Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 13, 2016

Command and Control

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

When I was seven years old or so, I became terrified of nuclear war. We participated in “duck and cover” drills in school, which involved turning your desk on its side and cowering behind it. We saw films in the auditorium about how to survive a nuclear war and worried about the possibility of a cobalt bomb being developed, a device that we had heard could blow the world in half. When driving around with my mom, if I ever saw a cumulus nimbus cloud, I’d always ask if that was an H-Bomb.

Cumulus Nimbus

When I got to Bard College in 1961, students had become active around the need to oppose NY State Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s proposed legislation that would have made it mandatory for every house to have a fallout shelter. My friends started something called the Welcome the Bomb Committee, a satirical effort to put across the idea that if you are hospitable to nuclear weapons, they wouldn’t harm you.

With the end of the cold war, worries about nuclear war subsided except to bubble up from time to time in the Chicken Little journalism from that part of the left that is aligned with the Kremlin. Typical was F. William Engdahl, a former member of Lyndon Larouche’s fascist cult, who warned about NATO resorting to nuclear war over the Georgia-Russia war in 2008. You can take his article and substitute the word Ukraine for Georgia and it would be identical to those appearing now on Global Research and The Nation.

What I learned from “Command and Control”, the explosive (in more sense than one) documentary opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY was that the biggest danger in some ways was always us blowing ourselves up rather than some commie sneak attack. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.

The film is directed by Robert Kenner and based on a 2014 book by Eric Schlosser titled “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”. No, this is not Damascus, Syria (although people like Engdahl would likely jump to that conclusion) but Damascus, Arkansas, the site of a Titan II Missile Complex that had a disastrous fire caused by a minor accident on September 18, 1980.

A single Titan II missile in the Damascus underground silo had a 9 megaton H-Bomb warhead that packed an explosive power three times as great as every bomb dropped during WWII, including those over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its firestorm could cover 1000 square miles and a radiation plume much greater in distance.

For comparison’s sake, a B-52 broke apart accidentally over Goldsboro, North Carolina on January 24, 1961, dropping two 4-megaton H-Bombs in the process. When searchers recovered one of the bombs, they were shocked to discover that three of the four safety devices had failed. This was according to a declassified document obtained by Schlosser and revealed in his book. So even if that was half the payload of the Damascus bomb, the death toll would have been over 100,000 while millions would have suffered debilitating chronic diseases from radiation exposure.

Director Robert Kenner was able to get the approval of a Titan II museum in Green Valley, Arizona to use their facilities to recreate the seemingly trivial accident that could have killed hundreds of thousands of people in a couple of days. Using archival footage of the Damascus explosion mixed with recreations at the museum, you really feel as if you are there on the day of the fateful incident.

It seems that a man doing routine maintenance dropped a socket wrench to the bottom of the silo where it bounced off the platform punctured a hole in a fuel tank, which began spouting fuel vapors. Since it was extremely volatile, anything could detonate it. And that is exactly what happened, costing the lives of men who heroically went down to cap the fuel. The explosion scattered bits of the missile in all directions, including the warhead that landed about a hundred feet from the silo in a nearby field. As is made abundantly clear in the film, scientists and engineers had never fully thought through the electronic safety devices inside the missile, especially the consequence of the circuit being melted down and rendered ineffective as nearly happened in Goldsboro.

Schlosser, who is a first rate journalist and author of “Fast Food Nation” that sits on my bookshelf at home, describes how the Pentagon reacted to the near catastrophe at the time:

It was covered by the nightly news, made headlines in our major newspapers. But the Pentagon was adamant that there was absolutely no way the warhead on the Titan II missile could have detonated. The press didn’t challenge that assertion. The story was soon forgotten. And we now know that the Pentagon’s reassuring words were a lie.

Sometimes it is easy to forget how totally insane the men and women are who rule the USA on behalf of the corporate elite that backed a foreign policy during the Cold War based on “better dead than Red”. They had 35,000 nuclear weapons in silos, on airplanes and in submarines that could have killed everybody on earth many times over—all necessary to preserve the private ownership of the means of production. With their control of the TV networks and the print media, it is easy to understand why the press didn’t challenge the Pentagon’s word.

In 1954 President Eisenhower, the sort of serenely wise and moderate Republican who Hillary Clinton seems to be modeling herself after, seriously considered dropping three atom bombs on the Viet Minh’s positions surrounding the French at Dien Bien Phu.

After Eisenhower returned to private life, we ended up with Jack Kennedy who every Democrat idolizes, including John Kerry who said, “We thank that whole generation for making America strong, for winning WWII, winning the Cold War, and for the great gift of service which brought America 50 years of peace and prosperity. My parents inspired me to serve, and when I was a high school junior, Kennedy called my generation to service.”

Right. This was the same JFK whose nuclear brinksmanship might have led to a global catastrophe in October 1962. After the blockade began, the USA began dropping depth charges with minimal explosive power on Russian submarines near Cuba with the intention of only forcing them to the surface. One of the submarines identified as B-59 came close to firing a nuclear torpedo but the submarine commander Vasili Arkhipov decided that it was better to go to the surface rather than risking nuclear annihilation. On October 13, 2002, the Boston Globe reported:

One of the Soviet captains gave the order to prepare to fire. But a cooler-headed officer persuaded him to wait for instructions from Moscow before unleashing a nuclear attack.

 ”We thought – that’s it – the end,” Vadim Orlov, a Soviet intelligence officer, was quoted as saying in recently declassified documents from the Cuban missile crisis.

I am not sure whether “cooler-headed” is all there is to this. As a country that saw millions of its citizens die in WWII, Russians had a deeper commitment to peace than the Americans who had not had a war on native soil in a century.

A week ago, the NY Times reported that Obama is unlikely to promise that the USA would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. The excuse given is that such a measure would “rattle” allies such as Japan and South Korea. As expected, JFK fanboy John Kerry sided with Obama and the other madmen determined to preserve American military superiority even if its economy is headed toward 3rd world standards. He also told Obama that a no-first-use pledge would weaken nuclear deterrence while Russia is running practice bombing runs over Europe and China is expanding its reach in the South China Sea. Isn’t there some other way to manage global conflict besides brandishing H-Bombs? Apparently not. In any case, China is on record committed to a no-first strike policy while Russia has stated that it would only use nuclear weapons if attacked first. I understand that these BRICS stalwarts are run by thugs but compared to the White House, they are Helen Caldicott on the question of nuclear war.

The Times article indicated that The Federation of American Scientists released an analysis showing that Obama had dismantled fewer nuclear warheads than any other post-Cold War president. Get that, you people who are okay with Hillary Clinton promising to continue the legacy of the Obama administration? I am much more afraid of her than Donald Trump if for no other reason that she is certain to be the next president while he is destined to continue building luxury condos and stiffing small businesses.

Meanwhile, Obama is all set to push forward with a one trillion dollar nuclear weapons “modernization” program that Clinton will surely continue. This includes an update to the B-61 “bunker buster” weapon that the Pentagon brass is drooling over. This is a wee, “aw cute” little A-Bomb that can be calibrated to deliver between 0.3 to 340 kilotons, just like the volume control on your remote. For comparison’s sake, the maximum output is 20 times that of the A-Bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

b61-project-05_small

Phil Hoover, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, with a B61-12 nuclear weapon

The Guardian blew the whistle on this weapon on April 21, 2013:

Barack Obama has been accused of reneging on his disarmament pledges after it emerged the administration was planning to spend billions on upgrading nuclear bombs stored in Europe to make the weapons more reliable and accurate.

Under the plan, nearly 200 B61 gravity bombs stockpiled in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey would be given new tail fins that would turn them into guided weapons that could be delivered by stealth F35 fighter-bombers.

“This will be a significant upgrade of the US nuclear capability in Europe,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of Nuclear Scientists. “It flies directly in the face of the pledges Obama made in 2010 that he would not deploy new weapons.”

All of this only steels me in my determination to support the Green Party in the 2016 elections, group that is on record advocating a humane and peaceful world:

Our government should establish a policy to abolish nuclear weapons. It should set the conditions and schedule for fulfilling that goal by taking the following steps:

  • Declare a no-first-strike policy.
  • Declare a no-pre-emptive strike policy.
  • Declare that the U.S. will never threaten or use a nuclear weapon, regardless of size, on a non-nuclear nation.
  • Sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Our pledge to end testing will open the way for non-nuclear states to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been held up by our refusal to sign the CTBT. Honor the conditions set in the NPT for nuclear nations.
  • Reverse our withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and honor its stipulations.
  • End the research, testing and stockpiling of all nuclear weapons of any size.
  • Dismantle all nuclear warheads from their missiles.

September 12, 2016

When Justice isn’t Just

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Film — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

First Run Features released the 42-minute documentary When Justice Isn’t Just to iTunes on August 30 and follows up with a DVD beginning tomorrow, September 13, 2016. The film, directed by Oscar-nominated and NAACP Image Award winner David Massey, addresses the concept and reality of justice in the United States, particularly in regard to racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. It will be very useful for classroom discussions of why Black Lives Matter emerged, why Colin Kaepernick is refusing to stand for the national anthem, etc.

Filmed in cities across the country, the documentary explores why so many unarmed black people have been targeted and killed by law enforcement officers, an issue that has taken center stage in the national consciousness. The filmmakers talk to legal experts, activists and law enforcement officials who speak to the inequality within our criminal justice system. The film asks the crucial question of how to prevent more violence in this country, including Black on Black deaths. Activists, law enforcement officials, legal scholars, and the family members of victims offer a range of responses.

