Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

January 11, 2021

Nomadland

Filed under: aging,Film,financial crisis,housing,poverty,Travel — louisproyect @ 11:56 pm

Generally, I try to read as little as possible about a film before I watch a screener in order to avoid the possibility that I might be influenced by other critics. All I knew about “Nomadland” is that it starred Frances McDormand as a sixtyish woman, who after losing everything in the 2008 financial crisis, becomes a “nomad”. This means that she travels around the country in a van taking menial jobs like in an Amazon warehouse or scrubbing toilets. With this in mind, I wondered if I was about to see a “Grapes of Wrath” updated for our epoch.

The film begins with a Steinbeckian touch. We see Fern (McDormand) loading her van with her belongings after the only employer in Empire, Nevada—a sheetrock factory—has closed for good. Like the Joads in “Grapes of Wrath” being foreclosed, she is forced by economic circumstances to look for salvation elsewhere. Like the Joads with their loaded jalopy, her road to a better life is filled with potholes. Her first job is working in an Amazon warehouse, where we expect her to end up either injured or too exhausted to keep up with the pace. To my surprise, she and other elderly women lugging cartons onto conveyor belts appear to be holding their own. After work, she retires to her van, eats a rudimentary meal, and prepares for the next day. So, I wondered when was the clash with the capitalist class going to begin.

It turns out that the film had less in common with “Grapes of Wrath” than it does with road movies like “Easy Rider” or “Five Easy Pieces”. The nomads in “Nomadland” are men and women who travel around the country in RVs or vans rather than motorcycles but with the same sense of wanderlust. Since many of you are probably not familiar with “Five Easy Pieces,” this stars Jack Nicholson (who was also in “Easy Rider” as a companion to the two motorcycle road warriors) as a man working on oil rigs in the southwest, who lives in cheap motels, and hangs out in tawdry roadhouses just like other roughnecks. It turns out, however, that this is just an appearance. In reality, Nicholson is from a wealthy family and a trained classical pianist running away from his past.

Shortly, I will explain how this connects with McDormand’s character but first I will point out that director Chloé Zhao never had the slightest interest in agitprop. In a note attached to my DVD screener, she revealed her intentions:

Having grown up in big cities in China and England, I’ve always been deeply drawn to the open road — an idea I find to be quintessentially American — the endless search for what’s beyond the horizon. It’s filled with stories of hardship, perseverance and co-existence — people helping each other, working together to survive when they disagree on almost everything. It was the spirit of the Old West and it’s still the spirit of the road today.

The open road? That’s what Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters sought in “Easy Rider”. Instead of horses, they rode Harleys. Likewise, the elderly men and women wandering around the country for dead-end jobs have their own steeds: vans, trailers, and RV’s. In “Easy Rider”, the two heroes stop at a hippie commune to enjoy drugs and sex. As for Zhao’s nomads, including Fern, they end up at a rent-free trailer park where communal meals are shared. No drugs, no sex, but the old folks get by drinking beer and making small talk.

As for the comparison with “Five Easy Pieces”, we learn (spoiler alert) that Fern has a wealthy sister who has invited her numerous times to come live with her. But Fern prefers to live in a tiny van without running water and heat. The closest the film comes to depicting the miseries of being homeless (the nomads like to describe themselves as houseless), we see Fern with an onset of diarrhea that she relieves by crapping into a bucket in her van.

The film is based on a nonfiction work of the same name written by Jessica Bruder in 2017. I have no idea whether Bruder downplayed the miseries of the people she interviewed, but a NY Times review by Arlie Russell Hochschild cannot help but question the lack of a class perspective. Hochschild is the author of a book titled “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” that tried to get to the bottom of why people in Louisiana voted for rightwing politicians despite being screwed by them through low-paying jobs and exposure to toxic chemicals. Like Bruder, she lived among the people she interviewed and tried to bond with them. This was her perceptive take on something that was missing in the book and, more egregiously so, in the film (the Linda mentioned in the excerpt is a character a lot like Fern):

What forces set these nomads in motion? Here I wish Bruder had given us a view from beyond the driver’s seat. For years, stockholders have taken the lion’s share of rising corporate profits, leaving a shrinking share to the middle- and working-class worker. The current administration and Congress aim to cut the nation’s safety net and to loosen regulations on banks, stirring fears of another devastating crash. The stage seems set to leave Americans on their own to travel a potentially bumpy economic road, a scene that would seem to fly in the face of the picket-fence stability and localism bandied about in conservative rhetoric. Republicans like to talk about “freedom,” but the tax reform they’re currently proposing would most likely widen the gap between rich and poor even further, reducing Linda’s freedom to stay put if she wanted to.

As for our own nomads, I recommend Marxmailer Michael Yates’s “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue”. After retiring from decades of teaching economics, Michael and his wife Karen became nomads for many of the same reasons as the film’s subjects. They enjoyed being footloose and were open to taking low-paying jobs that were often the only kind available in the rugged back country they hoped to see in their peregrinations. Also, they always stayed indoors even if it was in a cheap motel! At Michael’s blog, titled the same as his book, you can read a chapter. From what I’ve read in this book, it would have made for a much more interesting film:

Again in Flagstaff, we were enjoying the exhibits in the Museum of Northern Arizona. We ended our visit with a stop at the museum’s bookstore. We were admiring the Indian-made works of art for sale when an Indian artist came in and showed the manager some of his jewelry and asked if the museum was interested in buying his pieces. Apparently the craftsmanship was good, but the Indian had been drinking and was known to the manager. The manager and his assistant treated this man as if he were a pathetic drunk unworthy of their time. He kept lowering his price, giving up whatever pride he had to these white people with money. A few minutes later, he was dismissed. After he left, the two museum staffers mocked him. The assistant, not realizing her ignorance, said that perhaps it was time for the Indian to join AA. We left the museum with heavy hearts. It was as if the history of white oppression of Indians had been reenacted in microcosm before our eyes.

