Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 1, 2019

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People

Filed under: Film,journalism — louisproyect @ 10:31 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in NY and at the Laemmle a week from now is the documentary “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People” that despite being made before 2016 (based on the typical schedule of film productions) could not be more relevant to the current crisis. With the battle between Donald Trump and the “mainstream media” over “fake news”, a look at the life and career of Joseph Pulitzer will give us the perspective we need on how newspapers functioned in the broader fabric of American society during the Gilded Age. He symbolized the ultimate contradictions of the capitalist press. Determined to boost circulation, he tailed after William Randolph Hearst’s “fake news” during the Spanish-American War and lived to regret it. If “click bait” is the bête noire of electronic media, so was the circulation wars between Pulitzer’s The World and Hearst’s The Journal. For those who are nostalgic for the good old days of responsible reporting, seeing this excellent documentary will remind you how much they have in common with the bad new days we are living through now.

Born in 1847, Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian Jew who grew up in dire poverty. Of his 8 siblings, only one other grew into adulthood. His father died when he was 11, leaving the family to its own devices. At the age of 17, he took advantage of a recruitment offer from the Union army. Since Lincoln had a shortage of troops as a result of rich northerners paying bribes to keep their kids from serving, immigrants would get tickets to America to replenish the ranks.

Managing to stay alive, Pulitzer found himself unemployed at the end of the war but resourceful enough to “Go West, Young Man” as Horace Greeley put it. He ended up in St. Louis and found himself playing chess with Carl Schurz, the German revolutionary who was a “Forty-Eighter” just like Pulitzer’s uncles. That in itself might have recommended him to Schurz but the older and highly successful man was far more impressed with the beating he took at the chessboard from the youth. Seeing him as a gifted individual, he hired him to work at his newspaper. Rising rapidly to the top, Pulitzer amassed enough money to buy what would become the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper that the family owned until 2005.

As ambitious as he was shrewd, Pulitzer decided that New York was the place to go if you wanted to be in the media “big leagues”. Leveraging the money he made in St. Louis, Pulitzer bought The World and turned into the kind of newspaper that he pioneered, namely a tabloid-style voice that took up the cause of poor people and that held the feet of the rich to the fire.

I say “tabloid-style” because it was a full-page newspaper like the NY Times rather than the NY Post or the NY Daily News. However, the emphasis was on attention-getting stories about corruption, Gilded Age plutocracy of the sort symbolized by Stephen Schwarzman today, and “human interest” stories about the kinds of people who paid a penny each day to read The World.

A typical circulation ploy by Pulitzer was to publicize the need for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was being put together during the paper’s rise to the top. He called on New Yorkers to contribute to a fund to pay for the pedestal and who would be recognized for their contribution by being named in an Honor Roll in the paper. He made sure to update the Honor Roll only several days after the contribution was made (usually between a penny and a dime) in order to encourage those making a donation to buy the paper each day until their name showed up.

In 1895, Harvard graduate and rich kid William Randolph Hearst came to New York from California and launched the Journal. Showing the kind of mercilessness depicted in his fictional version in “Citizen Kane”, he began poaching reporters and editors from the World. In addition, he adopted the tabloid style of the World that was expressed above all by Hogan’s Alley, a comic strip that featured a bald kid in a yellow nightshirt nicknamed The Yellow Kid. After Hearst lured the author to the Journal, he escalated the sensationalism to the point of caricature, so much so that the term “yellow journalism” encompassed both newspaper.

When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, Hearst featured the same kinds of articles that led up to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and LBJ’s war in Vietnam before that. “Fake news” would be an understatement. Under pressure to sell newspapers, Pulitzer began publishing the same kind of “yellow journalism” but would live to regret it. Close to his death, he featured investigative reporting on President Theodore Roosevelt’s virtual colonization of Panama that was calculated to enrich investors in the new canal. Roosevelt was so incensed that he sued Pulitzer for libel but the Supreme Court ruled in Pulitzer’s favor in the interest of freedom of the press.

The film benefits from interviews with academic historians and media professors but above all one interviewee stands out, namely Nicholson Baker, the author of the WII revisionist (after the fashion of Howard Zinn) “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization”. In 1999, Baker discovered that the British Library had plans to junk more than 2,000 bound volumes of American newspapers, including hundreds of editions of Joseph Pulitzer’s ground-breaking color pages of the New York World. Baker spent $26,000 of his own money to rescue the archives and the film would not be nearly so brilliant without their images.

Most of us know the name Pulitzer through the annual prizes bestowed in his name. He funded the awards and the Columbia Journalism School as well. He was a complex man who deserved the complex treatment he received in this film. If newspapers are in bad shape today, we can at least be grateful that documentary film is in its golden age.

Caracas Chronicles, Part I of an Ongoing Series

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

I just got back from Venezuela and I’ll be writing a lot about the country next week. Virtually everything you read or see about the country in the U.S. media is a lie. And to be clear, I don’t mean skewed or misleading or incomplete, I mean a lie.

