Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 23, 2013

New York Ecosocialism Conference: a resounding success

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:19 pm

Last Saturday’s conference was a success beyond the organizer’s expectations and mine. They would have been happy with a hundred attendees but 240 showed up. Before offering my own thoughts, let me start off with what Bard College composition professor and long time Green activist John Halle had to say on Facebook:

Some off-the-cuff reactions to the Ecosocialist Conference at Barnard on Saturday:

1) Much larger, focussed, informed and energetic than I, and I would imagine others, were expecting. (Plenaries filled a large lecture hall.)

2) Clustering of ages-most were between 20-30 or 65 and 80. (My age cohort seemed conspicuously underrepresented).

3) Impressively ecumenical: ISO, it appears, were the initiators, but in no way dominated the panels or the proceedings . e.g. substantial representation of the Green Party, labor (e.g. Bruce Hamilton head of Amalgamated Transit Workers) and academics (Cornell’s Sean Sweeney, Nancy Romer)

4) Joel Kovel’s talk brought in an absolutely necessary, albeit uncomfortable recognition that the ultimate stakes of climate change are meta-economic, meta-social, and meta-political, which is to say they are transcendental or, to use his vocabulary, spiritual.

5) Capitalists were described on several occasions as “blood suckers”, a term I quite like, most notably by TWU leader Marty Goodman.

In short, great conference-provided a small emission of light after a fairly dark week.

I concur with John’s observations but would add this one. As I sat through the various workshops and plenary Q&A’s, I fully expected someone to announce themselves as a member of the Bolshevik League and launch into a speech about the need to abolish the capitalist system on the basis of the Transitional Program or some such thing. Instead, the comments were universally cogent and to the point. And, more importantly, reflected the difficulties that many were having in figuring out how to deal with the environmental crisis that brought us together. For example, in the Q&A on “Both Red & Green”, I spoke to a point about the dangers of neo-Malthusianism that had been raised in the discussion. I said that I could understand the racist uses of the overpopulation argument, but can we really expect a world’s population to have all the Bluefin tuna it wants to eat. Isn’t the idea of ecological limits true no matter what social system we live in?

After reflecting on the seriousness of the discussion for a day or so, it dawned on me that the environmental movement, unlike those that the disorganized left traditionally “intervenes” in does not lend itself to pat answers. What is there in Lenin or Trotsky that can serve as an off-the-shelf solution to climate change?

Indeed, we are dealing with the problem of being in uncharted territory. This makes it difficult for activists to recite dogmatic mantras of the kind that are usually heard around issues of war and peace or labor struggles, etc. And this is not to speak of the inadequacy of the Great Men of Marxism when their productivist formulas are applied to a world in which productivism—either capitalist or “socialist”—have cast a shadow over our futures. Take, for example, what Trotsky wrote in 1934: “It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”

Just a few highlights:

Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2012, spoke at the morning plenary. She is really dynamite, using Powerpoint slides to illustrate how fucked the system was. I am not sure how well organized her campaign was but she is capable of turning around the minds of millions of people given the chance. No wonder she was prevented from taking part in debates. She really knows how to speak to working people using concrete examples like people and loaves of bread. With the current income disparities in the USA, there is one person at the top with fifty loaves of bread and at the bottom fifty people to share one loaf. That’s the kind of talk that Ralph Nader used to give and that Green candidates need to develop.

In the morning workshop I attended, I got a chance to hear John Ridell who wears two hats. In addition to being a scholar of the early Comintern, he is also an ecosocialist. He spoke about the resistance to the Canadian Tar Sands project that the ruling class hopes would turn the country into the next Saudi Arabia. Christ, just what Canadians need… John started out as a Latin America solidarity activist but moved into environmental activism after Hugo Morales told a group that the best way to show solidarity was to fight global warming. John is a terrific speaker, by the way. What a waste of cadre—all the talented people who went through the revolving door of the Trotskyist movement.

In the afternoon, I attended a workshop on Hurricane Sandy that was basically a discussion of its impact on the Rockaways, a topic close to my heart since I have been going out there to play chess with an old friend from Bard College for 25 years or so. I made a video about the hurricane that some Rockaway folks think is the best they have seen:

One of the panelists was Josmar Trujillo, who works with a group called Wildfire that is geared to the needs of the predominantly Black and Latino housing project residents on the east side of the peninsula. When you look at Josmar, your immediate reaction is that he must be a Con Ed or UPS worker. Working class to the bone. That being said, he was really political and sharp. When I used to be in the Trotskyist movement in the 60s and 70s, we used to talk a lot about how the working class would radicalize. I suspect that it will be the environmental crisis as much as the economic crisis that gets working people moving.

The last workshop was on the history of the green left that included Richard Greeman as a speaker. Greeman has been around forever and writes many interesting things, especially about Victor Serge. I was a little bit skeptical about his tendency to view the state as an unqualified evil—almost in Hardt-Negri terms. Commenting on the failure of the city government to get involved with hurricane relief and the people’s need to rely on Occupy Sandy, he said that this was a good thing. This made me uncomfortable since it reminded me of the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that said just about the same thing. Ugh.

