Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2018

The New York City real estate/housing crisis, part 1

Filed under: housing — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

How poor people get screwed

This week the NY Times published two articles, each in excess of 7,000 words, about the class war being waged on the working poor. While anybody who has lived in NY for a number of years will be familiar with tales of greedy landlords, the revelations are genuinely horrific.

In the one titled “Behind New York’s Housing Crisis: Weakened Laws and Fragmented Regulation”, we learn about the dirty tricks landlords use to drive weak and easily intimidated Black or Latino tenants from rent-controlled (virtually extinct) or rent-regulated buildings in order to transform them into condos or high-rent buildings for the mostly white college graduates working in high tech, finance or other lucrative fields.

Once such a building gets into the hands of an unscrupulous landlord, the first step is to bribe some tenants to move out with an amount that might seem generous to the recipient but pocket change to the typically secretive real estate firm hiding behind a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). Once the apartments are vacant, the construction crews flout regulations and make the building unlivable through noise that continues through the night, dust, and odors.

Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a mixture of Black and Hasidic residents, has now become a hotbed of gentrification where thuggish building owners see buildings like the one on 632 Sterling in the same way a shark sees a seal (I suppose that this does not do justice to sharks that are only killing to survive instead of accumulating capital.)

Cynthia Wilkie, right, and her daughter, Wendy, temporarily rented an apartment for $2,110 a month — almost triple what they paid for the Sterling Place apartment they had to leave. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

A 62-year old African-American tenant named Cynthia Wilkie sized up Asher Sussman, the new owner: “All he was seeing was dollar signs.” Housing regulations stipulated that  construction would not “create dust, dirt, or other inconveniences.” Sussman started off by paying off a couple of tenants to move but Wilkie was determined to stay. She had lived there for 22 years and paid about $850 a month for a three-bedroom apartment she shared with her brother, daughter and two grandchildren. She had diabetes and had undergone double-bypass heart surgery. Her 33-year old daughter Wendy was blind and wheelchair-bound as a result of childhood brain cancer, while her brother had lost his right leg to diabetes.

By early 2016, the regulation-defying construction kicked in, as well as the elimination of basic provisions such as heating. The Times stated: “The second and third floors were gutted. A staircase was removed. A hole was cut into the roof. Debris was piled in corners, against walls. Dust was everywhere.”

Deemed unsafe, the city moved the Wilkies and other tenants to a Days Inn motel. After about a year, the authorities told her fragile family to move to a homeless shelter, something that was obviously unacceptable to Cynthia Wilkie. They eventually moved to an apartment in Brownsville, a neighborhood still relatively untouched by the gentrification bulldozer. It had a bathroom too small for Wendy’s wheelchair and cost $2,110 per month, almost three times the old rent.

The follow-up article titled “The Eviction Machine Churning Through New York City” reveals how the housing court that was originally intended to defend people like the Wilkies has turned into the landlord’s weapon. Not only do they have to contend with scumbag landlords, they must fend off the shysters they hire to harass them with eviction notices over various infractions that the Times characterizes as baseless in most cases.

After living for more than a half-century in a rent-regulated apartment on West 109th Street, Neri Carranza was targeted for eviction. Ángel Franco for The New York Times

Like the focus on Cynthia Wilkie in the first article, this one chronicles the horrors that a 94-year Puerto Rican woman named Neri Carranza had to put up with when her building on West 109th St. caught in the gentrification net.

After getting a job in a glass factory in 1956, Carranza found a small two-bedroom apartment to her liking on W. 109. Fifty-four years later when she was 87, she learned that the building had been sold to the Orbach Group that promptly served her with an eviction notice. Why? Because it claimed that she was not living there. This was obvious nonsense but since the Orbach Group had paid $76 million for her building and 21 others nearby, they were wealthy and powerful enough to hire lawyers who could overpower any housing attorney working for peanuts.

The Orbach Group was founded by Meyer Orbach, who is a part owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team. In addition to the usual tactics of illegal construction and baseless eviction notices, he came up with a novel idea of how to make the mostly Latino residents on W. 109 feel unwelcome. He put gates in front of each building that made traditional social interaction by sitting on the stoop more difficult.

People being served with eviction notices like Ms. Carranza face a double jeopardy. If the Kafkaesque Housing Court that is stacked in favor of the landlord rules in his favor, it may be impossible to find a new apartment because your name goes into a black list. Even if evictions are relatively rare, many tenants grown weary of legal battles just throw in the towel and move.

One of her neighbors demonstrates how these buyouts end up to the tenant’s disadvantage:

Fallou Diop, whose family lived a few doors down from Ms. Carranza on 109th Street, was sued twice by Orbach: in 2009 for falling behind on his $1,144-a-month rent, and in 2011 for allegedly subletting rooms in his apartment. He paid his back rent. The “subletters” were relatives who had lived with him for 19 years. But about two years after winning the second case, Mr. Diop agreed to leave.

“I was sick of fighting with them and sick of the harassment,” said Mr. Diop, a retired baker who said he took a $50,000 buyout, a seeming fortune at the time. He then rented an apartment in the Bronx for $2,700 a month.

In June 2016, Orbach advertised Mr. Diop’s old apartment, urging prospective tenants, in capital letters, to “call today to view this beauty.” The monthly rent would be $4,200.

The deal did not work out so well for Mr. Diop. The buyout money ran out. At 65, he sleeps on his ex-girlfriend’s couch.

Grown weary of court battles like Mr. Diop, Carranza finally took a $100,000 buyout and moved to her niece’s house in rural Pennsylvania. The 94-year old woman, who does not speak English, has no church with services in Spanish to go to. Nor is there a grocery catering to Latinos. Nor friends to visit, nor stoops to sit on even behind a gate. There are not even sidewalks.

The Orbach Group saw W. 109th as the ideal location for Columbia students to rent an apartment. A 2015 NY Times article titled “Longtime Tenants in Manhattan See an Effort to Push Them Out” identified my old employer and Meyer Orbach as co-conspirators in a gentrification move against the working class and the poor.

Calling its new properties Columbia South, the Orbach Group began using a logo on its buildings and website that mimicked Columbia’s and offered tenants a free shuttle bus to the campus, only 9 fucking blocks away. Orbach sees the Columbia tie-in as a win-win situation. Not only are students able to pay higher rents, they are transient and thus enable him to raise the rent for the next student. After graduating, the student might get a high-paying job that will make living in an Upper East Side condo possible. In fact, there are buildings all around me that probably house many Columbia graduates now working as lawyers, doctors or investment bankers.

Ms. Carranza, who was energetic in her younger years, even earning a black belt in karate, made a visit to her old neighborhood as the NY Times describes poignantly:

Last fall, Ms. Carranza returned to close her bank account. She stood in front of her building, surrounded by friends, telling them that there were no Latinos in all of Pennsylvania.