In Estes Park, people smugly said about a group of shabby riverside shacks not far from our cabin, “Oh, that’s where the Mexicans live.” The local peace group didn’t bother to solicit support from local Mexicans because “They probably wouldn’t be interested. They have to work too hard and wouldn’t have time.” We were talking to a jewelry store owner who, after remarking on how much safer (often a code word for “whiter”) Estes Park was than his former home in Memphis, Tennessee, said that the Estes Park crime report was pretty small and those arrested always had names you couldn’t pronounce. (Those damned Mexicans again.) In the laundromat we met a woman from the Bayview section of Brooklyn, and she said that she had moved here because you couldn’t recognize her Brooklyn neighborhood anymore. She told us, without I think realizing how racist she sounded, that there were so many Arabs there now that locals call it “Bay Root.” “Get it?,” she said, “Bay Root.”

January 10, 2021

No, America has not entered the Weimar era

Filed under: Fascism,Germany,Trump — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

Long before Trump became President, I noticed that some on the left were confusing contemporary America with the Weimar Republic in 1920s Germany. In 2010, I commented on an interview that Chris Hedges did with Noam Chomsky that encapsulated this misreading of history. Hedges starts off:

“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

As I have always tried to do when encountering a blinkered take on Weimar, I introduced some economic data:

To start with, the economic situation during the late Weimar Republic was far worse than today in the U.S. In 1932, there were 5 million unemployed German workers out of a total population of 66 million, an unemployment rate of 30 percent–twice what we are suffering in the U.S. today. Also, keep in mind that unemployment insurance, which had been introduced in Germany in 1927, was the victim of fiscal austerity after the 1929 market crash. All public funding was suspended, which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and fewer benefits for the unemployed.

After Trump was elected in 2016, the Weimar analogies increased dramatically for obvious reasons. Trump was widely perceived as the second coming of Adolf Hitler (or Mussolini) and as such it was incumbent on the left to study what happened in Germany in order to prevent another 1932. Both Ted Glick and Harold Meyerson tried to scare voters into pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton by bringing up the Weimar bogeyman. In my reply, I took exception to their notion that Jill Stein’s Green Party candidacy had anything to do with the German Communist Party’s insane ultraleft policy that equated the Socialist Party with the Nazis. I added that if there was any analogy, it was with the SP’s centrist politics that lost the votes of workers in the same way that Hillary Clinton’s continuation of Obama’s pro-Wall Street presidency made it possible for Trump to demagogically attack her Goldman-Sachs speeches. It was doubtful that either Glick or Meyerson had given much thought to SP policies in the 1920s:

Like the Democratic Party, the German Socialists cut deals with the opposition rightwing parties to stay in power. In effect, they were the Clinton and Obamas of their day. In 1928, the Socialists were part of a coalition government that allowed the SP Chancellor Hermann Müller to carry out what amounted to the same kind of sell-out policies that characterized Tony Blair and Bernard Hollande’s nominally working-class governments.

To give just one example, the SP’s campaign program included free school meals but when Müller’s rightwing coalition partners demanded that the free meals be abandoned in order to fund rearmament, Müller caved in.

My last reference to the Weimar Republic was a CounterPunch article last October that recapitulated previous articles and added:

Attempts to liken the Proud Boys or the Boogaloos to Hitler’s Brownshirts fall apart when examined under a historical spotlight. By 1932, it had 400,000 men that had years of experience attacking working-class demonstrations and rallies. By contrast, antifa confrontations with Trump supporters are skirmishes that generally do not involve casualties. When one happens, as was the case with Kyle Rittenhouse, the left must express outrage while it puts his actions into perspective. Like the driver who plowed his car into Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, this was an exception to the rule. America’s would-be fascists are primarily looking for fist-fights, not to commit homicide—at least for the time being.

For obvious reasons, the Weimar card is being played again after Trump supporters swarmed into the Capitol. Walden Bello has an article in Foreign Policy in Focus titled “America Has Entered the Weimar Era” that warns:

Future electoral contests for power may well end up being decided by a strong dose of street warfare, as the U.S. goes the way of Germany’s ill-fated Weimar Republic. The violent storming of the Capitol by a Trumpian mob underlined the face of crises to come.

You get the same thing from blogger Kenn Orphan whose post “Warnings from Weimar” is long on rhetoric but sketchy on the historical details:

There are many similarities of current day American politics to the final years of the Weimar Republic of the early 20th century: a bureaucratic plutocracy governed by out of touch liberal capitalists, incapable of understanding, let alone meeting, the needs of ordinary working people, in a nation where factions of the left foolishly downplayed the looming threat of the far right. This terrible recipe created the conditions that led many Germans to feel increasingly alienated from public life, and thus easily manipulated by nationalism, racism and the scapegoating of all of their problems.