The evening plenary featured Joel Kovel, whose remarks John Halle summed up admirably. The other speaker was Chris Williams, who I knew by reputation as someone who Pham Binh admires greatly. That’s good enough for me.

Follow-up on the Tribeca Film Festival incident

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

Today, I heard from Brandon Rohwer, the Tribeca Publicity Director, who told me that he was sorry that I was banned from the screening of the herring documentary but that they had certain rules to follow otherwise the gates of hell would open and Satan’s minions would rise from the depths and lay siege to mankind.

Specifically, for someone like me who does not have press credentials, the publicist has to contact them in advance so my name will show up on a list. I got the feeling after reading his email that the Boston Marathon bombing would not have taken place if the Tribeca Festival officials had been in charge.

There were a “lot of moving parts” that involved security, etc. Like I might have sneaked in to see a movie at that theater other than the one sponsored by Tribeca. Or stolen a box of Good and Plenty’s when nobody was looking. Or peed on a toilet seat. Or took a crap and neglected to flush. That is why they needed a cop who looked like Eric Campbell to keep an eye on potential wrong-doers.

Being told that I had to leave the Tribeca screening

I wrote back to him:

A day after the incident I was told by the publicist that I had rsvp’d to the April 22nd rather than the April 19th screening. So even though I accidentally came to the wrong screening, I see no reason on earth why I would have been prevented from sitting down to watch a documentary on herring fishermen after she told your people that I was a New York Film Critics Online member and not an Al Qaeda operative.

I can understand why you would stipulate that publicists furnish you the name of the critics they invite ahead of time but in this particular instance a decision to make me turn around and go home really fucking burned me up.

I have written 650 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, most of them about documentaries like the one I wanted to see. I am not just a film reviewer. I have also written for scholarly journals on the environment, including “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” and “Organization and Environment”. My review would have exposed the film to a much broader audience than the one that usually attends a Tribeca movie.

Finally, you know and I know that there is a two-tiered approach to critics. For people like David Edelstein or A.O. Scott, there is a red carpet. For nobodies like me, there has never been an incentive to get press credentials because the application process is like something out of a Kafka novel.

This year publicists approached me to view about 6 different Tribeca screenings, either in person or through DVD/Vimeo. I was looking forward to promoting the festival because I think it does a good job of presenting exactly the kind of films my readers look for.

But right now I would never bother writing a single word on behalf of Tribeca. You made someone who writes about film out of love rather than money feel like I was crashing a party. I deserved better.


No wonder he is paid to keep people from seeing movies rather than making them.

April 22, 2013

The myth of Vladimir Putin’s progressivism

Filed under: Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

For that segment of the left that thinks more in terms of hegemonic blocs and geopolitical chess games between imperialism and “anti-imperialist” states than classes, Putin is something of an exemplar. Immanuel Wallerstein, perhaps its most respected and principled representative, made the case for Putin in a July 15, 2007 Commentary titled “The Putin Charisma“:

Yes, he has upset a good portion of the intelligentsia, but there is every indication that he is quite popular with most Russians, unlike some other presidents of major states today. It seems that Russians see him as someone who has done much to restore the strength of the Russian state, after what they see as its humiliating deterioration during the Yeltsin era… He has opposed United States plans to install antimissile structures in Poland and the Czech Republic, and has gotten support for his stand (if quiet support) from Western Europe. He has used control of gas and oil exports from Russia itself and from both Central Asian and Caucasian countries not only to obtain greater rent for Russia (and thereby greater world power), but more or less to impose his terms on energy issues on Western Europe.

I imagine that most supporters of Putin on the left would make a case something like this:

1. Oil Populism:

He has taken advantage of Russia’s oil rentier status to fight the poverty and inequality that was a legacy of Yeltsin’s oligarchy-friendly rule. While by no means a socialist, he has something in common with Hugo Chavez who embodied the same economic policy. MRZine, a major outlet of hegemonic bloc theory, published a talk by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov that obviously took him at his word:

It should be no surprise that Russia today is making use of its natural competitive advantages.  It is also investing in its human resources, encouraging innovation, integrating into the global economy, and modernizing its legislation.  Russia wants international stability to underpin its own development.  Accordingly, it is working toward the establishment of a freer and more democratic international order.

Sounds almost Bolivarian, doesn’t it?