“There’s no one to talk to,” she said. “You can talk to the trees.”

Her name was still on the buzzer at 247 West 109th Street. After a tenant invited her inside, Ms. Carranza ran her hand along the hallway as she walked, pointing out her apartment — No. 2 — and her mailbox.

After years of failed requests for the most basic repairs, her apartment had been completely remodeled — illegally, as no building permit was ever filed, buildings department records show. Two Columbia students paid about $3,500 a month to live there.

Ms. Carranza walked through the home she could no longer recognize, running her hand along the new kitchen counter, touching the new sink, remembering where she used to keep her French dining set, where she used to sleep. A stairway had been added, leading to new basement rooms. She gave one tenant a sideways glance.

“Do you think he’ll leave?” Ms. Carranza asked her niece. She paused, thinking. “What if they’d give me my apartment back?”

She would sit on the stoop again, and she would invite people over for dinner again, and she would fry chicken again. What happiness she would have, she said, if only she again had her home.

In my next post in this series, I will take up the CVS-ization of Manhattan.

May 22, 2018

An extraordinary meeting on Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Anand Gopal

Last night I attended a meeting on “From Syria to Palestine: The Fight for Justice” in Brooklyn that was extraordinary on a number of levels. To start with, it was attended by at least 80 people, standing room only. It was also marked by a high degree of unity with groups focused on Syria or Palestine endorsing the event alongside those on the left like the ISO and the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins. Finally, there was a talk by Anand Gopal on the people of Saraqib, a town that epitomizes the 7 year resistance to Assad. My impression is that Stanley Heller of the Connecticut-based Promoting Enduring Peace played a major role in pulling this together. For this, we are in his debt.

Since the chairperson, a Palestinian woman who did a great job of keeping things in order and whose name I unfortunately did not record, instructed the audience that recording the talks was strictly forbidden for security reasons, I will try to summarize the proceedings since they should be of great interest to those of us who are in solidarity with the Syrian people.

Before the first speaker, Emerson College professor Yasser Munif, arose to took the mike, I sat next to him and told him that it was a shame that meetings like this were not being held in 2011. Almost as if to be answering me, when he took the mike he pointed out that Syria is going to be a long, epochal struggle and that until the conditions that created the uprising are overcome, it will continue. Although he was as eloquent as usual, he spent no longer than about 5 minutes making his presentation.

He was followed by Ramah Kudaimi, a Syrian-American like Munif, who works for the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. As such, she was the ideal person to speak about the connections between the slaughter taking place on the border between Gaza and Israel and the destruction of Yarmouk, a home to over 100,000 Palestinian refugees when the war started. She insisted that unless you understood how Netanyahu, al-Sisis and Assad were motivated by the same hatred of the Palestinians, you’ll never understand the dynamics of the struggle in the Middle East.

The final speaker was Anand Gopal, who is as gifted as a speaker as he is a writer. I have known Anand as a cyber-friend since 2012 but this was the first opportunity to meet him in person.

With telling photos and video clips, he described the resistance to Assad in Saraqib, a place he has traveled to a number of times since 2012. In addition to his reporting on Syria, Anand is the author of “No Good Men Among the Living” that consists of profiles of a broad cross-section of the Afghan people, including a former Taliban fighter. The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015 and deservedly so.

In contrast to Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, who have never spent time in a place like Saraqib, Anand was determined to find out what made such people begin protesting in 2011 and to endure horrible onslaughts from the regime ever since. This was not something easily done since unlike Fisk and Cockburn, he could not get a visa to travel to Syria. So instead, he used to go to Turkey and get rides to the border with Syria to gain access to the Idlib region where many of the small and medium sized farming cities and towns rose up. Once he arrived at the border, he’d climb beneath a chain-link fence and follow a trail of white stones that led to Saraqib. Those stones had been painted by activists in Saraqib to make sure that he would not step on a landmine.

Saraqib is a town of about 35,000 people. When news of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt reached this farming community in the boondocks, people began protesting every Friday. Like other ordinary citizens becoming active politically for the first time, their demands were rudimentary: democracy and the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

Before 2011, Saraqib did not have a single newspaper but afterwards at least 5 newspapers took off, as well as a radio station. They were used to exchange ideas in a kind of grass roots democracy that not only threatened Assad but every dictator in the region. That is why someone like General al-Sisi is an ally of both Assad and Netanyahu against the Syrian and Palestinian masses.

When the protests came under attack from Assad’s snipers, local activists had an intense debate over whether to arm themselves or not. Many had bad memories of the murderous assault on Hama in 1982 that left at least 20,000 dead over less than a month. But when the sniper attacks escalated, they were left with no other choice except to form six brigades led by six of the key activists in Saraqib, including people who had argued against armed self-defense.

The regime went after Saraqib with a fury, sending in tanks that destroyed many homes. Anand reports that the Baathist troops went from door to door, killing anybody who had not fled to safety. Many were set on fire, including a man whose charred corpse was shown in one of Anand’s photos.

Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the town managed to run its own affairs. Like other such towns and cities, a local council was formed that took care of what might sound like mundane affairs, such as garbage collection and the distribution of bread that was a staple of the Syrian diet and made in a state-controlled bakery. Once the town was liberated, the workers at the bakery continued running it in close coordination with the local council.

This reminded me of a discussion taking place on FB between me and a number of FB friends who likened the formation of food co-ops, etc. in the USA as a form of incipient dual power. This is an idea that has some currency on the left, especially as part of nominally Marxist theories advanced by Richard Wolff, Peter Marcuse, Eric Olin Wright, et al. In my view, dual power arises in a revolutionary situation when an armed working class, farmers and small proprietors have assumed the social and economic leadership of a city or town after the old order has been sent packing. This occurred during the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik revolution, the Spanish Civil War and even in Syria despite the absence of a socialist leadership. In order for such people to live, they need water, food, medical care, and policing against counter-revolution. You cannot suck the institutions of dual power out of your thumb. They are linked to revolutionary struggles and have nothing to do with blueprints for a socialist future.

Into this liberated but chaotic community, the Islamists finally made their entry in early 2013, four of whose leaders Anand interviewed. Their most senior organizer was a man who had devoted himself to teaching prisoners like himself to reject both democracy and socialism. There was not much in the way of socialism in Saraqib but there was plenty of democracy.

The Islamists very quickly became a counter-force to those in Saraqib who had zero interest in a caliphate. The only way they gained a foothold was through their organizational cohesion that had been developing for decades. Unlike the locals, these were men who were organized as the Muslim Brotherhood or even as al-Qaeda. They had the inside track to arms and money from wealthy private citizens in Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey. As such, they were a powerful seductive force even if the people of Saraqib valued their new-found freedoms.