For example, people in Venezuela are not starving — at least very few are, if any — nor is the country a dictatorship. But that’s exactly what you would believe from reading the likes of the atrocious Hannah Dreier, who failed upward from the Associated Press to ProPublica, that beacon of investigative reporting, and who has been a chief propagandist for the rancid old oligarchy.

I was all over the barrios of Caracas, especially San Augustin.

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China, Saudi Arabia and the Fate of the Uyghurs

Filed under: China,Counterpunch,Saudi Arabia,Uyghur — louisproyect @ 3:18 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 1, 2019

Beginning with the 9/11 attacks, much of the left decided that Saudi Arabia was the chief engineer of a Wahhabi plot to impose its reactionary, feudal, and patriarchal values on the rest of the world. Supposedly, the USA was being punished for its licentious and ungodly ways even if it was one of Saudi Arabia’s chief supporters in the Middle East, alongside Israel. While 9/11 Trutherism is hardly worth taking seriously, another line of investigation has implicated the Saudi state as providing the logistical support that made the attack possible while the USA looked the other way. The truthers claim that the FBI and CIA ignored the threat because they were in cahoots with al-Qaeda. What could American imperialism have possibly gained by such an attack? The answer is an excuse to invade Iraq, a ridiculous idea. But is it any more ridiculous to believe that Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, explains the attack or Saudi foreign policy in general?

If you are looking for grounds for this, the 9/11 Commission Report  is a good place to start. It does not blame the Saudi state but its evil spawn al-Qaeda. The report stated:

In the 1980s, awash in sudden oil wealth, Saudi Arabia competed with Shia Iran to promote its Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saudi government, always conscious of its duties as the custodian of Islam’s holiest places, joined with wealthy Arabs from the Kingdom and other states bordering the Persian Gulf in donating money to build mosques and religious schools that could preach and teach their interpretation of Islamic doctrine.

For those who viewed Saudi Arabia as so devoted to ascetic values that it would be willing to mount a devastating attack on the WTC, a symbol of the financial system it was closely tied to, and the Pentagon, its chief military benefactor, there were some counter-indicators best left under the rug. For someone like Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington, who was supposedly the quartermaster supplying the jihadi hijackers, those values were not to be taken too seriously as Christopher Dickey reported in The Daily Beast: “When the prince was the ambassador he was the toast of Washington, and plenty of toasts there were. Bandar bin Sultan smoked fine cigars and drank finer Cognac.”

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February 27, 2019

Styx

Filed under: Film,refugees — louisproyect @ 8:23 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, “Styx” is an unnervingly grim drama that strips the refugee crisis down to its bare essentials.

Rike, an attractive female doctor from Germany in her mid to late 30s departs from Gibraltar on her sailing yacht destined for a vacation on Ascension Island, which is in the south Atlantic about a thousand miles off the African coast. An independent woman strong enough to pilot her own boat, she wants to see the island that Charles Darwin encouraged England to colonize as a botanical garden. En route to the island, she leafs through a coffee-table book about the island that demonstrates her affinity for off-the-beaten track paradises.

Little does she anticipate that a few days into her trans-oceanic crossing, she will not find a paradise but a hell, as the title of the film indicates. The river Styx in Greek mythology was the boundary between the underworld and the world of the living, in which Rike dwells. The underworld in this instance was a leaking and incapacitated fishing trawler adrift in the ocean filled with sick and starving refugees that she spots on the horizon. Reacting as would anybody sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, she sails toward the trawler but stops a few hundred feet as a number of the desperate refugees begin swimming toward her yacht. She knows that her craft is too small to save them all but she does carry aboard a young African boy who is barely conscious despite having swum near her boat—or perhaps semi-conscious because of the effort it took.

After nursing the boy back to a reasonably healthy state, she is caught between the underworld of the refugees and the living world of her well-off fellow European citizens, including the Coast Guard officials who warn her to stay away from the trawler in order to avoid “chaos”. It becomes obvious before long that despite the wealth of the Europeans, they are the ones who symbolize the condemned sinners of both Greek and Christian mythology.

“Styx” is hardly what I would call entertainment. For that, you are better off going to see “A Star is Born” or “Crazy Rich Asians”. Just remember to leave your brain at home.

In the press notes, Wolfgang Fischer, the director of this powerful English-language film, was asked “Your film presents a moral dilemma . . . could we all find ourselves in the same situation as the protagonist?”

He replied:

I absolutely believe we could. To take an everyday example: suppose someone is attacked next to us in the subway. We didn’t choose this situation, but we need to act. Looking away is also a form of action. We need to decide. This can happen to every one of us. It is something universal. It changes one’s life. As an emergency physician, Rike knows the rule: to first protect your own life. She follows this rule. But of course the question remains whether she made the right decision.

