Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 28, 2004

“The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:52 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 28, 2004

In Hollywood, the blind are represented in film either as pitiful victims, such as in “Wait Until Dark,” or as comic figures like Mr. Muckle, who tears apart W. C. Fields’s shop in “It’s a Gift.” Leave it to the Japanese to come up with somebody like Zatoichi, the blind master swordsman who was played by the beloved Shintaro Katsu in 26 films between 1962 and 1989, as well as 100 television episodes based on the character.

The name Zatoichi is a conflation of “Zato-No-Ichi,” which translates literally into “Ichi the Masseur.” In feudal Japan, the blind were often enlisted as masseurs, but Zatoichi’s fighting skills allowed him to transcend the rigid class restraints of Japanese society.

After Katsu died in 1997, Chieko Saito, an elderly female strip-club owner who had acquired the rights to the character as collateral to a loan to the actor, proposed to Takeshi “Beat” Kitano that he write, direct and star in a new film based on Zatoichi. “Beat” Takeshi is one of Japan’s most innovative directors, who specializes in ultra-violent films set in Japan’s criminal underworld. Before launching a film career, he was one of Japan’s most popular TV comedians and host of his own long-running show. Takeshi’s “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi,” which is playing now in New York City, can best be described as a happy marriage between the original product and his own uniquely off-kilter style.

In keeping with the earlier films, Takeshi’s Zatoichi is an itinerant masseur who happens on a town brimming over with villains in need of vanquishing. As is the case with classics such as “Yojimbo” or “Seven Samurai,” the powerful villains are busily exploiting the local peasantry. In contrast to these films, Zatoichi is not a samurai himself but a kind of feudal version of a lumpen element who supplements his income by gambling. With his super-sensitive hearing, he can detect whether thrown dice come up odd or even. Like nearly everything else in this narrative, this must be taken with a grain of salt. When Zatoichi cuts apart a small army of sighted assassins with his cane-sword, you have to accept his prowess as an article of faith. That being said, in the final moments of Takeshi’s film, you are left with the impression that he might be sighted after all.

Whether or not you are persuaded by the spectacle of a blind man carving up his foes, Takeshi’s film is impressive solely on esthetic terms. As one of his most visually ambitious film, it includes an almost surreal tap dance production number at the conclusion. As postmodernist pastiche, it rivals the interjection of Janis Joplin’s “Freedom’s Just Another Word” into the conclusion to Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”

For comparison’s sake, I also watched “Zatoichi the Outlaw,” a 1967 film–the first one directed by Shintaro Katsu himself. You can find this film and others in the series at your better video stores or on the Internet. They are also shown with some frequency on the IFC cable station on Saturdays, which are devoted to classic Japanese samurai films. Jazz musician and Zatoichi-enthusiast Tatsu Aoki writes in the notes to one of the DVD’s, “He is a blind wanderer who refuses to walk on the sunny side of the street, an outlaw-Yakuza who respects others regardless of rank within the feudal system.”

In this film, the blind swordsman once again finds himself in a familiar situation. The owners of a gambling den and corrupt officials are cheating innocent peasants out of their savings and throwing them off their land. While taking up their cause, Zatoichi joins forces with Shusai Ohara, a sword-less samurai based on a real-life, 18th-century peasant leader named Yagaku Ohara. Ohara persuaded his followers to give up gambling and follow efficient farming practices. The film is filled with exciting action scenes and droll humor.

For example, a drunken overlord begins throwing gold coins at Zatoichi, who is focused on playing a shamisen (a stringed instrument used in Kabuki, etc.), in order to bribe him into crawling around like a dog. Without missing a beat, Zatoichi deftly swaps his pick for the coins in midair and keeps playing.

July 26, 2004

A Critical Look at Michael Moore

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 26, 2004

In some ways, Michael Moore’s rise to fame and fortune is a classic Horatio Alger story. Starting out as the son of a General Motors assembly line worker who lived in blue-collar Flint, Michigan, Moore now sits at the top of the mountain. With his face on the cover of Time Magazine and ticket sales for “Fahrenheit 9/11” breaking all sorts of records, one can say that he has really made it. Since this meteoric rise has been the subject of some debate on the left, we are obligated to come to terms with the Michael Moore phenomenon. Whatever one says about Moore, he is like the proverbial 800 pound gorilla sitting in the doorway demanding our attention: too big to be ignored–both figuratively and literally.

From a lengthy and invaluable New Yorker Magazine profile that ran in the Feb. 16, 2004 issue (http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040216fa_fact7), we learn that Moore was born in 1954, educated in a Catholic school and enjoyed a happy and conventional childhood. Like so many people a little too young to have participated directly in the 1960s revolt, he was still affected by lingering cultural and political themes that persisted into the late 1970s at least. Affecting the shaggy look of the “hippies”, Moore launched a radio show called “Radio Free Flint” and participated in anti-nuclear rallies. His next step was to publish an “underground” newspaper called the Flint Voice. One contributor was an assembly-line worker named Ben Hamper who went on to write a much-acclaimed memoir titled “Rivethead”. Hamper and Moore eventually had a falling out that can only be understood in terms of the latter’s transformation into a big-time entrepreneur on the left and the abuse of power that tends to go with it. When Hamper’s complaints about Moore’s imperiousness were brought up in a May 23, 2004 Guardian interview, the film-maker attributed them to alcohol and drug abuse.

In 1986, Moore was invited to edit Mother Jones magazine, a magazine catering to Birkenstock-wearing, Sierra Club-donating, brie-eating liberals. Before the year was up, Moore was fired by Adam Hochschild, the magazine’s publisher who was left a fortune by his father. He was the owner of American Metals, a mining company that did business in Zambia. To Moore’s ever-lasting credit, he refused to print an article by Paul Berman, a self-styled anarchist who used to attack the FSLN from the pages of the Village Voice, a New York “alternative” weekly. As Alexander Cockburn put it in a Nation Magazine article, “It turned out that the working-class boy from Flint had ideas of his own. This was never the game plan of the rich boy in San Francisco.”

A settlement from Mother Jones over wrongful firing and proceeds from the sale of his house in Flint allowed Moore to make “Roger and Me”, a film that was successful beyond his wildest imagination. Originally expecting to show it in church basements for movement groups, he found that it was considered to be a highly marketable item by the Disney corporation, the same company that refused to market “Fahrenheit 9/11” for fear of alienating the Bush administration. Moore instead went with Warner Brothers who paid him three million dollars, an unprecedented sum for a documentary.

It is no surprise that they would pay top dollar for the film, since Moore was and is a consummate entertainer. Although there’s hardly been any attention paid to this in the vast amount of literature around Michael Moore, it seems obvious to me that he has been strongly influenced by the early David Letterman, another affable Midwesterner who made a career out of thumbing his nose at the establishment. In Letterman’s case, the jokes were always fairly harmless–usually having something to do with the cluelessness of NBC executives. (When comic strip author and radical Harvey Pekar attacked parent company GE’s dangerous nuclear plants and Hudson River pollution on Letterman’s show, he was never invited back.)