Governed by out of touch liberal capitalists? Well, not exactly. More to the point, unless you get into the nitty-gritty realities of 1920s Germany, you might as well just say nothing since spouting glittering generalities does not help the left prepare for the possible emergence of a genuine fascist threat. In this post, I want to dig deeper into the concrete realities of Weimar that should make it obvious how different our situation is today. We have plenty to deal with but mostly it involves trying to build a socialist movement that in the final analysis is the best defense against fascism as opposed to voting for someone like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

To start with, the conditions facing Germans immediately after WWI were disastrous. Forced to sign an onerous treaty imposed by the allies, the country suffered a precipitous drop in economic well-being. On one hand, it led to revolutionary struggles that failed to take power as I have outlined elsewhere. On the other, it spawned a far-right movement led by the Freikorps that had no parallels with today’s Proud Boys or any other white supremacist militia.

Between 1918 and 1922, 354 German politicians of the left had been murdered by the Freikorps or other rightwing militias that predated the Nazi Party. To give you an idea of the social weight of the Freikorps, over 1.5 million men joined for the sole purpose of beating up or, less frequently, killing leftists. Given the precarious position of the Socialist Party government in the immediate postwar period, it is not surprising that it relied on the ultraright militia to maintain “law and order”. It was SP President Friedrich Ebert’s decision to give the Freikorps the green light to murder Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919.

By 1925, conditions had stabilized in Germany to the point where the Freikorps had outlived its usefulness. Another rightwing terrorist group called the Organization Consul continued assassinating leftists but less frequently and with less mass support.

But in only four years, conditions reverted to the early 20s as a consequence of the Great Depression. Millions of Germans were plunged into poverty to the point that they’d rally behind any group on the right or the left that could “make Germany great again”. Unlike the largely middle-class MAGA cap wearing louts that invaded the Capitol, the Germans susceptible to Hitler’s demagogy were driven by economic misery rather than nationalism for the most part.

A brief article from the June 19, 1932 New York Times should give you a feel for the desperate situation in Germany:

In the Bischofshem forest hikers found the corpses of a family of five—father, mother, and three children from 3 to 7—a brief note in the man’s pocket stating that economic misery had determined him and his wife to commit suicide, and take their children with them. “The courageous don’t grow old,” the note concluded. Its writer was 35 years old, a World War veteran, out of work, trying to eke out a living selling newspapers. He had shot his wife and children, and then himself.

Eighteen thousand people killed themselves in Germany last year, according to the provisional figures. Berlin alone had nearly seven hundred suicides the first four months of this year. The suicide curve seems to be rising steeply, and common sense interprets this as the reflection of constantly increasing economic pressure.

This time, however, it was Adolf Hitler’s Nazi stormtroopers that were targeting the left, Jews and Roma rather than the Freikorps. His party grew but so did the Communist Party. The Nazis had 107 seats in the Reichstag but the CP had 77. More importantly, the SP had 143. Added together, the two nominally socialist parties had twice as much political clout than the Nazis but their failure to unite against the fascists led to a tragic defeat. As stated above, the SP urged a vote for capitalist politicians like Bruning and von Hindenburg while the CP carried out a sectarian “united front from below” that went so far as to back a Nazi referendum that would result in the unseating of an SP governor in Saxony. How does this compare to the USA with zero socialists in Congress except the squad that has little influence over national or international affairs.

Having almost zero resemblance to the street fights between antifa and the Proud Boys, et al, the battle for control over the streets between Nazis and Reds after 1929 were bloody battles that took the lives of 155 and injured another 426 in Prussia. Most of the casualties, of course, were Reds who had to face the combined forces of cops and fascists.

On January 2nd, I posted a link to an article by Jairus Banaji titled “The Political Odyssey of Arthur Rosenberg, Germany’s Forgotten Marxist” that appeared in Jacobin. It refers to his most important work, “A History of the German Republic” that fortunately can be read on Marxists.org.

The final paragraphs of the concluding chapter titled “Chapter IX: The End, 1928-1930” will put Hitler’s rise into context. You had a Socialist Party with millions of members that makes the American left today look like a flea next to an elephant. While not quite as large as the SP, the CP was far more militant and far more willing to battle the Nazis in the street. It is our misfortune that the self-styled antifa has little understanding of why punching Nazis, or even killing them, would do little to block Hitler’s rise to power. Let Arthur Rosenberg explain why:

A united front SPD – KPD that ruthlessly waged war upon Brüning’s dictatorship and capitalism might still have decided the destiny of the German republic by compelling the new Nazi electorate to decide between capitalism and socialism. The necessity for any such decision would have broken up Hitler’s following and deprived the counter-revolution of its popular basis. Since, however, the KPD leaders did not want a revolution, but only wished to follow the easy road of making propaganda against the SPD, and since the right-wing Socialist leaders mistrusted the power of the proletariat and preferred the ‘lesser evil’, no such united socialist fighting front came into existence. Moreover, left-wing Socialists were hemmed in between the majority in their own party and the official KPD, and therefore rendered incapable of action.

The new Reichstag was composed of 150 supporters of the Hitler – Hugenberg block, 220 Marxists and about 200 supporters of Brüning’s government. The Conservatives did not fear either the SPD or the KPD, but the competition of the Hitler – Hugenberg block, which had scored such a notable success at the polls. The struggle between the Conservatives and Hugenberg’s supporters was, however, a domestic concern of the great capitalists and their friends among the territorial magnates. The SPD regarded the Conservative government as the lesser evil, and therefore gave its support to Brüning in his struggle with the Hitler – Hugenberg block and the KPD.