February 25, 2019

Charles Glass writes an obituary for the revolution he helped to kill

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:05 pm

Charles Glass

For the past 8 years, the quantity of pro-Assad propaganda has been oceanic. Even after his obvious military victory, some of his publicists continue to repeat the talking points they have made since 2011. Among them is Charles Glass, who has articles in the prestigious February 2019 Harpers magazine and the most recent NY Review of Books that pay lip-service to the reality that the country is ruled by a dictator. Clearly, liberal magazines would hold someone like Vanessa Beeley at arm’s length but put down the welcome mat for someone like Glass who was ABC News chief Middle East correspondent from 1983–93 and would never be caught dead writing obvious regime propaganda. Recently, Verso Books published his Syria Burning: A Short History that will be a companion piece to their publication of arch-Assadist Max Blumenthal’s The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS and Donald Trump. Given Tariq Ali’s long-standing affinity for the butcher of Damascus, it is not surprising that such books are being foisted on an unsuspecting public.

The Harpers article, titled “Tell Me How This Ends”, is behind a paywall but you are entitled to download one free article a month even if it is crapola like this one. Like nearly everything Glass has written about Syria, the article relies heavily on American government officials or think-tankers but not a single Syrian. Like Seymour Hersh, Glass likes to throw his weight around as someone privy to the inside dope of unnamed sources in high places. In the first paragraph, we hear from a “national security staffer” who, after insisting on his anonymity, told him “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East. Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.” The thing to understand is that the interest of people like Glass and all these other men writing for the NYRB, the LRB, the Nation, et al is in the national interest. They consider themselves advisers to the state in the same way that Walter Lippmann was to LBJ and are anxious above all to keep the interests of the USA protected. The misery imposed on Syria is not nearly as important as the waste of American money in a losing venture and the ability of Putin to outsmart Obama in geopolitical gamesmanship.

Like most of the Assadist propagandists, Glass is bent on making the case that Sunni sectarianism was present from the earliest days of the movement against Assad. Relying on the word of former American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, he describes a major escalation by the popular movement:

Ambassador Ford detected a turn in the Syrian uprising that would define part of its character: “The first really serious violence on the opposition side was up on the coast around Baniyas, where a bus was stopped and soldiers were hauled off the bus. If you were Alawite, you were shot. If you were Sunni, they let you go.” At demonstrations, some activists chanted the slogan, “Alawites to the grave, and Christians to Beirut.”

You get the same thing with Macron supporters like Bernard-Henry Lévy reporting that “some” Yellow Vest activists were chanting “Death to the Jews”. In fact, the slogan “Alawites to the grave, and Christians to Beirut” was first (and only) reported by the International Christian Concern (ICC), a group whose president had earlier served 11 years with the Campus Crusade for Christ. The ICC published a report in early 2011 that gave credence to the idea that “Christian service has flourished remarkably in Syria” and that Syria is “a model Arab country when it comes to freedom of worship.”

With respect to Baniyas, we must begin with the Syrian military assault on the city in May 2011 when Baathist troops killed four women in a small all-women protest. Tony Shadid, a real reporter unlike Glass, reported in the NY Times:

A resident in Baniyas said by phone that protesters there had carried olive branches and red and white roses to hand to soldiers if the troops entered the city, but by evening they had not. He estimated that the crowd numbered at least 7,000, many of whom chanted for freedom, for the government’s fall and for the military to lift its siege of Dara’a. “Peaceful, peaceful,” he quoted them as chanting, “our demands are patriotic.”

So where did this business originate about a bus being stopped and Alawite soldiers being taken out and shot, while Sunnis were let go? If you have access to Nexis-UNI, as I do as a Columbia retiree, you can find the single occurrence of such a report:

“State television has blamed the weekend killing of six soldiers and 10 Syrian labourers returning from Lebanon in a mini-bus on armed gangs determined to destabilise the country.”

–The Irish Times, May 10, 2011

State television? That says it all. Glass got this report from Robert Ford, who was not in any position to render judgement on this incident from his Damascus embassy. Maybe he just passed along to Glass what he saw on Assad’s TV station. Do you expect Charles Glass to actually go to Baniyas to interview Syrians who had to put up with tanks and machine guns? Naah. It is much more pleasant to be in a Damascus hotel with a well-stocked bar.

Glass considers Assad as a “lesser evil” especially for Syrians.

The Assad regime’s strategy for dealing with civil disobedience, popular mobilization, and general strikes may have been ineffective, but the regime knew how to handle armed insurrection. And Salafist fighters terrified many Syrians who, while dismissive of Assad, did not welcome his replacement by religious fanatics with long beards.

So, Harpers readers pondering these words might shrug their shoulders and accept Assad as more “reasonable” than his foes, at least on the basis of his being clean-shaven and certainly not a fanatic except when it came to torturing and killing anybody who challenged his dictatorship. Left out of this equation, however, was the religious fanaticism of the Alawites and their Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

The Alawites, at least those that did not join the struggle against Assad, were organized as the Shabiha, a death squad that painted the slogan “Assad or the country burns” everywhere. For them, anybody who opposed the dictatorship was a Wahhabi who had to die. In the very month that the revolution began, March 2011, the Shabiha drove through Latakia on trucks with machine guns and killed 21 peaceful protesters.

