Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 19, 2015

Skeptical about skepticism

Filed under: religion,skepticism — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm

Michael Shermer

On Salon.com you can find an article titled “Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress” by Michael Shermer that is an excerpt from his book “The Moral Arc”. He draws a contrast between what some have called “the sky religions”, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam that are tribal in nature rather than universal, and all those great conquests of Modern Civilization such as goodness, justice and truth. He writes:

Most people believe that moral progress has primarily been due to the guiding light of religious teachings, the activities of spiritual leaders, and the power of faith-based initiatives. In “The Moral Arc” I argue that this is not the case, and that most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment. Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time. Why?

Today, of course, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that moral principles are universal and apply to everyone, but this is because they have inculcated into their moral thinking the modern Enlightenment goal of broadening and redefining the parameters of moral consideration. But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle. Religion, by definition, forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, those heathens, those unbelievers. Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past. Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces.

I have to wonder if many people reading this article know that Shermer is a prominent spokesman for The Skeptic Society that publishes Skeptic magazine. Like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Shermer is a frequent guest on television talk shows arguing against religion, superstition and other challenges to the Enlightenment and Modernity.

Over the years, I keep running into him like a bad penny.

When I was doing background research on Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomami, I discovered that Shermer took up Chagnon’s defense.

My conclusion is that Chagnon’s view of the Yanomamö is basically supported by the evidence. His data and interpretations are corroborated by many other anthropologists. Even at their “fiercest,” however, the Yanomamö are not so different from many other peoples around the globe. Yanomamö violence is certainly no more extreme than that of our Paleolithic ancestors, who appear to have brutally butchered one another with abandon.

The subtext for this, of course, is that as mankind advances beyond religion and superstition, we grow more Civilized. The notion that the closer we are to our hunting and gathering roots the more murderous we are is widespread among sociobiologists like Chagnon, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker. Writing for Scientific American on “The Liberal’s War on Science”, Shermer practically makes opposition to sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology, the most recent nomenclature for what originated as social Darwinism) tantamount to creationism or belief in ESP:

As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his 2002 book The Blank Slate (Viking), belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who in the 1980s and 1990s led an all-out assault against evolutionary psychology via such Orwellian-named far-left groups as Science for the People, for proffering the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past.

Twelve years ago, long before I began blogging, I wrote about skeptics. I is worth reprinting what I wrote at the time especially since—surprise, surprise—it involves the question of Islam desperately needing a “Protestant-like Reformation”. I should mention that the article concludes with a jab at Michael Shermer from Ziauddin Sardar, my editor when I wrote for Critical Muslim.

Skeptical About Skepticism

Yesterday’s NY Times had a interesting profile on the 76 year old professional skeptic Paul Kurtz. It leads off:

“These are some of the things that Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and publisher of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, does not believe in: parapsychology, holistic cures for animal illnesses, the universal effectiveness of chiropractic, extraterrestrial beings, alternative medicine, Bigfoot and organized religion.

We learn that Kurtz’s operations have an annual budget of $11 million and that the center has small branches in Los Angeles and Montclair, N.J., with about 40 employees overall. There are affiliated groups in Russia, France, Peru, Germany, Africa and other locations. He also maintains a small empire of skeptical publications, including The Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice and others. His publishing house, the aptly named Prometheus Books, puts out about 100 books a year. In addition there is a sponsored student organization called the Campus Freethought Alliance, plus a secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous called S.O.S. (for Save Ourselves).

While Kurtz was left-wing in his youth during the depression, he became an anti-Communist while on duty with the US army in Europe. It seems that Russian slave laborers had refused to return to the Soviet Union at the end of the war, thus proving that Communism was a hateful system. Perhaps these Russians had heard through the grape-vine that a jail term awaited them in the USSR. In keeping with the draconian defense policy of WWII, Stalin had decided that anybody who had even been taken prisoner was insufficiently devoted to the defense of the motherland. One might also suspect that Kurtz’s indoctrination under Sidney Hook at NYU in the early 1940s might have had as much to do with his subsequent evolution.

We also learn that Paul Kurtz has joined people like Bernard Lewis and Thomas Friedman in the ideological war against Islam:

Islam desperately needs a Protestant-like Reformation,” he continued. The Islamic system is the product of “a nomadic, agrarian society, pre-modern and pre-urban, which they are trying to apply to the contemporary world.

When you go to Kurtz’s website, you discover that the enemies of science are not just people looking for the Yeti (an interesting aside–one of the lead anthropologists on the Kennewick Skeleton investigation has been on expeditions to find the Yeti, or abominable snowman). They include those of us who have an irrational fear of Genetically Modified food.

