Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 6, 2021

Ernie Tate, ¡presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 11:25 pm

Last night at around 10pm I got a phone call from Jess McKenzie informing me that her husband Ernie Tate had finally succumbed to cancer of the pancreas, something Ernie had revealed to me about six months earlier. I counted Ernie and Jess as two of my closest friends and political confidantes and his passing has affected me deeply.

My first encounter with Ernie was in the early 2000s, when he showed up as a Marxmail subscriber. His name was familiar to me because when I joined the SWP in 1967, a defense campaign in England had been organized after Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten him up as he was selling a pamphlet critical of Healy outside one of their meetings. For me, almost like a word association game, the name Ernie Tate always summoned up this incident—until he smiled and said that he had put it behind him. Unlike me, Ernie did not hold a grudge even, according to Ian Birchall, having “some positive things to say about Healy’s SLL.”

Oddly enough, it was his calm and sunny disposition that was matched to my own surly nature that have complemented us over the years. Early on, Ernie asked me if I could post a 14,000 word article he wrote about “Changes in Russia” on my website. This was long before people began blogging, something that didn’t seem to interest Ernie. All his energy went into a two-volume memoir “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s.” on his lifetime in the trade union and revolutionary movement that is one of the best to come out of the Trotskyist movement. More about this book to follow.

Not long after Ernie subscribed to Marxmail, he invited me to meet with him at a Left Forum in New York to go over this and that. The Marxism list was well-known (and even notorious) as a forum for those trying to understand the wreckage of the SWP and its affiliated sects so I had a feeling that he wanted to compare his experience with my own. The conversation revealed that Ernie had left the Canadian section of the FI because of its “workerist” turn that was inspired by the American SWP. Keep in mind that Ernie had been a blue-collar worker since the early 50s so he was in a better position to evaluate the “colonization” project. He described a fumbling, amateurish operation that recruited not a single worker and led to an exodus from the party. It was our common understanding of this experience that led to our close political bonding, but there was much more to it than that.

In December 2011, my wife and I were walking out of the monthlong rental in Miami Beach, when I heard a woman’s voice in a distinctly Scottish burr about a dozen feet away: “Ernie, isn’t that Lou?” Just by coincidence, Ernie and Jess were staying for about the same length of time at a hotel close to where we were staying. We had dinner several times and really enjoyed the warmth and wisdom both radiated, especially my wife who does not share my surliness unless you get on her wrong side. I had ideas about doing a video when I was down there, mostly about the area’s history and to interview a former mayor who spent time in prison for taking bribes. But the only record I have of my trip was an interview I did with Ernie that was a very short version of his 2-volume memoir. It is shown above.

His story was spell-binding. Born in 1934, he was a working-class Irish Protestant kid from Belfast who took a vacation in Paris in 1954 just after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. The powerful demonstrations celebrating the victory organized by the CP were such an inspiration to him that he decided on the spot to become a communist.

Jess joined the movement in 1964 and before long found herself on a trip to Cuba that would put her in touch with Robert Williams, the NAACP leader who had organized a militia to defend African-Americans against Klan terror. She found herself functioning as a courier between Williams and his comrades in the U.S.

These were just two of the high points of this couple’s extraordinary voyage through the revolutionary left. Unlike the academic left, they lived the type of life that Max Horkheimer described “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.” Well, that does sound a bit too grim, doesn’t it? In fact, most of the time it was loads of fun. Whenever the topic of time travel comes up in idle chatter, I always say that if I could return to any year in the past, it would be 1968.

Much of Ernie’s memoir can be described as a joy ride through history. As I related to him midway through reading it, it reminded me—despite myself—of the good times I enjoyed when I was out on the streets selling socialist newspapers. There’s very few pleasures, including a room facing the ocean on South Beach, that can compete with the ones you experience as a committed revolutionary secure in the knowledge that you are part of a movement challenging a capitalist class that is a threat to the survival of humanity and all life on earth.

I loved Ernie as an older and wiser brother and will miss him dearly. My condolences to Jess, who is a formidable revolutionary in her own right. As our generation wends its way into the inevitable fate that awaits us, it is reassuring to know that there is a legacy that is being left behind in works like “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s.” And, keep your eyes out for this, for comic relief I will soon be serializing the graphic novel I did with Harvey Pekar called “The Unrepentant Marxist”.

February 5, 2021

Why Not Nuclear Power?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:02 pm

By Manuel Garcia Jr.

I am asked in an e-mail:

“I’m assuming that in 30 or 40 years, everyone will (pretty much) be using nuclear power for their energy needs. By last count, there were 440+ nuclear reactors in the world, with dozens more planned for installation. France (of all countries) is roughly 70% nuclear. My question: Why are people still pretending that nuclear energy isn’t the cleanest, most efficient method available?

