Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 27, 2017

Alex Pyron, the evolutionary biologist indifferent to extinction

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Alex Pyron

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post titled “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution” has generated an extraordinary amount of comments, with most of those 3,279 being negative. If you were only going by the title, you’d think that it was written by someone like Spiked Online’s Brendan O’Neill or perhaps Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior who is bent on opening national monuments to drilling, or even Donald Trump’s feckless sons who are into big-game hunting.

Actually, it was written by R. Alexander Pyron, who is the Robert F. Griggs Associate Professor of Biology at George Washington University. You might wonder if Griggs was some ultraright Texas oilman (isn’t that redundant?) who donated $10 million to the school in order to provide a platform for the anti-environmental views of people like Dr. Pyron. As it happens, Robert F. Griggs was a botanist who led a 1915 National Geographic Society expedition to observe the aftermath of the Katmai volcanic eruption in Alaska. He became so passionate about the beauty and biodiversity of the affected area that his advocacy helped it become a national park of the sort that Ryan Zinke wants to turn over to ExxonMobil on a silver platter.

The first paragraph of Pyron’s article sets the tone by pointing out that during an expedition in Ecuador, he discovered a Rio Pescado stubfoot toad that was considered extinct. But even if it goes extinct, it will be replaced by hundreds of other amphibians. So, why get worked up?

Pyron argues that it is extinction itself that generates new species. He does have a point. When an asteroid plunged into the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago, it killed perhaps 75% of all animals, with dinosaurs bearing the brunt of the destruction. However, in its wake, it created an environment suited to producing new species such as horses, whales, bats, and primates. Birds, fish, and perhaps lizards also found the new environment amenable to their reproduction according to Wikipedia.

The professor also shrugs his shoulders about climate change. Except for Donald Trump it would seem, elected officials hope to keep the temperature to under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Why bother, he asks since “the temperature has been at least eight degrees Celsius warmer within the past 65 million years.” And furthermore, twenty-one thousand years ago, Boston was under an ice sheet a kilometer thick. Comme ci comme ça

Do his arguments remind you of anybody? For me, they suggest a biological counterpart to Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”. Yes, there might be an economic collapse but it always clears the ground for new growth. Yeah, it was too bad that 80 million people died during WWII but without Germany making a huge investment in achieving military superiority, we might not have ended up with rockets of the sort that Werner Von Braun invented. And without them, we might not have had all those satellites providing telecommunications that make globalization possible. And, if we end up seeing nuclear-tipped ICBM’s leveling New York, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Beijing, there’s always the possibility that newer and better cities will rise out of the ashes Phoenix-like. And, god forbid, if life on earth is destroyed, we can always count on Jeff Bezos to rescue the fortunate few as he finally realizes his dream, a humongous colony in outer space.

There’s no sense in worrying. It might be best to adopt an almost Hindu-like reincarnation philosophy in the face of impending doom. Just think. In 50 million years, Europe will smash into Africa and create a new supercontinent, destroying all sorts of birds, fish, and anything that gets in the path of this inevitable catastrophic event. But, have no fear, all sorts of new species will arrive, maybe even the dodo and the mastodon will return. By that point, Jeff Bezos will have left behind a brilliant team of scientists to accomplish almost anything even if long before that happens David Duke, the victorious Republican Party candidate in 2020, decides to unleash thermonuclear weapons against New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to destroy Satan in the name of Jesus Christ, our savior.

It is when I got to this paragraph that I wondered if Pyron had written an Onion-like spoof:

Conserving biodiversity should not be an end in itself; diversity can even be hazardous to human health. Infectious diseases are most prevalent and virulent in the most diverse tropical areas. Nobody donates to campaigns to save HIV, Ebola, malaria, dengue and yellow fever, but these are key components of microbial biodiversity, as unique as pandas, elephants and orangutans, all of which are ostensibly endangered thanks to human interference.

Has this professor ever read anything about the way that HIV got started? Most scientists believe that it was the human encroachment on the jungle that led to the first transmission of the virus from chimpanzees to human beings in the 1920s. Indeed, the National Geographic, the very magazine that funded the exploration led by the man that Pyron’s endowed chair is named after, published an article in June 2003 that states:

Scientists believe the encroachment by humans on nature also increases the spread of infectious diseases. The SIVcpz strain [that led to HIV] jumping from chimpanzees to humans likely occurred when humans hunted and butchered chimps for “bush meat,” something humans have done for centuries.

Increased human populations have increased the chances of a virus successfully propagating among humans once it has made the jump. The SIVcpz strain was probably transmitted to humans in previous centuries, but never established a substantial enough transmission chain among humans to cause a large outbreak.

There are one of two possibilities that explain Pyron’s incomprehensible fatalism. He might be an ideologue so committed to libertarian economics that the long-term prospects of civilization are indifferent to him, just as they are to the Koch brothers who could care less about the future of the planet. As they used to say during the Reagan presidency, those who die with the most toys wins.

It also may be the case that the professor lacks the philosophical, ethical and historical breadth to put these questions into perspective. Unlike other scientists who make sweeping judgments on such questions like Jared Diamond or E.O. Wilson, Pyron has never written anything like this outside of his narrow scholarly interest in reptiles.

For example, he refers to the “verdant wilderness we see now in the Catskills, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains” growing back in the past century with very few extinctions or permanent losses of biodiversity. Really? Does he have any idea how the Catskills got its name? This was the name Henry Hudson and his crew coined when they saw mountain lions teeming across the mountains overlooking the river. Kaat is the Dutch word for cat and kill means river. They, like the Monsee Indians that lived in the area, are gone forever. They were hunted to extinction just as the bison were in the Great Plains.

Does this make any difference as long as new toads and snake species crop up to take their place? Clearly, the question is nonsensical and is an unwarranted concession to the professor’s tendency to take into account the sheer quantity of species rather than their quality. If Bluefin tuna disappear, it doesn’t matter that 100 new varieties of sponges and jellyfish take their place or that if eagles and condors go extinct, there will be new varieties of crows, pigeons, and starlings to take their place.

The tuna occupies a place in the marine food chain that is indispensable. Its loss means that the natural balance of marine life is threatened. Once again, it is the National Geographic that provides the context that is so lacking in Pyron’s op-ed piece:

The Atlantic bluefin plays a significant role in the ecosystem by consuming a wide variety of fish—herring, anchovies, sardines, bluefish, mackerel, and others—and keeping their populations in balance. According to the WWF, “ecological extinction of this species would thus have unpredictable cascading effects in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Gulf of Mexico ecosystems and entail serious consequences to many other species in the food chain.