Eventually, al-Nusra (the affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria) became the most powerful Islamist group in the region. When someone made the idiotic comment during the Q&A that the USA funded al-Nusra, Anand explained that they consciously rejected foreign assistance since that would make them dependent on sources that could easily change their mind. Like ISIS, they relied on taxation to finance their operations.

In one of the more dramatic video clips shown by Anand, we see two groups in the middle of a street arrayed against each other, one chanting in favor of a non-sectarian state and the other calling for a caliphate. Eventually, al-Nusra tired of those in the town unwilling to bow down before them and surrounded the house of the FSA commander in order to arrest him. When word went out about what was going on, a march on the house to defend the commander began only to be dispersed by al-Nusra’s machine gun fire. This too is revealed in a video clip shown by Anand that gives the lie to the Assad versus al-Qaeda version of what has been taking place over the past seven years.

In his concluding remarks, Anand stressed the tripartite political division in Syria that is denied by Max Blumenthal, Vanessa Beeley, et al. You have 1) Assad; 2) the Islamists and 3) the people. Our job is to find ways to solidarize with the people that includes reviving an antiwar movement based on the need to concentrate on who is responsible for most of the killing: the regime and the foreign entities intervening against the people. Stopping the violence has always allowed civil society to emerge and thus reconstitute itself as the legitimate voice of a people with the same goals they have had for the past 7 years: to live in freedom and dignity, enjoying the country’s wealth on an egalitarian basis.

During the Q&A, someone asked what we can do concretely to help the Syrian people. Someone in the audience replied that this meant opening the door to Syrian refugees, most of whom were like the people of Saraqib. When Donald Trump cut off support for the Syrian rebels, which was being dispensed with an eyedropper under Obama, and then of the White Helmets, he demonstrated his affinity with all of the tyrants in power in the Middle East.

I am not sure what will happen next with the Syrian Solidarity Movement but this meeting was an auspicious first step.



May 21, 2018

Old Bardians

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Dalt Wonk

Jeffrey Marlin (on the right)

Richard Allen

When I entered Bard College in 1961, I soon heard the term “old Bard”, which was a reference to the halcyon days before it became just like every other college. If you were blessed enough to have attended the old Bard, you were called an “old Bardian”. As a freshman, I sought out the companionship of old Bardians because they were the enlightened ones.

If you weren’t sold on the old Bardians legend, you might regard them as the mental patients running the institution just the Alan Bates movie “Queen of Hearts”. That good old Bard was what Walter Winchell called the “little red whorehouse on the Hudson”. I can tell you that despite being defiantly opposed to the status quo, there was very little red about it unless you considered Max Lerner to be a Communist (not an uncommon perception in 1961).

Bard was part of a collection of private colleges that incorporated “experimental” educational theories. This included Black Mountain, Goddard, Antioch, Bennington, and Franconia as well. To escape inevitable financial collapse, all of these schools were forced to become more conventional. In an obvious nepotistic maneuver (he married the chairman of the board of trustee’s daughter), Leon Botstein—then only 23—became President of Franconia in 1970 in order to turn the place around. The ultrarightist William Loeb published an article in his Manchester Guardian with the headline: “Bare Debauchery at Franconia College: Sex, Liquor, Drugs Rampant on Campus” that made it sound even cooler than Bard. Apparently Leon was in over his head since the school went broke on his watch. He has been much more successful in turning Bard around even though the school might have been renamed Botstein College in light of his now 43-year tenure.

As you probably already know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have been feuding with Leon since 1987 when Martin Peretz became a board of trustee member. At the time I was very involved with Sandinista Nicaragua and was shocked to see someone who supported Reagan’s war that included destroying schoolhouses put in such a position.

Somewhere along the line Leon must have decided to keep me out of the loop because about 4 years ago I noticed that I was no longer receiving communications from the school. It was one thing to be spared requests for donations to the endowment fund that was flush from the millions that George Soros had poured into it but I missed getting the print edition of the alumni magazine. I could read it online but it was probably designed by someone who felt the need to torment people with poor vision such as me. It could not be downloaded into a pdf and if you magnified a page, it would only be readable for that page. Every time you turned a page, you had to remagnify it once again. Since the alumni magazine was typically 100 pages or so, that was a pain in the ass.

I finally complained to the alumni office and they told me that they would put my name in the alumni database (how it got dropped was another question.) About a year ago I stopped getting communications once again. Was it my open letter to a Bard professor who had appeared in Leo DeCaprio’s movie on climate change? Maybe he and Leon didn’t like being reminded that board of trustee member Stewart Resnick had a long and sordid anti-environmental rap sheet, from stealing water in Fiji to using his political clout to do just about the same thing in California. To keep his pistachio nut plantation going, poor people in the area had to cross their fingers when it came to being able to flush their toilets.

So I called the alumni office again and left a message about not getting mailings. Since nobody called back, I guess I am still on Leon’s shit-list. A fair trade-off, I suppose

Today, my only connection to the school is to the old Bardians that I have stayed in contact with over the years or reconnected with over the net.

For me, old Bardians are the kind of people that Jack Kerouac described in “On the Road”:

[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!

But they are also literally old like me and still going strong. Like me, they will probably die working on a film or a novel and take their last breath as believers in the need to live a bold and creative life—just the kind of life that Socrates led in ancient Greece. If there was thing our guru Heinrich Blucher (Hannah Arendt’s husband) made clear in his Common Course, it was the need to fight to the death for truth and for beauty.

With that as background let me refer you to some works by old Bardians that have come my way recently.

In March, 2011 an article appeared in the N.Y. Times titled “Life and Art, Side by Side in the French Quarter” that profiled a married couple that go by the name Dalt Wonk and Josephine Sacabo. I knew them as Richard Cohen and Mary Alice Martin and there were no two more beautiful people at Bard both on the surface and in their soul. Dalt became a writer and Josephine a photographer, using their base in the French Quarter of New Orleans as an ongoing inspiration.

Referring to her provenance, a New Orleans reporter noted that “Josephine’s influences are the French Symbolist poets. But being a Latina, she has that sort of magic realist DNA in her blood.” (You can see her work at: http://josephinesacabo.com/).

Recently Dalt sent me a copy of a 2002 collection of short stories based on his plays titled “Spiritual Gifts” that is redolent of Tennessee Williams. Set in the French Quarter, his mostly Black and poor characters are struggling to assert their dignity against crushing poverty, including a once-famous rhythm and blues singer named Grace who now in her old age stays afloat by working as a cleaning lady in a nightclub. An elderly Black man named Emile passes out flyers on the street but insists on wearing a suit and tie, even in the baking heat.

