Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 30, 2011

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

Filed under: crime,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

On August 20 the New York Times reported on the freeing of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three. Imprisoned seventeen years ago for allegedly murdering three young boys in a satanic ritual, their freedom was won through DNA evidence as is so often the case nowadays. The article mentions a 1996 documentary about their case that led to a national campaign to win their release:

An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention.

Benefit concerts were held, books were written, a follow-up documentary was made and a movement to free the “West Memphis Three” grew in size and intensity, drawing those intrigued by the case and those who saw a kinship with the men at the heart of it.

“I was kind of going through the same clothing style: long hair, dark clothes,” said Mecinda Smith, 30, one of the hundreds of supporters who had come to the courthouse, holding posters and wearing “Free the WM3” T-shirts.

“We were just trying to stand out and be different,” said Ms. Smith, who was 12 when the murders took place.

Last night I watched it on HBO and like all their documentaries, it can be also bee seen on-demand from Time-Warner or on your computer using HBO Go. Additionally, you can rent it from Netflix, as well as a follow-up documentary made in 1999 titled Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Meanwhile, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which was shown at this year’s New York Film Festival and scheduled for HBO next year, brings the case up to date.

These films were co-directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who also worked on “Brother’s Keeper” together, another film about marginal members of society being accused of a capital crime. In that film, a mentally impaired brother is accused of a mercy killing of his own brother on a dilapidated farm that he shared with another brother. Despite the fact that the three elderly men were reclusive and shabby-looking, this did not prevent their neighbors from pitching in to help them find a lawyer and build solidarity for the accused brother. It is a singularly inspiring film and also available from Netflix, including a streaming version.

Berlinger is also the director of “Crude”, the courageous and radical story of Chevron’s attempt to force the people of Ecuador to accept the toxic waste legacy of Texaco, a company absorbed by Chevron, that has left land and water despoiled and thousands ill. He has been in a running battle with Chevron over the oil company’s demand to see his outtakes as part of a bid to prove that they have no responsibility for the damage.

There is an obvious affinity between the characters in “Brother’s Keeper” and the West Memphis Three. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Jessie Misskelley Jr., who had an IQ of 72 and who was grilled by the cops for 12 hours after being arrested. He was pressured to testify against his two friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, who—like him–came from poor and dysfunctional families. Echols in particular was the easiest to demonize since he listened to heavy metal music, dressed in Goth style and described himself as a Wiccan. In a rural Arkansan town in the early 1990s, this was not the way to endear you to the community, least of all the cops. Like many towns in the Bible Belt, it was also a breeding ground of Baptist churches that took the idea of Satan very literally.

When the local cops could not find the actual killers of the three boys, they victimized Echols and his two friends who they calculated a jury would find guilty just on the basis of their appearance. While Misskelley and Baldwin did not share Echols’s Goth lifestyle, guilt by association could be relied on by local prosecutors. As Echols states in the film, West Memphis was a modern version of Salem, Massachusetts.

With a complete lack of physical evidence, the prosecutor is forced to rely heavily on questions to Echols on the witness stand about his reading habits, particularly the Satanist Aleister Crowley who the youth has actually never read, only heard of. On his Wiccan beliefs, Echols states that he was drawn to them because they stressed the eternal female principle. One can only wonder how he survived growing up to the age of 17 in West Memphis, an ordeal by fire equal in some ways to the next 17 years he would spend in prison.

The Salem-like hysteria that pervaded this trial overlapped with the “repressed memory” sexual abuse cases of the period that were documented in another powerful HBO documentary titled “Capturing the Friedmans”, about a gay computer programming trainer who supposedly sexually abused dozens of his students in his basement classroom on Long Island without them ever telling their parents. Although Satanism was not a factor in the trial, it relied completely on the “repressed memories” of his students who described wild orgies in the basement prompted by the suggestions of the investigators.

The two themes of ritual satanic abuse and repressed memories, however, did come together in the infamous McMartin preschool case of 1983. Young children were pressured into “remembering” that the satanic teachers and care-givers at the school lured them into orgies as wild as that took place in the Friedman basement. The wiki on the McMartin case states:

Some of the accusations were described as “bizarre”,[6] overlapping with accusations that mirrored the just-starting satanic ritual abuse panic.[4] It was alleged that, in addition to having been sexually abused, they saw witches fly, traveled in a hot-air balloon, and were taken through underground tunnels.[4] When shown a series of photographs by Danny Davis, the McMartins’ lawyer, one child identified actor Chuck Norris as one of the abusers.[2]

Some of the abuse was alleged to have occurred in secret tunnels beneath the school. Several investigations turned up evidence of old buildings on the site and other debris from before the school was built, but no evidence of any secret chambers was found.[4] There were claims of orgies at car washes and airports, and of children being flushed down toilets to secret rooms where they would be abused, then cleaned up and presented back to their unsuspecting parents. Some children said they were made to play a game called “Naked Movie Star” in which they were photographed nude.[4][1][21] During the trial, testimony from the children stated that the naked movie star game was actually a rhyming taunt used to tease other children—”What you say is what you are, you’re a naked movie star,”—and had nothing to do with having naked pictures taken.[4]

Although I have been harshly critical of Alexander Cockburn in recent years, this Wall Street Journal piece on the McMartin miscarriage of justice reminds me of how his writings back then inspired me to take up the cause of the left after 11 brutal years in a Trotskyist sect:

Wall Street Journal

February 8, 1990

The McMartin Case: Indict the Children, Jail the Parents

Ray Buckey is a man whose life has already been effectively destroyed. The first charge of child abuse against this teacher at the McMartin day-care school in Manhattan Beach, Calif., was laid against him in the summer of 1983. The allegations against him had been extorted from her two-year-old by a mother — now dead — with a history of mental illness who also claimed that an AWOL Marine had sodomized her dog.

It was not long before Ray Buckey had direct experience of the operations of the justice system. The Manhattan Beach Police Department sent a letter to 200 families whose children attended McMartin that read in part, “Any information from your child regarding ever having observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during a nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important.”

By spring 1984, Mr. Buckey, his mother, grandmother, sister and three fellow teachers had been arrested, and the police now claimed no less than 1,200 alleged victims of abuse. Briefly released, Mr. Buckey was rearrested and jailed for five years. On Jan. 18 of this year, after a trial that lasted more than two years and cost $15 million (making it the most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history), a jury acquitted Mr. Buckey and his mother on 52 counts of molestation. On 13 remaining counts of molestation and conspiracy against Mr. Buckey the jury was deadlocked (though it seems a majority was convinced of his innocence) and a mistrial on these counts declared.

Any sane society would have granted the Buckeys peace to recover as best they could from this horrible ordeal. But on Jan. 31, Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner announced that Ray Buckey would be retried on at least some of the 13 counts. The decision came after a period of grotesque agitation by the parents of the supposedly abused McMartin children. They appeared on talk shows, and terrorized the Los Angeles Board of County Supervisors into voting 4 to 1 to urge the district attorney to a new trial. (If he did not, they wanted the board to call upon the state attorney general to take the decision out of Mr. Reiner’s hands.)