At its heart, When Justice Isn’t Just confronts the broken criminal justice system, focusing on the incarceration rate of people of color. As the Black Lives Matter movement and citizens nationwide question the accountability of our justice system in cases of police violence, When Justice Isn’t Just is an essential addition to the ongoing discussion about reform and renewal.

David Massey and producer Dawn Alexander have screened their film throughout the country. As Massey states, “we as filmmakers couldn’t sit on the sidelines without documenting one of the most important human rights issues facing America and the black community today.”

When Justice Isn’t Just features a broad array of people, including Civil Rights Attorney Benjamin L. Crump, Dr. Cornel West, Black Lives Matter’s Dr. Melina Abdullah, Criminal Attorney Tom Mesereau, LAPD Deputy Chief William Scott, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and many more.

Director/Producer David Massey is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications & Education from Ohio Dominican University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Advanced Film & Television from the American Film Institute. He is the first African American in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for an Oscar in the Live-Action Short Film category.

Presently, Massey is the co-chair of the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers, West (BAD-West) in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor at Pasadena City College. He has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including The Martin Ritt Scholarship; the Eastman Kodak Second Century Honoree; induction into The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame; The National Education Association for the “Advancement of Learning through Broadcasting”; the National Black Programming Consortium “Prized Pieces”; PBS “Innovator Teacher’s Award”; and the Heartland Film Festival’s Crystal Heart. Additionally, Massey is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Co-Producer/Writer Dawn Alexander is mother of a young African American male, and as such created this project with a deeply felt commitment to his safety and the safety of other young black men in America. When Justice Isn’t Just is her most recent attempt to address justice since: “Justice can only exist within the coordinates of equality, and is the constant and perpetual disposition to render every person his due.”

 

September 11, 2016

9/11 sketches

Filed under: war — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

I moved into Grogan Towers in Hoboken in 1975 just two years after the WTC went up. This subsidized high-rise was named after the former mayor of Hoboken who was SWP member Pat Grogan’s dad. Grogan Towers had an unobstructed view of the WTC that I could enjoy from my picture window overlooking the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline. I never gave much thought to them except for really enjoying the reflection of the setting sun on the buildings that endowed them with a scarlet glow. When I had a party up in my 25th floor apartment once for Hoboken’s bohemia, I showed artist and the city’s unofficial historian Jim Hans the photo I had taken of the WTC at sunset. He smiled and said, “Very nice. It reminds me of the red glow on a dog’s penis when he is aroused.” I couldn’t tell if Jim was putting me down or whether he was complimenting me, although I leaned toward the latter. That had no effect on my admiration for his passion for Hoboken that bore fruit in the small-scale museum he established in 1986. Like the WTC, the Grogan Towers were demolished long ago—the first a victim of terror, the second a victim of gentrification.

A day after the WTC went down, I wrote about it on the various mailing lists I belonged to. This was before blogs existed. I found what I wrote on the archives of the World Systems Network, a mailing list devoted to the theories associated with Immanuel Wallerstein.

One of the key elements of the transformation of New York was the building of the World Trade Center in an area formerly dominated by small manufacturing and retail. The loss of such businesses meant the loss of a working class. I used to love wandering around this neighborhood, looking into electronics shops, bookstores, etc. Now it nothing but granite and glass. I should say, broken granite and glass.

I quoted from a Sidney Trachtenberg article that had appeared in The Columbus Dispatch on January 30,2000.

Le Corbusier believed that the house was “a machine for living.” Darton says “Corbusier argued that the concentration and disorder of the modern city could be cured by increasing urban density. This would be accomplished by erecting very tall buildings on a small portion of the total ground area.”

Perhaps the French architect’s most radical position: “There ought,” he once wrote, “not to be such things as streets.”

Despite the destruction of the WTC, its legacy lives on in a million different ways, from CVS, Chase Bank and Starbucks that have swarmed over the city like a blitzkrieg to the invasion of oligarchs who live in $25 million condos in Chelsea, another neighborhood that has succumbed to the globalization of finance that allows American capital to grow wings and take flight everywhere and its cohorts in places like China, Russia and India to mark Manhattan as its home territory just like a dog pissing on a parking meter.

Le Corbusier had a brief fling with the USSR from 1928 to 1932, when his proposal for the Palace of the Soviets in 1932 was nixed. Like many “futurists”, his aesthetics could easily be adopted by Marxists and fascists alike. Like Lenin, he was mesmerized by Taylorism and the Ford Motor Company assembly lines. He proposed to French capitalists a style of architecture that would incorporate his ideas.

His 1922 scheme for a “Contemporary City” entailed sixty-story skyscrapers made of walls of glass—in other words, what much of NY looks like today. At the center of a complex would be a transportation hub just like the one that the Port Authority envisioned for the WTC. Le Corbusier was a huge fan of the automobile and advocated that pedestrians be kept far from streets that were meant for high-speed transportation rather than leisurely window-shopping.

Appalled by the economic decline of the 1930s, he became a fascist. Recently, there have been reports on how his politics and aesthetics overlapped. On July 12, 2015, the NY Times reported:

In 1940, just days before a Vichy ruling banning Jews from elective office and other professions, Le Corbusier wrote to his mother: “The Jews are going through a very bad time. I am sometimes contrite about it. But it does seem as if their blind thirst for money had corrupted the country.”

But, scholars note, he also built for Jewish families in Switzerland, never publicly denounced Jews and never joined a fascist organization. “It’s an error in my view to insist on his anti-Semitism,” Mr. Chaslin said. But what he and his fellow authors find more troubling is the architect’s involvement in the 1920s with the right-wing elements. Later, some Vichy supporters saw his well-ordered Radiant City plan for Marseille, France — based on the shape of the human body — as a perfect expression of the Fascist program.

During the Second World War he was friendly with Alexis Carrel, a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon asked by the Vichy government to explore means of “national renewal.” Le Corbusier had read and enthusiastically underlined Carrel’s 1935 best seller, “Man, the Unknown,” which argues that parts of the French population should be gassed to preserve the most “virile” elements.

For weeks after September 11th, the city smelled from the charred wreckage of the twin towers. My next door neighbor was a woman in her 30s and a bit of a crank. She once accused me of placing her garbage at her front door as if she had any right to be so accusatory when she was obliged to drop the trash into a chute on our floor. One night she knocked on my door at around 10pm. What did she want? To accuse me again of some other offense? She said that she thought our building was on fire. No, I replied, that is only the WTC ruins that you smell. She said she couldn’t believe me and went back to her apartment.

About a year ago I had a chat with a man who lived down the hall and the subject of the WTC came up, I can’t remember why. He told me that he was working as a programmer about two blocks from the towers and saw people jumping out the windows. It disturbed him so much that he was in psychotherapy for a year. Can you imagine what Syrians must be feeling now after five years of war? Isn’t it logical that the growth of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS is to some extent a result of Arabs wanting to retaliate for the terror they have endured for decades now? And we “get back” at them by using Predator drones against wedding parties and joining Putin soon in bombing East Aleppo.

In the same month as the WTC went down, Bush invaded Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. On the day the war started, there was excitement in the air, so much so that a guy walking next to me on 3rd Avenue near my building turned to me with big smile on his face and said, “Now we are getting those bastards”. Since he had a bit of an accent, I asked him where he was from. His answer was Guyana. I told him that he should be more careful about endorsing American intervention abroad since the president of his country had been overthrown in 1953 in a coup backed by Britain and the USA. He looked at me like I had two heads.

A couple of months later my boss moved me from the cubicle I occupied at Columbia University because the guy in the next cubicle had been complaining about the phone conversations I was having with an old friend about Bush’s barbaric war.

I was moved away from the programmers into an office with a door that I liked to leave open since closing it made me feel cooped up. The only drawback to leaving it open was having to hear the PC support people who surrounded me in their various cubicles whooping it up every day about Bush blasting the Afghans to kingdom come. Finally, at my wit’s end, I told them to quiet down because I didn’t want to have to listen to their war cries. They too looked at me like I had two heads.

The war fever was all around me in NYC, on the TV and radio. Even the left succumbed with Christopher Hitchens being the most extreme example. I went to the Galloway-Hitchens debate and felt great about Galloway’s take-down.

Oddly enough, I discovered that I had written an article for CounterPunch at the time about the debate. It must have been one of those infrequent moments when I wasn’t feuding with the editors. Here’s a snippet:

Hitchens’s supporters in the audience were just as crazed as their hero. While Galloway’s supporters, including me, were content to absorb his rapier-like arguments, the opposite side seemed more like the sort of people who show up at athletic events, including one woman who kept screaming at the top of her lungs. Another Hitchens supporter, a young man in his mid-20’s I would guess, sat in the row in front of me and seemed determined to argue with everybody around him in what he must have considered a superior Socratic method: “So you would have not intervened against Hitler then?” But mostly he couldn’t sit still, jumping around in his seat like a monkey overdosed on Methamphetamines.

History seems to be repeating itself now. If poor Christopher Hitchens hadn’t croaked from cancer of the esophagus, isn’t it possible that he and Galloway would be reconciled now that the USA and Russia have agreed to unite in a popular front to  “get al-Qaeda”?Perhaps the only constant in politics over the last 15 years is that you can’t go wrong with Islamophobia. The solution to Sharia law, beards and terror is aerial bombardment, something that has a long history.