My answer: Because it’s not.

Continue reading

February 3, 2021

Navalny and the Left

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 11:33 pm
Navalny’s viral video on Putin’s palace (with English subtitles)

As might have been expected, Alexey Navalny has his detractors on the left. Jacobin published an article by Alexey Sakhnin and Per Leander titled “Russia’s Trump” that dismissed his intrepid campaigns against corruption. For the authors, he was trying to “drain the swamp” just like Donald Trump. Sakhnin, who was active in the Left Front in Russia before emigrating to Sweden, followed up with a new screed on Jacobin titled “How a Russian Nationalist Named Alexei Navalny Became a Liberal Hero” that facilely attempted to explain away Navalny’s support for Bernie Sanders in the last election rather than Trump. He saw it as a cynical, Machiavellian maneuver rather than a sincere attempt to address social equality in Russia:

From the protest rallies of 2011-13, Navalny learned an important lesson: it is not right-wing nationalist, but left-wing, social populism that brings real popularity among the people. And although he has often been compared to Donald Trump, he has increasingly turned to a social agenda.

You’ll note the use of passive voice. He has often been compared to Donald Trump? No, comrade Sakhnin, it was you who made such a comparison, wasn’t it?

When I was doing some background research on this article, Sakhnin did not even appear on my radar screen. Instead, I looked for articles in the London Review of Books and LeftEast, where a less conspiratorial mindset prevailed. From the LRB, I tracked down two articles by Tony Wood, who has written some great analysis of Putin’s Russia, including a book I reviewed for CounterPunch in 2018. As for LeftEast, a ‘zine published by Eastern European Marxists, I was particularly interested in what Kirill Medvedev had to say in a roundtable discussion titled “Navalny’s Return and Left Strategy”.

Medvedev is a poet, essayist and Marxist activist who I met back in 2013 and took an instant liking to, not only for his political insights but for his work in translating Charles Bukowski into Russian. Medvedev was on tour promoting a documentary on Putin titled “Winter Go Away” that revealed what a sleazy authoritarian he was. The film was a revelation to me:

Basically the documentary demonstrates how radical the opposition to Putin was. Despite the pro-capitalist leanings of some of the major opposition figures—from multibillionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov to the aforementioned Gary Kasparov (he should stick to chess)—the rank-and-file of the movement are exactly the same kinds of people who occupied Zuccotti Park. Indeed, some of the chants you hear on the demonstrations are directed against Russian capitalism. You see young people heading toward the protests wearing Guy Fawkes masks, etc. The protests have been erroneously described as upper-middle-class temper tantrums funded by George Soros. It takes a huge amount of brass for some leftists to make such an attack when the Putin rallies are staged affairs that make the Republican Party’s look Bolshevik by comparison. Putin’s slogans were mind-numbingly nationalistic, with his well-heeled supporters chanting “Russia, Putin, Victory” at rallies.

The meeting opened my eyes to the Russian left that I have identified with ever since. Indeed, I had already made the case for Pussy Riot on CounterPunch a year earlier as women who had much in common with Abby Hoffman. Those leftists who supported their arrest reminded me of how American conservatives got upset over bra-burning during the Nixon presidency, except in this instance they were lining up with the Kremlin rather than the White House.

The articles pointed to three key years that marked different stages of Navalny’s political evolution: 2012, 2018 and 2020. In 2012, Navalny led mass protests against voter fraud; in 2018, he led mass protests again against pension cuts, thus revealing a turn toward questions of inequality; finally, the return to Russia opened up a new stage in the struggle as anger against crony capitalism boiled over.

In a 2012 LRB article titled “There is no Alternative”, Tony Wood reports on Russia just prior to the presidential election. After Putin’s stooge Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term expired, Putin would be eligible to run again. The Russian constitution limits the presidency to two consecutive terms but after having served twice, and a third time by proxy through Medvedev, Putin was bent on maintaining his rule for another four years. Now that he has indicated to tack on another 4 years in 2024, Putin will have been the longest-running head of state in Russia since Brezhnev.

In Chechnya, an election produced bogus numbers that were the reality equivalent of Trump’s fictional claims about being robbed of victory. After 10 percent of its citizens had been killed by Putin’s invasionary force, they didn’t seem to mind. Putin’s United Russia party got 99.5 percent of the vote on the basis of a 98.6 percent turnout. This would even embarrass Assad.

At the time, Wood took note of Alexi Navalny having both assets and liabilities. In some ways, he is a throwback to the kind of idealistic “clean government” characters so typical of Frank Capra movies. He writes, “But what drives him is not hatred of inequality so much as hatred of cheating: in his view, genuine entrepreneurs haven’t flourished as they should in Russia because of ‘Komsomol bastards’ profiting from political clout or personal networks. For him, malversation [corrupt behavior] is a symptom of Russia’s incomplete transition to capitalism, rather than a structural feature of the kind of capitalism the country has.”