These are the kinds of people who have become victims of Hurricane Katrina as the city’s elite chose to ethnically cleanse exactly the people who made it a gumbo of distinct ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

While “Spiritual Gifts” is out of print, I can recommend a more recent work from Luna Press that serves as a reminder of the old New Orleans just as the life that Dalt and Josephine live is a reminder of the old Bard. The 2014 French Quarter Fables is based on Dalt’s Aesop-like tales and is described on the publisher’s page as:

Little animals wearing clothes. Hard to resist in their bittersweet comic struggles.

These fables are, in a sense, Dalt Wonk’s love letter to the French Quarter — his home for over 40 years. The animals, flowers, and insects are almost all Quarter denizens: a frog in his courtyard lily pond, a rat in the stone riprap on the levee and a roach in the kitchen of a restaurant. They call to mind people you know. Difficulties you’ve faced.

A sample page:

As the French Quarter is to Dalt Wonk, so is Far Rockaway to Jeffrey Marlin, my friend of 57 years and long-time chess partner. A recent fairly serious illness led him to consider the problem faced by older married couples when the death of one will leave the survivor in what might be a lonely and untenable position.

This led him to write a novel titled “A Wolf Behind Every Tree” that can be purchased from Amazon.com. Written in the voice of a young Jamaican handyman named Felix, it shares the identification with the underdog found in Dalt’s “Spiritual Gifts”.

While the Rockaways are not specifically mentioned in Jeffrey’s novel, it is clear to me that the narrative is as much about life in this peninsula that was ravaged by a hurricane just like New Orleans. In fact, the handyman Felix is based on a Caribbean native who helped make Jeffrey’s house livable in the months following superstorm Sandy.

The plot centers on Felix’s role in cleaning out the garage of a despairing and elderly man who has chosen to kill himself after his wife’s death has made his own life not worth living. Cleaning out the garage is a prerequisite for being able to drive the old man’s car inside where it can become an instrument for suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning, just like “Death of a Salesman”. While Felix might subconsciously be aware of enabling a suicide to take place, he also held out the possibility that the man’s recent visit to see his son and grandchildren in Colorado might have given him reason to go on. As so often happens with Tolstoy’s unhappy families, including his own, suicide is the only rational choice even if an irrational state power in thrall to organized religion robs you of that choice.

The novel is very timely given the likelihood that a Trump presidency and successive reactionary presidencies will only deepen such tendencies. “A Wolf Behind Every Tree” is a welcome contribution to the ongoing debate.

Last month my old friend Richard Allen, who was a couple of years behind me at Bard, dropped me a line to let me know that his “One-Armed Bandit” had received the Sony Classics Short Film Prize at the 2018 Asbury Park and Music Festival.

This is a 12-minue 1971 Max Sennett-style silent comedy (sans subtitles since none are really needed) that features Paul B. Price as a bandit with one arm in a sling who accosts a well-dressed man walking through what looks like the ruins around Avenue D on the Lower East Side that evoke the New York City of the late Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. The moral of the story is that you need two arms to do a proper stick-up.

This is a New York that Richard was intimately familiar with as a denizen of a long lost bohemia in the 70s that like the rest of the city has become gentrified. Like Josephine Sacabo’s homage to the French Quarter, Richard paid his own homage to this world in a photography book titled “Street Shots / Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970” that can be purchased here. Like “One-Armed Bandit”, it is a comedy of errors as the blurb indicates: “Photographs and story about a New York City bike messenger who begins filming a movie called Hooky using kids on East 3rd St. It turns into a turf war with the Hells Angels who live across the street. Someone is knifed to death and a great fire guts the building. The author escapes, barely.”

“One-Armed Bandit” grew out of a skit that Richard worked on with Ken Shapiro and Chevy Chase, another couple of old Bardians, on Channel One—the off-off-Broadway revue that was turned into “Groove Tube”. You can’t see his face but the cop who pursues the one-armed bandit is Chevy.

Like every other old Bardian, Richard is still going strong as he wrote me: “My new Movie HOME COOKIN – Over 100 Years in the Making – 87 Min. – you’ve seen unfinished pieces -should be back from color correction in Toronto in a week or so and that will be done after 5 years almost.

It seems funny to say, but I feel my best years and most success is still in front of me. I attribute this to a good sense of imagination. Want to read the new script SMALL POTATOES?

I wrote Richard back telling him to send it along.

May 18, 2018

First Reformed

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:36 pm

For most film buffs, the movie “Taxi Driver” and the name Martin Scorsese are inextricably linked. But for me, the essence of a film is the screenplay. It all goes back to Aristotle who in defining tragedy in “Poetics” placed plot and character at the top of the six necessary ingredients (the other four are diction, thought, spectacle, and melody). Martin Scorsese did not write the screenplay for “Taxi Driver”. It was written by Paul Schrader, who also wrote “Raging Bull”. If there is anything that defines these masterpieces, it is the brilliant storytelling (plot) and character development of the screenplay (think Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta). Scorsese deserves credit for helping Robert De Niro fully realize two memorable characters and creating the spellbinding background against which they stand (think of spectacle as cinematography and melody as film score) but without Schrader’s screenplay, it would have been all for naught.

In addition to being a screenwriter, Schrader was also a director—sometimes with mixed results. I am pleased to report that his latest film that opens nationwide today is not only his greatest achievement but one of the great American films of the decade. “First Reformed” tells the story of Toller (Ethan Hawke), the grief-stricken pastor of the eponymous upstate N.Y. Protestant church who delivers sermons to less than ten people on an average Sunday. The drawing card for the church is not spirituality, but its status as a landmark building that draws tourists, including some that can be persuaded to buy a coffee cup, baseball cap or t-shirt from the church’s tiny souvenir shop.

Continue reading

Ann Coulter on Syria and Gaza

Filed under: Palestine,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:07 pm

E.M. Forster: “Only Connect” (epigraph to Howard’s End)

May 17, 2018

The Markles versus the British tabloids

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

Because my wife and I are devoted fans of “Suits”, the cable TV show that Meghan Markle stars on, we have a heightened interest in the furor over her father’s photos being staged and sold to the tabloids. Since I had been thinking about writing about “Suits”, I will start off with a review of it and another pop culture cable TV show called “Impostors” that we are also addicted to with a similar theme. As I told Jeff St. Clair recently when he asked me about stuff to watch, “If you want some compelling trash, I recommend ‘Suits’. Me and my wife have been binging on it.”

“Suits” premiered in 2011 and is still going strong but without Meghan Markle for obvious reasons in the next season. You can watch the entire series on USA streaming. Despite being a non-premium cable network, its flagship series beats anything I have seen on HBO or Showtime in years.