In 1919 Winston Churchill wrote: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.” This is the Churchill who was commemorated on the Socialist Unity website that features the musings of one John Wight, a regular contributor to CounterPunch about the need to destroy al-Qaeda. Go figure.

Nothing much has changed. The Muslims were the first to be bombed by the air and remain the one people in the world today who are being targeted by American Predator drones, Russian and Syrian bombers with the assistance of other European imperialist powers determined to keep the homeland safe. In 1919, the British were anxious to put down a rebellion in Somalia led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan who Wikipedia describes as having a “thirst for Islamic learning…so intense that he left his job and devoted about ten years to visiting many famous centres of Islamic learning including Harar and Mogadishu and even some centres in Sudan.”

This is what obviously made England determined to get rid of him. Such a fanatic could not be allowed to run a country. In Sven Lindqvist’s “A History of Bombing”, a book I keep returning to help me understand the mad world we are living in today, he describes the British version of Operation Enduring Freedom:

Mohammed Abdille Hassan, called “The Mad Mullah” by his enemies, had long been a thorn in the British lion’s paw. Countless punitive expeditions had failed to punish him. Now the general staff wanted to engage two divisions for twelve months in a big offensive against the mullah. In addition, millions would be required to build the roads, railroads, and military bases necessary to occupy the country. Trenchard proposed to fix the mullah from the air, with twelve airplanes and a maximum of 250 men. Squadron 221, which soon would bomb Tsaritsyn—later Stalingrad—on behalf of the British Empire, was first sent to Somaliland. Mohammed A. Hassan had never seen an airplane, much less a bomb. He gave no evidence of fear. He did what he usually did when he had unexpected visitors: he dressed in his finest clothes and presented himself, surrounded by his most respected counselors, in front of his house under a white canopy that was used on ceremonial occasions. There he awaited the arrival of the foreign emissaries. The first bomb almost put an end to the war. It killed Mohammed’s counselors, and he himself had his clothes singed by the explosion. The next bombardment killed his sister and several of his immediate family members. Then for two days the British bombers attacked Mohammed and his family while they fled through the desert like hunted animals. Finally they were forced to give up. Total time required: a week instead of a year. Total cost: 77,000 pounds—chicken shit compared to what the army had asked for. Churchill was delighted. He persuaded the government to maintain the air force out of purely economic considerations. Then he offered the RAF six million pounds to take over control of the Iraq operation from the army, which had cost eighteen million thus far.

The war on terror continues. As Kurt Vonnegut said in “Slaughterhouse Five”, so it goes.

September 9, 2016

Three narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

Although I’ve seen at least a half-dozen documentaries on the Arab Spring, none of them conveys the outrage against human dignity and freedom that led to the revolt better than the narrative film “As I Open My Eyes” that opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema today.

Set in Tunisia in 2010, Leyla Bouzid’s characters are educated and middle-class but it is easy to extrapolate from their privileged frustration what made street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolate himself in December of that year.

The main character is an 18-year old female named Farah (Baya Medhaffar) who lives in a large and comfortable apartment in Tunis with her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) who is elated by the news that her daughter has been accepted into medical school. Her father Mahmoud (Lassaad Jamoussi) works as a mining foreman in a distant city only because a job closer to home would necessitate joining the party of dictator Ben Ali, an act that would compromise his principles and self-esteem.

Farah’s main interest, however, is performing in night clubs as the lead singer of a rock band that is an eclectic mix of traditional harmonies and hard rock using both electric guitars and the oud, a string instrument that has been around for 5000 years. And most importantly, they are protest musicians singing about the country’s inequities. Since a large part of the film consists of them in performance, it is a little bit like a musical drama. The music was composed by Iraqi Khyam Allami and the lyrics were written by the Tunisian writer Ghassan Amami.

Like all young people, Farah values her independence and freedom more than anything. After a neighbor connected to Ben Ali’s party warns her mother that her daughter is looking for trouble, she orders her to stop performing and focus on medical school. When Farah insists that she is obligated to sing with the band in an upcoming major gig, her mother says no. On the night of the gig, Farah locks her mother in her bedroom and joins the musicians in a rousing performance that like all others recently has attracted undercover cops keeping an eye on opposition to the dictatorship.

As might be expected, her rebellion antagonizes her mother to the point of sending her off to live with relatives far from the temptations of Tunis. After the two arrive at a bus depot, Farah walks off for a minute but does not reappear. Perhaps she has decided to stay in Tunis and continue rebelling against her mother and Tunisia’s injustices? Her mother and her band members discover the awful truth a day later. She was picked up by the cops and interrogated harshly. They wanted to know who wrote the lyrics for their signature song “As I Open My Eyes”. They taunt her. Why hesitate from naming names? One of your band members is already working for us.

Her travails reflect the contradictions that led young middle-class people to join the Jasmine Revolution that was the opening salvo of the Arab Spring. Her experience was a variation on what director Leyla Bouzid experienced. She ran a cine-club with friends, one of whom they eventually learned was a police informant.

In the press notes, Bouzid describes her take on Tunisian events over the past five years. Her words sound as if they were lifted from Gilbert Achar’s “Morbid Symptoms”, an account of the impasse facing young revolutionaries in the region:

When the revolution happened, the desire was very strong to film and represent it. Many documentaries were shot then, all full of hope, all focused on the future. I, too, really wanted to film. Not the revolution, but what everyone had lived through and been subjected to: the suffocating everyday life, the total power of the police, the surveillance, the fear and paranoia of the Tunisian people over the past 23 years.

The revolution (or revolts, points of view are divergent) surprised the entire world, but it didn’t come from nowhere. We couldn’t just all of a sudden sweep away decades of dictatorship and turn towards the future without examining the past. For me it was obvious that we had to quickly review the past while the tide of freedom continued to flow.

Like most Tunisians, my euphoria was strong at first, followed by successive phases of enchantment and disenchantment. For the film, I didn’t want the range of emotions linked to ongoing events to influence me. My only guide was trying to consistently follow the emotional journey traveled by the characters during the historical period being told. The goal was to be as accurate as possible in a work of fiction anchored in a specific historical context.

“As I Open My Eyes” is certain to be one of my picks for best foreign films of 2016. Not only is it gripping drama; it is a psychologically and socially complex look at Tunisian realities. Furthermore, it is implicitly a commentary on the difficulties of social change in this period of history when the ideals of young progressive-minded people is thwarted by objective conditions that evoke Marx’s observation in the 18th Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Also opening today at the Paris Theater and Angelika Film Center in NY is “Come What May”, a French film directed by Christian Carion whose 2005 film “Joyeux Noël” dramatized the fraternization of English, French and German troops on Christmas Eve, December 1914. Like that film, his latest involves men at war but in much grimmer circumstances. It recounts the migration of more than a million Frenchmen from the north of the country toward the south in May 1940 to flee the invading Nazis.

This event resonated deeply with Carion whose mother took part in this migration.

The film begins in Germany as single dad Hans (August Diehl) is about to sit down with his young son Max (Joshio Marlon) for breakfast. As they make small talk, the phone rings. It is Hans’s comrade warning him that the Gestapo is on its way to arrest him. Since Hans is a Communist, he indeed has reasons to worry.

In the next scene, we see Hans and Max working on a farm in northern France owned by Paul, the village’s mayor. When we discover that Paul has named one of his draft horses Hitler, we become worried about the father and son who have told him that they were Belgians. (Germans aroused suspicions, whatever their ideology.) We become relieved when Paul informs them that the horse got that name because it was so troublesome, always looking for fights with the other horses.

When the local cops discover that Hans lacks proper documents, they haul him off to jail in a nearby city. While he is there, word comes down that the village must evacuate. The villagers put everything they can carry into horse-drawn carts and head out on the open road. This leaves Max in the care of Paul, his wife and Max’s schoolteacher who rides ahead of the column as a scout, exactly the role that Carion’s mother played in 1940.

Meanwhile, as the Nazis storm into the city where Hans is jailed, the cops release him and the other prisoners in the ensuing melee. When the British troops stationed there fight a rear guard action against the Nazis, Hans runs into a Scottish officer who has lost all his outnumbered men in gun battles. With him in tow, they head off to Paul’s village where they hope to meet up with Max and the friends he has made there. Upon arriving, Hans sees Max’s message to him on the school blackboard telling him that he is okay and hopes to be rejoined with him. From that point on, the film combines the human drama of father and son seeking to be together again with the social drama of French villagers trying to stay alive. In one scene, German fighter planes fire on them mostly out of the same genocidal imperatives Russian bombers follow when they fly over East Aleppo. As I mentioned in my review of “Sharps War” yesterday, this kind of war crime occurred with some regularity as seen in the documentary.

Despite the grim subject matter, the film has a pastoral quality as the villagers sleep in the open air and walk down roads that look like they were lifted from a Renoir landscape. In the press notes, Carion states: “My mother told me that the weather that month was the best she’d ever seen. It was the hottest month of the 20th century. They slept out under the stars. My mother was a scout on her bicycle, like the teacher in the film. Just like her, my mother didn’t always reveal what she had seen. The world was turned on its head. But for someone aged 14 at the time, it must have been amazing. I always tried to keep in mind that vital energy, which guided us during the writing of the film.”