Wood is unstinting about Navalny’s nativism, calling it even worse than Putin’s. Obviously, these liabilities are what Sakhnin focus on but in the context of Russian crony capitalism, Navalny’s intransigent opposition to corruption helped to create a fighting mood that would be manifested five years later in the protests over pension “reform”.

That mood erupted into fury in 2018 when the Russian government proposed a pension “reform” that victimized the elderly, already suffering from inadequate income. In a February 2nd, 2019 article titled “Russia’s Oppositions”, you can see Wood becoming convinced that the Navalny scale had begun to tilt in the assets direction. The regime sought to raise the retirement age for both men and women, from 60 and 55 respectively to 65 and 63. Despite 89 percent of the population being opposed to the change, Putin’s popularity continued to soar, likely a result of his seizure of Crimea. While many on the left tried to put a positive spin on Russia’s population benefiting from oil and gas sales, almost seeing Putin as an authoritarian version of Hugo Chavez, the reality for most pensioners was grim.

In the mid-1990s, IMF and World Bank officials pressured Yeltsin government to reduce pension benefits but unpopularity over the first Chechen war made this impossible. In 2002, Putin was able to push them through using a mix of private and state financing that would be the envy of Charles Koch. Tony Wood reports:

In May, an IMF mission to Russia praised the Putin government’s ‘strong macroeconomic policy framework’, but like Kudrin insisted that ‘the focus has to shift to structural reforms to boost productivity and the supply of labour and capital.’ Any increases in spending on health, education and infrastructure, however, ‘should be done without compromising the credibility of the new fiscal rule’. One way of gaining ‘fiscal space’, the IMF helpfully suggested, would be through ‘parametric pension reform’ – in other words, making fewer people eligible to claim one.

In June 2018, Navalny emerged as a key leader of the pension protests. Showing his allegedly cynical, Machiavellian tendencies, he abandoned his own party’s support for pension “reform”. Or maybe, as Wood put it, it was hard to say what motivated him.

Was this a real shift in his thinking, or was it opportunism, a reaction to the unpopularity of such views among the broader Russian electorate? It’s hard to say, just as it’s hard to say whether Navalny’s unwillingness to join forces with other parties is based more on an understandable aversion to being drawn into the deadening embrace of the pseudo-opposition, or on an overriding need to maintain his distinctive political ‘brand’.

Isn’t it possible that Navalny can be a conniving politician at the same time he is reflecting mass pressure against a corrupt and brutal head of state? Looking at his role dialectically, you might say that he was like many figures in the 1930s who adapted to the revolutionary mood of the masses even though their intention was to contain the fire. I speak here of FDR, not that I am comparing Navalny to FDR but only reminding readers that politicians usually have mixed agendas unless they are someone like V.I. Lenin or Fidel Castro. People writing for Jacobin seem to be complaining that he is no Lenin or Castro. Given their general political orientation, one would think they’d be amenable to someone who supported Bernie Sanders in 2019 rather than Donald Trump.

In one of the more perceptive articles on Navalny’s intentions titled “Russia: The Protest Movement is Younger, Poorer, and More Left Wing” written by Ivan Ovsyannikov for LeftEast, you get a feel for the complexities of the relationship between a mass leader with a tarnished past and a population desperate for any actions that could force the knee off its neck.

It’s not just age. The class composition of opposition protests is also changing. If the metropolitan middle class were the predominant participants in the 2011-2012 protests (or, at least appeared so in eyes of most of the population), then the lower classes were entering the political stage in 2017–2018. “The interviews we conducted at Navalny’s rallies show that they had more poor people, young people and poor teenagers. The protest’s rhetoric also shifted to the left. This is connected both with the change in their social composition and with Navalny’s leftward shift. He’s sensitive to and anticipates public sentiment. By shifting from criticizing dictatorship to criticizing oligarchs, he clearly understood that going beyond a narrowly liberal or nationalist fringe would allow him to expand his constituency and become the sole leader of the opposition,” Oleg Zhuravlev believes.

In his concluding paragraph, Ovsyannikov describes a burgeoning radical movement that sees Navalny as a tool rather than someone to be followed blindly. Those in Russia trying to build an anti-capitalist opposition to Putin might consider the need for far more flexibility than the Jacobin authors would permit:

The populist leadership of the modern Russian opposition movement strikingly distinguishes it from protests at the beginning of the decade. However, according to commentators, the situation may change again. “Since social groups in Russia don’t have a clear identity, the protesters are highly susceptible to the rhetoric of leaders.” “But,” Oleg Zhuravlev adds, “I wouldn’t call the Navalny movement personalistic. A great number of people interviewed at his rallies say: ‘We don’t personally like Navalny, but his protests are the only ones around.’ Today, an increasing number of people think not only in emotionally charged moral categories, but also in terms of group interests. It’s possible, there is already a critical questioning of Navalny from the most radical young protesters.”