Its title is a reference to the corporate law firm that Markle works at as a paralegal. In the very first episode, its star attorney named Harvey Spector is interviewing law school graduates from the most prestigious schools but mostly on a pro forma basis. He has no interest in hiring anybody as an assistant because he prefers working alone and does not suffer fools lightly.

The interviews are being held in a swank hotel on the very day that a bike messenger and college dropout named Mike Ross has come to deliver marijuana to a buyer on behalf of his dealer roommate who was unavailable that day. Decked out in a business suit to blend in, Ross is alarmed to see a couple of cops standing in front of the door of the buyer. As he walks past the room trying to avoid being detected, he notices that the cops begin following him down the hall. Taking it on the lam, he runs down the stairwell and keeps one step ahead of them, finally stopping on the floor where Spector is doing his interviews. Assuming that he is a lawyer like the rest, his secretary tells him to take a seat until it his turn.

We already know that Ross will be able to handle himself since he has a sideline job that supplements his bike messenger gig. With a photographic memory and a very high IQ, he taught himself law in order to take LSATs for law school applicants for a fee. So, when he sits down with Spector to be grilled, he not only answers every question but quicker than all the Harvard, Yale and Princeton graduates. Spector offers him a job on the spot and Mike begins a career as a lawyer that brings him into contact with Meghan Markle who is his love interest and eventually his wife.

The show is the best I have ever seen featuring lawyers. Even though it is fairly conventional stuff thematically with Mike trying to balance his social justice ideals with the dirtiness of corporate law, it is great writing and acting. In addition to the plots that pit his law firm against big swinging dick rivals, there is always the tension about him being found out and going to prison for fraud.

As in real life, Meghan Markle’s character is mixed race (a Black father rather than a white one like Thomas Markle.) She is a fine actress and easy to like, whatever she is about in real life. In any case, it pisses me off that she has run into the buzz saw that it is brought out when “outsiders”, especially mixed-race and American, interact with the British aristocracy and the filthy tabloid press over there.

Like “Suits”, “Impostors” is about the same kind of character as the name implies. Available from Bravo streaming, another non-premium channel, it is now in its second season and great escapist fare.

In season one, two men and a lesbian discover that a con artist named Maddie Johnson has married each one of them in turn and stolen every penny they own. One man is a Jew named Ezra Bloom who worked for his garment manufacturing father, the other is a star college quarterback named Richard who was head of a luxury car dealership and the woman is Julia Langhorne, an artist and heiress. The plots revolve around them tracking her down and eventually becoming con artists themselves in order to fund their globe-trotting woman-hunt.

In season two, the revenge-seeking trio are hot on her trail as the FBI is hot on theirs. It is all great fun and will take your mind off Donald Trump, the Middle East, climate change, etc.

Turning now to Thomas Markle, this guy was living in Mexico as a recluse. As a rather obese figure with zero social ties, the paparazzi were taking rather unflattering shots of him. Meghan’s sister Samantha then advised their dad to line up a photo agency that could show him in a more comely fashion, a request he was happy to fulfil. These photos ended up being sold to British tabloids but it is not clear that he benefited financially.

I am not into royal weddings but I am even less into the trashy British tabloids that have descended on the Markles like vultures. This hostility began two years ago when the Daily Sun took an image that appeared on “Suits” of Mike Ross and Meghan’s character in bed and framed it as if it had appeared on a porn site. Another tabloid, The Daily Mail, ran a story titled: “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed — so will he be dropping by for tea?”

As for Thomas Markle trying to personally gain from the photos, it should be pointed out that he declared bankruptcy in 2016, $30,000 in debt. If he made 100,000 pounds from the photos, as it is alleged, who gives a shit? That’s what the British royal parasites spend in a month.

Kudos to CNN for letting these bastards have it:

But why is he portrayed as a money-grabbing opportunist compared to, for example, the family of the Duchess of Cambridge? The Middletons have benefited from their connection to the monarchy. Pippa Middleton, a year after her starring role as bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding, wrote a book on how to celebrate.

Her parents have been accused of using their connections to drum up trade for their party supplies company, selling wedding-related gifts and accessories.

Sarah, the Duchess of York, has been somewhat more brazen in capitalizing on her royal connection in the more than two decades since divorcing Prince Andrew — including writing children’s books, numerous television appearances and, at one stage, a controversial diet plan. And in 2010, a tabloid newspaper made a secret video recording of her, in which she appeared to sell access to her former husband, the Duke of York.

But the tone of the criticism aimed at Mr. Markle — at least in Britain — has had a particularly vicious undertone.


The key difference between the Middletons and the Duchess of York on the one hand, and Mr. Markle on the other — apart from the latter’s relative lack of media savviness — is that the bride-to-be’s father is American.

What seems acceptable behavior from upper-middle-class Brits whose astuteness in playing up to their royal connections hides their vulgarity, is somehow deemed out of bounds for a shy, reclusive American with financial problems.

It is not that Mr. Markle is working class, but the public shaming of him over the paparazzi story reeks of classism and British snobbery. And because of that public shaming, a father might not get to walk his daughter down the aisle.


May 16, 2018

George Soros: destroyed by the monster he created

Filed under: Soros — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Ever since George Soros became a major donor to Bard College, I have followed his intellectual and financial trajectory. His millions not only allowed Leon Botstein to transform the school into something much more like Swarthmore than the woolly, bohemian enclave it was when I attended from 1961-1965 but to build a satellite of universities worldwide in its image embodying the Soros/Botstein ethos. This boils down to a defense of capitalism and imperialism mixed with lip-service to democracy and human rights.

One of those satellites is the Al-Quds University in Jerusalem that epitomizes Soros’s fence-straddling approach. As someone with the guts to criticize the Likud Party’s heavy-handedness alongside other liberals like Peter Beinart and the late Tony Judt, Soros put his money where his beliefs were by creating a school that would “lift up” the unfortunate Palestinians. He even was smart enough to see that Sari Nusseibeh was hired, a well-known Palestinian academic who had spent time in an Israeli prison in 1991 for opposing the first Gulf War. Despite this seemingly radical stance, he was also widely considered in Palestinian circles for being an accommodationist.

This came to a head in 2005 when the Palestinian professor’s union called for his dismissal because of his advocacy of “normalising ties with Israel” and for “serving Israeli propaganda interests”. Taking a provocative stance against BDS, Nusseibeh earned the condemnation of Awni al-Khatib, a professor of chemistry at Hebron University who said: “He (Nusseibeh) criticised the British union boycott of two Israeli universities, but he didn’t utter a word against the routine Israeli policy of closing Palestinian colleges and universities and of erecting roadblocks that prevent professors, employees and students from reaching Palestinian campuses.”