An essay on the historical context of the French Exodus by Oliver Wieviorka appears in the press notes. Wieviorka is a specialist on WWII and the French Resistance whose paternal grandparents were Polish Jews that were arrested in Nice during World War II and died at Auschwitz. He writes:

The Exodus remains a paradoxical phenomenon. For many, it was a terrible trial, but for others, it represented adventure or first love. It often revealed the realities of war and the terrible things one learns in a country at war, but sometimes it meant the discovery of solidarity and new horizons for people who previously had never left the confines of their village. Above all, it forced individuals to choose. Some submitted to the fatality of defeat, trusting a veteran marshal with their fate. Others, however, refused to believe the propaganda, flocking to enlist in unprecedented numbers with the Resistance or with General de Gaulle’s Free French. As such, the experience of setting out on the road was, to a large extent, a decisive factor in people’s subsequent fates, inspiring some to give in, and others to stand up and be counted. Lastly, and perhaps above all, the Exodus reflects the total collapse – both politically and militarily – of a country that had, until that point, believed itself to be invincible. This perhaps explains why this event is still largely absent from the national memory. However, millions of French people’s memories still bear a wound that continues to bleed today.

“Come What May” is a beautiful film with a film score by the legendary Ennio Morricone that has the same mixture of awe and horror as “Night of the Shooting Stars”. It is a reminder of the plight of refugees during warfare, a subject that is unfortunately as timely today as it was in 1940.

Scheduled to be screened at the upcoming NY Film Festival and set for general release on December 16th, “Neruda” is a brilliant work of art that would likely come crashing to earth if too much analysis was invested into trying to understand the point of the film.

Although based on real characters, they function much more as symbols in a drama that pits a world-renowned Communist poet and Senator against the chief of police in Chile in 1948 as the cold war kicks in. Neruda, who is played brilliantly by Luis Gnecco, is a bourgeois libertine who has taken up the cause of the working class despite his distance from their lives. In one memorable scene, he is approached by a working class woman in a party thrown by the CP who professes love of his poetry despite his inability to really understand what her life is like.

When Chile’s president Gabriel Videla orders the cops to round up CP’ers, including Neruda, he puts the top cop Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, who played Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries”) on the case. Peluchonneau is ambivalent about Neruda. To prove his mettle as top cop, he is anxious to track him down but he also admires his poetry. When Neruda discovers that he is on his trail, he leaves traces of his writing behind for the detective to ponder.

Since director Pablo Larrain made “No”, a film in which Gael García Bernal played an adman who works behind the scenes to assist leftists organizing a no vote against Pinochet staying in power, there is little doubt about his politics. While he certainly could have made a film about the earlier generation’s resistance to the Pinochet of their day, he chose instead to make a film about the role of the radical artist in bourgeois society with Peluchonneau serving as a kind of perverse muse to Neruda who becomes enraptured by the idea of living on the lam.

If Larrain had chosen to make the kind of film I would have made, he would have spent much more time exploring the relationship between Neruda and the dictator Videla. It turns out that Neruda was Videla’s campaign manager in 1946 in accord with the CP and other left groups backing of the bourgeois politician. Once or twice, this misguided political strategy is brought up in the film but only as background.

Despite my obvious preference for the kind of films that Gillo Pontecorvo made, I found “Neruda” totally captivating and recommend it without qualification. The dialog is witty, the performances are great and the cinematography stunning.

September 8, 2016

Three Documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

What Charles Ferguson did for (or to, more exactly) Wall Street in his Academy Award winning 2010 documentary “Inside Job”, Steve Mims has now done with “Starving the Beast”, a shocking film about the “starving” of state universities by rightwing politicians opening tomorrow at the IFC Center in NY. Essentially the same neoliberal con artists that concocted the mortgage-based securities bubble that brought down the banking system in 2008 are now busily at work hollowing out flagship universities like the University of Wisconsin in the name of “reform”. Does it matter to those who idolize Ayn Rand that their policies are undermining the future viability of capitalism itself? Apparently not.

As someone who worked at Columbia University for 21 years, I began reading the Chronicle of Higher Education on a daily basis mostly as a way of keeping on top of IT developments at American universities. Since I was also a long-time socialist, I could not help but notice one article after another reporting on the corporatization of the university. Billionaires were gaining control over places like the U. of Wisconsin through the leverage they enjoyed through Republican Party governors that saw most professors as the enemy of the free enterprise system. Mims, who is as skilled as Ferguson at getting rightwing creeps to hoist themselves on their own petard, allows someone like Jay Schalin of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy to openly question the need for studying history, literature, art or anything that is not directly related to the goal of churning out graduates destined for the corporate world.

What is the Pope Center, you might reasonably ask. I had never heard of it myself. One of the chief benefits of “Starving the Beast” is how it lifts up the rock and allows the creepy, crawly things who fund or work for rightwing think-tanks to be exposed to daylight. The man behind the Pope Center is Art Pope, North Carolina’s version of the Koch brothers, whose deep pockets helped elect Republican Governor Pat McCrory in 2012. In an article on Schalin and the Pope Center that appeared in the Nation Magazine, Zoë Carpenter wrote:

Up at the podium, Schalin laid out part of the Pope Center’s vision for “renewal at the university,” which, he argued, could be achieved through the propagation of privately funded academic centers. In a related report Schalin described how these centers would balance “academia’s gradual purging” of courses dedicated to “liberty, capitalism, and traditional perspectives,” more specifically by supplanting the “French communist[s]” Derrida, Bourdieu, and Foucault with Ayn Rand. Schalin assured his audience that these centers wouldn’t be political—though, he said, “when you study capitalism on an objective basis, you are going to notice this very strong correlation between prosperity and capitalism—and that’s okay to bring up.”

One of the victims of the rightwing hostile takeover of the UNC was Gene Nichols, who was director of the Poverty Center, a research group that was on the school’s Board of Governors hit-list. This gang and the school’s president Margaret Spellings, who was George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, considered Nichols to be some kind of criminal subversive even though the center’s main focus was on North Carolina’s social and economic problems. To even identify them was considered “advocacy” by the new guard at the school and had to be punished.

The theoretical basis for the neoliberal restructuring of state universities can be found in the 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” written by MIT business school professor Clayton Christensen that put forward the theory of “disruptive innovation”, which was a bastardized version of Schumpter’s “creative destruction”. Four years later Christensen followed up with another book titled “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out” that was widely embraced by the sorts of people Art Pope foisted on the UNC.

Other schools have been under siege from the corporatist board members appointed by Republican governors, some of which became front page news. The film goes into considerable depth explaining the background of such battles including the forced resignation of the University of Virginia’s president Teresa A. Sullivan who resisted a move toward online classes. For many in the Art Pope/Koch Brothers think tank realm, the goal is to drastically reduce the number of tenured professors and replace them with a cadre of academic superstars who would lecture to students over the Internet in combination with adjunct foot soldiers responsible for grading papers and other grunt work. Ironically, this school was created by Thomas Jefferson in keeping with the humanist traditions of all great universities, even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner and advocate of Empire. Students and faculty at the U. of Va. rallied against the firing and Sullivan held on to her job.

It was in Texas where the onslaught was deepest and most extreme. With a governor like Rick Perry, schools such as the U. of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M would be the guinea pigs in corporatist “reform”. Professors at Texas A&M, which has the reputation of being a rightwing school with a football program that produced the execrable Johnny Manziel, were appalled when the school began maintaining a spreadsheet that evaluated them on the basis of how much revenue they were generating. The Huffington Post reported:

For years, state legislators, parents, and even his own boss had been hectoring Frank Ashley, the vice chancellor of academic affairs for the Texas A&M University System, to tell them whether his highest paid professors were worth their often fat paychecks.

Ashley responded with a spreadsheet that listed each of his faculty members according to how much money they made or lost for the university.

The study calculated an individual professor’s “revenue” based on the tuition he or she brought to the school — a product of the number of students taught — and the amount of research awards and grants he or she obtained, among other factors. The greater the number of classes and students taught, the greater the revenue. If a professor’s annual salary was lower than the amount of revenue generated, it was black. Otherwise, it was red.

Of the 50 highest compensated faculty members, only five appeared to be in the black and earning their keep. The rest were crimson.

When Texas A&M president Mike McKinney became convinced that such an approach was counterproductive and took steps to oppose it, he was fired.

At the U. of Texas, it was open warfare as Perry and his flunkies tried to get rid of the school’s president. Perry had installed Wallace L. Hall, Jr. on the board of regents, where he began a campaign to find some excuse to remove Bill Powers and find someone more amenable to Perry’s “disruptive innovation” goals. Finally, they used the excuse that Powers had influenced the admissions office to accept the sons and daughters of wealthy alumni who had made major contributions to the endowment, even though they had low grades. Someone likened this to Claude Rains being shocked that gambling was going on at Rick’s.

Perry and Hall were closely connected to a character named Jeff Sandefer who made millions in the oil business and like Art Pope in North Carolina decided to use his clout to “reform” the U. of Texas, where he had taught a class in the business school on a part-time basis. When the school decided to bring in tenure-track professors rather than use part-time businessmen, he quit and started his own business school in Austin. While nobody would begrudge someone getting pissed off and taking his football home with him, Sandefer wasn’t finished. He cooked up something called “seven breakthrough solutions” that Perry presented to the board of regents for implementation.

Since one of Perry’s appointees had written a paper titled “Is Academic Research a Good Investment for Texas?” that concluded that it wasn’t, there was obviously a very deep conflict between Perry’s men and the old guard at the U. of Texas and Texas A&M whose educational philosophy hearkened back to Thomas Jefferson who had written:

An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

Yes, I know. Jefferson was a skunk but he got this much right at least. An informed citizenry is necessary for democracy. Is there any more proof needed to see what happens when that requirement is neglected than the 2016 election?

