Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 8, 2016

At the Fork

Filed under: animal rights,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in NYC and the Laemmle in Los Angeles is a documentary titled “At the Fork” that makes the case for alternatives to profit-driven, industrialized and inhumane food production. As it happens, one of the interviewees is Mark Bittman who has written books and articles promoting the humane treatment of farm animals, many of which have appeared in the NY Times over the years. It is therefore something of an irony that no review of “At the Fork” appeared there in keeping with a recent decision to end the paper’s obligation as “newspaper of record” to cover all film premieres in NY. You will, however, find a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”, a film that Manohla Dargis describes as follows:

Two idiots need dates; they get them.

That’s about all you need to know about the aggressively stupid “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” a would-be comedy about a pair of imbeciles who are best understood as representations of the enduring, marrow-deep contempt that some moviemakers have always had for their audiences.

So a thoughtful documentary about food production gets overlooked while one exhibiting “marrow-deep contempt” for audiences makes the cut. I would argue that the failure to review “At the Fork”, the 95 percent of farming based on the industrial model, and the inclusion of a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” are all joined at the hip and apt symbols of the Decline and Fall of American Civilization—such as it was.

“At the Fork” begins with a barbecue at the home of director John Papola’s father with heaps of spare ribs cooking on the grill. He explains that meat is king at his Italian family’s household even though for his vegetarian wife Lisa it is anathema. This leads the couple to conduct an odyssey across the USA in search of farmers who try as much as possible to create a setting for pigs, chickens and cows that are as close to their natural habitat as possible even though their ultimate fate is not death by old age but a slaughterhouse.

This ethical contradiction is addressed most cogently by Temple Grandin, one of America’s leading authorities of humane treatment of farm animals who has garnered attention for her achieving this status despite suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Grandin advocated and designed a slaughterhouse that could be housed on a ranch, thus saving animals from the deeply traumatic long-distance travel on trailer trucks. Key to their effectiveness is a lengthy, circular ramp that has been proven to be less stressful for cattle that are not used to confinement.

The farmers and ranchers who operate such facilities are a remarkable breed with a keen sense of the ethical and economic factors that naturally collide with each other. In the case of egg farms, you get to the heart of the choices that must be made. In the typical egg farm based exclusively on profit, the chickens are confined in cages and fed through automated conveyor belts. It is the Fordist model applied to living creatures. But unlike a fender or a steering wheel, a chicken is a sentient being that suffers every single minute it is in such hellholes. By contrast, free range chickens that lay eggs in a setting close to that of their ancestors from millennia ago enjoy their lives while being a source of nutritious food. (Recently Bittman has made a strong case for eggs being a protein-rich foodstuff with very little risk of bad cholesterol.) A carton of eggs based on the industrial model cost about $2.50 while the free range type cost from 8 to 9 dollars.  In a different economic system, it is likely that the humane choice might come down to $5 but it would be worth the extra money just to have good karma.

If you have doubts that it matters much that a “dumb” chicken suffers one way or another, you might be better off going to see “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” anyhow. But if you are sitting on the fence, there is plenty to put you in the humane treatment camp especially the terrible fate that awaits pigs on the assembly line of Smithfield and other mega-corporations. The film takes you inside an immense shed where female pigs are confined in gestation cages. The Humane Society, whose executive director is interviewed extensively in the documentary, condemns their cruelty on their website:

Pigs are among the smartest animals on Earth. Studies show that they are more intelligent than dogs and even some primates: They can play simple video games, teach each other and even learn names. They also form elaborate, cooperative social groups and feel fear, pain and stress.

Yet on U.S. factory farms, where sows are kept in row after row after row of gestation crates throughout their pregnancies, they’re also among the most abused. The 2-foot-wide cages are so narrow, the animals cannot even turn around. They chew on the bars, wave their heads incessantly back and forth, or lie on the pavement in an apparent state of dejection. Nearly immobilized, the pigs spend months staring ahead, waiting to be fed, likely going out of their minds.

My only criticism of the film is its connection to Whole Foods that is described as a partner on its website. While the stores are certainly a superior source of food that is produced in humane conditions, its CEO John Mackey, who is an interviewee in the film, has little regard for humane conditions when it comes to human beings. In a Salon.com interview, he enunciated his libertarian beliefs:

When I was in my very early 20’s I believed that democratic socialism was a more “just” economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift…

I didn’t think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left.

While Mackey likely endorses the idea that pigs should not be confined in gestation cages, he certainly puts their welfare above that of others in similar confinement:

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, whose net worth exceeds $100 million, is a fervent proselytizer on behalf of “conscious capitalism.” A self-described libertarian, Mackey believes the solution to all of the world’s problems is letting corporations run amok, without regulation. He believes this so fervently, in fact, he wrote an entire book extolling the magnanimous virtue of the free market.

At the same time, while preaching the supposedly beneficent gospel of the “conscious capitalism,” Mackey’s company Whole Foods, which has a $13 billion and growing annual revenue, sells overpriced fish, milk, and gourmet cheeses cultivated by inmates in US prisons.

The renowned “green capitalist” organic supermarket chain pays what are effectively indentured servants in the Colorado prison system a mere $1.50 per hour to farm organic tilapia.

Colorado prisons already grow 1.2 million pounds of tilapia a year, and government officials and their corporate companions are chomping at the bit to expand production.

That’s not all. Whole Foods also buys artisinal cheeses and milk cultivated by prisoners. The prison corporation Colorado Correctional Industries has created what Fortune describes as “a burgeoning $65 million business that employs 2,000 convicts at 17 facilities.”

While I recommend “At the Fork” wholeheartedly, I hope that the director might rethink his ties to John Mackey—at least if he cares as much about human beings as he does about farm animals.

 

July 7, 2016

The political economy of American Indian gaming casinos

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:29 pm

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 8.27.14 AM

Episode 42 of “The Sopranos” opens with gangster boss Tony Soprano and his henchmen complaining about a protest threatened by American Indians at the upcoming Columbus Day parade in Newark. When Christopher (Michael Imperioli, who wrote the script) reminds them that native peoples were massacred, Silvio (Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s one-time guitarist) replies “It’s not like we didn’t give them a bunch of shit to make up for that like land, reservations and casinos.”

Tony decides to consult with Chief Doug Smith, who operates a casino in rural Connecticut owned by the “Mohonk” tribe (a fictionalized version of the Foxwoods resort owned by the Mashantucket Pequots). If the chief could make some phone calls to have the protest called off, Tony would use his mob ties to benefit the casino. Over dinner at the casino, when Tony tells the chief that he doesn’t look like or act an Indian, he replies with a smirk on his face that despite his 1/16th blood quotient he had an “awakening” that led him to claim his indigenous roots and start the casino. You are left with the impression that there’s not much difference between a Mafia don and a phony Indian. It’s all about the money.

In 1995, seven years before the “Sopranos” episode, Sixty Minutes aired an “exposé” of Foxwood that made the same point, namely that Indian casinos were a scam. The target of their investigation was Skip Hayward, the Pequot chairman who had been working as a pipefitter until he got the idea that running bingo games could improve his people’s economic situation. The bingo games proved very successful and led to the formation of Foxwoods with Malaysian seed money. The right of people with only a 1/16th blood quotient to benefit from casino profits outrages Sixty Minutes. Since a smallpox epidemic wiped out 90 percent of the tribe in 1633, it is remarkable that any have survived even on a 1/16th basis, especially when the colonists would wipe out even more Pequots a mere 4 years later with gun and sword.

The name Pequot might ring a bell since that is identical to the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s boat. Did Melville intend to evoke the tribe that was a victim of genocide? I would like to think so since he was a powerful advocate of indigenous rights in the South Pacific.

The question of Indian gaming casinos is close to me, having grown up in a tiny village in Sullivan County just 90 miles north of New York City. After many years of legislative wrangling, the county has received the green light from Governor Cuomo to open up a casino that will benefit an area hard-hit by the collapse of the tourist industry. For local residents, casinos represent a life preserver thrown to a drowning man just as does fracking, another proposed solution to the county’s economic misery. When I check my local newspapers each morning, there’s either an article on casinos or fracking. After following the Indian gaming casino discussion in Sullivan County newspapers for over 25 years, I am convinced that local opposition to the former probably has more to do with the message of the Sopranos episode than anything else. If there’s anything that white racists hate more than a poor Indian, it is evidently a rich Indian.

Both the Pequots and another tribe, the Stockbridge-Munsees, put in bids for a casino in Sullivan County but withdrew after learning that Orange County, a good 30 miles closer to New York City, got the green light as well. It is a universal rule that casinos succeed when they are in proximity to large cities. If a casino is closer to New York, it will get the lion’s share of the profits. This is one of the reasons that so few tribes start casinos. For example, there would be little reason for the Lakota, the Blackfoot or any other remnant of the once-proud plains Indians to open one up since they are so many miles from major cities.

Like the Pequots, the Munsees are a tiny shard of a once populous tribe (despite the controversy around this term, it is simply a description of a pre-state social formation and not intended as a sign of backwardness. In fact, there is more “tribalism” among advanced capitalist societies, when defined as irrational belief in one’s racial superiority.)

Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.

Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states: “The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.”

You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been transported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.

In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of “Gotham”, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting Sixty Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.