Matt Nisbet is a regular columnist for Kurtz publications, a self-described X-generation person, and a student at Cornell University. In an article titled “Caught in the Ag Biotech Crossfire: How U.S. Universities Can Engage the Public About Scientific Controversy“, he gives the kind of advice that would fit right in at the Monsanto public relations department:

Universities are therefore confronted with a public communication dilemma. When dealing with an issue like GM agriculture that is heavy with political controversy and scientific uncertainty, and a technology that is closely tied to institutional research and resources, what strategies of successful public engagement and communication can the universities pursue? Several courses of action based on past research in the social sciences can be recommended. They include: 1) sponsoring participatory public forums; 2) acknowledging uncertainty and strategically framing messages; 3) targeting specific publics through specific media; and 4) carefully monitoring public reaction and media coverage.

Oddly enough, for an outfit so devoted to science and reason, there is little engagement with the science of genetic modification itself. This is not surprising since this intellectual current seems either totally innocent of ecological science, or determined to sweep it under the rug. The moniker Prometheus that Kurtz has given to his publishing outlet suggests an unreconstructed vision of 19th century Progress. Needless to say, this dovetails neatly with the kind of philosophical pragmatism he embraces, which appears totally at home with the agenda of US imperialism.

The other big mover and shaker in the world of skepticism is Michael Shermer, who is much younger than Paul Kurtz and is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine. While targeting all the usual suspects (UFO’s, Bigfoot, ESP, etc.), Shermer has also investigated bogus history. He is the author of a book focusing on the libel case against David Irving, a holocaust denier.

Just as with Kurtz, Shermer casts a wide net in his crusade against the forces of anti-scientific darkness. Such forces include those who believe that there is a Gulf War Syndrome and that silicone breast implants might be harmful.

In a somewhat critical review of Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s “Leftist Science & Skeptical Rhetoric: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science”, Shermer does find himself nodding in agreement with their hostility to Marxism:

Where the academic left (driven by outdated Marxist theories of class oppression) presents science as nothing more than a social construction designed to support the group in power (usually white males), Gross and Levitt rightly point out that “science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise” where, for example, “the set of plain truths that science (in the guise of, say, penicillin) works just as well for Australian aborigines (male and female) as it does on Englishmen (and women).” And, I would add, it works for all classes.

This view of science is consistent with the one found in Paul Kurtz. It is a throwback to 19th century positivism and positively innocent of how capitalism shapes the scientific agenda.

In a review of Shermer’s “The Borderlands Of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense”, that appeared in the Aug. 14, 2001 Independent, Ziauddin Sardar is underwhelmed with Shermer’s call to reject bogus beliefs:

It’s good, sensible advice. It will be of immense use to people who accidentally missed primary education or left their brains in their mothers’ wombs. I suspect that most of these will be Americans, as the kind of non-science that Shermer exposes originates largely from North America.

But are people who believe in alien abduction, aura reading and past- regression therapy open to any kind of scepticism? And who is the bigger nut: the person who believes in “remote viewing” (the ability to travel in mind and give detailed descriptions of a person, place, process or object) or the person who devotes endless time to exposing it as fake?

There are more fundamental problems with Shermer’s scepticism. It is firmly of the Eurocentric kind that believes science was invented in Europe 300 years ago. He lumps acupuncture and yoga with dowsing and channelling, unable to distinguish between bodies of knowledge thousands of years old, with their own system of rationality and evidence, and a recent new-age fad. Moreover, his knowledge filter and boundary-detection kit cannot really tell the difference between an ancient and sophisticated medical system such as ayurveda and the schemes of Deepak Chopra, designed for California buffoons who will believe in anything.

Worse, Shermer’s scepticism is directed towards soft targets. When it comes to science, it turns into dogmatic belief. His understanding of history is less than rudimentary. When discussing the problems of ethics and morality in science, or the issue of cloning, his language becomes irrational and paranoid. Every argument is dismissed as a “historical common rejection of new technologies”.

To top it all, Shermer’s view of science is totally obscurantist. An old-fashioned believer in facts, he is quite unaware that ignorance has now become an integral part of science. We now appreciate not just that science seldom solves problems in neat packages, but also that there are always extra bits that cannot be solved. As in the case of nuclear waste, these messy bits of science are typically neglected — by many scientists as well as professional sceptics. Only someone ideologically sold on the Victorian notion of science as absolute truth would insist that it should be the yardstick for measuring all reality.

November 13, 2014

Roland fucking Boer?

Filed under: Academia,religion — louisproyect @ 12:33 am


Roland Boer

The latest on the Stalin worshipper:



I discovered from a report on the HM conference in London that this asshole just received the 2014 Isaac Deutscher prize, the worst decision since it was given to Francis Wheen in 1999 for his Karl Marx bio. It was announced at a lecture by Panitch and Gindin:

The lecture started with the announcement of the winner of the 2014 Deutscher Prize, which was awarded to Roland Boer for his In the Veil of Tears: On Marxism and Theology, V, both in recognition of the book itself and of the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series of which it was the culmination. The other shortlisted works were Costas Lapavistas’ Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, Frederic Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism, John Saul and Patrick Bond’s South Africa – The Present as History.

