Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 9, 2013

Semour Hersh and Richard Sale’s senior moments

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:39 pm

Seymour Hersh

Richard Sale

Perhaps betraying senior moments, long-time reporters Seymour “Sy” Hersh (76) and Richard Sale (74) have penned articles of the sort that were rampant in the weeks following Barack Obama’s threats to do something about Bashar al-Assad’s August 21 sarin gas attack on East Ghouta. Despite the consensus among the “anti-imperialist” left that Obama intended to attack Syria as a prelude to attacking Iran, after the fashion of Hitler using Poland as a launching pad for invading the USSR, it has been revealed that at that very moment the U.S. and Iran were involved in secret talks designed to reorient American foreign policy against the “jihadist” threat.

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

“Whether they are dismayed by the way things played out in Egypt or by the growth of Al Qaeda in Syria, the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American foreign policy makers,” said William McCants, an expert on jihadist movements and a former senior adviser at the State Department. “It seems we are back to counterterrorism as a guiding focus for American policy.”

–NY Times, December 3, 2013

Hersh’s article–featured as a coming attraction for the next issue of London Review of Books–is titled “Whose sarin?” I just heard from Brown Moses that he has an article answering Hersh in Foreign Policy magazine so I won’t go into any details about the technical issues. Instead I am going to focus on the political assumptions implicit in what amounts to version 2.0 of the Ray McGovern/Yossef Bodansky “false flag” story that surfaced in September. Basically Hersh’s article is an attempt to snow the reader with references to all the “experts” he knows who have the inside goods that it was the jihadists who were behind the East Ghouta massacre.

But in recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence. One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse’. The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime’, he wrote. A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy: ‘The guys are throwing their hands in the air and saying, “How can we help this guy” – Obama – “when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?”’

For comparison’s sake, here’s the first paragraph of an open letter that Ray McGovern and a gaggle of other ex-spooks sent to Barack Obama.

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed because your advisers decided to afford you the opportunity for what is commonly known as “plausible denial.”

One has to scratch one’s head over Hersh’s reference to a Gulf of Tonkin incident when he surely must have been aware that the U.S. and Iran had been in secret talks since November 2012, something that has been widely reported in the bourgeois press. Speaking as a geezer myself, I understand what a burden that cataracts can impose on your reading but surely a well-paid journalist like Hersh could have had an intern at the LRB read press reports for him. Surely she (it probably would have been a woman) could have whispered in his ear what was going on:

An Israeli television network reported Sunday night that Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, has been holding secret talks with the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, and that the international negotiations underway in Geneva are merely a “facade” covering up a deal whose terms have already been decided.

The report on Israel’s Channel 10 quoted unnamed senior Israeli officials who said that the talks, which have reportedly been underway for a year, have been held in various Persian Gulf states.

Exactly one year ago, the Israeli newspaper Ynet reported that Jarrett was beginning to communicate behind the scenes with representatives of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Apparently Hersh has been obsessed about this looming war on Syria and Iran for sometime now, even long before the Arab Spring occurred. And long before many in the “anti-imperialist” left had developed an obsession with Sharia law and beheadings that would have made Christopher Hitchens wince, he was warning readers of the New Yorker magazine, the place to go if you are looking for Jeffrey Goldberg type reporting. In a March 5, 2007 article titled “The Redirection”, Hersh worried about George W. Bush—of all people—becoming soft on the jihadists.

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Most of the article consists of Hersh serving as a stenographer to Hizbollah leader Nasrallah, whose every word he seems to dote on.

I understand that for many people Sy Hersh is a saintly figure whose every word deserves to be preserved for the ages, but there are some people who demand that he be as accountable as any other scribbler for the bourgeois press—starting with Alexander Cockburn.

On November 13, 2001 Cockburn informed N.Y. Press readers that Hersh was clueless about predator drones—a warning flag to anybody taking Hersh’s ruminations on sarin-laded missiles with a wheelbarrow of salt. In a New Yorker magazine published that year, Hersh described predator drones as having an uncanny ability to distinguish combatants from non-combatants—a revelation one imagines to the Afghan families that lost children in one of Obama’s remote controlled death squad escapades. Cockburn wrote:

Discussing the Hersh story, a knowledgeable [Capitol] Hill staffer drew attention to the Pentagon’s unclassified “Operational Test & Evaluation Report” on the Predator from September 2001 (i.e., well before the articles). It highlighted numerous shortcomings, such as “poor target location accuracy, ineffective communications and limits imposed by relatively benign weather, including rain, negatively impact missions…” To sum up: The best Predator sensor needs daylight and clear skies, and at operational ranges (15,000 to 30,000 feet) it can make gross distinctions between what type of vehicle it is looking at.

After Alexander Cockburn assumed ownership of Counterpunch, along with the intrepid Jeff St. Clair, the less than worshipful attitude toward Hersh continued. Just after Hersh’s “The Redirection” appeared in the New Yorker, Counterpunch published an article by Michael Young with this opening:

It’s become a habit to greet whatever journalist Seymour Hersh writes with reverence. However, after his ludicrous claim last summer that Israel’s war in Lebanon was a trial run for an American bombing of Iran – an accusation undermined by postwar narratives showing the confused way Israel and the United States responded to the conflict – my doubts hardened.

Indeed.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the London Review of Books has become a reliable source of pro-Assad propaganda, adding Hersh to a roster that includes Tariq Ali and David Bromwich among other luminaries. When I first became aware of the “humanitarian intervention” phenomenon in the 1990s when Yugoslavia was being torn apart, it became clear to me that such “respectable” liberal magazines intended for Oxford graduates were instrumental in lining up support against the “dastardly Serbs”. How ironic that in 2013, the LRB and the New York Review of Books function as a wing of the John Rees left internationally.

Richard Sale’s “Syria’s Criminal Rebels” appeared in the December 4, 2013 Truthout, an online publication I always associated with William Rivers Pitt who no longer seems to have any connection with it.

As was the case with Sy Hersh, Alexander Cockburn refused to take Truthout at its word, at least with respect to its coverage of the Valerie Plame story.

Take Truthout, the site identified with William Rivers Pitt and Mark Ash. After months and months of obsessive bloggings about the Plame scandal Truthout contributor Jason Leopold declared on May 13 that Karl Rove had been indicted on charges of perjury and lying to investigators. Leopold cited “sources” averring that prosecutor Fitzgerald had met for 15 hours with Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskind, that Rove had told Bush and his chief of staff Joshua Bolton that he was about to indicted.

In the days that followed, came immediate, categorical denials from Rove’s lawyer and the White House. The week progressed with no indictment. It looked as though Truthout would have to sponge the egg off its face. Truthout did nothing of the sort, insisting as vehemently as any lunatic claiming abduction by aliens that it stuck by its story.

Like most of the left, Truthout is generally reliable even if it is subject to the sort of silliness that Cockburn called attention to. I have it bookmarked along with Truthdig and CommonDreams as part of my daily intake of liberal bromides.

But like most of the left, it has been dreadful on Syria. A search on “Syria” there returns 6,600 results with Dutchman Daan de Wit’s “Why Is Syria Under Attack?” at the top. Truthout links to De Wit’s website Deep Journal, where you can find a plethora of articles on 9/11 starting with “Scientific proof of explosives in WTC on 9/11 – Prof. Niels Harrit interviewed by Daan de Wit”. As my regular readers know, 9/11 Truthism goes hand in hand with Baathist propaganda, like a giant-sized coke with a Big Mac.

Sale, like Hersh, is a big macher in the journalism business—or at least was at one time—with a impressive credit to his name: Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1989. My guess is that he is enjoying his retirement nowadays with occasional contributions to Truthout, an online publication not bound by the fact-checking rigors of the print media one gathers.

The article is larded with references to those “professionals” in the military and intelligence business that Hersh alluded to in a bid for authority, but with the added cachet of naming names:

“The first thing in a war that flees is human decency,” said Col. Pat Lang, former Defense Intelligence Agency leader of Middle East operations.

“The criminality of the Syrian opposition, I think, is the chief reason President Obama is steering clear of more involvement there,” Vince Cannistraro, former CIA counterterrorism chief, told Truthout.

A veteran Mideast expert at National Defense University in Washington, DC, Judith Yaphe, described the Syrian civil war as “a complete mess” that the United States would be warned to stay out of.

An analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, Joseph Holliday, remarked that organized crime played “a major role in creating nearly insolvable insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the governments became hopelessly corrupt and insurgents secured regular sources of weapons and cash. [Strange, I always thought it had more to do with a brutal occupation…]

For a second there, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading an op-ed piece in the N.Y. Times by somebody from the Brookings Institute. Yaphe is the sort of person I’d be as likely to quote as Walter Russell Mead, but then again I wouldn’t dream of writing for Truthout.

In a sign of “senioritis”, Sale cites a N.Y. Timesman named C.J. Shivers better known to his readers as C.J. Chivers. I admit shivering when I read Sale’s reference to a Chivers article dated September 6, 2013:

A New York Times article made this point with great impact last month when it described the execution of five trussed men, badly beaten, whose faces were pressed into the dirt as Syrian rebels, posed casually, fired bullets into the back of each prisoner’s head.

Like Hersh, who betrayed no awareness that secret talks had been going on between the White House and the Iranians, Sale is blissfully unaware that the article he cites to reinforce his Islamophobia turned out to be in need of fact-checking. The N.Y. Times was forced to make a public mea culpa on Chivers’s article:

An article on Thursday about the brutal and ruthless tactics adopted by some rebel groups in Syria misstated the date of a video that showed a band of rebels executing seven captured Syrian soldiers. The video, which was smuggled out of Syria by a former rebel, was made in the spring of 2012, not April 2013.

Even if Chivers had his dates correct, it would have not made much difference in the overarching purpose of his article, namely to provide N.Y. Times editorial endorsement for Obama’s “turn” to Syria and Iran. All these lurid articles are meant to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to deaden the American people’s sensitivity to one of the most brutal attacks on human rights in decades. Oh, it’s just those Arabs killing each other again. Nobody would ever push for American intervention in Syria but the backhanded support for Bashar al-Assad by people such as Richard Sale is disgusting.