What Moore shares with Letterman is an affinity for college pranks raised to the level of art. For example, Letterman was fond of blaring goofy messages to bemused suburbanites while driving around in a sound-truck. Moore pulls the same stunt in “Fahrenheit 9/11”, in this instance using an ice-cream truck loudspeaker to invite members of Congress to read the Patriot Act, something they evidently voted in favor of without having read in advance.

From the New Yorker profile, we discover that Letterman’s ex-girlfriend (and source of much of his distinctive wit) Merrill Markoe worked on Moore’s short-lived “TV Nation” show. Another Letterman alumnus who worked on the show was Randy Cohen who invented the “monkey cam”–a Letterman show stunt involving a monkey who ran around the studio with a camera strapped to his back. If you mix this sort of irreverence with left-leaning politics, you end up with a formula for success. Key to all this, needless to say, is Moore’s on-camera persona which is about as distinctive in popular culture as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Woody Allen’s neurotic Jewish New Yorker.

Turning now to the question of Moore’s politics, there’s no better source for this than a Nov. 17, 1997 article he wrote for the Nation Magazine, posing the question “Is the Left Nuts?” In it, he complains that the left ignores anything that “really matters to the American public.” He is also convinced that “there’s a good number of you who are simply addicted to listening to yourselves talk and talk and talk-MUMIA! PACIFICA! CUBA! ENOUGH ALREADY!” Against this kind of purist isolationism, Moore urges an orientation to the “bus driver at the airport who told me he’s been cut back to a thirty-hour week so the airport commission won’t have to pay the health insurance for his asthmatic daughter” or the woman at Sears who sells blouses by day and then waitresses at Denny’s from 8 PM. to midnight”. In other words, the left should focus on economic issues that were always the stock-in-trade of the Democratic Party and the trade union movement before things got nuts in the 1960s.

This, of course, is a common complaint among others who are trying to “fix” a dysfunctional left. In “Achieving Our Country,” Richard Rorty, the celebrated philosopher, wrote that the New Left forsook concerns over health-care and unemployment in favor of protesting the war in Vietnam and “cultural” issues such as abortion rights. In a newly published best-seller titled “What’s Wrong With Kansas,” Thomas Frank blames Democratic Party losses on the failure to put forward a populist economic program and identifying itself with divisive “cultural” issues.

Key to all of these strategies is a belief that working people in the USA (especially whites) will never be won over to gay rights or a fair trial for Mumia. In an earlier epoch, socialists were never afraid to push for such seemingly “peripheral” concerns. In “What is to Be Done,” Lenin would appear to be exactly one of those leftists who Rorty, Frank and Moore are complaining about. In giving an example of how socialists should serve as a “tribune of the people,” Lenin cites the German Socialist Party that took up the right of artists to create works that were considered “obscene.” Moving forward to the 1960s, it is important to recall that many of the blue-collar workers, such as Ben Hamper, that came to Michael Moore’s attention were cultural rebels before they became radicals.

Perhaps the desire to idealize an American working class that has stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting owes more to fantasy than reality. In Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”, we are introduced to Lila Lipscomb, a conservative white woman who flew the American flag every day and who turned against the war after her son was killed in Iraq. Although it goes by without comment in the film, she is married to a black man. Before the “cultural” changes that shook up American society in the 1960s, this would have practically been considered un-American. Social progress is measured in many different ways and the left should not be afraid to embrace it no matter how many feathers are ruffled.

Turning now to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the film that has effectively catapulted him to a level of fame and success that is unparalleled in left circles, we should say at the outset that the film is both a failure and a success. It fails to put forward a coherent explanation of why the USA is in Iraq. It successfully, however, drives a wedge between the ordinary Americans he cares so much about and the government that is killing their sons and daughters–as well as the Iraqis themselves. Although Moore obviously made the film with the intention of removing Bush from the White House–the ostensible reason we are in Iraq–it will make it that much more difficult for Kerry to sustain the war effort. In the final analysis, putting people like Lila Lipscomb and antiwar veterans of the Iraq war on the big screen undermines support for the war whether it is prosecuted by an inept Republican president or a more adroit Democrat who will likely be more successful in broadening the forces arrayed against the Iraqi people.

Turning to the film’s analysis of why we are in Iraq, much of it hinges on the analysis of Craig Unger’s “House of Bush, House of Saud.” Unger is featured prominently in the film and a chapter of his book appears on MichaelMoore.com. In Unger’s view, the Saudis exercise an enormous influence on U.S. foreign policy due to their sizable investment in the American economy and their oil supplies. One nearly gets the impression that the USA is a kind of colony in thrall to Saudi power. If they pulled their money out of the country, the USA economy might collapse like a house of cards.

To make things worse, the Bush family is supposedly very intimate with the Saudi monarchs through their Carlyle Group business ties. This case is made in Dan Briody’s “The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of the Carlyle Group,” also excerpted on Moore’s website. Thus, the failure to successfully prosecute a war on Osama bin-Laden is a function of a secret relationship between the President of the USA and oil sheikhs. This lament about wasting resources on Iraq that could have been better utilized in Afghanistan is, of course, heard prominently in Democratic Party circles, especially from former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke. Obviously, Moore does not challenge the prevailing wisdom that the USA has the right to invade a country in pursuit of such a dubious mission. Missing entirely from “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a consideration of what is fuelling Islamic radicalism and why it would resort to such desperate measures such as flying airplanes into the WTC. The road to world peace would seem to line in resolving such grievances.

Taking this one step further, it would require Moore to say something about the occupation of Palestinian land, something that is bitterly resented throughout the Arab and Islamic world. It would also require him to say something about the ties between both the Republican and Democratic Parties on one side and the Israeli government on the other. Any criticisms of Israel half as sharp as his assault on Saudi princes would clearly have condemned the film to inadequate distribution. In the final analysis, Arabs are the one ethnic group that it is permissible to demonize today without restraint.

Running like a blue thread throughout “Fahrenheit 9/11” and all of Moore’s films is a hope that the USA can once again return to the values that made it great. In “Roger and Me,” he urges GM to respect its employees once again. In “Bowling for Columbine,” he hopes that the hatred that has infected American society and led to attacks by rifle-toting youths on fellow students, can be purged from our system and that we can be more like Canada, where gun ownership and a low homicide rate go hand in hand.

The New Yorker profile provides some insights:

“Moore wishes that America would become more like other, gentler countries–‘a little bit of Norway, a little bit of Costa Rica,’ as he puts it. He believes that the government should regulate companies to prevent them from making an excessive profit. If a company wants to move a factory abroad after American workers have made it profitable, he believes that the company should have to pay reparations to its former employees, just as a husband whose wife has put him through medical school is obliged to pay alimony if he leaves her.”

Clearly, what is missing here is an understanding of why the USA has become so committed to downsizing at home and wars abroad. This is not a function of Evil Rulers as much as it is of a need to compete with rival capitalist powers. Something of that message was conveyed in “Roger and Me,” but it is entirely dispensed with in “Fahrenheit 9/11.” In order to make a film that explained war and economic exploitation in systemic terms, commercial considerations would have to be secondary. Who knows, if Michael Moore someday achieves the wealth and power of Mel Gibson, he might decide to make a film that went against conventional political views as much as “The Passion” went against the religious establishment. Considering the fact that Gibson had plans at one point to bankroll “Fahrenheit 9/11,” this does not seem so far-fetched. Moore’s next project will deal with the health-care crisis in the USA. One can only hope that he zeros in on the corporate greed of the pharmaceutical industry. That would be a useful metaphor for the crisis of the system as a whole. Such hopes may not be in vain, for in the final analysis Moore–despite all his flaws–is one of us.