It is entirely possible that Alex Pyron has not read much literature about ecology even though he is an evolutionary biologist who normally should be able to make such elementary distinctions. This is a man who started out as a child prodigy, entering college at the age of 12 and earning a Ph.D. by the time he was 22. Maybe he was too busy studying snakes in the field to read Plato, Leo Tolstoy, Immanuel Kant, William Blake or Henry David Thoreau.

His narrow focus on snakes and other amphibians would likely have also robbed him of the time needed to read people like Mike Davis, Donald Worster or Clive Ponting who are generalists in the field of ecology. Pyron wrote an article titled “Extinction, Ecological Opportunity, And The Origins Of Global Snake Diversity” for the January 2012 copy of Evolution that reflects his narrow vision. It begins by noting that “Many taxonomie groups comprise clades with vast disparities in species richness, even among closely related lineages in adjacent areas (Fischer 1960; Rosenzweig 1995). A prime example is Lepidosauria: tuataras are represented by only two extant species, while their sister group Squamata (lizards and snakes) contains nearly 9000 species (Vitt and Caldwell 2009).”

He extrapolates from his research that the rich variety of Squamata should be a mitigating factor against the threat of the extinction of wildlife at the top of the food chain, including polar bears, blue whales, Bluefin tuna, orangutan, gorillas, chimpanzees, wolves, grizzly bears, tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos, etc.

No thanks.

 

November 24, 2017

The Witchfinders

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Jonathan Cook: tireless propagandist for Assad

 Jonathan Cook wrote an article for CounterPunch on Wednesday that connected Israel’s bombing of a non-existent nuclear plant in Syria 10 years ago to the sarin gas incident in Khan Sheikhoun this year. By casting aspersions on the journalists and scholars who tried to clear Bashar al-Assad of having anything to do with Khan Sheikhoun, George Monbiot’s article exposed him in Cook’s eyes as “The left’s Witchfinder General” and just as culpable of promoting “regime change” as the lying neocons of yore.

Cook was reacting to Monbiot and “many others” that challenge the versions put forward by Seymour Hersh, Gareth Porter, and Theodor Postol. The first two blame the civilian deaths on the accidental bombing of fertilizer and/or pesticides that generated a toxic cloud with sarin gas-like symptoms, while Postol implicitly blames jihadists for mounting a false flag incident by setting off a sarin gas bomb when nobody was watching. Since Monbiot’s article credited me as a blogger who “patiently explored and demolished” Postol’s theories (his account went through several iterations), I have vested interest in this discussion as a fellow Witchfinder General  (or at least a Corporal).

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November 22, 2017

Charles Manson and the 1960s

Filed under: cults,television — louisproyect @ 8:54 pm

Just by coincidence, the 83-year old Charles Manson died in Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield just 12 days after American Horror Story aired a chillingly accurate recreation of the infamous Helter Skelter murders in 1969 that landed him and all but one of his henchmen in prison for the rest of their lives. Steve Grogan was the only member of his cult to ever be paroled. Even as the judge in his trial stated that he “was too stupid and too hopped on drugs to decide anything on his own”, he spent 14 years in prison. Another cult member, one “Squeaky” Fromme was not involved in the Helter Skelter killings but gained infamy for aiming a gun at President Gerald Ford in 1979. At her trial, where she refused to cooperate in her defense, she reacted to the life sentence by saying, “”I stood up and waved a gun for a reason. I was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water, and respect for creatures and creation.”

Clearly, these people were borderline psychotic or even fully fledged.

This, the seventh season of American Horror Story, is titled Cult and is deeply engaged with American politics today even if it avoids making social commentary. The primary purpose of the series that concluded last week is to use the right/left divide in the USA today as satirical fodder after the fashion of Mike Judge or Trey Parker but with a Grand Guignol sensibility.

The primary character is a Richard Spencer type named Kai who shows up in a small town just before the 2016 election to build support for Donald Trump. Before long he finds himself in a clash with a married lesbian couple who are divided over who to support. One is committed to Hilary Clinton and the other to Jill Stein.

Before long, Kai has built up a cult of locals, including the Jill Stein supporter who has abandoned her Green Party politics as easily as a snake sheds its skin. The cult is on a secret mission to plunge the town, the state, and eventually the entire nation into fascism through a series of false flag incidents. One he dubs “The Night of a Thousand Tates” in homage to Charles Manson. He will send out his cult members to knife a thousand pregnant women, just as Roman Polanski’s wife, the very pregnant actress Sharon Tate, was killed in 1969. Manson intended his murder to spark a race war by having his acolytes scrawling the word “pigs” on Polanski’s house, a word associated with Black militancy. In Cult, it is not made crystal clear why killing pregnant women will spark a war between the Christian right and Hilary Clinton voters but by episode 10, Kai is a raving lunatic.

To prepare his followers for “The Night of a Thousand Tates”, Kai recounts the Helter Skelter murders that are reenacted quite graphically in episode 10 with the actor playing Kai also playing Manson (in the previous episode, he became Jim Jones). The purpose of the politics in Cult is simply to provide a peg upon which gruesome scenes can unfold with deadpan humor and it succeeds nicely. If you want to get your minds off the real horrors taking place in Puerto Rico or Syria, this FX series is just the thing.

I have vivid memories of the Charles Manson incident since some on the left endorsed his attack. In 1981, Lucinda Franks wrote a 6600-word article for the NY Times that made an amalgam between SDS, the antiwar movement, and Manson:

”All white babies are pigs,” one Weatherman shouted during the council, in which some 400 people crowded into a large hall hung with signs reading ”Piece (that is, guns) now.” Bernardine Dohrn, who later took control of the organization when it went underground, made a speech accusing the left of being scared ”honkies” for not burning down Chicago when Hampton was killed, and urging her audience to take up arms and be ”a fighting force alongside the blacks.” The Weathermen were to become as savage as Charles Manson, who massacred Sharon Tate and her friends in her Beverly Hills home. Dohrn said: ”Dig it, first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!”

While everybody understood that the Weathermen had lost their minds by this point, there were others who were nearly as bad, even though they were considered to be reasonable. The New Times, a magazine that was the Salon.com of its day, had a cover photo of a handcuffed Manson with the heading, “The Media Assassination of Charlie Manson: Last Interview from Jail”.

You have to keep in mind that Manson had adopted the guise of a hippie guru after being released from prison in 1967. He headed straight for Berkeley where a fellow ex-con had helped him find an apartment. He supported himself at first by begging on the street, which was very common in those days, and then went on to leech off of various wealthy people, including Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Manson and his 12 female cult members moved into Wilson’s mansion where the two were served by them as if sultans in a harem. Manson, who had dreams of becoming a musician and songwriter, impressed Wilson so much so that he actually recorded a song Manson had written titled “Never Learn to Love” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRGI5Exr3ZQ).