Assuming that Sale is a journalist emeritus, there is no excuse for some of the slop that appears in his article. For instance, he writes:

The new chief of police in Aleppo, a man named Ryhan, commented, “We now have serious complaints about members of the Free Syrian Army. Some of them are stealing cars to move around.” He added that there were “too many robberies and people being kidnapped in the streets.”8

But if go to footnote 8, you will discover nothing that connects to the quote. Did Sale just make “Ryhan” up like Stephen Glass, the disgraced New Republic reporter who had a vivid imagination? And equally disconcerting, why would anybody cite the “new chief of police in Aleppo” as an impartial authority on the FSA? You might as well have cited Bashar al-Assad.

One of the major collateral damages of the Syrian conflict has been integrity in left journalism, with the Mint Press fiasco as a prime example. People like Sy Hersh and Richard Sale believe that in pursuit of their strategic goals, it is permissible to make things up. Just like Judith Miller really. If anybody ever catches me writing such bullshit on my blog, they have permission to come to my apartment in Manhattan and seize my Macbook. They also have permission to walk me over to the nearest clinic to have me checked for early onset of Alzheimer’s. Thank god I still have my principles and my brainpower intact.

December 8, 2013

Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk

Filed under: South Africa — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm
Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk
by Ashwin Desai (Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg)

Nelson Mandela’s best-selling autobiography, published in 1994, is entitled Long Walk to Freedom. It tells the powerful story of the journey of a rural Transkei boy who was a cow-herd and son of a deposed tribal chief, to guerilla fighter to decades-long prisoner on an Island fortress and then to the first Black and democratic president of his nation, South Africa. This story came at a time when the world was witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union, the toppling of statues of many socialist icons and the quagmire of many post-colonial states in Africa. Mandela’s story was rightfully seen as one example of vindication for resistance, righteousness, principle and steadfastness. With the African National Congress’s victory seen as a rare move forward during the 1990s, it reminded us all that to sacrifice for justice will finally find redemption. Often written out of this story are the sustained rebellions by millions of South Africans that were to lead to Mandela’s release from prison. The 1973 Durban workers’ strikes, the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement, the 1976 Soweto student uprising and the rebellions of the 1980s, all put the regime on the back-foot. The international sanctions movement caused a run on the banks in 1985 that contributed to white business breaking with Pretoria and exploring terms with the liberation movement. Reeling from resistance and economic crisis, the apartheid regime opened talks with Mandela. It was one of the ironies of the mid-1980s that those who marched in the streets of South Africa saw non-collaboration as a central plank of resistance. For them, negotiation with the regime was outside of any genuine liberation movement’s organisational mandate. By agreeing to meet with representatives of the regime, Mandela was already playing a lone card. Many in his own exiled movement were shocked by this move.

Running through the speeches and banners of the internal rebellion was a sense that apartheid and capitalism were feeding off each other, and that the destruction of the former would “grow over” and destroy the latter. Our theories posited the existence of a strange and unique creature, racial capitalism. Our strategy was that an obsidian knife in the heart of apartheid oppression would cause the dragon of capitalism to slowly disintegrate. It was a time of monsters, tyrants, insurrection and the seizure of state power.

Nationwide, there were marches, protests, and consumer boycotts. In the economic heartland of the country, the Vaal triangle, unions and community organisations united in a three-day stay-away in 1984, catalyzing wave after wave of mass strikes and protests. The 1980s were a heady time: through the states of emergency, tens of thousands took to the streets to destroy state attempts at co-optation through the tri-cameral system, which sought to bring Indians and Coloureds as junior partners into the system, as well as the Black Local Authorities run by puppets in the African townships.

This was my generation, which knew mass organisation, the constant fear of imprisonment, the sense of a regime unable to quell rebellion, of all things possible.

In 2013, it is difficult to capture the impact of the 1980s on a whole generation of activists. Apartheid could not imprison us. Cross-racial alliances, reading groups, all night meetings, building one street at a time. These were part of everyday life.

During this period, Mandela’s clandestine talks with the regime continued. He was moved from Pollsmoor to Victor Verster with his own cook and swimming pool. He was taken for walks on the beach, as the regime prepared him for release. These talks with the regime took place behind the backs of his closest comrades, who were cut off from him.

The regime believed that, unlike those who marched in the streets and faced the barrage of bullets and lengthy periods of detention, Mandela was a man they could talk to. While he stuck to ‘one person, one vote in a unitary state’ as a bottom-line demand for democracy, he appeared open to keeping the fundamentals of the accumulation system intact and the preservation commanding heights of the economy. The dragon would get a make-over.

There were imponderables. What was the ANC in exile thinking? Big business seemed to be sure of the ANC’s commitment to a deal. They led the way, meeting the ANC in exile in 1985, soon realising that it was an organisation they could do business with. Gavin Reilly, Chairman of Anglo-American Corporation, led a delegation of top representatives of South African monopoly capital to Lusaka to talk with the ANC leadership. He reflected on that meeting, that ‘he had the impression the ANC was not ‘too keen’ to be seen as “marxist” and that the ANC leaders had a good understanding “of the need for free enterprise.”’ Reilly’s summation was to prove incredibly insightful, if you replace the words “free enterprise” with “prerogatives of monopoly capital”.

There was another imponderable. The internal insurgency had the potential to derail the Afrikaner regime and white capital’s best laid plans. The benefits of free enterprise did not feature in their vocabulary. But, in that crucial period between Mandela’s release in 1990 and the elections of 1994, the ANC skilfully absorbed the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). COSATU, the main labour federation, acknowledged the ANC as the leading force in the alliance that included the South African Communist Party. Both these organisations were allowed to nominate a slate of members to be put on the ANC’s election list. Many of these representatives were to become notorious for their embrace of macro-economic conservatism and overseeing the privatization of state assets.

The internal regiments who tipped the balance in the liberation movement’s favour were outflanked. The pace of liberation set in the townships streets of the 1980s was been slowly moved into the boardroom. The balance of forces was shifting. The ANC was eating away at the Nats apartheid machine. At the same time, Capital, outside of the calculations of the MDM in the 80s was eating into the ANC.

The long march to freedom was gathering speed, but what was its direction?

The ANC was to produce stability for capital – and a consequent 10 percent decline in the ratio of wages to profits – during the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies. This, the apartheid regime could not offer. There were moments when the carefully crafted script called for ad-libbing. But the ANC was able to turn on the tap of mass mobilization to release tensions and then turn it off. The April 1993 assassination of Chris Hani was one particular moment. But the ANC shrewdly managed this potentially explosive event. Mandela was key. He writes in the Long Walk to Freedom: ‘We adopted a strategy to deal with our own constituency in the ANC. In order to forestall outbreaks of retaliatory violence, we arranged a week-long series of mass rallies and demonstrations throughout the country. This would give people a means of expressing their frustration without resorting to violence. Mr de Klerk and I spoke privately and agreed that we would not let Hani’s murder derail the negotiations.’

Why Mandela? We wanted a messiah to give us direction and hope, after the years in which life was tenuous, fragile, suspended on the edge of disintegration. We wanted to believe in good men, in just policies, in a caring, inclusive society. At the tip of Africa, where for so long we had been imprisoned by race, where ceilings were placed on what we could achieve because of the colour of our skin, and our imaginations had been ground down by both subtle and crude repressions, it seemed we could now sweep these barriers away.

With Mandela at the helm, we were on the move. It was a time of embracing, of grand gestures, of style and the possibility of everyday freedom, whatever the structural and historical constraints. For those of us who had lived under the stop-watch of race, whose fathers and mothers knew only stigmatisation, our lives compressed into tight racial corners, we too it seemed were released from long-term imprisonment.

The first years after the Mandela release were electrifying. All over people who felt trapped by apartheid, by the immediacy of making do or destroying the system, now felt they were living in history. Madiba magic touched us all releasing the spell cast over us for so long

Much was initially promised. Nelson Mandela’s short walk through the gates of Victor Verster prison meant more than the beginning of the defeat of apartheid. Mandela symbolised the hope that society could be organised differently, humanely and nobly. This, at a time also when there was talk of one world order, and one in which amoral markets alone held sway. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the welfare state was in retreat, the market economy had gone global and the shining light of capitalism, it was written, had arrived and was banging at the doors of state regimentation and control.

Mandela, in his first speech in 1990 in Cape Town, promised that the ideals of the Freedom Charter would illuminate the way to a new South Africa. The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) would serve as the ANC’s campaign plan to redress past inequities, as those who suffered under the yoke of apartheid would take their place as fully fledged citizens, under a new flag and national anthem, guided by a new constitution in a new South Africa. Mandela marked the closure of one long terrible world-wide history, defined by colonial dispossession and racial oppression. He signaled an opening; of a time when all South Africans would be free from racial and economic exclusions and marked the foundation of the Rainbow Nation of God.

Openings would be the operative word. Our economy, which for so long had operated behind protectionist barriers, was thrown open to a feeding frenzy by global sharks, as we lost one labour-intensive industry after another to East Asian competitors. As South Africa sought to negotiate its way onto the global stage and a unipolar world, concessions were quickly made and the adoption of a people-centred economic path jettisoned. We, who marched in the 1980s behind banners that read ‘Forward ever, backwards never’, were flummoxed. Rather than Mandela illuminating the path to freedom from poverty and inequality, the first years of the ANC government were marked by a series of policy U-turns.

It was a time in which erstwhile revolutionaries and left intellectuals confused realism with conformism and surrender with fighting back.

Exchange controls were relaxed in 1995 and then crucially in 1999, Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel allowed big business to delist from Johannesburg and relist on the London Stock Exchange. Some of the country’s biggest companies decamped with apartheid’s plunder: Anglo American, De Beers diamonds, Investec bank, Old Mutual insurance, Didata ICT, SAB Miller breweries (all to London), and Mondi paper (to New York). The $25 billion apartheid debt, odious in law, was to be honoured. Foreign policy embraced Suharto (Mandela gave the butcher the highest honour for a foreigner, The Cape of Good Hope Medal), and after an $850 million IMF loan in late 1993, Bretton Woods Institution diktats were slavishly followed. The final U-turn was signaled without warning. The RDP was replaced by a series of neoliberal White Papers in sector after sector, culminating in the 1996 homegrown Growth, Employment and Redistribution structural adjustment policy. This became the ruling mantra and codified liberalisation as the official ideology of Mandela’s government.