Mr. Reiner, who is running for the office of state attorney general this year, has in the recent past lost well-publicized cases. The McMartin verdict was another blow, and he obviously felt he had to put Mr. Buckey back in court or face taunts for being soft on child abusers. Mr. Reiner was also presumably under great pressure from Attorney General John Van de Kamp to retry Mr. Buckey, since Mr. Van de Kamp is running for governor and public sentiment is strongly against the jury’s verdict of Jan. 18. So here are two men with tremendous incentives to put Mr. Buckey back in the dock — in an atmosphere so polluted with hysteria it must be doubtful whether any jury could be assembled to assure Mr. Buckey a fair trial.

The psychological squalor is even more disturbing. The McMartin case was but one in nearly 40 episodes across the country between 1983 and 1987 in which prosecutions against teachers or supervisors in day-care centers were prompted by children’s accusations.

Many of these accusations, taken seriously by parents, social workers and the justice system, were of the most fantastic nature. McMartin children said they had been marched to cemeteries to dig up bodies. One child said he had seen his teacher fly. In 1985 children in Pennsylvania said teachers had forced them to have oral sex with a goat. In 1986 children in a preschool in Sequim, Wash., said they had been made to watch animal sacrifice in a graveyard. In Chicago, the kids said they had watched a baby being boiled.

Terrible injustices were done in this extraordinary replay of the 17th-century Salem witch trials. People were tossed into prison for years, on the say-so of infants. In all 50 states children as young as two or three can testify to abuse, without corroboration from adults and without physical evidence. In many states they can make charges without having to endure cross-examination, being bounced up and down on a judge’s knee in private chambers. In some states the charges can merely be repeated as hearsay by adults.

What was the reason for this wave of self-evidently preposterous stories about a satanic network terrorizing infant schools, and other tales of ritual abuse?

Society seems to have a periodic need for witch trials. At the onset of the Reagan era there weren’t really any Communists around to persecute, so the hunt went back to the traditional exorcism of Satan, whose horns and cloven feet assumed the form of the local day-care teacher.

The 1980s also brought the great onslaught against Freud, arguing against Oedipal fantasy and in favor of the reality of physical abuse. These days many people like to claim they were “abused” as a child. It’s a way of absolving yourself for screwing up by shifting the blame to your infancy, when you can’t be blamed for anything. From these gymnastics, by which “therapists” make their money, the adult emerges guilt-free.

Also, the charges were quintessentially Reaganite, in that they took child abuse out of the family, which is where 99% of it occurs, and put it into day-care centers, which in the Schlaflyite scheme of things are abodes of Satan. Again, some parents probably feel a fair amount of guilt for dumping their children in day-care centers anyway, and are obviously ready by way of compensation to support passionately whatever their children may claim. Of course, any considerate parent, social worker or sane therapist (as opposed to the hysterical self-promoters who mostly feature in these cases) would realize that months and years of interrogation and court procedures are the very last things a child needs after a genuine case of abuse. The public investigation and litigation merely magnify the hurt.

The trouble is that these parents now have a huge emotional investment in “the case,” whether it be McMartin or similar episodes. Indeed, in some of these court trials the parents also have a strong material interest, in the form of very substantial awards by insurance companies that cover day-care centers.

So now the McMartin parents can triumphantly torture poor Ray Buckey again, abetted by the cowards and opportunists in the justice system. But if people can be prosecuted on the words of children, then children should take full responsibility for what they are saying. If a child says he saw Ray Buckey kill a horse with a baseball bat (which one did claim) and if this charge is disproved (which it was), then the child should be indicted for perjury, with present prohibition against such infant indictment removed.

If a parent abetted the child in this false accusation, then this parent should be indicted for perjury, too. If the court then establishes that parent and child were lying, at least the parent should suffer the consequences. A few well-publicized sentences of imprisonment of parents (along with “therapists” and social workers, it goes without saying) and we would see a speedy end to these disgusting miscarriages of justice.

May 21, 2011

Harold Camping and Jack Barnes

Filed under: religion,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:34 pm

I’m probably one of the few people on the left who actually used to not only listen to Harold Camping on the radio but actually enjoyed it. I am in the habit of listening to all sorts of esoteric radio programs late at night, particularly those that feature religious fundamentalists who take phone calls. A typical Camping moment would involve a caller asking him how to interpret some bit of scripture. Almost inevitably Camping would see it as supporting his hardline theory of predestination. God had already determined who would be saved and who would be damned and it seemed to have little to do with how you led your life. So you might as well go out and enjoy your whisky at the roadhouse rather than work with lepers. I am sure that the True Believers would insist that this was not what they meant, but that’s the way it always sounded to me.

The main thing I liked about Camping was his deep baritone voice and his rather old-fashioned enunciation. It was like listening to a character in an early 1930s movie. When he didn’t have me chuckling about hellfire and brimstone, he had me drifting off to sleep through his mellifluous and soporofic tones.

Camping, of course, has been in the news lately with his predictions about the world coming to an end. He made the same kind of prediction back in 1994 that Mother Nature ignored. At the age of 90 I doubt if he has any future in the apocalypse business.

I was on the Internet back in 1994 when he made his last prediction. Around that time I posted something about it that I can’t find now but I am pretty sure it refers to the same scholarly study about this business that Alexander Cockburn referred to on Counterpunch:

It’s a safe bet that Camping and his disciples will be saying on May 22 that his math was merely a year or two off, and the end is still nigh. His congregation will have its faith fortified. Membership will probably increase, as it did after the failure of Camping’s last prediction of the Second Coming, which he scheduled for September 6, 1994.

Sociologists call the phenomenon of increased commitment to a batty theory, at the very hour of its destruction by external evidence, “cognitive dissonance.” The theory was developed by three sociologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, who infiltrated a group headed by Dorothy Martin of Chicago who had received messages from the Planet Clarion that the world was scheduled for destruction by flood in the predawn hours of December 21, 1954. A flying saucer would save the group, whose members had abandoned, often at considerable expense and upheaval, all terrestrial commitments, pending transfer to Clarion.

The sociologists theorized that, when neither spaceship nor flood materialized, the group’s best strategy to avoid public humiliation would be to dismiss the failure of the prophesied events as due to minor miscalculations and then to proselytize vigorously, advertising a re-dated flood and interplanetary rescue. Dissonance between nutty theory and reality would be diminished amid growing popularity of the nutty theory. Anyone following the growth of the Christian religion in its early decades, or the Lesser of Two Evils crowd advocating support of a Democratic candidate, will recognize the dynamics.

Back in 1994 I was still in the throes of my SWP post-traumatic stress and tended to talk about this cult more than I do today. I am quite sure that I read about the “cognitive dissonance” theory back then and drew upon it to comment on the SWP that was just as batty in its own way as Dorothy Martin’s flying saucer cult. I can understand Cockburn’s reference to the Lesser of Two Evils cult but demur on one key point. That cult never put the kinds of demands on the faithful that the SWP did. Being a Progressive for Obama might require you to vote on election day while being in the SWP required you to donate $50 per week to the party and sell totally worthless newspapers in front of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in Houston, Texas. That’s some difference.