New York State was anxious to cut a deal with the Munsees in 2004 that would grant them the right to build a casino in Sullivan County. In exchange, they agreed to forego their claims to 300,000 acres in Oneida and Madison Counties in central New York. As anybody with a familiarity with Lenape history would attest, the whites robbed them of their land in the 19th century. As might be expected, a judge ruled against their claim, giving them a sop in the form of the right to open a casino in Sullivan County.

As opposed to the version presented by Silvio and Sixty Minutes, native peoples were never given the right to open casinos on a silver platter. They only came into existence through struggle. Furthermore, Indians have conducted one battle after another to defend their rights to keep them going.

As might be expected, someone like Donald Trump had a vested interest in keeping them out of New York State since they would be competition to his Atlantic City properties. In 1993 he told a Congressional Committee “it’s obvious that organized crime is rampant on the Indian reservations. This thing is going to blow sky high. It will be the biggest scandal since Al Capone, and it will destroy the gaming industry.” In an April 4, 2011 Huffington Post report on Trump’s testimony before Congress, Marcus Baram noted:

Trump neglected to mention that his initial partners on his first deal in Atlantic City reputedly had their own organized crime connections: Kenneth Shapiro was identified by state and federal prosecutors as the investment banker for late Philadelphia mob boss Nicky Scarfo according to reports issued by New Jersey state commissions examining the influence of organized crime, and Danny Sullivan, a former Teamsters Union official, is described in an FBI file as having mob acquaintances. Both controlled a company that leased parcels of land to Trump for the 39-story hotel-casino.

The best account of the origins of Indian gaming casinos can be found in Jessica R. Cattelino’s “Tribal Gaming and Indigenous Sovereignty, with Notes from Seminole Country” that appeared in the Fall-Winter 2005 American Studies journal. Although she is ethnically related to Tony Soprano and his goons, her real loyalties are with the Indians who have used their economic power to reduce poverty and increase their political clout.

In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allowed casinos not only to be built on reservations but also to be exempt from federal taxes and regulations. For many people, including the racist enemies of Indian sovereignty, this piece of legislation was an act of charity intended to make up for past sins as Silvio put it in the Sopranos episode. In reality, it was recognition of facts on the ground that had been established by various Indian tribes, including the Seminole.

In the 19th century the Seminole were driven from Florida into Oklahoma just like many of their Creek and Cherokee brethren were driven from states to their north. The Seminoles fought against the American army in three separate wars in the 19th century and put up a stiff resistance. The word Seminole is likely a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrón, which means “runaway” or “wild one”, an apt description for tribes that happily accepted runaway slaves into their arms. Unlike other Indians, they never signed a peace treaty with the United States.

In 1979 the Seminole opened the first gaming casino without anybody’s permission—just as you would expect from such a militant group. It was dedicated to bingo, the first type of gambling ever hosted by most tribes and one that paved the way for the slot machines and roulette tables at Foxwood.

The Seminole saw this initially as an experiment that would pay off economically. In the past they had tried light manufacturing, cattle ranching, land leasing, and tourism but these ventures either failed or produced very modest profits.

But their casino, named Hollywood Bingo (after the Florida city, not tinseltown), turned a profit almost immediately. By 2001 five Seminole casinos were generating $300 million a year. The economic impact of this revenue has been remarkable. The proceeds fund health clinic, law enforcement (a serious concern on reservations where poverty has bred vicious crimes), the K-12 Ahfachkee School, and housing. It has also funded cultural enterprises such as the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, craftwork, language classes, festivals and other programs.

And like any other capitalist, the tribe has diversified economically. Profits from he casinos have been plowed into sugarcane and citrus fruit plantations, cattle ranching, ecotourism at the Billie Swamp Safari, and even airplane manufacturing. None of this is a result of government handouts. Instead it is a Horatio Alger story that if not vindicating the usefulness of capitalism at least is a testimony to native grit.

This is not to say that gaming casinos are a bed of roses. As expected, when millions of dollars are involved, there are men more than happy to separate Indians from their wealth, and none more so with such satanic duplicity than Jack Abramoff.

While Abramoff’s plot is far too complicated to review here in any detail, suffice it to say that he extracted millions of dollars from the Coushattas in Louisiana and the Tiguas in Texas by playing them against each other. In exchange for millions of dollars in fees, he promised them that he would lobby Congress to make sure that their casinos would go unmolested by the state and also protected from competition by each other. In an email message to his right-hand man Mike Scanlon, Abramoff wrote: “Fire up the jet baby, we’re going to El Paso!!” (The Tigua reservation and casino were near El Paso.) Scanlon replied: “I want all their MONEY!!!” In other emails, Abramoff referred to his clients as “morons,” “troglodytes” and “monkeys.”

After serving his prison sentence, Abramoff has tried to restyle himself as a reformer, speaking at various Washington confabs at presumably exorbitant fees. This has not impressed Indians who suffered the most from his heinous acts, especially the Tiguas who were essentially left bankrupt. After watching him in action at the Press Club in Washington, DC, Rick Hill, a member of the Oneidas, told the Huffington Post “It’s all bullshit. … You look at Jack — though he took money from my elders and our kids, and now he comes here, and he gets to prop himself up, and it’s an acceptable part of D.C. culture. He wouldn’t stand a minute on the reservation.”

Market forces, the sine qua non for capitalist production including that taking place on the reservation, generated the rivalry between the Coushattas and the Tiguas. The access to riches has made the blood quotient all-important. There are constant conflicts over who is really a member of a tribe that enjoys casino wealth.

On December 3rd, 2004, the LA Times reported:

Before the Indian casino opened here, few people had any interest in joining the Chumash tribe.

But now that each member collects close to $350,000 a year in gambling revenue, nearly everyone with a drop of Chumash blood wants in.

“A lot of people found out they were Indian,” joked George Armenta, chairman of the Chumash enrollment committee.

Infighting over lineage is tearing apart many tribes with gambling operations. Fueling the disputes is simple math: If tribal enrollment shrinks, each remaining member will collect more money.

Whenever a valuable resource become available to a historically oppressed people, whether it is oil or roulette chips, it will trigger such fights. That being said, it is foolish to expect Indians to renounce either oil or gaming. In the best of circumstances, such as is the case with the Seminole (or Bolivarian Venezuela), it can be used for the common good.

The vain hope that Indians can live as they did before Columbus persists among those who would prefer that time stand still. The most extreme version of that is Jerry Mander’s 1992 “In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations”, a work that warns Indians about the hazards of computers and other new-fangled technologies. The only sort of Indians that Mander seems interested in are those who are completely untainted by the outside world. If an Indian lives in a city or makes a living as a miner on the reservation, Mander ignores him.

He only pays attention to the “pure” Indian who survives by hunting or fishing the way that he did a hundred or a thousand years ago. Hence, he devotes an entire chapter to the Dene Indians in Canada, who live in the Northwest Territories where the traditional economy revolves around caribou hunting and ice fishing. In the 1970s, they discovered oil on Dene land and pretty soon all the usual culprits descended upon them: oil corporations, lawyers and real-estate developers. What is Mander’s biggest concern, however? It is that television, of all things, will disrupt the Dene’s simple life. He worries that televised soap operas will replace traditional story telling.

After surviving hundreds of years of genocidal onslaught, American Indians have developed survival strategies geared to a time and place. The right to make money from gaming casinos is part of that arsenal, whether or not some critics view it as contrary to the image of the “pure” Indian. That Indian was virtually destroyed in the 19th century, just as was the bison that the plains Indians relied on for food, shelter and clothing. It will be up to the Indians to define their own identity in the 21st century just as they have in the past. Our responsibility as supporters of indigenous rights is to offer our solidarity, just as we would when the FBI was besieging Wounded Knee. The battlefield has changed but the goal is as it ever was—to defend the rights of America’s native peoples.

July 5, 2016

Lessons to be drawn from the ISIS suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Jihadists,Saudi Arabia — louisproyect @ 3:55 pm

Although ISIS has not taken credit for the suicide bombings in three Saudi cities yesterday, there is little doubt that it was responsible. The targeting of the Prophet’s Mosque in the city of Medina might undermine allegations of an ISIS connection since it is considered the second holiest site for Muslims but only if you have not been following Saudi history for the past several decades. In fact, one of the biggest assaults on the Saudi state prior to this took place in late 1979 when jihadists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the religion’s most holy site. Like ISIS, the heavily armed intruders considered the royal family to be apostates.

After the 1979 rebellion was drowned in blood, a new one began to take shape in the early 2000s around the same grievances, namely that the royal family was a tool of the West. In May 2003 bombs went off at three compounds in Riyadh frequented mostly by Westerners that resulted in 39 deaths and 160 wounded. Among the perpetrators identified by Saudi security forces was Khalid al-Juhani, a Saudi member of al-Qaeda who had promised retaliation for the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A year later jihadists mounted a suicide car bomb attack on the Saudi Interior Ministry and the Special Emergency Force training center. Although a draconian crackdown in 2005 tended to decrease the number of attacks, there has been a recent upsurge connected to the rise of ISIS as the NY Times reported on March 31 this year:

The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.

They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.

And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.

Despite an abundance of evidence that both al-Qaeda and ISIS were mortal enemies of the Saudi Arabian theocracy and that the July 4th attacks were consistent with a pattern going back 35 years, there is little doubt that the Baathist left will continue to believe that such groups are proxy forces directed by the Saudi state like pawns on a chessboard.