Battles were lost. We were designated a ‘transitional’ country not a ‘developing’ one by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), opening ourselves up to cheap imports and dumping, and we foolishly agreed to lower our tariffs faster than the WTO deemed necessary. Our manufacturing industry was decimated as a result. Teaching at the Durban Workers College at the time, I saw a swift change in the role of shop-stewards. Where a few months before they were pushing back the frontiers of control on the shopfloor, organising mass marches, and confronting the bosses, now they were spending time negotiating the retrenchments of hundreds of workers, while at the same time preaching discipline and order in the workplace. Overnight, unions were working with the bosses to encourage international competitiveness, as if 50 years of protection could be made up for in a year.

COSATU promoted a ‘Buy South Africa Campaign.’ Yet, because of the influence of COSATU stalwart turned Minister Alec Erwin, the union movement had signed on to the lowering of tariff barriers. Now it insisted that South Africans buy more expensive local products as their patriotic duty. At one union rally, when workers realised they were wearing T-shirts made in China, they took them off and ripped them up. At least the seams came apart easily.

While it may have seemed a futile gesture, it was a window into the effects that the summary embrace of economic openness had produced without concomitant state support or a coherent industrial policy. We, who had been isolated from the world during apartheid, were now rushed at breakneck speed into the embrace of global competitiveness. People who bore the crushing weight of apartheid were now asked to bear the burden of shock capitalism. Once more, the call went out from on high; patience and discipline.

The former Intelligence Minister in the ANC government, Ronnie Kasrils, argues that in this crucial early period, ‘the battle for the ANC’s soul got under way, and was eventually lost to corporate power: we were entrapped by the neoliberal economy – or, as some today cry out, we “sold our people down the river”’ (The Guardian, 24 June 2013). This Faustian pact, he suggests, meant the ANC could no longer hang on to its revolutionary ideals.

Today, the ANC is a very different organisation to the one that existed in 1990. The composition of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC), once the preserve of working-class exiles and former political prisoners, is now populated by CEOs, millionaires and billionaires. Take for example, the newly elected Deputy President of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa. One time general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he is now one of South Africa’s richest men. The speed at which he entered the billionaire class is astounding, making Afrikaners like the Ruperts, who became billionaires post-1948 seem pedestrian.

In one of those typical South African ironies, Ramaphosa became a key figure in the massacre of 34 workers at the Marikana platinum mine owned by Lonmin, in which he was the largest local shareholder. Ramaphosa was in constant communication with the mining bosses and the state during the August 2012 strike. In one of his emails on August 15, he wrote to Lonmin’s Albert Jamieson: ‘You are absolutely correct in insisting that the Minister, and indeed all government officials, need to understand that we are essentially dealing with a criminal act. I have said as much to the Minister of Safety and Security. I will stress that Minister [Susan] Shabangu should have a discussion with Roger [Phillimore, Lonmin chairman].’

In making these emails public, the lawyer for the arrested mineworkers, Dali Mpofu, illustrated how the past lives on in the present.

It’s a long line of emails under, in the same vein, effectively encouraging so-called concomitant action to deal with these criminals, whose only crime was that they were seeking a wage increase… At the heart of this was the toxic collusion between the SA Police Services and Lonmin at a direct level. At a much broader level it can be called a collusion between the State and capital and that this phenomenon is at the centre of what has occurred here.

This collusion between State and capital has happened in many instances in this country. In 1920 African miners went on strike and the government of Jan Smuts dealt with them with violence, and harshly, and one of the results of that was that they reduced the gap between what white mineworkers were getting and what black mineworkers were getting, and the pact that had been signed in 1918 of introducing the colour bar in the mines was abandoned. That abandonment precipitated a massive strike by the white mineworkers in 1922 and that strike was dealt with by the Smuts government by bringing in the air force –and about 200 people were killed. This is one of the most important happenings in the history of this country, and in 1946 under the leadership of the African Mineworkers Union, the African workers, 70 000 African workers also went on a massive strike and the government sent 16 000 policemen and arrested, like they did to our, the people we represent, some of the miners under an act called the War Measures Act.

So this has happened, this collusion between capital and the State has happened in systematic patterns in the history of, sordid history of the mining industry in this country. Part of that history included the collaboration of so-called tribal chiefs who were corrupt and were used by those oppressive governments to turn the self- sufficient black African farmers into slave labour workers. Today we have a situation where those chiefs have been replaced by so-called BEE partners of these mines and carrying on that torch of collusion.

Mandela, too, was showered with a small financial fortune by friendly tycoons after his release from 27 years of prison in 1990, sufficient to amass a $10 million asset base in six short years, as revealed in his ugly divorce proceedings with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. In the year that Thabo Mbeki fired Jacob Zuma as Deputy President, Mandela rewarded Zuma with a R1 million cheque. Jacob Zuma, now President, also has his tycoons. Particularly significant is the notorious Gupta family. They have extensive business dealings with Zuma’s family and the close connection has given rise to a new word: the Zuptas.

Union general secretaries now earn more than cabinet ministers, and unions have investments in the very enterprises they try and organise. The racial geography of our cities remains intact. The commanding heights of the economy and control of the land remain largely in white hands, while government attempts at redistribution are paltry.

Almost two decades into the transition, one has a sense that all the solidity of the anti-apartheid struggle has melted into air. The long walk to freedom has been interrupted by ubiquitous toll roads. The lights that illuminated the march to freedom have slowly dimmed as electricity prices have escalated. The thirst for freedom has been parched by water that demands cash before delivery. An economy that was supposed to deliver more and more jobs sheds them everyday. A state that promised to progressively redress apartheid’s legacy allows inequality and poverty to deepen. The trade unionists of yesteryear occupy the boardrooms of corporate capital. Big capital, the lynchpin of our economic competitiveness, has left the country; Black capital is no more than its’ coat-tail, exposing the poverty of the idea of a Patriotic Bourgeoisie. Instead of over-turning the tables of the money-lenders (finance capital), the new messiahs have given them license to turn a fast buck out of the poor.

What about the other parts of the Alliance? To read the SACP is like reading a Monty Python script. It claims that it is deepening the national democratic revolution as an advance towards socialism. But it never fights an election on its own, instead feeding off the ANC slate, which is a party committed to deepening capitalist social relations. COSATU claims to advance the cause of the working class and sees the best way of doing this by attaching itself to the apron strings of the ANC, whose economic policies throw more and more people into the unemployment queue. The ANC touts non-racialism but is becoming increasingly captive to a visceral racial nationalism alongside its crony capitalism. The early U-turns, it would appear, have produced an Alliance of dead-ends. It is no wonder then that for many South Africans, the early optimism has now been tempered by Kafka’s refrain, ‘there is hope, but not for us.’

The ANC government was determined that Nelson Mandela’s failing health would be well choreographed. After all, he is a global icon and the media would be on high alert. But almost immediately, the script started to fall apart. The ambulance that took him to hospital broke down en route from Johannesburg to Pretoria. As speculation about his health enveloped the nation, the Mandela family entered into an unseemly spat between themselves. It revolved around the bodies of Mandela’s kin that had originally been dug up in Qunu and spirited off to Mvezo, where Mandla Mandela, his grandson, held the chieftainship. A coterie of family members insisted that the bodies be returned to Qunu. They rushed to court and won an urgent court order to have the bodies exhumed and re-interred in Qunu.

As if to compound the surreal nature of these events, it was reported that the South African currency that profiled Mandela’s image could easily be copied. On cue, two women in the Transkei were arrested for allegedly being in possession of counterfeit Mandela banknotes.

At the heart of the matter is the question of who owns the Mandela legacy? Is he the Father of the Nation, above and beyond party politics? Clearly the children and grand-children want to own this legacy, cashing in on the largesse and already splitting into factions. And the ANC needs Mandela as it prepares for an election battle. If there were tensions while Mandela lay in his hospital bed, one can only imagine how many times his legacy will be dug up only to be recast, reformed, rebranded and renamed in the years ahead.

Mandela’s bravery, mistake, wisdom and retreat are what they are. He did what he thought he needed to do. The conditions under which he made his compromises are past. The things to gain will never come. His time, and all it symbolised, is over.

Anthony Sampson, in his biography of Mandela published in 1999, entitles one of the chapters ‘Man and Myth’. If it is difficult to read Mandela, it is as difficult to write Mandela, as man and myth have converged. While Mandela appeared to be accessible, reading the man was another matter entirely. Richard Stengel, ghost-writer of Mandela’s autobiography, wrote of “the man and the mask as one,” while Ahmed Kathrada, who had been with him in prison for twenty-five years, revealed: “He’s impenetrable”. We will probably never know what Mandela really thought, what the inner workings of his mind were, or what regrets he really had. There are no intimate diaries like Gandhi’s for instance, and there have been no critical contemporary biographies of Mandela’s years in power. To date, they have mainly been sycophantic. In time this might change, if Kasrils’ coming out is an indicator.

As early as 1992, just after the Bisho Massacre of 30 people by apartheid’s homeland army, Mandela warned: ‘we are sitting on a time bomb…The enemy is now you and me, people who have a car and have a house. It’s order, anything that relates to order [that’s the target] and it’s a very grave situation.’

The land of apartheid is witness to ongoing class warfare. It is inchoate, disparate and often desperate. But it’s there. Every day. Banging on the gates. For a moment, and with verve and style, Mandela gave us the sense that we were living beyond and above race and tribalism. But now, it seems those old chestnuts too are back.

Nelson Mandela was, if anything, a man sworn to struggle. It only seems like yesterday that he wound the clock and gave us the possibility of new times.

He may be stilled – but that clock is ticking.

Watching the Detectives

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:57 am

Nice girls, not one with a defect
Cellophane shrink-wrapped, so correct
Red dogs under illegal legs
She looks so good that he gets down and begs

She is watching the detectives
Ooh, he’s so cute, she is watching the detectives
When they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot
They beat him up until the teardrops start
But he can’t be wounded ’cause he’s got no heart

–Elvis Costello,  Watching The Detectives

 

If Bill Bratton’s record in Los Angeles is any guide, New York will see little dramatic reduction in the police tactic of stop-and-frisk but improved targeting and community relations will soothe resentment.

New York’s newly named police commissioner presided over a surge of stop-and-frisk while running the LA police department but softened the political impact by reaching out to black and Latino community leaders.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who was elected on a promise of curbing the controversial tactic, appears to be calculating his appointee will finesse but not end it. Critics say the policy in its current form unfairly targets young minority men, an accusation which dogged the outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Bratton, 66, who served as New York’s police commissioner from 1994 to 1996 before moving to LA, repeated his support for stop-and-frisk in a briefing to reporters on Thursday, saying it should be used in correct doses, like chemotherapy.