Like Harold Camping or Dorothy Martin, party leader Jack Barnes never skipped a beat when one of his millenarian predictions did not pan out. In 1979, the epoch of disco dancing and cocaine, he told his followers that proletarian revolution was imminent. When it turned out that the 80s were a time of political retreat for the working class and the left, he simply wrote off his predictions as being based on “slight miscalculations” and plunged ahead with new end-of-capitalism scenarios. As it turned out, the only that came to an end is his own sorry cult.

December 25, 2010

Christmas Truce 1914

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

November 3, 2010

The Prosperity Gospel

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Valentin de Boulogne, “Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple,” c. 1618

Back in the fall of 1978, a month or so before I would turn in my resignation from the SWP—a victim of the “turn”—I was selling the Militant newspaper at the entrance to a grocery store in Kansas City on a Saturday afternoon as a middle-aged, matronly looking woman approached. She looked at me and smiled, then pointed to a Buick sedan in the parking lot, and announced “See that car? Jesus got me that car.”

This was my introduction to the “prosperity gospel”, the subject of an eye-opening article (Mammon from heaven: The prosperity gospel in recession) by Benjamin Anastas that appeared in the March 2010 Harper’s. Like most articles in this very fine magazine, it is behind a subscriber’s firewall but you can read it on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website, of all places. Here’s a key passage:

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jesus slept in animal stalls and lived off the charity of women. He left the world with no possessions, and he cared especially for the least among us and the “poor in spirit.” His only act of violence in the Gospels occurs when he overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives them out of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” He said. “But you have made it a den of thieves.”

In America—and, increasingly, around the world—an alternative gospel has emerged, one in which Jesus was a small businessman and entrepreneur, his disciples were men of relative wealth, and when the Son of Man traveled, he didn’t go coach. This theology is known as the “prosperity gospel,” and among its most common tenets is the belief that God wants His children to enjoy health, happiness, and wealth now and not as an eternal reward in Heaven.

The gospel of wealth in American religious life dates to the late 1800s, when the Robber Barons sought to reconcile their industrial fortunes with a Bible that warned against the pursuit of wealth. One of the most prominent exemplars of this new creed was Russell H. Conwell, a Baptist minister from Massachusetts and author of the best-selling inspirational tract “Acres of Diamonds”—originally a speech that he delivered in churches, social clubs, and meeting halls across the country. Conwell had a vision of the Gospel in which to “honestly attain unto riches” was nothing less than a godly duty for any Christian American. “Money printed your Bible,” Conwell wrote, “money builds your churches, money sends your missionaries, and money pays your preachers.”

During the economic boom that followed World War II, the prosperity gospel was embraced by the prophets of the Holy Spirit, particularly two giants of the Pentecostal tradition: Kenneth E. Hagin, father of the Word of Faith movement22. The evangelist E. W. Kenyon (1867-1948) developed the Word of Faith theological principle known as “positive confession,” which holds that whatever promises you find in Scripture and “confess” to God, you can have. and founder of the RHEMA Bible Training Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Oral Roberts, the pioneering media evangelist and founder of Oral Roberts University. The white Pentecostals of the Dust Bowl era had been among America’s poorest people. After the war, though, they gained a foothold on the American dream: houses, cars, leisure time. The uncompromising Pentecostal faith—based in firsthand encounters with the “gifts of the spirit,” such as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy—adapted itself to this new influx of money and opportunity. In the popular telling, Oral Roberts claimed he felt the divine hand of guidance one day in the late 1940s when his Bible miraculously opened to a passage from 3 John: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” Roberts used this scriptural insight to boil the joyful news of the Gospel down to a simple promise: Something good is going to happen to you.

Roberts’s most enduring theological principle, and his greatest innovation as an evangelist and religious entrepreneur, was the “seed-faith” gospel. Inspired by Napoleon Hill’s 1937 handbook, Think and Grow Rich, Roberts transformed the Parable of the Sower, which for Jesus was a metaphor for the abundance of faith, into a miracle investment opportunity for believers. If they planted a “seed” in “good ground,” they were guaranteed an exponential return: “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Seed-faith theology sanctified the human desire for wealth by converting it into a tithe or an offering to Roberts’s ministry. Versions of the seed-faith gospel are still extant in many of the largest media ministries. Whether it’s Joel Osteen’s promise of a more “abundant” life or T. D. Jakes’s coaching his followers on how to “reposition” themselves to find success, the underlying message is clear: The more freely you give, the more generously you will receive.

The connection between prosperity and Jesus has been made in the pages of Harpers before. In May 2005, there was an article by Gordon Bigelow titled Let There Be Markets: The Evangelical Roots of Economics that detailed the connections between evangelical Christianity and Victorian era economics. Fortunately, this article can be read in its entirety here even if you are not a subscriber. Bigelow writes:

These were middle-class reformers who wanted to reshape Protestant doctrine. For them it was unthinkable that capitalism led to class conflict, for that would mean that God had created a world at war with itself. The evangelicals believed in a providential God, one who built a logical and orderly universe, and they saw the new industrial economy as a fulfillment of God’s plan. The free market, they believed, was a perfectly designed instrument to reward good Christian behavior and to punish and humiliate the unrepentant.

At the center of this early evangelical doctrine was the idea of original sin: we were all born stained by corruption and fleshly desire, and the true purpose of earthly life was to redeem this. The trials of economic life—the sweat of hard labor, the fear of poverty, the self-denial involved in saving—were earthly tests of sinfulness and virtue. While evangelicals believed salvation was ultimately possible only through conversion and faith, they saw the pain of earthly life as means of atonement for original sin. These were the people that writers like Dickens detested. The extreme among them urged mortification of the flesh and would scold anyone who took pleasure in food, drink, or good company. Moreover, they regarded poverty as part of a divine program. Evangelicals interpreted the mental anguish of poverty and debt, and the physical agony of hunger or cold, as natural spurs to prick the conscience of sinners. They believed that the suffering of the poor would provoke remorse, reflection, and ultimately the conversion that would change their fate. In other words, poor people were poor for a reason, and helping them out of poverty would endanger their mortal souls. It was the evangelicals who began to see the business mogul as an heroic figure, his wealth a triumph of righteous will. The stockbroker, who to Adam Smith had been a suspicious and somewhat twisted character, was for nineteenth-century evangelicals a spiritual victor.

Even though the prosperity gospel can be found in mega-Churches all over the United States, Anastas’s article takes a close look at one manifestation, those found in the Black community in Georgia, including one called The Prophet’s House led by Bishop Thomas Weeks III. Anastas describes a typical prayer session at the church:

“If I told you that there was a trust set up for you two thousand years ago that had endless supply,” Weeks said, “would you act like you were broke?”

“No!” a few people answered.

“I can hear you!” someone yelled.

“Bless the Lord,” someone else called back.

“If you don’t know what a trust is,” Weeks continued, “a trust is an amount of money set aside for an eternal or a working purpose reset to set itself between fifty-five and one hundred and ten years.” The energy in the sanctuary faded. “That is a legal document that says it cannot be touched unless the trustee of the trust authorizes it to go any other place.” Someone clapped and the murmurs rose again. “Which means it calculates, it reproduces after its own kind. It pools the factors of its resources from worldwide areas. I don’t even have time to go into it. . . . God says I put a trust together called inheritance. And I put it in every believer.”