If you Google “Saudi Arabia, proxy, ISIS” you will end up with 436,000 results. In first place is an article titled “Saudi Arabia Admits to John Kerry that it Created ISIS” that appeared on Zero Hedge, a conspiracist website with both feet planted in the Putin/Assad camp. A runner up in third place is Jennifer Lowenstein’s CounterPunch article that claims “Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S. knowingly aided the rise of ISIS.” You can also find the ubiquitous Charles Glass telling Intercept readers that “To Stop ISIS, Outside Powers Must End Their Proxy Wars in Syria”. While I can go on forever, let me cite one more “expert”. Daniel Lazare, who is capable of trenchant analysis except when it comes to Syria, wrote a piece for the arch-Baathist Consortium News titled “The Saudi Connection to Terror”. Do you think he bothered to cite any of the hundreds of articles about how the Saudi state was on the jihadi shit-list for over three decades? Nah.

In “Khiyana”, a collection of articles that I contributed to, you can read Sam Charles Hamad’s “The Rise of Daesh in Syria—some Inconvenient Truths”, which effectively debunks the claim that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the rise of the Islamic State.

As opposed to most on the left who sling around terms like Salafist or Wahhabist interchangeably, Hamad takes considerable trouble to root them in the region’s history with the sort of erudition that is necessary to separate fact from fiction. To start with, Wahhabism is a current within Salafi Islam, a revivalist movement that sought to ground worship in the beliefs and practices of first generation Muslims, the as-Salafiyyah (pious forefathers). Mohammad al-Wahhab was an 18th century cleric who allied with the Al-Saud clan that eventually created the forerunner of the modern Saudi state. Warlike from the beginning, it attacked the Shia and Sufi sects as kuffar (unbelievers). So far this sounds just like ISIS, right?

Only if you do not understand that for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Saudi royal family is kuffar as well. That should be obvious at the outset from his belief that he is the new Khalifa, or steward of the Caliphate. The goal of ISIS is to create an Islamic state that honors no national boundaries. As such all states in the Middle East have to be subsumed under its authority, including Saudi Arabia. Muslims will belong to the new Caliphate, not any particular state nor take orders from the government that rules it. In a word, it is anti-national.

In November 2014 al-Baghdadi recorded an audio message declaring his intention to liberate the Saudi people from the Saloul, a derogatory name for the ruling family. Daesh threatened to invade Saudi Arabia from its redoubt in Anbar province. The Saudis placed sufficient weight in this threat to construct a 600-mile wall of the sort that Donald Trump could only admire. Like Trump, the Saudi royal family was deathly afraid of Islamic extremists. Unlike Trump, the Saudi fear was rooted in reality.

Despite Saudi efforts to thwart Daesh, the group has launched guerrilla attacks along the border with Iraq near the city of Arar that involved suicide bombers. But the more serious threat comes from Saudi citizens who have joined Daesh. The attacks are directed against Shia worshippers with the hope of sparking a sectarian war such as the kind that has been tearing apart Iraq and Syria.

Even more contrary to the dominant “anti-imperialist” narrative on Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have supported groups in Syria that have no connection to either ISIS or al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. Specifically, when Daesh and the FSA had a pitched battle in Deraa province, the FSA used weaponry supplied by the Saudis.

Now these hard facts will have no influence whatsoever on the people writing for Salon, LRB, ZNet, CounterPunch, Consortium News, and dozens of other lesser-known blogs and zines. We have reached the point where the truth hardly matters. In Orwell’s “1984”, the world was divided into three superstates which demanded total fealty. We are living in a world today in which there is a wrinkle on Orwell’s narrative. For some, the fealty is not to the motherland but to the one your superstate opposes. You have the same kind of fierce devotion to the “axis of resistance” that Rush Limbaugh listeners once gave to George W. Bush. It is the classic case of putting a plus where the State Department puts a minus. As Trotsky put it in “Learn to Think”:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

 

July 4, 2016

New York Asian Film Festival 2016

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Although the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival began on June 22nd, competing demands on my time prevented me from seeing the five screeners reviewed below until now. All are being shown starting tomorrow until July 9th, the final day of the festival. Averse as I am to film reviewing hyperbole, I can state that they are among the best narrative films I have seen this year and would be of the utmost interest to New Yorkers who tend to have confidence in my recommendations.

Inside Men; A Violent Prosecutor

These two Korean films share almost identical plots and political concerns. If you have been following my reviews of Korean films over the years, you will probably be aware that I consider the Korean film industry as a source of some of the best work being done in the world today. While made largely as pop culture influenced by Hong Kong cinema of the 70s and 80s, they have often penetrated the Deep State that rests on the four legs of anti-Communism, out-of-control Chaebols, corrupt politicians and organized crime. In other words, Korean films are one of the main sources of a badly needed critique of the country’s rotten capitalist “success” story. Koreans who see such fictional films certainly understand that they are ultimately pointing to the grim reality of a system in which 304 people died on April 16, 2014 because a ferry was allowed to operate in a deregulated system. They were victims of a conspiracy to gamble with the lives of high school students on a field trip for the sake of a fast buck.

Inside Men”, which shows tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at 8:30PM is the highest-grossing R-Rated film in South Korean history. It certainly earned the R rating from the orgies that appear throughout the film involving Chaebol executives, politicians, media moguls that make Rupert Murdoch look angelic by comparison and top officials of the country’s prosecutor’s department—their Department of Justice.

Like Elliot Ness, the incorruptible prosecutor Woo Jang‑hoon (Jo Seung-woo) is determined to prove that the men who gather regularly at a power broker’s mansion to compare dick sizes around a banquet table in the company of prostitutes are deeply implicated in a bribery scheme that has corrupted his colleagues and funneled money to a political campaign whose program favors the interests of the chaebol class rather than the country’s 99 percent.

The title refers to Woo’s partnership with a gangster named An Sang-gu (Byung-hun Lee) who worked for the cabal to cover up evidence of the cash flow between the corporate crooks and the state apparatus, including the prosecutor’s department. When he absconds with a copy of bank records that would prove the connection, mostly as way of playing one side against the other if the need ever arose, the chaebol’s hired thugs abduct him, take him to a warehouse and chop off his right hand. As an inside man with intimate knowledge of their criminal activities, An Sang-gu is just the person who could testify in court against them and bring their empire crashing down. But he has no interest in justice, only revenge. The loss of his hand has made him hunger for getting even, a theme pervasive in Korean film for a number of years now, including Park Chan-wook’s Revenge trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.)

For the first third of the film, the plot has a somewhat byzantine character as the criminal enterprise is shown in sordid detail even as it becomes somewhat difficult to keep track of the players. When the chaebol tops realize that An Sang-gu is plotting against them, they send a crew out to kill him. Even with his useless right hand, he skillfully fends them off until he is finally lying semiconscious on the ground with the head hitman advancing upon him with a brick. As the brick is about to come smashing down on his skull, prosecutor Woo Jang‑hoon comes to the rescue by smashing a bottle over the hitman’s head in the nick of time. For those fond of Asian combat choreography, this is a scene that will leave you breathless. It is also a scene that brings the two protagonists together for the first time—one searching for justice, the other revenge—and makes for a partnership that begins in acrimony and ends on a triumphant note. It is a brilliant film from beginning to end and worth putting on your calendar even if I bring news to you about it late in the game.

In “A Violent Prosecutor”, you get the same constellation of forces except in this film the prosecutor has ended up in prison when he gets too close to proving the same kind of sordid connections between the corporate bosses and the Deep State.

The film begins with environmentalists protesting against the Trump-styled construction of a hotel in the middle of a bird sanctuary. The developers send several van loads of common criminals who wear the same distinctive yellow vests as the protestors but are instructed to attack the cops at the construction site with steel rods. Like the agent provocateurs adopting the guise of anarchists in a number protests in the USA, the goal was to make the environmentalists look like out-of-control criminals.

When prosecutor Jeong-min Hwang (Byun Jae-wook) interrogates one of the agent provocateurs who has been arrested for assaulting a cop, he realizes immediately that the man knows about as much about wildlife preservation as he does about microbiology. After ordering him to strip to the waist, he derides him for pretending he is something other than a common criminal. His massive Yakuza-style tattoos are proof positive. When the man continues to deny that he is working for the developers, Jeong-min Hwang begins slapping him around in the fashion alluded to in the film’s title. Later that night when he steps out for a break, a prosecutor in cahoots with the developers comes into the interrogation room and kills the man. The next day Jeong-min Hwang is framed for the murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

As fate would have it, a con man who was part of the fake environmentalist assault on the cops ends up in the same prison. As the proverbial jailhouse lawyer, Jeong-min Hwang sees an opportunity. He will provide legal advice that will get Han Chi-won (Dong-won Kang) out of prison early in exchange for the con man becoming his inside man gathering evidence on the prosecutors who betrayed him and the corporate thugs who are destroying the country.

Like the partnership between the two lead actors in “Inside Men”, the violent prosecutor and the con man make for stirring dramatic interaction and make this film memorable. It can be seen at the School of Visual Arts movie theater at 6:15 on July 8, Friday night.

 

Mr. Six

The eponymous hero of this Chinese film is an aging reformed ex-mobster who is a mayor ex officio in a poor neighborhood in Beijing. While retaining both the glowering visage of his mobster youth and resorting occasionally to violence only when absolutely necessary, Mr. Six is mostly content to hang out on the street chatting with his neighbors and keeping an eye out for wrong-doers.