In August of 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok as was the case with  Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018. In a pattern consistent with chemical attack investigations in Syria, the left was divided over who was responsible. Writing for CounterPunch, Gary Leupp probably spoke for most on the left:

But this attack on Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter (by somebody) is highly useful to those who want to vilify Vladimir Putin, just as the use of chemical weapons in Syria last April (by somebody) was useful for those wanting to further vilify Bashar Assad and justify a U.S. missile strike. Have you noticed that we live in an age of constant disinformation, misinformation and “fake news”?

Using the same ideological template and the same outlet, Roger Harris wrote: “An alternative explanation for this poisoning story is that this is a setup to discredit and weaken an official enemy of the US imperial state. The nation’s newspaper of record has a long history as a faithful mouthpiece of empire. On spinning the Putin-the-Poisoner tale, the Times has been but one voice in the Russo-phobic chorus of western media.”

As was the case with chemical attacks in Syria that both authors tried to discredit, it was left to Eliot Higgins and his staff at Bellingcat to use open source to track down the perpetrators. I recommend “FSB Team of Chemical Weapon Experts Implicated in Alexey Navalny Novichok Poisoning” that was published on December 14, 2020. Using open source, Bellingcat discovered that throughout 2017, and again in 2019 and 2020, Russian agents in a clandestine unit specialized in poisonous substances followed Navalny during his trips across Russia, trailing him on more than 30 overlapping flights to the same destinations. When the Skripals were poisoned, Bellingcat provided evidence of two spooks from the same unit flying into London and ending up suspiciously close to the paths that the father and daughter took. You might call this circumstantial evidence but given Russia’s denial of any wrongdoing in Syrian chemical attacks might lead to the conclusion that this was sufficient to convict them in a war crimes tribunal.

Interviewed by the snake Aaron Maté and showing a novel take on these hit jobs, long-time Russia commentator Fred Weir doubted that Putin was responsible because “First of all, I’m pretty sure that Russian secret services—and I’m posing this as a question, not as a polemic—but Russian secret services, I think, I’m guessing, know how to kill efficiently and without creating a really loud, scandalous trail leading to themselves.” Of course, this begs the question of how one can get their hands on Novichok unless they have ties to the state apparatus just as was the case with sarin gas in Syria. It is unfortunate, I might add, that a journalist like Weir would allow himself to be interviewed on Grayzone.

After recovering from the poison, Navalny returned to Russia fully determined to continue the struggle against Putin. His arrival and his arrest prompted protests far larger than those seen in 2012 and 2018. Now, for the first time, there were important voices on the Marxist left urging a more flexible approach to Navalny that is not based on dredging atrocity tales about his nativism and neoliberal ideas from a decade ago.

In a response to Alexey Sakhnin and Per Leander’s “Russia’s Trump” article on Jacobin, Ilya Budraitskis, Ilya Matveev, and Sean Guillory advised a less purist approach. Ironically, they reminded me of how many people concluded that Jacobin and DSA were behind the curve on the BLM protests: “This popular upsurge caught the Russian left flatfooted. Though many committed activists and adherents remain in the movement, repression has weakened it, and disagreements over the annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in Ukraine have divided it. How should the Russian left — not to mention the international socialist movement — respond to this upsurge and, especially, its leader?”

Their article is about the best analysis available and a must-read. There is no need for me to recapitulate all of their points but let me cite one of their strongest arguments:

Moreover, Navalny’s campaign has taken strong positions on the Russian economy. He criticizes government authorities not just for being undemocratic but also for creating a predatory system that only profits the top 0.1 percent. While we can’t call him a genuine social democrat, he’s certainly not Trump, whose tax plan greatly benefits the American counterparts of those Navalny attacks in Russia.

I should add that in a EastLeft panel discussion on Navalny, Kirill Medvedev understood Navalny as a transitional figure who it is incumbent on the left to unite with tactically:

But the more convincingly Navalny works with the theme of corruption and the ostentatious consumption of top officials, the more the limits of this rhetoric are exposed in a country like Russia, exhausted by inequality and permeated by class contradictions. Now the situation looks like this: Navalny is showing us the palaces of the rulers, playing with the fire of class resentment, while at the same time (together with his comrades-in-arms) promising businesses complete freedom in the Beautiful Russia of the Future. They say that the problem is not the palaces and gigantic fortunes per se, but where they come from. But of course, with the further development of this populist line, it will no longer be easy to separate the corrupt “friends of Putin” from those whom Navalny calls “honest businessmen,” but whose fortunes are just as huge, and similarly generated by illegal schemes from the 1990s and 2000s and, of course, by over-exploitation of workers. All of this opens up great opportunities for leftist politics, which, with an equally skillful combination of valor and rationality, could produce a far more powerful wave of discontent and a far more coherent program of change than Navalny’s eclectic populism.