When the moment came to share his Global Entrepreneurial Anointing, Weeks carried a vessel filled with oil to the podium and picked up a business-card holder. One of the keyboard players in the worship band set a romantic mood. “I’m going to anoint you tonight,” Weeks said softly, “that the eyes of your understanding will be enlightened.” He started shuffling through a stack of blank business cards. “Do you not know that there is going to be wealth around this room like never before?”

“Glory!” a woman called out.

“Amen!” someone else answered.

“Brother Philip,” the Bishop said, “stand up.” Brother Philip did as Weeks asked. “Brother Philip is one of the great young men of this ministry,” the Bishop explained, still shuffling the business cards. “Some of you that need your carpet cleaned? You know, the children act up, other things were messed up? I trust this man. And today, Philip, I want to be able to say to you that your business is going to take off like never before.” The room erupted in applause for Philip’s good fortune, drowning out the soundtrack for a moment. “You clean the floor of the Prophet’s House. And you serve the prophetic spirit of this house. May the Lord give you for every foot that trampled in and out, may he return it back to you with open doors in your life.”

Although it is not reported in Anastas’s article, Weeks was arrested in 2007 for wife-beating and sentenced to three years probation. Here he is in better times showing off a McMansion that he is about to put on the market:

Fifty years ago the Black church in the South stood for Black liberation and for some of its leaders a life in struggle. As it happens, the same social and economic forces that have robbed the trade unions of its fighting spirit have also undermined the bonds of solidarity that made the Black church a primary agent of progressive change in the U.S.

It is something of a paradox that as the capitalist system offers fewer and fewer people—especially Blacks—a path upward into a solid middle-class existence, it simultaneously entices more and more to seek individualistic solutions either of the “prosperity gospel” kind or charter school lotteries.

As desperate as these times look, there will be a brighter future since the power of bourgeois illusions wear thin in an epoch when they cannot be realized.

September 27, 2010


Filed under: economics,Film,religion,workers — louisproyect @ 3:40 pm

Since I was familiar with Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds”, the definitive documentary about the war in Vietnam, I was anxious to view the Icarus Film’s rerelease of “Middletown”, a PBS documentary series that aired in 1982. As producer of the series and director of the episode “Second Time Around”, about a downwardly mobile couple about to be married, Davis sought to create a film analogue of the classic sociological study conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd in 1929. I had always assumed that the name Middletown referred to the Ohio city, but as it turns out the subject of their study and Davis’s PBS series is Muncie, Indiana. The Lynds were the parents of long-time radical scholar and activist Staughton Lynd, who shared Davis’s passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as his parents’ socialist beliefs. In a PBS interview, Staughton described how his parents went about the project:

I don’t want to present myself as an expert on Middletown, but I will add this fact to the stew. The most powerful employers in Muncie, Indiana at the town were the Ball family, who made glass jars for putting up preserves. And my father, in conducting the original Middletown study, kind of went everywhere and met everyone. He talked to the Rotary Club. He sang in church. He shot the breeze with the local socialists, or one of them. And he had a cordial relationship with the Ball family. And again the kitchen table story is that after the second book appeared the Ball family stopped sending Christmas cards. So there came a time when I suppose you would say my dad had to pick sides or at least was perceived by others as picking sides. And certainly his choice was with those who worked, who did manual work in Muncie rather than with the owning class.

Davis clearly was just the sort of person who could adapt the original material to the film medium. In the booklet that accompanies the Icarus package, he writes:

Looking at the Middletown films a generation after their completion, I find it striking – embarrassing really – that a single word not only binds but flows like a rushing stream through all six films. It is a peculiarly American word that seems to apply to us as it would not if a similar study were made in Italy, China or even among our cultural progenitors in the British Isles. The word is wanting…

My embarrassment is that I didn‟t see the wanting much earlier. When the academic advisors and I formed the Middletown Film Project in 1976, my own aim was to look at a single American community for what it could tell us about our society. Writers and observers as far apart as Alexis de Tocqueville, Saul Bellow, and Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd have looked at America and seen the wanting. “The Indian,” de Tocqueville wrote, “knew how to live without wants,” while the new American man was “constantly on the move” trying to improve his lot, “and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort.” In Henderson The Rain King, Bellow‟s protagonist is assailed by the refrain, “I want, I want, I want,” which also haunts the main character in his late novel Ravelstein. The reprise is neither lazy nor accidental; it was Bellow, born a Canadian, on American yearners.

While all six films in the series are powerful statements about the American psyche, I want to single out “Community of Praise”, which was directed by Richard Leacock. Leacock, now 89, is one of the giants of documentary film-making, serving as cameraman with Robert Flaherty on “The Louisiana Story” in 1946. Leacock, like Davis and all the other directors, used a cinéma vérité style to show how a family’s life revolved around their Christian fundamentalist beliefs. Although Indiana is a northern state, it has many features in common with Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma. Indeed, in “Seventeen”, another episode in the series (PBS refused to air it because it was deemed too controversial), we see an interracial couple being persecuted for breaking taboos. A cross is burned on the white girl’s front-yard.

In the Staughton Lynd interview alluded to above, he stresses that his parents’ intention was to focus on the role that religion plays in Muncie, something that “Community of Praise” lays bare. The main thing that comes across is the sheer desperation that drives ordinary people to the church, much like a drowning person clings to a life-preserver. The husband tells Leacock that he always had a bottle at his side when he was in the barn working on drag racers. He might not have gone to taverns like other men, but he got drunk every night just like them. His wife confesses that she went through a bad period when she was getting drunk, taking valium and suffering from insomnia and depression. She got involved with a local church first and then convinced him to come along. The church, which appears to be Pentecostal, has members and pastors speaking in tongue and rolling around on the floor in divine inspiration. There is very little talk about spirituality or social justice. The main preoccupation appears to be getting rid of demons inside the body that can manifest themselves along a spectrum, from alcoholism to the scoliosis that afflicts a teen-age girl. How will they know that a demon has been expelled? You might experience it either as a sneeze or a passing of wind, the veterinarian faith-healer advises.

A while back when I was studying the controversy around Napoleon Chagnon’s “fierce people” hypothesis on the Yanomami, I imagined a scenario in which a couple of Indians would come to the United States and begin knocking doors in a New Jersey suburban bedroom community to ask people about the most intimate details of their private lives. “Community of Praise” might have been the documentary that embodies this spirit of inquiry into one very superstitious and backward group of people.

The Middletown films, a 4 disk DVD package, can be purchased from amazon.com for $29.99 and is worth every penny. For people trying to understand the stresses of American society that are generating phenomena like the Tea Party, Peter Davis’s series are eye-opening reminders that the process has been deepening every since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the very year that these documentary films were being filmed. As the hammer blows of a post-prosperity economy rain down on the working class families of Muncie, they turn to either a faith in the marketplace or the god in the sky to help them see things through. Now that we are in an economic downfall that makes the early 80s look tame by comparison, it should not come as a surprise that all sorts of bizarre religious beliefs are embraced by those who have been hammered the worst.