Nicaragua 25 years later: a reply to Lee Sustar

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

Nicaragua 25 years later: a reply to Lee Sustar

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 26, 2004

(This is an article that appeared in a slightly edited form in “Revolution” magazine in New Zealand.)

Twenty five years ago, the FSLN seized power in Nicaragua. Although it is difficult to see this abjectly miserable country in these terms today, back then it fueled the hopes of radicals worldwide that a new upsurge in world revolution was imminent. Along with Grenada, El Salvador and Guatemala, where rebel movements had already seized power or seemed on the verge of taking power, Nicaragua had the kind of allure that Moscow had in the 1920s.

So what happened?

While nobody would gainsay the political collapse of the FSLN after its ouster and troubling signs just before that point, it is worth looking a bit deeper into its rise and fall. There are strong grounds to seeing its defeat not so much in terms of its lacking revolutionary fiber, but being outgunned by far superior forces. With all proportions guarded, a case might be made that Sandinista Nicaragua had more in common with the Paris Commune than the Spanish Popular Front, which was doomed to failure by the class collaborationist policies of the ruling parties.

You can get a succinct presentation of this analysis from Lee Sustar, an ISO leader who contributed an article to Counterpunch titled “25 Years on: Revolution in Nicaragua.” He states:

“While the U.S. and its contra butchers are to blame for the destruction of the Nicaraguan economy, the contradiction at the heart of the FSLN’s politics was instrumental in its downfall. FSLN leaders couldn’t escape the centrality of class divisions in the ‘revolutionary alliance’–the fact that workers and ‘nationalist’ employers had contradictory interests.

“The conditions of workers had deteriorated throughout the 1980s as runaway inflation wiped out wage gains. Workers participated in Sandinista unions and mass organizations–but they didn’t hold political power, and their right to strike was suspended for a year as early as 1981. This allowed the opportunistic Nicaraguan Socialist Party–a longtime rival of the FSLN–to give a left-wing cover to Chamorro’s coalition, which in turn functioned as the respectable face of the contras.”

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/sustar07232004.html

With respect to the failure of the FSLN to align itself with workers (and peasants, a significant omission in Sustar’s indictment), Washington seemed worried all along that bourgeois class interests were being neglected and that Nicaragua was in danger of becoming “another Cuba.” Of course, since Cuba never really overthrew capitalism according to the ISO’s ideological schema, this might seem like a moot point. In any case, it is often more useful to pay attention to the class analysis of the State Department and the NY Times than it does to small Marxist groups. If the ruling class is worried that capitalism is being threatened in a place like Nicaragua, they generally know what they are talking about.

Virtually all the self-proclaimed “Marxist-Leninist” formations, from the Spartacist League to more influential groups like the ISO, believe that the revolution collapsed because it was not radical enough. If the big farms had been expropriated, it is assumed that the revolution would have been strengthened. While individual peasant families might have benefited from a land award in such instances, the nation as a whole would have suffered from diminished foreign revenues. After all, it was cotton, cattle and coffee that was being produced on such farms, not corn and beans. When you export cotton on the world market, you receive payments that can be used to purchase manufactured goods, medicine and arms. There is not such a market for corn and beans unfortunately. Even if the big farms had continued to produce for the agro-export market under state ownership, they would have been hampered by the flight of skilled personnel who would have fled to Miami with the owners. Such skills cannot be replicated overnight, especially in a country that had suffered from generations of inadequate schooling.

While all leftwing groups that operate on the premise that they are continuing with the legacy of Lenin, virtually none of them seem comfortable with the implications of Lenin’s writings on the NEP, which are crucial for countries like Nicaragua in the 1980s or Cuba today, for that matter. In his speech to the Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party in 1922, Lenin made the following observations:

“The capitalist was able to supply things. He did it inefficiently, charged exorbitant prices, insulted and robbed us. The ordinary workers and peasants, who do not argue about communism because they do not know what it is, are well aware of this.

“‘But the capitalists were, after all, able to supply things—are you? You are not able to do it.’ That is what we heard last spring; though not always clearly audible, it was the undertone of the whole of last spring’s crisis. “As people you are splendid, but you cannot cope with the economic task you have undertaken.” This is the simple and withering criticism which the peasantry—and through the peasantry, some sections of workers—levelled at the Communist Party last year. That is why in the NEP question, this old point acquires such significance.

“We need a real test. The capitalists are operating along side us. They are operating like robbers; they make profit; but they know how to do things. But you—you are trying to do it in a new way: you make no profit, your principles are communist, your ideals are splendid; they are written out so beautifully that you seem to be saints, that you should go to heaven while you are still alive. But can you get things done?”

If the Bolsheviks required a return to some elements of capitalism in 1922 in order to “help get things done,” why would anybody expect the FSLN to do otherwise? In 1922, the Bolsheviks ruled over a country that had wiped out their own contras decisively and secured its borders. By comparison, Nicaragua was like a sieve with armed terrorists backed by the USA infiltrating freely from North and South. The Soviet Union was also a major economic power, despite being ravaged by war. With an immense population and an abundance of coal and iron ore, it had the ability to produce its own heavy capital goods. Nicaragua, by comparison, had a population about the size of the borough of Brooklyn and no industry to speak of.

Despite all these relative advantages, the Bolshevik leaders feared for the survival of the Soviet Union unless it received help from victorious socialist revolutions in the more advanced European countries. In “Results and Prospects,” Trotsky wrote:

“But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”

With a GDP equal to the size of what US citizens spend on blue jeans each year, how would Nicaragua have managed to forestall the fate that Trotsky predicted for the USSR? Indeed, whatever the faults of Stalinist Russia, it could always be relied on after a fashion to provide material aid for postcapitalist countries like Cuba or Vietnam that were under siege. It was Nicaragua’s misfortune to have come into existence at the very time that such protections could no longer be guaranteed, even when doled out like from an eyedropper.

In October 1988, Soviet Foreign Ministry official Andrei Kozyrev wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared.

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua.

This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become know as the “Reagan Doctrine”. More recently, Kagan has gained attention as part of the gaggle of neoconservatives pushing for war against Iraq last year. His “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order” basically provided an ideological justification for US unilateralism since the Europeans were seen as epicene appeasers of Evil. Since the reversals in Iraq over the past year or so, Kagan has maintained a lower profile.

Despite the expectations of the ordinary Nicaraguan who voted for the removal of Daniel Ortega, the country was not the beneficiary of US largesse. With the removal of the Soviet Union as a countervailing hegemon, it was no longer necessary to bribe restive populations. Instead of a Marshall Plan, the best that could be hoped for were a few maquiladoras.

