Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2016

Before the Flood; The Ivory Game

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,Film,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 8:39 pm

Leonardo DiCaprio

Two documentaries with the imprimatur of Leonardo DiCaprio can be seen in New York City and likely in theaters around the country given his clout as one of Hollywood’s superstars. Both of the documentaries are timely and excellent. They also raise questions about the role of tinseltown progressives. With DiCaprio, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Angela Jolie, John Cusack and others not so well known picking up where Jane Fonda left off years ago, it is a good time to consider their role in social change. Since there is a natural and even reasonable tendency on the left to regard such personalities as superficial phonies, a close look at DiCaprio’s trajectory would be useful.

“Before the Flood” opened yesterday at the Village East Cinema in New York and features DiCaprio in a kind of Michael Moore narrator/main character role. (The film will also be shown on the National Geographic channel on October 30th.) As the title implies, this is about climate change and certainly a follow-up to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that helped to draw attention to arguably the most important environmental question we face today even as Gore’s film failed to provide adequate answers. Whether DiCaprio’s film succeeds in answering them is open to question although it is undeniable that the average audience member will come out the theater with a much better idea of the problems we face.

The film is a kind of odyssey with DiCaprio meeting with people all across the planet who are on the front lines of climate change. Mostly he is content to allow people to speak freely even when they come close to denouncing him as part of the problem. When he meets with Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, he allows her to excoriate the West for demanding sharp cutbacks in fossil fuel usage across the board when her country and others like it are mired in poverty. After we see an Indian peasant turning cow dung into a patty that is used almost universally in the countryside as a primitive stove fuel, Narain remonstrates with DiCaprio:

Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future. We have 700m household using biomass to cook. If those households move to coal, there’ll be that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone tells you that the world’s poor should move to solar and why do they have to make the mistakes we have made…I hear this from American NGOs all the time. I’m like, wow. I mean, if it was that easy, I would really have liked the US to move to solar. But you haven’t. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.

There was nothing like this in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and as such makes this new film far more credible.

One of the things you will learn from “Before the Flood” is that Western Europe is making great strides in developing alternative energy sources. Not only that, so is China which is far Greener at least on climate change than the USA. To some extent, this is likely the result of China’s need to reduce air pollution from coal-burning plants even if it had nothing to do with the coastal flooding that can put cities under water everywhere, including China. Since protests against unclear air have roiled China, the Communist Party must have felt a need to defuse the situation. Furthermore, since lung cancer does not discriminate between rich and poor, the elite obviously would prefer to enjoy its wealth in good health.

If advances are being made in alternative energy sources, there continues to be profit-driven assaults on the world’s great rainforests that serve to absorb carbon dioxide and hence slow down climate change. One of the more shocking examples is the deliberately set forest fires in Borneo, a first step in clearing land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a key ingredient of junk food. When DiCaprio visits a shelter for orphaned orangutans, you really have to wonder what kind of mad world we are living in when a bag of Lays potato chips can fuel the extinction of such a gentle and intelligent beast.

There are three interviews that epitomize the shortcomings of a Green outlook that is not rooted in a critique of the capitalist system. DiCaprio gives Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw a platform to advocate for a carbon tax that he feels will reduce its use just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking. We assume that the inclusion of Mankiw, a life-long Republican who served in George W. Bush’s economic advisor, is meant to illustrate the possibility of uniting all sides of the political spectrum in a battle against extinction.

The carbon tax is based on the idea that markets can be the solution to climate change after the fashion of Obama’s cap-and-trade that provides incentives for reducing carbon emissions. But as long as the market system prevails, there will be enormous pressures to be cost-effective. This might entail allowing big corporations to offset the expense of a carbon tax by drilling in areas of the world where labor costs are minimal, like South Sudan for example. Indeed, even as China is converting to alternative energy sources within its borders, it is stepping up drilling in the South Sudan.

As it happens, Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax but this might have something to do with the fact that it would likely benefit more than its competitors from a carbon tax that favors cleaner-burning natural gas over coal. Guess what. ExxonMobil has the largest natural gas reserves of any U.S. company.

As another example of progress in the fight against climate change, DiCaprio talks to Elon Musk in his “gigafactory” in the Nevadan desert. Upon its completion in 2020, it will produce 500,000 electric vehicles per year and batteries/cells equal to 85 GWh/yr. Musk is also a proponent of the carbon tax as this exchange reveals:

Elon Musk: What would it take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy? What kind of throughput would you actually need? You need a hundred gigafactories.

Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?

Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…

Elon Musk: No, the whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!

Elon Musk: The whole world.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That’s it?! That sounds manageable.

Elon Musk: If all the big companies do this then we can accelerate the transition and if governments can set the rules in favour of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly. But it’s really fundamental: unless they put a price on carbon…

Leonardo DiCaprio: …then we are never going to be able to make the transition in time, right?

Elon Musk: Only way to do that is through a carbon tax.

It is too bad that DiCaprio did not follow up with a question about lithium mining since this is the primary ingredient of the batteries he will be producing. I first became aware of its environmental impact in a film titled “Salero” that examined the life of a salt extractor in Bolivia whose way of life was threatened by the transformation of the salt flats into a huge lithium mine. Friends of the Earth details the possible outcome, which amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul:

Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. Holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface, leaving it to evaporate in ponds. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.

The salt flats where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities. The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, local communities claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used for humans, livestock and crop irrigation.

Finally, there is the interview with Barack Obama in which the chief executive worries about scarce resources becoming subject to competition between populations. This amounts to a national security issue according to the Pentagon. In a way, this has already taken place if you consider the possibility that the revolt in Syria was fueled to some extent by climate change. You can read about this in the December 17, 2015 Scientific American:

Kemal Ali ran a successful well-digging business for farmers in northern Syria for 30 years. He had everything he needed for the job: a heavy driver to pound pipe into the ground, a battered but reliable truck to carry his machinery, a willing crew of young men to do the grunt work. More than that, he had a sharp sense of where to dig, as well as trusted contacts in local government on whom he could count to look the other way if he bent the rules. Then things changed. In the winter of 2006–2007, the water table began sinking like never before.

Ali had a problem. “Before the drought I would have to dig 60 or 70 meters to find water,” he recalls. “Then I had to dig 100 to 200 meters. Then, when the drought hit very strongly, I had to dig 500 meters. The deepest I ever had to dig was 700 meters. The water kept dropping and dropping.” From that winter through 2010, Syria suffered its most devastating drought on record. Ali’s business disappeared. He tried to find work but could not. Social uprisings in the country began to escalate. He was almost killed by cross fire. Now Ali sits in a wheelchair at a camp for wounded and ill refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

If there is anything that casts doubt on the ability or willingness of American imperialism to preempt “national security” issues stemming from climate change, it is the situation in Syria that has deteriorated to hellish levels. The USA had zero interest in reducing conflict in the entire Middle East and North Africa, which to one extent or another is suffering from extreme weather conditions. Its general strategy is to support the status quo with one or another dictatorship keeping men such as Kemal Ali from getting out of hand. Oil will be sent from Saudi Arabia while men like al-Sisi and Assad keep the rabble in line. This is the shape of things to come in the 21st century and nothing will stop it except the revolutionary action of working people and farmers who have nothing to lose but their chains. This is a showdown that will force men and women in Leonardo DiCaprio’s social position to choose sides. I’d like to think on the basis of the convictions displayed in “Before the Flood” that he can be won to our side.

In the early moments of “Before the Flood”, DiCaprio recollects how as a young boy he began thinking about environmental questions. He became preoccupied with animal extinctions and wondered how they happened and how they could be prevented. Since we are part of the animal kingdom ourselves, we have an obvious interest in eliminating any environmental threats to our own existence.

Moving from those early musings to the current day, we see him in conversation with Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of “The Revenant”, a very fine film about one man’s struggle to reach civilization after being mauled in the wilderness by a grizzly bear. In a way, this was nature’s revenge since the man was a hunter who like thousands of others in the early 1800s helped to bring many creatures to the edge of extinction. We see director and actor looking in horror at a photograph of one of these hunters before a small mountain of pelts. DiCaprio shakes his head at this gruesome spectacle and asks why such men could not see the impact that they would have on nature.

That kind of irrational, cruel and ultimately self-destructive behavior is the subject of the documentary “The Ivory Game” that opens in theaters everywhere on November 4th as well as on Netflix. DiCaprio served as executive producer for the film that is directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson.

As the title implies, this is about the wholesale destruction of African elephants through poaching. The main market for their tusks is China, where the nouveau riche value artwork made of ivory. Like the rhinoceros tusks that end up in useless cures for a variety of ailments ranging from impotence to cancer, China is a primary cause of the enormous loss of living natural resources that cannot easily be replaced.

The film follows some of the men and women involved in eliminating the black market for ivory in both Africa and China. We meet the cops who are in pursuit of Shetani, a kingpin in the poaching business whose name is Swahili for Satan—appropriately enough. We also meet a young Chinese man who after being horrified as a boy by the slaughter of small animals in an outdoor market decided to take up their cause. He became an investigative journalist covering the ivory game as well as an undercover operative who secretly filmed the Chinese and Africans who take part in this sordid business.

As a further illustration of the insanity of the capitalist system, we learn that the men in the poaching trade and the shopkeepers in China who sell the handicrafts made of ivory want the elephant population to decline since that will drive up the price of their goods. Supply and demand, don’t you know? This becomes a vicious cycle that will eventually lead to their extinction.

As it happens, my earliest inklings into the conflict between capitalism and mother nature was a 1958 film titled “Roots of Heaven” directed by John Huston that I wrote about in July 2014:

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

So what do we make of Leonardo DiCaprio? To start with, it is good that he is involved with projects such as these. His name might help to fill seats in theaters that are outside the arthouse ghetto. It also helps that the two films have production values not ordinarily seen in documentaries.

Plus, the man puts his money on the line. He recently donated $1 million to an anti-poaching campaign. While he certainly can afford to make that kind of contribution, we can at least respect him for making it. I also invited you to visit his website where you can see other initiatives that he is funding. I am not sure if there is anybody doing more than him to protect wildlife and the ecosphere, at least in Hollywood.

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-4-01-09-pm

There were some autobiographical details in “Before the Flood” that I found interesting. It turns out that DiCaprio’s father was both a creator and marketer of underground comics and evidently part of the counter-culture. For some reason that only the father could explain, he put a poster of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” on his young child’s bedroom wall. DiCaprio became obsessed with the images, especially the one to the right that depicts hell. It is that image that evokes what our planet will look like unless the forces of destruction are not confronted and defeated.

Like most people in his milieu, DiCaprio is a Democrat as Wikipedia notes:

During the 2004 presidential election, DiCaprio campaigned and donated to John Kerry’s presidential bid. The FEC showed that DiCaprio gave $2,300 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the 2008 election, the maximum contribution an individual could give in that election cycle, and $5,000 to Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Well, the $5000 shelled out to Obama might have been wasted but the million dollars to save the elephants was much better spent.

On balance, we are better off with DiCaprio as a spokesman for causes we believe in rather than him standing on the sidelines doing cocaine and navel-gazing. In the final analysis, it is the working class and its allies that will transform the economic system that hastens climate change and the extinction of African elephants but we should be looking for all the help we can get in a monumental struggle upon which everything rests, including the survival of life on earth.

This is the speech he gave to the UN on April 22nd, 2016. I’d like to think he wrote it himself:

Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, for the honor to address this body once more. And thanks to the distinguished climate leaders assembled here today who are ready to take action.

President Abraham Lincoln was also thinking of bold action 150 years ago when he said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

He was speaking before the US Congress to confront the defining issue of his time – slavery.

Everyone knew it had to end but no one had the political will to stop it. Remarkably, his words ring as true today when applied to the defining crisis of our time – Climate Change.

As a UN Messenger of Peace, I have been travelling all over the world for the last two years documenting how this crisis is changing the natural balance of our planet. I have seen cities like Beijing choked by industrial pollution. Ancient Boreal forests in Canada that have been clear cut and rainforests in Indonesia that have been incinerated. In India I met farmers whose crops have literally been washed away by historic flooding. In America I have witnessed unprecedented droughts in California and sea level rise flooding the streets of Miami. In Greenland and in the Arctic I was astonished to see that ancient glaciers are rapidly disappearing well ahead of scientific predictions. All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me.

There is no doubt in the world’s scientific community that this a direct result of human activity and that the effects of climate change will become astronomically worse in the future.

I do not need to throw statistics at you. You know them better than I do, and more importantly, you know what will happen if this scourge is left unchecked. You know that climate change is happening faster than even the most pessimistic of scientists warned us decades ago. It has become a runaway freight train bringing with it an impending disaster for all living things.

Now think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we had the means of stopping this devastation, but simply lacked the political will to do so.

Yes, we have achieved the Paris Agreement. More countries have come together to sign this agreement today than for any other cause in the history of humankind – and that is a reason for hope – but unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough.

Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. An upheaval and massive change is required, now. One that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race, inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you.

We all know that reversing the course of climate change will not be easy, but the tools are in our hands – if we apply them before it is too late.

Renewable energy, clean fuels, and putting a price on carbon pollution are beginning to turn the tide. This transition is not only the right thing for our world, but it also makes clear economic sense, and is possible within our lifetime.

But it is now upon you to do what great leaders have always done: to lead, inspire, and empower as President Lincoln did in his time.

We can congratulate each other today, but it will mean nothing if you return to your countries and fail to push beyond the promises of this historic agreement. Now is the time for bold unprecedented action.

My friends, look at the delegates around you. It is time to ask each other – which side of history will you be on?

As a citizen of our planet who has witnessed so much on this journey I thank you for all you have done to lay the foundation of a solution to this crisis, but after 21 years of debates and conferences it is time to declare no more talk. No more excuses. No more ten-year studies. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that effect our future. This is the only body that can do what is needed. You, sitting in this very hall.

The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them.

Lincoln’s words still resonate to all of us here today:

“We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

That is our charge now – you are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it. Or we – and all living things we cherish – are history.

Thank you.

October 1, 2016

The 13th; The Birth of a Nation

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

While likely scheduled for distribution independently of each other, the pending release of “Birth of a Nation” and the selection of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” for last night’s opening of the New York Film Festival practically amount to joint appearances. The first is a narrative film written, directed by and starring Nate Parker as Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, that opens everywhere on October 7th, the same day that DuVernay’s documentary about the prison-industrial complex is released to Netflix.

Put succinctly, these are two films that must be seen as complements to each other. In explaining why forms of slavery linger on to this day, DuVernay’s film starts with the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and that was the centerpiece of Stephen Spielberg’s vastly overrated “Lincoln”. If you read the fine print of the amendment, you will see that it stipulates: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is that “except as a punishment for crime” that is key to understanding how the phenomenon of what author Douglas Blackmon called “Slavery by Another Name” continues to this day.