Finally, let me recommend a visit to the film’s website and a look at the documents section that has 128 articles on the crisis of the state university system. Steve Mims has done an enormous service by making this film and being an advocate for the traditional values of higher education that I benefited from at Bard College in the early 60s. In the press notes, Mims describes his goal in making this critically important film:

The film takes the shape of a story of 35 years of state funding reductions resulting in a transfer of financial burden from the state to students via tuition and fees and programs introduced through market-oriented think tanks to radically reform the public university system.

Beyond that, though, we got to a larger, philosophical issue:  the mission of public universities and how that mission is changing. These schools were conceived as a public good – an investment in the young as future citizens and leaders of the states in which they reside. Today, many see these schools as providing monetary value to individual students, who, in a free market, should alone bear the cost of that education. Furthermore, many also question the tax-payer worthiness of some course content offered in public higher education, arguing, ultimately, for a re-evaluation of the very ideas suitable for discussion in tax-payer underwritten schools.

That struck us as very interesting. Luckily for us, we found and interviewed people from all sides of these issues, and we got to meet some of the smartest people across the country who shared with us their stories and opinions about what turns out to be a pivotal moment in public higher education in the United States.

Also opening tomorrow at Cinema Village in NY is “Landfill Harmonic”, an inspiring (a word I don’t often use but in this case it applies) film about the children of Cateura who play musical instruments fashioned from materials found in Asuncion, Paraguay’s garbage dump.

I first heard about them in a Sixty Minutes segment that was aired three years ago. It seems that Fabio Chavez, who had begun working at the landfill as an environmental engineer, got the idea to teach music to the kids as part of a general effort to improve the quality of life.

Since Chavez is an uncommonly warm and supportive man, the children flocked to his classes until the demand for training exceeded the supply of instruments. Nicolás “Cola” Gomez, a guajero (the Spanish term for trash recycler) who had also worked earlier in life as a carpenter and wood worker got the idea to construct instruments from discarded tin cans and pieces of wood in the Cateura dump. Watching the children play these instruments is something of a miracle considering the cognitive dissonance between a violin made of empty cans and the strains of Mozart it produces.

The narrative arc of the film is quite simple. The kids get better and better at playing these instruments and begin touring everywhere in the world to great acclaim. In some ways, the film is reminiscent of “Buena Vista Social Club” but with the differences over how Paraguay and Cuba treat their young people. In Cuba the state provides resources to educate the sons and daughters of campesinos to become musicians, dancers and artists while in Paraguay it is up to individuals and charities to extend support.

When I became a socialist in 1967, one of the main motivations was to help make it possible for every child to realize their full potential. If people were kept in poverty, it meant that a future Beethoven or Jonas Salk would be thwarted by the conditions of life that were thrust upon them by a class-divided society. Cuba gives you a little flavor for what that future world will look like while “Landfill Harmonic” will demonstrate the possibilities that exist everywhere under a world socialist system. As CLR James put it, every cook can govern. So can every child play Mozart as long as they have the talent to do so. The job is to provide the standard of living so that no obstacles block them from achieving their goals.

Also opening tomorrow at Cinema Village is “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps War”, a Ken Burns documentary about a Unitarian Minister and his wife who went to Europe in 1939 to help Jews escape Nazi persecution. Since the narration is by Tom Hanks, you might get the impression that the film is cut from the “Schindler’s List” cloth. While this is true to some extent, Burns allows the events to speak for themselves as would be dictated by the norms of the genre. Documentaries are required to stick to the facts more or less while fictional films like “Schindler’s List” veer toward the melodramatic.

While there is little likelihood that Waitstill and Martha Sharp were in any danger of being sent to a concentration camp given their American citizenship, there were enormous strains on them in working in such a high pressure environment with the lives of many people at stake, including children. They had left their own kids at home just to be able to carry out their mission more effectively.

Among the interviewees was Justus Rosenberg, the 95-year old Bard College professor emeritus who was profiled in the NY Times on April 16 this year for his work with the rescue effort. He described the chaos that descended on France immediately after the Nazi invasion in 1939 that led to an exodus of more than a million of its citizens to the southern part of the country, an event depicted in “Come What May”, a narrative film I will be reviewing tomorrow.

Among the people rescued by the Sharps was Lion Feuchtwanger, a novelist who was a fierce critic of the Nazis and who influenced Berthold Brecht. The Sharps were involved with a risky and perhaps even dangerous mission to get him out of France, into Spain, and from there on a ship bound to the USA.

About fifteen years ago I read Feuchtwanger’s “Jew Suess” on the advice of Michael Smith, the ex-SWPer and well-known radical lawyer. I was interested in finding out more about tax farming, the bailiwick of court Jews in the Middle Ages, since my last name means “counting house of a tax farmer” in Yiddish.

The novel was based on the real life of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, a court Jew who engaged not only in tax farming in the 17th century but in early forms of manufacturing—a sort of transitional figure between feudalism and capitalism.

As it happens, the Nazis bowdlerized the novel and made an anti-Semitic film that was totally at odds with Feuchtwanger’s much more nuanced presentation. In 2010 I reviewed a documentary titled “Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss” about the film’s director Veit Harlan who was almost as well-known as Leni Riefenstahl.

From my review:

Jew Süss, made in 1940, is set in the 18th century and is based on historical events involving a Jewish financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, who was one of the Duke of Württemberg “court Jews” and despised by the masses who found him a convenient scapegoat for the Duke’s misrule. In Harlan’s movie, Süss becomes a grotesque arch-villain. So effective he was in turning the character into a stereotypical receptacle of hatred that Heinrich Himmler laid down the law that all cops and SS members had to see the movie.

Veit Harlan always defended himself as being forced to make such movies, even when he was charged with war crimes. We learn from one of his children that the judge who ruled in his favor was the same one who during WWII sentenced a Ukrainian woman to beheading because of a petty crime.

His oldest son was a staunch Hitler Youth and initially collaborated on screenplays with his father before turning radically against him, even setting fire to movie theaters that showed Veit Harlan’s postwar films as the press notes for the documentary relates. It adds:

In the early years of the Federal Republic, he fought former Nazis in high positions. In 1948 Thomas moved to Paris, later becoming a Nazi-hunter in Poland who delivered documents for thousands of war-crime proceedings. Himself a director of several powerfully political films, he was also an anarchist and Communist revolutionary in Portugal and Chile, the darling of Rome’s glitterati and a close friend of actor Klaus Kinski. He remembers many pleasant moments with his father; but Jew Süss he calls a “murder instrument.”

Veit Harlan always insisted that he had nothing against Jews. Believe it or not, he said that some of his best friends were Jews and that he even had a Jewish doctor. But of most interest in deciphering his eventual transformation into arch-Nazi propagandist, his first wife Dora Gershon was a Jew who left him for a Jewish man. She died in Auschwitz in 1943. One of his daughters explains his anti-Semitism as being personally grounded in this affront that he took bitterly.

September 6, 2016

The counter-offensive against Ashley Smith

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

Ashley Smith

Like vampires drawing the shades, the Baathist amen corner is doing the best it can to discredit Ashley Smith’s illuminating article on Syria that appeared in the August 26th CounterPunch. The first salvo was from Off-Guardian, the website that has the chutzpah to “correct” the liberal British newspaper by serving up unhealthy dollops of RT.com. One imagines that they are okay with 21 journalists being killed since Putin took power in 2000 because as everybody knows they were trying to subvert the public order and we can’t have that.

Next up was Vanessa Beeley who is infamous for her attacks on the White Helmets that she regards as the advance guard of a NATO “regime change” operation in Syria. Like most of these nitwits, she would probably be warning about an invasion until every last Syrian opponent of Assad, either armed or unarmed, had been exterminated. Her article not only trashes Smith but Terry Burke and Andy Berman who have also written articles calling attention to the obvious, namely that certain “leftists” have the same relationship to Assad that an earlier generation had to Joseph Stalin. That earlier generation could at least be excused for believing rather irrationally that it was defending socialism. But the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party of Bashar al-Assad? That’s like being taken in by the National Socialist German Workers Party of Adolph Hitler. There’s more to socialism than a word, after all.

Beeley’s article appeared on the 21st Century Wire, an outlet that describes itself as being inspired by Zero Hedge. That makes perfect sense, of course, since one of Zero Hedge’s three contributors quit recently, complaining “I can’t be a 24-hour cheerleader for Hezbollah, Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, and Trump anymore. It’s wrong. Period. I know it gets you views now, but it will kill your brand over the long run. This isn’t a revolution. It’s a joke.”

I hadn’t planned on responding to the counter-offensive but Rick Sterling’s article in today’s CounterPunch was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It is really unbelievable. This guy has written 18 articles defending Assad compared to the one by Ashley Smith and he is squealing like a stuck pig. It is even more grotesque when you consider that the ratio overall on CounterPunch is probably a hundred to one favoring Assad, with people like Sterling, Mike Whitney, Pepe Escobar, Andre Vltchek, John Wight, et al, repeating the same talking points.

Imagine if the ratio was reversed. Jeff St. Clair trips out on some bad LSD and is visited by three Syrian ghosts. Afterwards in Ebenezer Scrooge fashion he begins publishing Sam Charles Hamad, Idrees Ahmad and Michael Karadjis instead of the Baathist amen corner. One day deciding that some balance was necessary, he publishes a Rick Sterling article. Does anybody in their right mind think that any of us would raise the kind of stink that he, Beeley and Off-Guardian raise? Their defensiveness is just a reflection of their ideological insecurity. I wouldn’t want to find myself in the position of defending a snake like Assad but they seem to thrive on it. Some conspiracy-minded people might think they are getting paid to write such crap but I think the best explanation is political confusion rooted in the Stalinist tradition. In their case, the disease is terminal.