The Guardian, December 7, 2013

* * * * *

The Daily News of Los Angeles
April 30, 2008 Wednesday
VALLEY EDITION

BRATTON TO REVIEW PROFILING INQUIRIES;
LAPD: DEPARTMENT STUNG BY ACCUSATIONS THAT INTERNAL SCRUTINY CAN’T BE TRUSTED.

By Rachel Uranga Staff Writer

Facing a civilian oversight commission skeptical about LAPD’s investigation of racial profiling complaints, Chief William Bratton said Tuesday he will launch a wide-ranging review of police practices.

Members of the Los Angeles Police Commission said during their meeting Tuesday that they were baffled by internal LAPD findings that no officers engaged in racial profiling, despite hundreds of complaints in 2007.

Commissioner John Mack, a longtime civil-rights activist and former head of the Urban League, ticked off the complaints, scoffing at investigators who cleared hundreds of officers of wrongdoing.

“Racial profiling, 322 allegations and a big fat zero (sustained). Discrimination, one sustained. Ethnic remarks, 150 and nine (sustained). Gender bias, 18 to 0,” he said.

“This is a great police department, great leadership, but in my opinion there is no perfect institution, and I just find it baffling that we have zeroes in these categories.”

In response, Bratton said he will conduct a national survey of the practices and outcomes of other big-city departments. He also will ask federal monitors who oversee the LAPD’s consent decree — which came about because of the Rampart corruption scandal — and other inspector generals for protocols on how to handle allegations of racial profiling.

“I am not seeing anything here that is much different than I see in the rest of American policing,” he told the commission.

“This is not a racist department, not a homophobic department, not a brutal department, it’s not a corrupt department,” he said after the meeting. “Does it have some officers that may be some of those things? Possibly. Quite likely, though we work very hard to find them if we can. However, their numbers are very small, if they do exist.”

Bratton also defended the department’s findings, saying his study will show the results are accurate.

“It is a state-of-mind issue,” he said. “It is something that is being taken seriously by (the commission) and the department, but there may not be any common ground on this issue.”

The remarks come as the department’s own complaint system is under heavy scrutiny by civil- and immigrant-rights groups who say it needs to come under civilian oversight.

In February, the Inspector General’s Office found that in half of the 60 cases it examined, the LAPD failed to properly investigate complaints of serious police misconduct. In some cases, investigators ignored key witnesses and inaccurately reported statements.

“For key complaints — discrimination and racial profiling, excessive force — the number of sustained complaints remain implausibly low for a department of this size,” Peter Bibring, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the commission. “The picture painted is of a broken complaint system that the public cannot be asked to place trust in.”

The department has not in recent memory confirmed an allegation of racial profiling against an officer. A confirmation can lead to anything from an admonition to termination, said Cmdr. Rick Webb, head of Internal Affairs.

Under the consent decree imposed more than seven years ago, the LAPD had been forced to monitor traffic stops. Though 2006 findings found more Latino and African-Americans were searched or asked to get out of their cars, the results were inconclusive.

Last September, the department revamped how it determines if an officer targeted someone because of their race or ethnicity. Investigators must now ask officers if they knew the race of the person before the stop, what the basis of the stop was and other factors, including lighting that helps determine the context of the encounter and an officer’s state of mind.

“We take it very seriously,” Webb said. “We investigate these seriously.”

This year, the Police Commission approved in-car video cameras to monitor officers in South Bureau, and the department expects to expand the program.

On Monday, eight civil- and immigrant-rights groups called on the department to turn over complaint investigations to civilians.

In a letter to the commission, the group, including the ACLU, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and the Korean Resource Center, argued that a civilian process would ensure complaints are fully investigated.

“People only trust their police department if they believe the police department takes problem conduct seriously,” the group wrote in the letter. “This does not appear to be happening.”

Tim Sands, head of the Los Angeles Police Department’s union representing more than 9,000 officers, sharply disagreed and blasted Mack and Commissioner Robert Saltzman, who also expressed skepticism of the LAPD’s complaint process.

“It’s a circular type of logic that two commissioners believe that just because a complaint is made against an officer, that an officer has to be convicted of doing it,” he said. “They are taking the attitude that they are guilty before proven innocent. I am disappointed.”

 

Tabu Ley Rochereau Dies; Spread the Sound of Soukous

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:23 am

NY Times December 7, 2013

Tabu Ley Rochereau Dies; Spread the Sound of Soukous

By

Tabu Ley Rochereau, a Congolese singer, songwriter and bandleader whose music spread across Africa and the world, died on Nov. 30 in Brussels.

His son Marc Tabu confirmed the death on his Facebook page. Mr. Tabu, who was 73 or 76 — sources differ — had never fully recovered from a stroke in 2008.

Mr. Tabu’s voice, a high tenor, was always sweetly urbane, whether he was singing of love, his Christian beliefs or social issues. From the 1960s into the ’90s, he led one of the two top bands playing soukous, the Congolese rumba that became popular across Africa. He wrote and recorded thousands of songs, and as a bandleader and arranger he widely expanded the sound of soukous, infusing it with both local African rhythms and elements of international pop.

Soukous is an African reclamation and reinvention of Afro-Cuban music, particularly the son and the rumba, with gentler, smoother harmony singing and endlessly entwining guitar lines. Mr. Tabu’s band, Orchestre Afrisa International, was rivaled only by Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz, led by the guitarist Franco. (Franco, whose last name was Luambo, died in 1989.)

The contrast between their approaches has been compared to that of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, with Mr. Tabu more suave, Franco more aggressive. But the two rivals also collaborated at times on albums like “Omona Wapi.” The best introduction to Tabu Ley Rochereau’s career is found on two two-CD anthologies: “The Voice of Lightness, 1961-1977” and “The Voice of Lightness, Vol. 2,” both on the Sterns label.

Tabu Ley Rochereau was born Pascal Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabou in what was then the Belgian Congo. He went by simply Rochereau, a school nickname, when he sent his first songs to Joseph Kabasele, the leader of the pioneering Congolese rumba band Orchestre African Jazz. He made his first recordings with another band, Rock-a-Mambo, in 1958, but had his first hit, “Kelya,” after he joined African Jazz in 1959, singing harmony with Mr. Kabasele’s lead. (Mr. Kabasele died in 1983.)

As the 1960s began, Rochereau wrote many hits for African Jazz when it was Congo’s top band. But in 1963, he took five members of African Jazz with him to start his own band, African Fiesta.

Congo, which had become an independent state in 1960, sent African Fiesta to Expo 67, the world’s fair in Montreal, where Rochereau soaked up North American rock and soul; he added a trap drum kit to his band. Three years later he took African Fiesta to Paris to perform, and in 1972 he made an album in London; the band soon became Afrisa International. After the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko changed Congo’s name to Zaire in 1971 and called for the nation to reclaim African “authenticité” from colonial influences, Rochereau renamed himself Tabu Ley Rochereau.

Afrisa International was a sensation across Africa in the 1970s. Mr. Tabu had his own label, Isa, and his own club, Type K, in Kinshasa, Zaire’s capital. In 1981, he discovered a 22-year-old singer, Mbilia Bel, who joined his band and turned his songs into Zaire’s top hits. They also had a child together, Melody.

As Zaire’s government grew more dictatorial and the country’s economy foundered, Mr. Tabu took the band abroad for long stretches. By the end of the 1980s Afrisa International was touring Europe, Africa and North and South America.

The band was based in Paris when riots shook Kinshasa in 1991, and Mr. Tabu told a journalist he would not return to Zaire until conditions improved. A government spokesman responded that he would be unwelcome.

While in Paris, Mr. Tabu recorded the album “Exil-Ley,” which contained his most directly political song, “Le Glas a Sonné” (“The Bell Has Tolled”). “We won independence to lift up our people/But our own leaders fought among themselves,” he sang. “Grabbing what they could, ignoring the people./Now the country is ruined.”

In 1994, Afrisa International moved to the United States, where it toured clubs and festivals and added English lyrics to its songs. But after Mr. Mobutu was ousted in 1997, Mr. Tabu returned to his native country, which had been renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, and plunged into politics.

He was a founder of the Congolese Rally for Democracy party, and he became a cabinet minister, a member of parliament and vice governor of the city of Kinshasa while continuing a reduced recording career. He was in Kinshasa when his stroke debilitated him in 2008, and he was moved to Brussels for medical care.

Among his many surviving children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are, besides his son Marc, four sons who became musicians: Pegguy Tabu, Abel Tabu, Philemon and the French rapper Youssoupha Mabiki, who sampled his father’s music on a 2012 single, “Les Disques de Mon Père.”

 

 

December 7, 2013

Thoughts triggered by the passing of Nelson Mandela

Filed under: Africa,philosophy — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation to meet with the African National Congress then still in exile over the feasibility of extending our Nicaragua technical aid project to the ANC and the frontline states.

We were invited to Thabo Mbeki’s house in Lusaka, Zambia where his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC. It turns out that she needed to put a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech. Once she did that, the speech was saved for posterity’s sake. I just discovered that the speech, which was delivered on May 13, 1988, can now be read online.

Tambo expressed his solidarity with revolutionary Nicaragua in the speech:

We must also pay tribute to the people of Central America who are daily sacrificing their lives for justice and peace. In this connection we support the peace efforts undertaken by the Sandinista Government and would also like to associate ourselves with those Non-Aligned countries who have expressed their support for the Nicaraguan Government`s candidature to host the next Non-Aligned Summit Meeting in Managua.

He also paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who was still in prison:

In July of this year, our organisation, the masses of our people and the rest of the international community will observe the 70th birthday of that great African patriot and revolutionary, Comrade Nelson Mandela. This will be an occasion further to intensify the campaign for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the release of all detainees and the granting of prisoner-of-war status to all captured freedom fighters.

Just two years after Tambo gave this speech, Daniel Ortega would lose the election to Violeta Chamorro, the American-backed politician who would be the culmination of Ronald Reagan’s campaign to make the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”. Ortega was only able to return to power by forsaking the historical Sandinista program for socialism.

On February 11th 1990 Nelson Mandela would walk out of a South African prison, and four years later he became president of South Africa, serving five years. Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, whose policies parallel that of the chastened FSLN in Nicaragua, succeeded him in office. In an article that appeared in the January 10, 2013 issue of Foreign Policy, there’s a frank description of “Orteganomics” that sounds a lot like what the ANC has been carrying out since taking office:

Although Ortega campaigned on the Christianity, socialism and solidarity platform of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Alianza Bolivariana (ALBA), his regime has few of the trappings common to other ALBA countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and several Caribbean islands. His actions to date suggest he is politically authoritarian, economically pro-business, socially populist — and, above all else, pragmatic. This mix translates as an eclectic set of policies that can best be characterized as Orteganomics.

