal housing in which your social, political and love lives became entangled with each other.

In a way, I understand why people would join the Scientology Church or the SWP, leaving aside the radical differences between their beliefs. As has been the case since the days of the Gnostic religion, there has always been a tendency for people—especially those with the psychological weakness to feel estranged by the dominant institutions of class society—to look for moral support from others so disposed. Ironically, this is what made Bard College so appealing in 1961. It was a place where other pimply seventeen-year-old kids who loved “On the Road” and “Howl” could finally feel at home.

The one thing I got from my education there, however, was the lesson that you had t stick to your own principles and not bow down to authority, a point that was made repeatedly by Heinrich Blucher when he spoke about Socrates. It is the ultimate contradiction of revolutionary politics is that you have to continue to think for yourself while acting in concert with others. Once we assemble the forces that are capable of changing the world from top to bottom, we will finally be able to be “clear” for the first time in human history.

March 30, 2015

Sectarianism Unbound

Filed under: middle east,religion — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

On August 22, 2013,  a letter to the Financial Times went viral on the Internet:

A short guide to the Middle East

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

Not long after the letter began making the rounds, some bright chap at Slate created a graphic to illustrate the points being made by K.N. Al-Sabah:

Screen shot 2015-03-30 at 1.04.15 PM

About a year later, an article appeared on the Think Progress website that took up the same pretzel-logic Byzantine alliances:

And one year later, and within the past few days, the ultimate graphic on the schizoid alliances in the Middle East and North Africa showed up at Karl reMarks, a very smart and witty blog about the region.

I suppose none of this matters to the conspiracy theorists on the left who continue to insist that the USA and Saudi Arabia are responsible for all the woes in the Middle East and North Africa that stem from their desire to crush the secular and progressive Baathist government in Syria as a prelude to war with Iran.

One supposes that the wind has been blowing the sails of this analysis given the situation in Yemen, where the USA has lined up behind Saudi attacks on the Houthi who are depicted as Iranian puppets even if that is a simplification. More often right than wrong, Juan Cole provided some useful insights to the conflict at the Nation:

The Houthis have pledged to topple the Saudi throne; they chant “death to America” and have friendly relations with Iran. Nothing could be more threatening to the Saudis than a grassroots populist movement of this militant sort, and that it springs from a Shiite population makes it worse. The Saud dynasty is allied at home with the Wahhabi movement, which typically views Shiite Muslims as worse idolators than Hindus. Still, the late King Abdullah appointed two Shiites to his national Advisory Council, the embryonic Saudi parliament, and deployed the Ismaili Shiites of Najran against Yemen. It is not Shiite Islam that is the red line for the kingdom, but populist movements that talk dirty about the Saudi monarchy.

Not long after General al-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, he pledged his support to Bashar al-Assad who he saw as fighting a common enemy, the dreaded Islamist terrorists. Given his hatred for alleged Sunni extremists, you’d think he’d take the same side as the Shiites in Yemen. But as the bizarro chart put up by Karl Sharro would indicate, politics is not that simple. The NY Times reported on March 26 that Egypt was about to join with Saudi Arabia in crushing the Houthis:

Egypt said Thursday that it was prepared to send troops into Yemen as part of a Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, signaling the possibility of a protracted ground war on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

A day after Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other states began hammering the Houthis with airstrikes and blockading the Yemeni coast, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt said in a statement that the country’s navy and air force would join the campaign. The Egyptian Army, the largest in the Arab world, was ready to send ground troops “if necessary,” Mr. Sisi said.

So, if the Egyptian military shared the Baathist determination to root out and destroy religious extremists, why would it now side with their ultimate source, the geopolitical equivalent of the Queen monster that Ripley ejects from the spaceship in the final moments of “Aliens”? Or maybe, as Cole points out, the real enemy is any social or political formation that challenges oligarchic rule whether it upholds Sunni or Shia theological precepts. In Syria, it was the Sunni farmers and small businessmen who rose up against crony capitalism.

In a very useful article by Gabriele vom Bruck, an anthropologist with a focus on Yemen, that appeared on CounterPunch, you can get an idea of why the Saudis might have it in for them:

Against the background of the wars fought by the Houthis since 2004 and the distribution of power in the new government, it comes as no surprise that when they entered Sanaa, their first targets were Al-Iman University (a Salafist-inspired college run by the controversial Islahi leader Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and illegally built on an endowment belonging to the Houthi family), a military complex under the command of General Ali Muhsin, and the homes of members of the al-Ahmar family and other leaders of Islah [the former ruling party].