I’ll take Patrick any day of the week.

Boer is a clown. His “Stalin’s Mustache” blog is the sort of garbage that could be heard at the Stalin Society in London, even more embarrassing than the junk I used to hear from Maoists in the 60s and 70s. Here’s a sample:

Screen shot 2014-11-12 at 7.31.11 PM

Here’s the HM blurb on the book:

In the Vale of Tears brings to a culmination the project for a renewed and enlivened debate over the interaction between Marxism and religion. It does so by offering the author’s own response to that tradition. It simultaneously draws upon the rich insights of a significant number of Western Marxists and strikes out on its own. Thus, it argues for the crucial role of political myth on the Left; explores the political ambivalence at the heart of Christianity; challenges the bent among many on the Left to favour the unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution; is highly suspicious of the ideological and class alignments of ethics; offers a thorough reassessment of the role of festishism in the Marxist tradition; and broaches the question of death, unavoidable for any Marxist engagement with religion. While the book is the conclusion to the five-volume series, The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, it also stands alone as a distinct intervention in some burning issues of our time.

“challenges the bent among many on the Left to favour the unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution”?

Where have I been? How did I miss this? I guess I was lost in the woods spending all my time on putting Lenin in context than in addressing the “unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution”. I’ll pick up a hernia belt at CVS tomorrow. That should help.

October 5, 2014

A prayer for my late mom

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 12:20 am

I went to Yizkor services this afternoon as I have done ever since my mom died in 2008. I don’t believe in all the god stuff but it is my way of honoring her.

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Ann “Annie” Proyect

Dinner Pays Tribute
To Annie Proyect

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — June 1, 2001 – She was called “kind” and “good,” yet she was teased for her scolding tongue and take-no-punches demeanor.

She was praised for her fortitude during moments of severe personal tragedy, but people laughed heartily upon hearing the tale of her ability to unintentionally stop traffic in the middle of Monticello.

Add some food and anecdotes about a female impersonator who needed his (or her?) sequined dress repaired, and you’ve got the makings of one tremendously varied evening of laughs and tears (and sometimes both).

And it all had to do with one person, a lady from Woodridge who is considered one of the guiding lights of Judaism in Sullivan County.

It seemed all of Woodridge and Monticello turned out Saturday evening to honor Ann “Annie” Proyect at Temple Sholom, but the capacity of the standing-room-only sanctuary was likelier somewhere between 100 and 200 people.

And it was evident by the smiles, laughter, hugs and good-natured joking that this is a woman beloved by her spiritual and residential communities.

Proyect has been a fixture of the Woodridge and Monticello areas since she moved here from Kansas City, Missouri at the age of 26 in the first half of the 20th century. And it seems she has since made quite an impact.

“Growing up in Mountaindale, I, of course, knew Annie by name and sight,” recalled County Legislator Leni Binder at the dinner. “I can honestly say that, without her help, I would probably not be a legislator today. I’m still not sure if that deserves a thank-you or not, but she stood in the snow in front of the village hall, sometimes too close to be legal, and sang my praises. It is a privilege to be able to sing hers.”

“Annie has given me and my family an entré for coming back to this community. She is as much a member of my family as my own,” said James Oppenheim, a fellow member of Temple Sholom. “She tells it like it is over and over and over . . . and everyone here loves her for it. She doesn’t just tell you what to do . . . she gets up and does it.

“She exemplifies what it is to be a Jew.”

Proyect’s faith and vigorously stated opinions – whether through phone conversations, in person at the temple, or her weekly column in the Sullivan County Democrat, “Annie Proyect Says” – were indeed an integral reason why she was being celebrated.

“I’d say the wall-to-wall turnout tonight is an affirmation and confirmation of the power of the Fourth Estate. I wouldn’t want to be known as one who wasn’t here!” remarked Temple Sholom Past President Joe Cohen, who then turned to Proyect. “We only roast the people we love. We’re honoring you for what you are and what you do for yourself, your family and your community.”

“She’s the one who brings kindness and good cheer every day of the week,” added Rabbi Irwin Tanenbaum.

“Ann consumed Judaism with a passion,” commented another past president of the temple, Marty Schwartz. “The Ten Commandments became the guiding principles by which she chose to conduct herself, expecting no less from those around her.”

Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “At one point, I’m told she even lobbied the UAHC [a Jewish religious organization] to adopt two more commandments: #11. ‘Do as I tell you!’ and #12. ‘Why didn’t you do as I told you?’

“Persistent in her pursuit of learning, consistent in her morality, resistant to her critics and insistent on being heard – Ann, we would have you no other way,” he concluded.