Meanwhile, Iranian intervention in Syria is obviously motivated by a desire to extend the Islamic Republic’s Shiite influence, mixed with baser motives such as absorbing Syria economically. As for Hezbollah, their leader Hassan Nasrallah referred to the Sunnis in Syria as “takfiri” (fanatics) who would destroy their shrines if given half a chance so it was necessary to launch a preemptive strike. This is more or less the same thing you got from Shabiha member Abu Jaafar who told The Star, a Lebanese newspaper: “We got money and arms from our government to fight those Wahhabi radicals who will force my wife and daughters to wear the veil and will close all wine shops.”

Referring to the sarin gas attack on East Ghouta in 2013, Glass adopts an agnostic attitude. He quotes James Clapper, Obama’s national intelligence director as saying that the case against Assad was not a “slam dunk”. After Obama worked out a deal to allow Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons in exchange for not being attacked by the USA and France, chemical attacks continued with “blame placed on each side by the other”, in Glass’s words. Naturally, as Glass intended, this is meant to convince Harpers readers that nobody knows what really happened in Syria.

It is likely that most of these readers have never read or even heard of Eliot Higgins’s Bellingcat, which has consistently used open source data to establish Syrian guilt. But probably the most authoritative reporting on the use of chemical attacks came recently from the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, which blamed Assad for 98 percent of the chemical attacks as the Washington Post reported. By citing Clapper and by mentioning that both sides blame each other, Glass effectively leaves the question of blame up in the air. For me, the likelihood of Syrian rebels cooking up sarin gas, a task that can be carried out in your kitchen sink according to Seymour Hersh, is belied by the evidence of the factory the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo constructed in order to produce the quantity necessary for their terror strike on a Tokyo subway. By most calculations, this is far less than that used in East Ghouta.

The Aum Shinrikyo factory

There are other questionable claims made in Glass’s article like blaming Libya for most of the potent weaponry that was used against the dictatorship, Glass went to a news source not usually associated with credibility:

The supply chain became public after the September 11 murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in the Benghazi compound. Media outlets, including Fox News, reported that ships delivered TOWs, surface-to-air missiles, and other high-tech weaponry from Libya to the port of Iskenderun in southern Turkey.

The TOWs from Benghazi shifted the balance on the ground in favor of the rebels, especially the better armed and highly motivated jihadis. Assad’s tanks and helicopters were no longer invulnerable.

Your best bet is to check out the Bellingcat website for a breakdown on TOWs (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided), which does not mention Libya at all. Most of these weapons came from American allies, such as Saudi Arabia but only after 2014. The idea that Benghazi was supplying Syrian rebels with weapons comes mainly from rightwing media, which was interested in making the Obama administration look bad. Keep in mind that the Benghazi/Syria connection was important for making the case that the USA was in cahoots with jihadis in the region. In addition to Fox News, the National Review and the American Conservative spun this unlikely tale. Ironically (or maybe not so ironically), the author of the American Conservative article was none other than Gareth Porter, who generally makes these kinds of jihadi-gonna-get-your-mamma talking points in leftist publications.

Nonetheless, there was a Libya-Syria weapons connection early on but it was hardly a conspiracy hatched by the USA and its allies in the region. Libyans did get their hands on Gaddafi’s surface-to-air missiles and were desperate to get them into the hands of Syrians who were defenseless against Assad’s helicopters and MIGs. You’d think, based on Glass’s reporting, that the USA would have facilitated such a transfer given Obama’s supposed desire for “regime change”. But that’s not what happened at all as the WSJ reported on October 17, 2012:

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.

If the CIA had not intervened with these jihadi-loving states to keep Manpads out of the hands of the Syrian rebels, the war probably would have ended 5 years ago at least.

I will be briefer with Glass’s NYRB article that is also much briefer than the Harpers article (contact me if you want a copy since it is behind a paywall.) This is much less of a look back at the war and much more about what the title of the article calls a “savage peace”.

Showing an utter lack of historical background, Glass believes that the utter destruction wreaked by Assad might have an unintended benefit: “Syria may eventually benefit from the disappearance of its archaic industrial plants, as Germany’s coal and steel industries did after World War II, by starting anew with modern machinery.” This is laughable. Germany relied on massive investment made possible by the Marshall Plan but who will open up their pocketbooks for a mafia state like Syria that even Glass admits in this article is hobbled by corruption. It would be like providing aid to Somoza after the 1977 earthquake in Nicaragua, most of which ended up on the black market.

Glass faults the West for not being willing to help Syria get back on its feet again: “Countries that dispatched billions in weaponry have become parsimonious about rebuilding—this applies as much to Russia and Iran on the government’s side as to the US, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on the opposition’s.”