On 18 October 1930 the majority in the Reichstag composed of Brüning’s supporters and the Social Democrats resolved to refer the question of the emergency decrees to a special commission of the Reichstag and to pass to the order of the day without discussing the proposed vote of no confidence that lay upon the table. The Reichstag thus abandoned the struggle with the unconstitutional dictatorship of Brüning and his friends by a majority vote. The same hour saw the death of the Weimar Republic. Since then one dictatorship has succeeded to another in Germany.

The leading Social Democrats, who were convinced that the socialist proletariat was too weak to embark upon open warfare, indulged themselves in hopes that the existing crisis would run the same course that had been followed by the crisis of 1923. They were prepared to ‘tolerate’ the emergency decrees in a similar fashion to that in which they had formerly ‘tolerated’ the enabling act. If Brüning in his struggle with Hitler and Hugenberg only contrived to avoid making any really serious mistake, it was possible – so they argued – that some fortunate concatenation of circumstances would permit of the resuscitation of the Weimar Republic. These men forgot that in 1924 democracy in Germany was not rescued by their endeavours, but by the intervention of the New York Stock Exchange. In 1930-31, American financiers were neither willing nor able to rescue the Weimar Republic for a second time.

The middle-class republic established in 1918 in Germany was the creation of the working classes. The middle classes themselves had either fought against it or only half-heartedly supported it. The middle-class republic collapsed in 1930 because its destiny had been entrusted to the middle classes, and because the working classes were no longer strong enough to save it. Although the working classes comprised three-quarters of the entire nation, they were unable to unite either upon their political ideals or their political tactics. The counter-revolution triumphed because the working classes squandered their immense forces in internecine warfare.

January 8, 2021

Marighella

Filed under: Brazil,Counterpunch,Film,Guerrilla warfare — louisproyect @ 4:58 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 8, 2021

“Marighella” hearkens back to the best political films of the 1960s like Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” and Costa-Gravas’s “State of Siege”. Set in 1968, it tells the story of Carlos Marighella’s desperate struggle against the military dictatorship in Brazil. Founder and leader of Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN), Marighella was just one of many revolutionaries in Latin America who broke with the Communist Party to launch either an urban or rural guerrilla group hoping to emulate the July 26th Movement in Cuba. Unlike “The Battle of Algiers,” this story does not have a happy ending. The film concludes with the Brazilian cops firing dozens of rounds into Marighella’s body as he sits in the driver’s seat of a parked VW Beetle. Like Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” it is a tragedy about the failure of the revolutionary left in Latin America to help realize Che’s call for “Two, Three, Many Vietnams.” There were many embryonic Vietnams but they all aborted. Unlike Cuba or Vietnam, there was never a social base adequate to the revolutionary goals. To the credit of director Wagner Moura, this is the overarching theme of this film that will be of supreme interest to CounterPunch readers.

Continue reading

January 5, 2021

Lars Lih, Revolutionary Continuity, and Permanent Revolution

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Kautsky — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm
Lars Lih

In the latest issue of Historical Materialism, there’s a Lars Lih article titled “Why Did Marx Declare the Revolution Permanent? The Tactical Principles of the Manifesto” that is his latest salvo against Leon Trotsky’s singularly most important theoretical contribution—even if it does not mention Trotsky once.

Despite the association that Trotsky has with the term permanent revolution, you can also find it in Marx’s writings. The goal of Lih’s article is to prove that Marx had something completely different in mind than Trotsky. Instead of being a call to bypass a bourgeois revolutionary stage, Marx was advocating a class alliance between the workers and their class enemies in order to create the democratic conditions that would allow for the construction of a workers party, trade unions and the constitutionally protected rights allowing progress toward socialist transformation. Two works are singled out by Lih to make his point, the March 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League” and the October 1850 “The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850”. The first states:

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers.

The second has the same kind of insistence:

…the proletariat rallies more and more around revolutionary socialism, around communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui. This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.

Notwithstanding their fiery rhetoric, Lih assures us that you have to look closely at the context in which they were written. They were mostly about overthrowing absolutist states, roughly equivalent to Czarism in Russia. Germany was rotten-ripe for its first bourgeois revolution while France, its birthplace in 1789, was struggling under Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew.

According to Lih, there were some who were fooled into thinking that Marx was advocating socialist revolution. He singles out Hal Draper as an example: “According to Hal Draper, these passages outline a scenario of immediate transition to a proletarian revolution: ‘the idea of immediacy is stressed three times. The revolution is to move uninterruptedly from the bourgeois state into the proletarian revolution’.” So, you get the picture. Draper, a member of Cannon’s SWP who hooked up with Max Shachtman in the 1940 split, serves as a proxy for Leon Trotsky—Lars Lih’s nemesis.

In going back to 1850, Lih is trying to establish what we used to call “revolutionary continuity” in the SWP. That’s a kind of red thread that connects Marx’s 1850 writings to Kautsky and then Lenin in his eyes. In the SWP, our red thread was a bit different. It went from Marx to Lenin and then from Trotsky to James P. Cannon. When I joined in 1967, I was told that Jack Barnes would be the new James P. Cannon thus continuing the ideological legacy that would help ensure the future socialist victory. All that was cast aside when Barnes decided that the new succession would be from Lenin to Fidel Castro. To continue to uphold Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory would be grounds for expulsion.