Proyect’s son, Louis, recalled a time when his family lived above the Kentucky Club in Woodridge, a nightclub which featured the Jewel Box Revue – a troupe of female impersonators. One night, he came home to find his mother sewing up a sequined outfit of one of the performers.

“The message I interpreted was that we should be tolerant of one another,” he said.
Said her dear friend, Victor Gordon: “Believe it or not, it was her idea to honor an outstanding member of the temple for their efforts. Little did she dream when this thought became a reality that she would be the one so honored.

“Don’t cry, Ann,” he added. “Everyone here loves you, and you deserve your moment in the sun. The temple is very fortunate and proud to have you as such a dedicated member.”
The compliments, thank-yous and fond notes were continued in a journal that listed a veritable who’s who of the local area. State Senator John Bonacic and Assemblyman Jake Gunther, while not present, also sent certificates of merit to Proyect.

But, of course, Proyect herself made sure to thank the crowd for their words, gifts and attendance – and give them due warning.

“We have an obligation as a Jew to be a light unto the nations to show a better way,” she said, using a verse from the Bible to explain her passionate stance on many issues of faith. “If people’s feelings are hurt, well, they love me and they’ll get over it – and I’ll do it again.

“I can’t thank you enough,” she concluded, “but watch my next column!”

April 4, 2014


Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

Noah, Revised

A Hard Rain


More Tolkien than Torah, Darin Aronovsky’s “Noah” is a cinematic tour de force that combines breathtaking CGI-based imaginary landscapes with a film score by Clint Mansell that hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Even without a single minute of dialog, the film achieves the mesmerizing quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, especially the last installment Naqoyqatsi, the Hopi word for “Life at War”.

Like other films that view the bible as a theme to riff on in the manner of Miles Davis improvising on a banal tune like “Billy Boy”, Aronovsky takes the material of Genesis 5:32-10:1 and shapes it according to his own aesthetic and philosophical prerogatives. As might be expected, the Christian fundamentalists are not happy with the film since it turns Noah into something of a serial killer on an unprecedented scale, acting on what he conceives of as “the Creator’s” instructions, namely to bring the human race to an end. Religious Jews who have a literalist interpretation of the bible have been far less vocal, no doubt a function of the Hasidic sects viewing all movies as diversions from Torah studies. (For those with unfamiliarity with Jewish dogma, the Torah encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament that are replete with fables such as the Great Flood, many of which have inspired some classic cinematography, such as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea.)

Unlike the fable it is based on, Aronovsky’s Noah never received instructions about being fruitful and multiplying. His intention is to leave the planet to the animals and wind down the human race’s participation in the tree of life, to use the title of Terrence Malick’s overrated 2011 film. In my view, Aronovsky has much deeper thoughts and more sure-handed cinematic instincts than Malick could ever hope for. To pick only one scene, the massive moving carpet of animals headed toward the Ark is a CGI tour de force. Instead of a stately procession in circus parade fashion, it is more like a zoological tsunami that anticipates the great tsunami soon to follow.

read full article

December 25, 2013

Christy Moore sings “The Magdalene Laundries”

Filed under: Ireland,religion — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

December 24, 2013

Philomena; The Magdelene Sisters

Filed under: Film,religion — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

Among the many major studio DVD screeners I received in November as a NYFCO member, “Philomena” was a low priority item. I could not imagine nominating this as a best film of 2013 based on the previews I had seen in the theaters. It starred Judi Dench as an elderly Irish woman named Philomena Lee trying to find a son she had put up for adoption 50 years earlier, aided by a British reporter covering her story.

Indeed, as the film started I identified completely with the reporter who told Philomena’s daughter who he meets at a cocktail party that he did not cover “human interest” stories. Also, he was going to be busy writing a history of Russia—my kind of guy.

It is only after Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) sits down with Philomena and begins to flesh out her story do we discover that she was one of thousands of young women victimized by the Catholic Church in Ireland that turned them into virtual slaves in laundries run out of their convents, in her case a place called Roscrea. This was the plot of Peter Mullan’s 2003 “The Magdelene Sisters”, a film I never saw but had vivid memories of the reviews depicting a chamber of horrors.

Roscrea was what they called a Magdalene Asylum, not a mental institution but what Americans would call a reformatory for Catholic girls. The crime was not robbery or auto theft but having an out of wedlock child, prostitution, or promiscuity.

Funded by the Guardian newspaper that initially considered this only a “human interest” story, Martin and Philomena fly to Washington in search of her son not knowing exactly what to expect. Maybe he was dead? Maybe he came back from Vietnam without his legs? Those were the thoughts gnawing away at Philomena.

“Philomena” is at once a detective story and a powerful indictment of the Catholic Church that forced Philomena to give up her out-of-wedlock son for adoption when she was slaving away as a laundress. The church does everything it can to prevent her from finding out the whereabouts of her son and it is up to Martin to use his investigative reporting skills to track him down.