“The 13th” begins by describing the quandary faced by the southern bourgeoisie once slavery was abolished. Without Black people no longer in bondage and free to rely on subsistence farming, how could you secure the cheap labor that was necessary to get the economy going? The answer was convict labor. From the earliest days of reconstruction, laws were passed in the south to impose stiff prison terms on offenses as minor as loitering—used of course on a discriminatory basis against Blacks. As convicts, they could be forced to do the same kind of work they used to do as slaves and with even less concern about their comfort or their health.

The efforts at identifying Blacks with crime was an ongoing one. Key to that was depicting the Deep South as a victim of Northern aggression and the connivance of the freed slaves who were savages with nothing but criminal mayhem in their hearts, particularly raping white women. In 1905 Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote a book titled “The Clansman” that was key to the revival of the KKK. A decade later D.W. Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation” that was based on Dixon’s book and that became a wildly popular film in both the north and the south, so much so that Woodrow Wilson organized a private screening at the White House.

When asked by Filmmaker Magazine why he chose the same title as Griffith’s KKK propaganda, Nate Parker replied:

From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.

I will return to Ava DuVernay’s documentary but will now make the case for Nate Parker’s film being the first made by an American filmmaker that is both artistically and politically on the same level as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn”. Only 36 years old, Parker has made a breakthrough film that is my choice for best picture of 2016 that will almost inevitably not be dislodged from that status even as the director is now being dogged by controversy about a rape charge made against him in 1999.

Like “12 Years a Slave”, a much heralded 2013 film by Black British director Steve McQueen, much of “The Birth of a Nation” is a searing depiction of slaves being brutalized to the point where you need to cover your eyes. In one scene, we see a slave master using a hammer to knock out the teeth of a slave in chains who is on a hunger strike. Without the teeth, it is easier to put a funnel into his mouth and force-feed him just as is the case with 3 prisoners in Wisconsin this year who were protesting solitary confinement.

What distinguishes Parker’s film from McQueen’s is that it is not merely a grim parade of suffering that is the British director’s hallmark and something Armond White once described as follows:

For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.

For Parker, the real story is Nat Turner’s religious, moral and political evolution from a preacher hired out to plantation owners to pacify their slaves with hopes for the afterlife into a rebel determined to fight for his freedom until death.

The film begins with the young Nat Turner reading a book he purloined from his master’s library and reading by candlelight a la Abe Lincoln. When the master’s wife learns about his ability, she invites him into the library to see the books at leisure. When he approaches a shelf, she pulls him away and says that those will not be of use to him. He only needs to read one book, the bible that she slips into his hands.

At first he feels a sense of pride in being able to deliver sermons to the slaves that lifts their spirits but eventually the cognitive dissonance between the cruelty he sees delivered upon them diurnally and the “pie in the sky” he preaches reaches a breaking point after his wife is raped and beaten by a three men out patrolling for runaway slaves.

Besides the character development and dialog that are at a level much higher than any Hollywood film I have seen in years, “The Birth of a Nation” is a cinematographic wonder with poetic renderings of nature, humanity and the southern agrarian milieu. The white characters are universally despicable but not in the cartoonish way of most films about the slave epoch especially Quentin Tarantino’s stupid burlesque of the period.

Many of you are probably aware that William Styron wrote a novel titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967 during a period of deep Black militancy. Styron’s portrayal of Turner had little to do with Nate Parker’s film. He found Turner to be a “dangerous religious lunatic and . . . psychopathic monster” based on his reading of Turner’s confession to a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas Gray. Styron’s version of Turner was so offensive that a rejoinder titled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” eventually appeared. In anticipating his later morphing into a bigoted reactionary, Eugene Genovese wrote a long defense of Styron in the N.Y. Review of Books.

In reading a 2008 NY Times article about Styron and the Nat Turner controversy, I found myself wondering what Turner actually said in the confessions. As it happens, it has been posted on the Internet and is well worth reading. Much of it has the rhetoric of a sermon but there are a couple of sentences that help you to understand why Nat Turner became a rebel:

And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams–and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.”

For Styron, Nat Turner’s rebellion was not that much different than the advance of an unnamed former slave in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” upon a white southern belle who generates so much fear that she throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. The Wikipedia article on Styron’s novel describes his version of the scene that is the climax of Parker’s film:

From the very beginning, however, Nat’s rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat’s leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army.

Since rape is a key event in Parker’s movie as well, but more logically one involving a white assault on a Black woman, much has been made about the controversy that surfaced on August 16th when it was revealed that he was accused but then cleared of rape charges when he was a student at Penn State. His accuser committed suicide in 2012 when she was 30 years old. The news led the prestigious American Film Institute to cancel a screening. Parker is scheduled to appear on “Sixty Minutes” tomorrow night but I am not sure I am interested in hearing about the case.

Even if he was guilty of the heinous act, that does not make “The Birth of a Nation” any less worthy of the accolades it has received. Long after Nate Parker is dead and gone, people will be watching this film in the same way that others have viewed Griffith’s classic. Its message is toxic but it was an important film as even James Agee argued. While Griffith was never accused of such a crime, his film was arguably responsible in part for thousands of lynchings. The legacy of Parker’s film will be one as a significant contribution to the art of cinema and the Black struggle. His own life is incidental to that.

Returning now to Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece of a documentary, it overlaps in considerable ways with Parker’s film since they both are reflections on one of America’s original sins: slavery.

“The 13th” is a fearless work that is not afraid to take on sacred cows including Bill Clinton who was once referred to as “our first Black president” by Toni Morrison in 1996. DuVernay provides compelling detail about how a series of presidents have re-instituted “slavery by another name” by making black skin a signifier for crime.

It all started with Nixon’s “southern strategy” that went hand in hand with a war on drugs that has been essential to the carceration epidemic that has resulted in 1 out of 3 Blacks ending up behind bars in their lifetime as opposed to 1 out of 17 whites. Nixon’s aide John Erlichman put it this way:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Ronald Reagan’s aide Lee Atwater explained how you can be a racist without actually using words like “nigger”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Now everybody knows that people like Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and Donald Trump are racist pigs but what about Bill Clinton, the “first Black president”?

DuVernay calls  upon expert witnesses who are much less impressed with the former president and his wife now running for president who referred to young Blacks as “super-predators” in 1996, a term that had the same kind of loaded significance as a scene from D.W. Griffith’s film.

Leaving aside words, some of Clinton’s critics who appear in the film cite his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill as far more harmful than any legislation backed by Republicans. It was responsible for mandatory minimums and the “three strikes” life sentences that have filled our prisons.

Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, a book that has obviously influenced DuVernay’s film, is interviewed throughout the film and is one of many very informed and eloquent social critics that make “The 13th” must-viewing. In a Nation Magazine article  titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”, she explains why (it should be mentioned that she had problems with Bernie Sanders who also voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill):

An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn’t have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.

Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren’t looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars—out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics.

To make matters worse, the federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).

August 15, 2016

Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx?

Filed under: Academia,liberalism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Gareth Stedman Jones

Gareth Stedman Jones is a 73-year-old professor of history at the University of London who was educated at St. Paul’s and Oxford. This, plus a brief infatuation with Marxism in the 1960s, was just the ticket for landing a seat on the editorial board of New Left Review where many editors and contributors over the years share the same kind of background.

In a 2012 interview, Jones described his eventual breach with the far left, especially its Trotskyist component, as a result of being put off by the idea of a “revolutionary Europe”. Instead he realized that unlike his erstwhile comrades, he really was a “crypto-Fabian”.

For most people who have a youthful fling with radical politics, this is something easy enough to put behind them. I am acquainted, for example, with a man who was my YSA organizer in NY in 1968. He dropped out of the movement about 5 years later, moved out to California, and started a very profitable company that sold and installed industrial carpeting in office buildings. When I visited his ranch about 15 years ago, the last thing he was interested in was politics. He much preferred to drink cognac, smoke cigars and talk about the horses he was breeding.

In my view, that man does a lot less harm than Gareth Stedman Jones who has carved out a very successful career at elite British universities, including Cambridge, teaching young people all about working class history and what’s wrong with Marxism. On his webpage at the U. of London, he names his PhD students including one Kate Connelly, whose dissertation is on “Marx, Engels and the Urban Poor”. As is commonly understood, dissertation students make sure to hold views in sync with their adviser so we can assume that she will disorient her future students in the same way Jones disoriented her.

One of the most ironic contradictions of Marxism is that some of its most diehard critics speak in the name of Marxism. With the intellectual clout they might gain from serving on the NLR editorial board and having written a rafter of books with titles like “Outcast London”, a 1971 Verso book that was an exercise in E.P. Thompson “history from below”, people such as Gareth Stedman Jones can speak out of both sides of his mouth. He is for the working class in a charitable Dickensian fashion but against it becoming the ruling class.

In his latest exercise in undermining Marx while praising him, Jones just came out with a 768-page book titled “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” that has been reviewed in the Guardian and the Financial Times. Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Bullough states that “Stedman Jones eventually comes to the conclusion that the pioneers of 20th-century socialism would have found Marx’s true dreams incomprehensible, since they were formed in a pre-1848 world that would have had little if any relevance to them.”

In a nutshell, Jones argues that the 20th and 21st century Marxist understanding of socialism is influenced much more by Engels than Marx. Bullough explains: “Stedman Jones argues that much of what we now think of as Marxism – and, thus, much of what went on to inspire socialist and communist parties – was the creation of Engels, who codified Marx’s theories after his death, thus making them palatable for people unable or unwilling to wade through his dense texts.”

The idea that Engels was somehow to blame for the bastardization of Marxism and even partially responsible for the Stalinist travesties of “dialectical materialism” is part of the arsenal of people like Gareth Stedman Jones, even though there is little basis for this.

Mark Mazower, a Columbia University professor, wrote the FT review titled “The value of Karl Marx’s 19th century thinking in today’s world”. As I have noted in the past, the FT has published a number of articles, especially during the depth of the 2008 financial crisis, arguing for the relevance of Karl Marx even if his call for the abolition of capitalism was all wet.

Relying on Mazower’s reading of Jones, we are expected to believe that Marx neglected to deal with the problem of state power:

At the same time he continued his voluminous reading, in particular of Ludwig Feuerbach, a critic of Hegel and the thinker who did most to point Marx towards the idea of man as an alienated being who thrived best as part of a larger collective. It was this conception that allowed Marx to imagine the future as one great human society, and to relegate to an entirely unimportant position the state itself, which had been so potent in Hegel’s thought. One consequence of this downplaying of the state was that Marx developed his entire critique of capitalism with almost no reference to the role of the state: the upshot was that after 1917, when his Russian followers found themselves running the government of a very large country, they had a free hand to invent a role for the bureaucracy and ended up creating a polity in which the state played a greater role than ever before or since.

Speaking of neglect, it is obvious to me that Jones failed to take into account one of Karl Marx’s most important writings on the state—“The Civil War in France”—that was the basis for Lenin’s “State and Revolution”. I understand that Gareth Stedman Jones has more awards than Heineken beer but if he can’t make the connection between Marx and Lenin on the theory of the workers state, then he has no business teaching about Marx. But then again, the people who hired him for his various august positions saw this inability to make such a connection essential to training the future leaders of bourgeois society who might dismiss Marxism while wisely praising Marx as an important 19th century thinker.

In 2002 Penguin came out with a version of “The Communist Manifesto” with a 185-page introduction by Jones, three times the length of the Manifesto. Among the spurious points made in the introduction is that the manifesto and much of 19th century socialism was a quasi-religion. This, of course, is another key talking point against Marxism that I personally first heard in junior high school back in 1958 or so. It was “the god that failed”, a “secular religion” that replaced heaven with the communist ideal. This is a rather banal interpretation and exactly what you would expect from someone like Gareth Stedman Jones.

In a shrewd review of Jones’s packaging of The Communist Manifesto for the New Left Review, Jacob Stevens wrote:

Stedman Jones’s organizing thesis—that Marxism is another form of religion—is, of course, one of the oldest tropes of Cold War literature, predating even the equation of communism and fascism as two sides of the totalitarian coin. During the thirties, Waldemar Gurian and Eric Voegelin argued that Marxism and Nazism caricatured the fundamental patterns of religious belief, diagnosing the resulting immanentist heresies as by-products of secularization in a decadent world, fuelled by Enlightenment myths of social transformation. After World War Two, Jules Monnerot’s Sociology of Communism (1949) explained that Bolshevism was a ‘religious sect of world conquerors’ that should be viewed as a ‘twentieth-century Islam’. Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) offered a fully fleshed-out analogy with Christianity: the ‘sacred history which Marxism extracts from the penumbra of plain facts’ offers a messianic role for the Party.

For Jones the last important work of Marx was “The German Ideology”. Apparently everything went downhill afterwards. Perhaps Jones might have done less harm if he had simply focused on social history and not written counter-revolutionary drivel. This part of his legacy might have inspired another of his dissertation students to have chosen a topic like “Carnivals in Greater London, 1890-1914: Locality, Leisure and Voluntary Action on the Metropolitan Periphery”, one that thankfully will not carry his adviser’s ideological baggage.

Then again, that might be problematic given Jones’s attempt to purge class from the history of the Chartist movement. Once again doing his best to obfuscate revolutionary history, he claims that it was liberalism rather than socialism that fueled the growth of this movement. Crypto-Fabian indeed.

In 1983, Jones came out with a book titled “Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982” that included a chapter titled “Rethinking Chartism”. It turned language into a fulcrum of analysis rather than class dynamics. The speeches and articles of Chartist leaders that reflected a commitment to traditional values of bourgeois democracy were taken at face value by Jones whose words reflected the baleful influence of post-structuralism:

What both ‘experience’ and ‘consciousness’ conceal – at least as their usage has evolved among historians- is the problematic character of language itself. Both concepts imply that language is a simple medium through which ‘experience’ finds expression- a romantic conception of language in which what is at the beginning inner and particular struggles to outward expression and, having done so, finds itself recognized in the answering experience of others, and hence sees itself to be part of a shared experience. It is in some such way that ‘experience’ can be conceived cumulatively to result in class consciousness. What this approach cannot acknowledge is all the criticism which has been levelled at it since the broader significance of Saussure’s work was understood – the materiality of language itself, the impossibility of simply referring it back to some primal anterior reality, ‘social being’, the impossibility of abstracting experience from the language which structures its articulation. In areas other than history, such criticisms are by now well known and do not need elaboration. But historians – and social historians in particular – have either been unaware or, when aware, extremely resistant to the implications of this approach for their own practice, and this has been so most of all perhaps when it touches such a central topic as class.

So interesting to see how Gareth Stedman Jones is inclined to draw upon intellectual traditions hostile to Marxism in an effort to simultaneously speak for the left while undermining it. If the essay on the Chartists was filled with intellectual hijinks like this, the next chapter “Why is the Labour Party Such a Mess?” was refreshingly straightforward even if the ideas were just as repugnant. It seems that the solution to the Labour Party’s problems in post-Thatcher England was to ditch the “homogeneous proletarian estate whose sectional political interest is encompassed by trade unions.”