The Marxist slogans of the revolutionary period are gone, as is direct government involvement in production. In fact, Ortega’s economic model retains many of the legal and regulatory underpinnings of his predecessors’ policies. In its October 2007 reconciliation with the IMF, the Sandinista government pledged to implement policies linked to targets on fiscal discipline, along with spending on poverty and energy regulation.

Sometimes I wonder how I keep at it. As I approach my 69th birthday in January, every single mass revolutionary movement I have organized to defend has turned out this way once taking power. If you had told me in 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, that a victorious NLF would join the Communists in the north in transforming Vietnam into a nation in which there are billionaires, I would have laughed in your face. But here it is from the March 25, 2013 issue of Forbes, the magazine that proudly describes itself as a “capitalist tool”:

On a brilliant morning last October Dong Khoi Street, the premier commercial thoroughfare in Saigon, was closed for nearly two hours to celebrate the opening of Vincom Center A, a precisely, if infelicitously, named shopping center. The development was remarkable, not just for its scale (410,000 square feet of commercial space; three floors of underground parking; a 300-room, five-star hotel) or for its high-end tenants (Versace, Hermès, Dior) but simply because it was opening at all. Vietnam’s real estate market had been frozen hard since crashing in 2011, with at least 13.5% of the country’s $10 billion in real estate loans having gone bad.

But Pham Nhat Vuong, the man most responsible for this $500 million commercial triumph in the heart of what is still officially called Ho Chi Minh City, wasn’t drinking any champagne, cutting any ribbons or giving any speeches. Rather, the 44-year-old quietly watched the ceremony from a front-row seat. “I prefer sipping happiness by myself,” Pham explains later, in a rare interview from his elegant new offices in Hanoi’s Vincom Village, another of his projects.

After returning from Zambia in early 1988, Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica, hired his old friend and comrade Hari Dillon to supervise the expansion of our organization into Africa. By 1990, when the ANC was legalized, we had dozens of volunteers working in the offices of the ANC and COSATU training people in the use of databases and spreadsheets just as we had done in Nicaragua. Michael and Hari had been in the Maoist Progressive Labor Party in the late 60s and had kept in touch. After leaving the party, Hari had become a key anti-apartheid activist in the Bay Area and his connections helped us raise funds for our work in Africa. Unfortunately, the ouster of Daniel Ortega dried up funds for Tecnica and eventually we folded—when I am not exactly sure.

Not long afterwards Hari took a job with the Vanguard Foundation, a Bay Area philanthropic group that funded leftist causes. I had lost touch with Hari for over 20 years but was shocked to discover about a year ago that he had been arrested for misuse of Vanguard funds. I kept in touch with him throughout the trial until his sentencing in January of 2013. He is going to serve three years and four months as the San Francisco Gate reported that month:

An East Bay man who stole $2.5 million from investors in the San Francisco nonprofit he headed while it was being driven into bankruptcy by con man Samuel “Mouli” Cohen was sentenced to three years and four months in federal prison Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer sentenced Hari Dillon to a prison term 10 months longer than federal prosecutors had recommended after a hearing that included testimony from some of Dillon’s victims, investors in the now-defunct Vanguard Public Foundation.

“He decimated the lives of those he called friends,” said Cindy Woods, who described herself as a former friend of Dillon’s and a swindled investor, along with her family. “He’s simply a sociopath, not a victim.”

The FBI issued a press release that described what Hari did with the money contributors trusted him with:

Dillon admitted that while soliciting and collecting these fees, he defrauded various victims by intentionally failing to tell them that he intended to and did use some of their contributions for his own personal expenses. For example, according to his plea agreement, Dillon used approximately $60,000 to pay his American Express bills. In addition, the government noted in connection with sentencing that Dillon used victim money toward luxury hotel expenses, fine dining, limousine travel, and other personal expenses. In all, Dillon admitted that of the tens of millions he solicited and collected for this investment, most of which he passed on to Cohen, Dillon skimmed not less than $2.5 million, defrauding his victims out of that amount.

I knew Hari when he lived modestly in a San Francisco apartment on a Tecnica salary. I am tempted to say that his evolution into someone staying at luxury hotels parallels the evolution of the FSLN in Nicaragua and the ANC in South Africa.

When I visited Thabo Mbeki back in 1987-88, I had suspicions that he was someone used to the good life. He lived in a two-story house in Lusaka and drove a Mercedes-Benz that was parked in the driveway. His father Govan was known as a member of the South African Communist Party and was arrested along with Nelson Mandela. As it turns out, Thabo Mbeki was also a CP’er, Mercedes-Benz and all.

And, surprise of surprises, so was Nelson Mandela. I refer you to the South African Communist Party’s website:

At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our Party’s Central Committee. To us as South African communists, Cde Mandela shall forever symbolise the monumental contribution of the SACP in our liberation struggle. The contribution of communists in the struggle to achieve the South African freedom has very few parallels in the history of our country. After his release from prison in 1990, Cde Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days.

There was a time, when I was much younger, when I would have made some “smug” remark about Stalinism but after seeing that Trotskyism was no prophylactic against corruption, I will avoid that temptation. In fact I had high hopes that the South African Communist Party would turn out different. At least I can take solace that one of the party’s top leaders has never lost faith. Here’s Ronnie Kasrils from the June 23, 2013 Guardian:

What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda, was considered a necessary evil, as were concessions to keep negotiations on track and take delivery of the promised land for our people. Doubt had come to reign supreme: we believed, wrongly, there was no other option; that we had to be cautious, since by 1991 our once powerful ally, the Soviet union, bankrupted by the arms race, had collapsed. Inexcusably, we had lost faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles. Whatever the threats to isolate a radicalising South Africa, the world could not have done without our vast reserves of minerals. To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out.

So what keeps me going? In a way I feel like Sisyphus, the King of Corinth in Greek mythology who the gods force to eternally roll a huge boulder up a hill that rolls back on him just as he reaches the top. I first learned of the myth of Sisyphus back in 1961 when I was a freshman at Bard College. Back then existentialism was all the rage. The acrid smell of Gauloise cigarettes hung heavy in the campus coffee shop as 18 year olds discussed the meaninglessness of life. You can read Camus’s book online. I haven’t looked at it since 1961 and tend to look askance at Camus nowadays, especially for his waffling on the war of independence in Algeria. I have to admit, however, that a favorable review of his correspondence from that period by George Scialabba, a writer I admire very much, might force me to take a second look.

Most of Camus’s book is an examination of existential beliefs focused on the question of whether suicide is justifiable in the face of an absurd world. Since I tend to shy away from such discussions, I went directly to the pages that deal with the Greek myth itself. Camus writes:

His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

“There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night”. I guess those words describe my absurd commitment to Marxism. Like the Greek gods who condemned Sisyphus to repeat a futile act throughout eternity, I will continue to push that rock up the hill for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I will ever see the sun but it is the shadows of a savage system that keeps me going.

December 6, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

About fifteen years ago I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman from St. Paul, Minnesota I had met through the Internet. On one of my visits out to see her, I made the mistake of bringing up “Fargo”, a Coen brothers movie that I really liked at the time. She let me have it. “That movie makes us all look like fat and stupid yokels. You don’t know what it means to be caricatured in a film.”

After hearing her out, I never saw a Coen brother’s movie in the same light. Her point was driven home when I saw “A Serious Man” in 2009, another spitball directed at Twin Cities folk, this time the observant Jews like those who the Coens (and I) grew up with. This is a snippet from my review:

In some ways, “A Serious Man” demonstrates all the flaws of the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey. Without the grandeur of Homer’s characters, all you end up with is a kind of road movie that requires the talent of a Preston Sturges to pull off. Without a finely honed sense of comedy, the best that Coen brothers can come up with is characters that they can feel superior to while hoping that the audience can share the joke. In Preston Sturges’s Depression-era comedies, you cheer for the characters. Set in the same historical period, the characters of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” are involved with what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls pop nihilism.

While I had concerns that “Inside Llewyn Davis” would incorporate the same kind of patronizing attitudes found to one degree or another in their entire body of work, I was shocked by the naked display of misanthropic joylessness that is qualitatively worse than anything they have done before. This is a dyspeptic hour and forty-five minutes of cringe-inducing “comedy” that makes you wonder why they bothered. When you take a period alive with musical innovations that were the first shoots of a spring thaw after a long McCarthyite winter and turn it into a desultory and venomous mockery of the period, you have to wonder what makes these characters tick.

In an interview the brothers did with Salon.com, Joel Coen lets slip what they think was happening in 1961:

There’s this whole scene in Union Square on 14th Street, where a guy that I know who was involved in that scene said you used to have guys like Ewan MacColl in the union halls, trying to teach the guys in the labor unions how to sing these labor songs and folk songs. What was actually happening at the time, of course, was that all the kids downstairs were listening to Elvis.

Well, actually “the kids downstairs” had stopped listening to Elvis for five years or so. By the time I got to Bard College in 1961, an epicenter of the folk music revival, we were all desperate for something more authentic than Tin Pan Alley. This meant listening to Ewan MacColl as well as Charlie Parker who had died only six years earlier. When I got to Bard, it was the first time I had ever heard people playing guitars and banjos, singing Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs. In my abortive memoir there’s a picture of me encountering the folkies on campus for the first time (that’s me in the suspenders):

bard_folk_music

The best way to describe “Inside Llewyn Davis” is as a rip-off of “The Mighty Wind”, a mockumentary on the reunion concert of folk musicians that satirizes “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!” But instead of Christopher Guest’s gentle mocking, you get a steady procession of grotesque and unlikeable characters starting with the eponymous anti-hero. He is the proverbial “loser” who is being cheated by his agent, one Mel Novikoff—a grubby stand-in for the immortal Moses Asch—and soon to be cheated by Bud Grossman, an agent higher up on the food chain clearly intended to be Albert Grossman who represented Bob Dylan. These venal and obviously Jewish characters are as crudely drawn as any in “A Serious Man” and do not begin to do justice to the real-life counterparts.