Sterling’s article begins with the one and only correction that might have been made to Smith’s, his reference to Assad’s “massacre of some 400,000 Syrians”. In fact that is the total number killed on either side, whether combatant or non-combatant. In my view, it would be very difficult to ascertain the exact number of casualties given the chaotic situation but nonetheless one thing can be stated with certainty. The responsibility for this horrible blood-letting rests on Assad’s shoulders. When his snipers fired on peaceful protests in 2011, the opposition was left with no alternative except to defend itself. This point is obviously moot in Sterling’s eyes since Assad could do no wrong. Tell that to the parents of the 13-year old protestor Hamza al-Khateeb who was picked up by Assad’s cops in Darayya in May 2011 and whose dead body was left on his parents’ doorstep with bullet wounds in both arms, burns across his body, a broken neck, and his genitals cut off.

As expected, Sterling blames the rebels for the Ghouta sarin gas attack citing Robert Parry and Seymour Hersh as experts. Since both Parry and Hersh are diehard supporters of the Syrian government, it is a bit hard to take this seriously. Instead of going into tedious detail refuting the absurdity of their reporting, let’s just consider this. Taking them at their word, the Syrian rebels had the capability of launching rockets at long distances that carried poison gas capable of killing thousands of people in 2013 but only used them in a “false flag” operation to spur regime change.

These are the same rebels vilified by Sterling as capable of unspeakable evil because of their “Salafist” beliefs. And since 2013 they haven’t fired any missiles at government-held territory? We are told by Sterling and company that the rebels cut off the head of a 12-year old Palestinian boy just for fun and now they won’t use sarin-laden rockets to devastating effect? Something doesn’t add up here and it certainly isn’t the articles of Sterling, Parry, Hersh and company.

Next he admits that Assad took part in the CIA extraordinary rendition program but seems to excuse it because Maher Arar, one of its victims, received an official apology and $10 million from the Canadian government that was part of the abduction. The real question, of course, is why an “anti-imperialist” government would ever work with the CIA—something that is beyond Sterling’s pay grade to explain.

From there it is on to Sterling’s clumsy attempt to depict the so-called Caesar photos documenting 11,000 of Assad’s torture victims as bogus. I already dealt with this matter on March 2016. Sterling tries to discredit the Syrian who smuggled out the photos by pointing out that the chairman of the investigating committee was a Syracuse professor and everybody knows that at this college “the CIA actively recruits new officers despite student resistance.” So in the previous paragraph Sterling has nothing to say about Assad collaborating with the CIA to torture abductees while in the next one he introduces a red herring about Syracuse University that has nothing to do with the photographs of mutilated Syrians who were abducted into the same torture chambers as Maher Arar. Unbelievable.

Moving right along, Sterling makes the case that Assad is actually quite popular, referring to a Jonathan Steele article that commented on a 2012 poll, which indicated that 55 percent of Syrians wanted him to remain in power. Actually Steele’s article was not very accurate. In fact, the number was based on 98 people who lived in Damascus and who responded to an online survey. Since at the time only 18 percent of Syrians had Internet access, it is hard to take such figures seriously. The polling company admitted that the poll was not intended to be representative of all Syrians. Pollsters, including them, believe that any survey based on less than a thousand people cannot be expected to produce accurate results. Then again, people like Sterling are not very interested in accuracy so naturally he would swear by its findings.

Further proof of Assad’s popularity was supposedly his victory in the 2014 elections when he racked up 88.7 percent of the vote. Well, he ran virtually unopposed but why would that matter if you were staging a demonstration election? Even Robert Fisk was not taken in by this charade, informing Independent readers:

Twenty-four candidates originally presented themselves for the presidency but they were whinnied down to the lonely three for the elections, including – deus ex machina – Bashar himself. So will historians interpret all this as a political punch by the president to match the military victories which his armies – including rather a lot of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards – have clocked up?

In terms of “socialist” Syria, Sterling sounds like he has visited one Potemkin Village too many: “Syria was largely self-sufficient with a semi-socialist state apparatus including free health-care, free education and large industries 51% owned by the state.” When Bashar al-Assad’s father was running the show, some of this might have sounded plausible even if you take into account that state ownership is not the same thing as socialism.

But when the son took over the family dynasty, new policies in line with IMF wisdom were instituted. Foreign investment was encouraged and neoliberalism became the order of the day. Unemployment reached 20 percent and subsidies were cut off to those most in need—the rural poor.

Those that had connections to the family dynasty did extraordinarily well. Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, controls foreign investment completely. He also owns Syriatel, the largest telecommunications company in the country. The Financial Times estimates that he controls 60% of the Syrian economy, with a focus on telecommunications, oil and gas, construction, banking, airlines and retail. The Makhloufs have come up in the investigations around the Panama Papers. If your idea of socialism is a mafia state with the wealthiest man hiding his assets in tax havens, you obviously haven’t been reading Karl Marx. In fact I doubt that Sterling has ever read Marx or Engels by the way he refers to Syria as “semi-socialist”. Countries are never “semi-socialist”. They are capitalist with welfare state provisions but Syria dispensed with them early on in Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Reese Erlich, a journalist whose latest book is regarded by some supporters of the Syrian revolution as a backhanded defense of the Baathist dictatorship, sized up the Syrian economy in October 28, 2011 as one hardly corresponding to Sterling’s Hallmark Card version of “semi-socialism”:

Syria’s big business elite is closely intertwined with the ruling Baath Party through financial and family ties. Disloyalty to the government can mean not only loss of lucrative government contracts, but political isolation and even jail.

Conflicting attitudes towards the Assad government date back to economic changes that began in 2004, when Syria shifted from a centrally managed economy to a more privatized one. The business elite benefited as the government allowed creation of private banks, insurance companies, and an airline.

The growth of large corporations in turn spurred creation of small-and medium-sized companies such as the marketing firm owned by Rana Issa. Government policies created economic growth and loyalty among business leaders.

But the new liberalization policy also amplified Syria’s system of crony capitalism, leading to charges of widespread corruption.

Demonstrators have singled out Rami Makhlouf, for example, a cousin of President Assad and owner of the country’s largest cell phone company. Critics say he’s made tens of millions of dollars due to family connections.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a top adviser to the president, admits that corruption remains a serious problem in Syria. “Rami Makhlouf isn’t the only one who made money in the past period,” she says in an interview at the presidential palace. “There are many people, big capitalists, who made a lot of money.”

That’s the reality of Syria today: barrel bombs and people making a lot of money. That a section of the left ended up serving as its hired guns is something that history will judge harshly.

 

September 5, 2016

Refugees: a guide to modern left “Solidarity”

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:35 pm

refugees syria left

The problem with anti-Semitism

Filed under: anti-Semitism — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

Christopher Bollyn: believes that being a Jew is a lot like being a wolf

 Off-Guardian is a website deeply committed to the Assadist cause that recently attacked the Ashley Smith article on Syria that appeared on CounterPunch. In making the case for Assad’s genocidal war, these people have the temerity to fault CounterPunch that has published a hundred Rick Sterling articles praising Assad to just one by Ashley Smith attacking him. Their shrieks of outrage would make you think the ratio was reversed. To show you how case-hardened the editorial board and its regular readers are, the article included this qualification:

We’re the first to acknowledge he [Assad] should be named a tyrant – if that is what he is. But Smith’s article doesn’t come close to producing any evidence that Assad is a tyrant or a “brutal dictator.”

But that wasn’t good enough for the wretched Phil Greaves who coined the term “axis of resistance”. He commented:

Next time someone criticizes a dumb line like this…

“We’re the first to agree Assad isn’t beyond criticism and shouldn’t be sanctified by the “enemy of my enemy” syndrome. We’re the first to acknowledge he may entirely deserve to be called a tyrant.”

You should thank them and acknowledge them when you edit it out.

In other words, Greaves was angry that they could even refer to Assad and tyranny in the same sentence, even though they obviously have denied any such connections from day one.

As awful as the article was, it paled in comparison to comments by one Al Sordi [emphasis added] :

These older socialist publications always had a strong jewish presence. Its amazing how many of these intellectuals commenting here will refuse to see the elephant in the room, when it comes to how the anti-war movement was hijacked by zioinists from the get go, and continue to be mislead while the US does Israel’s bidding.

Why is anyone surprised. Many of these socialists and marxists are also zionists, like [Joshua] Frank. BTW Russia Today is the best and honest news and analysis one can find aired anywhere in the US. In comparison with RT, NPR looks like Stalinist propaganda, with its fluff, obfuscation, obvious bias and warm and fuzzy warm mongering.

The “older socialist publications” is a reference to Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the ISO where Smith’s article originally appeared. Or then again, who knows what he was talking about? It is difficult to figure out what someone as addled as Sordi meant.

But the reference to Zionists “like Frank” is a much clearer indication that the guy is a classic anti-Semitic guttersnipe. He is talking about Joshua Frank, whose ethnicity could be Jewish but even if it was, how does that make him a Zionist?