2. Anti-Imperialism:

Russia, along with China, is standing up to American imperialism in places like Libya and Syria. Of particular interest is Putin’s steadfast resistance to jihadism wherever it rears its ugly head, especially in Chechnya. For this sector of the left, political Islam has become as much of a bogeyman as it was to people like Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens in 2003. The very same “foreign fighters” who went to fight the American occupation in Iraq are now shunned as tools of American imperialism. Russia Today, an English-language news service funded by the government, is widely considered to be a friend of the left, especially those predisposed to the global chess game analysis. An April 20, 2013 piece by Eric Draitser, who blogs at stopimperialism.com, made the case for the Russian government:

As more information comes out regarding the alleged bombers and their ideological leanings, there will undoubtedly be a propaganda assault to shape this narrative in the interests of the United States and the West.  Talking heads will be on television twenty four hours a day explaining to Americans why Chechnya is such a hotbed of terrorism, asking how something like this could happen, etc.  The truth is however, Washington has perpetuated the conflict through its propaganda machine that will now be employed to once again turn friend to enemy.  Perhaps, instead of being the world’s greatest purveyor of terror, using it as a weapon to achieve geostrategic objectives, the United States should actually work with peaceful nations such as Russia to combat terrorism worldwide.

3. Standing up to foreign meddling

Probably the thing that endears Putin to this sector of the left above all is its willingness to suppress the NGO’s that have foisted “color revolutions” on unsuspecting victims everywhere. Unlike other heads of state, Putin has had the balls (the word certainly applies) to shut them down, an act that gladdens the heart of Global Research, a long-standing member of the global chess-game tendency. On July 14, 2012 they published an article by Veronika Krasheninnikova, a staff member of a Russian think tank, that cheered Putin’s crackdown:

In fact, the multibillions of Western funding have profoundly distorted Russian civil society. A marginal pro-American group of NGOs that was pumped up with US dollars like a bodybuilder with steroids – it has gained much muscle and shine. Those few Russians willing to serve foreign interests were provided nice offices, comfortable salaries, printing presses, training, publicity, and political and organizing technology which gave them far more capacity, visibility, and influence that they could possibly have had on their own. Money and spin are the only means to promote unpopular ideas, alien to national interests.

On the other side is the silent majority of people who are squeezed out of the public space. In Western, and also in Russian media, civil society turns out to be represented by Ludmila Alekseyeva (The Helsinki Group) and Boris Nemtsov and Gary Kasparov, rather than by a worker from the Urals, a teacher from Novosibirsk or a farmer from Krasnodar Region.

Yesterday I had the very great fortune to attend a film screening of “Winter Go Away”, a documentary on the 2012 Russian elections that was co-directed by 10 filmmakers, including Anna Moiseenko who was there to speak about the film in the Q&A. Poet and revolutionary Kirill Medvedev, who I have discussed before, was also there to speak about the current situation in Russia.

I can only say that this film is an eye-opener, even to someone like me who has defended Pussy Riot against Putin and tries to keep up with the Russian left. (The film shows the feminist punk rockers being dragged out of the church.) Basically the documentary demonstrates how radical the opposition to Putin was. Despite the pro-capitalist leanings of some of the major opposition figures—from multibillionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov to the aforementioned Gary Kasparov (he should stick to chess)—the rank-and-file of the movement are exactly the same kinds of people who occupied Zuccotti Park. Indeed, some of the chants you hear on the demonstrations are directed against Russian capitalism. You see young people heading toward the protests wearing Guy Fawkes masks, etc. The protests have been erroneously described as upper-middle-class temper tantrums funded by George Soros. It takes a huge amount of brass for some leftists to make such an attack when the Putin rallies are staged affairs that make the Republican Party’s look Bolshevik by comparison. Putin’s slogans were mind-numbingly nationalistic, with his well-heeled supporters chanting “Russia, Putin, Victory” at rallies.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is an interview with one Matvey Krylov who has just been released from prison for throwing water at a government official. The interviewer can’t seem to wrap his head around the question of someone going to prison for throwing water at another person. After repeatedly asking Krylov to explain what happened, the young man–who looks just like the sort of person who would have been found camped out in Zuccotti Park–tells him to Google his name. That will tell him all he needs to know. I followed this recommendation and discovered to my delight that my good friends in Chto Delat, a leftwing artist’s collective, has a report on their website:

The Moscow Times November 1, 2011
Water Stunt May Earn 2 Years in Jail
Alexey Eremenko

An opposition activist faces two years in jail for splashing water in the face of a prosecutor who jailed his comrades and allegedly threatened to kill him, the Agora rights group said Monday.

Dmitry Putenikhin, a member of The Other Russia, attacked Alexei Smirnov outside Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court on Friday shortly after it jailed five people, including three fellow activists, for participating in Manezh Square rioting last December.

The verdict has raised eyebrows because the riots were racially charged, while The Other Russia is not a nationalist group. Critics say the authorities chose the organization as a scapegoat.

Putenikhin, also known under the alias Matvei Krylov, did not flee after the attack, explaining to journalists that his actions were “improvised.” A video released by RIA-Novosti showed police brutally detaining him and three other people minutes after the attack.

 During the Q&A, I described the agenda of the global chess-game left to the speakers. Kirill’s response was most edifying. He said that the idea of Putin somehow having a continuation with the “anti-imperialist” USSR is embraced by both the “civil society”, Perestroika wing of the anti-Putin opposition as well as some elements of the Putin camp, except that the former group places a minus where the other group puts a plus.