Nusseibeh resigned in 2014 after student supporters held a rally on campus commemorating Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin, Abdul Aziz Rantisi and Ibrahim Maqadmeh, all killed by Israel.

The other newsworthy Soros satellite is the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest that Viktor Orban has attempted to shut down. Demanding that the CEU establish a home base in New York in order to satisfy questionable Hungarian legal requirements, the university has been on the ropes for the past year. Although I have little use for George Soros, I have even less use (by far) for scum like Viktor Orban. Last April I ended an article on CEU with this appeal: Is it possible to oppose what George Soros stands for and simultaneously defend CEU’s right to exist in an increasingly repressive and barbaric Hungary? I would hope so. My advice is to go to the CEU support page and show your solidarity.

In addition to facing the ouster of CEU, Soros is also facing the eviction of his NGO’s in Hungary as the NY Times reported today:

Under intense political pressure and the threat of legal sanctions, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations said on Tuesday that it had become impossible to work in Hungary, whose prime minister has blamed Mr. Soros for the country’s problems, and that the foundations would move their operations to Berlin.

The foundations, which promote democracy, free expression and civil rights, have come under growing political and legal pressure from Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has stifled dissent and declared last week that “the era of liberal democracy is over.” The foundations have been a frequent target of the Hungarian government, and Mr. Orban himself has painted Mr. Soros as a shadowy figure seeking to undermine the country’s sovereignty.

Viktor Orban is basically the Donald Trump of Hungary. His animosity toward Soros is a function of nativist politics that are identical to rightwing governments and parties across Europe. Not surprisingly, his re-election last month was interpreted as a boost for Putin’s project of building the alt-right in Europe as the Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova reported:

In Russia the Kremlin celebrated Orban’s victory as its own. Senator of the Federation Council Konstantin Kosachev said on Monday that Orban’s victory showed that Hungary managed to defend its national interests in the European Union and NATO. “This [EU/NATO] line, if we slightly simplify it, means the following: We are in solidarity with our partners for as long as they do not contradict with our interests.”

If you thought that Orban was a consistent rightwing asshole going back 40 years just like Donald Trump, you’d be wrong. As it happens, he was George Soros’s Frankenstein monster who turned against his creator as Adam Lebor reported in the Intercept in 2015.

A graduating from law school in 1987, he joined the Soros-funded Central-Eastern Europe Study Group. Many intellectuals in that period were easily seduced by the deep-pocketed billionaire. In a sense, it was like knocking down an open door since the majority of Soviet and Eastern European intellectuals and academics had become convinced that capitalism would better serve their interests. In fact, all Soros needed to do was pay for some Xerox machines as Michael Lewis reported in the New Republic:

In 1984 Soros opened his first office, in Budapest, and began all manner of subversive activities for which he is temperamentally very well-equipped. “I started by trying to create small cracks in the monolithic structure which goes under the name of communism, in the belief that in a rigid structure even a small crack can have a devastating effect,” he wrote in Opening the Soviet System. “As the cracks grew so did my efforts until they came to take up most of my time and energy.” Says Liz Lorant, who worked with Soros from the start: “It was the excitement of what we got away with [that is irreplaceable]. We got away with murder. [For example] at that time Xerox machines were under lock and key. That was the way it was. In Romania you had to register a typewriter with the police. Well, we just flooded the whole damn country with Xerox machines so that the rules became meaningless.” In short, by the time the dust settled over the Berlin Wall—boom! bust!—Soros had accumulated a highly charged portfolio of gratitude. The Great White Gods of Eastern Europe—Havel, Michnik, Kis, Haraszti—were all in his debt. So were all sorts of lesser—known, highly motivated people wending their way to high political office.

Lesser-known, highly motivated people wending their way to high political office? Those words fit Orban to a tee.

Like the big bourgeoisie of the 19th century that gained their millions through shady deals as well as outright criminality in order to create universities and think-tanks dedicated to their worldview, Soros follows suit. Unlike an Andrew Carnegie who instructed Pinkerton gunmen to open fire on strikers, Soros uses less bloody tactics like insider trading. Found guilty in 2002 and 2011, he never spent a day in jail. In other transactions, he did not break the law but certainly caused widespread suffering—enough conceivably to kill even far more people than were killed by Carnegie’s Pinkertons. In 1997, Soros’s manipulation of the Thai baht led to a financial crisis throughout Southeast Asia that while being entirely legal was criminal in its impact. Indonesian was particularly hard-hit according to a UN report that noted that the Soros-triggered crisis wiped out one-fifth of non-farm jobs, driving 40 million people, a fifth of the population, into poverty.

Digging into the history of George Soros’s philanthropy and intellectual output reveals a rather sophisticated, multifaceted approach. In an article by Nicolas Guilhot titled “Reforming the World: George Soros, Global Capitalism and the Philanthropic Management of the Social Sciences” that appeared in the May 2007 Critical Sociology, you get the definitive analysis. Since it is behind a paywall, let me provide a summary of his main arguments.

To start with, the idea of a West-East collaboration such as the CEU was not Soros’s innovation. In the 1950s, the Ford Foundation was exploring the same idea as way of seducing the Soviet bloc’s intellectuals. One think-tank, the Foundation for European Intellectual Solidarity, was spawned by the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Soros avoided being connected to the CIA even though for many on the left, he is just as evil. Whatever you want to say about Soros, including the suffering he caused through the baht manipulation, I doubt that the Open Society would have ever gotten involved with waterboarding.

After narrowly escaping the Judeocide, George Soros was encouraged by his father to enroll with the London School of Economics. Failing the admission exams, he was not dissuaded. He snuck into LSE lectures over a two year period and absorbed the ideas of a school that was founded by the Fabian Society and had close ties to the Labour Party in its early days.

However, by the time Soros got there, the LSE had evolved to the right, largely under the influence of Friedrich Hayek who held roost there. Frankfurt School refugees were never considered for the faculty and headed straight to the USA where they were more welcome. Under Hayek’s stewardship, the LSE had become similar to the U. of Chicago economics department and an ideological foe of the Cambridge school that was committed to Keynesian orthodoxy. Karl Popper’s seminars were the main influence on Soros. Karl Popper was a close friend of Hayek and an ideological soulmate. Both men were traumatized by the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary upheavals of their youth and were predisposed to blame fascism and socialism equally. In a letter to Hayek in 1944, Popper stated, “I think I have learnt more from you than from any other living thinker, except perhaps Alfred Tarski.” (Tarski was a logician and mathematician.)