The plot of “Inside Llewyn Davis” revolves around him trying to line up gigs, flopping on different sofas each night, and getting into one misadventure after another: losing an older patron’s cat, wrangling with a woman he has gotten pregnant over the terms of an abortion, driving to Chicago with a foul-mouthed and terminally obnoxious junky musician played by John Goodman, etc. But there is not a single instance of Davis having a serious conversation with other musicians or friends about the folk music revival and his place in it. All that matters to him is “making it”. After showing up for dinner at Mitch’s (his patron, who is a Columbia professor, folk music enthusiast, and stereotypical Jew), he is asked to join them for an impromptu hootenanny. This is something that any musician would be happy to do, especially one so reliant on the kindness of others. Thanks to the screenplay the publicists sent me with the screener, you can get a good idea of Llewyn Davis’s character and the generally downbeat and sadistic mood that prevails throughout:

MITCH (leaping in) Why don’t you give us a song, Llewyn?

LLEWYN You know, I’m not a trained poodle.

Mitch reenters with guitar case.

LILLIAN [Mitch’s wife] I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul.

LLEWYN Boy. Nice instrument.

He takes it, runs a couple of licks. . . . This is, this one’s pretty early, Joe should like it. Receptive chuckles from the little audience. Llewyn starts playing, and singing, “Dink’s Song.” The small group listens, genuinely taken with the performance. As Llewyn begins the second verse, Lillian Gorfein eases in a high, sweet harmony. Llewyn stops playing.

LLEWYN (sharply) What are you doing?

The spell is broken. The little audience is puzzled. Lillian is lost.

LILLIAN . . What?

LLEWYN What is that? What’re you doing?

LILLIAN I —

LLEWYN Don’t do that.

LILLIAN . . . It’s . . . it’s Mike’s part . . .

LLEWYN I know what it is. Don’t do that. You know what? He is more and more testy as he opens the guitar case and lays the guitar inside. . . . This is bullshit. I don’t do this. I do this for a living, you know? I’m a musician. I sing for a living. It’s not a parlor game.

MITCH Llewyn, please — that’s unfair to Lillian —

LLEWYN This is bullshit. I don’t ask you over for dinner and then suggest you give us a lecture on the peoples of Meso-America or whatever your pre-Columbian shit is. This is my job. This is how I pay the fucking rent. Lillian rises. She is choking up.

If you want to spend anywhere from 12 to 15 dollars to watch people being abused or abusing others, be my guest. If I had written a screenplay about the folk music revival, I would have had the professor explaining some of that “pre-Columbian shit” to Llewyn. The Coen brothers read Dave Van Ronk’s memoir “The Mayor of MacDougald Street” to soak up some atmosphere used for their miserable film but had little interest in creating a character like Van Ronk who certainly would have been happy to take out his guitar and sing with the people there grateful for his company. Additionally, an autodidact until his death, Van Ronk would have been eager to hear what the professor had to say about his specialty. But you can be sure that the Coens would have been incapable of dramatizing such a happening even if their life depended on it. The only thing that that they are capable of is human misery exploited for the “sick joke” sensibility of a movie audience that has been conned into believing that they are watching clever comic invention.

Back in 2006, I reviewed some books about the folk music revival for Swans. As an antidote to the noxious fumes of “Inside Llewyn Davis”, they cannot be recommended highly enough:

A Second Look At The Folk Music Revival
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald: The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA., 2005, ISBN 0-306-81407-2, 246 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-374-28199-8, 328 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

(Swans – June 19, 2006)   The publication of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One invites further explorations into the folk revival. In preparing a review of Dylan’s luminous memoir for Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy29.html), I read two other books to understand the backdrop. They will now be reviewed here as a follow-up.

One is Elijah Wald’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street, an ‘as told to’ memoir by Dave Van Ronk, a pioneer of the folk music revival who was dying of cancer while the memoir was being written. Despite approaching mortality, Van Ronk’s good humor and vitality suffuses the entire book. A life-long socialist, Van Ronk nearly never wrote or sang topical songs. But his memoir reveals him to be an astute surveyor both of American society and of his own modest but important role in catalyzing social change through folk music.

The other is David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street, a study of the relationships between Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and between Richard Fariña and Mimi Baez Fariña, Joan’s younger sister. Fariña died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and his wife died of cancer in 2001. Hajdu’s first book, a biography of Billy Strayhorn, demonstrated an uncommon ability to place a musician into his or her cultural and social context. While all the portraits drawn by Hajdu are compelling, I will focus on that of Richard Fariña, who is an interesting contrast to Dave Van Ronk.

Although Hajdu’s Dylan is the sneering, hostile figure made familiar in the Pennebaker Cinéma vérité “Don’t Look Back,” the Chronicles reflects a mellower and wiser figure generous to a fault to everybody who he encountered on the way up, most especially Van Ronk:

Dave Van Ronk, he was the one performer I burned to learn particulars from. He was great on records, but in person he was greater. Van Ronk was from Brooklyn, had seaman’s papers, a wide walrus mustache, long brown straight hair which flew down covering half his face. He turned every folk song into a surreal melodrama, a theatrical piece — suspenseful, down to the last minute. Dave got to the bottom of things. It was like he had an endless supply of poison and I wanted some . . . couldn’t do without it. Van Ronk seemed ancient, battle tested. Every night I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a timeworn monument. Dave sang folk songs, jazz standards, Dixieland stuff and blues ballads, not in any particular order and not a superfluous nuance in his entire repertoire. Songs that were delicate, expansive, personal, historical, or ethereal, you name it. He put everything into a hat and — presto — put a new thing out in the sun. I was greatly influence by Dave. Later, when I would record my first album, half the cuts on it were renditions of songs that Van Ronk did. It’s not like I planned it, it just happened. Unconsciously I trusted his stuff more than I did mine.

Van Ronk was born in 1936, an age that gave him some proximity to the tumultuous changes wrought by the Great Depression, including a labor movement that remained restive until the late 1940s. His initial musical affinities, however, were not with the social protest music of a Woody Guthrie or a Josh White but with traditional or Dixieland jazz. Despite lacking a golden throat, his first gigs were as a singer. It was sheer volume that opened up doors, especially in low-rent clubs lacking a sound system. As some wit put it, to quote Van Ronk, “When Van Ronk takes a vocal, the hogs are restless for miles around.”

Of course, the folk revival was in itself an attempt to redefine what was beautiful. For every singer with an angelic voice like Joan Baez’s, there were others who got by on sheer personality, like Bob Dylan. For a generation that had become jaded by white rock-and-rollers like Pat Boone, having a raspy but genuine instrument was more than adequate. Although there are very few sound tracks on the Internet (other than the 20-second clips at amazon.com) that capture Van Ronk in performance, author Elijah Wald does include Take A Whiff on Me, (http://www.elijahwald.com/whiff.ram) which he describes as a “taste of how Dave sounded in his formative years, around the time he was recording his first Folkways album.” It is essential Van Ronk, combining superior guitar technique, unabashed enthusiasm and a keen sense of phrasing — essential for any vocalist.

Read in full http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy38.html

December 4, 2013

T.R. Fehrenbach dead at 88; wrote history of the Comanches from a white perspective

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

T.R. Fehrenbach

Today’s N.Y. Times reports on the death of T.R. Fehrenbach at the age of 88. Fehrenbach was a historian and journalist specializing on Texas, his native state. He is the author of “Comanches: The Destruction of a People”, a book that despite its title has little to do with Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and others that see things from the Indian perspective. The review gives you a flavor of Fehrenbach’s approach:

His concern was real people, and he pulled few punches. He wrote: “The moral, upstanding Comanche who lived by the laws and gods of his tribe enjoyed heaping live coals on a staked-out white man’s genitals; a moral Mexican, for a fancied insult, would slip his knife into an Anglo back. The moral Texan, who lived in peace and amity with his fellows, would bash an Indian infant’s head against a tree or gut-shoot a ‘greaser’ if he blinked.”

 It also takes into account what more enlightened historians have to say about his work, in this instance a book titled “Lone Star”, a massive history of Texas:

Light Townsend Cummins, who was the Texas state historian until last year, said in an interview on Monday that “Lone Star” had “reawakened a zeal in the state for the study of Texas history” and, in fact, had persuaded him to take up the subject, too.

But Professor Cummins, who teaches at Austin College in Sherman, Tex., acknowledged that “Lone Star” had come to be seen as a period piece written in “the context of his times.” He said, for instance, that Mr. Fehrenbach placed far greater emphasis on white frontiersmen than do today’s historians, who give considerable weight to the roles and contributions of women, Mexicans, American Indians and blacks.

To say the least.

I read Fehrenbach’s book on the Comanches in an effort to understand the historical background to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, a novel based on the exploits of mercenaries led by John Glanton in 1849 who were to be paid for each Comanche scalp they turned in. Glanton’s gang is depicted as psychopathic killers but the Comanches fare just as poorly, being depicted as wanton murderers after the fashion of a 1950s cowboy movie but in overwritten prose. Here’s a sample:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones … a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim-stone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Mind you, “Blood Meridian” has been compared to Melville, and because the Glanton gang is depicted as little more than a death squad, some left-minded academics view the novel as an assault on American imperialism. Horsefeathers, I say.

Supposedly, McCarthy read hundreds if not thousands of books and articles to get his historical background right. First among these works as an influence was T.R. Fehrenbach’s book on the Comanches.

More recent scholarship on the Comanches eschews Fehrenbach’s good old boy tendencies but share his aversion to their violence. For Pekka Hamalainen, the author of “Comanche Empire”, the Indians ruled Texas in the same way that the Mongols ruled most of Asia under Genghis Khan, using horse-mounted violence against peace-loving peoples. Hamalainen does try to put their violence into historical context, as a means to acquiring horses that were traded for guns and other goods from the “Comancheros”. It is a little bit like explaining the British Empire in terms of its need to use slaves in Jamaica. It was “rational” but cruel.

Around the same time that Hamalainen’s book came out, you had Brian Delay’s “War of a Thousand Deserts”, a book that tries to connect the Mexican-American war with the need to seize territory and make Texas safe for capitalist development. The Comanches might have been integrated into the capitalist mode of production as horse traders (the Model-T of the 19th century) but their control of the plains for bison-hunting was inimical to the needs of the farmer and the rancher. As is the case with the other books, Delay’s is filled with gruesome details about Comanche depredations.