His relative serenity is interrupted when learns that his twenty-year old son Bobby is being held captive in the luxury car garage owned and operated by a platinum-haired punk named Kris whose Ferrari has been scratched intentionally by Mr. Six’s son in retaliation for a beating he received from Kris’s henchmen after being falsely accused of sleeping with his girlfriend.

Mr. Six is told by Kris that unless he comes up with a small fortune to pay for a new paint job in three days, his son will be killed. Forced to rely on his limited financial resources, he approaches old friends from his mobster youth who have become respectable businessmen and as a hedge will contact the same people to join him in a gang war with his son’s much younger captors.

Despite expectations that the film will be strictly a genre affair with flashing fists and lunging swords in abundance, it is much more about a father and son relationship with Mr. Six being forced to emerge out his mobster shell that he has been carrying around for much too long to finally bond with a son who has always felt abandoned—up until now. Mr. Six is played by veteran actor, screenwriter and director Feng Xiaogang who is one of China’s major talents. Born in 1958, he is a powerful presence in every scene and fully believable as the film’s key character. “Mr. Six” shows Thursday, 8:30PM at the School of Visual Arts.

Saving Mr. Wu

Based on the real-life abduction of celebrated Chinese TV actor Wu Ruofu, this is a taut policier that pits the cops against a gang of kidnappers led by the vicious Zhang (Qianyuan Wang). In a perfect casting touch, the actor Wu is played by Andy Lau, who has appeared in 160 films since 1982. Lau, like Feng Xiaogang, is one of the Chinese film industry’s treasures and perfectly suited for a role in which he plays an Andy Lau type character.

Tightly plotted as most films in this genre are, you see a race against time as cops try to track down the kidnapper’s hideout to rescue Mr. Wu and a hapless young man who is being held for ransom there as well. Chained together the two men manage to turn in powerful performances despite being immobile for nearly the entire length of the film. In another casting coup, Wu Ruofu plays the top cop trying to save the actor whose experience was based on his own.

Although Chinese (and more specifically Hong Kong) policiers have shown the signs of exhaustion in recent years, “Saving Mr. Wu” is a reminder that when the genre is done right, it can be bracing entertainment beyond the capability of a Hollywood that practically invented gangster movies. It can be seen on Saturday, July 9th, 4PM at the School of Visual Arts. Highly, highly recommended.

The Boys Who Cried Wolf

This very Hitchcockian Korean film was the dissertation project of Kim Jin-hwang at the Korean Academy of Film Arts and also the co-recipient of a Directors Guild Award at the 2015 Busan Film Festival.

The youthful failed actor Wan-ju has been forced to make a living as an escort for women and a kind of sidekick to socially awkward men who need help in breaking the ice with the opposite sex. It is only a way to pay the rent and to chip in for his ailing mother’s hospital expenses.

One day he is approached by a middle-aged woman on a free-lance basis to pretend that he is an eyewitness to a murder that took place in his neighborhood. At first put off by the suggestion that he will be paid to provide false witness, he finally relents out of economic desperation—a condition facing many Koreans.

Not long afterwards, he discovers that he has helped to put the wrong man behind bars and becomes committed to tracking down and identifying the real killer no matter how much the risk he faces to life and limb. At 33, director Kim Jin-hwang shows considerable talent in this psychological thriller more intent on exploring conflicted motivations rather than conforming to detective tale conventions. It has the gloomy atmosphere of “Vertigo” but without the sleuthing. It works on its own terms and joins all the other films discussed above as an experience that no American film currently being show in NYC can match. It can be seen Saturday, July 9, 2:15 PM at the School of Visual Arts.

 

July 2, 2016

What the Tesla autopilot casualty tells us about our ruling class

Filed under: capitalist pig,computers,technology — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

On May 7th a man named Joshua Brown died when his Tesla smacked into a trailer truck that the autopilot system mistook for the sky. Brown was a Navy Seal veteran who had worked in the Special Warfare Development Group, the elite unit that killed Osama Bin-Laden. His specialty was dismantling bombs in Iraq. Little did he realize that he was killed by a bomb that was set to go off the first time its onboard computer system malfunctioned.

Apparently Brown was obsessed with his car and its supposedly miraculous ability to forestall highway accidents. He made many Youtube videos about his passion, including the most recent one that illustrated its uncanny ability to avoid accidents.

The Guardian reported that Brown was watching a Harry Potter video when his Tesla careened into the trailer-truck so we can conclude that magic did not come to his rescue. It described the circumstances of the collision:

According to Tesla’s account of the crash, the car’s sensor system, against a bright spring sky, failed to distinguish a large white 18-wheel truck and trailer crossing the highway. In a blogpost, Tesla said the self-driving car attempted to drive full speed under the trailer “with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S”.

One imagines that Brown must have invested so much in the car and his invincibility because he ran a technology consulting company called Nexu Innovations that was for “Making a Difference in Our Flattening World”. Of course, the concept of a “flattening” world is straight out of the Thomas Friedman playbook. Friedman has been churning out columns on how outsourced tech support help desks in Ghana, etc. would be the answer to the world’s woes and wherever it failed, the Navy Seals could step in and straighten things out.

My immediate reaction to the news of his death was to tell my wife that we should be grateful that Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars, was never implemented. Back in 1983 when I was getting re-politicized around the Central America guerrilla struggles, I also decided to join Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a group that made blocking the implementation of SDI a high priority.

The technology of SDI and the Tesla autopilot system are both based on artificial intelligence, in effect to give computer systems the same capability of a human eye matched to a functioning brain that follows certain pre-established rules. With Tesla, the goal is to avoid collisions. With SDI, the goal was to make them—specifically to smack into and blow to smithereens Soviet missiles that encroached upon American airspace. Reagan’s goal was to provide a nuclear shield that would give the USA a big advantage in a Cold War that might turn hot. Many people, including someone like me who used to take part in “duck and cover” drills in elementary school in the 1950s, were terrified by the notions being put forward by Reagan and his cohorts.

Reagan believed that missiles could be “recalled” as if they were like remote controlled model airplanes. Even more ghastly was the reassurances of Thomas K. Jones, Reagan’s Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, that the USA could recover from a nuclear war with Russia in 2 to 4 years. Jones once said, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.”  We were supposed to use the shovels to dig a hole in the ground (can you imagine New Yorkers running to Central Park with the H-Bomb on the way?) that would be covered with a couple of doors and three feet of dirt on top of them. Jones said, “It’s the dirt that does it.”

As it happens, there is a morbid connection between this doomsday scenario and the capitalist who started Tesla. Elon Musk is not the only the manufacturer who is pioneering such cars but he is the only one who pushes the idea that an autopilot system capable of changing lanes now exists in his automobile. For others working in the field such as Volvo, Mercedes and Toyota, they never saw it more than only a technology good for parking assistance.

Mary “Missy” Cummings, a Duke University robotics professor and former military pilot, told the Guardian that Tesla should disable its autopilot system for navigating multilane expressways. “Either fix it or turn it off … The car was in a place where the computer was blind. The computer couldn’t see the environment for what it was.”

In addition to Tesla, Musk is investing in space travel. He is interviewed by Werner Herzog in “Lo and Behold”, a documentary on computers, the Internet and robotics that opens on August 19th. Herzog, who is much more interested in the “gee whiz” personalities of the men he interviews than their political or social ambitions (a point that A.O. Scott made to me that I had not even gathered), was goggle-eyed as Musk spelled out the need for colonizing Mars if “something goes wrong” on Earth.

The company is called SpaceX and it hopes to have its first launch in 2022. In a 2013 interview with the Guardian, the man who made his billions from Paypal stated that he was inspired to shoot for colonizing Mars after reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” science fiction series whose main character Hari Seldon anticipates the collapse of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way. To save humanity, he creates a think-tank that develops the technology to launch a new galactic empire.

Musk told the Guardian, “It’s sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let’s say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?”

The answer for Musk is technology.

“The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We’re obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”

In James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, Stephen Dedalus says “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

This is our nightmare, comrades. We have a capitalist class that is planning to colonize Mars in order to escape from the disaster it is now creating on Earth. Musk says he expects his business to be profitable since there will certainly be 80,000 people willing to pay the big bucks to flee a planet that has been consumed by nuclear war, catastrophic Noah’s Ark type flooding because of climate change, epidemics caused by viruses unleashed by the penetration of rain forests, or some other unforeseen disaster.

Musk is not the only capitalist who has “escape” plans. Jeff Bezos, the filthy predator who runs Amazon, is investing in Blue Origin, a space travel company that will not aim at colonizing Mars—a place that Bezos writes off as inhabitable—but instead hopes to launch huge satellites that will orbit around a post-apocalyptic planet Earth. In an interview with the Miami Herald conducted shortly after his high school graduation (he was class valedictorian), he said he wanted to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit. We have no idea what Bezos’s plans are today but one suspected that they are much more in line with Musk’s, to create a sanctuary for 80,000 or so people who share his bourgeois values.

One thing we can be certain about: if people like Bezos inhabited a space station, they’d probably kill each other before the year is up given what they are doing to the planet today.