In a nutshell, Popper’s philosophy was anti-systemic in the same way that other Cold War philosophers and sociologists were. The ideas were similar to Daniel Bell’s “The End of Ideology” and what I heard from Heinrich Blucher at Bard College who urged us to read Albert Camus’s “The Rebel”, another anti-systemic work. Guilhot sums up the role of such ideologies:

Popper’s conception of the social sciences was perfectly in line with the strategy that the foundations were pursuing at the same moment: it made possible the normalization of the social sciences around an empirical and experimental model, and it legitimated the struggle against historicism, and therefore Marxism, thus linking this scientific project with the defense of freedom. By theorizing the idea that nothing less than the nature of social reform was at stake in the development of the social sciences, Popper provided a powerful rationale for the philanthropic management of the latter.

The Austrian school of economics resonated with Soros because it was deeply entrenched in the Austrian-Hungarian empire that for men like he and his father was a beneficent haven for freedom of thought and of enterprise. When the 20th century gave birth to warfare and economic collapse, systemic movements vied to replace the dying remnants of fin de siècle liberalism. There was no possibility of putting the genie back in the bottle. What Soros obviously does not understand is that we are living in an identical period today when the center cannot hold, as W.B. Yeats put it.

To some extent, the Austrian school understood that its economic principles rested on shaky grounds. You get a sense of that when Alan Greenspan told a congressional committee in 2008 that “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.” But instead of abandoning capitalism, Soros and like-minded liberals sought to strengthen political institutions that could help an economic system that had begun to wobble precariously on its feet.

The post-WWII mission to conjoin capitalism with strong democratic institutions based on human rights—the basic goal of the Open Society—was bound to collapse under the weight of what some call a Great Recession. Its impact on working people has been to drive some to the left and others to the far right. Soros is obviously concerned about this, even though for the time being it is being expressed as Orban’s toxic brand of reactionary populism.

To guard against such an eventuality, Soros undertook the creation of a university that would culminate in the CEU. Its goal, according to archives Guillhot gained access to at the university, was to “train the next generation of economists”. The CEU was conceived as “a high-level vocational school to train privatizers and democratizers, people who could immediately go into real life after they finished their studies and translate their knowledge into practical action”.

With this goal in mind, the CEU was established in order to create a world-class economics department that was based on the Washington Consensus. Guest speakers from the IMF and the World Bank were commonplace. Larry Summers was a regular, bring with him the expertise that helped him gain the top post at the World Bank. The World Bank created seminars on privatization and student programs on corporate governance. Its aid, including financial, was solicited when the CEU created a business school.

Guillhot describes the fashion in which free market intellectuals came off the assembly line at CEU:

The creation of a Westernized elite by philanthropic foundations that identify emerging young leaders and expose them to mainstream economic doctrines is a process that can be illustrated by following the career of a political science professor at the CEU. Prior to 1989, trained as an economist and not affiliated with the Communist Party, he worked in a research institute linked to the Hungarian reform movement. In 1988, this position qualified him to become department head in the Institute of Economic and Market Research, and then to join the Liberal Party as an advisor for economic affairs. It is among this pool of young reformers that US foundations, following a well-tried strategy, identified emerging young leaders and coached them. In this case, the benefactor was the conservative Pew Charitable Trust, which offered a six-month exchange program in the USA at Georgetown University. Seminars in political science, international relations, and economics were intertwined with selective meetings during which the fellows conferred with high-ranking politicians and advisors (such as, in his case, Ronald Reagan, Madeleine Albright, or Jeffrey Sachs), thus expanding their own international networks of contacts. Th e last two months of this fellowship were spent as an internship within an international institution – United Nations, USAID, IMF – in this case, the fellow opted for the World Bank.

It has been such elites that have created the fertile ground out of which Viktor Orban has risen. Although I reject the idea that Donald Trump can ever impose a fascist regime on the USA, there are worrying signs that Orban seeks to rule Hungary with an iron fist. He has recently stated that he has replaced a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st-century Christian democracy. In 2015, Orban threatened to create work camps for immigrants and has made speeches repeatedly about preserving European identity. Right now, the world economy seems to be crawling slowly out of the crevice it fell into in 2008. But what happens if a new economic crisis, even deeper than the last, comes to pass?

As Rosa Luxemburg once said, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. You can find the phrase in the Junius Pamphlet that also describes what the USA, Hungary and other countries poised on the knife’s edge are facing:

Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it in reality. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.


May 15, 2018

A ten year Kaddish for Ann Proyect (1921-2008)

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.

downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer

–Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish”

Ten years ago, I wrote about the passing of my mother on Mother’s Day. At the time, I was overwhelmed by grief and the article reflected that. Now, a decade later, it is time to tell her story.

My mother was born in Kansas City in 1921, the daughter of a cobbler named Morris Rothstein and his wife Sarah, who used to peddle clothing from door to door in Kansas City’s Mexican-American neighborhood. Her Spanish was better than her English, mostly by necessity.

My maternal grandparents ended up in Kansas City as part of the Galveston Plan funded by Wall Street financier Jacob Schiff who helped to repatriate Polish and Russian Jews to the USA but not in areas where they were heavily represented like New York. Fearing that a surplus of Jews would antagonize the Gentiles, he sought to settle them in places where they would hardly be noticed—like Kansas City. It got the name Galveston Plan because that was the port of entry for people like my grandparents. Among the other Jews who ended up in Kansas City were the parents of actor Ed Asner and long-time Nation Magazine and New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin who had this pithy take on Jacob Schiff:

According to Stephen Birmingham’s book Our Crowd, for instance, Jacob Schiff had displayed on his office walls two of the largest checks he ever wrote, one of them for $62,075,000. (Big k’nockerl)…Unlike Jacob Schiff, I point out, my Uncle Benny had never consorted with robber barons like E. H. Harriman (“When it comes to rapacious nineteenth-century capitalism, my family’s hands are clean”) and would have never put a framed check on his wall.

My mother had three older brothers. There was Benny who started out playing violin in big bands but became a liquor salesman after they died out in the late 40s, Joe who was an electrician and Abe who sold cars. With his income as a shoe repairman in the 1920s, Morris made enough money to buy a four bedroom house on Linwood Avenue in Kansas City, an indication of how relatively affordable housing was back then. When the Depression hit, the Rothsteins continued to pay their mortgage but could only afford meat once a week, the chicken they shared on Friday night.

My mother went to work as a secretary-typist after graduating high school for the CEO of an envelope manufacturer she revered. Like other Jews, she used to spend time at the Jewish Community Center that was part of the Reform Temple B’nai Jehudah. It was there that she became totally devoted to Irving Levitas who as education director gave classes on Jewish history.