In a newly established free trade zone, a textile factory owned by Chentex set up shop. In 2000, a delegation from the United States discovered women who were working 60 hours a week. One woman who was married to another maquiladora employee suffered from conditions that were far worse than those endured under FSLN rule. The December 3, 2000 NY Times quoted one delegation member: “The couple had a 3-year-old daughter with discolored tips of her hair, probably from a protein deficiency. These are people who work 60, 70 hours a week, and their standard of living is just abysmal.” When these workers tried to organize themselves into a union, the bosses attempted to fire them all. Contrary to Lee Sustar, you can be assured that these working people knew the difference between the FSLN’s attitude toward working people and the neoliberal gang in charge right now. The FSLN acted as it did because it had no alternative; the US backed government and its maquila bourgeoisie act as it does because it is sees workers as mules to generate superprofits.

Despite the best efforts of the FSLN to make itself acceptable to US imperialism, its hallowed past still condemns it. When Daniel Ortega ran for president of Nicaragua in 2001 on a tepid social democratic program, Jeb Bush wrote an attack in the Miami Herald. Ortega supposedly “neither understands nor embraces the basic concepts of freedom, democracy and free enterprise”. He added: “Daniel Ortega is an enemy of everything the United States represents. Further, he is a friend of our enemies. Ortega has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals who shelter and condone international terrorism.” The article was immediately reprinted in La Prensa under the headline “The brother of the president of the United States supports Enrique Bolanos” by Ortega’s rivals in the Liberal party. Both the Liberal Party and La Prensa enjoyed CIA funding in the 1980s. One presumes that this is still the case.

If the nightmare of maquiladoras and declining economic expectations is to be reversed, it will come as a result of more favorable objective circumstances in Latin America and Central America generally. With the rise of Hugo Chavez and the continuing resilience of the Colombian guerrillas, that day may be coming sooner rather than later.

John Kerry and Langston Hughes

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:30 am

John Kerry and Langston Hughes

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 26, 2004

The neoliberals at Micro$oft’s Slate Magazine are red-baiting John Kerry over his appropriation of a line from a Langston Hughes poem:


Kerry’s Lit Crit The soon-to-be nominee sanitizes a Stalinist poem. By Timothy Noah Posted Monday, July 26, 2004, at 6:08 AM PT

Last month, Chatterbox urged John Kerry to drop the campaign slogan, “Let America be America again.” Instead, Kerry has wrapped his arms more tightly around the slogan’s regrettable source.
As Chatterbox noted in the earlier column, “Let America be America again” comes from a poem published in 1938 by the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes. But Hughes intended the line ironically. A black man living in the pre-Civil Rights Era would have had to be insane to look back to a golden age of freedom and equality in America, and Hughes was not insane. Hughes was, rather, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Soviet Union at the time he wrote “Let America Be America Again,” which explains the poem’s agitprop tone. “I am the young man, full of strength and hope,” Hughes writes in the poem:

Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold!
Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men!
Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

Toil good, private ownership bad, etc. Hughes ends his poem on a more hopeful note (“America never was America to me/ And yet I swear this oath—/ America will be!”), but the future Hughes imagined for America when he wrote those words probably looked a lot like Stalinist Russia.
Before turning to the substance of Slate’s red-baiting, it is worth pointing out how both Slate and Salon function in American political discourse. Slate’s role is to push liberals to the right, as befits its New Republic lineage. The original editor was Michael Kinsley, who started his career at this DLC house organ. More recently, Kinsley has shifted to the left if his LA Times editorial attack on Kerry’s prowar stance is any indication. On the other hand, Salon’s mission is to push radicals to the right. As a watchdog for officially-sanctioned liberal precepts, it is constantly on the attack against Ramsey Clark, Ralph Nader or any other figure who strays too far to the left. Both publications are funded by the Silicon valley bourgeoisie, which was profiled in a very perceptive NY Times Magazine article yesterday: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/magazine/25DEMOCRATS.html. If they were not funded by rich people, they would probably go out of business immediately. This raises the interesting question of political culture in the USA. With so much of the soft left being sustained by the George Soros’s and Paul Newman’s of the world, one wonders what would happen if there was a huge crash that left such individuals in dire straits. If political opinion is published solely on the basis of volunteer labor, I suspect it would be weighted much more to the left.

Turning to John Kerry and Langston Hughes, it is obvious we are dealing with the sort of phenomenon that Thomas Frank honed in on in the pages of Baffler Magazine, namely the capitalist appropriation of countercultural themes. Kerry has about as much in common with this black radical’s poetry as The Gap had with William S. Burroughs who modeled their trousers some years ago. Or Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” being used as the backdrop for Royal Caribean Cruise-Lines.

Just as they don’t use these lyrics from “Lust for Life” in that cruise line commercial:

Here comes johnny yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He’s gonna do another strip tease.

I wouldn’t expect Kerry to ever refer to the lines cited by Slate.

In fact, Kerry’s attitude toward the sort of people championed by Langston Hughes has much more in common with Slate Magazine’s. Their problem is that they are so uptight they won’t allow one of their own to appropriate a catchy slogan, even if it was written by somebody who despised capitalism and racism.

Despite borrowing from Hughes, Kerry’s outlook has much more in common with the Don Imus show, where he is a frequent guest. It was on the Imus show where Kerry made that crack about opponent Bill Weld “taking more vacations than people on welfare.” Kerry often uses that show to make key announcements, such as his denial that he had an affair with an intern. Imus was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile a couple of years ago, where he admitted to Mike Wallace that he used the word nigger in private conversations. That any big-name politician would continue to appear on this venue is simply astonishing. But I guess if the goal is to remove Bush, it is okay if his replacement hangs out with cracker-barrel racists.

When Kerry accused Bill Weld of taking as many vacations as people on welfare, this wasn’t just a racist jibe to endear himself to Don Imus’s listeners. He competed with Bill Weld for the prize of sticking it to the poor. When he ran against Weld, he made sure to attract the votes of racist Boston suburbanites just as he is doing today with his attack on the right of undocumented workers to get a driver’s license.

In 1995, the Boston Herald reported that “Bay State human services advocates yesterday accused Sen. John Kerry of turning his back on the poor by voting in favor of the GOP’s sweeping welfare reform bill.”

“Sen. Kerry has sunk to the lowest level of political expediency,” said Betsy Wright, head of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition. “He’s abandoned the children of Massachusetts.”

Jim Stewart, head of Cambridge’s First Church Shelter, ridiculed Kerry for backing a “bigoted, ill-conceived and punitive” plan. Wright said many activists believe Kerry’s vote was influenced by the looming shadow of a potential 1996 challenge from Gov. William F. Weld, who pushed a statewide welfare crackdown.

Wright charged that Kerry, a Democrat, backed the GOP plan in hopes of defusing criticism from Weld that he’s too soft on welfare recipients.

“Kerry has one eye on Weld,” said Wright. “It’s disgusting. He’s afraid to take the heat from Weld. Activists are horrified by Kerry.”

I guess that the ABB crowd is all too willing to back him despite this record, since he is not as evil as Bush. I’ll have lots more to say about this down the road, but this was basically how the German people ended up with Hitler. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, the bourgeois parties will continue to shift to the right. Unless the left constructs an alternative, we will end up not with the “lesser evil” but the “greater evil”. That is what history reveals.