After I quit the SWP and started thinking about it critically, I couldn’t help but think that this notion of “revolutionary continuity” had a lot in common with the bloodlines for thoroughbred horses and the kinds of dogs seen at the yearly Westminster show. Except in our case, it wasn’t blood that mattered but doctrine. Maybe a more useful analogy would be with the Vatican that had doctrinal continuity going back to the Apostles. I often wondered if Jack Barnes fantasized about being the Lenin of our age, with the kind of power a Pope enjoyed except involving revolutionary rather than eschatological hopes.

Unlike Jack Barnes, Lih is a far more modest thinker. Keep in mind that he has never been part of any movement and probably puts as much time and energy into Gilbert and Sullivan productions as he does for writing paywall articles accessible mostly to university employees or a retiree like me. Lih has largely been responsible for the Karl Kautsky revival that has provided the theoretical basis for Jacobin’s stubborn support for the Democratic Party. In an article titled “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”, Eric Blanc said that reading him would help the left get over dogmatic assumptions such as “whether it’s okay to ever use the Democratic Party ballot line.”

Returning to what Marx wrote in 1850, you have to wonder if Lih was characterizing Hal Draper’s views accurately. If you keep in mind that his purpose in writing his 3-volume classic was to explain what Karl Marx stood for rather than Hal Draper, a review of the chapter Lih referenced will reveal little of the Trotsky/Proxyism. Instead, Draper makes it quite clear that Marx did not project much more than a bourgeois democratic republic with workers in the driver’s seat—not that far from what Lih advocates as did Lenin until the April Theses.

The second version involves a simple change: since the bourgeoisie refuses to take political power, the Democracy must strive to capture political power directly for itself. What remains unchanged is this: the perspective is still to accelerate bourgeois economic development (modernization and industrialization) under the aegis of the new revolutionary power to the point where the next stage—proletarian power—goes onto the order of the day. The bourgeois-democratic stage is to be telescoped under a political power which is not that of the bourgeoisie itself. (Looking ahead, we can see an analogy: under Bonapartism the bourgeois stage is also going to be carried out under a political power which is not that of the bourgeoisie itself).

Take note of Hal Draper’s reference to accelerating bourgeois economic development. In distinction to Lih, Draper’s understanding of the bourgeois revolution is not based on democratic rights, etc. alone. It is joined at the hip to capitalism’s ability to develop the forces of production that are necessary to create a socialist society in the future: a proletariat and  modern industry. Since Lih’s focus is on politics rather than on economics, this is something that he either missed or, perhaps, decided to sweep under the rug.

In Frederick Engels’s 1895 introduction to Marx’s “Class Struggles in France”, you’ll see how preoccupied Marx’s partner was with the forces of production:

History has proved us wrong and all others who thought similarly. It has made clear that the status of economic development on the Continent was then by no means ripe for the abolition of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has affected the entire Continent and has introduced large industry in France, Austria, Hungary. Poland, and, more recently, in Russia, and has made of Germany an industrial country of the first rank-all this upon a capitalist basis which, reckoning from 1848, implies great expansive capacity. But it was just this industrial revolution that has everywhere introduced clarity in regard to class relations, which has eliminated a mass of hybrid forms taken over from the period of manufacture and, in Eastern Europe, even from guild handicraft, which has produced a real bourgeoisie and a real industrial proletariat and forced both into the foreground of social evolution. Thereby has the struggle between these two great classes, which in 1848 existed outside of England only in Paris and, perchance, in a few large industrial centers, been spread over the whole of Europe, and has attained an intensity unthinkable in 1848.

Engels refers above to how the industrial revolution created a powerful working class only in England and Paris by 1848. Later in the article, he refers to the Paris Commune that Marx regarded as the incipient dictatorship of the proletariat, which Lenin cited as a precursor to the infant Soviet republic in “State and Revolution”:

After the war of 1870-71, Bonaparte disappears from the stage and Bismarck’s mission is finished, so that he can subside again to his status of an ordinary Junker. The termination of this period is formed by the Paris Commune. A surreptitious attempt by Thiers to abstract from the Paris National Guard its cannon, caused a victorious uprising. It was again shown that, in Paris, no revolution is possible other than a proletarian one. Government fell, after the victory, into the lap of the working class, all by itself.

That hardly conforms to the Kautskyite formulas spread through Lars Lih’s body of articles and books. I am hesitant to think in terms of red threads nowadays but it doesn’t seem far-fetched to connect the dotted lines between the Paris Commune, the USSR prior to Stalin’s rise, Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, and Lenin’s April Theses.

We have reached a stage in human history when all the old gradualist schemas seem utterly ill-suited to the collapse of capitalist society all around us. With pandemics and ecological collapse threatening our very existence, the need to construct a mass, internationally-based revolutionary party is more urgent than ever. Lih’s pleasant existence as a Musicology Professor at McGill University and his inexhaustible appetite for picking fights with revolutionary socialists make you wonder what makes him tick. After reading most of everything he has written for the past twenty years, I can only say that I am finding him terminally pernicious.