Maybe Glass has not heard about a possible funding source that might be tapped:

The firm at the centre of the Panama Papers leak serviced a string of companies for a top financier in Bashar al-Assad’s government in the face of international concern about corruption within the Syrian regime.

Documents show Mossack Fonseca’s links to Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the Syrian president, who was described in US diplomatic cables as the country’s “poster boy for corruption”.

Washington imposed sanctions on Makhlouf in February 2008, saying he was a regime insider who “improperly benefits from and aids the public corruption of Syrian regime officials”. It blacklisted his brother Hafez Makhlouf in 2007.

The documents show, however, that the Panamanian firm continued to work with the Makhloufs, and in January 2011 it rejected the advice of its own compliance team to cut ties with the family as the crisis in Syria began to unfold.

Documents show a Mossack Fonseca compliance officer wrote: “I believe if an individual is found on a sanction list then this is a serious red flag and we should make every effort to disassociate ourselves from them.”

Though Mossack Fonseca was not legally bound to comply with US sanctions, it had an obligation to react to EU measures imposed in May 2011 and extended to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in June of that year. It took until September 2011 before the partners finally agreed to resign from Makhlouf’s companies.

In a further twist, the documents reveal that thanks to lobbying by the British bank HSBC, Makhlouf was able to keep his Swiss bank accounts open throughout the opening rounds of a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes over the past five years.

So strange that so much of the left could cozy up to Assad in light of all this. One supposes that if he had been backed by Washington instead of Moscow, he’d be public enemy number one. That’s the kind of left that can distinguish between right and wrong, and good and evil—the criterion once used for judging whether someone on trial for murder could be let off on the grounds of insanity. However, in this instance, it is not Assad who was insane since clearly he was acting on the basis of capitalist self-interest. Instead, it is our pathetic left that has written drivel like Glass’s that needs to be put in a padded cell in Bellevue if they still existed.

February 23, 2019

Prosecuting Evil; Rocking the Couch

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:47 pm

On January 29, 2018 I wrote about the Chenogne massacre that was examined by Reveal, a syndicated investigative reporting radio show that can be heard here. Like everything else done by Reveal, it made for compelling radio, especially an interview with Ben Ferencz, the 98-year old buck private who was an investigator of Nazi war crimes and shortly after leaving the army became a lead prosecutor at Nuremberg. The Chenongne massacre was a mass murder of captive German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge in retaliation for Americans being murdered in the same way a few days earlier. The Reveal reporter was interested in getting Ferencz’s reaction to this war crime in light of his 70-year long career as a legal expert on war crimes. Basically, he regarded the Chenogne massacre as a war crime but one that would never be prosecuted by a state that had just won the war. When asked if Stephen Spielberg and Tom Brokaw were justified in calling WWII GIs “the greatest generation”, he scoffed at the notion and stated emphatically that the greatest generation are those who resist war, like during Vietnam.

With that fresh in my memory, I was eager to watch a new documentary titled “Prosecuting Evil” that opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York and that will open at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on March 1. The film is basically an interview with Ferencz, who is as sharp and incisive as was on in the Reveal show. In addition to the interview, there are tributes to his work from a number of people with human rights credentials—some legitimate and others not at all. Among those with bogus credentials are Alan Dershowitz and Wesley Clark. All of the others are credible even though they share the same flaw as Ferencz, namely the ill-founded belief that global justice is possible as long as the capitalist system exists.

Besides the talking heads, there is chilling footage of the survivors of death camps as well as those who did not survive, including their charred remains in a Nazi crematorium. A 25-year old Ben Ferencz is seen making an opening statement at Nuremburg just barely visible over a lectern. He laughs at what it took to make him even this visible. He had to stand on a stack of books.

Ferencz was someone who benefited greatly from American capitalism in its ascendancy. He came with his parents at a very early age and grew up in New York when it was in its social democratic golden years. He graduated from CCNY and then went to Harvard Law School, benefiting from a project that paid tuition for students specializing in criminology, a focus that prepared him for his work at Nuremberg.

The final fifteen minutes of the film is devoted to the 98-year old man weighing in his mind whether global justice was possible, even if he counts as one of his major contributions the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that is being touted as a body that might prosecute Bashar al-Assad for Nazi-like war crimes. Since we hear him speaking over images of Donald Trump surrounded by his henchmen, his agonizing over this question is understandable.

It would be interesting to see Ferencz and Yale law and history professor Samuel Moyn in a panel discussion. Moyn is the author of “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World” and earlier works that diagnose the barriers that make peace and social justice a Quixotic venture. In 2012, he wrote an op-ed piece for the NY Times titled “Human Rights, Not So Pure Anymore” that conveyed the crisis of our age that in many ways echoes the futility of earlier efforts such as the League of Nations:

For those who long for a state and a world that not only protect liberties but also promote well-being, the human rights movement hasn’t made enough of a difference. Human rights have succeeded in combating totalitarianism and preventing atrocities but have proved less able to promote the good life for people suffering less spectacular wrongs.