July 23, 2004

City of God

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

City of God

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 23, 2004

I finally got around to seeing the Brazilian film “City of God,” which was directed by TV commercial veteran Fernando Meirelles and that enjoyed a very long run in NYC theaters a year or so ago. As most people know, this film has been widely acclaimed by the critical establishment and was an Oscar nominee last year. I was prepared to see something akin to Hector Babenco’s “Pixote” or Luis Bunuel’s “Los Olvidados”, but was disappointed to discover that the film had more in common with Quentin Tarentino. It is a highly aestheticized presentation of gang life in a Rio de Janiero favela (slum) named “City of God” that left me with a feeling of total revulsion for all the characters except Rocket, a denizen who escapes this world by dint of his passion for photography and his ineptitude at crime. It is through his eyes that a never-ending procession of sadism and inhumanity unfolds.

The main character is L’il Ze, a psychopathic gang leader who reminds me of the character Al Pacino played in “Scarface”. Comparable in terms of his crude ambitions and talent for wiping out opponents, L’il Ze lacks Tony Montaña’s raffish charm. While this characterization might be more realistic, it also makes for less interesting drama since a compelling villain remains the lynchpin for a successful work of art.

L’il Ze’s chief lieutenant is Benny, who seeks to escape gang life and live a hippy existence on a farm (the film is set in the 60s and 70s.) Although he is intended to be a relatively more attractive character, I would be repelled by anybody in the position of henchman to L’il Ze. In one scene, Benny joins L’il Ze in punishing one of the “runts,” a preteen youngster similar to Pixote who has been terrorizing shopkeepers under the gang’s protection. They offer him the choice of a bullet in the hand or the foot. After they shoot him in the foot, he is ordered to walk–but not limp–away from them. They giggle hysterically as if they had given somebody a hot-foot.

There is zero interest in explaining the broader social and economic context for the gangster phenomenon. Although it is obvious that crime is a function of poverty, Meirelles shows scant interest in the military dictatorship which had crushed all hopes for economic improvement. Nor does he seem interested in showing how a slum like City of God might have emerged as a function of what Marxists call “primitive accumulation.” When peasants are driven off their land and forced into crowded slums lacking all amenities and economic opportunity, no wonder their sons and daughters turn to drugs and crime.

In an interview with the online magazine Trópico, the director explained why he chose not to provide such a background:

Q: What were the major changes you made in adapting the book? [a reference to the nonfiction book the film was based on]

A: In the film, it’s Buscapé (‘Rocket’ in the American subtitles) who tells the story, a kid who narrates how the outlaws came to be in the City of God, how they got starting dealing and wound up taking over the place. I was criticized for not showing the reason for all the violence, or the external factors affecting this story. But the fact is that the premise of my film is the viewpoint of the kid who narrates it.

If I wanted to present a sociological vision or explain the external factors of all that, this wouldn’t be the same film. Not to mention the fact that it would make the film a dime a dozen. Everybody knows what the middle-class perspective on the subject is. Do we need a film to tell us that income distribution in Brazil is a disgrace?


I don’t know. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’d walk a mile for a sociological vision in a story such as this.

July 21, 2004

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
posted to www.marxmail.org on July 21, 2004
In this season of leftwing documentaries, I can’t imagine anything that will surpass “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” which opens at the Cinema Village in NYC on July 28. With a title drawn from his 1994 memoir, this film is much more about broader social and political issues than it is about the particulars of a man’s life since it is virtually impossible to separate Howard Zinn from his place in American society. Like documentaries on Fidel Castro and Noam Chomsky, you are dealing with a very public narrative.
With facial features and a long, lean frame resembling Hollywood actor (and outstanding progressive) Gregory Peck, Zinn has onscreen charisma to burn. Even into his eighties, Zinn has a boundless energy and enthusiasm for speaking at antiwar rallies and discussing politics with young people. Retired from Boston University in 1988, Zinn has been anything but disengaged from his long life passion: fighting injustice. Unlike many academics, Zinn’s politics were not something that came to him exclusively through the intellect. Born into a working-class Brooklyn Jewish family that lived in tenement housing, Zinn was forced by circumstances to take up a blue-collar life himself.
While working in the Brooklyn navy yards in the late 1930s, he became a union organizer and gravitated toward the organized left without ever becoming a member. When a CP member invites him to a party-led midtown Manhattan rally, he is knocked unconscious by a cop for just being on the scene. Without having to read Lenin, this event convinced him that the police are not neutral in capitalist society. Footage of cops beating up peaceful protestors and trade union rallies are interspersed throughout this portion of the film. It is one of the great achievements of directors Denis Mueller and Deb Ellis to choose exactly the right film footage to dramatize key moments of Howard Zinn’s life.
After WWII begins, Zinn decides to enlist into the Air Force as a bombardier even though his navy yard job would have provided an exemption. In the final weeks of the war, he and his fellow airmen are given orders to bomb a small French town where German soldiers have been spotted. Not only is the fighting virtually over, they are ordered to drop an early version of napalm on the town, which kills many citizens as well as “enemy” soldiers. From 30,000 feet, it is very difficult to avoid “collateral damage.” This traumatizing event turns Zinn into a pacifist. Unlike the Communist Party that always viewed the war as a crusade against evil, Zinn would begin to question WWII and eventually all wars. He should be seen as part of an important pacifist tradition that also included Pacifica network founder Lew Hill and David Dellinger, who went to prison for refusing to serve in the military. In many ways, such figures were all-important in helping to shape the New Left.
After the war ends, Zinn returns to New York where he attends college on the GI bill and raises a family. To pay the rent and support his family, he works as a warehouseman on the night shift. In 1956, he receives a PhD in history from Columbia University and takes a job with Spelman College, an all-black institution in Atlanta. From nearly the moment he arrives on campus, he joins students in the fledgling civil rights movement and becomes an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This earns him the attention of the FBI and the wrath of the administration, which eventually discharges him.
Eventually Zinn ends up at Boston University, where he picks up where he left off, but this time in the burgeoning Vietnam antiwar movement. Along with MIT colleague Noam Chomsky, Zinn is a constant fixture at teach-ins and rallies. Throwing caution to the wind, he allows himself to be arrested repeatedly in civil disobedience. On the very day that his name is being presented for tenure by the Board of Trustees at Boston University, he accepts a student group’s invitation to speak at a protest where the trustees are meeting to deliberate on his future!
After the radical movement of the 1960s has subsided, Zinn embarks on the most important project of his life: writing “A People’s History of the United States.” He begins this work in 1980, coinciding with Ronald Reagan’s first term as president. Like almost everything else that has happened in his life, Zinn gladly swims against the stream. Although there has been much attention paid to the success of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” I would argue that this book is the must successful intervention into broader American society by a radical in our entire history. It has not only sold more than a million copies; it has changed the way that people see themselves and the world.
One such person is Bruce Springsteen, who after reading Zinn’s book, sat down to record “Nebraska,” his most socially and politically aware album. This would seem to complete the circle since Zinn himself decided to write about history “from below” after hearing Woody Guthrie sing about the Ludlow strike. Guthrie, through Bob Dylan, was an influence on Springsteen.
Ludlow Massacre
It was early springtime that the strike was on
They moved us miners out of doors
Out from the houses that the company owned
We moved into tents at old Ludlow
I was worried bad about my children
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge
Every once in a while a bullet would fly
Kick up gravel under my feet
We were so afraid they would kill our children
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep
Carried our young ones and a pregnant woman
Down inside the cave to sleep
full: http://www.ukans.edu/carrie/docs/texts/ludlow.htm
Actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck incorporated “A People’s History” into their Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting.” Damon’s character, a janitor at Harvard, shows up a pretentious Harvard student with his intimate understanding of American history, something that he learned from a “real book,” namely Zinn’s magnum opus. (Matt Damon is the narrator of the film.)
While “A People’s History” has been embraced by the people who matter most to Zinn, the academic establishment has been less favorably disposed. (So has pro-Iraq war Dissent Magazine, a bland social democratic venue that finds his work one-sided. This, if anything, should serve as a stamp of approval). Oscar Handlin, a Harvard historian and Commentary Magazine contributor, hated the book. In a review for The American Scholar, he wrote that Zinn was “a stranger to evidence.” Not only was the book “anti-American,” but it was an “indiscriminate condemnation on all the works of man — that is upon civilization, a word he usually encloses in quotation marks.” Zinn, it should be added, was in good company since Handlin also characterized William Appleman Williams’ “Contours of American History” as “farcical” and “an elaborate hoax.”
While watching this wonderful movie, I reflected on what was lost in American leftwing politics when native radical traditions were abandoned in favor of a schematic imitation of Russian Bolshevism. Clearly, Zinn hearkens back to earlier traditions from Thomas Paine to Henry David Thoreau. I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to say that unless the left recovers those traditions and synthesizes them with the best of Marxist thought, we have no future.