By 1969, the bloom had faded from the hippie rose. First, there was Manson’s cult and then there was the free Altamont rock concert in 1970 when Hells Angels hired as security guards for a rock concert knifed a black man to death during a Rolling Stones performance. Billed as Woodstock West, it was ample proof that the “groovy” vibe of the earlier concert had died. The Angels had become respectable after Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, had invited them to one of his acid-dropping sessions.

In keeping with the nihilistic anthem “Sympathy for the Devil” that the Stones began to perform, a confrontation began that resulted in the murder of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year old African-American man who was totally stoned and bent on mounting the stage. After he was punched out by a Hells Angel, he drew a 22 caliber pistol from within his jacket and headed toward the stage again. At that point, the Angel drew a knife and stabbed him to death. For young “peace and love” hippie types, this incident symbolized the end of an era and meshed perfectly with the sense of futility over the continuing war in Vietnam. The Maysles brothers made a documentary about the concert titled “Gimme Shelter” that can be viewed here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEw_FuglGVU

I watched all this going on from a distance feeling rather superior to the hippie implosion. I was around people who had never taken drugs and who went about their mission of overthrowing the capitalist system with a single-mindedness that was the polar opposite of the hippie dream of achieving peace and love by “dropping out”.

I had no idea at the time that I too belonged to a cult but one that was far less malevolent than Manson’s or Kai’s. What they all had in common was a subordination of the individual to the Divine Master that prevented independent thinking. By the end of the seventies, I had become a disillusioned ex-cult member but not one who had given up on the stated purpose of the cult, namely to create a society based on human need rather than private profit. I had come to the conclusion after a very painful experience that socialist revolutions are carried out collectively but Marxist thought is a deeply individual endeavor. Unless you think for yourself, you cannot make a contribution to Marxism. The conditions that created the deep alienation and criminality of Helter Skelter and the Altamont concert are spawned by a system that has long outlived its usefulness. It is no accident that the fascist-like movements that are making headway around the world, including the USA, put a premium on following a leader blindly. This is essentially the message of American Horror Story: Cult that lies beneath its Grand Guignol surface.

 

November 19, 2017

Robert Mugabe’s downfall: a challenge to the “anti-imperialist” left

Filed under: Zimbabwe — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

For most on the left, Robert Mugabe was a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance and a shining example of how to promote economic development outside of the Washington Consensus. The highlights of his career are well-known to the left:

  1. He defeated the racist colonial settler state in 1979 and became Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister a  year later, serving in that capacity until a coup removed him from power this week.
  2. When faced with a challenge from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), he relied on repression but was also able to exploit his adversary’s ties to the West and neoliberal economic program.
  3. Pushed against the wall by Western sanctions and support for the MDC, Mugabe took steps to expropriate the rich, white landowners and redistribute the land to the landless. This step was in stark contrast to post-apartheid South Africa where the whites continued to own most of the land.
  4. He broke with Western financial institutions and investors, making Zimbabwe a prime example of the benefits of trade agreements and partnership with China.

Among the most enthusiastic supporters of Robert Mugabe is Garikai Chengu, a staunch anti-imperialist who describes himself as a “founder and chairman of Chengu Gold Mining Pvt. Ltd. one of Zimbabwe’s fastest growing indigenous private gold companies.” In 2014, he wrote an article for the Zimbabwe Herald titled “Mugabeism: A model for African liberation” that concluded:

Mugabeism is a new brand of African Democratic Socialism that is becoming increasingly resurgent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Candidates who espouse African Democratic Socialism won recent Presidential elections in Kenya and Zambia. Their opponents, who favored pro-Western, neo-liberal policies, dismally lost their elections.

Mugabeism is an ideology that believes in not only the transference of political power, but also an unwavering commitment to shift the means of production—land, minerals, and corporations—from the privileged white minority to the Zimbabwean majority.

As is the case with Syria, the terms democracy and socialism have a hollow ring when applied to Zimbabwe. With respect to democracy, challenging Mugabe in the elections can be rather risky as the historical record of countless beatings bears out. While the MDC has been on the ballot repeatedly, brutal attacks on campaigners and rallies have tended to lessen the party’s effectiveness, which was also impeded by its own inability to counter Mugabe’s socialist pretensions. Furthermore, when he seized the land of the rich whites and redistributed them to the landless, his leftist credentials gained a certain credibility especially when he was an economic partner of China that even a renowned Marxist like Michael Roberts considers in defiance of the laws of capitalist commodity production.

If you hadn’t been paying any attention to Zimbabwe in the past couple of years, as I admittedly wasn’t, you’d be surprised to see that his army has overthrown him. Not only that, there are reports that the architects of the coup have been given the green light by China. Given Zimbabwe’s break with Western imperialism, what could have caused his own military to rise up against him? Were they in cahoots with AFRICOM or getting funded by the Rothschild bank?

Or was it possible that the army had removed Mugabe because his regime had become intolerable, especially for those at the lower rungs of society who regarded the economic status quo as not only irredeemably capitalist but a threat to their survival?

A review of Zimbabwe’s history from the date that Garikai Chengu’s article about Mugabeism appeared to the present-day will give you some insights into why a break with Western imperialism in and of itself is no panacea.

The first dark clouds appeared on the China-Zimbabwe horizon in January 2016 when there was widespread recognition that a declining demand for African commodities impacted all countries that China traded with, including Zimbabwe. In the preceding year, China exported $102 billion to Africa but imported only $67 billion. Despite all the promises made to Africans about how China would be different than the West, this unfavorable balance of trade was consistent with colonial patterns of the past even if it was benefiting a “Communist” country. Ibbo Mandaza, a political analyst and businessman in Zimbabwe, commented: “The Chinese are not romantic anymore about their relations with Africa — far from it. For them, it’s purely economic.”

As it happens, Zimbabwe was dealing with a major drought in 2016 so maybe the masses were even less romantic about their revolutionary leader than the Chinese were about their anti-colonial dog-and-pony show. In February 2016, just two years after Chengu’s puff piece appeared, drought had left tens of thousands of dead cattle, dried-up reservoirs, and crop failure. A government official said, “Initial indications were that 1.5 million people were food-insecure with all the 60 rural districts being affected.”