This was not the first time I have run into anti-Semitic tropes on an Assadist website. In December 2013, I ran into a character named Rowan Berkeley who is a frequent commenter at Moon of Alabama, a website with the same commitment to the Baathist cause as Off-Guardian. After I posted a critical comment of an article blaming the Syrian rebels for a “false flag” attack of sarin gas on Ghouta, Berkeley wrote: “Now, Louis, you must understand that the fact that [x] expresses rhetorical support for [y] simply tells you nothing about [y]. Indulging in this kind of guilt by involuntary association is a very common Jewish weakness in argument.”

A very common Jewish weakness in argument? Was it my genes that produced such a weakness? None of this should come as a major surprise. The boundaries between the legitimate leftist groups and individuals who have succumbed to mechanical “anti-imperialism” and filth like Rowan Berkeley is rather porous.

This was demonstrated dramatically when the Brooklyn Commons, a home to a number of groups like WBAI, Jacobin, Indypendent and the Marxist Education Project, scheduled a talk by Christopher Bollyn defending 9/11 conspiracy theories. He was billed as “a rare voice exposing the neocons and their Zionist partners-in-crime who had the means, motive, and opportunity to pull off this game-changing event.” Well, to start with I am mortified that anybody on the left would still be offering a platform for Truthers but that’s not the worst of it.

It turns out that Bollyn is another Rowan Berkeley. A Google search on his name and “Jews” turns up fetid morsels like:

It seems like being a Jew is a lot like being a wolf. Maybe that is where the name came from. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in “The Law for the Wolves”, “…the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

In one article, Bollyn recommends a book by Douglas Reed titled “The Controversy of Zion”. Reed was a British fiction writer and political analyst (the two roles obviously overlapped) who viewed communism as a Jewish plot and defended colonial rule in Africa, a rather logical pairing when you stop and think about it. As it happens, Reed’s book can be read online at the VHO website that is dedicated to neo-Nazi material. Chapter 21 is titled “The World Revolution” and contains this eye-opening revelation:

The 19th Century, in the West, differed from the preceding eighteen centuries of the Christian era there in the emergence of two movements with a converging aim, which by the century’s end dominated all its affairs.

The one movement, Zionism, aimed at reassembling a dispersed nation in a territory promised to it by the Jewish god; the second movement, Communism, aimed at the destruction of separate nationhood as such.

Will Bollyn expound on this at the Brooklyn Commons? I suppose that even this might be a pardonable offense given the man’s dedication to the democratic and tolerant values of the Middle East’s leading member of the “axis of resistance”. In an article titled “UN: Israel Supporting Syrian Rebels”, he opines:

This report should help people finally understand that Israel is behind the terrorism, carnage, and madness that has been inflicted on the people of Syria for the past few years.  This is the Syrian chapter of the Zionist “War of Terror” that began with the false-flag terrorism of 9-11.

Well, who knows? Maybe he has a point. After all, Electronic Intifada’s intrepid contributor Rania Khalek has been making the same points in articles and tweets for some time now as demonstrated in “Why has Israel embraced al-Qaida’s branch in Syria?

One good thing that has come out of this is a disavowal of the invitation to Bollyn from the Brooklyn Commons groups alluded to above:

Statement from Multiple Organizations on Christopher Bollyn Event at the Brooklyn Commons

As organizations that work out of the Brooklyn Commons, we reject the antisemitic politics of Christopher Bollyn. We do not have any say in event booking and management at the Commons but agree that such politics should have no place in leftist spaces.

I first heard about the controversy from an article on Jewschool.com by Daniel Sieradski. When I posted a link to it on Facebook, long-time Palestine solidarity activist Amith Gupta referred me to an Electronic Intifada article that exposed Sieradski’s connection to the Israel lobby despite his leftist pretensions:

Sieradski has also provided professional services to groups whose core mission is to influence public opinion in support of the Israeli state by whitewashing its crimes against Palestinians. His LinkedIn profile notes his work with Israel21c, a hasbara organization which “redefines the conversation about Israel” by diverting media and public attention away from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and instead toward it’s “vibrant diversity, humanity, creativity, innovative spirit, and responsiveness”. The organization, which has also “trained more than 1,500 Israel activists in seven US cities,” is currently headed by former AIPAC President Amy Friedkin.

In a nutshell, this is the problem with anti-Semitism especially when it is cloaked with anti-Zionist verbiage. It gives people like Sieradski the leverage they need to embarrass the left and put it on the defensive. The ADL has exploited Bollyn events in the past to further its goal of making an amalgam between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

The people who decided to extend an invitation to Bollyn did not exercise due diligence. Five minutes of Googling would have revealed his sordid past. On the other hand, there is the troubling possibility that it was exactly that past that endeared him to them.

The truth is that anti-Semitism is not an existential threat to American Jews. Except for the occasional swastika scrawled on a wall, the bourgeois press would find nothing else to report on. In fact, the ultraright both here and in Europe is now targeting Muslims rather than Jews. Marine Le Pen is a prime example. Her party has attracted French Jews despite her father’s well-known anti-Semitic views:

But since Marine Le Pen took over her father’s party in that same year, it appears as if everything and nothing has changed in the relationship between the FN and French Jewry. Her efforts to “de-demonize” the FN have centered on its anti-Semitic past. Not only did she declare that the Holocaust was the “summit of human barbarity,” but she also gave the bum’s rush to the party’s collection of Holocaust deniers and revisionists. Of course, this housecleaning ultimately swept up her own father when he revealed himself to be a recidivist on the matter of historical details. Last year, when asked during a radio interview whether he still held to his position on the Holocaust, Jean-Marie Le Pen replied, “Yes, absolutely, I still maintain this opinion, because I believe it is the truth and it should shock no one.”

Except, perhaps, his daughter. Shaken by this paternal attempt to undermine her authority, Marine Le Pen launched the process that eventually led to her father’s removal from the party he created. While the series of events burnished her image as a reformer, she had already impressed Roger Cukierman, head of CRIF, the country’s umbrella organization for Jewish institutions. Shortly before the falling-out between father and daughter, Cukierman had announced that Marine Le Pen, unlike her father, was “personally irreproachable” — a remark he quickly walked back in the resulting firestorm of criticism.

No, Jews are not the target now. In fact, the biggest threat that anti-Semitism poses is its usefulness to the Israel lobby that is desperate to make links between anti-Zionism and Jew hatred. When the left gives them ammunition, it is undermining the cause of Palestinian freedom.

 

Turkey, Rebels, Kurds & Assad in northern Syria: Contradictions in moves towards regional counterrevolutionary alliance

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:03 am

By Michael Karadjis (An abridged version of this article appeared in ‘The New Arab’ under the title ‘Tensions tried and loyalties tested in northern Syria’, at One week the United States rushed to …

Source: Turkey, Rebels, Kurds & Assad in northern Syria: Contradictions in moves towards regional counterrevolutionary alliance

September 3, 2016

The Night Of; Criminal Justice: a comparison

Filed under: crime,television — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Premiering with rave reviews on July 17, the 8 part HBO series titled “The Night Of” seemed too good to ignore even though I have been disappointed with other overhyped HBO series in the past, including “The Wire” that like “The Night Of” relied on the scripts of Richard Price. Price is a 66-year old novelist and screenwriter whose early work I greatly admired. His “Ladies Man”, for example, depicted the desperate nighttime sexual odysseys of a young male New Yorker in vivid realistic detail. Later on, Price began to write gritty detective novels that some critics compared to Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I tried one of them in 1992, a 661-page tome titled “Clockers” that I put down after 50 pages. None of it seemed credible. It was this kind of writing that apparently made Price a perfect match to David Simon, the director of “The Wire”, a show that I spent 15 minutes watching before turning it off in disbelief. In “Faking the Hood”, an aptly titled interview with Ishmael Reed by Wajahat Ali, there’s this terse but accurate summation of the would-be realistic style of “The Wire”:

Simon, Price and Pelecanos’ Black characters speak like the cartoon crows in those old racist cartoons [“Heckle and Jeckle.”]

Richard Price’s co-writer was another veteran screenwriter named Steven Zaillian who wrote a very fine film “The Falcon and the Snowman” based on a true story of young Californians who became Soviet spies as well as the boneheaded “Exodus: Gods and Kings”. Zaillian co-directed the series with James Marsh, the director of the outstanding documentary “Project Nim” about the troubled experiments with a chimpanzee’s ability to learn sign language.

While the NY Times is not necessarily an arbiter of great or even near-great art (keep in mind all the raves for Woody Allen movies in the 1990s), I thought that if even this was only half-true, it was worth checking out “The Night Of”:

“The Night Of,” the tense and exquisite limited series on HBO, beginning on Sunday, is also a deeply detailed procedural, but with a difference. It has more in common philosophically with the podcast “Serial” (whose first subject, Adnan Syed, was just granted a new trial); Netflix’s “Making a Murderer”; and this year’s two O. J. Simpson series — true-crime stories that suggest that who is locked up, for what, is largely a matter of resources and random fate.

Since I wasn’t familiar with “Serial” or “Making of a Murderer”, I had no idea of how to interpret such comparisons. But if it was “tense and exquisite” and came free with my HBO subscription, why not give it a shot?

Episode one, which you can watch for free introduced us to Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student living in Queens who borrows his father’s cab to go to a party in lower Manhattan without his permission. On his way there, people keep getting into the cab because the “available” light is on, something that Naz seems unable to turn off. He tells all the would-be passengers to leave except the last one, an attractive young woman who gets his testosterone churning. Just after she gets into the back seat, she starts swigging beer straight from the bottle. Something tells Naz that this is an opportunity that has fallen into his lap.