In 2004, Jones wrote an op-ed piece for the Guardian titled “Tony Blair needs a big idea. Adam Smith can provide it”. It is a totally ahistorical think piece that abstracts Adam Smith from his contemporary context and urges readers to appreciate that Smith’s “original reputation was that of a progressive whose work provided the foundation of the radical critique of aristocratic monopoly and of the bellicose state that protected it.” He adds, “But an accurate account of this period shows that the pursuit of equality can be conceived in terms quite other than those of socialism.”

What that has to do with the 21st century when capitalism had become so decadent that it was capable of fomenting two world wars is anybody’s guess. It seems that despite his formidable reputation as a historian, Jones’s grasp of history is rather weak. Adam Smith was an enemy of state monopolies like the East India Company. How would that exactly translate into Labour Party policy? In the late 18th century, Britain was on the verge of an industrial revolution that combined with its overseas empire could turn it into the wealthiest nation in the world. Adam Smith was the prophet of that trend. But in 2004 England was deep into deindustrialization that both Labour and Conservative politicians were either enthusiastic about or reconciled to. One supposes that Gareth Stedman Jones lacked the intellectual and political insights to grasp this.

I am sure that none of my readers would waste $35 on his worthless book but for those with a morbid curiosity I would urge you to read an interview with him that is a transcript of a 2005 PBS show called “Heaven On Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism” that was hosted by Ben Wattenberg, an obnoxious neoconservative. As should be obvious from the title of the program, Jones must have jumped at the opportunity to chat with Wattenberg since they agreed that socialism was a kind of religion.

It is a pile of shit from beginning to end but reached the deepest level of shittiness when Wattenberg posed the question: “Did the writings of Lenin change people’s ideas about Socialism?” Jones replies:

Well, it absolutely moves the center of gravity from the idea that socialism is something which is going to come through the development of capitalism at its highest point, something which all socialists have believed before 1914 to the idea that building socialism in the primitive country, ninety-percent of whose population were peasants and so on, the point from which he had to redefine socialism.

Lenin tries to do so by his famous arguments that capitalism is as strong as its weakest link, and pre-revolutionary Russia has presented it as being the weakest link. So really he cuts through this whole argument about whether there are enough workers as a proportion of the population to produce a viable socialist society. Clearly, there weren’t and the Soviets learned to their costs. I mean, the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. And of course it changed the image of socialism ever afterwards to that of being a very top-heavy, authoritarian, ruthless state machine, which was if anything, the opposite of what people would have thought socialism was meant to be in the mid-nineteenth century.

So the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. Very interesting. Speaking of brute force, does Jones have any idea of what kind of brute force was deployed against Russia in 1918 when 21 invading armies sought to destroy the socialist experiment?

About 8 million people lost their lives during the Russian Civil War. Wikipedia also indicates the crushing of the industrial infrastructure:

Estimates say that the war cost the Soviet Russia around 50 billion rubles or $35,000,000,000.00 in today’s price. Production of industrial goods fell to very low level. For example, The Soviet Union was producing only 5 % of the cotton, and only 2 % of the iron ore, compared to the production of 1913. Generally, the production had fallen to 20% of the production of 1913.

The counter-revolutionary war had the intended effect even if “socialism” survived. The loss of Bolshevik cadre led to the rise of Stalinism, and after that the rise of fascism since the working class in Europe lacked the revolutionary leadership that could have blocked the victory of both Hitler and Franco.

As Perry Anderson pointed out in “Considerations on Western Marxism”, it was such terrible defeats that led to a retreat from revolutionary socialism among a class of intellectuals who, anticipating Gareth Stedman Jones, began to criticize Marxism from within the academy. The only thing that will reverse this trend is a new upsurge of the working class that will inevitably be produced by the irrationality of the capitalist system. Even though Gareth Stedman Jones disparages The Communist Manifesto, it is worth quoting on this point:

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

February 27, 2016

2016 Socially Relevant Film Festival previews: part one

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 5.33.06 PM

This is the first in a series of articles about some of the films scheduled for this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival that I have been covering since its inception in 2014. This year I am proud to be on its Documentary award jury. I must admit, however, that my tendency would be to give a blue ribbon to everybody whose film is being shown in SR 2016 since making such films as an alternative to much of the junk receiving an Oscar tomorrow night is to be celebrated in and of itself.

As the founder of the SR film festivals, Nora Armani is blessed with an uncommon ability to curate some of the most important films being made today. As I have made clear in my survey of SR 2014 and SR 2015, these are films that are focused on the real problems of ordinary people and a welcome alternative to Cineplex escapism. It is not just that films about refugees or oppressed nationalities demand your attention as thinking and caring adults; it is that they are intensely dramatic as the struggles of refugees and the victims of national oppression tend to be.

These are issues obviously very close to Nora Armani’s heart given her Armenian ancestry. Indeed, she resolved to create such an annual film festival to honor two relatives that were killed by religious fanatics in Egypt. Given my strong identification with her artistic and social mission, I thought it would be appropriate to start off with two films about the Armenian genocide that were made a full century after it occurred. After watching them, it dawned on me that they are not just about a terrible crime committed against an innocent people. They also help to shed light on the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing that is tearing apart the social fabric of the Middle East and Anatolia today just as it did a century ago and for the same reason: to create a “pure” nation-state in whose name the elites can protect their own narrow class interests using the kind of demagogy that Hitler made infamous.

Co-directed by the Egyptians Mohamed Hanafy Nasr and Myriam Zaki, “Who Killed the Armenians?” may be the definitive answer to people like Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who is seen several times in the film denying that a genocide took place. While well-known for his imperious manner, to hear him shrugging off the possibility that Turkey was responsible for the mass murder of women and children is enough to make your blood boil—especially in light of the pervasive visual evidence deployed by the directors through vintage photographs and newsreels.

If the film sufficed to make the historical record that a genocide took place, this would be reason enough to single it out for having exceptional value. But there is more to it than that. The film has an ability to put the mass murder into an historical context that will allow thoughtful people to fully understand how and why it took place. Speaking as someone who was anxious to find out why Hitler killed the Jews when I was a young member of the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I was fortunate to have someone recommend Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question”. This book, written by a young Belgian-Jewish socialist who died in Auschwitz, explained how Jews became scapegoats in a German economy that was torn apart in the 1920s as a result of being on the losing side in WWI. As it turns out, while not quite an exact analogy, the Armenians suffered the same fate when the Ottomans were suffering a similar military disaster.

We learn from the film that Germany saw Turkey as the ideal ally in a war with the British and the French since their extensive colonial holdings in Muslim countries could serve Germany’s propaganda goals. The German war was hailed by venal Ottoman religious officials as a jihad to liberate Muslims. So as should be obvious, religious obscurantism on behalf of imperialist war was not a recent invention.

The image of the Ottomans as being relatively tolerant toward the peoples who came under their rule as argued in books such as Mark Mazower’s “Salonika: City of Ghosts” does not quite hold up when it comes to the Armenians. Since the film relies heavily on the testimony of many credible scholarly figures, you will be persuaded–as I was–that long before the genocide there were signs that the Armenians were a persecuted people. For instance, the Hamidian massacres took place in the 1890s with as many as 300,000 fatalities. Since historians tie them to military defeats at the hands of the Russians in the 1877-1878 war and growing financial decline, you can understand why they would reoccur again with even greater ferocity in 1915 when the loss of Ottoman territory and economic collapse was far more advanced.

The documentary also explores the role of the Young Turks in whose hands the blood of the genocide became a permanent stain. It turns out that there were two factions in their party, the so-called Committee of Union and Progress, the “federalizers” who were open to Armenian rights in a democratic republic and the “centralists” who obviously were victorious in the political struggle. Indeed, the Young Turks were ultimately led by the most extreme centralists who were ready to implement the final solution as one centralizing official put it. Once they were done, the only Armenian left in Turkey could only be seen in a museum.

Some years back I read a book by Arno Mayer titled “Why the Heavens did not Darken” that explained the Judeocide (a word he preferred to holocaust) in terms of Hitler’s debacle on the Eastern front. When it began to become obvious to him that the war was lost, he made the decision to exterminate the Jews.

In late 1914 and early 1915, the Ottomans suffered a major military defeat in the battle of Sarikamish that one historian interviewee judged to have cost the lives of 80,000 Turkish troops. Like the Nazis in their invasion of the USSR, the Turks were not prepared for wintery conditions in the mountains bordering Russia. Like Hitler, Enver Pasha—the head of the Young Turks in 1908 and the Ottoman army in WWI–needed a scapegoat to blame the disaster on. He found them in the Armenians. And also like Hitler, Enver Pasha and other top military officials did everything they could to cover their tracks. They destroyed all sorts of paper records even though the evidence of dead bodies covering the eastern Anatolian landscape spoke for themselves.

Like the humanitarian-minded Arabs who made this film, there were Muslims in 1915 who were ready to come to the aid of fellow human beings whatever their religion. The most outstanding of them was Faiz El-Ghusein, a Bedouin Ottoman official in Syria who favored independence. Under suspicion for supporting the Arab cause, he was exiled to Diarbekir, a predominantly Armenian city at the time. (Now mostly Kurdish, it must be stated that the Kurds took part in the genocide and benefited from seized Armenian property.) When El-Ghusein began to see the death squads advancing on the Armenians, he was inspired to write “Martyred Armenia” that can be read online. There you will read:

After my arrival at Aleppo, and two days’ stay there, we took the train to a place called Ser-Arab-Pounâri. I was accompanied by five Armenians, closely guarded, and despatched to Diarbekir. We walked on our feet thence to Serûj, where we stopped at a khân [rest-house] filled with Armenian women and children, with a few sick men. These women were in a deplorable state, as they had done the journey from Erzeroum on foot, taking a long while to arrive at Serûj. I talked with them in Turkish, and they told me that the gendarmes with them had brought them to places where there was no water, refusing to tell them where water was to be found until they had received money as the price.

In a real sense, the genocide against the Armenians that El-Ghusein was describing lives on in places like Aleppo and Diarbekir. While not going to the same lengths as Enver Pasha, Bashar al-Assad has used the weapons of famine against people in places like Aleppo and Yarmouk. His goal is a “purified” Syria that will exist along the more heavily populated Western coastline along the Mediterranean. In order to create such a state, it will be necessary to ethnically cleanse all Sunnis who are not ready to accept hunger, torture and murder as the cost of Syrian citizenship. Let them go to Europe where their meager savings can be expropriated by the Aryans of Denmark and other “pure” societies.

While locked in a bitter struggle with al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ready for an all-out bloody war against the Kurds in places like Diarbekir. While elected on a nominally pro-diversity program, the declining state of the Turkish economy prompted him to rally the people around the flag just as has been the case in so many barbarous wars of the 20th and 21st century.

When stopping to consider alternatives to a new Dark Ages, we start with people like Faiz El-Ghusein and the directors of this must-see documentary, as well as the historians they interviewed. Among them are good Turks like Uğur Ümit Üngör who teaches history and sociology in the Netherlands and is the author of “Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property” and “The making of modern Turkey. Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950”.

Profiled in the Massis Post, the newspaper of the the Social Democratic Hunchakian Party, which is the oldest Armenian political party in existence and that was founded by Marxist students in 1887, Üngör explains how he became a partisan of the Armenian struggle for historical truth and redemption:

“Turkey Has Acknowledged the Armenian Genocide” is Ugur Üngör article in The Armenian Weekly ( April 27, 2012…Yes, the Turkish state’s official policy towards the Armenian Genocide was and is indeed characterized by the “three M’s”: misrepresentation, mystification, and manipulation. But when one gauges what place the genocide occupies in the social memory of Turkish society, even after nearly a century, a different picture emerges. Even though most direct eyewitnesses to the crime have passed away, oral history interviews yield important insights. Elderly Turks and Kurds in eastern Turkey often hold vivid memories from family members or fellow villagers who witnessed or participated in the genocide. There is a clash between official state memory and popular social memory: The Turkish government is denying a genocide that its own population remembers.

To enlist in the ongoing battle against the “three M’s”, I strongly recommend seeing “Who Killed the Armenians?” at Bowtie Cinema, 6pm on Saturday the 19th of March. Full schedule information is here: http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/.

As the title indicates, “100 Years Later” is a documentary memorializing the genocide by John Lubbock, a filmmaker, journalist and former staff member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

The 55-minute film follows Armenian scholar and activist Ara Sarafian as he leads a tour in eastern Anatolia for Armenians living in the USA and elsewhere. He wants them to bear witness to remnants of Armenian society, including a church that Kurds now use as a feed storage bin for farm animals. Sarafian wryly observes that it is probably a good thing that it served that purpose otherwise it might have been blown up long ago.

I could not help but think of the parallels with Palestinians who might be organized to go on a similar tour of land they lost in the 1948 Nabka, another exercise in ethnic cleansing that sought to “purify” a state.

Throughout the film, Sarafian strikes an optimistic pose even though Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s witless comments alluded to above make me question whether reconciliation with such a man is possible, especially in light of observations made by analysts who see him aspiring to be a new Sultan presiding over a neo-Ottoman empire.

When I used to go on tours of Nicaragua on buses just like those used in “100 Years Later”, we used to explain to workers and peasants we spoke to that it was not Americans who wanted to destroy their country, only the government. In a way, the same distinction might be made about the Turks who despite the dominance of ultra-nationalist politics going back a hundred years still manage to see things clearly, at least my wife’s relatives in Istanbul and Izmir who see Erdogan in the same manner we see Donald Trump.

I recommend “100 Years Later” that can be seen at 2pm on Saturday March 19th, once again at Bowtie Cinema. And also, once again, check http://www.ratedsrfilms.org/ for full Schedule information.

 

February 15, 2016

Stephen Kinzer and Jeffrey Sachs: latest recruits to the Baathist amen corner

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:52 pm

Stephen Kinzer

Jeffrey Sachs

It never fails to amaze me how Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin’s admirers on the left continue to see themselves as heroically challenging the status quo as if their “antiwar” position had anything in common with the martyrs who went to prison for genuine anti-imperialist beliefs. In 1918 Eugene V. Debs was convicted under the Sedition Act and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served three years until Warren Harding commuted his sentence. Three years for making speeches like this that referred to the embattled socialist opponents of WWI:

It is the minorities who have made the history of this world. It is the few who have had the courage to take their places at the front; who have been true enough to themselves to speak the truth that was in them; who have dared oppose the established order of things; who have espoused the cause of the suffering, struggling poor; who have upheld without regard to personal consequences the cause of freedom and righteousness.