Gregory Pack and Howard Zinn comparison: http://www.marxmail.org/Peck_Zinn.htm

July 18, 2004

Dear Barbara Ehrenreich

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 18, 2004
I want to begin by congratulating DSA for its ability to gain a foothold in the mass media. With you subbing for Thomas Friedman and Cornel West taking a bit part in “The Matrix Reloaded”, what can be next? (Is there any truth to the rumor, by the way, that Bogdan Denitch will be doing a Food Network show? I understand that he does a killer paella.)
With that out of the way, I want to turn to something that I am not so impressed with, namely your op-ed attack on Ralph Nader in today’s NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/18/opinion/18EHRE.html). That being said, I have to hand it to you. You implicitly throw your celebrity-leftist heft behind Kerry without mentioning his name once. As a student of Communist Party history, I for one feel a sense of déjà vu when I read this sort of thing–as in ‘Defeat Landon at All Costs.’
I can understand this sort of thing when somebody like FDR was the implicit choice of the Communists, but a pro-war billionaire who once joked to Don Imus that his opponent Bill Weld “took more vacations than people on welfare” seems like a case of diminishing expectations when it comes to “the lesser evil”. In relationship to Nader’s 2000 campaign, you refer to this year’s run as a farce following tragedy. Oddly enough, I find Kerry to be sub-farcical when it comes to such matters.
You explain that “hindsight” allows you to describe Nader’s 2000 run as a tragedy. Isn’t it possible that something else is going on, namely the enormous peer pressure of the social democratic/liberal milieu to renounce everything that Nader stands for? Frankly, I haven’t seen such a herd phenomenon outside of the Communist Party of Stalin’s era. Did you ever see Costa-Gravas’s “The Confession”? I can see Nation Magazine contributors standing before the court of public opinion today confessing that they undermined the progressive movement in the USA, just as those hapless party members confessed to being CIA agents. Who knows, for some of our soft leftists, it might be as painful to be ostracized by fellow liberals as it would be to spend 2 years in a Czech prison. You even tell your readers that you “risked death by sporting your [Nader] bumper sticker well into the reign of Bush”. I am really happy that nobody murdered you. Our movement needs fearless journalists, even when they obey the herd instinct when it comes to challenging the 2-party system.
Everything seems to hinge on the figure of George W. Bush, who you describe as “a figure invoked worldwide to scare unruly children.” Odd, I feel the same way about John Kerry, who has always looked to me like a cross between the Frankenstein monster and Edmund Muskie. Not only is this Bush a figure whose evil beggars all description, like Ming the Merciless in the old Flash Gordon serials, you had a whole rafter of really peachy-keen people running in the Democratic Party who had all the same nice values as Nader himself. So why did he have to go and spoil things by running against both Democrats and Republicans.
Since you mention Dennis Kucinich as one of these really nice Democrats whom you support now (until presumably after he instructs his followers to back Kerry), it is only fair to remind you of the unpleasant fact that his delegates have folded like a cheap suitcase:
“Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s campaign headed off a showdown in the party platform yesterday over Iraq, convincing rival Dennis J. Kucinich’s supporters not to demand withdrawal of U.S. troops or the establishment of a Department of Peace.
“Saying party unity is more important than particulars, delegates agreed to forgo amendments on Iraq, a broader call for same-sex unions and a stronger endorsement of Palestinians’ rights.” (Washington Times, July 11, 2004)
You raise the same canards as the rest of the ABB crowd about Nader’s cozying up to the rightwing. “Republicans are the least of it. You’ve been kissing up to the Reform Party, which ran paleo-right-winger Pat Buchanan the last time around.” Perhaps Nader should have chosen John McCain as his running-mate, whom Kerry unsuccessfully attempted to seduce in an open bid to capture rightwing votes. Looking back in retrospect, this would have been a perfect match for Kerry, whose recently published book demonizes the Vietnamese resistance, just as Iraqis are demonized today. McCain once told reporters, “I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.” A perfect complement to John Kerry.
In any case, I’ll stick with the Barbara Ehrenreich of 2000. Just substitute “Kerry” for “Gore” and this sounds right as rain:
But I can’t get really mad at the Gore-ites of the left–there is such a becoming and altogether seemly diffidence about them. To my knowledge, none of them are sporting Gore buttons or bumper stickers, and I don’t expect any of them to invite me to a Gore house party anytime soon. While they may firmly believe that “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,” they seem also to understand that a vote for Gore is a vote for the system as it stands–and specifically for the DLC-dominated Democratic Party. Like it or not, that’s how the Gore votes will be counted, and that’s how they’ll be spun.
Here’s how generous I am: I’ll tell them what they can do if they’d like to save Gore. They should stop flacking for him–stop all this carping about “spoiling” and “vote stealing”–and explain to their man what he’d have to do to start taking votes away from Nader. Like renouncing the substitution of bribery for the democratic process. Like pledging to spend the budget excess on such daily necessities as universal health insurance and childcare. Like embracing a worker-friendly approach to world trade.
I doubt Gore could ever become Nader-like enough to steal my vote from the original, certainly not after his choice of DLC leader Lieberman as Veep. But it sure would be nice to see him try.
Full: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml%3Fi=20000821&s=ehrenreich

July 11, 2004

Reply to Rick Perlstein on the Democrats

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

Hi, Rick,

I am cc’ing Marxmail and PEN-L on this. I doubt that the howling extremist mob on the former would have much interest in how the Democrats can become a majority party again, but I know that PEN-L is very tuned in to this topic.