That human rights have come down to earth since the days of the glamorous dissidents doesn’t make them useless. But it does mean that the utopia they call to mind is now inseparable from the realities of the world as it exists — from states to international bodies to transnational movements. For that reason, Chinese dissidents and their Western allies will need to be even more creative than their predecessors were in using human rights norms to achieve a reformed government.

Most of all, when they appeal to international human rights, they will have to face the fact that these once pure ideals are now much harder to separate from the impure world of daily policy making, international power and unfulfilled hopes.

Let me conclude briefly with a recommendation for a documentary titled “Rocking the Couch”  that went straight to VOD, including Amazon Prime. It is about the “casting couch” that victimized a group of women in the 1990s along the same lines as Harvey Weinstein but by relatively small players in the film industry, namely a couple of agents named Jerry Blumenthal and Wallace Kaye.

So desperate were young women to crack into the industry that they allowed Blumenthal and Kaye to sexually assault them on the slim possibility that this would lead to getting a role in a film or TV show. Now in their forties and fifties, they are older and wiser. Among them is Carrie Mitchum who is the granddaughter of Robert Mitchum and extremely acute in her understanding of the power relations in Hollywood. At one point, she says “the whole commodity is sex”, about as good a description of the film industry as can be found.

Among the revelations in the film is that the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) did nothing to seek justice for these women in the 1990s. Union officials told the women that they should write a letter complaining about the men and that was about it. In the 1930s, the SAG was a radical union that fought for the same kinds of gains that CIO unions were fighting for: higher wages, job protection, etc. It is very likely that there were no special concerns about “casting couch” abuses back then but whatever there was probably got even less attention during the witch-hunt when Communists were expelled from the union. Ronald Reagan became president of SAG in 1947 and probably cared about as much as protecting women from sexual predators as Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump. Watching the film persuaded me that a documentary about the politics of the Hollywood film industry is sorely needed. Any film students or aspiring filmmakers might want to look into this.

February 22, 2019

Netflix series on the Sinaloa drug cartels

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,drugs,Mexico,television — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 22, 2019

Not only was Ernest Mandel the leading Marxist economist of his time, he was also a big fan of crime stories. In his 1984 Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story, he made an essential point about organized crime from a Marxist perspective as well as showing a remarkable grasp of popular culture:

Organized crime, rather than being peripheral to bourgeois society, springs increasingly from the same socio-economic motive forces that govern capital accumulation general: private property, competition and generalized commodity production (generalized money economy). The Swedish pop group Abba summed up the situation eloquently in their song: ‘Money, money, money — It’s a rich man’s world.’ (Their own fate is a vivid illustration of this law: with the huge income generated by their records they promptly created an investment trust and contributed on a large scale to the election funds of the bourgeois party coalition.) But a rich man’s world is also a rich gangster’s world particularly since the top gangsters have grown richer and richer in relative terms, and are certainly qualitatively richer than even richest police, or the overwhelming mass of politicians. (Nixon himself was conscious of the disparity.)

A couple of months ago my wife reminded me that season four of Narcos and season three of El Chapo were up and running on Netflix. Although I hadn’t written anything about the El Chapo series, it seemed like a good opportunity to cover both since they dealt with the drug cartels in Mexico that were very timely given El Chapo’s trial. In addition, they are about the best entertainment available on Netflix. The two series are closely related since they deal with the Sinaloa cartel that El Chapo ruled over. In season four of Narcos, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is only a bit player. Primary attention is on Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the founder of the cartel for which El Chapo served as a sicario (hitman). Another important character is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), the DEA agent who was tortured and killed by Gallardo’s henchmen in 1985. His death became a cause célèbre that led to the first in a series of escalations of the drug war.

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February 20, 2019

Guest rips Tucker Carlson a new asshole

Filed under: capitalist pig — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Bernie Sanders arrives at the Finland Station

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Yesterday I was the recipient of two communications making the case for supporting Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, both filled with the sense of excitement that must have gripped Russian workers when V.I. Lenin stepped out of the German train that had arrived at Finland Station on April 16, 1917.

Bhaskar Sunkara was positively beside himself, telling Guardian readers that “Sanders started a revolution in 2016. In 2020, he can finish it”. I guess I have a different understanding of revolution than Sunkara, whose Marxism is not burdened by too rigid understandings of socialism gleaned from Lenin’s writings. He must have the same idea as Sanders who captured the imagination of white youth in 2016 by calling for a political revolution against the billionaire class. Heaven forfend the notion that a social revolution would be necessary to make scumbags like Stephen Schwarzman and David Koch squeeze some working people into their 30-room apartments as Lenin advocated in “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power”:

The squad arrives at the rich man’s flat, inspects it and finds that it consists of five rooms occupied by two men and two women—“You must squeeze up a bit into two rooms this winter, citizens, and prepare two rooms for two families now living in cellars. Until the time, with the aid of engineers (you are an engineer, aren’t you?), we have built good dwellings for everybody, you will have to squeeze up a little. Your telephone will serve ten families. This will save a hundred hours of work wasted on shopping, and so forth.”