Think anybody is going to be thrown in prison for cheering on Putin’s bombing raids on Aleppo? Doesn’t take much courage for that, does it? It is more likely that it will earn you a spot on Democracy Now or Eric Draitser’s radio podcasts.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, one of the first things I learned is that Farrell Dobbs, who I used to see at party HQ at 873 Broadway, had gone to prison for 16 months with other party leaders in 1944 for violations of the Smith Act—in other words writing the same kinds of articles as Eugene V. Debs. Think Mike Whitney or Eric Draitser is going to jail any time soon? In fact, these types of hacks have been busting down an open door for the past three years with their incessant warnings about Barack Obama invading Syria as a beachhead to take on Iran in the opening guns of WWIII. This was not based on any analysis of the objective conditions but a kind of conspiratorial mindset that mixed a crude anti-imperialism with the same kind of rancid Islamophobia Christopher Hitchens made infamous.

As most of you probably realize, there are very few leftists in the USA who have been opposed to Bashar al-Assad. When I am settling my accounts with my Maker a decade or so from now (if I am lucky), I will insist that writing against the Baathist dictatorship was my ticket into commie heaven. For the Baathist left, they can go straight to hell as far as I am concerned.

Over the past couple of days, I have been reminded of how mainstream the Baathist amen corner has become–almost as respectable as the Kiwanis Club. Nominally part of the left, academic mandarins Stephen Kinzer and Jeffrey Sachs have written the kind of putrid articles that appear on a continuous basis nowadays in places like Salon, Huffington Post, Jacobin (in the past), CounterPunch, the Nation, and ZNet.

Turning to Kinzer, you almost wonder if he has plagiarized Mike Whitney with his February 13, 2016 Boston Globe op-ed piece titled “On Syria: Thank you, Russia!”. My goodness, what a brave man writing such dangerous thoughts. I guess he knows that toasting the bombing raids on Aleppo that have turned the city into something looking like Stalingrad circa 1943 over the past month or so is no more subversive than being opposed to the Koch brothers.

Kinzer and Chris Hedges were NY Times reporters in the 1980s when I was involved with El Salvador and Nicaragua solidarity. Somewhere along the line they had a St. Paul on the road to Damascus type conversion except in Kinzer’s case it was not based on the radical Christian and pacifist beliefs that motivated his fellow Timesman. For Kinzer, opposition to US foreign policy was from the standpoint of Mearsheimer and Walt type realism. He wrote a book on Iran that was much more along the lines of Flynt Leverett, a former NSC and CIA operative who decided that it was in America’s interest to orient to Iran. Proletarian internationalism? Don’t make me laugh.

Kinzer is ensconced in the Watson Institute at Brown University—a think-tank obviously having little in common with the Smolny Institute. The Watson Institute is named after Tom Watson. You think maybe Brown University wanted to pay tribute to the populist leader who led poor farmers against Wall Street? Obviously not. It was started by Thomas J. Watson Jr., the former CEO of IBM, a company that in fine realist traditions sold tab machines to the Nazis to help keep track of Jewish concentration camp internees.

In 1983 Kinzer was writing the kind of crappy articles that have been written about Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. One of them was titled “Nicaragua Faces A New Shortage: Toys”. Here’s a country that had been devastated by earthquake and a brutal civil war inflicted on the people by “our son of a bitch” Somoza. So what does Kinzer write about? Literacy programs? Clinics for people who had never been to a doctor in their life? No, it is this:

Parents wait hours in line at Government-run stores for a chance to buy dolls and toy trucks. Meanwhile, in other parts of the city, private vendors peddle water pistols and talking robots at inflated prices.

What bold investigative journalism.

The Baathist amen corner would never understand that Anastasio Somoza was Nicaragua’s Bashar al-Assad. They prefer writing idiotic articles trying to make Assad sound like Daniel Ortega in the 1980s with evil contras trying to ruin his secular, diverse, and tolerant “socialist” society. Somoza’s Nicaragua and Syria were kleptocracies sustained by state terror. In the first instance it was backed by an imperialist power just as it was in the second. If Assad had not relied on Iranian and Russian muscle, his gangster regime would have fallen like a house of cards 3 years ago at least.

Kinzer’s article is a full-throated defense of the Baathist dictatorship that turns the criminal into the victim as Malcolm X used to put it:

Russia, which has suffered repeated terror attacks from Islamic fanatics, is threatened by the chaos and ungoverned space that now defines Syria. So are we. Russia’s policy should be ours: prevent the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government, craft a new regime that would include Assad or his supporters, and then work for a cease-fire.

One supposes that these “Islamic fanatics” are like those that attacked us on 911, angry because the USA allowed women to walk around in miniskirts and because of Coca-Cola. The left countered these arguments back then, explaining that the attack had more to do with Marines being stationed in Saudi Arabia and Palestinians getting slaughtered by Israelis. But somehow it lost its way. It failed to understand what made the Chechens turn to terror. It never occurred to people like Kinzer that Yeltsin and Putin made war on a country of just a million people that had been driven from their homeland by Stalin during WWII. It does not square with their propaganda agenda.

Like Kinzer, Jeffrey Sachs also had a St. Paul like conversion. After all, he had lot to repent for with his “shock therapy” advice to Russia costing 3.2 million deaths according to Lancet. I am not sure when he got religion but ever since then he became one of these self-satisfied liberals who can be counted on for sage advice on what might make America great again. You know the drill. PBS News Hour talking about the need for eliminating greenhouse gases. Op-Ed articles in the NY Times calling for the prosecution of Wall Street criminals. All very sensible ideas but not exactly ones that will risk getting you put in jail.

His article is titled “Hillary Clinton and the Syrian Bloodbath” and at least has the virtue of calling out an obviously odious figure. What goes wrong, however, is Sachs’s addled history of Syria over the four years that puts all the blame on the USA for the ongoing disaster.

He states that Clinton sabotaged peace talks in 2012 that would have resolved the conflict:

In 2012, Clinton was the obstacle, not the solution, to a ceasefire being negotiated by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. It was US intransigence – Clinton’s intransigence – that led to the failure of Annan’s peace efforts in the spring of 2012, a point well known among diplomats. Despite Clinton’s insinuation in the Milwaukee debate, there was (of course) no 2012 ceasefire, only escalating carnage. Clinton bears heavy responsibility for that carnage, which has by now displaced more than 10 million Syrians and left more than 250,000 dead.

Sachs was obviously referring to the spurious revelation made by former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari in September 2015 that when Russian diplomat Vitaly Churkin proposed a deal three years earlier that would have resulted in Assad stepping down in exchange for peace, Clinton and her allies in Britain and France said no. The only problem is that Churkin was not the ultimate authority on such matters. Much closer to Putin and certainly speaking for him, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated just four months later: “We will not support and cannot support any interference from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”

When the slogan of Assad’s shabiha at the time was “Either Bashar al-Assad or the country burns”, it is quite foolish for Sachs to have considered the possibility of a “Yemen-type solution” in 2012—not that this worked out that great in Yemen.

Seemingly unaware of Obama’s turn toward Iran, Sachs assures his readers that if it was not for Iran, Syria probably would have been left in peace:

As every knowledgeable observer understands, the Syrian War is not mostly about Bashar al-Assad, or even about Syria itself. It is mostly a proxy war, about Iran. And the bloodbath is doubly tragic and misguided for that reason.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the leading Sunni powers in the Middle East, view Iran, the leading Shia power, as a regional rival for power and influence. Right-wing Israelis view Iran as an implacable foe that controls Hezbollah, a Shi’a militant group operating in Lebanon, a border state of Israel. Thus, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel have all clamored to remove Iran’s influence in Syria.

Since Sachs is employed by Columbia University, you would think he’d take advantage of Nexis and other newspaper and magazine archives as I do as a retiree. Plumbing its depths, you will discover that Saudi Arabia and Assad were chumming it up not that long ago.

On March 26, 2009, the NY Times reported in an article titled “With Isolation Over, Syria Is Happy to Talk” that a proxy war was not in the offing:

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

And Turkey was even more accommodating. On July 24, 2009 the Times reported in an article titled “Syrians’ New Ardor for a Turkey Looking Eastward” that the countries were as close as peas in a pod:

Well-heeled Syrians had already been coming to this ancient industrial city, drawn here by Louis Vuitton purses and storefront signs in Arabic. But local shop owners say Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish-led flotilla to Gaza in May has solidified an already blossoming friendship between Syria and Turkey, the new hero of the Muslim world.

“People in Syria love Turkey because the country supports the Arab world, and they are fellow Muslims,” Zakria Shavek, 37, a driver for a Syrian transport company based in Gaziantep, said as he deposited a family of newly arrived shoppers from Aleppo, which competes with Damascus for the title of Syria’s largest city and is about a two-hour drive from here. “Our enemy in the world is Israel, so we also like Turkey because our enemy’s enemy is our friend.”

Just three months later, things were going even better according to another NYT article:

Ten Turkish ministers, including those from the foreign affairs, defense, interior, economy, energy and agriculture departments, met with their Syrian counterparts.

The parties worked on almost 40 protocols and agreements to be put into action plans within 10 days, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said, according to the Anatolian Agency, a semiofficial news service.

The defense ministries agreed to draft at least three projects by the end of October, and energy officials agreed to complete the natural gas project connecting an Arab pipeline with a Turkish pipeline in the next 18 months, the Anatolian Agency reported.

“From now on, Turkey will continue walking on the same road” as Syria, “sharing a common fate, history and future,” Mr. Davutoglu said at a joint news conference. “We are going to walk hand by hand and work altogether to revive our region as a center of civilization.”

Of course all this fell apart when Assad decided that preserving his dynasty meant more than fostering capitalist relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. When his military began slaughtering tens of thousands of Sunnis, the Saudis and Turks began funding and arming militias seeking Assad’s overthrow. As might be expected with the reactionary character of these governments, the support came with strings attached. Groups tended to receive bigger handouts if they made political Islamic a centerpiece of the resistance.

The power of these reactionary states has been magnified by the collapse of the left internationally, something that is most keenly felt in the Middle East. We are dealing with a situation today when the revolutionary left in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere is tiny and isolated. But I’ll be damned if I stop trying to connect with them and join the Baathist amen corner. One FSA fighter still committed to the original aims of the revolution is worth more to me than 10,000 Stephen Kinzers or Jeffrey Sachses.

January 17, 2016

Carol

Filed under: Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

This year publicists sent out three film screeners about the lives of LGBT people for consideration by NYFCO in our December 2015 awards meeting. One was “Tangerine”, a film that was distinguished technically for having been made with IPhones but I could not even watch to conclusion since it was undistinguished in every other way. It starred transgender actress Kitani Kiki Rodriguez as a transgender prostitute who is trying to track down her pimp in Los Angeles and take revenge on him for cheating on her. I found it amateurish, cartoonish and exploitative despite the 96 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Moving right along, there’s “The Danish Girl”, a biopic based on transgender artist Lili Elbe who was the first man to ever undergo sexual reassignment surgery. It was a high-minded affair that smacked of Merchant-Ivory and hardly worth the 71 percent fresh rating it received on Rotten Tomatoes.

And then there is “Carol”, a film for the ages based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about the love affair of two lesbians. A number of her novels have been made into films, including the Hitchcock masterpiece “Strangers on a Train”. “Carol” was based on her 1952 novel titled “The Price of Salt” that appeared under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Unlike many films and novels about homosexuals or lesbians such as “Brokeback Mountain”, Highsmith defied convention and gave her tale a happy ending. Perhaps this was related to the fact that she was a lesbian herself but just as easily could have been a function of her affection for outlaws in her novels, most especially Tom Ripley, the shifty and resourceful working class criminal of a number of her novels who aspires to join the bourgeoisie and succeeds on its own terms.

Unlike Gore Vidal’s 1948 “The City and the Pillar”, a gay coming-of-age novel that appeared under his own name and was published by the prestigious E.F. Dutton, Highsmith’s novel was rejected by Harper’s—her regular publisher. It ended up as a 25 cent Bantam pulp paperback with “The novel of a love society forbids” appearing on the front cover.

Highsmith wrote the novel after spotting a beautiful woman in a fur coat when she was working as a clerk in Bloomingdales the same year Vidal’s novel came out. Unlike her novel, Highsmith never ended up in bed with the woman but was sto smitten by her beauty that she was moved to write what amounted to a wish fulfillment story. What is so unusual about “Carol” is its ability to identify with the two main characters whatever your sexual orientation. As part of Hollywood’s general drift into the sewer, there are fewer and fewer love stories that have the power of the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn epoch. Working with Highsmith’s gold, director Todd Haynes has exactly the right sensibility to make sure that not a single carat is lost.

As an openly gay man, Todd Haynes was obviously some suited to treat the material lovingly. Beyond his sexuality, he has a flair for the ambience of “Carol”, which is close to that of “Far from Heaven”, his 2002 film about a repressed gay man living in suburban Connecticut in the 1950s whose wife develops a platonic relationship with a Black gardener that comes within a hair’s width of becoming physical. “Far from Heaven” was viewed as homage to Douglas Sirk, a filmmaker who might have made a film like “Carol” if it was permissible in his day. Fortunately for Highsmith’s legacy, Todd Haynes is the Douglas Sirk of our day.

The film stars Cate Blanchett as Carol, the wealthy shopper who becomes the embodiment of Highsmith’s 1948 fantasy. While shopping for a Christmas present for her daughter, she runs into Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a younger aspiring photographer, who persuades her to buy an electric train instead of the typical feminine gift, a clever way to signal that the two women are not interested in playing by society’s rules.

Therese eventually gets invited out to Carol’s mansion in Connecticut for a Christmas dinner. As the two settle in for a comfortable and possibly intimate evening, their mood is broken by the arrival of Carol’s husband who is in the process of divorcing her. When he spots Therese in the house, he goes ballistic at the two women for their sexual transgressions.

To get away from the angst of her divorce, Carol suggests to Therese that she join her for a cross-country drive in her Cadillac. Like Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassidy, the two women go on the road to discover America and to satisfy their physical and spiritual needs. In a series of motels, their love deepens until her husband’s crude and vengeful intervention drives a wedge between the two—at least temporarily.

Since Highsmith is a novelist of the greatest story-telling ability and profound psychological insights with dialog to match, suffice it to say that the film is equal to the original material. While my respect for Alfred Hitchcock is second to none, Todd Haynes was a director born to make such a film. Through effective costume design, film score, and sets, “Carol” has a lot of the atmosphere of “Mad Men” but it is not meant to call attention to itself. It is instead just a backdrop to the story and as such works perfectly. Haynes is also a master of cinema and the road scenes are deeply evocative when traveling across the USA in a Cadillac was everybody’s fantasy, including Jack Kerouac’s.

Almost eight years ago, I wrote an article on Patricia Highsmith for Swans. My recommendation is to see “Carol”, my pick for one of the best three films of 2015. If you enjoy it and other film adaptations of her work including “Strangers on a Train” and the Ripley films, I urge you to read her fiction that I regard as neglected masterpieces. Let’s hope that the deserved acclaim for “Carol” leads to a Patricia Highsmith revival since she certainly deserves it.