But what really gave me pause to reflect was his explanation of the driving forces of the opposition to Putin. While people like Kasparov were still stuck in the perestroika mode and limited exclusively to issues such as freedom of speech (as important as they are), the grass roots of the movement has been driven to take action by the neoliberal policies of the Putin regime, especially in health care and education.

The light bulb went on over my head. Wasn’t this the same scenario that played out in Libya? The pro-Qaddafi left was stuck in a time warp that viewed the dictator in the same light as the mid-80s, the head of an oil rentier state dispensing royalties to the masses in a paternalistically dictatorial fashion. When a movement broke out against Qaddafi, who had imposed neoliberal policies for the better part of 20 years, his defenders made the same kinds of arguments being made on Putin’s behalf today.

Just as I have done for Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi before him, I did a search in Nexis (access to which is one of my most valued benefits as a Columbia University retiree) for articles on Putin’s economic policies.

The first significant report of Putin’s intentions appeared in the N.Y. Times on April 2nd, 2000.

The victory of Vladimir V. Putin in the presidential election last Sunday has focused attention on an opulent Moscow building known as Aleksandr House, where a team of liberal-minded economists and other experts has been quietly drafting Mr. Putin’s blueprint for Russia.

German O. Gref, head of the Center for Strategic Research and master of Aleksandr House, confidently predicted this week that by late May Mr. Putin will be ready to release ”a breakthrough scenario envisaging the most radical reforms,” from an overhaul of Russia’s cumbersome tax code to a streamlining of its infamous bureaucracies.

With the exception of tax reform, the contents of the program are still vague and, on critical issues like land reform, still under debate. But the Aleksandr House team — which includes some of Russia’s best-known pro-market reformers — has already firmly established itself as the beachhead of liberal economics in the coming Putin administration.

Four years later, on March 16, 2004, Putin’s aims became clarified as the Guardian reported:

Despite the self-acclaimed miracle of Russia’s economic growth, most citizens still live in grinding poverty and a tenth can barely feed themselves. What little is known about Mr Putin’s domestic plans suggests he does not want to bridge this gap through a greater welfare state but through harsh market reforms.

Professor Oksana Gaman-Golutvina, of the Academy of State Service, said: “Mr Putin represents himself as a left-wing politician, but in reality he is rightwing. This is the master stroke of his PR. He wants to reform communal services, education and health, in a most libertarian way.”

Mr Putin will reduce VAT and the social security taxes companies pay for each employee, theoretically creating more jobs. Students will have to pay for more of their education, patients for more of their health care.

Rail fares and utility prices will rise astronomically as franchises are sold off.

Roland Nash, the chief strategist at the Renaissance Capital bank, said the reforms would “hit the average Ivan in the pocket”.

Hmmm. Obama is on record as admiring Ronald Reagan. I wonder if he has been studying Vladimir Putin’s presidency in light of this:

Mr Putin represents himself as a left-wing politician, but in reality he is rightwing. This is the master stroke of his PR. He wants to reform communal services, education and health, in a most libertarian way.

April 19, 2013

Herman’s House

Filed under: Film,prison — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

Opening today at New York’s Cinema Village, “Herman’s House” evokes the relationship between West Memphis Three prisoner Damien Nichols and the New York architect who after joining his defense campaign became his wife. In “Herman’s House”, the relationship is more about a young woman bonding with a father figure but is just as moving.

The 40-year-old artist Jackie Sumell was one of those young people who inexplicably became radicalized in the 1990s. Her first foray into synthesizing art and politics was the 2001 project challenging Bush’s attacks on reproductive freedom. A Salon article from back then shows what conceptual art is capable of once it puts aside the cheap sensationalism of a Damian Hirst:

Jackie Sumell’s art project, she says, is less about art than about social intervention. An MFA student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Sumell has put out the call to female friends and acquaintances: Shave your pubic hair, put it in a little plastic bag and send it to her in the mail (anonymously, please). Her rallying cry? “No Bush! — It’s not yours, it’s mine.”

Like many kids who got involved with the Vietnam anti-war movement, there was little in her background to suggest that she would eventually end up as a kind of Dadaist revolutionary. In high school she was a star athlete and even ended up on an all-tackle football team.

Not long after this project was finished, she learned about Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3 who had been in solitary confinement for 40 years. He was convicted of bank robbery in 1967 but was handed down a life sentence after being charged with the murder of a prison guard. Even though a bloody fingerprint on the guard did not match his, the sentence was not reversed.

Sumell conceived of a two-tiered conceptual art project, the first part of which would be a replication of Herman’s cell in a gallery. The next part, done cooperatively with Wallace, would consist of raising funds to build a house that corresponded to his dreams. She guessed correctly that having conversations with him about the layout, etc. would keep his spirits up.

The film was the first time I had thought about the Angola 3 in a very long time. Back in the early 70s the Militant newspaper used to cover their case in the same way that the leftwing of the Internet covers Mumia. Wallace and two other men formed a chapter of the Black Panther Party behind bars in 1971. This put them on a collision course with the authorities who found the murder of the guard convenient to their aims.