June 30, 2016

Microbe and Gasoline

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

Opening at Sunshine Cinema tomorrow in New York, Michel Gondry’s “Microbe and Gasoline” is a terrific mash-up of a road movie like “Easy Rider” and the teen comedies of John Hughes done in a neo-French New Wave style. Now who can resist that? Microbe is the derisive nickname fellow students gave to Daniel, a 14-year old boy, on account of his height—or lack thereof. Gasoline is the nickname, once again derisive, given to his best friend and classmate Théo, whose clothes have such an odor, the result of tinkering on engines in his father’s junk shop.

The artifice that makes the film such a pleasure is that the dialogue of the two lead 14-year-old male characters is not written as if it came from such youthful mouths. Indeed, for the most part it is like listening to adult sophisticates in the early comic films of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut even though they are rooted in the painful experiences of young teens. This scene is typical:

Gasoline: We are totally underestimated. We can’t blossom in this lousy environment.

Microbe: Things haven’t been going our way lately.

Gasoline: In tough times, keep your head high. Don’t forget, crises produce leaders. DeGaulle in 1940. All looked lost.

Microbe: DeGaulle?

Gasoline: Yes, him. We are leaving in the darkest hours of our history, in the middle of a war that seems lost. But we must refuse to surrender.

Microbe: A war?

Gasoline: Our car is like France in 1940. Get it?

Microbe: What are you talking about?

Gasoline: I mean… Let’s finish the car. We can’t give up.

The car is their version of the Harley-Davidson that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda rode in “Easy Rider”, Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s Hudson in “On the Road”, Huckleberry Finn’s raft or any other car, boat, motorcycle or horse that men and women rode to escape from civilization in a literary genre going back to Don Quixote at least. For Microbe and Gasoline, the car is their means of escape from an oppressive high school and households just like I and so many others endured. Indeed, there is a direct link to the French New Wave that featured the counterparts of these 14-year olds. Gondry hearkens back to Truffaut’s “400 Blows” or Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” but updated for the world we live in now. The one constant is a need to break away from rules and convention.

The car in question is a tiny house-car powered by a 50cc lawnmower engine that Gasoline salvaged from a junkyard his father does business with. It is reminiscent in a way of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” that depicts the cross-country travels of an elderly WWII veteran on a lawnmower. Like Lynch’s film, the open road gives its subjects an opportunity to interact with a variety of characters including a dentist who invites the two 14-year olds to spend the night. When he asks them to show him their teeth at dinner, they become convinced that he is a psychopath bent on killing them. They jump out of his window in the middle of the night with him chasing him down the road yelling “I am only a dentist”.

“Microbe and Gasoline” was directed by Michel Gondry who has ties to American film-makers such as Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze so naturally you might expect to see a certain amount of arch, postmodernist whimsy in his latest film. It certainly was on display in “The Science of Sleep”, a 2006 film about a man whose dreams interfere with reality that I found terminally annoying. All I can say is that Gondry has found his true voice in “Microbe and Gasoline”, a film that will remind you of your own painful adolescence but will also make you feel like it was worth it in the long run.

Contradictions within the Baathist amen corner over Brexit

Filed under: immigration,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:14 pm

During the midst of the controversy over the invitation to arch-Baathist Tim Anderson to a conference on refugees in Lesbos, Michael Karadjis alluded to simmering differences within this camp over how to view the refugee crisis—specifically a quarrel that had broken out between Sukant Chandan and Jay Tharappel. I paid it little attention at the time but now I realize its significance as a sign of fissures in the ranks of the Baathist amen corner over the racist ramifications of Brexit.

Both are originally from India, share Maoist politics, a passionate devotion to the Baathist state and frequent appearances on Russian and Iranian television shows so when Chandan opened up an attack against Tharappel on FB, it was a sign that the issues posed by Brexit would lead to fissures:

Jay Tharappel was my comrade and younger brother for a number of years. A very bright wonderful comrade, from Indian Keralan heritage, has an excellent grasp of Indian politics, is broadly pro CPM (half of my family are CPM, and I respect the CPM with all my criticisms), and has some understanding of anti-imperialist politics generally. However, like many, he has found himself surrounding by fascists and those who are internalising fascist politics in the process of advocating for the defence of Syria from imperialism.

What is this fascism that is being promoted, proliferated, protected and promoted by Jay and others? It is:

1 – That there are deserving and non-deserving refugees, that Syrians are the only kind of real refugees (even then), and all other Asian and Africans are ‘fake’ refugees.

2 – That there is a ‘globalist’/’jewish’ plot to destabilise europe with refugees.

3 – That the west is ‘pure’ and ‘white’ culturally, and this should be maintained and not ‘impurified’ by non-whites.

4 – That Syrians are actually not ‘backward Arabs, but ‘white’ like white europeans.

5 – That the western far right (like trump, farage, le pen, alt for germany, and other far right forces) are the ‘natural’ allies for Syrians and also Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Russians etc, and they are actively working to ally with such far right forces.

6 – Is hostile especially to South Asian and African, especially darker skinned Asian and African people. These fascists just hate them, dehumanise them, elevate themselves over and above them, and eschew any solidarity and unity building with them.

7 – Using Syria (or Palestine / Iran / Iraq / Russia / Ukraine etc) to impose upon refugees that ‘a lot ‘ or ‘most’ of them are ‘terrorists’, and that they all must come back to Syria, and they really should not have left Syria in the first place.

I will always oppose imperialist war and coloniality, as I have been for the past nearly 25 years. But I will not ever accept that imperialist oppression is a situation through which to protect and promote fascism.

This fascist protection and promotion is being done in a context of the alarming and fast rising racism and fascism from state and non-state levels across the West. There is a liberal fascism developing, which talks liberal and left by supports Nato wars an strategies, and there is a right wing fascism emerging which sometimes puts out rhetoric that it is against wars but supports all the concepts of colonialism and imperialism.

Our struggle is not a joke. I am not in the business of congratulating lefties and commies for being anti-racist. I am not in the business for allowing this fascist collaboration and organising to pass, rather our decolonial, anti-imperialist and socialist legacies, histories, ideologies and struggles informs us that we go out and conceptually and actually fascists to smash them, and neutralise all forces that are protecting them.

I except people to militantly oppose, expose and defeat this fascist infiltration and protection. ie., if you see people promoting or protecting any of the 6 points: I would strongly advise to enact anti-fascism and anti-imperialism. Our people are being targeted increasingly, the western narrative is becoming even more heightened in its racism and fascism. I am not some liberal middle class western-based type who postures and plays with our politics. I tried to engage Jay on these things for years. He is not interested. He is for a number of reasons loyal to the fascists over the anti-fascist cause. That’s his choice. He like many others has sold out. I am not about to be loyal with such over and above our peoples anti-imperialist and anti-fascist cause. I suggest and request that we MUST maintain clarity of strategy and analysis over and above petty personal loyalties that push us into fascism.

We either step up to the growing challenges, or we should step down or be made to step down.

When you read this, it is a little difficult to figure out specifically what the problem is since Chandan, never scrupulous about evidence to begin with, does not name names except for Tharappel. In Maoist circles, it is obviously very easy to denounce someone as a fascist. I say that as someone who has been the target of such abuse at least 10,000 times since I broke ranks with people like Chandan long ago.

Tharappel’s response to Chandan was similarly obscure:

As you probably already know…

Sukant Chandan has accused me of promoting fascism and racism for reasons that he knows to be completely false like the shameless liar that he is, indeed his lies about me are so outlandish that they’re being rejected in the comments section of his own post.

Specifically, he accuses me promoting the view that there are deserving and undeserving refugees, that “Syrians are the only kind of real refugees”, that “Asian and Africans are ‘fake’ refugees”, and that “there is a ‘globalist’/’jewish’ plot to destabilise europe with refugees”.

This is a lie. I have always maintained that the refugee crisis is a consequence of imperialist exploitation and war, that we in the imperialist countries should welcome those seeking asylum, but most importantly that we should oppose the wars that create refugees in the first place – in February I even wrote a post condemning the idea that there’s some globalist agenda to destabilise Europe which SC commented on (see screenshot).

He accuses me of promoting the notion that “the west is ‘pure’ and ‘white’ culturally, and this should be maintained and not ‘impurified’ by non-whites”, and accuses me of being “hostile especially to South Asian and African, especially darker skinned Asian and African people”, which needless to say is an obvious LIE, as anyone who spends a minute or so examining my openly communist and post-colonial leanings would know.

He then accuses me of promoting the view that “Syrians are actually not ‘backward Arabs, but ‘white’ like white Europeans”, which is another lie as I have never endorsed this view ever.

In truth what angers SC is that I refuse to replicate word-for-word his personal crusade against those of Syrian heritage who consider themselves ‘white’, for the simple reason that it’s mostly irrelevant to me how they identify themselves, but on planet Sukant, by not vociferously denouncing these views, I’m promoting them.

His next accusation is that I’m promoting “the western far right” including the likes of “trump, farage, le pen, [and] alt for Germany” as “natural allies for Syrians and also Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Russians” which is another lie, in fact, aside from Trump, I don’t think I’ve EVER publicly mentioned any of those far-right personalities and parties.

I once innocently pointed out that Trump’s stated foreign policy agenda is strictly less threatening to Syria and Russia (which is objectively correct) compared to that of Hillary Clinton, which Sukant then creatively reinterpreted to mean that I was endorsing Donald Trump in some way.