“Navalny is showing us the palaces of the ruler” is a reference to the viral video Navalny made about a palace reputedly owned by Putin on the Black Sea. After the controversy broke, one of Putin’s oligarchic pals claimed that it was owned by him rather than Putin. In any case, it probably didn’t matter to the masses, who clearly had the same fury that Ukrainians had when they took a tour of the fallen would-be Putin Yanukovych’s presidential manor.

None of this seems to matter to many on the American left, who are preparing the same tired “anti-imperialist” talking points they’ve used on Ukraine, Syria or any other nation aligned with Russia. Worst of all that I have seen recently is the dreck that Jim Naureckas wrote on Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). His article is basically to smear Navalny with stands he took a decade ago, as is the custom with these crypo-Stalinist scribblers. The last paragraphs should give you a feel:

After telling readers that he has “Nordic good looks, a caustic sense of humor and no political organization,” Troianovski’s predecessor Ellen Barry (12/9/11) related some rather more relevant background:

He has appeared as a speaker alongside neo-Nazis and skinheads, and once starred in a video that compares dark-skinned Caucasus militants to cockroaches. While cockroaches can be killed with a slipper, he says that in the case of humans, “I recommend a pistol.”

FAIR, as most of my readers are aware, used to be a reputable critic of the bourgeois media but over the past 10 years has pretty much turned into a clone of Grayzone, maybe even getting rubles under the table. Back in 2013, Naureckas took the reporting on Mint Press at face value on the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta in 2013 Not long after the Mint Press article appeared under the byline of AP reporter Dale Gavlak, Gavlak screamed bloody murder because she did not write the article, nor did she agree with the analysis. More on the controversy is here. Any investigative reporter would have put in the time and effort to get to the bottom of the story but Naureckas is no reporter, just a cheap propagandist.

Perhaps the intensity of the debate about Navalny has been generated by the facts on the ground. With the largest protests in recent history, he could no longer be ignored. Using bogus charges of embezzlement and parole violations, he now faces a new trial that will result in him being exiled to a prison camp far from the streets of Moscow. Will this amount to putting the genie back into the bottle? It is difficult to day, but one must take into account his ability to connect with the masses. The real power is in their hands. In any case, we are entering a new period in Russian politics that this article hoped to clarify. My advice is to keep your eyes on Russia since as Lenin said (possibly apocryphal), “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen”.

February 1, 2021

Who is Mr. Putin

Filed under: Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 11:31 pm

January 29, 2021

Hunts Point Market Worker on Strike Explains Why He Is Reading Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

January 26, 2021

J.K. Rowling | ContraPoints

Filed under: transgender — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

January 21, 2021

Cuba, Hip-Hop, and American Imperialism

Filed under: Counterpunch,cuba — louisproyect @ 2:24 pm


Cuban Freedom Fighter Denis Solis: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

When Charles Post and other independent Marxists teamed up with ex-ISOers to launch Spectre Journal, it struck me as a welcome left alternative to Jacobin. Although I am a subscriber and have urged others to subscribe, I am deeply troubled by a recent article by Sam Farber that exploits the San Isidro controversy as part of his decades-long crusade against the Cuban government.

On November 9, 2020, Cuban rapper Denis Solis was arrested for “contempt” in the San Isidro neighborhood where artists and musicians had begun using social media to protest attacks on their right to free expression. The New York Times article on the arrest links to a Facebook video made by Solis while a cop was in his apartment. Lacking subtitles, it is not easy to make sense of the confrontation. I can assure you that Solis calls the cop a maricon, the Spanish equivalent of “faggot”. I also invite you to pay special attention to what Solis says at 3:10 into the video, namely his support for Donald Trump. Even the Times found this impossible to ignore:

In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions, the politics of some in the group have raised eyebrows. Mr. Solís is a die-hard Trump supporter: In the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

Continue reading

January 20, 2021

The White Tiger

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 5:20 pm

There is a striking parallel between Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”, which received an Oscar last year for best picture, and this year’s “The White Tiger” that opens this Friday on Netflix. Both films have been widely described as “class struggle” thematically and both involve servants staging a revolt against their masters. In “Parasite”, a destitute South Korean family finagles their way into a wealthy household as hired help and uses their leverage to become the new masters. In “The White Tiger”, a Dalit named Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) from an even more impoverished family in rural India, maneuvers his way into becoming a chauffeur for Ashok, the son of a powerful landlord who has been oppressing Balram’s fellow villagers.