You never see Wallace throughout the film but overhear his conversations with Sumell throughout the film. Given what he has been through, he is amazingly serene and broadminded. We meet a young white ex-convict who was in solitary confinement with Wallace and learned how to read and write through Wallace’s guidance.

The film points out that architects back in the 18th century designed prisons with the intention of isolating prisoners from each other. They wanted to emulate a monastery where monks would commune with God and be inspired to repent for their crimes. Wallace states that the analogy is with a dog pound where the animals are kept apart. Did you ever walk into a dog pound, he asks. The animals are driven mad by their conditions.

Try and imagine what is like to be along in a 6X9 cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week. This is not punishment. It is torture.

“Herman’s House” is tough going but essential cinema.

Pathology and Reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

My introduction to Korean films and the changing political landscape in the south was Lee Chang-dong’s 2000 masterpiece “Peppermint Candy”.  Not only was it a fearless assault on South Korean repression of strikes and student protests in the 1980s, it was my pick for best narrative film that year leaving Academy Award winner “Gladiator” in the dust. If Hong Kong cinema had become increasingly formulaic by then, South Korea picked up the slack and turned into by far the most fertile ground for new cinema in the world.

Chang-dong Lee went on to write and direct other masterpieces, including “Mother” and “Poetry”, but even more importantly to serve as a symbol of progress in the south and reconciliation with the north in his capacity as Minister of Culture and Tourism in 2003-2004 under reformer President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh continued the policies of Kim Dae-jung who ruled from 1998 to 2003. Widely regarded as the Nelson Mandela of South Korea, Kim instituted the “Sunshine Policy” that sought to bring the two halves of the country closer together.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/19/pathology-and-reconciliation-on-the-korean-peninsula/

Snail mail to Robert De Niro

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Hey Bobby,

This morning I went down to the Clearview Chelsea Theater for a 9:30 press screening for a documentary on herring fishermen. I got up early just to make it there on time. My guess is that I probably would be the only person attending.

Anyhow, I stopped at the table in the lobby to check in but was told that I was not in the database. That didn’t surprise me since I never applied for press credentials. As a blogger (but with 650 film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), I figured that I would not pass muster.

But I had been invited by the film’s publicist to attend the screening. Even though she vouched for me, I was still not admitted. It was a “security issue” they told me, as if I was concealing a pressure cooker bomb. When I told them “Fuck you and fuck the Tribeca Film Festival”, the off-duty cop serving as a security guard got up from his chair with his hand on his gun to tell me to shut up. I said that since there is no law against telling someone to fuck off, he should sit back down.

If I ever run into you on the street, Bobby, I am going to tell you this to your face. With your fucking connections to Jonathan Tisch and your idiotic red tape and your bourgeois red carpets, you can take your fucking film festival and stick it up your ass.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect

April 15, 2013

Fact checking the New Yorker

Filed under: journalism — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

Like most people on the left, I was appalled by Jon Lee Anderson’s error-filled and tendentious report on Hugo Chavez’s death in the New Yorker Magazine. It was sad to see Anderson turning into a sputtering reactionary. While he was never a fearless radical, at least it could be said that his Che Guevara biography was pretty decent, only going downhill after the guerrillas took power. That, I suppose, was an early warning about how he would treat another leftist in power.

And like most people on the left, I was elated by NACLA’s Kean Bhatt’s demolition of Anderson’s ongoing reporting that elicited two retractions from the New Yorker. Here is a sample:

Anderson’s article, “Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chávez Wrought in Venezuela?,” is indeed filled with blatant misrepresentations. The New Yorker’s vaunted factcheckers somehow permitted the publication of the following statement: “Chavez suggested to me that he had embraced the far left as a way of preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” While it is true that in 1992, Chávez attempted a coup against an administration that had deployed security forces to massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian protesters, Anderson is misleading his readers. Chávez was “put in office” much later, in 1999, through a free and fair election—not a coup—a fact which he did not see fit to include in his piece. He instead wrote, vaguely, that Chávez “assumed” power in 1999.

Yes, what ever happened to those “vaunted factcheckers”? I suppose that compared to the Jared Diamond fiasco at the magazine in 2009, Anderson’s reporting was a mere peccadillo. A January 5, 2013 profile of Diamond in the Guardian summed things up:

Several years ago, Diamond says he met a tribesman called Daniel Wemp who said he had organised a clan war in New Guinea to avenge the death of an uncle. According to Diamond, after three years, and 30 deaths, Wemp’s target – a man called Isum Mandingo – was left paralysed in an attack. Diamond wrote up the story for the New Yorker in 2008 – and found himself at the receiving end of a $10m libel lawsuit from Wemp and Mandingo.