I dealt with Fehrenbach, McCarthy, Hamalainen, and Delay in an article titled “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence” for “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism”. The article is unfortunately behind a paywall ($37 for my stupid article!) but I don’t think the editor would sue me for theft of intellectual property for citing the portion that deals with Fehrenbach:

As is so often the case with long-standing clashes, it is difficult to establish the initial casus belli. Yet it is far more important to understand the underlying social and economic contradictions that made armed conflict inevitable. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in Comanche-related scholarship to practically reduce them to having warfare in their genes, thus rendering historical context superfluous. According to Barcley Owens (2000), the primary resource for Blood Meridian was T. R. Fehrenbach’s Comanches: the Destruction of a People. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study inspired the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War” (Fehrenbach 1974, 60). These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who included this epigraph to Blood Meridian:

“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”

The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

Recent scholarship on the Comanche has departed from the quasi-sociobiological ruminations of Fehrenbach but remains committed to the view that they were the southern Plains equivalent of Napoleon Chagnon’s “fierce people.” But in contrast to the Yanomami, there is little question that the Comanche wreaked havoc on anybody who got in their way: rival tribes, Mexicans, and Anglos. History judges that there were genuine reasons to fear them. The notion of a “fierce” Comanche poses a serious challenge to the picture of indigenous peoples that emerged through works such as Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David Stannard’s American Holocaust, and even more importantly works by native scholars such as Vine DeLoria Jr. and Jack D. Forbes for whom the Indians are always victims of settlers encroaching on their territory, mounting a fitful resistance until finally being vanquished and herded into reservations.

But the Comanche were different. They were the powerful preying on the weak, showing no mercy to indigenous and non-indigenous alike. Through their mastery of the horse and their access to guns, they could impose their will on rivals throughout the southwest, so much so that historian Pekka Hämäläinen wrote of a “Comanche Empire” in 2008. He made the case as follows:

Comanches reached the zenith of their power. They had revived their defunct trade and alliance network and expanded it into a vast commercial empire, which allowed them to integrate foreign economies into their market circuits and control the flow of crucial commodities on the lower midcontinent. They had halted the expansionist Texas in its tracks and carved out a vast raiding domain in northern Mexico. They held several nearby peoples in a state of virtual servitude and their market-oriented and slavery-driven economy was booming. (Hämäläinen, 2008, 142)

Comanche Empire was published in the same year as Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, another attempt to demonstrate Comanche domination. For DeLay, the Comanche were a powerful force that held Mexicans, Texans, and other Indians in a virtual state of siege. Ultimately DeLay explains the Mexican War of 1846-1848 as killing two birds with one stone. By driving Mexico out of lands it held from Texas to California, the United States would be able to unleash the productive forces of a developing capitalist system without challenges from either the “decadent” Spanish-speaking enemies or the savages. By using the excuse of Comanche anarchy, Washington would be able to secure “law and order” and protect both Anglo settlers and Mexican ranchers, who had been victimized by Comanche raids for a generation.

 

December 3, 2013

2013 South Asian Film Festival in N.Y. — not to be missed

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 12:02 pm

In trying to explain my doubts about the latest installment in the “Hunger Games” series to a fellow leftist who adores the film, I stated that there is no radical art coming out of Hollywood. There is nothing like, for example, the movies I will be reviewing for the 2013 South Asian Film Festival in New York (https://www.saiff.org/) that opens today.

Over the past couple of days I have had the chance to see three of the films being shown there and am happy to have had my beliefs confirmed. As both art and as a political statement, “Good Morning, Karachi”, “Siddhartha”, and “The Good Road” are reminders that in a deeply divided class society like India, there are filmmakers rising to the occasion. It is unfortunate that America has so few willing to make such films outside the documentary genre. With “independent” film in the U.S. having become the province of the Sundance Film Festival and the “boutique” divisions of Hollywood powerhouses, there are two strikes against the radical filmmaker who has something to say. One only hopes that if any such person based in New York is reading this article, they will make an effort to attend as many films in this festival as possible since South Asia is leading the way.

As the title would indicate, “Good Morning, Karachi” (Friday, December 6th, 7:30pm)  is a Pakistani film. The title refers to a radio personality who starts his show each day in the same fashion as the deejay character Robin Williams plays in “Good Morning, Vietnam”. While there is no open warfare in Pakistan, the film depicts a low-intensity version that is ripped from the newspaper headlines as the cliché puts it. Set in 1996, the year of Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, the film begins with a scene of Islamic fundamentalists protesting a billboard advertisement of a skimpily dressed model. They chant, “American whore—out, out!”

Rafina is a tall and beautiful young woman who feels chafed by her mother and fiancé’s expectations that she will become a traditional housewife. Her main ambition is to get a job and be economically independent. Although she would never admit this to her fiancé, she also dreams of having her own apartment.

Arif, the fiancé, would have little use for the Islamists since he is an activist in the Pakistan People’s Party, the Bhutto electoral machine widely viewed as secular but corrupt. He is the son of Rosie, Rafina’s neighbor, who works as a body wax beautician not so much because she wants economic independence but because her husband has died and left her without any income.

Rosie works at Radiance, a Pakistani advertising agency that is responsible for the kind of ads that the Islamists were protesting in the opening scene. Rafina tags along as an intern to learn the waxing trade but barely tolerated by the bosses who never invited her there. Like a scene out of “42nd Street”, Rafina is asked to substitute for a model who has no arrived for a shoot. And like “42nd Street”, Rafina becomes an instant modeling star with a billboard showing up at the same exact spot as that in the opening scene.

The film is about as old-fashioned as it comes, hearkening back not only to the 1933 “42nd Street”, but also to “The Jazz Singer”, a film that preceded it by six years. Like  the character Al Jolson played, Rafina is forced to choose between family ties and a career she loves.

Director Sabiha Sumar combined filmmaking and political science majors at Sarah Lawrence College from 1980–83 and then studied history and political thought at Cambridge University so she is clearly the right kind of person to make such a film that combines politics and human drama. The film is a perfect companion piece to “Wadjda”, the stunning Saudi film about a young girl’s struggle against gender oppression that premiered this year. Sumar’s first film, the 1988 documentary “Who Will Cast the First Stone”, led to the overturn of death-by-stoning sentence for Shahida Parveen, who was accused of adultery. This is just another example of filmmakers constituting an informal worldwide vanguard.

“Siddharth”, that plays immediately after “Good Morning, Karachi” on Friday at 10pm in the same location, is spare but deeply moving neorealist fare about the human costs of poverty in today’s India.

Mahendra fixes broken zippers on the street on the streets of Delhi, another member of India’s vast informal economy who is barely eking out an existence. When circumstances become even more difficult than usual, he allows his twelve-year-old son Siddharth to leave school and sends him to work illegally in a far-away factory.

When Siddharth fails to return home on the expected date, Mahendra files a missing persons report with an indifferent police department that regards the case as it would a purse snatching it would seem. They assure him that Siddharth will return home on his own accord and that he should not worry. This leads him to borrow money from fellow “chain-wallahs” and go on a trek to find his son, who his roommate at the factory suspects has been kidnapped and forced to beg on the streets. In some cases, the child has his or her eyes plucked out to generate more sympathy and more alms.

Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” might seem outdated when considering the streets of London in 2013 but “Siddharth” corresponds unfortunately to a Victorian-era social problem that still exists in India. The National reports:

About $3.6 million is the annual amount collected by beggars in Mumbai, according to the Maharashtra state government. In Delhi, where an estimated 30,000 child beggars roam the streets, the figure is even higher, approaching $7m annually, according to researchers. Adults are also kidnapped and forced into begging. Often, to entice empathy among potential contributors, their limbs are amputated or they are disfigured with acid. Sometimes blood vessels are stitched to block blood supply to parts of the body, bringing about gangrene.

Director Richie Mehta is a Canadian who was interviewed by a N.Y. Times blogger on September 20, 2013. He was asked about the inspiration for the film. He answered:

I was stuck in New Delhi for five weeks because of the volcano in Iceland. I was staying in East of Kailash, and wanted to meet my friend Rajesh Tailang in Khan Market. I had worked with Rajesh on my first film “Amal”; he did the translations, and was [lead actor] Rupinder Nagra’s dialect coach.

I ended up taking an auto-rickshaw, and there was this old Muslim man driving it. I got in and asked him how long it would take me to get to Khan Market. He said, “10 minutes.” Then he asked me if I am from Punjab. No, I said, my father is from Punjab. He asked me if I knew where Dongri was. I said no, what is it? Is it a neighborhood? And he said, “I don’t know but I think that’s where I lost my son.”

I asked what his son’s name was. He told me it was Rehemat Ali, but he didn’t know how to spell it. He didn’t have a photograph of his son. I asked him if he had filed a police report, but he didn’t know how. I asked when this happened, and he said a year had passed. For a year, he’d been driving his rickshaw asking passengers for help. It was all he could do because he couldn’t take a day off of work. He had a wife and another child. I asked for his phone number. He didn’t have one, and gave me his neighbor’s phone number.

This is pretty much the plot of “Siddharth”, a testimony once again to Indian filmmakers’ commitment to combining art and politics.

Finally, there is “The Good Road”, the final film in the festival that can be seen on Sunday at 7:30pm. What a perfect way to end the festival since this film, also about missing children, not only makes important political points about Indian society but is stunning as a work of art. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The film bears some resemblance to the “coincidence” genre that includes works such as “Amores Perros”,  “Babel”, and “Crash”. In such films, people with not much in common find their paths being crossed in plots that often defy logic. “The Good Road” is not one of them. It breathes new life into the genre and does so by making the coincidences not only plausible but also deeply emblematic of Indian social reality.

The film begins with a husband and wife driving along a desolate stretch of road in Gujarat in their SUV, with a bored 7-year-old Aidtya in the back seat. They are out on a vacation that appears to be the Indian version of a “rough guide” vacation.

At a road stop diner (nothing like the American, to say the least!) Aditya wanders off to play with a puppy and is left behind by his parents. Eventually he becomes the passenger of truck-driver Pappu and his assistant Shaukat, who are involved with some kind of shady deal. Since they are taking risks to start with, Shaukat urges that they leave Aditya by the side of the road. But Pappu, who is reminded of his niece of the same age, refuses. The interaction between the two men and the child will remind you of any number of films in which gruff and criminal adults find themselves accidentally in the care of a child, such as “Tsotsi”, a South African film based on an Athol Fugard novel.