While Davis, Leacock and the other obviously progressive-minded film-makers who worked on this project could find no answer to these contradictions within Muncie itself, it is good that they embarked on this project because it gives scholars and activists an accurate picture of the state of the American mind, one that Peter Davis characterized as wanting. Our job is to persuade them that a radical transformation of the economy is the only thing that can address their hunger for security and well-being.

June 28, 2010

Debating the Deacon

Filed under: middle east,religion — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

Deacon Kevin McCormack

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik

As I have mentioned before, the Sunday morning WABC radio show “Religion on the Line” functions as just one more rightwing outlet at the home of Rush Limbaugh and assorted other racist reactionaries. Hosted by Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack, it is a place where you will hear talking points of the Israel lobby on a regular basis. It was where I heard Bard College’s chaplain Bruce Chilton defend Israel’s murderous attack on Gaza in January 2009.

I generally listen for 5 or 10 minutes on Sunday morning just to get up to speed on the latest talking points of the Israel lobby and then switch to WFAN, a radio station for sports fans as the call letters indicate. Once upon a time my radio dial was set to WBAI exclusively but their descent into 9/11 conspiracy-mongering and other such nonsense forced me to look elsewhere.

Generally Potasnik sets the agenda for the show, finding some pretext or another for Muslim-bashing. McCormack tries to appear a bit more reasonable, but is inclined to go along with most of the hate mongering.

Last Sunday I found myself more irritated then usual when Potasnik went on at some length about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was reported to have said: “White folk and the Jews done took this country. You’re in their home, and they’re gonna let you know it.”

It turns out that Potasnik was quoting from an article in Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post, the print equivalent of WABC, but when you go to the article, there’s no reference to the Jews taking the country, only White folks. In other words, the Rabbi was lying to his radio audience in order to deepen their hatred of uppity Black people, no mean feat given the demographics of this racist radio station.

Of course, it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction in the NY Post, by some estimations the most worthless newspaper in the USA and clearly the sort of soiled toilet paper that constitutes Rabbi Potasnik’s weekly reading material.

As it turned out, Congressman Peter King was to be a guest later on. This mean-spirited bigot is one of their faves. Since I have been feeling more worked up about Zionist hasbara (propaganda) lately than usual after the murder of 9 people on the Mavi Marmara, I could not resist giving the Rabbi and the Deacon a piece of my mind. A while back I had posted another complaint on their Facebook, but it wasn’t quite as “in your face” as I would have hoped. This time I decided to contact McCormack directly through his own Facebook id. Below is a log of our exchanges:

Louis P:
What bullshit, complaining about Reverend Wright, when you and the rabbi use WABC as a bully pulpit. The home of Bob Grant of Dinkins “washroom attendant” fame. The home of Rush Limbaugh’s coon show comedy.

Deacon McCormack:
Louis + thank you for listening. Help me understand how a man of priviledge like Rev wright speaks in such general terms as all whites and all jews are responsible for all ills. Come on louis you got to give me this one. The guy is a racist and a hypocrite

Louis P:
Kevin, did you ever hear about the pot calling the kettle black? Also, don’t you agree with Jesus that those without sin should cast the first stone? WABC is an open sewer of race hatred. Surely, you must understand that you and the good rabbi were hired to help propagate the same hate messages as Rush Limbaugh and Bob Grant? Here’s your pal Peter King complaining about there being “too many mosques” in the USA. I guess its okay for him to say this and get the red carpet treatment from you.

Deacon McCormack:
Louis, frankly I am suprised that you would use the same tatics that you so readily claim some of the right wing radio show hosts do. Louis You really don’t know anything about me and yet you draw a broad brush stroke and say that at best I am a “dupe” of WABC and at worst a willful participant of some evil agenda. Would I be correct to assume that as an unrepentant Marxist you are to be painted with the same brush and as such the same crimes as Lennin, Stalin or Mao? Of course not!

Louis did you know my wife and have worked in the inner city developing summer programs for young kids and teenagers?

– Did you know I have worked with and continue to advocate for the undocumented community?

– Did you know that I have gay and straight, black, latino, jewish, & european friends?

You have every right to say what you want and infact I defend that right. But as I said before, Rev. Wrights words are despicable – especially for a self proclaimed Christian. As I Chriustian – I have a responsibility to speak out about injustice everywhere and anywhere I see it.

whether you are listening or monitoring (what does that mean anyway? & in case you don’t know – Most of the show can be gotten as a MP3 file if that helps you.) I appreciate that on some level the Rabbi and I are important to you. I read your blog from Time to time – (not “monitoring” it) ever sice you called me a “warmonger.” I don’t often agree w/ you, but I find you thought provoking.

Final thought for now – Louis I would very much enjoy meeting you for a cup of coffee or a dram to discuss, as men of passion, our world views. I’ll even buy the first round. Only catch – we have to assume the good will of the other until proven otherwise. Let me know – The offer stands.

Louis P:
Well, look. I don’t see much point in getting together since there is obviously a failure to communicate. If somebody said that there were “too many Catholic churches” or “too many synagogues” in New York, you and the rabbi would riff on that for 15 minutes about the terrible hate campaign against your fellow believers. But when I tell you that Peter King said that there were “too many mosques” in the USA, you have *nothing to say*. In other words, we are dealing with a disgusting double-standard. You guys scream bloody murder about anti-Semitic Blacks and Muslims but when a fellow rightwinger says something hateful about Muslims, that gets a bye from you. My understanding of Judeo-Christian values is that they are universal. Unless you two stop functioning as part of the rightwing racist mob at WABC, then at least drop the piety bit. It has nothing to do with Moses or Jesus. It is more about Rush Limbaugh and Peter King.

January 12, 2009

Pious warmongers

Filed under: bard college,Palestine,religion — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

As someone who tunes in to WABC AM from time to time in order to get a handle on what the rightwing is up to, I was not surprised to hear Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Catholic Deacon Kevin McCormack blathering on about Gaza yesterday morning. What did surprise me, however, was the identity of one of their guests who was invited on to help them make their warmongering case: Bruce Chilton, the chaplain at Bard College, my alma mater.

Protestant minister Bruce Chilton: cheering on the IDF in Christ’s name

Chilton is on the board of directors of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, just one part of the sleazy web of advocacy groups connected to the Israel Lobby. It was founded by Sister Ruth Lautt (pronounced lout, I wonder?), a Roman Catholic nun who was profiled in a June 14, 2008 NY Times article. The article makes the specious claim that she has no contact with AIPAC, as if she needed marching orders from them.

Sister Ruth Lautt: used to work for Israel’s high-powered legal firm

A former litigator for the noxious corporate law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Lautt works hard to defend Israeli interests at religious conventions, especially to defeat divestment motions that are increasingly being adopted by mainstream Protestant denominations. In fact, her office is in 475 Riverside Drive, the Interchurch Center (aka “The God Box”), where many of these denominations have offices. I eat in their basement cafeteria from time to time. The NY Times reports:

“We are informed by the Christian mandate to stand for justice and to raise our voices when we see someone being falsely accused,” Sister Ruth, 44, said in an interview at the God Box. “The issue isn’t divestment. Divestment is a symptom, a symptom of bias against the state of Israel and an attempt to lay the blame on the shoulders of Israel.”