To start with, everybody should take a look at Rick’s Boston Review article which is titled “How Can the Democrats Win?” at http://www.bostonreview.net/BR29.3/perlstein.html. There are also replies by well-known leftists and liberals such as Robert Reich, Adolph Reed and Stanley Aronowitz.

To start with, I found your discussion of Boeing quite interesting. I had the chance to look at the development of the 747 in some depth as part of an examination of airline deregulation a few years ago. I relied heavily on a book by John Newhouse titled “The Sporty Game” that appeared originally in the New Yorker when the magazine was worth something. I was much less sanguine about viewing the development of the 747 as an unqualified success, at least on capitalism’s own terms:

In the same year that Newhouse’s book appeared, a report on “Competition and the Airlines: An Evaluation of Deregulation” was submitted by staff economists David R. Graham and Daniel P. Kaplan to their superiors at the Civil Aeronautics Board. Given its internal character, the authors make no effort to depict deregulation as progressive legislation motivated to make air travel affordable. Instead it is declining profits that occupies center stage. In fact they openly admit that air travel had become a mass consumer phenomenon without the help of Senator Kennedy’s trust-busters. They state that between 1949 and 1969, air traffic grew by more than 14 percent a year. During this same period, average air fares actually fell by 2 percent while the consumer price index rose by 50 percent. In other words, air travel was cheap relative to other consumer goods.

What concerned the economists was the fortunes of the airline companies rather than those of the consumers. With all the money spent on 747s and other oversized jets, empty seats became a much more serious problem given the economies of scale.

Full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/economics/airline_deregulation.htm

Turning now to your recommendations to the Democratic Party leadership:

“Any marketing executive will tell you that you can’t build a brand out of stuff the people say they don’t want. And what do Americans say they want? According to the pollsters, exactly what the Democratic Party was once famous for giving them: economic populism.”

All I can say is that this not quite the Democratic Party I am familiar with, at least in broad historical terms. Keep in mind that the Democratic Party was originally the party of the Southern Bourbons. While Arthur Schlesinger Jr. portrays Andrew Jackson as some kind of plebian democrat, he owned slaves and saw his role as promoting the interest of the same class he belonged to. The Republican Party emerged as a revolutionary opposition to the Democrats and only withdrew from the task of uprooting racial supremacy in the South when Northern liberals, particularly those grouped around Godkin’s Nation Magazine, persuaded party bosses that they were encouraging developments in the USA that might turn out like the Paris Commune. David Montgomery details all this in “The Death of Reconstruction”.

I myself stumbled across this sordid tale while preparing a critical review of the Nation around the time that Hitchens had become a turncoat and Marc Cooper was perfecting his own redbaiting skills. I learned that hostility to radicalism was not an invention of Katrina vanden Heuvel, but something rooted in the magazine’s hoary past. On December 5th 1867, the Nation wrote:

“It must now be confessed those who were of this way of thinking [namely that the Radical Republicans were going too far], and they were many, have proved to be not very far wrong. It is not yet too late for the majority in Congress to retrace its steps and turn to serious things. The work before it is to bring the South back to the Union on the basis-of equal rights, and not to punish the President or provide farms for negroes or remodel the American Government.”

After the “great compromise” that ended Reconstruction, challenges to the big bourgeoisie were mounted not from within the Republican or Democratic Parties but from 3rd party efforts like the Populists. Then, as today, efforts were mounted to either co-opt or destroy these movements. If you compare the programs of the Democratic and Republican Parties from the period of the end of Reconstruction to FDR’s election as a *balanced budget* realist, you’ll find about as much to choose between as George W. Bush and John Kerry. (I must say that for all your eagerness to assert that “beating George W. Bush at the ballot box in November…is imperative to the future health of the United States”, you don’t seem at all that interested in explaining why. That is, unless you think that “staying the course” in Iraq is part of that future health. But what can I say, I am one of those unrepentant 1960s radicals who never would have voted for Humphrey, to the everlasting dismay of Todd Gitlin I suppose.)

After FDR’s election, New Deal legislation was enacted not because he was a populist or even wanted to win elections. Change came because workers sat-in at factories, marched on Washington and generally raised hell. I guess you might say that that describes my attitude in general. I am for raising the more hell the better.

July 8, 2004

Christian Parenti “reporting” from Iraq

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

Did anybody see “Salvador”, a typically overheated Oliver Stone flick? James Woods (a reactionary in real life) plays a hardboiled reporter whose primary message seems to be “war is hell”. Although I can’t imagine why anybody would want to aspire to this kind of cliché in real life, Christian Parenti angles for exactly that persona in the pages of the Nation. He bravely goes among the natives in war torn Iraq and sends dispatches to the home front about how wacked out they are.

With the security situation deteriorating rapidly in the country (thank goodness), young Parenti (son of Michael) seems content to report from the relative safety of a Baghdad hotel. Given the headline “The News From Planet Falluja”, (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040719&s=parentiweb) you might have been led to believe that he was walking about Falluja conducting interviews with the unruly natives. (Although I have never gleaned from his dispatches that he speaks Arabic.)

It turns out that the news was second-hand. It comes from one “Tariq”, whom he describes as “a Muslim, fluent in Arabic and English, very smart, very young, brave and a bit naïve. He is an obsessive computer geek with a tendency toward pedantry on matters technological. Over the past two years he has spent several months in Palestine doing solidarity work.” Sounds like one of us, doesn’t he? Surely, you’d take his word against the nuts that are running Falluja, wouldn’t you? And what a bunch of nuts they are.

Even though Tariq was involved with Palestinian solidarity, “they lied to him and manipulated him every day, taking his passport and his computer, never delivering him to the hospital as promised and often taking him to the frontlines against his will.”

In line with the bourgeois media’s reporting on the Talibanization of Falluja, Parenti quotes Tariq as saying “that Sharia law–or perhaps more accurately, a kind of Sharia lawlessness–was in full effect in Falluja, with hands cut off for theft, women kept away from men, etc.”

And just to drive home the point that we are dealing with a cast of characters out of an Indiana Jones movie, Parenti describes what happens to an unfortunate Turkoman:

“There was a Turkoman who ran a hotel; he had a wife and family. We thought he was a spy, so we beat him. We broke every bone in his body, but he wouldn’t confess. Then we cut a checkerboard in his back with a knife and poured salt on his wounds. He begged us to kill him but he would not confess. We knew by then that he was innocent. To kill him was an act of mercy.”

I don’t know. If somebody broke every bone in my body, I doubt if I’d even regain sufficient consciousness to confess. And then to really show that they meant business, the ruthless natives then carved a checkerboard in his back and poured salt on his wounds. Well, he was damned lucky not to get caught by a bunch of Jap soldiers. They would have stuck bamboo splinters under his fingernails, the dirty heathen. Makes Abu Ghraib look benign by comparison, right?

Tariq adds that despite the Talibanesque tendency to cut hands off for theft, the guerrilla commanders have lots in common with the Ken Lays and Martha Stewarts of the world. “The commanders all drive nice cars, BMWs and Mercedes.”

After going through this ordeal, Tariq questions the meaning of “solidarity”. Can’t say I blame him. If I was treated this way, I’d also want to warn the pwogessives of the world against allowing Iraqis to determine their own future, free from imperialist interference. Needless to say, with every fiber of the Nation Magazine, his employer George Soros, and his daddy Michael straining to put pro-occupation, anti-“cut and run” John Kerry into the White House, the message of Christian’s article would seem to serve ulterior motives.