This is what happens in “Parasite” as well. The paterfamilias of the usurping family becomes a chauffeur after his offspring place soiled panties in the family’s car, thus leading to his dismissal for using the car for his sexual escapades. Balram uses a different ploy. When he discovers that the head chauffeur, who enjoys greater privileges and lords it over him, has been keeping his Muslim identity a secret, he rats him out and takes his place. It should be obvious at this point based on what you have read above that the subaltern characters have little in common with the revolutionary movement. The point of the films is more Hobbes than Marx. Society is a jungle and you have to become a wild animal to succeed.

Unlike the family in “Parasite”, Balram only resorts to the most immoral deed—murder—when he learns that his master has decided to replace him. (Spoiler alert) Driving him to make a hefty cash delivery to a politician, Balram pulls the car to the side of the road and asks Ashok, the privileged son with liberal pretensions, to help him change a tire. When Ashok is bending over examining the tire, Balram plunges a broken bottle into his neck and drives off with the fortune, thus allowing him to leave his Dalit identity behind and starting a new life as an entrepreneur in Bangalore, a city that is flush with leading-edge multinationals. Adopting the corrupt practices of his former employer, Balram pays off the cops to make sure that his bid to start a cab fleet has no competitors. In “The White Tiger”, there is not a soul with principles. That includes a “Socialist” politician who was a beneficiary of the landlord’s bribes. As a sign of the film’s distance from anything resembling true class struggle politics, there is no attempt to ground the character in India’s actual politics. She is basically a cardboard cutout.

Balram’s crime takes place close to the final fifteen minutes of a 125 minute film. Until that point, you have to put up with his obsequious posture vis-à-vis the entire landlord clan. Ashok’s father is a monster who curses Balram for the slightest infraction. I could not help but be reminded of “Gunga Din”, Kipling’s awful poem that was made into an even more awful film.

It was “Din! Din! Din!”
You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it,
Or I’ll marrow you this minute,
If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!

Like Gunga Din, Balram wears a smile no matter how cruelly he is treated. Besides reminding me of “Gunga Din”, I could not help but think of poor Butterfly McQueen in “Gone With the Wind”. Balram is almost masochistic. Every slap, every curse, every betrayal only results in him promising his masters that he will do better in the future. In some of the more cringeful scenes, Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam (no explanation how she ended up with such an absurd name) defend Balram from his father’s abuses but cap it off by reminding him that they are for the poor and downtrodden. Their liberalism is ultimately undone when they make Balram the scapegoat for a vehicular homicide that took place when Ashok was behind the wheel.

“The White Tiger” was directed by Ramin Bahrani, a film professor at Columbia University whose previous films were as overrated as the latest. Like “The White Tiger”, his first film “Man Push Cart” appeared to be another “class struggle” film featuring a Pakistani character trying to make it as a street vendor in New York. It turned out that Bahrani had something else in mind as I indicated in my review:

“Man Push Cart” sounds like my kind of movie. It is a study of a Pakistani operator of one of those ubiquitous stainless steel coffee and donut carts all over New York, mostly run by recent immigrants from Asia. As someone with a long-standing curiosity about the hidden economic life of this city, I was anxious to see if the film revealed any deep secrets.

Unfortunately, the director Ramin Bahrani, a 30 year old Iranian-American graduate of Columbia University, had very little interest in the underlying social reality. The push cart vendor was merely a convenient symbol for his own existential outlook, borrowed liberally from Albert Camus. In an interview with New York Magazine, Bahrani explained what inspired him to make “Man Push Cart”: “When Bush began to bomb Afghanistan, I realized that all the Afghans I’d ever known were pushcart vendors in New York City. Then I began to think of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, and pushing these carts seemed like a modern-day version.”

To help me get a handle on what was so wrong about the film, I decided to track down a review of the Aravind Adiga novel it was based on, which won the coveted Booker Prize in 2008. I found a review in the London Review of Books that was so good that it almost made the over 2-hour slog through the film worthwhile. Written by UCLA historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam and titled “Another Booker Flop”, it is both a review of the novel as well as the underlying social relations that make life miserable for the Dalit. Let me conclude with the final paragraph of Subrahmanyam’s review (contact me privately for a copy liberated from the paywall.)

Some two decades ago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote a celebrated essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ At the time, a folklorist is said to have responded: ‘More importantly, can the bourgeois listen?’ We can’t hear Balram Halwai’s voice here, because the author seems to have no access to it. The novel has its share of anger at the injustices of the new, globalised India, and it’s good to hear this among the growing chorus of celebratory voices. But its central character comes across as a cardboard cut-out. The paradox is that for many of this novel’s readers, this lack of verisimilitude will not matter because for them India is and will remain an exotic place. This book adds another brick to the patronising edifice it wants to tear down.