The film is based on a true story. Martin Sixsmith wrote “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” in 2009, a story he first covered for the Guardian in 2006:

A little later I met Philomena herself. She told me she had given birth in a country convent at Roscrea in County Tipperary on 5 July 1952. She was 18 when she met a young man who bought her a toffee apple on a warm autumn evening at the county fair. “I had just left convent school,” she said with an air of wistful regret. “I went in there when my mother died, when I was six and a half, and I left at 18 not knowing a thing about the facts of life. I didn’t know where babies came from … “

When her pregnancy became obvious, her family had Philomena “put away” with the nuns. After her baby, Anthony, was born, the mother superior threatened Philomena with damnation if ever she breathed a word about her “guilty secret”. Terrified, she kept it quiet for more than half a century. “All my life I couldn’t tell anyone. We were so browbeaten, it was such a sin. It was an awful thing to have a baby out of wedlock … Over the years I would say ‘I will tell them, I will tell them’ but it was so ingrained deep down in my heart that I mustn’t tell anybody, that I never did.”

I was intrigued to know why the nuns had been so insistent on the importance of silence and secrecy. The answer, almost certainly, lay in what had happened next.

Philomena was one of thousands of Irish women sent to convents in the 1950s and 60s, taken away from their homes and families because the Catholic church said single mothers were moral degenerates who could not be allowed to keep their children.

If I had seen “Philomena” in advance of our awards meeting, I surely would have nominated it for the best film of 2013. I could spend thousands of words extolling its merits but will only mention the most important. If the best screenplays rest on a foundation of powerful characters, such as is the case for all literature going back to Sophocles, then “Philomena” is successful beyond all expectations. Martin was raised as a Catholic but now considers religion to be humbug, especially a Catholic Church that exploited teenaged women and robbed them of their babies. Despite what the Church did to her, Philomena remains a devout Catholic and even puts a St. Christopher’s Medal on the dashboard of Martin’s car to “protect him”. Although Martin is often unsparingly cutting when it comes to Philomena’s superstitions, in this instance he only uses facial expressions to register his annoyance. The pairing of these two is as memorable a play on religious and psychological differences as any film I have seen since “The African Queen” in the mid-1950s. As was the case with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, Coogan and Dench evolve into a couple deeply committed to each others’ cause even as they quarrel to the semi-bitter end.

In addition to his nonpareil performance as Martin Sixsmith, Steve Coogan also wrote the screenplay in partnership with Jeff Pope who has written exclusively for television in the past. Nothing in their careers would have foreshadowed such brilliant writing. Coogan is best known as a stand-up comedian whose own Catholic upbringing in a working class Irish family surely helped him to develop Philomena’s character. The only brush with politics was his activism against the Murdoch press when he discovered that he was a victim of phone hacking. Like the character he plays, Coogan is now an atheist.

Veteran British director Stephen Frears, who directed “Philomena”, also directed “The Queen” in 2006, a film I nominated as best of the year back then. This is British filmmaking at its best and I strongly encourage you to see the film the first chance you get. It is playing at better theaters everywhere, as they say.

A couple of hours after watching “Philomena”, I decided to watch “The Magdelene Sisters” for the first time on Amazon.com streaming (it is also on Youtube as indicated above). Although there are scenes of the young Philomena working in the laundry and being mistreated by the nuns, nothing prepares you for the sadism on display in Peter Mullan’s film that matches “12 Years a Slave” in many ways. That is no accident since the young women who worked in convent laundries were slaves for all practical purposes. Not only did they not get paid; they were beaten mercilessly for the slightest offense. Failed escape attempts brought on especially brutal reprisals.

The film is focused on three young women who were sent to a Magdalene Asylum (in 1964 for various offenses but all related to challenging Catholic sexual norms. Instead of punishing the young man who raped Margaret at a wedding party, she instead gets sent away. As the film progresses, you cannot escape feeling that women have it better in Saudi Arabia than they did in Ireland in the 1950s and early 60s.

Except for Margaret, who is rebellious from beginning to end like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”, all the other girls are unflinchingly devout just as Philomena was. This lends to a sadomasochistic relationship between nun and ward that is all the more obvious when a particularly nasty piece of work has the girls strip naked and evaluates them as to who has the biggest breasts.

I understand that the new pope has said some pretty decent things about poor people, etc. but my reaction to this film was boiling rage and fantasies about blowing up the Vatican.