Years later, after Irving had relocated to New York, I got to know him fairly well when I visited my mother in Woodridge. She used to have him come up to give the same kind of classes he gave in Kansas City and I would talk politics with him. Irving was a Labor Zionist and friendly to anarchism. The Levitas clan was on the left but not Marxist by any stretch of the imagination. His nephew Mitchel was the NY Times Sunday Book review editor for many years and embodied Cold War liberal politics. I am not sure of the exact family ties between Irving and Daniel Levitas but he could well be Mitchel’s son. Daniel is a long-time anti-fascist who was a board member of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights that might be described as a northern version of the SPLC but with a much more modest funding base.

Calvin Trillin wrote a brief profile on his fellow Kansas City native in an article about people who were customers of the Strand Bookstore in New York:

Levitas is a short, slight man in his sixties. A lifelong bachelor, he seems interested in luxuries only to the extent of keeping himself in cigarettes. His expenditures on books have always coincided roughly with his salary. For many years, Levitas made his living as the educational director of a Jewish temple in Kansas City, and several years ago he took the same job at Temple Emanu-El in Yonkers. He has always lectured on the side—most often to non-scholars at, say, a cultural series organized by the men’s club of a temple. “I’ve always considered myself a middleman in intellectual matters,” he has said, and his discussion of any scholarly subject is studded with “you know”s and “of course”s that may come from years of trying to explain Husserl or Spinoza or William James to businessmen without sounding patronizing. Levitas’s nephew—Mitchel Levitas, who is assistant metropolitan editor of the Times—believes that his uncle genuinely assumes that anyone he is talking to knows at least the context in which a Levitas observation about a Chinese emperor or a nineteenth-century American anarchist is made. “He has an innocent enthusiasm,” Mitchel says. “He is more than a dilettante and less than a pedant.”

Not only did he keep himself in cigarettes, he chain smoked them. He died of lung cancer in 1987 and for the last few months of his life, my mother nursed him at our upstate home.

During WWII, my grandparents opened their doors to Jewish soldiers who were used to having Friday night sabbath dinners. One of them was my father Jacob who was a mess sergeant stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas. You know that scene in “The Honeymooners” when Ralph Kramden and Alice are having an argument over one thing or another? Ralph concludes the argument with these words: “You never loved me. You fell in love with my uniform.”

That pretty much describes my parents. As you can see from the photo below taken in 1947 or so, he was a handsome devil and my mom wasn’t bad-looking herself. Me in the middle, filled with existential angst.

My father had just returned from fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and hoped to return to a life of normalcy running the fruit store he inherited from grandfather Louis who operated a small empire of businesses in Woodridge.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 11.05.25 AM

Louis Proyect on the left, a hotel builder and small business entrepreneur who also was chairman of the local Workman’s Circle and Socialist Party. Photo taken sometime in the early 40s.

Around the time I got to be 10 or so, it dawned on me that my father didn’t like me very much. He never spoke to me and when he did, he was judgmental. He would have preferred someone less bookish than me. When I was a kid, there was nothing I loved better than sitting in my bedroom pouring through the pages of the Book of Knowledge, a kid’s encyclopedia. Since my mom preferred that her kid be a good student rather than a good Little Leaguer, they tended to bicker over how he treated me as well as his patriarchal attitudes toward her. Since my mom had a mouth even bigger than mine, any customer in our fruit store who showed some kind of attitude would get told off by my mom until he banned her from the store.

My mom was not one to sit around watching TV. She was involved in the Hadassah, a woman’s Zionist organization, and the PTA. Just like she was in the store, she had a big mouth. Even out of the store, my father had to urge her from time to time not to make enemies because he didn’t want to lose customers. She also wrote a column for the local newspaper called “Woodridge Whirl” that reported on who had vacationed in Florida or whose kid had been bar mitzvahed. She also threw in wisdom she had absorbed from one of Irving’s lectures.

After my father died in 1970, she was forced to go back to work as a secretary since my father’s life insurance was a paltry sum. I guess he thought he’d live forever after coming out of the Battle of the Bulge in one piece. She worked at the Homowack Hotel in Ellenville that was still thriving at the time, mostly I suppose for its strictly kosher kitchen. When that job dried up, she went to work for a home for the developmentally disabled in South Fallsburgh, a town near Woodridge.

Since these jobs didn’t pay very much, I used to send her a monthly check to help out. This obligation made it impossible for me to go on full-time for the Socialist Workers Party so inadvertently she helped save me from going full-tilt cultist.

Although strongly self-identified as a Jew, my mother grew increasingly disaffected from the synagogue in Woodridge that was orienting more and more to the Hasidim that had begun to colonize our village. She was also upset with the attraction that eastern religions had to local kids. As the Borscht Belt hotels like the Homowack collapsed, a number became ashrams geared to New Yorkers looking for a weekend where they could eat vegetarian food, do yoga and achieve some form of spirituality that organized Judaism could not deliver.

For my mom, it was only reform Judaism that could deliver so she began attending services at the Monticello reform Temple Sholom. She really loved the place and soon began a relationship with a man named Victor Gordon whose wife had died not long after she became part of the congregation. Like my mother, Victor was no stranger to tragedy. His son was a pilot who made a living smuggling marijuana until he died in a crash.

Around the time I began bringing my wife up to Woodridge for visits in the early 2000s, my mom had become an ultra-Zionist. I tend to think that if Irving had not succumbed to cancer, he might have helped her think more clearly about Israel even if she remained a Zionist. Her views led to clashes with me and my wife but we never stopped loving her. In my last phone call with her on Mother’s Day, when she was in the ICU, she told me that she was so happy that I found my wonderful wife (even her father was named Hasan!) and could leave this life with a full heart.

Below are excerpts from the comic book I did with Harvey Pekar that will help you understand her story.

May 13, 2018

Assad or the Naked Lion

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:56 pm

via Assad or the Naked Lion

May 11, 2018

Capitalism: a Horror Movie

Filed under: Counterpunch,economics,Film — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

As part of its special series celebrating the 200thbirthday of Karl Marx between May 18-22, the Anthology Film Archives will be screening “Capitalism”, a 320-minute, six-part documentary that is both supremely intelligent and briskly entertaining, on May 20th at 3:45. Directed by Ilan Ziv, the founder of Icarus Films, it is like no other film I have ever seen about the horror we face in our daily lives that is much more frightening than slasher movies like Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth. After all, the idea of nuclear holocaust or global warming—just two of the threats we face from an economic system gone mad—are not something a plucky hero or heroine in a John Carpenter movie can stave off.

The film operates on two levels. It is both a history of how this system came into existence as well as a profile of the men who have put themselves at its service ideologically (Hayek) and those who either fought against its worst abuses (Keynes) or hoped to abolish it altogether (Marx).

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