January 16, 2021

‘Til Kingdom Come

Filed under: Evangelicals,Film,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:42 pm

At the height of Tulsi Gabbard’s popularity with the “anti-imperialist” left, I was buying none of it. I had been following her pro-Assad propaganda since the civil war began, the main attraction to Grayzone, et al. What seemed to escape their attention was her close ties to the pro-Israel Evangelical movement that was on full display when she was a featured speaker at John Hagee’s July 2015 Christians United for Israel Conference. Just six months later, the Evangelicals took advantage of Trump’s election in order to put into place the facts on the ground that simultaneously satisfied Likud’s expansionist goals and the Messianic fantasies of Hagee, Pat Robertson, speaking-in-tongue madwoman Paula White and every other bible-thumping, white supremacist piece of trash.

Directed by Maya Zinshtein, an Israeli opponent of Netanyahu, “’Til Kingdom Come” lifts up a rock and exposes all the creepy, crawly Christians and Jews involved with the Evangelical/West Bank settler alliance. Although she is heard grilling some of her subjects in the film, she mostly allows them to hang themselves on their own petard. The documentary was written by Mark Monroe, who directed three terrific documentaries: The Cove, The Biggest Little Farm, and Icarus. This new film is up to his usual high standards.

The film begins with some guy hanging a metal target from the limb of tree and taking practice shots at it with a semi-automatic rifle. It turns out that he is Boyd Bingham IV, the son of Boyd Bingham III, the pastor of the Binghamtown Baptist Church that is a much smaller and much poorer version of John Hagee’s Cornerstone mega-church in San Antonio, Texas. Located in Middlesboro, Kentucky, a town long abandoned by the coal industry, Bingham feels sorry for the misery of his unemployed, poverty-stricken, drug-addicted townspeople but continues to urge them to donate money to the Evangelical project in Israel.

In addition to Boyd Bingham IV, the other chief subject is Yael Eckstein, the president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews—the most important wheeler-dealer in promoting settler interests within the Evangelical world. Her late father Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein founded the Fellowship in 1983, clearly anticipating the geopolitical forces that would reach fruition during the Trump presidency. She is loathsome.

One of the more eye-opening scenes—one that reflected the depth of research that went into the film—has Boyd Bingham IV visiting Israel where he sits down with a Palestinian Christian priest who tries to explain why Evangelical Christians are harming the interests of all Palestinians, Muslim and Christian alike. Afterward, Bingham rants about how the priest was anti-Semitic. Hung on his own petard, indeed.

Virtual Live Premiere – 8 PM EST – February 25, 2021

Nationwide Watch Now @ Home Cinema Release – February 26, 2021

January 13, 2021

Minari; First Cow

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

This year various professional film associations, including my own, will have to reckon with the absence of major Hollywood studio product at their yearly awards meeting. The pandemic cleared the table of films that admittedly are of little interest to me but far more to my colleagues in NYFCO who work for commercial outlets rather than a radical magazine like CounterPunch.

“Tenet” was the only traditional big-budget blockbuster opening in theaters. It cost $200 million to make but ended up $50 million in the red. “Tenet”, however, is not the typical Academy Awards darling. Although Christopher Nolan is considered some kind of genius (except by me), most film groups are looking for something less geared to a juvenile audience. For example, “Green Book” got an Oscar last year depicting Black pianist Don Shirley’s reliance on a white chauffeur to help him circumnavigate the Deep South’s racist exclusionary practices. A very high-minded if patronizing film.

This year indie films are getting the kind of attention they’ve never had before. Yesterday I wrote about “Nomadland” that is 97 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, earning over-the-top praise. Peter Travers, who is one of the worst purveyors of such inflated reviews, described it as a “wondrous work of art (Oscar, please)” that “joins with a never-better Frances McDormand and a cast of real-life nomads to capture what inspires the human urge to roam. It’s a new American classic.” I found it to be a humdrum account of old folks traveling around the country in vans and trailers in search of low-paying jobs to help supplement meager Social Security benefits.

After “Nomadland”, I saw another couple of indie films that have also received rave reviews and that are inside-track favorites for various awards ceremonies approaching nigh. Like “Nomadland”, “First Cow” is 97 percent Fresh. It is also brimming with indie cred. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, who makes films utterly devoid of Hollywood tropes, it is about the bromance between a Jewish and Chinese man in 1820 in the backwoods of Oregon. The two come together in a money-making scheme. Each night they surreptitiously milk a cow belonging to a rich Englishman to use for deep-fried biscuits sold to the locals. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” is even more highly rated, 100 percent Fresh. Although it is a Korean-language film, it is much more about the American experience and even overlapping thematically with “First Cow”. Steven Yeun, of “Walking Dead” fame, plays a Korean immigrant with a wife and two children who buys land in Arkansas in the 80s in order to grow crops targeting the Korean grocery marketplace. Luckily for them, the locals welcome them in, especially since they are Church-going Christians.