Director Peter Mullan is a most interesting filmmaker. Born in 1959, Mullan studied economic history and drama at the University of Glasgow. Wikipedia states:

A Marxist,[6] he was a leading figure in the left-wing theatre movement which blossomed in Scotland during the Conservative Thatcher government, including stints in the 7:84 and Wildcat Theatre companies. A passionate critic of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, he told The Guardian “the TUC and the Labour Party sold us [the working class] out big style, unashamedly so”.[9] Mullan took part in a 2005 occupation of the Glasgow offices of the UK Immigration Service, protesting the UKIS’s “dawn raid” tactics when deporting failed asylum seekers.[10]

In January 2009, Mullan joined other actors in protesting the BBC’s refusal to screen a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza. They told BBC director general Mark Thompson: “Like millions of others, we are absolutely appalled at the decision to refuse to broadcast the appeal. We will never work for the BBC again unless this disgraceful decision is reversed. We will urge others from our profession and beyond to do likewise.”[11]

In 2011 the Irish government convened a committee to investigate the abuses at the Magdalene Asylums. The report authored by Senator Martin McAleese claimed that there was no sexual or physical abuse, contrary to Mullan’s screenplay.

I for one find it hard to believe that nuns did not resort to corporal punishment, especially in light of the fact that Philomena and the women dramatized in Mullan’s films remained devout Catholics despite what happened to them. As is so often the case in child abuse by a priest or a parent, the victim is reluctant to testify against an authority figure.

While it is understandable why the Catholic Church would rally around McAleese’s report, it is a bit harder to figure out why Brendan O’Neill, a long time member of Frank Furedi’s Spiked Online group, would make common cause with the clergy. Here’s O’Neill in the Telegraph:

In the Irish mind, and in the minds of everyone else who has seen or read one of the many films, plays and books about the Magdalene laundries, these were horrific institutions brimming with violence and overseen by sadistic, pervy nuns. Yet the McAleese Report found not a single incident of sexual abuse by a nun in a Magdalene laundry. Not one. Also, the vast majority of its interviewees said they were never physically punished in the laundries. As one woman said, “It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns… I was not touched by any nun and I never saw anyone touched.” The small number of cases of corporal punishment reported to McAleese consisted of the kind of thing that happened in many normal schools in the 1960s, 70s and 80s: being caned on the legs or rapped on the knuckles. The authors of the McAleese Report, having like the rest of us imbibed the popular image of the Magdalene laundries as nun-run concentration camps, seem to have been taken aback by “the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns”.

Apparently the free-spirited libertarians at Spiked have been evolving toward a rapprochement with the Vatican for some time, after the fashion of Obama conducting secret talks with Iran when the “anti-imperialist” left was expecting him to bomb it. How someone who used to call himself a Marxist would be oblivious to the sort of repression embodied in the Magdelene Asylums is a profound mystery. Even if not a single blow had been administered, it is a crime against humanity to jail young women for promiscuity or having babies out of wedlock.

Back in 2010 Spiked leader Frank Furedi wrote an article titled “Crusade against the pope: an Inquisition-in-Reverse” that argued against the proposition: “The pope’s criticism of contraception is denounced because it encourages unprotected sex, leading to the spread of AIDS. In other words, Catholicism represents a health problem; it leads to the moral pollution of the innocent.”

Well, yeah, I thought everybody knew that.

Is it possible that Spiked is trying to line up some funding from the Vatican? I know that it costs a bundle to maintain a staff of people in a bunch of think-tanks promoting a corporate agenda, but surely there are better sources than the Vatican. Somebody should give Frank Furedi the Koch brothers’ phone number.

October 7, 2013

The devil and Antonin Scalia

Filed under: Fascism,religion — louisproyect @ 1:29 pm

You believe in heaven and hell?
Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?

Oh, my.

Does that mean I’m not going?
[Laughing.] Unfortunately not!

Wait, to heaven or hell?
It doesn’t mean you’re not going to hell, just because you don’t believe in it. That’s Catholic doctrine! Everyone is going one place or the other.

But you don’t have to be a Catholic to get into heaven? Or believe in it?
Of course not!

Oh. So you don’t know where I’m going. Thank God.
I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that’s what the pope meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?” He may have recanted and had severe penance just before he died. Who knows?

Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.

You do?
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.

read full: http://nymag.com/news/features/antonin-scalia-2013-10/


Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.

Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism?

February 28, 2012

Antibodies; Evil

Filed under: Fascism,Film,religion,repression — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

Within the past week or so, I have seen two movies on Netflix streaming that remind me why I like “foreign” films. It has nothing to do with being a snob—even though I confess to being one from time to time. It has more to do with a need to be entertained. A few weeks ago, I got this comment from Ben Courtice under my review of The Forgotten Space, a Marxist documentary I compared favorably to “escapist trash”:

I actually have a preference for one piece of escapist crap after another – I spend my days as an activist wading through torrents of information about how the world is going to shit – but this sounds really good! Thanks I’ll look out for it.

I told Ben that I might have something to say about “Woman in Black”, “Chronicle”, and “The Grey”, three films I saw at my local Cineplex, but simply lacked the motivation to follow through since despite being watchable, they were just not good enough to qualify as “escapist” fare.