An investigation by Rhonda Roland Shearer – the widow of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and publisher of iMediaEthics, a not-for-profit news website – alleged that the New Yorker article was riddled with errors, that Wemp had not organised the clan war and that Mandingo was injured in an unrelated attack when he was protecting his land. It was also claimed that Wemp was now living in fear of his life because of Diamond’s article. Hence the lawsuit. For their part, both Diamond and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, vigorously denied the allegations. Their story was backed by careful notes that had been taken at the time by Diamond, while his text had been carefully scrutinised by one of the magazine’s best fact checkers, Remnick added.

 I imagine that Remnick’s reference to “one of the magazine’s best fact checkers” is accurate if you read it in terms of “one of Obama’s greatest contributions to social justice” or “one of the healthiest entrees from Macdonald’s”.

I first ran into the magazine when I was ten years old or so when my mom used to take me over to see Mrs. Basner’s canaries. Mrs. Basner was one my little village’s few eccentrics and likely saw me a potential recruit to her bohemian cause. She kept the canaries—numbering at least 25—flying freely in a sunny upstairs room and the New Yorkers stacked neatly at the bottom of the stairwell set aside for me. I loved the cartoons even if the short stories and nonfiction were lost on me. For me Gahan Wilson’s mordant wit was the nearest thing to Mad Magazine to be found in a refined format.

Years later I would be able to appreciate the quality of the nonfiction, even if the short stories continued to be lost on me. (Except for John Updike, most seemed pointless in the minimalist style that was characterized widely as “New Yorker type fiction”.)

For example, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” originally appeared in the New Yorker, as did Jonathan Schell’s reporting on Vietnam. This was the type of journalism to be expected under the editorship of William Shawn, who began working at the magazine as a fact checker in 1933 and stayed there for 53 years until being forced out by the execrable Si Newhouse Jr. in 1987. (Shawn was the father of playwright/actor Wallace Shawn, an open socialist.)

The original editor was one Harold Ross who founded the magazine in 1925 with financial backing from Raoul Fleischmann, heir to the margarine manufacturer’s CEO. In the 1920s Ross was a member in good standing of the Algonquin Round Table, a sort of American equivalent of the Bloomsbury Group, that used to meet regularly at the Algonquin Hotel dining room in New Yorker as a salon devoted to the discussion of politics and culture—something like the Marxism list. It included a wide variety of talents from Harpo Marx (I imagine he was out of character on such occasions) to the acerbic Dorothy Parker. Harpo’s brother Groucho once described them as a group where “The price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.” Of course, this point was somewhat moot since Groucho once said that he would never join a club low enough to admit him as a member.

Ross was succeeded by Shawn in 1951 and probably had more of a political edge than the founder.

After buying the magazine in 1985, media mogul Si Newhouse Jr. decided to replace Shawn with Robert Gottlieb two years later, a move that precipitated a protest letter by 154 contributors to the magazine. A NY Times article suggested what might have caused the eruption:

Mr. Gottlieb’s editorial stamp is also apparent in his passion for kitsch, exemplified by the garish statues of Elvis Presley and the Lone Ranger among the knickknacks on his desk. But few longtime New Yorker staff members seem to share that taste, which probably accounts for their general annoyance with a recent article about a convention of Scottish terrier fanciers. The piece was written by Jane and Michael Stern, who wrote a book for Mr. Gottlieb on Elvis Presley.

In any case, Gottlieb’s stay was a short one. In 1992 Newhouse put Tina Brown, the British editor of “Vanity Fair” (another Condé Nast property), in charge. It was widely understood at the time that Brown, now the editor of the Newsweek/Daily Beast atrocity, would reshape the New Yorker along the lines of “Vanity Fair”, a temple of vacuous celebrity worship. Wikipedia reports that two months after the first Gulf War started, she removed a picture of the blonde Marla Maples (Mrs. Donald Trump) from the cover and replaced it with a photograph of Cher. She told the Washington Post: “In light of the gulf crisis, we thought a brunette was more appropriate.”

In 1998 Brown moved on to a new job at the Walt Disney Corporation. Newhouse replaced her with Sovietologist David Remnick, who is still the editor. With no apparent appetite for kitsch or celebrities, Remnick does seem to have an unquenchable appetite for neoliberalism and bellicose foreign policy initiatives.

One of Remnick’s early hires was Jeffrey Goldberg, the Zionist booster of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Alexander Cockburn did not mince words back in 2003 when he called attention to Counterpunch readers that Goldberg had written a New Yorker article tying al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.

At the core of his rambling, 16,000-word piece was an interview in the Kurdish-held Iraqi town of Sulaimaniya with Mohammed Mansour Shahab, who offered the eager Goldberg a wealth of detail about his activities as a link between Osama bin Laden and the Iraqis, shuttling arms and other equipment.

The piece was gratefully seized upon by the Administration as proof of The Link. The coup de gráce to Goldberg’s credibility fell on February 9 of this year in the London Observer, administered by Jason Burke, its chief reporter. Burke visited the same prison in Sulaimaniya, talked to Shahab and established beyond doubt that Goldberg’s great source is a clumsy liar, not even knowing the physical appearance of Kandahar, whither he had claimed to have journeyed to deal with bin Laden; and confecting his fantasies in the hope of a shorter prison sentence.