Such a viewpoint collides with the political and theological direction of the mainline Protestant churches. Influenced by a version of liberation theology espoused by the Palestinian Christian activist Naim Ateek and his organization Sabeel, which likens Palestinians to the persecuted Jesus, all five of the mainline denominations in the United States (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Evangelical Lutheran and United Church of Christ) have debated and in some cases adopted policies intended to bring direct or indirect economic pressure on Israel to compromise.

Now I wouldn’t want to question the depth of Sister Lautt’s conversion but I would be remiss in not pointing out what Skadden, Arps states on their website:

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and affiliates (“Skadden, Arps” or “Skadden”) is one of the leading U.S. legal advisers to Israeli companies doing business and raising capital outside of Israel and to U.S. and other non-Israeli companies doing business in Israel or investing in Israeli companies. Many of our attorneys are thoroughly familiar with the legal structure, business environment and political system of Israel, and several have been admitted to the bars of both Israel and New York and are fluent in Hebrew and English.

Returning to Bard College’s good chaplain, the very reverend Bruce Chilton, I could not refrain from dashing off a note to him not long after his appearance on “Religion on the Line”:

What’s next? Drinking the blood of Palestinian children?

Louis Proyect, Bard College ’65

Usually the recipients of such emails from me are smart enough to ignore me. I have written George Packer numerous times but have never gotten a reply. For me these emails just serve as a way of blowing off steam but every so often they do seem to get under the skin of their recipient, in the case of Bruce Chilton fairly deeply. It appears that good Christians like him don’t want to be accused of bad faith-especially when they know deep down that it is true.

While “Religion on the Line” does not have transcripts, you can read what Chilton has to say about Gaza on the Christians for a Fair Witness on the Middle East Website:

Qassam rockets are deployed by their namesake, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. Fired over the border between Gaza and Israel at civilian centers, they put into action the stated aim of the Hamas Charter of 1988: “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.” By intent and impact, Qassam rockets terrorize Israeli civilian populations in an attempt to galvanize action across the Muslim world in order to eliminate the State of Israel.

Israel’s attacks in Gaza involve civilian casualties, although that is not their purpose. At every stage — deployment, preparation, and design — Qassam are in such proximity to residential populations that even well targeted strikes bring calamitous results. But the aim of Israel is not the elimination of Gaza, but the end of Qassam attacks. The willingness of the Israeli authorities to halt their attacks in the hope that Qassam sites will be dismantled is a positive development.

It reads, as you would expect, as if it were written by the Israeli consulate.

For most of Sunday, emails went back and forth between Chilton and me and began including a host of other characters including the president of Bard College who usually ignores me but sometimes rises to the bait. (This time he didn’t.) Chilton probably should have known better to take a sarcastic tone with me since I practically invented sarcasm. After I began cc’ing other interested parties at Bard, he took me to task:

To save you the trouble, I have already written to my colleagues in the Departments of Religion and Theology, and to Joel [Kovel, a professor at Bard who is a well-known Marxist]. If you like, I can give you my mother’s e-mail address, as well.

To which I replied:

Sure, send it along. I am sure she’d want to know that her little boy has wasted all the money that was spent on divinity school by becoming an apologist for an apartheid state.

September 8, 2008

Constantine’s Sword

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

With its seamless blend of compelling autobiographical material and laser-sharp political analysis of Christian fundamentalism past and present, “Constantine’s Sword” impressed film critics almost universally when it was released last year. This was one of those rare occasions when the movie was even better than the praise lavished on it. Available on Netflix and other venues after September 16th through the auspices of First Run Features, a distribution company specializing in bold independent fiction and documentary film, this movie is an absolute must for anybody concerned about the growing influence of rightwing Christian sects on the body politic today, including the world’s most powerful and sinister sect: the Catholic Church.

Based on narrator and co-script writer James Carroll’s 750 page book of the same name, the documentary flows from the personal and political transformation of a most unlikely critic of organized religion. Born in 1943, Carroll had two passions as a youth: the Air Force and the Catholic Church. As a teenager, he was obsessed with Jesus Christ in the same way that others his age were with Mickey Mantle.

His father was Joseph P. Carroll, a working-class Irish Catholic Chicagoan who went to night school after his shift in the stockyards ended. After getting a college degree, he went to work for the FBI as an Elliot Ness type gang-buster. His crime-fighting renown attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force which recruited him as a Lieutenant General to head up their newly formed top-secret intelligence-gathering unit after WWII. General Carroll was the Pentagon official responsible for alerting President Kennedy to Cuban missile bases in 1962, thus unleashing a chain of events that came close to ushering in nuclear Armageddon.

James Carroll’s mother probably would have been ready for Armageddon given her fanatical devotion to the Catholic Church. In 1959 he accompanied his mother on a trip to Trier in Germany in order to witness a rare unveiling of the robe that Christ allegedly worn during the crucifixion. This garment was the theme of the cheesy 1953 movie titled “The Robe”, excerpts of which are seen in the documentary. I distinctly remember Victor Mature as a muscle-bound convert to the Cross.

As Carroll explains, the Cross was not the original symbol of the Christian church. In its earliest years, it was the fish or the loaf of bread that symbolized eternal life, an altogether positive image in comparison to the blood-soaked icon that inspired Mel Gibson and the Roman Emperor Constantine as well.

Selecting Christianity for geopolitical reasons more than anything else, the Roman Emperor found the Cross a more useful symbol for his conquests against the heathen than a loaf of bread or a fish. He instituted a new type of state that integrated the sword and the Cross that came to a bloody climax in the Crusades.

Carroll explains that one of the first targets of mass slaughter in the Crusades was the Jews of Trier who had been invited in by the Christian nobility because of their mercantile skills. This act and others to follow should remind any Jew that it has been tormented by the Christian church and not Islam.

The documentary operates on multiple levels, almost like a novel. In addition to telling his own compelling story, Carroll introduces the viewer to Mikey Weinstein, a Jewish air force veteran who had taken vocal exception to the pressure mounted on his son Jason at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado by Christian fundamentalists. Jason could not understand why he had to see leaflets on the chairs in the dining commons for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion.” What had happened to separation of Church and State? The elder Weinstein was no Michael Moore. He too had graduated from the Air Force Academy and had served in the Reagan administration as a loyal Republican.

Making the case for proselytizing at the academy was Colorado Springs mega-Church pastor Ted Haggard who tells Carroll that it is in the interest of free speech to be able to put leaflets for Gibson’s anti-Semitic screed on cadets’ chairs. He had to watch Coke ads on TV even though he liked Pepsi, so why should a Jewish cadet object to such material or presumably people asking him why his people killed Christ, for that matter.

For those who have difficulty keeping track of fundamentalist Christian corruption, as well they should, this is the same Ted Haggard who resigned his post after revealing that he was a speed freak who had conducted a two year affair with a gay man.

The movie is particularly excoriating when it comes to the popes, particularly Pope Pius whose close even affectionate relationship to Adolph Hitler is revealed in all its sordid detail. Carroll shows in eye-opening detail, even to an old adversary of Christian hypocrisy like me, how the Vatican sprang to the head of the line when it came to recognizing the criminal, anti-Semitic dictatorship. Carroll also reveals how the current Pope, a rightwing German, is working overtime to cover up for Pope Pius as well as preparing his Church for new crusades against Islam.