Patricia Highsmith

The Crime Novels Of Patricia Highsmith

by Louis Proyect

(Swans – January 28, 2008)   Well-read Americans might not be familiar with the name Patricia Highsmith. At least this was the case for me before I stumbled across the movie Ripley’s Game on the IFC cable channel a couple of years ago.

Directed by Liliana Cavani and starring John Malkovich as Tom Ripley, a professional thief, it was quite unlike anything I had ever seen. Ripley, an American émigré living in rural France, pressures Jonathan Trevanny, a British frame shop owner in the local village who has never committed a crime in his life, to carry out a series of hits on Ripley’s enemies in the Italian mafia. Since Trevanny is suffering from leukemia, Ripley reasons that he would be amenable to killing complete strangers for a handsome fee in order to help meet family expenses after his death. Ripley has another motive in recruiting Trevanny. At the start of the movie, Ripley overhears Trevanny describing his estate as typically nouveau riche and out of character with the French countryside. Further study on my part would reveal that the Ripley films, and the nonpareil novels they are based on, nearly always involve such class resentments at their core.

Eventually I discovered that Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game also provided the narrative for Wim Wenders’s The American Friend that featured Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley and Bruno Ganz as the frame-maker Jonathan Zimmermann (a Germanized character in keeping with the film’s relocation to Rotterdam from rural France). Wenders took some liberties with Highsmith’s novels that are not quite successful in my view. The Ripley character seems more in keeping with Dennis Hopper’s public image rather than the fictional character. With a cowboy hat lodged permanently on his head, Hopper’s Ripley is much more macho than Highsmith’s character, whose epicene malevolence is rendered far more successfully in Cavani’s movie.

Since Ripley’s Game was such an outstanding film, I was persuaded soon afterwards to watch The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on a much younger Tom Ripley’s introduction to the criminal world. Starring Matt Damon as the title character, it involves Ripley’s introduction to the world of the haute bourgeoisie. Hired by a shipping magnate to persuade his playboy son to return home to America from Italy, Tom Ripley allows himself to become the son’s paid companion in a relationship that has strong homoerotic implications, another theme that is omnipresent in Highsmith’s novels. When Tom Ripley learns that Dickie Greenleaf, the boating heir, has plans to dump him, he murders him and assumes his identity. Damon, like Malkovich, is adept at capturing the utterly cynical and amoral psyche of this most intriguing character.

As so often happens with excellent movies like Ripley’s Game, I make an effort to read the novel upon which the screenplay is based in order to find out more about the author. Eventually I discovered that Highsmith’s novels have inspired some of the finest movies over the past 50 years including her first, which provided the scenario for Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Like the Ripley novels, Strangers on a Train involves homoerotic themes and a penetrating study of the lifestyles of the rich and infamous. Unlike the movies, however, the novels are blessed by Highsmith’s narrative voice, which is an utterly distinct one as demonstrated by this excerpt from Strangers on a Train.

That evening, Charles Anthony Bruno was lying on his back in an El Paso hotel room, trying to balance a gold fountain pen across his rather delicate, dished-in nose. He was too restless to go to bed, not energetic enough to go down to one of the bars in the neighborhood and look things over. He had looked things over all afternoon, and he did not think much of them in El Paso. He did not think much of the Grand Canyon either. He thought more of the idea that had come to him night before last on the train. A pity Guy hadn’t awakened him that morning. Not that Guy was the kind of fellow to plan a murder with, but he liked him, as a person. Guy was somebody worth knowing. Besides, Guy had left his book, and he could have given it back.

For those who have seen Strangers on a Train, you will remember Bruno as the worthless rich boy who cuts a deal with the tennis pro Guy Haines (an architect in the novel), who he has met on the train. If Guy will kill Charles Bruno’s wealthy father, thus facilitating his inheritance of a fortune, Bruno will kill Guy’s estranged wife, another worthless person, who has refused to give him a divorce. In the movie, Guy Haines struggles to release himself from the deal, even after Bruno has killed his wife. Despite Hitchcock’s dark sensibility, the movie is a sanitized version of the novel in which Guy Haines does carry out his end of the deal and is apprehended by the cops in the end.

This is not the only sanitized treatment of a Highsmith novel. In an otherwise masterful production, René Clément’s 1960 treatment of The Talented Mr. Ripley released in France as Plein soleil (the title Full Sun becomes Purple Noon in the English release) ends with Tom Ripley being nabbed by the cops for murdering his patron Dickie Greenleaf. In the novel Ripley goes scot-free and inherits Dickie’s fortune, thus proving that crime pays. It also downplays the homoerotic aspects, which is understandable given the period in which it was released. Starring Alain Delon as Tom Ripley and Maurice Ronet as Philippe Greenleaf (he has been Frenchified), the film does excel at showing the class distinctions between the two men. In one memorable scene that takes place on Greenleaf’s yacht, Ripley is humiliated by his bourgeois companion for not using his silverware properly. Delon was cast perfectly in this underdog role, as indicated by a particularly useful Wiki article:

At 14, Delon left school, and worked for a brief time at his stepfather’s butcher shop. He enlisted in the army three years later, and in 1953 was sent to fight in the First Indochina War. Delon has said that out of his five years of military service he spent 11 months in prison for being “undisciplined.” After being dishonorably discharged from the army he returned to Paris. He had no money, and got by on whatever employment he could find. He spent time working as a waiter, a porter, and a sales clerk.

This is somebody who would understand in the marrow of his bones what it meant to be a Tom Ripley. In Highsmith’s novel, we are introduced to the character as somebody who lives by his wits and on the fringes of the law. Indeed, he is even more dissolute than the character played by either Alain Delon or Matt Damon. He is sharing a seedy apartment with a window dresser (traditionally, a job done by gay men) where he spends his days sending out letters to unsuspecting victims in the name of the IRS demanding back tax payments.

When Dickie Greenleaf’s father approaches him with the proposal to go over to Italy to persuade his son to return to the U.S., Tom Ripley leaps at the opportunity since it would enable him to leave this sordid life of petty crime behind. After joining Dickie, Tom finds himself more and more drawn to the wealthy young man, to the point of trying on his clothes one day in secret. Matt Damon draws out all the homoerotic implications of this act, Delon less so.

Ripley is caught in the act, however, and humiliated by his social better — thus helping decide to take his eventual revenge. The scene is pivotal both to the American film (directed by the Briton Anthony Minghella) and Purple Noon. In Highsmith’s novel, the writing conveys what is beyond any movie to convey, once again establishing the priority of the written word as an art form. (The Marge referred to in the dialog is Dickie Greenleaf’s girlfriend.)

“What’re you doing?”

Tom whirled around. Dickie was in the doorway. Tom realized that he must have been right below at the gate when he had looked out. “Oh—just amusing myself,” Tom said in the deep voice he always used when he was embarrassed. “Sorry, Dickie.”

Dickie’s mouth opened a little, then closed, as if anger churned his words too much for them to be uttered. To Tom, it was just as bad as if he had spoken. Dickie advanced into the room.

“Dickie, I’m sorry if it—”

The violent slam of the door cut him off. Dickie began opening his shirt, scowling, just as he would have if Tom had not been there, because this was his room, and what was Tom doing in it? Tom stood petrified with fear.

“I wish you’d get out of my clothes,” Dickie said.

Tom started undressing, his fingers clumsy with his mortification, his shock, because up until now Dickie had always said wear this and wear that that belonged to him. Dickie would never say it again.

Dickie looked at Tom’s feet. “Shoes, too? Are you crazy?”

“No.” Tom tried to pull himself together as he hung up the suit, then he asked, “Did you make it up with Marge?”

“Marge and I are fine,” Dickie snapped in a way that shut Tom out from them. “Another thing I want to say, but clearly,” he said, looking at Tom, “I’m not queer. I don’t know if you have the idea that I am or not.”

“Queer?” Tom smiled faintly. “I never thought you were queer.”

Dickie started to say something else, and didn’t. He straightened up, the ribs showing in his dark chest. “Well, Marge thinks you are.”

“Why?” Tom felt the blood go out of his face. He kicked off Dickie’s second shoe feebly, and set the pair in the closet. “Why should she? What’ve I ever done?” He felt faint. Nobody had ever said it outright to him, not in this way.

“It’s just the way you act,” Dickie said in a growling tone, and went out the door.

Although Patricia Highsmith wrote almost exclusively about the homoerotic tensions between male characters, she knew the gay life from her own experience as a lesbian. Written under the pseudonym Clare Morgan, her 1952 The Price of Salt is the story of a love affair between two women based on her own coming out experience in New York. Along with Gore Vidal’s 1947 The City and the Pillar, it is an honest account of the gay experience and a breakthrough for American fiction.

Like Gore Vidal, Highsmith’s outsider sexual identity went hand in hand with outsider politics. As a student at Barnard College in New York City, Highsmith discovered an attraction for communism around the same time that she discovered an attraction for other women. As a native Texan, she found herself marching to the tune of a different drummer from an early age. Eventually, the contradictions of living in a society that was hostile to her political views and sexual identity became unbearable and she moved to France.

Despite working almost exclusively in the crime genre, Highsmith was not the typical pulp fiction author. In everything she wrote, there was an affinity with the more complex psychological novels that she studied as an undergraduate, including such favorites as Gide and Dostoevsky. Indeed, as one of the few openly gay novels of the 1920s, Gide’s The Counterfeiters had a major influence on Highsmith’s work. With a plot focused on forgery (Tom Ripley’s specialty) and its shifting identities — including the use of a pseudo-author — one can see how Gide’s masterpiece informed Highsmith’s work. Andrew Wilson’s very perceptive biography of Highsmith titled Beautiful Shadow: a Life of Patricia Highsmith makes this connection clear:

For Gide and for Highsmith, feelings, like love, were prone to the fantastical fluctuations. Highsmith’s protagonists bore witness to Gide’s theory, outlined at the end of The Counterfeiters, that emotions taken on as pretence, those which are feigned, can be felt as keenly as so-called ‘real’ feelings. Just as Gide uses the counterfeited gold coins to symbolise the notion of the fabricated personality, so Highsmith would work out elaborate plots featuring fakes and con-men in order to explore the mercurial fluidity of human identity.

It seems as if Highsmith used Gide’s novel as a blueprint for her writing; she reread it in late 1947, together with his journals and Corydon [four dialogues on homosexuality written in the spirit of Socrates] and looked to the character of Edouard as a kind of fiction-dised mentor figure. Like Edouard, Highsmith believed that reality did not exist unless she saw it reflected in her journal, while she also subscribed to his theory of depersonalisation, the ability of writers to negate their identities and take on the qualities of others. Such writerly empathy, Edouard states, ‘enables me to feel other people’s emotions as if they were my own’. Similarly, Highsmith, in her notebooks, often wrote about how her imagination provided her with inner experiences which were more ‘real’ than the actuality being played out around her. Although she was occasionally attacked for creating characters riddled with inconsistencies and illogicalities, Highsmith articulates the paradox of human nature: the irrationality of the civilised rational man. Gide, in The Counterfeiters, expressed another contradiction — the fact that in fiction one is often presented with men and women who behave in a logical fashion, while in real life it is common to meet people who behave irrationally.

With the advent of the 1960s radicalization, Patricia Highsmith became more outspoken on the issues tearing apart the United States. She opposed the war in Vietnam and took a keen interest in the plight of the Palestinians, as Andrew Wilson makes clear:

In an unpublished essay Highsmith wrote about the Middle East conflict in August 1992, she outlined the historical background that had formulated her position. When Israel was created — in May 1948, while Highsmith was at Yaddo, writing Strangers on the Train — following the withdrawal of the British, she remembers feeling optimistic about its future. ‘How happy and cheerful we all were then, gentiles and Jews alike!’ she wrote. ‘A new state had been born, and was therefore to be welcomed into the community of democracies.’ Yet soon after the state was formed — initially an area comprising of Jewish and Arab land, together with an internationally administered zone around Jerusalem — it was invaded by Arab forces, a move which in turn prompted Israeli troops to seize and gain control of three-quarters of Palestine. Highsmith was appalled at what she saw as Israeli brutality and insensitivity, remembering how some of her Palestinian friends were forced to flee their homeland. Since then, of course, the area has been the site of a series of complex, and increasingly violent, power struggles, yet from the beginning Highsmith aligned herself with other writers such as Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky and Edward W. Said, who believed in Palestinian self-determination. In December 1994, Highsmith nominated a collection of Said’s essays and talks, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994, as her book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement, commenting that she thought him ‘both famous and ignored. His eloquence on the real issues makes America’s silence seem all the louder.’ Highsmith agreed with Said’s opinion that the alliance between Zionism and the United States had resulted in the continued displacement of Palestinians. As a result, she felt forced to take a stand, no matter how small. After the election of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister in 1977, Highsmith would not allow her books to be published in Israel. ‘I’m sure the world couldn’t care less, but it shows that not every American refuses to see what’s happening,’ she said. In interviews she told journalists that she loathed Ariel Sharon and the Likud party, and that she found America’s support of the Israeli regime to be despicable.

‘Americans and the world know that America gives so lavishly to Israel,’ she wrote, ‘because the United States wanted Israel as a strong military bulwark against Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Now that the Cold War is over, America has cut none of its aid . . . What is an American tax-payer to make of the fact that the USA gives thirteen million dollars a day, still, to Israel without any request for repayment? . . . I blame my own country for the majority of injustices now being inflicted by the Israelis in what they consider Greater Israel… I blame [the] American government for the bad press permitted about the Arabs in the United States.’

As someone who has written about spy genre novelists in the past for Swans (e.g., Eric Ambler’s A Coffin For Dimitrios and Alan Furst’s Red Gold), I am happy to recommend Patricia Highsmith’s crime genre novels to its readers. While a source of great entertainment, the crime novel has the distinction of being able to serve as commentary on the phenomenon described by Honoré de Balzac in Le Père Goriot: “behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”

Ernest Mandel, the great Belgian Marxist economist and Trotskyist politician, was a life-long fan of crime novels and took time off from his busy schedule to write Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story in 1984.

In the chapter titled Inward Diversification, Mandel treats the class detective story in which the hero (Sherlock Holmes, et al.) outwits the villain as a kind of parable on commodity production in the early competitive days of industrial capitalism:

With the arrival of monopoly capitalism, however, reason has more and more trouble triumphing over irrationality, particularly in the era of fascism. A Sherlock Holmes has little chance of coming out on top of a jackbooted SS member who would defy the law even when confronted by his guilt. To get to the top of the heap under such a system, having superior intelligence is insufficient. Instead you need cunning and determination, two qualities that typify Tom Ripley, the quintessential modern man.