Meanwhile, when this catastrophe was sweeping across the countryside like a Biblical plague, what was the intrepid anti-imperialist leader up to? He was celebrating his 92nd birthday with a 200-pound cake and accolades from a state-owned newspaper: “Mugabe’s birthday is like that of Jesus Christ.” Newspapers not controlled by the regime, however, were appalled by the party for which the cake was made since it cost $800,000. A bus driver and former organizer for Mugabe’s party, the ZANUP-PF, complained, “It is amazing that a president presiding over a state which fails to pay its workers on time, a country with a sea of poverty and going through one of the worst droughts in living memory and hunger, can see it fit to spend a million dollars celebrating his life, which has meant nothing but suffering for us.”

Oh, did I mention that Bashar al-Assad’s indifference to the suffering in the countryside during a drought just like this led to an uprising in 2011?

Somehow, I missed what was going on in Zimbabwe in the summer of 2016. The shit was beginning to hit the fan apparently. Strikes and protests broke out over the faltering economy, including in two poor townships of Harare, where roads were barricaded and people engaged in street fighting with the cops. Most civil servants had not been paid in a month but Mugabe was sure to keep the wages flowing for those critical to his survival: the cops, the soldiers, and the prison guards.

To make sure that a Zimbabwe Spring was not in the offing, Mugabe clamped down on the Internet and communications systems. WhatsApp and Twitter were cut off and the state-backed cellphone providers warned against “gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services.” The country’s anti-imperialist paragon told the masses to behave themselves: ”They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country but we tell them that it is not going to happen here,”

In addition to the drought and the decline of revenue from trade with China, Zimbabwe was in the grips of a Weimar Republic type hyperinflation. The treasury had issued a $100 trillion note, which equaled 35 American cents.

For those in the higher echelons of the Zimbabwean state, none of this impacted their lifestyle. Phelekezela Mphoko, a ZANU-PF vice president, elected to stay at a hotel that cost a million dollars a year because government housing was not to his taste.

In the very hot summer of 2016, the mainstay of Mugabe’s support that had benefited the most from his land redistribution decided that the game was up. The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association issued a statement that included this quite subversive challenge to their fearless anti-imperialist leader: “We note, with concern, shock, and dismay, the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle.”

Some of these veterans who had benefited from the land reform discovered that it was a bad idea to oppose the president for life. Agrippah Mutambara owned a 530-acre as part of this program, one certainly deserved on the basis of being a hero in the war of liberation and having served as an ambassador to three different nations over a 20 year period. But when he heeded the call of the veteran’s group and joined the opposition, he became the target of Mugabe’s goons who showed up at the farm with the intention of giving him the kind of beating MDC activists were habituated to. When Mutambara trained an automatic weapon on them, they had a change of heart and left peacefully.

Perhaps people would have put up with the lack of democracy and the corruption at the top if the commodity boom had continued, rainfall had been plentiful and inflation had been tamped down. Yet, the regime continued to act in the same fashion as the royal family in France in 1789 with Mrs. Mugabe playing the part of Marie Antoinette as the NY Times reported 4 days ago:

The press nicknamed Mrs. Mugabe “Gucci Grace” and “Dis-Grace” for her shopping trips. During a trip to Paris in 2002, she was reported to have spent $120,000. She is also said to have purchased multimillion dollar properties in South Africa and built luxury palaces after pillaging party coffers. Earlier this year, she was widely panned for having spent $1.4 million on a diamond ring.

I have failed to convince my comrades in the left supporting the “axis of resistance” that the opposition to Bashar al-Assad was fueled by resentment toward the rich and the desire of the poor to live in a more just society. Instead, they saw the rebels as proxies of Saudi Arabia bent on turning the clock back to the 10th century.

Let’s hope that they have a better handle on what is going on in Zimbabwe. And even better, they might have a close look at what has been going on there for the past 37 years and ground their politics in class rather than the failed project of geopolitical chess game analysis.

November 17, 2017

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 17, 2017

When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the Mighty Atom’s legendary strong man act at the Panoramic Health Farm, a bungalow colony he owned in Woodridge, New York—my home town that was described by the leftist PM newspaper as a utopia in the Catskills in 1947.

I watched in awe as the 62-year old, 5’4”, 145-pound bearded man with shoulder-length hair perform the stunts that had been part of his repertory since the 1920s such as bending nails with his teeth and an iron bar across his nose. In his prime, he could pull a fire engine with his hair or twist horseshoes into a pretzel. In fact, until his death at the age of 84 in 1977, he continued to perform. The new documentary “The Mighty Atom” that became available as VOD (iTunes, Amazon and Google Play) on November 14th points out that on the day he died, he walked from room to room in the hospital performing for fellow patients to lift their spirits. After his last tour through the wards, he laid down on his bed and passed on.

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November 15, 2017

Mr. Roosevelt

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

With the subject of male comedian bad behavior being discussed widely under the impact of Louis C.K.’s masturbatory aggressions, it is a relief to see what a female comedian is capable of. After walking away from C.K.’s tasteless and singularly unfunny train wreck of a movie “I Love You, Daddy” with a bad taste in my mouth, Noël Wells’s “Mr. Roosevelt” is a reminder that sexism in the film and television business is not only a crime against women but against all humanity for preventing the cream from rising to the surface. Wells is not only ten times smarter and funnier than C.K. but a welcome relief from the dyspeptic and misogynist strain that is found not only in C.K.’s work but across the board with male directors and screenwriters like Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, and James Franco.

Wells not only wrote the screenplay for “Mr. Roosevelt” but stars as Emily Martin, a young woman living in Los Angeles trying to make a career as a comic actor with mixed results. Rather than supporting herself as a waitress, she does film editing by day, a job that supposedly gives her the freedom to make it to auditions during working hours. This is essentially how Wells operated until she was discovered by SNL, where she became part of the cast in 2013 but not kept on after that. Another boneheaded move by Lorne Michaels, especially in light of Wells’s killer impersonation of Lena Dunham.

One day Emily gets a phone call from Austin, Texas, where her hopes for a career in show business began. After the call ends, she turns to her boss and says that a medical emergency requires her to fly to Austin immediately. In the next scene, we see her rush into a hospital and tells the receptionist breathlessly that she is there to see  Mr. Roosevelt. The receptionist informs her that it is too late to see him. He died earlier that day. It is only a minute later that we discover that Mr. Roosevelt was her pet cat and that he was at a veterinary hospital being treated for a kidney ailment. Since I have developed a deep affection for the Norwegian Forest Cat that is a guest in my apartment, I can totally empathize.

Mr. Roosevelt was not the only loved one she left behind in Austin. He was kept by her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune), who was trying to make it as a rock musician in a city filled with many such hopefuls. Perhaps being more realistic about his prospects, he stayed behind in order to weigh his options in a place where the arts were increasingly being replaced by high technology firms and real estate developers.