You can see that discussion here: http://bit.ly/1VEWuck

His final allegation and lie is that I am “using Syria (or Palestine / Iran / Iraq / Russia / Ukraine etc) to impose upon refugees that ‘a lot ‘ or ‘most’ of them are ‘terrorists’, and that they all must come back to Syria, and they really should not have left Syria in the first place”, which is another cheap and baseless lie.

Are former anti-government fighters leaving Syria for Europe? Yes. Have I ever demonised ALL asylum seekers based on this fact? No.

What I have said is this, even if a portion of those asylum seekers were once fighting the governments of Syria and Iraq, we should welcome the news that by abandoning the battlefield and leaving for Europe they’re no longer destabilising the middle east which is the real target of destabilisation, NOT Europe.

As for the other civilian migrants who were simply caught in the middle of this war, contrary to Sukant’s claims, I have never said that they should be sent back, nor have I ever encouraged them to go back, because as someone who doesn’t face their consequences I am in no position to judge them for leaving Syria.

What Sukant is perhaps unable to comprehend is that unlike him I view the exodus of civilian refugees primarily from the perspective of the countries that have been destabilised, for whom the exodus of their best and brightest citizens undermines their ability to resist – the cruel logic of imperialism has always been that it encourages racism towards the very people it benefits from exploiting, that too after financing the destruction of their countries.

In the real world we have to pick our battles, and in the case of Syria many of us on the Left find ourselves in an alliance with a national liberation struggle against imperialism, which draws the support of many who are not Leftists and therefore do not share our opinions on every issue, and while I’m more than happy to state my disagreements with them, I’m not going to waste my time denouncing them relentlessly, I’d rather focus on opposing and exposing imperialism.

Tharappel referred his readers to a discussion that took place on May 17th as seen above. I reproduce the most salient part here:

Screen shot 2016-06-30 at 8.47.28 AM

 

This gets to the heart of the contradictions within the Baathist camp. As it happens, the Kremlin and its allies internationally are hostile to the EU, open borders, and everything else that smacks of “globalism”. So naturally you see an affinity between Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Vladimir Putin. Trying to reconcile solidarity with the butcher of Damascus and Nigel Farage is no easy task, especially when you retain some belief in the words “Workers of the World Unite”.

To his credit, Chandan has been hammering away at the racism unleashed by Brexit on his “Sons of Malcolm” blog. Three days ago, he wrote a post titled “CORBYN INCHES TOWARDS THE RIGHT, SUPPORTS BREXIT, WOBBLES ON IMMIGRATION” that attacks what he views as adaptation to nativism in Britain similar to that I critiqued in my article on Diana Johnstone yesterday:

Corbyn and his team are choosing to ignore the two thirds of Labour voters who are hostile to Brexit, Corbyn is choosing to align himself with UK nationalist ‘left’ forces who are developing racism further by positioning a showdown with the EU in the context of growing racism and fascism. Part of this is Corbyn’s total contradictory position on immigration, while he said a FANTASTIC thing on immigration in this interview by stating there must be no upper limit to it, he also stated that the central colonial feelings that inform racism by people is not racism.

Andrew Marr: But there are lots and lots and lots of people around this country who do feel that immigration is for them a problem, they see their communities changing very, very quickly and they feel their identity is challenged and they feel their kids are not getting school places and so forth. They are not racists. They’re not far right people. They’re just people really worried about immigration and they feel that people like you are not really listening to them.

Jeremy Corbyn: I’m not calling them racists. What I’m saying is it’s a failure of our government to properly fund local authorities. …

Will any of this make any difference when it comes to supporting Assad’s murderous war that is responsible for the bulk of Syrian refugees? Probably not. These people are hopeless on this matter, I am afraid. But perhaps the growing affinity between openly fascist movements in Europe and the Kremlin will finally give them reason to pause and think things over. The Red-Brown alliance that has emerged out of the geopolitical chess game is one of the most shameful episodes of the left in decades and it is high time that it gets addressed. I don’t have much use for most of Chandan’s problematic ideology but give him credit for calling a spade a spade.

June 29, 2016

Diana Johnstone’s poisonous nativism

Filed under: immigration — louisproyect @ 3:25 pm

It should probably come as no big surprise that the preponderance of articles appearing on CounterPunch favored Brexit. It goes hand in hand with the tilt toward Vladimir Putin whose hostility to the European Union is generally considered in these circles as practically on the same level as Che Guevara’s call for “two, three, many Vietnams”.

Most of the authors are sensible enough to admit that there were nativist tendencies at work but they were secondary to the more important need for allowing Britain to return to the pro-working class economic policies that Tories and treacherous New Labour overturned. Jeremy Corbyn’s role in all this is ambivalent. On record for opposing Brexit, some thought he dragged his feet in speaking against it under the influence of his press secretary Seumas Milne who was about hardcore a Putinite you can find.

Leave it to Diana Johnstone to break with the sane Brexit consensus at CounterPunch and plunge deeply into UKIP territory. An ardent fan of Vladimir Putin, Johnstone was bold enough to tell CounterPunch readers a while back that Marine Le Pen was on the French left:

If “the right” is defined first of all by subservience to finance capital, then aside from Sarkozy, Bayrou and perhaps Joly, all the other candidates were basically on the left. And all of them except Sarkozy would be considered far to the left of any leading politician in the United States.

This applies notably to Marine Le Pen, whose social program was designed to win working class and youth votes. Her “far right” label is due primarily to her criticism of Muslim practices in France and demands to reduce immigration quotas, but her position on these issues would be considered moderate in the Netherlands or in much of the United States.

Much of the United States? I suppose so if you are referring to the sort of people who listen to Rush Limbaugh every day and look like the people Diane Arbus photographed.

In today’s CounterPunch Johnstone ruminates on how “How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart”. Well, heavens yes. As David Duke once put it, forcing whites to live next to Blacks is inviting disaster. The best thing would be to have separate homelands for each race. No matter his excesses, the white nationalist is savvy enough to take Putin and Trump’s side against the dreaded globalists.

Of course, the main cause of friction is immigration. You get all those Jamaicans, Pakistanis and Poles swarming into good British neighborhoods with their strange clothing, foods and musical tastes. Feh, who needs them. Even worse, their foreignness goes hand in hand with stealing jobs from good Englishmen whose ancestors after all have been here for millennia and invented democracy. Johnstone hones in on the immigration issue:

In reality, for the majority of working class voters, opposition to unlimited immigration can be plainly a matter of economic self-interest. Since the EU’s eastward expansion ended immigration controls with the former communist countries, hundreds of thousands of workers from Poland, Lithuania, and other Eastern European nations have flooded into Britain, adding to the large established immigrant population from the British Commonwealth countries. It is simply a fact that mass immigration brings down wage levels in a country. A Glasgow University study shows statistically that as immigration rises, the level of wages in proportion to profits drops – not to mention the increase in unemployment.

Okay, let’s call a spade a spade. This shit is exactly the same thing you would hear from the worst nativist in UKIP or in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Johnstone observes that “In reality, for the majority of working class voters, opposition to unlimited immigration can be plainly a matter of economic self-interest.” This is not “pro-working class”. It is reactionary crap that has plagued the working class for the past 150 years at least. From its inception, the radical movement has had elements that embraced the same kind of nationalism Nigel Farage espouses but formulated in the same demagogic “leftist” terms as Johnstone.

Even among Karl Marx’s supporters in the USA in the 1870s, you can find the same divisions that are reflected among Brexit supporters like Johnstone and those on the other side who believed in open borders. Samuel Gompers, who was the first labor leader to openly espouse class collaborationism, agreed with Johnstone. As Gompers climbed the ladder into officialdom, he found that anti-Chinese racism gave him a foot up. He endorsed the labeling of cigar boxes as made by white men, to be “distinguished from those made by the Chinese.”

The First International socialists led by Friedrich Sorge were just as bad. A member of his faction in New York held forth at one of their public meetings:

The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.

In reality the debate over open borders has been going on for almost as long as the socialist movement has existed. Germany, which always had the most advanced Marxist thinkers, was a test case for the two perspectives.

Changing economic circumstances in the German states (the country had not yet unified) led to increased mobility in the 1850s. Liberal-minded industrialists insisted on the right of labor to move freely within and outside the country just as proposed by backers of the EU today. This need was felt especially keenly in cases where foreign workers could be used to break strikes. However, the impulse to greater freedoms was countered by traditional German social structures, especially strong in Prussia.

Things came to a head in 1867 when the Reichstag would debate sweeping legislation that would go the furthest in removing restrictions. If passed, both citizens and foreigners would be allowed to travel freely to the states within the North German Confederation that included Prussia as well as more economically developed entities.

While the motive of bourgeois politicians was purely to secure cheap labor, the working class representatives to the Reichstag were not prejudiced against legislation that would grant workers more freedom. Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Rosa Luxemburg’s close collaborator Karl Liebknecht, made a clarion call in support of the bill.

Lenin, who counted himself as a disciple of the German Social Democracy led by Wilhelm and Karl Liebknecht, was emphatic on this. In a 1913 article titled “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration”, he wrote:

There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.

Two years later in a letter to the Socialist Propaganda League in the United States, Lenin specifically took on the nativism that had held back the American left:

In our struggle for true internationalism and against ‘jingo-socialism,’ we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the S.P. in America, who are in favor of restrictions of the immigration of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart, 1907, and against the decisions of Stuttgart).