The crime novelist of the monopoly capitalism epoch can even decide to subvert the norms of the genre by making the criminal rather than the detective the real hero. Indeed, Mandel points to Patricia Highsmith as best representing this category. In Ripley’s world, the criminal always comes out on top. Even if Tom Ripley achieves his goals through brutal violence and a talent for falsehood, he will be a mere piker in comparison to the men who have invaded Iraq and wrought the financial scams that have resulted in the forfeiture of millions of American homes. Unlike Ripley, who retains a raffish charm throughout the series of novels that bear his name, these criminals evoke nothing but disgust and a fervent desire to disarm them before they manage to destroy the planet.

 

August 28, 2015

Steve Jobs

Filed under: computers — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 2.18.34 PMThe Rod Holt character in the 2013 narrative film “Jobs”. Note the SWP poster on the wall.

Last night I attended a press screening for Alex Gibney’s documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” that opens in theaters and VOD on Friday, September 4th. The film is a brilliant analysis of both the man and the company he built. Since Gibney’s last documentary was on Scientology, it was natural to wonder whether he decided to take on another cult. When Jobs died, Gibney was struck by the mass grief that poured out for the CEO after the fashion of Princess Di. What explained such devotion? Since Gibney owned and treasured his IPhone, this was a question that provoked him into making this film. As someone who likes but does not exactly love his Macbook, and who spent 44 years working as a systems analyst and a programmer, the question of Apple’s place in the American economy and society is also of great interest to me.

There’s another connection. Back in 1967 I met Rod Holt in the New York branch of the Socialist Workers Party, a wiry fellow with close-cropped hair who I found more interesting than most party veterans since he was an engineer and had raced motorcycles—not the typical resume for a Trotskyist. Years later I learned that Holt would become one of the five founding members of Apple. As such I was spurred to watch the 2013 narrative film “Jobs” on Amazon streaming that includes Holt as a minor character. This review will take up both films as a prelude to the new film about Steve Jobs by Danny Boyle that will premiere in the Lincoln Center Film Festival next month. It is understandable why three films will have taken up the Steve Jobs story. Apple now enjoys the highest capitalization of any American corporation at 724 billion dollars, twice that of ExxonMobil. If a film like “There Will be Blood” or “Citizen Kane” documented the ugly character of previous generations of the bourgeoisie, the three films about Steve Jobs bring us up to date on how the computer revolution turns entrepreneurs into monsters—the latest report on Amazon’s treatment of white collar workers bears this out. In many ways, Jobs was the prototypical Silicon Valley terror anticipating Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin. Unlike these more recent avatars of the computer ruling class, the 1960s counter-culture shaped Steve Jobs as both Gibney and Joshua Michael Stern, the director of “Jobs”, make clear. Devotee of Eastern religion and Bob Dylan, wearing long hair, and with a background in phone phreaking escapades, Jobs seemed the least likely candidate for building a corporation twice as big as ExxonMobil—itself the product of a merger of two behemoths. Figuring out how that took place was exactly what drove Alex Gibney into making the most important documentary of 2015.

Born in 1955, Steve Jobs was in his late teens during the biggest shake-up in American society since the 1930s. Unlike me, ten years his senior and ten years Rod Holt’s junior, Jobs was far more interested in Enlightenment than socialism. You have to remember that the thirst for spiritual transcendence was very deep at the time, powerful enough to turn antiwar leaders Rennie Davis and Jerry Rubin into searchers after Transcendence either in the form of a Hindu guru’s cult and EST respectively. EST was a training program that was founded by Werner Erhard designed to help yuppies solve problems after the fashion of Scientology. Erhard cobbled together some techniques that he had picked up from Zen Buddhism. and psychotherapy The CEO of the consulting company I worked for in the 1980s was an EST follower although he never foisted his beliefs on me. The idea that Zen Buddhism could be a guide to business success for both Steve Jobs and my boss might seem strange at first but one must never forget that Zen Buddhists were gung-ho for Japanese imperialism in WWII as I mentioned to Gibney in the Q&A.

Like so many others from his generation, Jobs went to India on a pilgrimage to seek Wisdom with his friend Daniel Kottke who would become one of Apple’s founders. As both films point out, Jobs decided to allocate zero shares to Kottke when Apple was incorporated. He was very good at throwing people under the bus. When Jobs was at Atari in his first real job, the boss offered him a $5000 bonus if he could come up with a really great game. Needing hardware assistance, he recruited Steve Wozniak who was told that he could get half the bonus if they succeeded. But Jobs lied and told Woz that the bonus was only for $750.

That’s not the half of it. When Jobs’s girlfriend became pregnant, he retained a lawyer to help him avoid paying child support, claiming that she had screwed around so much that nobody could tell who the father was. Eventually a DNA test proved that he was the father. Even if he wasn’t, his millions could have easily helped to support the child of someone with whom he had been intimate.

Gibney gives the devil his due. In capturing Jobs’s single-minded devotion to crafting user-friendly and beautiful machines, you are reminded of why Apple became dominant. Unlike Detroit, Silicon Valley was always much more sensitive to marketing trends since so much of personal computing was driven by taste. And once Apple embarked on making products like the IPod, the IPhone, and the IPad, it was possible for consumers to really feel like the computer was an extension of their self. Gibney wonders, however, whether this is at the expense of the social bonding that was so important in the 1960s. If you go into a restaurant nowadays, you will often find a family of four fixated on their IPhone as each course is delivered, with conversation going by the wayside. The phone becomes worry beads that you can’t keep your hands off of.

The final fifteen minutes or so of Gibney’s film is a rather scathing summary of Jobs’s misdeeds from avoiding taxes to screwing Chinese workers out of a living wage as he polluted their rivers with industrial waste. Of particular interest is how Steve Jobs used a special task force of Silicon Valley police to go after a reporter for Gizmodo who had reported on an early release of an IPhone that a drunken Apple employee had left behind in a bar and that had come into his hands. Even after the phone had been returned, the cops raided the reporter’s home and carted off computers and other valuables. When asked by a TV interviewer why he had resorted to such repressive measures, Jobs replied that he was trying to uphold Apple “values”. In the Q&A, someone asked Gibney what question he would have asked Jobs if he had had the opportunity to interview him. He replied that he would have asked him to define what are his “values”.

I can’t recommend “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” highly enough. For my money, Alex Gibney is the best documentary filmmaker working today, an equal to Werner Herzog. With 35 credits to his name, including “Taxi to the Dark Side” about the American torture regime, Gibney combines acute social analysis with fluid documentary techniques. As is always the case with documentaries, there is a need to tell a story just as much as there is with narrative films. Since Gibney described Jobs as someone who excelled in telling a story, this is a film that was a perfect match of filmmaker and subject matter.

Despite the fact that only 27 percent of critics found it “fresh” on rottentomatoes.com, I consider “Jobs” to be a compelling film with a remarkable fidelity to the facts, at least based on its close parallels with Gibney’s documentary. Of course, since 98 percent of critics found the wretched “Mad Max: Fury Road” to be “fresh”, there’s no accounting for aesthetic judgments among my peers.

Although I am by no means an Aston Kutcher fan, he captured the essence of Jobs as a brilliant martinet who had about as much warmth as a lamprey eel. Since the film does not try to deal with Apple Corporation’s disgusting behavior overseas, most of the negative side of the Jobs ledger is devoted to his treatment of his girlfriend and workmates including Daniel Kottke.

Much of the drama is centered on fights in the boardroom with former CEO John Scully who is depicted as a hidebound bureaucrat who cares more about the quarterly earnings than Apple’s mission as a corporation that “thinks different”. The most interesting scenes, however, involve Jobs’s interaction with his fellow designers and engineers who are on his wavelength. No matter how much of a prick he was, he appeared to be a very good judge of talent and an inspirer of those who chose to walk the same road with him.

One aspect of the narrative film that is passed over in the documentary is how Jobs and Wozniak presented their first computer to the Homebrew Computer Club in the Bay Area, which was nothing but a circuit board and barely worthy of notice by those in attendance.

In my very first article on the Internet, which was a review of a book about the personal computer industry called “Hackers”, I referred to Homebrew:

So enamored of the idea of personal computing were Felsenstein and Halbrecht that they then launched something called the Homebrew Computer Club. The club drew together the initial corps of engineers and programmers who would launch the personal computer revolution. Among the participants were a couple of adolescents named Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak who went on to form the Apple Corporation.

The hacker ethic that prevailed at the Homebrew Computer Club was decidedly anticapitalist, but not consciously pro-socialist. Software was freely exchanged at the club and the idea of proprietary software was anathema to the club members. There were 2 hackers who didn’t share these altruistic beliefs, namely Paul Allen and Bill Gates. When Allen and Gates discovered that their version of Basic that was written for the Altair was being distributed freely at the club, they raised hell. The 19-year-old Gates stated in a letter to the club: “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”

For those who have followed the personal computer and Internet revolution for the past 25 years or so, you are aware of the tension between private and public that remains unresolved. For every scumbag like Zuckerberg anxious to enjoy the kind of monopoly that IBM once had in the mainframe business, there are others willing to work for free on Wikipedia, Open Source journals, free software, and the like. If capitalism creates the technology that allows the instant communication links that make runaway shops feasible, it also creates the networks that allow activists to build solidarity across national boundaries that will oppose capitalist exploitation. This is the contradiction that marks late capitalism more than any other in some ways.

Nobody better represents the intersection between public and private than Rod Holt who was the lead engineer on the Apple II and who worked on the Macintosh as well. In the Q&A I told Gibney that Holt paid tribute to Jobs not long after he died even if his values clashed with his former Apple pioneer. Here is what he told Marxmail subscribers:

Just a remark here:

Dear Comrades:

Concerning Steve Jobs:

I worked with Steve from the Summer of 1976 to his ouster. I was responsible for the Apple II hardware design and its manufacture. I was in charge of the Macintosh group until its launch in 1984. I was twice anointed with the title “Apple Fellow”. I’m sick and tired of people making judgements without the slightest idea of what they are talking about. They buy the official myths fabricated by various individuals around Apple (including the 2 Steves themselves). I have in my possession enough original documents to back up what I am saying.

There were 5 (five) founders of Apple Computer:

Mike Markkula, Chairman of the board of directors
Mike Scott, CEO and President
Steve Jobs, V.P. of Marketing
Steve Wozniak, V.P. Software
Rod Holt, V.P. Engineering

We were incorporated in the state of California effective Jan. 1, 1977 with the above 5 officers. Apple Computer had never been incorporated earlier.

I will just say here that the history of Apple in Wikipedia is seriously incorrect. Most other histories are also wildly wrong. Some of this was deliberately done by Steve Jobs, but most can be attributed to sloppy journalism. Some is due to bad memories.

Steve Jobs wanted products that he would buy and use. For the rest of Apple, the creators produced what they wanted to buy. The success stemmed from this simple set of motives.

Marxists should understand that the Apple products grew from the social environment of these times in silicon valley. There was a confluence here of what we, the designers, wanted and what the world wanted. I could go into more detail if there were room and time, but really, that’s the story.

Jobs was very, very bright, a genius perhaps. So was Woz. And Scotty too. We never lacked for brains. One of Steve’s remarkable abilities was that he listened. I would get into a fierce argument with him, go into the executive staff meeting and be floored when he would take my position exactly, understanding every bit of my arguments, re-phrase them and then convince everyone. I’ve never to this day met anyone that could dispute and at the same time listen so well.

But, for heavens sake, let’s remember that leaders of corporations have to make profits or else they are on the street looking for a job. Steve Jobs wanted a billion happy customers, a goal he could reach only as a super-capitalist. So that’s what he became. It wasn’t where he started, but that’s what happened. The fact that so much ink is expended by the press is embarrassing, but that’s just the byproduct. I’m sure he would be as embarrassed as I am now.

==================

If anyone wants particulars from me, he can ask.

Thanks,

–rod

Recent photo of Steve Wozniak and Rod Holt

  • * * * *

From Walter Isaacson’s biography:

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 11.02.44 PM

Update

Posted by Rod Holt to Marxmail on August 29th:

Remarks on Steve Jobs as a Phenomenon

[The producers of the first Jobs movie, “Jobs” kindly loaned a preprint to the Roxie Theater in San Francisco so that my old friends and Apple co-workers could have a party—which we did, wall to wall.

After the showing that Thursday afternoon, here and there, I offered my opinion on the movie and its social meaning. That raised a few eyebrows and more questions. I have since been asked to explain myself, a reasonable request. Since my outlook differs a lot from that of many of us, I thought it proper to clarify what I meant when I talked about Steve as being intrinsically anti-capitalist. By that I meant that Steve was opposed to the “alienation of labor”, while the alienation of labor is intrinsic to capitalist production.

The term “alienation of labor” is a technical term, and like many in philosophy and economics, doesn’t quite mean what one would think. The shortest explanation of the concept is found in Wikipedia. Of course, the concept is not the property of Marx but has been part of the thinking of many thinkers since the rise of capitalism.

In the Wikipedia article, there is a quotation where Marx imagines production with non-alienated labor:

“… In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. . . . Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.”

Steve Jobs wanted his products enjoyed as expressing his essential nature, and therefore in the general sense, he was an artist with the development team and its laboratories as his studio.

In the capitalist system, products are produced by workers paid in money and with tools owned by the capitalist. The sole purpose of the product is to be sold to realize a profit. This process eliminates the artist altogether. Wikipedia sums this up:

In a capitalist society, the worker’s alienation from his and her humanity occurs because the worker can only express labour — a fundamental social aspect of personal individuality — through a privately-owned system of industrial production in which each worker is an instrument, a thing, not a person.

So the product of labor under capitalism, the commodity, is not what Steve Jobs intended to sell. He was selling something better, something more. As far as he was concerned, profit was just fine, but not at the expense of that “something more.”

I wrote the few paragraphs below without a discussion of the alienation of labor, which is an unusual social-philosophical concept. As a result of this omission, there were some misunderstandings. For example, the alienation of labor does not mean the alienation of workers.

The fact that Steve was driven by his vision of beautiful products, “insanely great” as he would say, didn’t prevent us from glorying in our own contribution of non-alienated labor.

I do not believe Steve grasped the notion of alienated labor in and of itself. It is impossible to imagine the tens of thousands of Chinese laborers getting any whiff of the intoxicating perfume in the air we enjoyed in the early years at Apple.

=====================

Let me take on the task of explaining my view of Steve and the “First Five Years of Apple Computer.” Over the years, I’ve listened to lots of people with theories of how Apple succeeded, what was the magic ingredient, and whether the life of Steve Jobs verified the Great Man theory of history or not. I believe that the overwhelming majority of commentators miss the point completely. This is not surprising not only because they weren’t there, but also because what actually went on at Apple completely contradicts some central myths of Modern Capitalism.

I will state my thesis here as briefly as I can. I will not be writing a book proving every jot and tittle on the way to a grand conclusion. However, I feel competent to defend the thesis against any opponent. The first few years of Apple Computer were remarkable because labor was not alienated labor in the Marxist sense. We were not producing commodities for the sake of profit. In many respects, even as the company grew beyond all expectations, inertia carried this extraordinary characteristic forward until the Scully era.