When she spots Eric in the waiting room, she runs up and throws her arms around him, partly to be consoled for the loss of her beloved Mr. Roosevelt and partly because of lingering affections. Within seconds he pushes her back for a good reason. Also in the waiting room is his new live-in girlfriend Celeste who symbolizes everything that she hates about the new Austin. Celeste works in high technology developing social media platforms for corporate customers and embraces the creepy New Age mentality found among the entrepreneurial class in Silicon Valley. Her yuppie values have even been embraced by Eric who now keeps his guitar stashed in a garage behind the house that he and Emily used to live in together. Music is part of the past. His new dream is to become a real estate agent and become part of Celeste’s world.

The clash between Celeste and Emily over Eric’s affections and over commerce versus art drives the narrative forward. Mr. Roosevelt is scheduled to be cremated in a couple of days and the couple iinvitesEmily to stay in their guest room until then. Over those two days, the confrontations between Emily and Celeste reach a comic crescendo during a brunch to memorialize Mr. Roosevelt’s passing. Drunk and sick of the new Austin, Emily grabs the urn containing Mr. Roosevelt’s ashes, runs out of the house, gets on her bicycle that had been sitting in the shed next to Eric’s guitar, and pedals away madly with the attendees in pursuit.

When Emily is not battling Celeste and arguing with Eric about his conversion to a New Age yuppie lifestyle, she is hanging with old Austin’s denizens who are depicted with great affection but with warts and all. When Emily has a one-night stand with a pothead, she takes umbrage at his comment about her being “quirky”. Why am I quirky, she asks. That is a word reserved for men. If I was a man, you wouldn’t call me quirky. You’d call me “eccentric”. He replies that maybe the right word is “bitch”. I’d give anything to see Noël Wells being interviewed about Louis C.K. and sexism in the comedy business.

“Mr. Roosevelt” will receive my nomination for best first film by a director in the NYFCO awards meeting in early December. It will also likely be nominated for best female actress and screenplay. Right now, it has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and unlike most hyped films really deserves it.

In spirit, the film is closely related to Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Look Twice”, a 2016 film about the hardscrabble life of people in the lower tiers of the comedy business. Just like Birbiglia, this is a world that Wells knows firsthand. And just like Birbiglia, she has made it to the upper echelons. And, finally, like Birbiglia, she has not lost her humanity—unlike Louis C.K.

“Mr. Roosevelt” opens at the Arena Cinelounge in L.A. on November 17th and at the Landmark Sunshine theater in NYC on the 22nd. It is not to be missed.

 

November 14, 2017

Reflections on James O’Connor (1930-2017)

Filed under: Ecology,obituary — louisproyect @ 11:05 pm

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 6.28.06 PM

James O’Connor in 1978 (photo courtesy of the UC-Santa Cruz Digital Collections)

Yesterday I learned on Facebook that James O’Connor had died. Born in 1930, he was one of the towering figures of academic Marxism who made an indelible impact on Marxist theory in a number of spheres. His 1964 PhD dissertation titled “The Political Economy of Pre-Revolutionary Cuba” was expanded into the 1970 “The Origins of Socialism in Cuba” that is the most rigorous application of historical materialism to Cuban revolution I have ever read. In 1973, his “Fiscal Crisis of the State” was a major contribution to Marxist theory about the contradictory nature of the state, which has to maintain the appearance of being independent of the ruling class while serving its needs.

But his most important contribution was founding Capitalism, Nature and Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology (CNS) in 1988, a journal he edited until 2003. After 2003, he became much less of a presence in academic Marxism, a function of age and declining health.

I didn’t know O’Connor well enough to write an obituary but hope that someone much closer to him will supply one before long since he was such a commanding presence. Instead, I want to focus on my own connections to him both personally and as someone with a peripheral involvement in the debates that have raged in the field of ecosocialism in the past 20 years or so.

A few years before coming to work at Columbia University in 1991, I had attended a workshop at the Brecht Forum in New York led by Joel Kovel on ecology that struck me like a bolt of lightning, especially his comparison of capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. So when I posted to Internet mailing lists, a medium that seems as dated nowadays as Nehru jackets, a lot of my messages had to do with ecology as well as my customary film reviews.

It turned out that O’Connor was subscribed to Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk in 1998, as was I. He appreciated my messages on ecology as well as those touching on popular culture, especially when I referred to the crime novels of Elmore Leonard who was also one of his favorites. This led to a fairly regular exchange of emails with O’Connor who struck me as a decent, down-to-earth academic despite his prestige.

He was like a number of Marxist professors I became friendly with 20 years ago who were impressed with my ability to hold forth on a wide variety of topics but without the scholarly depth that they expected from their graduate students. When one of them invited me to submit an expanded version of something I had written for a mailing list, it could lead to misunderstandings. I simply did not have the patience or the motivation to go through a peer review process. Unlike my wife who is a tenure-track professor, there was no material incentive to jump through hoops in order to get an article published in a Taylor and Francis journal.

In 1998, I posted criticisms of David Harvey’s newly published “Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference” that O’Connor apparently appreciated since he followed up with an invitation to expand it into a full-length article for CNS. O’Connor was hostile to the basic thrust of Harvey’s book, as was I. Writing in the name of a class-based environmentalism that took aim—rightfully—at the middle-class inside-the-beltway orientation of groups like the Sierra Club, Harvey also came up with some questionable hypotheses. Worst of them was the idea that the Nazis were Green and that American Indians were no more ecological than the colonists who stole their land.

Spending far more time than I usually do on a blog post (back then, of course, blogging had not been invented), I explored the philosophical roots of Harvey’s ecological theories in the philosophy of Leibniz. Since I had spent 2 years studying philosophy at the New School and had read Leibniz, my intention was to remove the platform that Harvey’s book sat upon and bring it tumbling to earth. My attack on Harvey’s use of Leibniz was couched in a defense of materialism as I made abundantly clear in the opening paragraph of my submission:

David Harvey’s “Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference” surely has the distinction of being the only Marxist study of ecology to draw inspiration from Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). While openly admitting that Leibniz is a “deeply conservative theoretician in political matters as well as a foundational figure in the rise of that German idealist tradition against which Marx rebelled,” Harvey assures us that Leibniz’s relational approach to time and space has powerful implications for ecology. This article explores the theoretical issues raised by Harvey’s appropriation of Leibnizian dialectics, while attempting to explain why Marx’s rebellion against this idealist tradition was a precondition for understanding the ecological crisis of today.