Reminiscent of the pictures of the luxurious homes of the Qaddafi family in 2011, Yemenis are now presented with images of the villas of Islah leaders on a television channel owned by the Houthis. Sanaa residents tell tales of beautifully lush gardens with gazelles and swimming pools, large diwans and automatic generators — aware of the fact that half of Yemen’s population lives under the poverty line. The underlying moral discourse serves to reinforce the Houthis’ claim that the “real” revolution is only now occurring. By the time Houthi militias occupied central government buildings in Sanaa, the losers appeared to be Islah and the GCC countries [Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance led by Saudi Arabia]. Those countries sponsored the transition agreement because they saw it as a way to demobilize the very social and political forces who had in 2011 demanded wide reaching structural changes which might have collided with their interests in Yemen and the demands of their own domestic constituencies.

Just as is the case in Syria and was true in Libya earlier, the Houthis are rebels that combine religious, tribal and other non-class allegiances that stand in the way of them becoming an instrument of national salvation as was the case with the July 26th Movement in Cuba or the NLF in Vietnam.

Indeed, at the outset the Houthis had a distinctly ISIS ring, even if based on a different lineage as Charles Schmitz explained in an article in the Middle East Institute, a think-tank run by Richard A. Clarke, a career State Department official who opposed the war in Iraq. Schmitz refers to Zaydism, the religion of the Houthis:

Zaydism, the religion of the imams that ruled Yemen for a thousand years, was severely repressed by Republican leaders during the years of the Yemen Arab Republic. A key component of Zaydism under the Imams was the idea that only the Sada, those in the blood line of the family of Fatima and Ali, are eligible to rule the Muslim community. In spite of the political diversity among the Sada, Republican leaders attack them all as agents of the ancient regime; the government promoted Sunni Salafism and Wahhabism, imports from Saudi Arabia, in the Zaydi heartland as alternatives.

The notion that bloodlines have any value in creating a modern state that is committed to the welfare of all its citizens strikes one as counterproductive to say the least. If some Sunnis dream of restoring the caliphate and beheading anybody who gets in the way, what makes Zaydism any better even if its adherents forsake beheading?

My last article for Critical Muslim appeared in issue #10 that was devoted to an examination of the Sect form. A number of articles can be read on the journal’s website that I strongly recommend, starting with an article by editor Ziauddin Sardar and co-author Merryl Wyn Davies titled “Sectarianism Unbound” that begins:

Taz’, a new channel on the Pakistani Geo TV network, is dedicated to twenty-four-hour news. There is a rapid-fire news bulletin every fifteen minutes: hence the name, Taz, or fast. But even after an endless stream of stories about sectarian violence, terrorist atrocities, suicide bombings, ‘target killings’, ‘load shedding’, political corruption and the defeats of the Pakistani cricket team with mundane regularity, there is still ample time left in the schedule. So the slots between the news bulletins are filled with what they call tazaabi tottas – acidic bits, short satirical skits. In one particular sketch, a man, sitting on a bridge, is about to commit suicide by jumping into the river. He is spotted by a passer-by who runs towards him shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ The two men then engage in the following dialogue:

‘Why are you committing suicide?’

‘Let me die! No one loves me.’

‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you a Muslim, or…’

‘Allah be Praised! I am a Muslim.’

‘I too am a Muslim. Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’

‘Sunni.’

‘I too am a Sunni. What is your school of law?’

‘Hanafi.’

‘Me too! Do you belong to the Deobandi or Bralevi sect?’

‘Deobandi.’

‘Me too! Are you a Tanzihi (pure) Deobandi or a Takfiri (extremist) Deobandi?’

‘Tanzihi.’

‘Me too! Tanzihi of Azmati branch or Farhati branch?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati branch.’

‘Me too!’ Tanzihi Farhati educated at University of Amjair or Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad.’

‘Infidel, kaffir! You deserve to die!’

The man who came to help then pushes the suicidal man over the bridge.

As someone who has been struggling against socialist sectarianism for the past 35 years, I of course am in no position to feel superior to Muslims dealing with a similar problem. And in a very real sense, the surmounting of sectarianism on the left is a possible key to surmounting it in the Middle East and North Africa beset by tribalism and confessional hair-splitting.

As long as there are insecurities in a world based on commodity exchange and wage labor, religion will meet certain emotional and psychological needs. But perhaps an injection of godless communism in a region that has been torn apart by different notions of obeisance to god will create the conditions in which Muslim leaders will arise who see the world as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz did: “True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological, and racial ingredients, or characteristics, to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was better known as Malcolm X.

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