The first three years at Apple were marked by a strong bond between all the participants, and between all of us and the product. We were building a product for ourselves and everybody throughout the world who were like us. (People tend to think everybody except the Other are like themselves in fundamental ways.) This was a product we wanted. And that was why we stayed up nights solving problems as they cropped up. Nobody in the early days was doing their job with the pay envelope in mind. Nobody. Even the production people putting Apples into boxes believed (correctly) they were sending their product to someone like themselves who would appreciate it, and more, marvel over it.

We made no shortcuts whatsoever. Not one. For example, Steve had the boxes carefully marked with our name and logo in red on the cleanest of clean white cardboard. Later, we got a shipment where the ink had smeared and the boxes “looked like shit,” as Jobs put it. So without regard for the fact that nearly 200 Apples were sitting in production ready to go, Steve shipped the boxes back. Both Markkula [Chairman of the Board] and Scotty [Mike Scott, President and CEO] screamed, but they were too late; the bad boxes were gone. And the whole factory silently applauded.

Again: We were in agony when the paint showed signs of peeling off the first cases, which (it turned out) were contaminated by the release compound from the molds. While orders piled up, we didn’t ship until we had stripped the paint, found a method for cleaning the cases and then repainted them. Everything that went wrong met a concentrated corrective effort. When it was clear that the cases made by the RIM (Reaction Injection Molding) method were not ever going to meet our standard, Steve and I took an airplane to Portland, Oregon to start an intensive program to make a new set of molds for an altogether new process that promised perfection (high pressure injection-molded foamed Noryl). Fortunately, our case design was suited to both the material and the process, and without dawdling we jumped right in and Steve wrote some big checks for the tooling. When quality of the product was considered, manufacturing cost was always second.

I worked with Steve (cheek to jowl at times) for the first 7 years and I think I came to know him at least as well as anybody. We never had a conflict over product quality as such. I did have arguments on “features.” Take for example one dispute over the Macintosh; Steve wanted stereo sound, and for Burrell Smith who was doing the logic board design, it would take some major design changes to accommodate stereo (adding an extra shift register, another D-A converter, and making changes in the ROMs and software). So I said No. Enough was enough. The engineering department had to stop changing things; we had to wrap up the design and go to production. I convinced Burrell Smith. I convinced Andy Hertzfeld, and demobilized Steve Jobs. Then I went home late, leaving the usual half dozen perfectionists (including Burrell) working away. But Steve wouldn’t leave well enough alone. He came back to the lab late that night and convinced Burrell that stereo was essential. So, the next morning, Burrell went home exhausted with the prototype boasting stereo, and me shaking my head in disgust. But so it came to be that the Macintosh had stereo even though there was no application program of any sort that could use it and only one speaker — at that time.

This sort of thing I understood, but it conflicted with my desire to get the product to the user promptly. Sometimes I could move things forward, and sometimes I couldn’t. However reluctantly I say this, more often than not, Steve’s last minute changes were the best thing for the customer.

I believe that Steve was dedicated to his audience, an imaginary audience who he would simply will into existence. He wanted commodities to be more than commodities. This desire was the base for the conflicts with Apple’s Board, etc. that forced the Board to fire Steve. But somehow, the vast millions of customers understood and applauded and Steve basked in the glow.

I talked with Ashton Kutcher [who played the part of Steve in the movie] at some length about Steve as the self-appointed representative of the customer, representing the people who could appreciate the quality, the thoughtfulness, and the product; that is, the product as the crystallization of what they wanted. Jobs’s perfectionism was not just a quirk, it was central; he wanted to be the leader of a new wave of products—products that were more than commodities. Products, I imagine, as we might have under socialism. To my surprise, Kutcher had come to roughly the same conclusion. He had read all available speeches by Steve, read memos and listened to those who had direct experience. He was the only one in the organization, which produced “Jobs”, who had thought through the story to the point of understanding it. This is key to his remarkable portrayal of Steve.

The movie clearly shows this conflict between a product made solely to be sold for a profit and a product made to “change the world”. At one point, the movie shows Art Rock, the dark side venture capitalist, explaining to Steve that the company had to make a profit, even at the expense of everything else. When Steve refuses to adapt to this edict, Scully, Rock and Markkula dethrone him and the Early Apple years end. In startling contrast, when Steve returns to Apple, the movie shows him with great intensity telling the new young designer (Ivy) “Design something beautiful that you love. I don’t care what it is.” (I believe one of Ivy’s designs became the iPod.) So Steve wins; we are left to imagine the evil capitalists slinking away.

Jobs’s failure to come to terms with capitalism (at least up through the first Macintosh) was due, I believe, to his willful ignorance of politics. His all-consuming idea of himself as a visionary made it impossible for him to see the contradictions. The failure of his own enterprise NEXT must have been a humbling experience. That, followed by the success of Pixar, which made him rich again, certainly must have changed him.

I have no direct experience of his last 25 years, but I suspect at least his obsession with his audience (the customers) stayed with him.

–rod

May 1, 2015

Cattle and neo-Malthusianism

Filed under: Ecology,farming,food — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Cliven Bundy: reactionary rancher

Going through back issues of Harper’s, I ran into a February 2015 article by Christopher Ketcham titled “The Great Republican Land Heist: Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West” triggered some thoughts about the role of cattle in our environmental crisis. As a food source whose resource intakes (water and land) are disproportional to its nutritional value and that is increasingly in demand as globalization allows easy access to beef everywhere, it must be assessed with a cool and exacting view even if that risks being tarred as a “neo-Malthusian”.

Long before I began blogging, I wrote a piece titled “Cattle and Capitalism” that quoted an Alexander Cockburn from the April 22, 1996 Nation:

Unsustainable grazing and ranching sacrifice drylands, forests and wild species. For example, semi-deciduous forests in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are cut down to make way for soybeans, which are fed to cows as high-protein soycake. Humans are essentially vegetarian as a species and insatiate meat-eating bring its familiar toll of heart disease, stroke and cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein need to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals. For years Western journalists described in mournful tones the scrawny and costly pieces of meat available in Moscow’s shops, associating the lack of meat with backwardness and the failure of Communism. But after 1950, meat consumption in the Soviet Union tripled. By 1964 grain for livestock feed outstripped grain for bread, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, livestock were eating three times as much grain as humans. All this required greater and greater imports of grain until precious foreign exchange made the Soviet Union the world’s second-largest grain importer, while a dietary “pattern” based on excellent bread was vanishing.

The Harper’s article, which unfortunately is behind a paywall, is valuable for uncovering the damage that Cliven Bundy’s herds were doing to pristine land that was under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Essentially Bundy and local rightwing bands have terrorized the BLM into submission. The article also details how ALEC, an industry lobbying group with the Koch Brothers in the saddle, has been pushing for legislation that would essentially allow Bundy and his fellow ranchers to accomplish legally what they have been attempting to do criminally. Christopher Ketcham writes:

In western Utah, a few county commissioners announced that they planned to violate the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by illegally rounding up herds of wild mustangs that were competing for cattle forage on public land. In June and July, the BLM responded to that threat by rounding up the mustangs for them. On June 14, a California man, who had been posting favorably on Facebook about Bundy’s revolt, shot and wounded a BLM ranger in the Sierra Nevada mountains after he was asked to move from his illegal campsite. On July 1, a group of gold miners descended onto a BLM-managed stretch of the Salmon River in Idaho to dredge the riverbed with industrial suction equipment. The action most likely violated the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the ecological health of parts of the Salmon River in partnership with the BLM. The miners were not looking for gold. A spokesman for the Southwest Idaho Mining Association, in Boise, told the Associated Press that the illegal dredging had a single purpose: to drive the EPA from the state.

Ketcham refers to articles by Bernard DeVoto on the rancher’s assault on public lands from decades ago. This has been a problem for over a hundred years at least. I should add that if there is any reason to subscribe to Harper’s, it is to be able to access their archives and read an author such as DeVoto. This is from a January 1947 article titled “The West Against Itself”. If ranchers were capable of such an onslaught nearly 70 years ago, when the conservation-minded New Deal was still continuing although weakened by Truman, can you imagine what would be happening under the neoliberal regime backed by both parties today?

Screen shot 2015-05-01 at 1.38.56 PM

As an ancillary to Ketcham’s article, there’s a piece by Edward Abbey following his that appeared originally in the January 1986 issue. Abbey, like DeVoto, was a regular contributor to Harper’s and one committed to preserving the ecology of the American west. He writes:

Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunchgrasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cactus. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheatgrass. Weeds.

Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas.” These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.

In addition to the assault on nature, cattle ranching is often an assault on the agrarian poor whose subsistence farming is regarded as an obstacle to “development” just as it was in the Johnson County wars dramatized in Michael Cimino’s unjustly lambasted “Heaven’s Gate”. One scholar argues that the Sandinista revolution was triggered by seizure of peasant land on behalf of ranchers seeking to meet the demands of fast food restaurants in the 1970s:

Historically, the cattle industry in Central America was a very low- tech operation. Cowboys would drive a herd to a major city where slaughter-houses could be found. The cattle would be cut up and sent out to public markets, often in the open air and unrefrigerated, where a customer would select a piece of meat off of the carcass. However, to satisfy the external market, a more modern mode of production had to be adopted. Firstly, roads needed to be created to transport the cattle by truck from the countryside. Secondly, packing houses had to be created near ports to prepare the beef for export. Foreign investors made road- building possible, just the way that British capital made railroads possible in the US for identical reasons. The “Alliance for Progress” aided in the creation of such infrastructure as well.

The packing-houses themselves were built by local capitalists with some assistance from the outside. It was these middle-men, who stood between rancher and importer, that cashed in on the beef bonanza. The Somoza family were movers and shakers in the packing-house industry. As monopolists, they could paid the rancher meager prices and sell the processed beef at a premium price since demand for beef was at an all-time high.

In addition, the Somoza family used its profits and loans from foreign investors to buy up huge swaths of land in Nicaragua to create cattle ranches. They had already acquired 51 ranches before the beef-export boom, but by 1979, after two decades of export-led growth, their holdings and those of their cronies had expanded to more than 2 million acres, more than half of which was in the best grazing sectors. It was these properties and the packing-houses that became nationalized immediately after the FSLN triumph.

The gains of Somoza and other oligarchic families in Central America took place at the expense of campesino and small rancher alike. While the plight of the campesino is more familiar, the small rancher suffered as well. Before the export boom started, about 1/4 of all cattle were held by ranchers with properties less than 25 acres. After a decade of export-led growth, small proprietors had lost 20 percent of their previous cattle holdings and owned only 1/8th of the cattle in the region.

(It should be mentioned, by the way, that this decade of export-led growth was statistically the sharpest increase in GDP in Central America since WWII. Yet this growth created the objective conditions for socialist revolution. “Growth” in itself is a meaningless term. It may satisfy the prejudices of libertarians, but it has nothing to do with human needs or social justice.)

Nicaragua was notable in that the exploitation was home-grown, but in the rest of Central America the pirates flew the stars and stripes. R.J. Reynolds owns thousands of acres of grazing land in Guatemala and Costa Rica through its subsidiary, Del Monte. It shipped the meat on its subsidiary Sea-Land and market the finished product in many varieties: Ortega beef tacos, Patio beef enchiladas, Chun King beef chow mein. It also satisfied the fast-food market by supplying Zantigo Mexican Restaurants (owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken.) By supplying such dubious products, this powerful American capitalist company was also in the process of helping campesinos getting thrown off their land and tropical rain forest acreage cut down in order to create grazing land that would be exhausted in a year or two.

When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. Anthropologist Robert A. White describes what took place in Honduras. “Some large land holders used the rental of land to the small farmer as a means of clearing the hillsides of timber and preparing it for pasture for cattle grazing. The land was rented for a season or two to the smaller farmer, who was expected to clear the often heavy timber in order to prepare the land for seeding. Each year a new area was rented to be cleared so that gradually the whole area was prepared for pasture.” This took place all across Central America. The campesino was allowed to farm the land just long enough to allow the tree-stumps to rot, at which time they were evicted to make room for cattle. The ecological consequences of all this was disastrous and the practice continues to this day.

If cattle-ranching had created jobs for the displaced peasantry, this land-grab might not have had the explosive political consequences that did. As it turns out, however, few jobs were created in comparison to other export agriculture sectors. Cotton cultivation offers 6 times more employment per acre than cattle ranching, sugar 7 times more and coffee 13 times more. Under a more equitable world economy, of course, all of this land would be used to produce food for the local population instead of resources for foreign or local oligarchic companies.

Another advantage of cattle-ranching is that it inhibits return to the land by disenfranchised peasants. In other forms of agriculture, the landlord could permit the peasant to live on the fringes of the estate in return for some kind of rental payment in kind, such as a few sacks of corn or hard labor such as clearing rocks. When the beef boom commenced, however, every acre became more exploitable and so the peasant had to be expelled. When cattle were introduced into land formerly owned by peasants, barbed wire and the grazing herds tended to act as impediments to peasant squatting.

These contradictions reached their sharpest form in Matiguas “municipo” of Matagalpas, Nicaragua. In this section some 30 percent of the land was covered by forests, by 1976 only 5 percent of the land remained forested. Where 8 percent of the land was used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later.

Later on Matiguas, Matagalpas became a bastion of Sandinista support.

From the point of view of what I regard as “productivist” Marxism, there is a belief that by posing the question of ecological limits you are adapting to neo-Malthusianism. This is a socialism that assumes that once the profit motive is eliminated, we can finally begin to live a rational and bounteous existence.

However, can we really ignore the ecological threat posed by cattle? Does socialism have a magic wand that can make a steer use less water and require more grazing acreage than under capitalism?

To produce one pound of beef, it requires 1,799 gallons of water while a pound of soybeans requires 216 gallons. Perhaps in the future socialist world beef, like a spin in an automobile or a plane ride, will be a luxury that is carefully rationed out on an equal basis. That might not square with anti-catastrophist Eddie Yuen’s citation of the 1970s Italian revolutionary graffiti “Con la rivoluzione caviale per tutti” (After the revolution, caviar for everyone) but it certainly squares with common sense and historical materialism.

 

March 16, 2015

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece titled “Jews and American Popular Culture” that was based on a lecture Paul Buhle gave to the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. As is often the case with Paul’s lectures, it was accompanied by a slide show that prompted this observation:

During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)

This prompted a query from Stanley Krauson: “Does anyone remember the name of Joseph Greenstein’s (The Mighty Atom) bungalow colony?”

I now have an answer to that question that took me eight years to the day to put together. But before I get to that, I should explain that soon after writing the article I shared my memories of the Mighty Atom  with Harvey Pekar, who was a houseguest one evening in 2008. As it turns out, Harvey and Paul had begun collaborating with each other on comic books revolving around Jews and the left, among other topics.