About a month later, O’Connor wrote a rejection letter telling me that the article would not be of interest to his journal’s readers.

That led me to blast him publicly and to promise myself that I would never submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal again. Ironically, there was only one such submission that defied my self-imposed embargo and that was also to CNS in 2013 on the political economy of Comanche violence. The editor Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro had promised me in advance that the article would be published and developed a fruitful working relationship with me in the three months it took me to finalize the article. I only wish that there were more people out there in academia like him, at least for some of the grad students and junior professors trying to get past the gates of the Kafkaesque castle of academic journals.

In nursing the wounds created by O’Connor’s rejection letter, I turned to John Bellamy Foster who I had gotten to know through my connections to Monthly Review and especially my online articles in praise of Foster’s ecosocialism. He explained to me that my hard-core materialism probably didn’t go over too well with CNS that was firmly in the Frankfurt School tradition. To a large degree, there was an implicit belief that Marx was a “productivist” who could be blamed in part for the disasters that befell the USSR, including Chernobyl.

Clearly, Foster was on to something because he was shocked to discover O’Connor publishing an entire issue devoted to bashing his “Marx’s Ecology” in 2001. Interestingly enough, the aforementioned Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro faults Foster on grounds that likely prejudiced O’Connor against my submission on David Harvey: “On a non-directional, non-linear evolutionary process of scientific practices he uncritically superimposes the inexorable advance of science, whose pinnacle is the achievement of dialectical materialism embodied in Marx. This approach to the history of science approximates all too painfully the conventional narratives featuring a line of great (white male) thinkers contributing to scientific progress.”

Of course, using the term “dialectical materialism” hardly does Foster justice since that is not in his vocabulary let alone his methodology and even prejudices the reader since it is so closely associated with Stalinism.

I summed up the feud between O’Connor and Foster in an article that took the attack to all the contributors to the symposium on “Marx’s Ecology”, especially Joel Kovel whose emphasis on the need for a “spiritual” approach betrayed his Frankfurt School sympathies. From my article:

The final article in the symposium is by Joel Kovel and is titled “A Materialism Worthy of Nature.” Basically it is a defense of spirituality in the following vein:

“Foster’s errors are grounded in a misconception about the meaning of ‘spirit.’ We can infer (because, as with the Greens, there is no actual critique of the spiritual) that for him, to be ‘spiritual’ is synonymous with what is anti-scientific, irrational and superstitious, and is merely a kind of rough congener for the pole of ‘idealism’ in the classic materialism-idealism debate. He fails here to comprehend the distinction between spirit and religion, that spirit is an elementary property of being human, and that religions are the binding of spirit for the purposes of social cohesion. Therefore he also fails to appreciate that there is much more to spirituality than its religious elaboration, and much more to religions than their spiritual impulse.”

To the contrary, Foster’s book is not an attack on spirituality but on developing an analysis of the ecological crisis on other than a scientific and materialist basis. This is in keeping with the record of Marx and Engels, who both paid close attention to scientific matters throughout their life. While the rigorous attempt to develop a dialectics of nature based on the latest scientific findings was identified most often with Engels, Marx supported and consulted on each of these initiatives. Marx considered the soil chemist Van Leibeg to be more important to understanding European society than a dozen economists–in his own words. Marx’s Scientific Notebooks have been published recently and lend support to the notion that Marx was a consummate believer in rigorous scientific methods, both in understanding the natural and social world.

As it happens, I broke all ties to Foster in 2006 or so after he hired Yoshie Furuhashi to run MRZine. I was not the only one, of course, Editorial board member Barbara Epstein, who was at U. Cal, Santa Cruz at the same time as O’Connor, quit the board because of Furuhashi’s pro-Ahmadinejad’s propaganda. Notwithstanding my disgust with Foster’s obvious Assadist sympathies, I have never found fault with the analysis found in “Marx’s Ecology”. Since Furuhashi has gone, the new MR website is far less associated with the “axis of resistance” politics of the left even though it obviously considers the Syrian revolt to be a Western conspiracy. Maybe in another 5 years or so, the comrades will have figured out that Assad was about as “anti-imperialist” as General al-Sisi.

For that matter, long after James O’Connor faded from the scene, his analysis of the environmental crisis has a remarkable staying power. CNS might have been overly influenced by the Frankfurt School with its submerged Heideggerian motifs, but O’Connor’s methodology was as true to the Marxist method as Foster’s. It is probably beyond the capability of any single Marxist thinker today to have the final say on ecosocialism since the scope of the project is not just global but galactic.

However, given the increasing devastation wrought by climate change, O’Connor’s basic approach is perhaps more timely than ever as I see in my references to his “second contradiction” of capitalism theory over the years. O’Connor defined the “second contradiction” as follows:

Examples of capitalist accumulation impairing or destroying capital’s own conditions, hence threatening its own profits and capacity to produce and accumulate more capital, are many and varied. The warming of the atmosphere will inevitably destroy people, places, and profits, not to speak of other species life. Acid rain destroys forests and lakes and buildings and profits alike. Salinization of water tables, toxic wastes, and soil erosion impair nature and profitability. The pesticide treadmill destroys profits as well as nature. Urban capital running on an ((urban renewal treadmill” impairs its own conditions, hence profits, for example, in the form of congestion costs and high rents.’ The decrepit state of the physical infrastructure in the United States may also be mentioned in this connection.

The theory has become ever more relevant as the capitalist mode of production in its mad rush for profits undermines the environmental basis for its long-term sustainability. Houston is a prime example of the second contradition with its real estate developments destroying the prairies that might have prevented the city from being swamped by Hurricane Harvey. Here are two other examples of the “second contradiction” at work:

https://louisproyect.org/2012/10/31/hurricane-sandy-and-the-second-contradiction-of-capitalism/

https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/16/flint-michigan-and-the-second-contradiction-of-capitalism/

James O’Connor, ¡Presente!

 

November 12, 2017

I Love You, Daddy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:18 pm

As a credentialed film critic, I had the dubious distinction of being among the privileged few able to see Louis C.K.’s “I Love You, Daddy” that was supposed to premiere this month until the masturbation story broke. After saying something about the film, I’ll offer some thoughts on Louis’s downfall and those of other A-List celebrities.

While the film has the look and feel of Woody Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan”, being shot in black-and-white and never straying far from the one-percent lifestyle of its characters (the Hamptons, Upper East Side, etc.), it is much more of an extension of C.K.’s FX cable TV series “Louie” in terms of its dramatic focus. He plays the same basic character—a hapless single dad trying to cope with his daughters’ wayward behavior. The only difference is that the daughter in the film is a 17-year old that is on the verge of becoming the girlfriend of a 68-year old director that has made a habit of dating teens. If you’ve seen “Manhattan”, you’ll remember that Woody Allen’s character was dating a 17-year old (Mariel Hemingway).