January 1, 2021

MLK/FBI; One Night in Miami

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Film,Malcolm X — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 1, 2021

Two new films directed by African-Americans are essential guides to the Black struggle in the USA during the 1960s. Sam Pollard’s documentary “MLK/FBI” covers J. Edgar Hoover’s racist attempt to “neutralize” Martin Luther King Jr. while Regina King’s narrative film “One Night in Miami” imagines the conversations that took place between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, NFL legend Jim Brown and soul singer Sam Cooke at the Hampton Hotel in Miami on the evening of February 25, 1964. That was the night that Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston and became world heavyweight champion and who announced to the world the next day that he was now to be called Muhammad Ali.

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December 26, 2020

Belushi

Filed under: comedy,Film,television — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Like many other baby boomers (technically speaking, I predated them as having been born during the war), I became a big fan of Saturday Night Live when it premiered in 1975. I had more than the usual interest in the show because I had been a good friend of Chevy Chase at Bard College and was following his career.

As such, I was curious to see what the Showtime documentary on John Belushi would have to say, given the interviews with Chevy and other personalities who worked with him. Belushi was interesting enough in his own right for me to have read Bob Woodward’s “Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi” back in 1984. Woodward’s lurid (how could it have been anything else?) biography reminded me a lot of Albert Goldman’s Elvis Presley biography that came out the same year and which I also read. I was struck by the similarities between the two books and the two men. Woodward and Goldman had little sympathy for their subjects and wrote books that were meant to portray them as self-indulgent freaks done in by their gargantuan drug habits and their huge popularity.

In 2005, Tanner Colby wrote another Belushi biography that relied exclusively on taped interviews with his friends and co-professionals. As an oral history, it was a badly needed corrective to the Woodward hatchet job. The Showtime documentary relies on these interviews as well as new material to produce both a tribute to the comedian as well as an effort to understand his decline and fall. For those who are old enough to remember SNL in its prime and those who want to see how good TV sketch comedy can be, I strongly recommend a look at the film, which is titled “Belushi.”

Directed by 58-year old filmmaker R.J. Cutler, it turns Colby’s interviews and newer material into a very good documentary, which is not only an examination of a personal tragedy but implicitly a warning about the dangers of worshipping the bitch-goddess success. Belushi started off as a political radical, having been within 20 feet of the police riot in Chicago in 1968, and saw the theater as his calling, not television that he found vulgar and not worth his time. Indeed, SNL co-producer Dick Ebersole had to plead with Belushi to join the show even as fellow co-producer Lorne Michaels feared that he would be more trouble than he was worth.

Belushi was the son of an Albanian immigrant who put in long hours working behind the counter of a diner he owned in Chicago. Born in 1949, he was typical of my generation. Rebellious to the core, he saw comedy as a means to challenge the status quo just as I saw radical politics. If the ratio between radical art and radical politics was 80 percent to 20 in his case, the numbers were reversed in my own life. In college, Belushi recruited a couple of his friends to become the “The West Compass Trio” that became the talk of the town in Chicago. Belushi’s comic power on stage soon caught the attention of Bernard Sahlins, the head of the city’s legendary Second City improvisational comic troupe and brother to famous anthropologist and fellow CounterPunch contributor Marshall Sahlins.

Belushi joined the group and became its star, alongside future SNL star Gilda Radner. Meanwhile, in NYC, comedy was taking a new and experimental form through Ken Shapiro’s Channel One, an off-off-Broadway revue that satirized TV. Ken was a classmate at Bard alongside Chevy, who had been developing the material down the hall from me in a mansion called Ward Manor that had been turned into a dorm. Chevy joined the cast of Channel One with other Bardians like Lane Sarasohn and my good friend Richard Allen.

In 1972, Chase and Belushi’s paths crossed as they both became cast members of the off-Broadway National Lampoon Lemmings in NYC that was a satire on the Woodstock musical festival. It was there that Belushi developed his over-the-top imitation of Joe Cocker performing “A Little Help From My Friends”. From there, Belushi went on to write and perform for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, where he was soon joined by Danny Ackroyd who had been a member of the Second City revue in Toronto. Chase, Ackroyd, and Belushi would then go on to become the original cast members of SNL with Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue and Gilda Radner. This group of 8 would leave its mark on SNL that declined over the years, largely because Lorne Michaels preferred to recycle stale material that would satisfy an increasingly dimwitted fan base that doted on shtick. Although nobody interviewed in “Belushi” commented on this decline, it was obvious to me that Belushi was part of the problem. By getting easy laughs, such as his “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” skit, he helped the show drift away from sharp political commentary.

Yes, Belushi was a gifted physical comedian but I preferred Chevy’s razor-sharp Weekend Update:

Chevy Chase: Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not. The top story tonight: The Senate Intelligence Committee has revealed that the CIA has been involved in no less than nine assassination plots against various foreign leaders. Commented President Ford upon reading the report, quote, “Boy, I’m sure glad I’m not foreign.”

Later, Mr. Ford pierced his left hand with a salad fork at a luncheon celebrating Tuna Salad Day at the White House. Alert Secret Service agents seized the fork and wrestled it to the ground.

Former Governor of California Ronald Reagan formally announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday. Reagan stated, quote, “I haven’t lost my looks yet, and I’m still as knowledgeable on foreign affairs as I was when I was narrating Death Valley Days.”