We think that one cannot be internationalist and be at the same time in favor of such restrictions. And we assert that Socialists in America, especially English Socialists, belonging to the ruling, and oppressing nation, who are not against any restrictions of immigration, against the possession of colonies (Hawaii) and for the entire freedom of colonies, that such Socialists are in reality jingoes.

In my view, those who supported Brexit are largely sincere in their belief that this was a measure that could have repudiated the neoliberalism of the EU and put Britain on a new course. The debate on the left over such perspectives is not one that lends itself to litmus tests even though the stakes of the outcome are quite high. As happens many times in politics, it is impossible to know what the future has in store so a leap in the dark is unavoidable.

That being said, Diana Johnstone’s opinions on immigration are pure filth and should be rejected by the entire left as a concession to the nativism that is threatening immigrants all across Europe and that will force desperate people trying to flee violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to remain in jeopardy.

This has not been the first time in history when our movement has become very confused over basic questions of left and right. In Germany there were two instances where the left ended up supporting the right. The first was when Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the USSR that led the German Communist Party to back its government against Anglo-French imperialism rather than maintaining an independent class position—in other words the same mistake many CounterPunch writers make with respect to the “New Cold War”. Instead of analyzing Ukraine or Syria on their own terms, they simply follow whatever position favors the Kremlin.

In 1922, the French army invaded the Ruhr to seize control of mines and steel mills in order to force the Germans to pay debts extracted through the punitive Treaty of Versailles. The German capitalist class screamed bloody murder and proto-fascist armed detachments marched into the Ruhr to confront the French troops. At the height of the anti-French armed struggle in the Ruhr, the German Communist Party issued feelers to the right-wing nationalists.

Comintern representative Karl Radek was totally into this Red-Brown alliance. He urged that the Communists commemorate the death of Albert Schlageter, an ultraright fighter who died in the Ruhr and was regarded as a martyr by the right-wing. His lunacy struck a chord with some German Communists, including the generally unreliable Ruth Fischer who gave a speech at a gathering of right-wing students where she echoed fascist themes:

Whoever cries out against Jewish capital…is already a fighter for his class, even though he may not know it. You are against the stock market jobbers. Fine. Trample the Jewish capitalists down, hang them from the lampposts…But…how do you feel about the big capitalists, the Stinnes, Klockner?…Only in alliance with Russia, Gentlemen of the “folkish” side, can the German people expel French capitalism from the Ruhr region.

Is Diana Johnstone channeling the ghost of Ruth Fischer? It would seem so.

It was this sort of Red-Brown idiocy that discredited the German CP but not so nearly as bad as after it had been consolidated as a hard-core Stalinist group during the “Third Period” madness that led it to support a Nazi referendum that would unseat a Social Democratic politician.

In 1931 the Nazis utilized a clause in the Weimar constitution to oust a coalition government in the state legislature of Prussia. Prussia was a Social Democratic stronghold. The Communists at first opposed the referendum, but their opposition took a peculiar form. They demanded that the Social Democrats form a bloc with them at once. When the Social Democratic leaders refused, the Communists put their support behind the Nazi referendum, giving it a left cover by calling it a “red referendum”. They instructed the working class to vote for a Nazi referendum. The referendum was defeated, but it was demoralizing to the German working-class to see Communists lining up with Nazis to drive the Social Democrats out of office.

Is there an element of “third period” thinking in support for the Kremlin’s various positions on the EU, Syria, Ukraine, et al? I am afraid that this is the case. While one could possibly excuse the mad policies of the late 1920s and early 30s as a poorly thought out strategy to punish the treacherous Social Democrats, who after all had murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht, they would only end up punishing the left itself that would soon be Hitler’s victims.

The only way to avoid such catastrophes is to be committed to a class analysis that is combined with a party-building strategy that avoids opportunist mistakes on both the ultraleft and right. This is not easy, of course, but it is necessary for the survival of our movement and our ultimate victory over a social system that will destroy the planet if not stopped dead in its tracks.

 

 

June 28, 2016

The Free State of Jones

Filed under: American civil war,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 10:25 pm

Like last year’s “Trumbo”, “The Free State of Jones” is guaranteed to earn my vote for best film of 2016 for its combination of film-making genius and political commitment. If “Trumbo” might have been a success with someone other than Bryan Cranston in the title role, it was his presence that made you feel like you were watching the legendary screenwriter himself rather than an actor. Matthew McConaughey elevates “The Free State of Jones” in the same way. Present in every scene, he is utterly convincing as the anti-secessionist guerrilla leader who was the walking embodiment of what Noel Ignatiev called the Race Traitor.

Written and directed by Gary Ross, “The Free State of Jones” is everything that the overhyped “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” were not. It is an honest attempt to engage with the historical period it portrays even if it takes liberties with the events surrounding the rebellion of Newton Knight. As I will point out later in this article, they made for a more powerful film with a singular vision even if the truth was sacrificed.

After covering the film, I will discuss the actual historical record contained in Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones”, upon which the film was based. While hardly a film to be taken seriously, I will also say a few things about “Tap Roots”, the 1948 film based on Mississippi journalist James Street’s novel of the same title that was a loose adaptation of the Newton Knight story. The film is entirely forgettable if not unbearable, as well as a symbol of Hollywood’s racism, even when it decided to make a film based on ostensibly anti-racist material.

We first meet Newton Knight in a bloody battle that is about as graphic as any Hollywood film I have seen since “Saving Private Ryan”. Serving as a medic, Knight is overwhelmed by the severed limbs and ruptured abdomens that are beyond any doctor’s ability to treat. When the battle subsides, he meets up with men from Jones County who have ended up in the same regiment as him, a common feature of the bond of geography and ideology in both North and South.

When Knight learns that soldiers who own “20 Negros” are being sent home to look after their properties, he is in disbelief. Like most men from Jones County, he owned nothing but the log cabin he lived in and the hogs and corn field he looked after. They were yeoman farmers with almost no class interest in dying on behalf of the plantation owners who seceded from the Union. As the cry went up from the guerrilla movement, they saw it as a “Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight”.

When a conscripted teenaged nephew is soon killed in another battle, he resolves to take the dead body back to Jones County where he can get a proper burial even if this means being charged with desertion.

Back on native ground, Knight soon becomes a target of local Confederate law enforcement for both being a deserter and interceding on behalf of neighbors who have been forced to turn over corn and pigs to the army as part of a hated wartime tax. When they pursue him with bloodhounds, he manages to find refuge in the swamp with a band of runaway slaves. He is led to them by a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who eventually becomes both his lover and a spy for the pro-Union armed struggle Knight will lead.

As the class conflict between poor farmers and armed Confederate tax-in-kind agents deepens, Knight decides that the only recourse is to build a popular resistance based in the swamp that the enemy’s horses cannot negotiate. Once they settle in, their headquarters becomes a staging ground for raids on the Confederate troops and the slave-owners whose interests they protect. It also becomes a place where their yeoman values are implemented in a kind of rough-hewn commune. Runaway slaves are treated as equals and when they are not, Newton Knight steps in to defend them against racism.

Seen in terms of genre, “The Free State of Jones” follows in the footsteps of “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, the 1938 vehicle for Errol Flynn, and the more recent “Braveheart”. When it comes to battles between yeoman farmers and an oppressive, bloodsucking elite, it is natural to cheer for the underdog. The Sheriff of Nottingham to Newton Knight’s Robin Hood is one Lieutenant Barbour who views the pro-Union guerrillas as the lowest scum on earth, particularly as race traitors. Another villain is James Eakins, the plantation owner who beats Rachel for the offense of eavesdropping on his daughters’ spelling lessons. Her only desire is to become literate, a crime in the eyes of the Mississippi slave masters.

The film tracks the battles between Knight’s militia and Confederate troops sent in to smash them and restore law and order in Jones County. Before each battle, Knight rallies the troops in speeches that are a mixture of scripture and Jeffersonian yeoman values. His commitment to racial and social equality continues even after the Civil War is over. He takes the side of former slaves as they exercise their right to vote even after it becomes obvious that the South will remain as oppressive as ever. His only recourse is to live among people, both Black and white, who share his values in the outskirts of the village of Soso in Jones County. If Mississippi and the USA for that matter choose segregation, he persists in building counter-institutions that correspond to his democratic and anti-racist values including the right of people to love each other whatever the color of their skin.

As a subplot that is thematically related but historically problematic, we see crosscuts to the trial of Davis Knight in 1948. He was the great-grandson of Newton Knight who was charged with violating the Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws. Not only is he a symbol of the ongoing fight against racism but a reminder that the Deep South was a deeply segregated place until recently. If Jim Crow disappeared in the 1960s, you cannot help but be reminded of the more recent period when cops can act like the KKK wearing a badge.

Before becoming a film-maker, Gary Ross worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. One might assume that there is a connection between his 2012 “The Hunger Games” and his most recent film, since both include protagonists taking on evil plutocrats. As it happens, the new film is based on American history even if Ross takes liberties.

Ross probably was conscious of rewriting a history that he was intimately familiar with. In an interview with Slashfilm, he describes his engagement with the Civil War scholarship:

It was a tremendous amount of research. I don’t think I did anything but read for a couple of years. And I mean scores of books. I was a visiting fellow at Harvard for a couple of years. I studied under the tutelage of a professor there named John Stauffer, who was head of the American Civilization Department. I spent a lot of time in Jones County visiting it and meeting the local people and getting the local flavor and doing kind of a visceral history.