Carroll entered the priesthood in 1969 and became a pacifist opponent of the war in Vietnam almost immediately. When he delivered a service decrying the use of napalm (without even using the word Vietnam), his father became incensed. Eventually Carroll left the Church, became a writer, and now has a regular column in the Boston Globe. Here is a sample of his writing:

The “surge” is touted as proof that American armed might can improve things, even though daily news reports say otherwise. That is because American “success” is not the same thing as success for the people of Iraq. By itself, the US military will never prove capable of providing them with stability and security. Worse, the US occupation will continue to prevent the development by Iraqis themselves of authentic, trans-sectarian security forces.

The occupation is the mistake that keeps on taking.

The healing of Iraq would be far more readily achieved by an American acknowledgment of failure, and by the engagement of other nations that such an acknowledgment would immediately invite. But insanely holding on in Iraq until Washington can claim something like “victory” means that this globally oriented geo-political ambition – America’s standing in the world – is being bought at the price of Iraqi blood.

Not that I aspire to be an arbiter of who is a good Christian or not, this seems far more in keeping with these words from the martyred rabbi than anybody from Ted Haggard’s neck of the woods:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

August 4, 2007

The Jews and the Baha’i in Iran

Filed under: Iran,religion — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

Would he have been an unperson in Iran?

There’s an article in the August 3rd Counterpunch by Jonathan Cook that makes a number of excellent points about the status of Jews in Iran. Since the neoconservatives in Washington and their Zionist allies represent Ahmadinejad as the Hitler of today (taking over Saddam’s job) in order to make the case for war, it is imperative that the truth come out.

To Cook’s credit, he makes no attempt to whitewash the Iranian government:

As one of several non-Muslim minorities in Iran, Jews there suffer discrimination, but they are certainly no worse off than the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel — and far better off than Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Iranian Jews have little influence on decision-making and are not allowed to hold senior posts in the army or bureaucracy.

Despite these limitations, Jews enjoy a fairly trouble-free existence in Iran. Cook writes:

They have an elected representative in parliament, they practice their religion openly in synagogues, their charities are funded by the Jewish diaspora, and they can travel freely, including to Israel. In Tehran there are six kosher butchers and about 30 synagogues. Ahmadinejad’s office recently made a donation to a Jewish hospital in Tehran.

These points are absolutely necessary to be made, but there are still some troubling aspects to the status of Jews in Iran, no doubt reflected by emigration statistics. In 1979, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran but today there are only 20,000. That is a mass exodus that needs to be analyzed. To some extent, it can be explained by the privileged material status of Jews, who were primarily bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. Like many other Iranians, particularly those with ties to the Shah, the felt that their class interests were being threatened and emigrated to Israel or to the United States, where many settled in Los Angeles, along with tens of thousands of non-Jewish Iranians.

Cook refers to Zionist conspiracies to recruit Jews in the Middle East as agent provocateurs. The goal was to create a backlash that would result in forcing Jews out of their native countries and flight to Israel:

Even more notoriously, Israel went to greater lengths to ensure the exit of the Arab world’s largest Jewish population, in Iraq. In 1950 a series of bombs targeted on Jews in Baghdad forced a rapid exodus of some 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel, convinced that Arab extremists were behind the attacks. Only later did it emerge that the bombs had been planted by members of the Zionist underground, supported by the Israeli government.

Now, Iran’s Jews may find themselves treated in much the same manner — as simple human fodder. Stories are growing of Israel exploiting the free movement between Iran and Israel enjoyed by Iranian Jews and their Israeli relatives to carry out spying operations on Iran’s nuclear program. Such reports have come from sources such as the American journalist Seymour Hersh, citing US government officials.

It would be an acid test for the Islamic Republic to be able to determine where such threats were real or bogus. Unfortunately, there was evidence in 1999 that it could not. On June 10, 1999, Counterpunch regular Patrick Cockburn reported in The Independent:

The arrest of two Jews in Iran accused of selling alcohol to Muslims has turned into an international dispute over alleged spying, involving Israel and the United States.

Under interrogation, and probable torture, after their arrest in Shiraz three months ago, the two men implicated 11 other Jews, religious leaders and teachers, who were accused last weekend of spying for the Israelis and Americans.

It should be mentioned that Shiraz had historically been a center of wine-making in Iran, with Jews playing a key role in production and sales. The famous shiraz or syrah grape can now be found everywhere in the world. Additionally, Jews are allowed to use wine in Iran, as part of their ceremonies. Whatever the circumstances in Shiraz, it seems doubtful that two men who were caught selling booze to Muslims would also be involved in an espionage ring as Jews are carefully monitored in Iran for exactly this kind of activity

Four days later Cockburn reported that the arrests were probably an attempt by hard-liners to scuttle reformist efforts to improve relations with the US. This is a repeating theme in Iranian politics, as evidenced by recent arrests of “George Soros operatives”, etc. While there certainly are efforts always afoot to create a fifth column in Iran, the regime has lots of trouble making its own case before public opinion. The arrest of Haleh Esfandiari, a 67 year old scholar, was particularly counter-productive based on the presence of such names on a petition demanding her release:

Juan R. Cole, University of Michigan
Valentine Moghadam, Purdue University
Tariq Ramadan, Oxford University
Ervand Abrahamian, City University of New York
Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Eventually an Iranian appeals court showed some leniency. Asher Zadmehr, a university teacher, had his sentence cut from 13 to seven years, while Hamid Tefilin, a shopkeeper, had his reduced from 13 to nine. The other eight men were left with reduced jail terms ranging from two to eight years.

Despite this, or perhaps because of this, many Iranian Jews decided it was time to leave the country. A combination of judicial repression and a worsening economy was sufficient to generate a new exodus, even though by all accounts Jews did not face the kind of systematic violence that another religious minority faced. Unlike the Jews and the Zoroastrians, the Baha’i sect was considered fair game.

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini was interviewed by James Cockcroft in the pages of Seven Days, a radical magazine:

Cockroft: Will there be either religious or political freedom for the Bahá’ís under the Islamic government?

Khomeini: They are a political faction; they are harmful. They will not be accepted.

Cockroft: How about their freedom of religion – religious practice?

Khomeini: No.

I first encountered the Baha’i in the early 1980s when I discovered that my barber was a member of the sect, which emerged in 19th century Persia. It was basically a kind of reformist initiative within Islam that corresponded to Reform Judaism or any of a number of Christian sects that embraced enlightenment values. The founder of the religion claimed he was the Mahdi and thus had equal status to the Prophet Muhammad with the power to abrogate Islamic law. This was not likely to endear you to the Muslim clerics who had a hearty appetite for martyring the Baha’is. When the Islamic Republic was created in 1979, it provided a legal sanction for bloody repression.

While the Baha’i do not have anything like an official clergy, they do elect a National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) and Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSA). In November 1979, the secretary of the NSA in Iran was kidnapped and never seen again. In August 1980 all nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly were arrested while meeting at a private home. After they were replaced by a new NSA, they too were arrested by the Iranian authorities and executed without a trial on December 27, 1981.