Meanwhile in Miami, a man tried to attack Reagan with a fake pistol a few short hours after the announcement. Reagan said he was not shaken, but later, he about-faced on an issue that he strongly opposed for years, calling for strenuous toy gun control legislation.

Well, after a long illness, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died Wednesday. Reactions from world leaders were varied. Held in contempt as the last of the fascist dictators in the West by some, he was also eulogized by others, among them Richard Nixon, who said, quote “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States. He earned worldwide respect for Spain through firmness and fairness.” Despite Franco’s death and an expected burial tomorrow, doctors say the dictator’s health has taken a turn for the worse.

It wasn’t just that Belushi was good at physical comedy, a throwback to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in many ways. It was also that his skits incorporated brilliant mashups of wildly disparate elements. For example, we see him working behind the registration desk in a hotel but in the guise of a samurai warrior:

The documentary shows Belushi explaining how he got the idea for the skit. He was up in his hotel room and stumbled across some vintage samurai film. The first thought that came to him was how to work that into an SNL routine.

For someone like myself, a longtime fan of Akira Kurosawa, this skit, and even those that recycled the same material, made me laugh.

After watching the documentary, I had a sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t I seen a satire of samurai movies before? Where or when?

All of a sudden, I realized that Sid Caesar had featured the same kind of material on his legendary television show back in 1956, except that he was satirizing a film genre unfamiliar to most Americans. He called his parody “Ubetu”, an obvious reference to Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 “Ugetsu”.

Could John Belushi have seen Caesar’s “Ubetu”? It’s impossible to say but one thing is clear. For the six years Sid Caesar had a weekly show on NBC, he and his fellow writers and performers were pushing the envelope in the same way that Chevy Chase, John Belushi were doing twenty years later. With Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen writing for him, Caesar’s shows were made for the ages.

You had the same kind of powerhouse team working for SNL early on. Unlike Sid Caesar, Lorne Michaels had staying power. Young people continue to watch the show because it is geared to a young person’s tastes rather than to the connoisseur sensibilities of a baby boomer in the year 1975. I avoid commenting on anything going on at SNL today because I simply never watch it, except for whatever shows up on YouTube.

Besides Belushi’s illness (drug addiction is an illness), you cannot escape the feeling that his sad decline and fall was mostly attributable to his worries that he had reached an impasse in his career. He tried making more “mature” films but the critics and the audiences hated them. As his health declined, he was incapable of carrying out the madcap physical stunts that made “Animal House” so memorable.

As for Belushi memorabilia, let me conclude with this photo of Belushi take in 1981 by acclaimed photographer Marcia Resnick, an old friend who wrote this as a preface:

— In early September 1981 I spotted John Belushi in the New York after hours club AM PM. I asked him when he was going to do a photo session with me for my series Bad Boys: A Compendium of Punks, Poets and Politicians. He said, “Now”. I didn’t believe him, until upon returning home at six am I saw a limousine waiting in front of my building. I turned on the music as John and his entourage filed into my loft. I then directed John to an area lit by strobe lights and I began shooting.

John paced around like a caged animal, fidgeting incessantly. He seemed unable to sit still for my camera, uncanny for someone known for being deliberate and fluid when performing. “Where are the props?”, he queried. I first gave him sunglasses, then a scarf. He requested a beer, then a glass. After donning a black wool ski mask that he took off a nearby mannequin, he settled into a chair. Only his eyes and mouth peeked through the openings in the mask. The large, ominous and anonymous ‘executioner’ had finally reached his comfort zone.

December 25, 2020

Welcome to Chechnya

Filed under: Chechnya,Counterpunch,homophobia,television — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 25, 2020

Chechnya’s strongman ruler Razman Kadyrov appears to be even more determined to repress gays than Stalin. He doesn’t bother with the niceties of the courtroom, even if based on prejudicial laws. Instead, he has encouraged mob rule in which gay men are entrapped by either cops or vigilantes who have the power to torture anybody caught up in their net.

With his barbaric mixed martial arts background, made even worse by Islamist homophobia, Kadyrov brazens his way through interviews, making Donald Trump look Gandhian by comparison. During an interview with Bryant Gumbel in July 2017, Kadyrov said, “We don’t have such people here. We don’t have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far away from us. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”

Currently showing on HBO Max, “Welcome to Chechnya” allows you to hear from the people suffering from a brutal crackdown that began in early 2017. The documentary states it started with a drug raid, rather than a Stonewall-type assault. One of the arrested men had a cell phone with messages to his male lovers as well as gay porn. The cops then used the phone to begin a massive campaign that sounds quite a bit like the witch-hunts of the 1950s that targeted both Reds and gays. To get lenient treatment, you had to name names. If you refused to incriminate fellow gays, you’d end up spending months in prison being tortured.

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December 23, 2020

Aaron Maté and Moon of Alabama slander Anand Gopal

Filed under: conspiracism,jingoism,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm
Anand Gopal

As part of my daily rounds of checking the conspiracist “left”, I make sure to include a visit to Moon of Alabama, a website that grew out of Billmon’s Whiskey Bar from the early 2000s. Most of what appeared there before 2011 was unobjectionable, just as was the case with Seymour Hersh or Robert Fisk’s reporting from the Middle East. When the civil war began in Syria, there was little engagement with its cause. Instead, we were told that this was a new “regime change operation” based on bogus reports about WMD’s. It didn’t matter that Assad was really using sarin gas. Moon of Alabama posted dozens, maybe hundreds, of articles claiming that such reports were “false flags” intended to provoke a full-scale invasion that would replace Assad with rebels linked to al-Qaeda. It didn’t matter that the CIA prevented the FSA from getting its hands on MANPAD’s shipped from Libya. Even after 9 years of asymmetric warfare that left the opposition to Assad huddled and defenseless in Idlib, Moon of Alabama continues to warn darkly about American intervention even if Trump cut off funding to the rebels right after taking power.