Given Goldberg’s talent for the fabulous, and Remnick’s role in vetting his garbage, is it any wonder that Jared Diamond falsely accuses Samuel Wemp of murder and that Jon Lee Anderson is caught with his pants down reporting on Venezuela?

I’ve had my own complaints about the New Yorker in recent years. I found Malcolm Gladwell tendentious on social networking and was appalled by Jill Lepore’s pissing on Howard Zinn’s grave.

Finally, although I have serious problems with the Nation Magazine, I am glad they gave Daniel Lazare a platform from which he could expound on the New Yorker’s perfidy at length. Written in 2003 (The New Yorker Goes to War) and inspired like Cockburn’s piece by the magazine’s support for Dubya’s war, the article went straight for the jugular:

The New Yorker has not been the only publication to fall into line behind the Bush Administration’s war drive, but for a number of reasons its performance seems especially disappointing. One reason has to do with the magazine’s track record. One doesn’t have to be a William Shawn devotee to agree that the magazine has published some astonishing journalism over the years–Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Jonathan Schell’s pieces on Vietnam and Pauline Kael’s wonderful demolition job on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to name just a few. During the Vietnam War, it was one of the few mainstream publications to try to unmask the sordid reality behind the brass’s regular 5 o’clock press briefings. And if it published too many long and hyperfactual stories in the 1980s about wheat or geology, at least it preferred being trivial and obscure to the glories of being a team player in Washington, which is a moral stance of a sort.

Though its style may have been genteel, The New Yorker succeeded in challenging middle-class sensibilities more often than any number of scruffier publications. Another reason to mourn the magazine’s lack of resistance is that it represents an opportunity lost. Just as the magazine helped middle-class opinion to coalesce against US intervention in Vietnam, it might well have served a similar function today by clarifying what is at stake in the Middle East. Rather than unveil the reality behind a spurious War on Terrorism, though, The New Yorker helped obscure it by painting Bush’s crusade as a natural and inevitable response to the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack and, as a consequence, useless to oppose. Instead of encouraging opposition, it helped defuse it. From shocking the bourgeoisie, it has moved on to placating it at a time when it has rarely been more dangerous and bellicose.

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown’s irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick’s 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile’s ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.

You are strongly encouraged to read Lazare’s entire article here.

April 14, 2013

Statistical survey

Filed under: liberalism,media — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

Number of times that the term “predator drones” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 6

Number of times that the term “gun control” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 373

Number of times that the term “chained cpi” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 43

Number of times that the term “tea party” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 404

(Based on a search of Nexis.)


Obama’s 2006 Neoliberal Manifesto

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 3:00 pm

April 13, 2013

The Koch brothers hedge their bets

Filed under: energy,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

Richard and Elizabeth Muller

There must be something wrong with me. Here I am at the age of 68 still getting worked up over some Koch brother’s funded op-ed piece in the NY Times. If I had stopped reading newspapers 33 years ago after dropping out of the SWP, maybe I could have launched a career writing fiction. What is it that they recommend for people like me? A chill pill?

The offending piece is titled “China Must Exploit its Shale Gas”. My first reaction was to wonder if it was some kind of onion.com spoof. Not a day goes by without a disaster in China attributable to some profit-driven shortcut. Some reminders. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake caused 7000 inadequately constructed schoolhouses to collapse, thus costing the lives of 5000 children and another 15000 injured. As predicted, the Three Gorges Dam has had a terrible environmental impact, producing erosion on 80 percent of the adjacent land. One last instance to dramatize how risky it is for China to “dig deep” for any resource, including coal. Although producing just 35% of the world’s coal, China is responsible for 80% of coal miner fatalities. For example, a gas explosion at the Nanshan mine on November 13, 2006 killed 24 people. The mine, like so many, was operating without any safety license.

The op-ed piece written by one Elizabeth Muller encourages Obama’s pro-fracking and pro-nuke (what? You were expecting a Green?) Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz to push China to go full blast in hydrocracking (ie., fracking) since this would alleviate global warming. As China’s chief energy source right now is coal, this would cut down on greenhouse gases. I guess that makes sense given China’s current situation–exchange air pollution and climate change for carcinogenic, flammable water.

At the bottom of the article, Ms. Muller is identified as the co-founder and executive director of Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit research organization focused on climate change. Gosh, as the head of something called Berkeley Earth, you’d expect her least of all to be wearing Birkenstocks and driving a Prius. But more importantly, that branding would ensure her to be Greener than Green, right?