Interestingly enough, the European films reviewed below pay homage to Hollywood “escapist trash”, perhaps demonstrating that other countries can take our own designs and improve upon them, like the latest Chinese consumer electronics.

(Sorry, English-subtitled trailer for Antibodies not available.)

The first is a German film made in 2005 titled Antibodies that might be described as a shameless rip-off of Silence of the Lambs.

The two main characters are a serial killer named Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke) and a part-time cop from the boondocks named Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Möhring) who comes to the big city where Engel is being jailed in order to determine whether he killed a teenage girl in his tiny farming village. All of Engel’s victims were boys so there was some question in Martens’s mind whether she was one of his victims.

Engel enjoys taunting Martens through the bars of his cell, in the same way that Hannibal Lechter taunted Agent Starling, another cop from the boondocks. Engel insists that he is not the girl’s killer and teases Martens with insinuations that the cop might be hiding something, very possibly some dark secret about his sexual impulses. Since Martens is a pious, if not downright prudish, Catholic, he dismisses Engel’s insinuations and presses on with his interrogation.

When he returns home, Martens finds himself at odds with his fellow villagers who resent his ongoing investigations of a homegrown murderer, not Engel. The most violently opposed to the investigation, which includes a blood test for a DNA sample to compare with the semen-soiled underpants of the young victim, is his father-in-law who shoots Martens’s dog in an opening scene when they are out deer-hunting.

The village is a reminder of how backward rural society is in Germany, especially in Catholic villages. The sexual repression is thick enough to cut with a knife. Director/screenwriter Christian Alvart is clearly tuned in to the same morbidity found in Michael Haneke’s 2009 The White Ribbon, a film focused on the rural social base of an incipient Nazi movement. In my review I noted:

Beneath the Baron is the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who is enough to turn anybody into an atheist. A rigidly authoritarian figure, especially to his own children, he decides to tie his teenaged son’s hands to the bed each night to prevent him from masturbating. The name of the movie originates from his decision to force his children to wear white ribbons as a reminder of their sins.

While the last thing in the world I would want to do is disclose the powerful ending of this film, I can say that it casts the small-town cop and his teenage son in a modern version of the biblical tale of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son, in order to demonstrate his faith. I always found this story that formed the core of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling about as effective an argument against religion as can be found.

The other film is Evil, a 2003 Swedish work directed by Mikael Håfström and based on the semi-autobiographical novel Ondskan written by Jan Guillou, a long-time leftist like the late Stieg Larsson.

The main character is Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), a 15 year old who lives with his mother and his sadistic stepfather who beats him over the slightest infraction. Not being able to strike back at the man, Erik takes it out on his schoolmates who are never able to match his fighting skills and–more importantly—his blind rage.

Hoping that a change of scenery might calm him down, his mother sends him to Stjärnsberg, a boarding school that is about as rigidly class-stratified as feudal India. Greeted by Otto Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgård), a self-described nobleman in the senior class, Erik learns the rules of the game. If he stays out of trouble, he will eventually become a senior and enjoy all the privileges that go with that status. Silverhielm also clues him on the social make-up of the school. There are aristocrats like him, students from wealthy backgrounds, and ordinary folk whose parents manage to scrape together the money to send them to Stjärnsberg. That last category describes Erik, whose mother sold family heirlooms to raise the tuition money.

Erik is escorted to his dormitory room where he meets his new roommate Pierre Tanguy (Henrik Lundström), the bookish and physically ungifted son of a Swiss diplomat. As the two take an immediate liking to each other (the case of opposites attracting each other), Pierre makes sure to warn him about student life at the school. If you keep a low profile, you will do okay. If you get noticed, especially by the upperclassmen, you will have big problems.

In one of Erik’s first classes, he is introduced to the school’s Nazi in residence who lectures the students about racial differences. The Nordic race is handsome and physically powerful. The further south you go, the weaker the specimen. He has Erik and Pierre stand up in front of the class to demonstrate the racial differences, much to their chagrin.

At lunch the next day, Erik gets an introduction to the kind of hazing that is universally accepted there, just as it is in fraternities and private schools worldwide. In a school like Silverhielm, it is not just about social acceptance. It is about inculcating the kind of deference to authority that serve as a lubricant in the machinery of the military and the corporation. When a student sitting at his table uses the word “crap” in a sentence, an upperclassmen calls him over to receive punishment (cursing is strictly prohibited, as is smoking), which consists of being smacked on the head with a butter knife. It is much more painful than it sounds.