Despite the very contemporary feel of the FX show that has been canceled just like the film, it is in many ways a throwback to the situation comedies of the early 60s, which frequently depicted a father trying to figure out how to solve a problem involving a teen daughter or son. “Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver” and “My Three Sons” were typical. The big difference between then and now is that “Louie” had no pat solutions to a family crisis, like when his 11-year old daughter Lily is caught smoking pot. Unlike Robert Young in “Father Knows Best”, Louie smoked pot when he was her age as well so lecturing her from on high was out of the question.

C.K.’s character is Glen Topher, a highly successful TV comedy writer and producer but with the same exact foibles as his much more economically insecure stand-up comedian avatar in the FX series. The Woody Allen character is named Leslie Goodwin and played faultlessly by John Malkovich in his characteristic reptilian manner. He is not a neurotic Jew but a Christian sybarite after the fashion of Vicomte de Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons”.

When Topher and his daughter China are invited to a party in the Hamptons, Goodwin slithers up not long after spotting her. Within days, he has invited her to come to Paris with him as part of a group of young admirers. It seems that everybody is in awe of Leslie Goodwin, including Glen Topher whose first reaction was to scrape and bow before the legend. After all, he was a mere TV comedy writer while Goodwin likely amounted to another Ingmar Bergman in this fictional world as is the case with Woody Allen in the real world.

From this scene onward, the film consists of father and daughter confronting each other over her stubborn refusal to stop seeing Goodwin or Topher and Goodwin having words over the same issue. When Topher reminds Goodwin that he would be having sex with a minor, he replies “a minor what”. Since none of you will likely be able ever to see the film, it is no spoiler to point out that China is hardly damaged by the encounter, no more so than the Mariel Hemingway character in “Manhattan”.

As might be expected, some of the critics have savaged the film as Louis C.K.’s veiled attempt to defend his perversions. Richard Brody of the New Yorker Magazine wrote:

The result is, in effect, an act of cinematic gaslighting, an attempt to spin the tenets of modern liberal feminism into shiny objects of hypnotic paralysis. The movie declares that depredation is liberation, morality is tyranny, judgment is narrow-mindedness, shamelessness is creativity, lechery is admiration, and public complaint is private vanity.

I strongly suspect that if Louis C.K. had not been outed as a sick exhibitionist using his clout in the industry to force himself on women, these words would have never been written. Indeed, a New Yorker profile on Louis C.K. written in 2013 compared him to the great Russian novelist Gogol:

If C.K. is a feminist, or has a contribution to make to gender theory, it may be in his studies of the body. More likely, this relentless exploration of physicality is his rendition of Gogol. In a recent “questionnaire” for Vanity Fair, he named Gogol as a favorite author. This choice is particularly suggestive when you consider that, of the literary moralists he tends to favor, Gogol is the only one who’s also a comedian (his other favorites: Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Richard Wright).

I have to admit that if I had heard nothing about the masturbation scandal, the film would have evoked nothing but a big ho-hum. The truth is that despite being billed as a comedy, there is not a single minute that is funny. Like the FX show, it is bogged down in lead-footed dialogs between the major characters and is reminiscent of the “problem dramas” you see on the Lifetime cable network. Or, for that matter, despite being a warped homage to “Manhattan”, it is much more like Woody Allen’s later movies that are ponderous morality tales such as “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. Louis C.K.’s greatest crime after forcing women to watch him whack off is losing his sense of humor.

On almost a daily basis lately, there are reports about some Hollywood celebrity or another being called out for sexual offenses. It reminds me quite a bit of the Catholic Church scandals of the 1990s. If the priests took advantage of children as authority figures, in the TV and film industry it was the ability of men like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Brett Ratner to affect the careers positively or negatively of female actresses that kept the lid on the abuses for so many years.

In a way, it is the mirror image of the scandals at Fox News that involved rightwing gentiles. This time it is liberal Jews that are getting nailed. What do they have in common? Power.

The “casting couch” has been around forever. Ever since the days of silent films, men like Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner and Howard Hughes slept with starlets in exchange for helping them get cast in a movie. Although I am no expert on this aspect of Hollywood, I can’t imagine such figures masturbating into a potted plant like Harvey Weinstein did while blocking the door. It makes you wonder if sex was the purpose of such behavior. It is possible that the sole purpose was to punish women for ever having rejected Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. Considering the way Weinstein looked and C.K.’s needy persona, they must have had their fair share of women telling them no—not ever.

The best analysis I have read of this aberrant behavior is an interview with sex therapist Alexandra Katehakis titled “Why Men Force Women to Watch Them Masturbate”:

What are the psychological motivations behind it?

I don’t know what it’s like to hold a penis and do that. But from what I know about men, it does make them feel powerful. He’s got his prey in the corner, which provides a kind of a gratification. There’s also something inherently really primitive and childish about forcing a woman to watch you masturbate. It’s almost like “Look at me.” And there’s the possibility that he feels wanted, as disordered as that might sound. He might feel like she’s here and she’s seeing me and she wants me. But the fact that she’s also scared and humiliated makes him feel powerful and aroused. There is a sense of power, plus a hostile revenge. That combination is what creates the high for this particular act.

Another element to consider is the nature of the entertainment industry itself, which has managed to sidestep the affirmative action that has become universal in corporate American and enforced by Human Resources departments anxious to avoid bad publicity and hefty legal fees. A place like Goldman-Sachs, where I used to work, had a glass ceiling for women but you’d never see Robert Rubin jerking off into a potted plant.

Despite its liberal pretensions, Hollywood is a place with deeply reactionary social relations. Just keep in mind that the most respected liberal director in the industry is one of the most backward as was pointed out in a comment on my blog:

[Oliver] Stone’s films are noteworthy for the machismo that runs through them, all the way back to “Platoon” and “The Doors”. “The Doors” provides some great insight here, given that the subject, Jim Morrison, is not political, revealing the hypnotic machismo that Stone centers at the heart of American culture. The movie comes across as a love letter from Stone to Morrison. Stone’s personalized political vision is one where mass political organization and radical feminism have no place because the ultimate objective is the empowerment of a hypermasculine leader capable of positively transforming society from above.

So, it’s predictable that Stone would be seduced by Putin. He’d probably make a movie about Putin if he could find the financing for it. The flip side of Stone’s political homoeroticism is the hostile gay stereotypes that he presents in “JFK”. He would also present women in the same way if he found a place for them in his movies.