In fact, it seems the only assault on the ruling class considered by the “democratic socialists” is to impose a 70 percent marginal tax rate that the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler regards as “not so radical” and that New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz embraces as a “a Moderate, Evidence-Based Policy”. Nothing that Ocasio-Cortez or Sanders have ever said addresses the question of whether a society that allows people to accumulate personal wealth of $51 billion (Koch) or a measly $13 billion (Schwarzman) can ever be truly democratic.

Sunkara writes, “Before 2016, who could forget that the Democratic party was dominated by charter-school supporting politicians and anti-public-sector-union types like Cory Booker and Rahm Emanuel?” All that supposedly changed with Bernie Sanders. Either Sunkara is blissfully aware of Sanders’s position on charter schools, or, being aware of it, decided to sweep it under the rug.

In May 2016, Sanders told an Ohio audience: “I believe in public education, and I believe in public charter schools. I do not believe in private – privately controlled charter schools.” I hope one of his aides clued him in that charter schools in LA are public schools. That is the problem, after all. They drain public resources into an essentially private enterprise. Indeed, Bernie voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998. He believes, however, that they must be “held to the same standards of transparency as public schools to ensure accountability for these privately managed organizations.” As if schools that are in the back pocket of hedge fund billionaires can ever be transparent.

Prior to his 2016 remarks in Ohio, Sanders entered pro-charter testimony in the Congressional Record from a ninth-grade student who said:

While I am fortunate that my family has been able to send me to private school, it should not be only the economically elite who have access to alternative education. I think a solution to this problem is federal legislation encouraging states to institute charter schools. Options would then open up for disadvantaged students. Because charter schools are still technically public schools, any student could go to the school of their choice. Students, like adults, need options; no school fits all students, just like no company is right for all workers.

Even this 9th grader could distinguish between a private school and a public charter school.

Jacobin editor Meagan Day is even more ebullient over Sanders’s candidacy than Sunkara. Her article is titled “Bernie Is Running, Thank God”. Day believes a class war is raging and that Sanders is the only one running who wants to build working-class forces to fight back. It seems that “neoliberal politicians in both parties have shamelessly and relentlessly deregulated corporations, cut taxes on the rich, stymied unions, starved social services, privatized public goods, and bailed out economic elites while imposing austerity on everyone else.” I guess Hillary Clinton was one of those “neoliberal politicians” but that did not prevent Sanders for urging a vote for her in 2016. By the same token, so is Andrew Cuomo who got A. O-C’s nod as well.

The Jacobin/DSA Democratic Party (JDDP) socialists are worried that young white people might be seduced by Elizabeth Warren whose program sounds an awful lot like Sanders’s. There have been a steady stream of articles from the JDDP warning them away from the treacherous Harvard law professor. Published on the same day as Day’s article, Shawn Gude likened her to Louis Brandeis, who as a Progressive was opposed to trusts but not capitalism. As for Bernie Sanders, he was our age’s version of Eugene V. Debs, who believed that nothing “could close the structural gulf between workers and capitalists.” You also got Berkeley Ph.D. student Ziad Jilani drawing a red line between Sanders and Warren in a Jacobin article last month titled “Why the Differences Between Sanders and Warren Matter”. Jilani, who was a staff member of a PAC that supported Warren in the past, sees her in the same way as Shawn Gude. As a proponent of “fair-minded” capitalism, she only wants to “rein in” big business.

Finally, there’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who once again used the bully pulpit of a Guardian op-ed last August to pose the question “Think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the same?” Unlike Warren, Sanders “was trained in the dying remnants of the Socialist party and cut his political teeth in trade union and civil rights organizing…The rich were not morally confused but rather have a vested interest in the exploitation of others. Power would have to be taken from them by force.”

Power would have to be taken from them by force? Ooh, boy. I can’t wait for Bernie Sanders to lead a squad of workers into 740 Park Avenue to force Stephen Schwarzman to put a roof over the heads of some people living in a shelter.

I should add that Sunkara was not always this willing to exaggerate Sanders’s class struggle bona fides. In 2015, he told Vox:

Sanders is, in many ways, a good social democrat. That’s not a bad start, but we want to not only build a welfare state, but go beyond it. We want a society in which political democracy is extended into economic and social realms as well, where workers own and control their places of employment, not just get a decent wage.

Well, of course. So, why all the bullshit about taking power by force or, even worse, comparing Sanders to Eugene V. Debs? Debs was far closer to Lenin than he was to the Scandinavian welfare states that Sanders identified as his brand of socialism to Bob Schieffer in a Face the Nation interview.

In 1904, when Debs was a presidential candidate, he made a speech that could not be further from the agenda of the JDDP. He said:

The capitalist class is represented by the Republican, Democratic, Populist and Prohibition parties, all of which stand for private ownership of the means of production, and the triumph of any one of which will mean continued wage-slavery to the working class.