Being an inveterate “cui bono” investigator, I went to the Berkeley Earth website and checked out the donor page, which is divided into three “phases”. Guess what? In phase one, they got $150,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the largest chunk. Bill Gates’s Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research kicked in another hundred thou. A brief search revealed that Gates’s main interest in all this is to promote geoengineering. An opinion piece by Naomi Klein on October 27, 2012 described Gates’s stake in this jury-rigged technology:

Bill Gates has funneled millions of dollars into geoengineering research. And he has invested in a company, Intellectual Ventures, that is developing at least two geoengineering tools: the “StratoShield,” a 19-mile-long hose suspended by helium balloons that would spew sun-blocking sulfur dioxide particles into the sky and a tool that can supposedly blunt the force of hurricanes.

She adds:

 The geopolitical ramifications are chilling. Climate change is already making it hard to know whether events previously understood as “acts of God” (a freak heat wave in March or a Frankenstorm on Halloween) still belong in that category. But if we start tinkering with the earth’s thermostat — deliberately turning our oceans murky green to soak up carbon and bleaching the skies hazy white to deflect the sun — we take our influence to a new level. A drought in India will come to be seen — accurately or not — as a result of a conscious decision by engineers on the other side of the planet. What was once bad luck could come to be seen as a malevolent plot or an imperialist attack.

 Ms. Muller’s husband Richard founded Berkeley Earth and now is the institute’s Science Director. Doing a bit of research on him, you discover from Wikipedia that he is the director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project that Koch funds as well. But interestingly enough, that project confirmed that temperatures were rising despite suspicions that it would fall within the skeptic’s camp.

This of course has some bearing on Elizabeth Muller’s op-ed piece that accepts the science but proposes a remedy that will likely kill the patient—mother earth. The only conclusion you can be left with is that the Koch Brothers are hedging their bets. If governments move more and more in the direction of eliminating “dirty” greenhouse emitting energy sources like coal, then why not push natural gas and hydrocracking?

Tina Casey of Triplepundit.com ties everything together and puts a red ribbon around it:

 The green blogs were buzzing last week with news of a new bombshell report that affirms the role of human activity in global warming. Studies affirming climate science are nothing new to say the least, but this one was produced through the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST), under the auspices of well known climate skeptic Richard A. Muller. The kicker is that BEST is partly funded by the Koch brothers, who have become notorious for their financial support of the “climate change denial machine.”

Hence the bombshell, and with it a lesson in the perils of corporate funding  for scientific research. But is it really a bombshell? Take a closer look at some of the Koch brothers’ energy investments and pair that with another BEST funder, and it’s clear that the new study works in favor of the Koch interests, not against them.

The Koch brothers and natural gas

First off, it’s important to note that not all fossil fuels are due for a quick and brutal end once the so-called climate “skeptic” movement is neutralized.

Fossil fuels will continue to feature prominently in the U.S. energy landscape during a transitional period to low-carbon energy, and proponents of natural gas have positioned this particular fuel to play a key role in the transition, based on the idea that it is “cleaner” than other fossil fuels.

It’s also worth noting that natural gas is not necessarily deserving of this advantage, at least not when it is obtained through fracking.  Fracking is a highly controversial drilling method that involves pumping a toxic chemical brine underground. It has been linked to water contamination, greenhouse gas emissions, and even earthquakes.

Be that as it may,  Koch Industries is heavily involved in natural gas, as detailed in an article last spring by Lee Fang in the Republic Report. Its recent activities in the natural gas industry focus on services for fracking operations including pipelines, storage, processing, and supplies.

BEST, Novim and natural gas

That pretty much explains why the new report from BEST is not such bad news for the Koch brothers after all.

In fact, the report is not such bad news for the natural gas industry as a whole, judging by another major funder behind BEST, a non-profit organization called Novim.

According to its website, Novim initiated and sponsored BEST in line with its stated mission, which is “to provide clear scientific options to the most urgent problems facing mankind.” Novim’s mission also focuses on cost/benefit analyses, and it claims to report its findings “without advocacy or agenda.”

That’s all well and good, but Novim’s news page currently leads off with an Associated Press article asserting that evidence of water contamination and public health impacts from gas drilling is “sketchy and inconclusive.”

Other featured articles include a New York Times piece touting increased natural gas production (with a veiled reference to new fracking technology) as a critical factor in carbon emissions management, and a love letter to fracking in the form of a Yale study review published in Forbes.

Aside from BEST, Novim is also involved in at least one other research project with implications for the natural gas industry, an analysis of methane leakage from natural gas drilling. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and critics argue that the leakage effectively neutralizes the low-carbon advantage that natural gas is supposed to have over other fossil fuels.

He who laughs last, laughs BEST…

As for the methodology behind BEST, some critics are already lining up to shoot it down but according to a recent article in The Guardian, others are having themselves a bit of a chuckle over it. For all the media firestorm surrounding BEST, so far it pretty much confirms conclusions about global warming that had already achieved general acceptance back in the 1990′s.

At any rate, regardless of the science it’s a win-win for the Koch brothers. Either the critics are right and BEST contributes little or nothing to the body of climate science, or it is a valid study that happens to support Koch Industries’ investments in the natural gas industry.

Who’s laughing now?

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