Oh, did I mentioned that Stone has been caught up in the web as the NY Daily News reported just a month ago?

While Oliver Stone defended Harvey Weinstein amid more than a dozen allegations of sexual harassment and assault, a former Playboy Playmate accused the “Platoon” director of sexual assault.

Carrie Stevens, who was best known as Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in June 1997 but also had several small movie and TV roles, claimed Thursday that Stone had grabbed her breast at a party.

The 48-year-old model told the Daily News that she was at a party at producer Ted Field’s home in honor of Stone more than 20 years ago when Stone walked up to her standing by the front door.

“He was really cocky, had this big grin on his face like he was going to get away with something,” Stevens, who was 22 at the time, told The News.

At that point, Stone “reached out and…honked it like a horn,” she said, describing him as “an immature guy in elementary school who snaps your bra.”

 

November 10, 2017

Intent to Destroy

Filed under: Armenians,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 10, 2017

Joe Berlinger’s reputation rests on a number of documentaries about the injustices of the judicial system including a trilogy about the trial and imprisonment of three teens in West Memphis, Arkansas falsely accused of taking part in a Satanic ritual murder of three 8-year old boys. Next came “Crude”, a film about the struggle of indigenous peoples in Ecuador to make Chevron pay for the massive despoliation of their land and water. It should not come as a big surprise that an American judge declared Chevron innocent of all charges.

His most recent film opens on November 10th at the Village East in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. Titled “Intent to Destroy”, it is an examination of the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1916 and that left just under 300,000 survivors out of a population of 1,700,000 in the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire. As opposed to the Nuremberg trials that punished the Nazis and the allied powers insistence that reparations be paid to Israel, the Armenians were left with nothing. This is a sorry confirmation of the historical law that victorious nations never have to pay for their crimes. Despite being on the losing side in WWI, the Turks found themselves in the envious position of being a geopolitical asset in the hands of the West for quarantining the USSR and as a launching pad for Middle East incursions. Even Israel found Turkey to be a convenient ally. When a bill was introduced in Congress some years ago condemning Turkey for genocide, Abraham Foxman opined, “I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue.”

Continue reading

November 8, 2017

Requiem for a running back

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,sports — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

In choosing the title “Requiem for a Running Back” for her profoundly moving documentary about football and CTE, director Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of its subject Lew Carpenter, might have had the 1956 teleplay by Rod Serling in mind. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starred Jack Palance as the boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, who is at the end of his career and already showing signs of dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome”. In telling the story of her father, who was a halfback with the Green Bay Packers and other teams from 1953 to 1963, she conveys the same kind of dramatic intensity Serling brought to his teleplay. As is so often the case, the truth of a documentary reaches heights that no fiction can reach. The film, which opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, now has the inside track for my pick as best documentary of 2017.

Jack Palance played Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, someone for whom boxing was all he ever knew and terrified of trying something new—so much so that he signed up for a fight even though doctors warned that it might kill him. After Lew Carpenter’s football career came to an end, he started a new career as a coach under Vince Lombardi who he idolized. As he approached middle age, Carpenter began to exhibit the traits that all CTE sufferers display: loss of memory, depression, fits of anger, and intellectual deficits. But when he was coaching, they were kept under control. It was only when he could no longer coach that they escalated radically to the point of breaking up his marriage and creating a deep estrangement with his daughters, one of whom was Rebecca Carpenter destined to graduate from Harvard University and begin a career in television, film, and education. With a mission to discover who her father was through interviews with former players who knew him probably better than she did—his surrogate sons—and her obvious grasp of the art of the documentary, she has made a film for the ages.

Lew Carpenter was born in 1932 to dirt poor farmers from Hayti, Missouri but grew up in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. He understood that unless he made a career in football, he’d end up chopping cotton like his parents who lived in a shack. After starring on the University of Arkansas team, he began his career with the Detroit Lions and then moved on to the Green Bay Packers. Despite the director’s obvious aim in putting football out of business, she has made a point of communicating what makes the game so fulfilling for those who play it, including Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Lofton who was coached by Lew Carpenter. Lofton makes clear that even though both Lombardi and Carpenter could be as mean and even as degrading as a drill instructor, he and his teammates looked at them worshipfully because they helped them excel. He describes professional football as a place where ethnicity and class make little difference because the sport is only interested in what you can bring to the game. In fact, the same thing can be said about the military.

Carpenter also interviews a number of medical researchers who testify as to the indifference of the owners about the health of the men who toil for them. When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair described the protests of men like Colin Kaepernick as “inmates running the prison”, he blurted out what has been true for a very long time. In one eye-opening interview with attorney Ed Garvey, who represented the players in a number of confrontations much sharper than that going no now, we learn that they insisted on using AstroTurf even though it risked injury to the brain. At one point, an owner growing tired of Garvey’s advocacy warned him that for only a $100 he can find someone to stuff his corpse into a trunk.

In keeping with the most recent research on CTE, Carpenter reveals that some experts do not regard concussion as its cause. It happens that although Lew Carpenter endured the usual number of collisions on the field over a 10-year career, he had never suffered from repeated concussions. It is entirely possible that he was a victim of “brain slosh”, a term used by some medical researchers to describe the effect of having a brain floating normally in cerebrospinal fluid and not connected to the skull being hurled against it when a player is tackled. No helmet can prevent this. Furthermore, it is also possible that it is only exposure to “minor” hits during a career in football can be the culprit. That is why some analysts are predicting the demise of the game.

In one of the more jaw-dropping interviews in Carpenter’s film, we hear Mike Ditka state that if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football—the very same Mike Ditka who was once described by Mike Duerson as a coach who never “gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching.” Although it is understandable why Carpenter would find Ditka’s renunciation of football worth filming, it must be said that the grizzled icon of brutality on the football field has not seen fit to defend Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Dave Zirin pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Ditka is the guy who berated his own Bears players for not crossing a picket line when the NFLPA was on strike in 1987. He’s the guy today who—after a lifetime of supporting right-wing candidates—shills for another dubious product: Donald Trump.

And now, true to form, he’s coming out against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. On Friday, he said on the Shan & RJ radio show, “I think it’s a problem. Anybody who disrespects this country and the flag. If they don’t like the country they don’t like our flag, get the hell out. My choice is, I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka said. “I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now, if they don’t want to look for them then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work. If you don’t work, that’s a different problem.”

Eventually, professional football players will connect the dots between the racism of a Robert McNair and the continuing efforts of the owners to shortchange the former players who are in desperate need of support as they wrestle with the onset of early dementia and the other demons CTE submits them to.

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