Over the next 3 years many more Baha’i leaders were arrested and executed. Finally, under pressure from human rights organizations around the world, the Iranian government modified its approach. Instead of using extra-legal violence, there would be stepped up efforts to punish the Baha’is economically and to deny them influence in universities and elsewhere. This is not to say that repression has ceased to exist. Last year 54 Baha’is in Shiraz were arrested for the crime of organizing a community service project that no doubt included propagation of their beliefs. That is what religious people do, after all.

Back in the 1980s, when I went to Baha’i services in New York about every 2 or 3 months, I came away very impressed with their beliefs–all except of course their silly notion that there was some kind of deity controlling the destiny of humanity and the world. There were a number of exemplary figures who had become members of the sect, largely on the basis of their 19th century humanitarian principles. Among them were jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and poet Ogden Nash of purple cow fame. The Diz, who believed in world peace and traveled to Cuba on numerous occasions, described his beliefs as follows:

Every age in music is important. Equally as important as the previous one, and is as important as the one that’s coming after that. The same thing with religion you know, like when religion reveals itself. God has got it set up now. His education of mankind is through these prophets, and each one’s supposed to come for a specific age, so they just keep coming, and after his is over another one takes their place. That’s what the Baha’is teach you. They got a really intelligent way, looking at God’s work on the planet. So I believe that music is the same, too. Messengers come to the music and after their influence starts waning, another one comes with a new idea, and he has a lot of followers.

For more information on the Baha’is, go to the Baha’i library that includes the above excerpt from a Dizzy Gillespie biography.

July 3, 2007

Unborn in the USA

Filed under: Fascism,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

“Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion” is a kind of companion piece to last year’s “Jesus Camp.” Both films avoid any kind of editorializing commentary and simply allow the ultra-right religious fanatics to hoist themselves on their own petard. Except for the occasional on screen correction (for example, despite the claims of one of the anti-abortion activists, there is no link between abortion and breast cancer), the documentary takes the fetus-fetishists at their own words.

Indeed, in some ways, it is a film that they might have made themselves. Co-directors Stephen Fell and Will Thompson began work on what would ultimately become “Unborn in the USA” as a student film project at Rice University. Striving for objectivity, they aimed to “be journalists throughout and not have a particular opinion…to superimpose on the film” in the words of Stephen Fell. Given the overall creepiness of this movement, the young directors had little to do except focus their cameras on the subjects to make their opinion clear.

The film begins with a look at college interns being trained at the campus of Focus on the Family, the largest rightwing Christian fundamentalist group in the country. Focus on the Family is run by James Dobson, who has urged support for candidates who would make abortion punishable by death. The campus is near Colorado Springs, Colorado, a state which is rapidly becoming the nerve center of rightwing fundamentalism in the USA. After getting pointers from an instructor on how to get their point across, they pack themselves into two Greyhound buses and descend on a local state college where they are confronted by local students who are outraged by the outsized posters of the bloody remains of abortions on their campus. Some schools have banned these displays, but obviously the Colorado educational authorities have no problem with them, just as they have no problem firing Ward Churchill for making unpopular comments after 9/11.

Despite their fetus fetishism, the Focus on the Family students almost seem normal, at least in comparison with the pond scum that are featured in the film’s middle section. The young directors allow Army of God activists to make their case, which boils down to maiming or killing men and women who perform abortions. To give credit where credit is due, President Clinton pushed for legislation that would put these animals on the defensive. Not only have Army of God type assassinations become more or less a thing of the past, laws now prevent these scum from blocking the entrances to abortion clinics. Their main activity nowadays, according to the documentary, is standing on the street with huge posters of bloody fetuses.

These posters will undoubtedly have little impact on whether a woman decides to get an abortion or not. As is evident from the confrontations between them and pro-choice women who have had abortions, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is not done lightly. What the fetus fetishists are really about is forcing their will on a secular and permissive population that they blame for America’s decline. In turning the clock back to when abortion was illegal, they must think that the USA will be the City on the Hill once again. Clearly they lack an understanding of the ABC’s of capitalist economics.

The film makes clear that the Bush White House and the anti-abortion movement work hand-in-glove. There is an illuminating interview with the CEO of the phone-banking company that raises money for both the Republican Party and the major anti-abortion outfits. He says that the people who make the fund pitches are “zealots” just like him. They are involved with a cause.

Although I don’t share Chris Hedges’s worry that such activists are an immanent fascist threat, I do think that he has captured their thinking and their methods in his recently published “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” These clearly are elements of a movement that might take shape in the future that is psychology suited to atavistic traditions in the USA. Instead of the swastika, the crucifix and the fetus are likely to be the symbols of a totalitarian-leaning capitalism. In an January 19, 2007 Alternet article, Hedges wrote:

The engine that drives the radical Christian Right in the United States, the most dangerous mass movement in American history, is not religiosity, but despair. It is a movement built on the growing personal and economic despair of tens of millions of Americans, who watched helplessly as their communities were plunged into poverty by the flight of manufacturing jobs, their families and neighborhoods torn apart by neglect and indifference, and who eventually lost hope that America was a place where they had a future.

This despair crosses economic boundaries, of course, enveloping many in the middle class who live trapped in huge, soulless exurbs where, lacking any form of community rituals or centers, they also feel deeply isolated, vulnerable and lonely. Those in despair are the most easily manipulated by demagogues, who promise a fantastic utopia, whether it is a worker’s paradise, fraternite-egalite-liberte, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Those in despair search desperately for a solution, the warm embrace of a community to replace the one they lost, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, the assurance they are protected, loved and worthwhile.

During the past two years of work on the book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, I kept encountering this deadly despair. Driving down a highway lined with gas stations, fast food restaurants and dollar stores I often got vertigo, forgetting for a moment if I was in Detroit or Kansas City or Cleveland. There are parts of the United States, including whole sections of former manufacturing centers such as Ohio, that resemble the developing world, with boarded up storefronts, dilapidated houses, pot-hole streets and crumbling schools. The end of the world is no longer an abstraction to many Americans.

Jeniece Learned is typical of many in the movement. She stood, when I met her, amid a crowd of earnest-looking men and women, many with small gold crosses in the lapels of their jackets or around their necks, in a hotel lobby in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. She had an easy smile and a thick mane of black, shoulder length hair. She was carrying a booklet called “Ringing in a Culture of Life.” The booklet had the schedule of the two day event she is attending organized by The Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. The event was “dedicated to the 46 million children who have died from legal abortions since 1973 and the mothers and fathers who mourn their loss.”

Perhaps the difficulties facing the neoconservative movement today under the reign of arguably the most unpopular President in American history might signal a lessening of the threat identified by Hedges, not to speak of the despair found within the pages of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Whatever the future directions of American society, we on the left are compelled to keep track of our enemies. A film like “Unborn in the USA” is necessary viewing from that standpoint. Unfortunately, I received a screener from the good folks at First Run Features after the film had ended its run at Cinema Village in New York. We can assume that it will be released in home video before long. Keep an eye out for it. It is first-rate.

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