Distributed by the Indie-oriented A24, both films depict immigrants scrambling to make it in the USA. Reichardt’s film is much more of a critique of the capitalist system even though the terrain it occupies is so remote from what we’ve grown to expect from classics like “Heaven’s Gate” (yes, you heard that right.) This is not about greedy ranchers trampling poor farmers underfoot. Indeed, some might walk away feeling that the bromance was the real story, not desperate men trying to figure out a way to survive sans property.

“Minari” is a bit of a Rorschach test. Some will see it as a tribute to the plucky Koreans who came to the USA to make it as small proprietors against all odds. For example, I received an email today from A24 tying a film screening to Korean American Day. It contained these words from Abraham Kim, the Executive Director of the Council of Korean Americans:

We celebrate the nearly 120-year history of Korean Americans in the U.S. and our community’s invaluable contributions to this country’s innovative economy, rich culture, and robust democracy. The Korean American immigrant story is one of hard work, resilience, and hope for the future. On this Korean American Day, we are honored to commemorate the values, the sacrifice, and the vision of this dynamic group.

Some reviewers saw “Minari” as a cautionary tale. While not using the word “capitalist”, they considered Steven Yeun’s character as someone willing to sacrifice his family for the sake of making it as a businessman. Slant Magazine, one of the more sophisticated in the world of film reviews, sums up the film’s contradictions:

This orderliness of plot somewhat undermines the sense that the family is steeped in a truly messy situation. It also foregrounds the way that Minari fits into familiar structures—that it’s not aiming to do much more than give a specifically Korean American spin to a more or less standard cultural narrative about the struggle against the land to make oneself anew in America. Perhaps aptly, there’s something Reagan-esque about the ideals of an individualist America that underlie the story.

I don’t blame director Lee Isaac Chung for wanting to make a semi-autobiographical film. My problem is with making such a film that is so determined to leave out any hint that immigrants are being victimized so grievously in the recent past. The story of immigrants making it (it is left open to question whether they do in “Minari”) in the USA is burdened today by the state’s willingness to break families apart. Their only crime is making the same sacrifices as those of the family in “Minari”. The Arkansas country folk bend over backwards to welcome the family but this is a state that elected Tom Cotton to the Senate, a MAGA-type politician who backed Trump’s decision to ban Muslims from the USA. Is it possible that his views represent an Arkansas that abandoned the erstwhile friendliness to immigrants depicted in “Minari”? I tend to doubt it.

As for “First Cow”, the remoteness of the situation is far greater than that of “Minari”. The action takes place in a frontier village that seems as primitive as 8th century Lithuania. The idea that people line up for biscuits friend in oil as if they were manna from heaven does not seem plausible. The whole notion of “First Cow” is that such an animal was about as rare in Oregon in 1820 as a bear would be wandering around in Central Park today. I have no idea when the first cow arrived but neither does Kelly Reichardt apparently, according to Portland Magazine.

“When did the first cow get here? Who knows? And does it matter? Not really,” Reichardt says.

I have more of an interest in Reichardt’s career than the average film critic because she teaches film at Bard College. I thought her early films “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” were very good but have gone downhill ever since. Like “First Cow”, her “Meek’s Cutoff”, also set in frontier Oregon, was shockingly ignorant about American history. About which I wrote:

When I learned that Kelly Reichardt had made a Western about a wagon train in Oregon in 1845 relying on the help of an Indian, I had high expectations. Her earlier films, also set in Oregon, were penetrating character studies about contemporary life. “Old Joy” was about two men bonding in a hot tub in a forest retreat with homoerotic overtones, but more generally about the regrets of unfulfilled dreams. “Wendy and Lucy“ was about the struggle of a homeless woman to keep hold of the thing that she loved above all, her pet dog.

Unfortunately, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a complete disaster, a pretentious, boring, and insufferably “arty” work that gives independent film a bad name. I suppose that when I learned beforehand that Paul Dano was part of the cast, I should have avoided it. For my money, Dano is the worst actor in Hollywood since William Shatner who at least had the saving grace of not taking himself too seriously. Dano, like Reichardt, thinks he is involved with making a Big Statement. It is enough to drive one to spend a full day watching Adam Sandler movies.

The Meek referred to in the title is Stephen Meek, a character in a ridiculous looking buckskin fringe outfit who has been asked to lead a small wagon train into Oregon along the famous Oregon Trail. Unlike Daniel Boone or any other legendary mountain man, Meek could not find his way out of Grand Central Station even if you drew a path in red paint along the floor for him.

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