Another child figures prominently in the film. Poonam is a 9-year-old girl out on the road trying to find a ride to relatives in a nearby city. When she ends up unwittingly in a brother catering to men exactly like the truck drivers looking after Aditya, she becomes the ward of a protective young prostitute. In the climax of the film, she and they literally bump into each other.

“The Good Road” has been nominated by India as the best film of 2013 for the Academy Awards. It will certainly be my choice for best “foreign” film at the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting next Sunday. I put “foreign” in scare quotes since movies like “Zero Dark Thirty”, a past NYFCO winner, seems much more foreign to me in terms of the word denoting strange or outlandish.

December 1, 2013

The Hunger Games abridged script

Filed under: Film,humor — louisproyect @ 12:04 am

The Hunger Games

By Rod on Apr 12th, 2012

Kevin Smith's "Daughter of Green Arrow" comic book series alienated many fans.

Kevin Smith’s “Daughter of Green Arrow” comic book series alienated many fans.

This script was featured on Cracked.com, so you can also read it there.

THE HUNGER GAMES

The Abridged Script

FADE IN:

EXT. DISTRICT 12

JENNIFER LAWRENCE and LIAM HEMSWORTH walk to the town square sullenly.

LIAM HEMSWORTH

God, I hate having to come to The Reaping every year. It’s like, Hillary Swank as a scientist, really?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

No no, you’re thinking of the 2007 plague movie. This is just when a male and female child are selected at random to fight the children of 11 other districts to the death, so nowhere near as bad as that.

LIAM HEMSWORTH

(exaggerated eye-roll)

Pfffffffffft, that’s such a ripoff of Battle Royale! That’s a ridiculously famous and popular Japanese film, you may not have heard of it. Doesn’t it show how totally hip and smart I am to cleverly observe how similar this movie is to that one?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

Actually, since you could have realized that 4 years ago when the book came out, the only thing you’ve shown is that you don’t read books.

ELIZABETH BANKS, caked in HEATH LEDGER’S TEST MAKEUP, walks out onto a stage.

ELIZABETH BANKS

Oooooo, I will now select this year’s female tribute without even the slightest hint of awareness that this is actually a process people don’t like!

ELIZABETH selects JENNIFER’S SISTER, WILLOW SHIELDS.

WILLOW SHIELDS

I can’t open my eyes with terror any wider, won’t somebody do something?!

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

Stop, I volunteer! I am not the greatest girl in the world, no, I am just a tribuuuuute!

ELIZABETH BANKS

Great! And for the male tribute…

(draws a name)

Some blond beta kid nobody cares about.

JOSH HUTCHERSON

Awwww man, this is the worst birthday ever!

WILLOW and LIAM say goodbye to JENNIFER.

WILLOW SHIELDS

Sis, I want you to have the Mockingjay pin I wear, it’ll bring you good luck.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

This would be the same lucky pin you were wearing when you were selected against thousand-to-one odds to be sent to your death, right? Thanks.

WILLOW SHIELDS

I guess I’ll see you when the movie’s over, since at no point will anyone make any attempt to make it seem like you’re not going to obviously win the games.

They HUG, it’s LIKE TOTALLY EMOTIONAL.

LIAM HEMSWORTH

Good luck, Jennifer. Whatever you do, don’t overemphasize the book’s Twilight-esque love triangle just because our target demographic eats that shit up like rocky road ice cream after a breakup. Remember, I’ll be here, smoldering at the TV for you.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

Thanks Liam, tell Captain America and Iron Man I said hello.

LIAM HEMSWORTH

Oh, you bitch.

INT. PANEM

JENNIFER and JOSH are taken to the CAPITAL CITY OF PANEM where they train with WOODY HARRELSON, previous winner of THE MOST HUNGRIEST GAME.

WOODY HARRELSON

Hi tributes, ask me anything. I will get to as many of your questions as I can, so start asking now!

JOSH HUTCHERSON

I’m a baker by trade, should I go for it if one of the weapons on the battlefield is a comically oversized dough roller?

WOODY HARRELSON

You know, I really don’t think about those things, once the opportunity passes, I really let go of it.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

In the book you’re an alcoholic largely due to the emotional burden that comes with training children that go on to be slaughtered, but just now you seemed to grab every drink you could because it’s a cheap characterization, is that accurate?

WOODY HARRELSON

I did it for energy. And i have to say, it works.

Suddenly, LENNY KRAVITZ approaches.

LENNY KRAVITZ

Hey guys, I really hate having my picture taken without sunglasses on, so let’s make this fast. We have to introduce all 24 tributes to the audience, so I’m going to make you stand out with this costume, which looks like it’s on fire.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

That’s it? This costume got two full, tedious chapters in the book! And yet, dumbass fangirls are still going to complain the book is better, aren’t they, Woody?

WOODY HARRELSON

I don’t want to answer questions about that. Lets focus on the film people.

JENNIFER shoots an APPLE which causes the movie to admit up-front that she’s going to win so everyone can RELAX.

JENNIFER sits down for an interview with STANLEY TUCCI.

STANLEY TUCCI

Hi Jennifer, try your best not to be distracted by my ridiculous costume. So, first question: the premise of “The Hunger Games” is that food is scarce and people compete in this competition to win food for their families, right?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

That’s correct, Stanley.

STANLEY TUCCI

So you’re supposedly… you know, starving to death, right?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

Yep. What are you asking, exactly?

STANLEY TUCCI

Well, you look… I mean, what I’m asking is, why are you… er, of all the young actresses up for the part… uh, how do I ask this without sounding like a superficial male pig…

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

You’re wondering why they didn’t cast an Olsen twin?

STANLEY TUCCI

Yes, exactly! Thank you!

JENNIFER LAWRENCE

Superficial male pig.

JENNIFER is ushered off the stage to make way for JOSH HUTCHERSON.

STANLEY TUCCI

So, Josh, what do you suppose your chances are, considering that it looks like your head has been stuck in a small box since puberty.

JOSH HUTCHERSON

Well, before I left, my mother told me she’s pretty sure Jennifer’s going to win. Then my sister called me a pussy and my dad said not to be sad because I was supposed to be an abortion anyway. I can lift a bag of flour though, so pretty okay I guess.

STANLEY TUCCI

I see. And do you have a girlfriend back home, which is a question I didn’t ask anyone else and have no reason to ask you?

JOSH HUTCHERSON

Well there’s this girl I stare at all the time like that vampire guy from that popular franchise, but SHE CAME HERE WITH ME, WHAAAAAAT!

STANLEY TUCCI

Wow, ladies and gentlemen, what a twist! Our female protagonist is certainly facing a difficult moral quandary, trying to remain a sympathetic character while murdering innocent children including a boy with a crush on her in order to ensure her own survival! What do you think of that, distractingly weird-looking co-host Toby Jones?

TOBY JONES

Well Stanley, I think it would be a crushing disappointment if this complex, interesting ethical dilemma were gutlessly resolved by having Jennifer pretty much avoiding killing anyone due to increasingly preposterous contrivances including sudden, nonsensical rule changes outside of her influence!

LENNY KRAVITZ

OH MY GOD I AM SO FUCKING BORED WHEN ARE THE KIDS GOING TO KILL EACH OTHER?!

ALL 24 OR 25 TRIBUTES are sent to fight to the death in THE DINING MAN.

READ FULL SCRIPT

November 30, 2013

The End of Time

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:20 am

“The End of Time” is a scientific/philosophical/religious meditation on the mystery of time that opens appropriately enough in the bowels of the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland as director Peter Mettler accompanies George Mikenberg on a tour of the facilities. As is so often the case when I hear a theoretical physicist, the words that come out their mouth begin to remind me of what I heard as a graduate student in philosophy some 46 years ago. As Mikenberg put it, space and time is basically the same thing!

As Mettler makes his way through the four corners of the earth interviewing various people on the mysteries of time, his mother provides the most useful definition. As someone closer to her in age than the director, I appreciated her simple statement that time is what you make of it, particularly in the sense of enjoying your time on earth. Carpe Diem—as they put it.

“The End of Time” is the final installment in a trilogy that began with “Picture of Light” in 1996 and was followed by “Gambling, Gods & LSD” in 2002. Like a number of documentary filmmakers who are pushing the envelope in a genre that is generally considered to be a “lesson” on something or another, Mettler’s goal is to force you to come to your own conclusions. With something as enigmatic as the nature of time, this is perhaps the only thing he could have done.

Much of “The End of Time” consists of footage that should speak for itself such as Buddhist religious ceremonies or scenes from outer space mixed with interviews with people who are facing the question of time in an existential sense. One of them is Jack Thompson who lives on Big Island in Hawaii and who saw his house destroyed by lava from an active volcano. Big Island is the youngest island, only a half-million years old. There’s a new island named Lo’ihi that is cropping up 20 miles away and will surface in 50,000 years but Thompson told Mettler: “it’s too much to think about.”

Sometimes late at night I fret over the future of the planet earth. Scientists predict that it will die in 1.7 billion years. What a tragedy. Based on what Christopher Hitchens once said in a debate with the awful Shmuley Boteach (the only words worth quoting from the dissolute warmonger in recent years), the chance that intelligent life exists elsewhere is nil. The existence of life on earth only demonstrates how unimportant we are since it is only through the most unlikely of accidents that evolution paved the way for the emergence of homo sapiens.

Like Big Island, Detroit—the scene of another chapter in this panoramic film—is undergoing destruction in its case the result of an economic rather than a natural disaster. Mettler follows around a couple of young white “settlers” who have bought a house on the cheap and who are growing their own food. Their sense of time is a lot different than the Black unemployed who have fled the city in record numbers. At its height, the city provided enough jobs to sustain a population of 2 million, now it is reduced to 800,000. Despite Mettler’s wise decision to avoid easy political points, there is no doubt that a large part of the motivation in making this film is to document decay, a fundamental aspect of time.

In the press notes for the film, Mettler is asked what conclusion, if any, can be drawn from the film. His answer:

When everything is said and done, when all the philosophy and physics and thinking is over, we still really only have our day-to-day experience to guide us. Our most concrete experience of time is: “We grow old, we die.” This is the basic way we know time acts upon us. I’m just a filmmaker making a film, using a time machine to ponder time. This is my reality and there is no elaborate fiction to hide behind. At some point in this journey we must acknowledge our elders. In the end, we are forced back to basics. As mothers have said to their children for countless eons: “Make the most of your life, because it will pass.”

“The End of Time” opened yesterday at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center. Very highly recommended.

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