As the Populist and Prohibition sections of the capitalist party represent minority elements which propose to reform the capitalist system without disturbing wage-slavery, a vain and impossible task, they will be omitted from this discussion with all the credit due the rank and file for their good intentions.

The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.

To tell you the god’s honest truth, I’d have a lot less animosity toward the JDDP if it simply dropped all the rhetoric about power being taken from the rich by force and stopped pretending it had anything to do with Eugene V. Debs. While they would never admit to it, they really are well-intended liberals just like the kids who rang doorbells for Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern when I was the same age as Bhaskar Sunkara. None of these doorbell-pushers needed to invoke Karl Kautsky to justify their misguided efforts to end the war by electing peace candidates.

In the early 70s, young people were confronted by the enormous crisis of an unceasing war in Indochina just as they are today facing an unceasing economic crisis that forces them into the precariat. War and economic misery are a function of capitalist rule. To achieve peace and economic security, it is necessary to build a revolutionary party that regards both the Democrats and Republicans as mortal enemies—just as Eugene V. Debs put it.

When I began writing about the need for a nonsectarian revolutionary party in the early 80s, I had high hopes that something might have come together by now. Unfortunately, I was overly optimistic. Today, the JDDP has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and there is no telling when new revolutionary forces will emerged. My guess is that the failure of the JDDP to put a dent into the capitalist system over the next decade at least will begin to wake people up. Maybe I’ll be around to see that.

February 19, 2019

Los Caballeros Templarios

Filed under: crime,drugs,Mexico — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

I’m doing some research on Mexican drug cartels for a CounterPunch article on “Narcos” and “El Chapo”, two really great crime dramas on Netflix. I had written about an earlier “Narcos” season for CounterPunch when it was focused on Pablo Escobar. My interest in writing about mafia and mafia-like crime stories is to connect them to social and political contradictions as I have also done in a couple of articles about the Sicilian mafia for CounterPunch that I will be continuing before long. It turns out that the very best study of Mexican drug gangs was co-authored by Mike Wallace (the CUNY Marxist historian) and Carmen Boullosa, a Mexican poet and journalist. Wallace is the co-author of “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898” and the newly published and acclaimed follow-up “Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919”. Every page of Wallace and Boullosa’s A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” is compelling but I could not resist scanning and posting this excerpt.


After the apparent death of its strategic and spiritual leader, La Familia retreated into its mountain fastness, where the leadership split in two, prompting triumphalist government assertions that Michoacan would soon be back under control. But while one of the factions began to fade away, the other mutated into an even more repellant descendant, Los Caballeros Templarios—”The Knights Templar”—named after the medieval Catholic crusaders. Claiming Moreno’s mantle, the Knights were led by two Moreno lieutenants, Servando “La Tuta” (“The Teacher”) Gómez Martinez, and Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte. [I have no idea whether this is the anti-Semitic slur or some bit of Mexican slang.] They donned white cloaks blazoned with red crosses, erected statues of the departed drug lord decked out in medieval armor, and, decorating them with gold and diamonds, venerated El Mas Loco as a saint. As had La Familia, the Knights Templar professed a devotion to social justice and even to revolutionary politics. They also affected respect for the Roman Catholic Church, and when Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico, they hung banners on bridges in seven cities proclaiming: “The Knights Templar Cartel will not partake in any warlike acts, we are not killers, welcome Pope.” They too promised to protect Michoacan from outside evildoers. Soon after appearing on the scene they hung more than forty banners across the state proclaiming: “Our commitment is to safeguard order, avoid robberies, kidnapping, and extortion, and to shield the state from rival organizations.” By which they meant the Zetas, against whom they invited other cartels to join in a countrywide anti-Zeta alliance.

It took the Knights far less time to turn super-malevolent than it had La Familia.

In addition to dominating the drug trade, the Templarios began terrorizing the local populace, committing all the crimes they had promised to “avoid.” They extorted tribute from farmers by forcing growers of avocados and limes to pay a quota for every kilo, terrorized corn growers into selling their crops cheap, then resold them to tortilla makers at double the price. They raped women at will, kidnapped with abandon, and tortured and beheaded resisters in public. They also took control of much of Michoacan’s political order, installing local politicians in office, controlling municipal budgets, and employing local police as assistants.

The Knights menaced not only local campesinos, but also corporate and multinational enterprises. Starting in 2010, they boldly began robbing iron mining companies of their ore, or seizing the mines outright. Then they sold the product to processors, distributors, and Chinese industrial firms—voracious consumers of iron ore—having established all but total control of the port of Lazaro Cardenas, now the country’s second largest. In 2010 they moved over a million tons of illegally extracted ore, a blow to the country’s economy and international standing. The Templarios, now an eight-hundred-pound leech, had opened up a whole new field of endeavor for Mexico’s organized crime.

 

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