He even understood that a version of the traditional happy ending for “The Free State of Jones” would have been a much worse falsification of history than any liberties he took with the events described in the film:

Well, you know, that version would have been the white savior movie. That version would have been, “Oh, there’s a triumphant victory, and everything is fine,” and we tie it up with a Hollywood bow and there’s a happy ending. But we all know there wasn’t a happy ending. No sooner was technical emancipation granted than the former Confederates got their land and their power back and began passing laws which were called The Black Codes that were a form of re-enslavement and driving people back to the plantation, driving freed men back to the plantation.

If Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones” is a benchmark for the film’s veracity, it gets high marks in many ways. First and foremost, it describes the social conditions of the county’s yeoman farmers accurately. These were people who relied heavily on the animals they raised and the corn they used to feed them, without which they faced certain ruin. Ross creates a world in his film that evokes the Piney Woods region of Mississippi that was inhospitable to cotton growing and as such made the rise of an agrarian bourgeoisie impossible.

Who were these remarkable people who went against the values of the slave-owners? Considering the stereotypical view of white Southerners that persists to this day, Gary Ross deserves to be honored for telling the kind of story that was not even found in Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. The name of Newton Knight does not appear at all.

The Knight family came from North Carolina, where they were small farmers and forced to seek new land in the deep south after tobacco plantations gobbled up most of the available land. Their ancestors were members of the Regulator Movement that was one of the first armed resistances to British rule in the colonies. Suffering from onerous taxation, they took up arms against the wealthy. In other words, it was exactly the kind of fight they would pursue decades later in Mississippi.

While it is probably unreadable, Jimmy Carter wrote a historical novel titled “The Hornet’s Nest” that was a tribute to the Regulator Movement. The NY Times reviewed it in 2003:

”The Hornet’s Nest,” according to the book’s acknowledgments, was seven years in the making. And its somewhat sensational title refers not to Washington or Congress or even Camp David, but instead to an obscure and ferocious enclave of northern Georgia partisans and militiamen in the Revolutionary War, a guerrilla-like group to which, in his recent memoir, ”An Hour Before Daylight,” Carter says several of his ancestors belonged.

Another important element in the film that is consistent with Bynum’s book is the prominent role played by women as auxiliary fighters in Jones County. In one dramatic highlight, Newton Knight arms a mother and her two young daughters and steels their nerves to hold off a band of Confederate soldiers who come to their farm to carry off livestock and crops.

From the point of view of law and order in Jones County, the women were as much of a threat as the men especially Rachel, who was a fighter for Black emancipation as well as Newton Knight’s lover. Where Gary Ross took considerable liberties was making her the slave of the aforementioned villainous James Eakins whereas in fact she was actually his grandfather Jackie Knight’s slave. Despite his connections to the Regulator Movement, Jackie Knight had no problems adopting the mode of production that made the white race ready to fight for its survival. While by no means as wealthy as the big agrarian bourgeoisie, Jackie Knight had left yeomanry long behind him.

Another liberty taken with historical accuracy was the portrayal of Davis Knight as willing to go to prison for the love of his life. In reality, Davis Knight was interested in one thing and one thing only, to establish his white identity. Given the hell of Mississippi segregation, his decision was understandable.

What is more difficult to understand is the effort of Newton Knight’s ancestors to portray him as indifferent to Black lives and—worse—a common brigand. His son Thomas wrote a book titled “The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight” that embraced his Unionist stand but said nothing about his close ties to African-Americans. His grandniece Ethel Knight went much further. In 1951 she published “The Echo of the Black Horn”, a violent screed that accused him of being a thieving traitor to the glorious Confederate cause. Above all, she hated him for loving Rachel Knight—the act of a race traitor.

Unlike John Brown, Newton Knight was not an abolitionist prophet. His main grievance was effectively “taxation without representation” since he regarded the Confederacy as illegal. Would he have had a different attitude if he had been a man of property? Maybe so. At least he should be given credit for putting his life on the line for the principles that the Republic stood for, even if the Constitution regarded Blacks as only three-fifths of a man.

Ultimately the salient message of “The Free State of Jones” is that class trumps race. In the left’s perpetual engagement with the central conundrum of American politics, there is a tendency to lose track of what motivates whites to make common cause with Blacks. One of the most important points made in Victoria Bynum’s book is the importance of class during the Civil War for the people of Jones County that continued into the 20th century.

Abandoned by the Republican Party after the end of Reconstruction, the pro-Unionist yeoman farmers of Jones County were naturally drawn to the Populist Party that essentially reflected their class interests. In 1892 20 percent of Jones County voters cast their ballot for James Weaver, the Populist Party’s presidential candidate.

The most prominent leaders of the party in Jones County were the sons of Jasper and Riley Collins, two of Newton Knight’s leading lieutenants. At the statewide convention in 1895, they were elected delegates from Jones County. The racist Democratic Party press assailed the Populists as “disgruntled and disappointed office seekers” who hoped to seduce “Republicans and negroes” into voting for its candidates. It also identified them with Radical Republicanism during Reconstruction and warned that “the bottom rail will never be on top again in Mississippi.”

Like Thomas and Ethel Knight, the Populists eventually succumbed to racist pressures and abandoned their natural allies. As a sign of the confused politics of the Deep South, poor farmers voted for a bigot like Theodore Bilbo who backed progressive economic measures with racist invective.

James Street was a native Mississippian who grew up near Jones County and hated racial injustice but valued his Southern heritage. As such, it was natural for him to explore the Newton Knight story and turn it into a novel loosely based on his exploits. Wikipedia has a highly revealing story on his most unusual death:

Street died of a heart attack in Chapel Hill, N.C., on September 28, 1954, at age 50.

He was in Chapel Hill to present awards for excellence in radio broadcasting at a banquet, for which the main speaker was a “Reporter From the Pentagon” (as described by Scott Jarrad, a radio journalist who was to receive an award, who did not give the man’s name). According to Jarrad, the “Reporter from the Pentagon” made a pure power politics argument in favor of preventive war against the Communist nations. Street, who was to present the awards, speaking after that main address, vehemently attacked the position put forward by the “Reporter from the Pentagon,” in a spontaneous rant Jarrad described as “an explosion,” laced with mild profanity; “in a word, he was magnificent.”

Following that rant, however, again according to Jarrad, Street presented the broadcasting awards warmly and politely. Jarrad specifically mentioned the firm and affectionate handshake from Street at the presentation of the award. However, shortly after the ceremony, Street “laid his head on the table like a baby,” dead of a fatal heart attack. Jarrad speculated that the “explosion” of Street’s vehement rant may have been the stress that caused his fatal heart attack.

I can only say that I am surprised that “Tap Roots”, the 1948 film based on his fictionalized account of Knight’s pro-Union guerrilla warfare, didn’t do him in four years earlier.

This was a film that said virtually nothing about the pro-Union sympathies of the Jones County fighters. It revolved around the futile campaign of a plantation owner named Hoab Dabney to disaffiliate from the Confederacy because the people of Lebanon Valley only sought to work in peace. Dabney is played by Ward Bond, a vicious McCarthyite. When the Confederate cavalry annihilates his followers, a Whig newspaper man played by Van Heflin who fought on his side denounces him as a trouble-maker who misled his followers into a useless rebellion. In one of the odder scenes in this very odd movie, Dabney wanders about the battlefield talking to himself after the fashion of King Lear.

The screenplay was written by Alan Le May, the author of “The Searchers” that was adapted for John Ford’s classic film. The sheer stupidity and bad politics of this  film makes you wonder if “The Searchers” has been overrated, as I have long suspected.

Let me conclude with an excerpt from Victoria Bynum’s take on “Tap Roots”, which is contained on her invaluable website Renegade South.

The movie makers treated viewers to a sort of poor man’s Gone with the Wind—except that Hoab Dabney himself (the cinematic version of Newt Knight) appeared as anything but poor, living in his recently-departed father’s opulent mansion with slaves that he apparently inherited from dad! Never mind that neither the real Newt Knight—nor his father—owned slaves. I had to laugh, though, when Hoab Dabney first appeared on screen. Veteran actor Ward Bond appears as a wealthy, middle-aged Hoab, complete with mutton-chop sideburns, a crisp white shirt, black vest and cravat, and sporting a gold watch chain that hangs fetchingly across his portly mid-section!

Let’s just say that Ward Bond is no Matthew McConaughey. . . .

What were Tap Roots’ filmmakers thinking, you ask? They were thinking of Gone with the Wind, that’s what. Never mind that that wildly successful movie was dedicated to the principles of Lost Cause history, with its images of a solid white South and happy slaves. The plot lines, clichés, and characters of Gone with the Wind were shamelessly borrowed, but with a twist—and it’s only a twist—of Southern white opposition to secession from the Union. There is no people’s movement here—only the Dabneys’ assertion of their “freedoms” and dominion over their beloved Lebanon Valley. The men who join the provincial, hardheaded Dabneys in asserting their individual prerogative to remain “neutral” during the war display no agency and no ideas; they merely follow. Although the phrase, “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight,” is briefly flashed on the screen, it has no relevance to the story presented.

British factions in the Brexit Spring and their foreign backers

Filed under: Great Britain,humor — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

brexit foreign

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