Generally, I don’t comment on Moon of Alabama (MofA) since it has little sway outside the Assadist cocoon. However, when I noticed that it had made common cause with Aaron Maté, Max Blumenthal’s mini-me next to Ben Norton, over an Anand Gopal article in The New Yorker, I decided to speak up. Once upon a time, the Grayzone crew—Blumenthal, Norton, and Maté—might have had a shot at being published in legitimate magazines like the New Yorker but after becoming indistinguishable from MofA, they are a sideshow. I suppose the rubles compensate for the illegitimacy but one will never know until we get a chance to see their tax returns that are probably more closely guarded than Trump’s.

The MofA blogger, some guy in Germany named Bernhard, and Maté both objected to this paragraph in Gopal’s article:

The U.S.-led coalition waged its assault on Raqqa with exacting legal precision. It vetted every target carefully, with a fleet of lawyers scrutinizing strikes the way an in-house counsel pores over a corporation’s latest contract. During the battle, the coalition commander, Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townsend, declared, “I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare.” Although human-rights activists insist that the coalition could have done more to protect civilians, Townsend is right: unlike Russia, America does not bomb indiscriminately. The U.S. razed an entire city, killing thousands in the process, without committing a single obvious war crime.

Missing from their denunciation of Gopal as making the unforgiveable sin of absolving the USA from “committing a single obvious war crime” is any engagement with the central point of his article, namely that the American rules of war legitimize war crimes.

Behind a paywall (contact me if you need a copy), the article makes clear that the USA has entered a new mode of war-making that is conducted from the air, using guided missiles, drones and bombers beyond the reach of conventional anti-aircraft weapons that make it possible for our military to kill thousands without a single casualty on our side. These paragraphs will make Gopal’s logic clear even though anybody with an IQ over 80 could have figured out his point from the paragraph above:

During the summer of 2016, residents of Tokhar, a riverside hamlet in northern Syria, gathered every night in four houses on the community’s edge, hoping to evade gunfire and bombs. This was the farthest point from a front line, a mile away, where U.S.-backed forces were engaging ISIS fighters. Every night, a drone hovered over Tokhar, filming the villagers’ procession from their scattered homes to these makeshift bunkers. The basements became crowded with farmers, mothers, schoolgirls, and small children. On July 18th, at around 3 a.m., the houses exploded. Thick smoke covered the night sky. Limbs were strewn across the rubble. Children were buried under collapsed walls.

People from surrounding villages spent two weeks digging out bodies. The coalition, meanwhile, announced that it had destroyed “nine ISIL fighting positions, an ISIL command and control node, and 12 ISIL vehicles” in the area that night. Eventually, after reports surfaced that many civilians had died, the coalition admitted to killing twenty-four. When a colleague and I visited, a year after the raid, we documented at least a hundred and twenty dead civilians, and found no evidence that any isis members had been present near the four houses. A mother told me that some small children were obliterated, their bodies never found.

“We take all measures during the targeting process . . . to comply with the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict,” U.S. Marine Major Adrian J. T. Rankine-Galloway said. The essence of this legal code is that militaries cannot intentionally kill civilians. It is true that no one in the chain of command wished to massacre civilians that night—not the pilot or the targeteers or the lawyers. The U.S. points to this fact in calling the Tokhar incident an error, regrettable but not illegal. Yet, though it is reasonable to invoke intention when referring to the mind-set of an individual—this is the idea behind the legal concept mens rea—it seems odd to ascribe a mental state to a collective actor like an army or a state. It is clear, however, that the coalition could have foreseen the outcome of its actions: it had filmed the area for weeks, and intelligence indicating that the village was populated would not have been difficult to gather. During the coalition’s campaign against ISIS, it often based its bombing decisions on faulty assumptions about civilian life; in Mosul, it targeted a pair of family homes after failing to observe civilians outdoors over the course of a few afternoons. Iraqis typically avoid the blazing midday heat. Four people died. The Law of Armed Conflict excuses genuine errors and proscribes intentional killing, but most American warfare operates in a gray zone, which exists, in part, because the law itself is so vague.

Unlike Gopal, Bernhard and Maté only know Syria from afar. Perhaps Maté has visited Damascus as well but if he did, he probably stayed at the same kind of 5-star hotel Blumenthal stays at when he is on one of his junkets. Over lunch a few years ago, Anand told me that he learned Arabic just so he could be able to conduct interviews with people living under the dictatorship. He also didn’t come in on jets landing at the airport in Damascus. Instead, he snuck under barbed wire at the Turkish border and followed painted stones to avoid land mines as he wended his way toward a village that opposed Assad. That is a real reporter as opposed to the corrupt, mendacious, low-rent writers at Grayzone and Moon of Alabama who will have about as much chance getting paid for writing an article in a legitimate magazine as I have winning the NY Marathon in 2021.

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