Harvey was very interested in the Mighty Atom story since he had been reading about Jewish professional strong men at the time. (He was an amateur strong man himself with an appetite for brawling in high school seemingly at odds with his shy and retiring demeanor.) He also was fascinated by my recollections of life in the SWP that were pretty atypical. For example, I had a relationship at one point with a woman in the Houston branch who had been a topless dancer.

Harvey was so fascinated by my tales that he gave me a ring and proposed that we do a comic book memoir that would be published by Random House. To make a long and sad story short, he died before the book was published and his widow Joyce Brabner decided to dump the memoir because she did not think it should be part of the Harvey Pekar legacy. She has never admitted as such but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Here is a page devoted to my encounter with the Mighty Atom:

mighty atom

Now, getting to Stanley Krauson’s question, the identity of the Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony can be found in Ed Spielman’s “The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein; Biography of a Superhuman“, a book that I took out from the Columbia Library recently. It was the Panoramic Health Farm, a small colony about a mile from my father’s fruit store. Ironically, although the Mighty Atom sang the praises of vegetables, I wouldn’t go near them. Who knows? Maybe it was a defense mechanism against my father. I should advise you that Spielman’s narrative has a Paul Bunyanesque quality, no doubt a function of his own desire to put together a biography with “wow factor”, plus the Mighty Atom’s (nee Joseph Greenstein) sideshow/circus background leading him to embellish what was likely a remarkable life to begin with. In any case, I did see a man about as old as me at the time bending an iron bar across his nose. You don’t see that every day. Below are passages from Ed Spielman’s book. I am sure that there is more than a grain of truth in these tales.

The Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony:

In the late 1940s, the Atom took savings of $18,000 and founded a health resort where he could put his ideas into action. Where better to advocate health and vitality than in bucolic surroundings, far from the noise and dirt of the city? In upstate Woodridge, New York, he purchased a seventy-acre tract of land with a twenty-three room hotel, four apartments, and two bungalows and established his Panoramic Health Farm. The plan was that he would run the place all summer until Labor Day, when he and Leah would take their traveling lecturemobile south for the winter. Leah had her doubts about an entire hotel being a simple husband-and-wife operation. With his usual enthusiasm, Joe approached the idea as if it were nothing more difficult than a mom-and-pop candy store. He was not to be dissuaded. He put down the cash and took title.

Of panoramic view there was plenty, of water there was none. A week after he took over, the sole spring went dry. The seller (who had paid $7,000 for the place a few years before) had neglected to mention the periodic problem.

After several weeks of carting water from town in barrels and cans, Joe went to the library to research the problem. He found reference to individuals who did nothing more for a living than discover water for such unfortunates as himself. These “dowsers” were supposedly gifted with the ability to sniff out H2O with nothing more than a divining rod.

In Pennsylvania, he found just such a pair of “water smellers.” Dressed in black, and possessed of an appropriately mysterious manner, the pair immediately made him suspicious. Instead of your everyday divining rod, they did their dowsing with an upended pliers. At last, they stopped at a miserable patch of weeds and pronounced with finality that they had found water. As the pliers were jiggling with wild and spastic enthusiasm, he took them at their word. They returned to Pennsylvania, his cash in their pocket.

He called the local well driller, a Sicilian who arrived on the scene with well-founded cynicism, as in the very place where the dowsers had predicted water, he had already dug a dry well for the previous owner.

Now out a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of sham water smellers, and a good chunk of his life’s savings for the health farm itself, Joe nevertheless did not despair. He would find water . . . or throw himself off the nearest bridge. Somehow, a wet death seemed almost pleasant under the circumstances.

He took a large flat rock and a sixteen-pound sledgehammer, placed the rock on the ground in various locations of the property, and smacked it soundly with the hammer. He reasoned that if there were water below somewhere, there might be an underground echo or other indication. He found an area that responded. The more he hit the rock, the more he became convinced that this was the spot. Immediately, he summoned the well driller.

“Here?” The man was not encouraging. “Are you kiddin’? I already drilled right here, too. I didn’t find enough water to rinse out my mouth.”

Joe could not be dissuaded, and after signing a contract guaranteeing payment, he told the man to go to work. The bits were sunk into the ground, and there was nothing. The driller looked at Joe blankly. “Dig deeper,” Joe ordered, and gave him more money. Nothing. “Deeper!” He doled out the cash from the piggy bank.

At last came a gathering gushing sound, and a geyser of water sprayed high into the air coming up at the rate of seventy gallons a minute. The little Sicilian crossed himself.

“How did you know?”

Joe shrugged.

“Mister Atom”—the man pointed heavenward—”you got some-body upstairs.”

With a bit of borrowing and some juggling of finances, Joe fitted a pump on the site, made a small lake, stocked it with fish, and put two boats on it. He enlarged the approach road, constructed another two-story guest house, and built a pool. He was working seventeen hours a day and by now his investment had gotten out of hand, about $55,000 out of hand. He began alternating one week at the Panoramic, one week of pitching night and day to try to pay the previous week’s bills.

The Panoramic Health Farm was no mom-and-pop candy store; the clientele was an eccentric and demanding bunch. For the first time in her life, Leah started visiting doctors. The diagnoses were the same: overwork.

After a decade, rather than have the Panoramic Health Farm kill them, Joe sold out for such a disastrously low figure that he needn’t have drilled for water; he ended taking a bath in his own money. He gladly returned full-time to the life of a pitchman.

In August of 1938, a German Day rally had drawn a turnout of forty thousand wildly cheering spectators for a parade of two thousand uniformed Nazis. Not in Munich but in Yaphank, Long Island. Joe Greenstein’s anti-Nazi battles had begun as soon as Hitler’s supporters had attempted to sink American roots. He had an idea of what was coming. “Throughout time, for the Jews it never changes. Fight to live. There is no alternative.” The Nazi was a creature of the streets, and there Joe lowered himself to meet them.

The Mighty Atom takes on the Nazis:

He revised and augmented his lectures. In addition to his discourse on clean living, he talked of current events. Pinned to his metal-covered board of 2-inch pine was a caricature of a pig wearing a swastika arm band. The head of the pig was that of Adolf Hitler. After a few choice comments about the German in question, the Atom would take a twenty-penny spike in his hand and smack it through the Nazi pig’s heart. The crowd cheered its approval, but certain others didn’t think it quite so funny.

About forty years later, Norman Jacobs, Joe’s son-in-law, remembered an incident of that time. “I was sitting in their Park Place kitchen with my wife Mary and Leah, when we heard a wild commotion outside. We looked out the window to find Pop mixing it up with four men in the alley. I started out the door to help, but Leah ordered me to stay put. ‘Pop will take care of it. But you . . . she warned, ‘if you go out, you’ll get hurt.'”

When the sounds of battle had subsided, the family went into the alleyway where they found the first combatant sprawled unconscious, his arm and leg broken. The second assailant was discovered in a garbage can, head and legs down, having been folded up and deposited like a discarded sandwich, the can cover neatly on top of him. The third man fled. Joe sat atop the fourth bruiser, putting the finishing touches on him.

The Mighty Atom had spent the afternoon making one of his anti-Hitler speeches; the Nazi quartet had followed him home and waylaid him in the alley. “Who are they, Pop?” Leah asked him.

Joe got to his feet, brushed off his pants, and surveyed the men in the alley. “Nobody,” he said.

There were dispiriting moments on mornings when he considered the number of well-organized Nazi goons that he might have to go up against that afternoon. At these times there was a passage in the Bible that revitalized him. His was the same secret weapon with which Joshua and Israel had overcome the terrifying horde arrayed against them:

. . . I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee…

—Exodus XXIII:22: 23

Shortly after a huge Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in February, 1939, the Mighty Atom found himself walking through Manhattan’s Yorkville German section on a business matter. He stopped in his tracks at a sign in bold letters posted on a building’s second floor: “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED!”

He stared at it for a while before inquiring of a passerby, “What the hell is that?” He was informed that a Nazi Bund meeting was being conducted upstairs. He went across the street to a paint store, where with a three-dollar deposit, he rented an 18-foot ladder. Back he came and opened it beneath the sign. Returning across the street, this time to a sporting-goods store, he purchased a Louisville slugger baseball bat—a “Hank Greenberg Model.” He parked it in the doorway beneath the sign.

He went up the ladder, tore the sign down, and tossed it into the gutter. The operation had not gone unnoticed. Several of the Nazis looked out aghast from the second-floor window. The action which followed was in the best tradition of a Popeye cartoon. Before the Atom could climb down from his high perch, the entire Bund assembly had come charging down the stairs into the street.

The Mighty Atom was shaken off his ladder, but he came up bat in hand. They came at him singly and in numbers, frontally and encircling; all to no avail. “It wasn’t a fight,” Joe said later, “it was a pleasure.” He sent eighteen of them to the hospital in various stages of extreme disrepair. He sustained a black eye.

Hauled into court on a charge of aggravated assault, mass mayhem, and so forth, a bedraggled but surprisingly cheerful Joe Greenstein stood meekly and alone before the bench, his only compatriot the “mouse” under his eye. A white-haired judge looked solemnly down as the charge was read. The jurist could hardly believe that the mild, little man before him could have perpetrated such an assault. Then, he surveyed the victims before him, a veritable parade of broken joints, purple contusions, and awkwardly plastered and wired limbs. The battered Aryans filled half the courtroom.

“You mean this little man . . . did that . . . to all of them?” the judge inquired in disbelief.

“Yes, Your Honor,” nodded an eyewitness police sergeant. “Them that ain’t still in the hospital.”

The judge turned his attention to the defendant. “Mr. Greenstein, these are serious charges. Do you have anything to say?”

“Yessir, Judge.” The Atom brightened. “Every time I swung the bat it was a home run!”

Quietly, the judge inquired of the sergeant what had provoked such a clash. “Them’re Nazis, Your Honor,” the officer whispered. “They went after him.”

“NOT GUILTY! CASE DISMISSED!” The judge banged his gavel.

“But, Your Honor . . .” the Bund’s lawyer protested. “I said, case dismissed.” The gavel boomed again with finality, and the judge retired to his chambers.

Photos from Spielman’s book:

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.42 AMThe young Mighty Atom

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.05.11 AMThe Mighty Atom stops an airplane tied to his hair from taking off

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.08 AMThe Mighty Atom pulls a fire engine

 

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 11.39.18 AM

February 27, 2015

From Serhii Mazlakh and Vasyl’ Shakrai’s “The Ukrainian Communist Party (Bolsheviks)”

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

The surge of national consciousness and the intense will for a free, sovereign, and independent life revealed by the Ukrainian revolutionary national movement completely preclude the very thought of the Ukraine’s return to the status of a colony of some other power. Sooner or later, through the difficult and bloody course of armed conflict or through agreement—the democratic way of resolving issues in dispute between neighboring countries—the Ukraine will be independent and sovereign not only in words but in reality. Either as the result of an extended diplomatic and armed struggle, by maneuvering among states, or through the revolutionary activity of its worker-peasant masses, the Ukraine will become independent. At best, the Ukraine will become completely free in the very near future thanks to the activity and consciousness of its national masses, and the more rapidly and fully this goal is reached the better it will be for the Ukraine and her neighbors. There will be fewer national quarrels and less hostility; the further progress of the Ukraine’s economic, political, social, cultural, and spiritual life will be easier, and the Ukraine’s contribution to the treasury of world culture will be greater. And on the other hand, the less strength and activity it manifests in the near future, the more drawn out is the independence process, the more the Ukraine has to rely on diplomacy or on external assistance—the longer will she remain in the morbid condition of an unsolved national question, and the more the poison of national hostility, quarrels, and incitement will hinder socioeconomic, socio-political, and spiritual-cultural progress. Revolutions not only reveal deeper springs and forces, not only reject all that is superficial and conventional, they are also the locomotives of history. Days in a revolutionary era are the equivalent of decades in more peaceful periods. What demands many long years in a peaceful era may be attained in a few months in a revolution. And just as steel is tempered in the conflagration of revolution, so peaceful development often rusts and corrodes it. If the Ukrainian national question is not settled now, during the revolutionary era, if it is handed on to posterity, like rust it will corrode the socioeconomic and cultural-political development of the Ukraine and its neighbors.

That is why it is so important that all the forces presently contending in the Ukraine, and because of the Ukraine, realize fully the importance of this decisive moment in history. This is especially true for the relations between the Ukraine and Russia. Many socio-economic and cultural-spiritual links have been forged during the two and a half centuries of the Ukraine’s confinement within the boundaries of tsarist and autocratic Russia, but, at the same time, so much filth has collected on these links that they have lost their elasticity and become stiff, incapable of bending with the turns of history. They crack and break, and the break is not clean; rails, beams, and ties point in different directions and intermingle in the most monstrous ways. This process is very painful for both sides of the break: rails and beams wound people; rocks, cement, and coal cover people; dust and chips are thrown in their faces, blinding them; and the crackling and roaring deafens them.

Instead of clearing away individual rails and beams and wasting energy attaching supports to walls which may fall in today or tomorrow, it is better to clear out the whole place, removing the old and installing new rafters.

The sooner this fact is realized, and the more clearly, the better it will be. Soviet Russia should realize this before all others. C. Rakovski spoke the truth when he said that the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic is the heir to the Russian Empire. But the conclusion to be drawn from this is diametrically opposed to the one reached by C. Rakovski at the peace conference.8 It should not be forgotten that Soviet Russia inherited not only a great state but also a lot of rottenness and dirt. One should inspect one’s acquisitions with care; historical experience makes clear that some inheritances should be renounced in order not to ruin completely the possessions acquired through one’s own efforts. Such is the case of the Ukraine. One should forget about the former Southern Russia and remember that the Ukraine rose in its place, forget about the former colony and remember that it is now a sovereign independent country—if not im Sein then im Werden—forget that workers came from Central Russia to work in the Donets Basin and will continue to come in the future, forget about the 2,100,000 Russians living among the 16,500,000 Ukrainians and about the need, for their sake, to regain the birthright. Relations with the Ukraine must find a new set of foundations; they must be based on a real and alive—not a verbal—international unity. It is time to abandon the various scientific investigations demonstrating how insignificant are the ethnographic differences be-tween Ukrainians and Russians, time to forget Valuevism, Stolypinism, and Mymretsovism, time to acknowledge sincerely the right of nations to self-determination, time, in short, to face the facts. It is time to implement Article 5 of the Resolution of the 1913 Summer Conference and reach the appropriate conclusion: either one way or the other. And this conclusion must be reached without fearing that others will differ. Forget about the pottage of lentils, sugar, coal, iron, or grain. These will take care of themselves. And when this is done you will have such an ally as cannot be acquired from any kind of one and indivisible.

The Ukrainian workers and peasants should also come to their senses. In the first place, this will help the Russian workers and peasants to their senses and, second, as the proverb states: Heaven helps those who help themselves.

 

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.