When she asks him to take him to the “the beach”, he convinces her that the waterfront on the Hudson River was just as good. There they chat for a while until she invites him to drive her over to her place on the Upper West Side for what is obviously know familiarly as a “good time”. Before getting there, they stop at a convenience store where Naz picks up a six-pack. Once up in her apartment, they drink the beer, hard liquor and take lots of drugs. They also play a knife game that consists of sticking the point in rapid succession between the splayed out fingers of your partner just like the android Bishop (Lance Hendriksen) did in “Alien”. When Naz accidentally nicks the back of her hand, the blood seems to get her own hormones flowing. Lickety-split they end up in bed fucking their brains out.

It was at this point that I turned it off. My comment on a rave review on the usually astute Slant Magazine summed up my feelings:

I turned this ridiculous show off after 5 minutes. [It was actually more like 15] It has about as much to do with NYC characters as the man in the moon. Take me to the beach? Give me a break. Richard Price was once capable of writing gritty naturalistic tales. Now he writes a cock-and-bull story that has mesmerized the critics. The emperor has no clothes.

About a week later, I decided to have another look at the show mostly as a function of nothing else to watch on the tube but also morbid curiosity to see what else could go wrong.

In episode one, a few hours after having sex, Naz wakes up in the kitchen having no idea how he got there. Too much drugs and booze apparently. He goes up to say goodbye to the woman but discovers to his dismay that she has been stabbed to death. In a panic, he takes the bloody knife with him, tries to erase all signs of his presence there, and leaves in his father’s cab in a total panic. A few blocks from the building he accidentally crashes the cab and is arrested for drunk driving. In the precinct house they discover the bloody knife and arrest him for murder.

Much of the rest of the series takes place in Rikers Island where Naz is kept awaiting trial. Almost immediately he becomes caught between rival power centers in the jail, trying all the while to avoid taking sides. The prisoners are all African-American and the dialog written for them is a odd and unlikely mixture of street argot and literary pretentiousness. Since neither Price nor Zaillian have the slightest clue about how hardened Black criminals speak, the whole effect is utterly unnatural but calculated to impress the critical establishment.

In episode four, titled “The Art of War”, a Black prisoner feeling protective of Naz tries to clue him in on the Hobbesian world of Rikers Island as the two survey the scene in the exercise yard as men pump iron:

You want to know who’s who in the zoo? Who to watch out for? You got to check out the card games to see who’s got the temper and who’s got the cool. Only you don’t want to get in those card games owin’ someone some money. That shit don’t end, my nigga. That brother over there, charmin’ everybody. Next thing you know he got your ass by the throat. But he don’t need to use his muscle any more than a spider has to sweet talk a fly.

Got your ass by the throat? Sweet talk a fly? Say what?

Look, here’s the deal. Price and Zaillian probably live in 10,000 foot houses that are monitored by CCTVs and far removed from how the Black criminal class lives or speaks. You are always better off writing about what you know even if in their case it means meeting with their agents and HBO suits. Larry David pulled it off with “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Maybe Price and Zaillian can write a murder mystery about writers who kill a studio executive who has pressured them into inflating a tale like “The Night Of”.

When he was in the precinct house, Naz runs into a lawyer named John Stone who offered his services even though his typical client was a prostitute or petty drug dealer. Stone’s advertisements can be seen inside subway cars, an obvious token of his shabbiness. If you understand how these stories operate, Stone will turn out to be Naz’s salvation through dogged detective work. He is played by John Turturro, a veteran character actor that was directed for some strange reason to sound exactly like the elderly Al Pacino. Also, for some strange reason his character’s foot eczema becomes a major element of the story with Stone searching high and wide for cures, including the use of Chinese herbal medicine.

Another superfluous plot element is Stone’s odd relationship to a cat that he finds wandering about the building where the murder took place. He takes it home with him and keeps it in a spare bedroom with the door closed. With an allergy to cats compounding his eczema not to speak of premature ejaculation he is trying to treat with Viagra, you begin to care more about his ability to make it through the night rather than Naz’s fate. If I had been on the writing team, I would have suggested making Stone into someone suffering Tourette’s as well just to add to the suspense. Will he curse out the judge during the trial in a Tourette’s tic and ruin Naz’s chances of acquittal? The suspense would kill HBO viewers.

Such elements add absolutely nothing to the story and makes you wonder what motivated Price and Zaillian to inflate it far beyond the British TV series that “The Night Of” is based on. I can only say that it might be the result of the same calculations someone on Facebook attributed to the producers of “Mr. Robot”, another overrated cable show that is still much better than “The Night Of”:

The commercial model of television = some innovation and creativity, but too many episodes for the purposes of advertising revenue maximisation. Lost was the same, really, the need to stretch it out messed with the quality.

Since HBO does not run commercials, this might not apply in the narrow sense but if your goal is to get viewers to watch ads for other HBO shows that begin each episode, maybe it does.

Eventually Stone is joined by another attorney, an Indian-American named Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan) who eventually replaces him although he continues to help her out in investigating who might have been the actual killer. When Naz asks her advice on a guilty plea for a lesser manslaughter charge that carried only a five-year sentence, she tells him that if he is guilty, he should take it otherwise he should plead not guilty. So he pleads not guilty.

If you are expecting the typical Scott Turow or John Grisham tale in which an innocent man is rescued through the intelligent and courageous work of a dedicated lawyer, you will be disappointed. It is not so much the problem with Kapoor and Stone but Naz who becomes a typical con in Rikers Island as he is awaiting trial largely through the intervention of Freddy Knight (Michael K. Williams), an alpha male African-American prisoner and skilled boxer. Knight becomes both his protector and his seducer into evil, getting Naz not only to smuggle drugs into jail but becoming his accomplice in the murder of another prisoner. Naz shaves his head in skinhead fashion, tattoos “sin” on his fingers, bulks up by lifting weights, begins smoking crack and bullying prisoners below him on the food chain. Apparently Zaillian and Price don’t believe in doing things half-way. If you are going to turn Naz into a reprobate, just step on the accelerator even if verisimilitude lies wrecked on the side of the road.

The entire purpose of seeing this unlikely transformation of Naz is to communicate the message that jail is a Bad Place. Okay, I get it. If I hadn’t seen “The Night Of”, I would have continued to believe that Rikers Island was much more like Bard College.

Another message “The Night Of” was supposed to convey is that prejudice exists against Muslims. The tabloids make a big deal about him being of Pakistani descent even though he was born and raised in Queens. At one point, someone drives past his parents’ house and throws a rock through the window. None of this is explored in any depth but is thrown into the mix just as effectively as Stone’s eczema and his adopted cat.

The net effect of Naz’s transformation as well as the revelation that he was violent toward his schoolmates who taunted him after 9/11 is to numb you to the drama and shrug your shoulders in advance over the outcome of the trial. Guilty? Not guilty? Who cares.

Meanwhile, as Stone snoops around trying to find out who really killed Naz’s one-night stand, he turns up four other possible suspects while the chief detective on the case has turned up another one on his own. You start to wonder if “The Night Of” will have a conclusion like “Murder on the Orient Express”. They all did it.

The final episode concludes with a hung jury and Naz’s freedom that has a hollow ring. He is alienated from his parents and totally disheartened. In the final moments, we see him smoking crack on the Hudson River waterfront evoking the tryst that began his descent into a living hell. It was all intended to be noirish but I found it third-rate compared to the classic work of Fritz Lang or Jules Dassin.

Determined to find out what went wrong, I ordered the British series on a DVD from Amazon.com that reminded me of a cardinal law of adaptations. When a continental European TV show gets adapted by British TV, it is an inferior product as the Kenneth Branagh version of “Wallander” would indicate. And when the USA adapts a British show, the same thing applies. Adaptations tend to be based on naked commercial ambitions and there is nobody more adept at naked commercialism than American TV and film executives.

In 2008 the BBC aired season one of “Criminal Justice” with a story about Ben Coulter who ends up in the same predicament as Naz. He borrows his father’s cab, picks up a wild woman, goes home with her, and flees from her house after discovering that she has been stabbed to death.

Clocking in at 284 minutes compared to the elephantine 540 minutes of “The Night Of”, it is a reminder that brevity is the soul of wit.

The main difference between the two shows is that Ben Coulter goes through no Jekyll-Hyde transformation like Naz. He comes into jail like a doe-eyed innocent and remains so through the entire series. The Brits had no “messages” to deliver, only a taut crime drama about saving the life of a young man who was being crushed by seemingly irrefutable evidence.

The John Stone in the British show also has eczema but it hardly figures in the plot. We see him walking around in sandals but we care less about that than his ability to uncover evidence that will clear his client. This is par for the course in a million different courtroom dramas from Perry Mason to Boston Legal, but rest assured that the British do these things much better than us. Their auto and steel industry might have gone down the tubes but they still are better when it comes to intelligent entertainment.

And all-importantly, there’s a key difference between “The Night Of” and “Criminal Justice” in the way that the chief detective is portrayed. In the HBO show, after the cop discovers that it was a common criminal rather than Naz who did the crime, he persuades the DA to accept a hung jury and avoid a mistrial. He then goes after the real culprit to demonstrate that the cops are on the job. In the British series, the chief detective keeps a similar discovery to himself since the killer was a snitch working for the cops to supply information on gangsters. When chewed out by the prosecuting attorney for dereliction of duty, he defends himself by saying that he was only doing his job to maintain law and order. In the final analysis, the cop was an accomplice to murder. That’s something neither HBO nor Zaillian/Price could allow to be represented to American audiences apparently.

 

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