A few moments later, Erik makes the same infraction. But when he is ordered to receive his punishment, he refuses. Like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and countless other memorable characters in prison and sadistic private school movies made in Hollywood, Erik is a stubborn nonconformist. He is also like James Dean, a “rebel without a cause”. Just to make sure that the audience makes this specific connection, Erik and Pierre confess their love of this quintessential 1950s rebellious youth movie in the course of sharing enthusiasms. As will be instantly recognizable, the two boys are stand-in’s for the James Dean and Sal Mineo characters in Nicholas Ray’s classic.

The plot revolves around the clash between the upperclassmen and Erik who refuses to bend to their will. No matter how much they escalate their harassment and physical abuse, he refuses to fight. He understands that if he gets expelled from Stjärnsberg, he will not be able to get into college.

Evil was nominated for best foreign film of the year at the Academy Awards in 2003, but the novelist upon whose book the film was based on was not permitted into the United States since he is listed as a terrorist by the State Department.

I strongly recommend a look at the wiki on Jan Guillou that leads off as follows:

Jan Oskar Sverre Lucien Henri Guillou (Swedish pronunciation: [jɑːn ɡɪjuː]; born 17 January 1944) is a Swedish author and journalist. Among his books are a series of spy fiction novels about a spy named Carl Hamilton, and a trilogy of historical fiction novels about a Knight Templar, Arn Magnusson. He is the owner of one of the largest publishing companies in Sweden, Piratförlaget (English: Pirate Publishing), together with Liza Marklund and his wife, publisher Ann-Marie Skarp.

Guillou’s fame in Sweden was established during his time as an investigative journalist. In 1973, he and co-reporter Peter Bratt exposed a secret intelligence organization in Sweden, Informationsbyrån (IB). He is still active within journalism as a column writer for the Swedish evening tabloid Aftonbladet.

In October 2009, the tabloid Expressen accused Guillou of having been active as an agent of the Soviet spy organization KGB between 1967 and 1972. Jan Guillou confirmed he had a series of contacts with KGB representatives during this period, he also admits to having received payments from KGB, but maintains that his purpose was to collect information for his journalistic work. The accusation was based on documents released from the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) and interviews with former KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky. In a later trial Expressen denied having accused Guillou of having been a Soviet spy, claiming that this was a false interpretation of its headlines and reporting.

In 1973, Folket i Bild/Kulturfront, a left-wing magazine, published a series of articles written by Guillou and Peter Bratt, revealing a Swedish secret intelligence agency called Informationsbyrån (“The Information Bureau” or IB for short). The articles, based on information initially furnished by former IB employee Håkan Isacson, described the IB as a secret organization that gathered information on Swedish communists and others deemed to be “security risks”. The organization operated outside of the framework of the defense and ordinary intelligence, and was invisible in terms of state budget allocations. The articles in Folket i Bild/Kulturfront accused the IB staff of being engaged in alleged murder, break-ins, wiretapping against foreign embassies in Sweden and spying abroad.

The exposure of the IB in the magazine, which included headshots with names and social security numbers of some of the alleged staff published under the headline “Spies”, led to a major domestic political scandal known as the “IB affair” (IB-affären). The activities ascribed to this secret outfit and its alleged ties to the Swedish Social Democratic Party were denied by Prime Minister Olof Palme, Defense Minister Sven Andersson and the chief of the Swedish defence forces, Stig Synnergren. However, later investigations by various journalists and by a public commissions, as well as autobiographies by the persons involved, have confirmed some of the activities described by Bratt and Guillou. In 2002, the public commission published a 3,000 page report where research about the IB-affair was included.

Guillou, Peter Bratt and Håkan Isacson were all arrested, tried in camera and convicted of espionage. According to Bratt, the verdict required some stretching of established judicial practice on the part of the court since none of them were accused of having acted in collusion with a foreign power. After one appeal Guillou’s sentence was lessened from one year to 10 months. Guillou and Bratt served part of their sentence in solitary cells. Guillou was kept first at Långholmen Prison in central Stockholm and later at Österåker Prison north of the capital.

Like Stieg Larssen, Guillou has devoted much of his journalist career to exposing the ultraright in Sweden. When my wife and I began watching Evil through our beloved, new Roku box, she was puzzled at first by the scene in the classroom where the Nazi professor was spouting his nonsense. “How can that be in a social democratic country”, she asked.

That was how it appeared generally, but I reminded her of the Dragon Tattoo novels that revealed the underbelly of Swedish society. Although I made a mental note to myself to do some research on Swedish fascism in the Columbia Library after reading the first two books in Larsson’s trilogy, I never got around to it. As is usually the case with me, research topics vie for my attention. Maybe after I retire, I will have the time to give them all the attention they deserve. Before that glorious day arrives, however, I hope to have more to say on the topic of the Swedish fascist movements.

December 26, 2011

A festival of lights–or blood?

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm


Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights
2010 December 1

by J.A. Myerson

OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?

And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?

Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.


December 12, 2011

Conversation with a Sikh

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 1:21 am
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