July 1, 2004

Reply to a realo

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:59 pm

Reply to an American realo

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on June 30, 2004

In his ongoing capacity as chief ideologist of the Demogreen/Realo faction of the US Green Party, Ted Glick has an article on the Zmag website that talks about every aspect of the recently concluded Green Party convention except the politics. I will try to draw this out with bracketed comments on selected passages from his piece. You can read the entire article here:

Before donning my hip-boots and wading into this muck, I want to make a general observation about the discourse of the Demogreens. It has been a very long time since I have come across such disingenuous prose marked by fuzziness and Pecksniffian self-righteousness. I wonder if this is the heritage of the CPUSA in the USA. This kind of talking out of both sides of one’s mouth was perfected by the party. Have veterans of the 1960s generation who have followed a more cautious path after the “excesses” of their youth been studying the speeches of Gus Hall? I really wonder. Let’s take a look at what he has to say:

Green and Growing by Ted Glick June 28, 2004

The three main positions going into Milwaukee were to neither nominate nor endorse anyone, to nominate former GPUS general counsel David Cobb, or to nominate no one and then endorse Ralph Nader. A variant of the pro-Nader position, one pushed by California GP leader Peter Camejo, called for no nomination and then an endorsement of both Cobb and Nader.

[These were not the positions at all. The positions were over whether the Green Party would be an auxiliary to the Democratic Party or an independent and radical electoral formation opposed to both parties that Malcolm X called the wolf and the fox. The Cobb delegates were pro-fox.]

Convention week was begun on Monday with a huge announcement by Nader that he was choosing Camejo to be his Vice Presidential candidate. Score one for the pro-Nader forces.

[Score one for the pro-Nader forces? Politics as a horse race. I never thought I’d see the day that radicals would use formulations from Sunday morning television.]

Two days later Medea Benjamin, like Camejo a California Green Party leader, issued a statement headlined, “Want to Get Rid of Bush and Grow the Greens? Support David Cobb.” Touche.

[Grow the Greens? Why does this formulation disturb me so much? I guess it is because it comes out of the corporate/consulting world. I remember first hearing it on Wall Street in the 1980s. They used to say that they wanted to “grow the firm” or “grow the client base”. It was a term that was ubiquitous to board meetings and the business press. Eventually it seeped into the nonprofit world as on-the-go executive directors would make presentations about the need to “grow the base” or “grow the movement”. It is basically a marketing concept and particularly suited to the kind of hustle that Medea Benjamin is involved with, a tourist agency for the Birkenstock-wearing, NPR-listening well-heeled professional who wants to see what “it’s really like” in Haiti or Brazil. And while they’re there, they can pick up some tasteful trinkets.]

Significantly, there were no physical altercations or, as far as I am aware, even any nasty emotional outbursts between those on the respective sides, while there was a great deal of reasoned discussion, as well as robust, vigorous and competitive debate. [Don’t forget that Cobb charged Nader for taking money from white racists. Nader is too much of a gentleman to respond to that kind of gutter attack.]

Camejo and Cobb, as the two main protagonists, were both “on their game.” Both came across as articulate and passionate in support of their positions. Toward the end of the forum/debate, things got heated as Camejo accused Cobb of being a supporter of John Kerry and Cobb countered by articulating what he has been calling a “smart growth” strategy which prioritizes building the Green Party while also running a campaign which helps to get Bush out of office.

[Smart growth? Ugh. Puke. Retch. When I read this kind of Utne Reader pap, it makes me want to go running as fast as I can to read Rosa Luxemberg’s “The Junius Pamphlet”:

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

Friday morning began with the Cobb campaign distributing a statement they called, “The True Position of the Cobb/LaMarche Campaign on the Iraq War: End the Occupation, Bring the U.S. Troops Home Now.” The statement quoted from press releases issued in April and May and posted on the votecobb.org website, while also criticizing Camejo for “misrepresent(ing) the position of the Cobb/LaMarche Campaign on the Iraq war” at the Thursday evening debate.

[He must have changed his mind under pressure from Green Party members who were revolted by his statement to Amy Goodman that: “We can’t just cut and run and leave the mess for the Iraqi people to deal with. We have a responsibility in figuring out how to work with the Iraqi people is the first priority.” This is just what I’d expect from somebody who wants to kowtow to the Kerry campaign.]

The women’s caucus, youth caucus and black caucus all took steps forward. International visitors and speakers reminded us that we are part of an international movement worldwide and that we have major responsibilities to the world’s struggling peoples and threatened ecosystem.

[I am not sure what movement you are “part of”. You are accommodating yourself to a candidate that appears to be preferred by the CIA right now.

‘Embedded Patriots’ by William Greider:

The most intriguing story in Washington these days is a subterranean conflict that reporters cannot cover because some of them are involved. A potent guerrilla insurgency has formed in and around the Bush presidency–a revolt of old pros in government who strike from the shadows with devastating effect. . .

My own surmise–corroborated in conversations with several long-experienced Washington reporters–is that we are probably talking about career military officers and senior civil servants at the Pentagon, Justice Department lawyers and professionals at the CIA or State Department.


Maybe you should invite one of these guerrilla insurgents to join the Cobb faction of the Green Party. They’d fit right in.]

* * * *

Not an hour after comparing Ted Glick to Gus Hall, I discover that David Cobb’s running mate is open to voting for John Kerry:

LaMarche Says She’ll Vote for Whoever Can Beat Bush by Joshua L Weinstein

AUGUSTA — Pat LaMarche, the Green Party’s newly nominated candidate for vice president, said Tuesday that her top priority is not winning the White House for her party, but ensuring that President Bush is defeated. She is, in fact, so determined to see Bush lose that she would not commit to voting for herself and her running mate, Texas lawyer David Cobb. LaMarche, who won 7 percent of the vote when she was the Green Independent candidate for governor of Maine in 1998, said she’ll vote for whoever has the best chance of beating Bush.

But “if Bush has got 11 percent of the vote in Maine come November 2, I can vote for whoever I want,” she said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

And if the state is, as it is now, a toss-up between Bush and presumptive Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry?

She could well vote for the Democrat.

“I love my country,” she said. “Maybe we should ask them that, because if (Vice President) Dick Cheney loved his country, he wouldn’t be voting for himself.”

A spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign said the vice president is certain to vote for his and Bush’s re-election.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said, “It’s a rare thing, even for a splinter party, to have a nominee for vice president indicate she is not sure for whom she is going to vote.”

Actually, there is a precedent for this sort of sleight-of-hand.

In his autobiography, CP leader Steve Nelson explained how the party perfected the tactic now being employed by the Demogreens:

“The fact that the Party [CP] continued to run its own candidates during the early New Deal may give the wrong impression of our attitude toward the Democratic Party. We supported pro-New Deal candidates and ran our own people largely for propaganda purposes….

“Earl Browder’s campaign that same year [1936] demonstrates how we ran our own candidates but still supported the New Deal. His motto and the whole tone of his campaign was ‘Defeat Landon [the Republican] at All Costs.’ In this way he sought to give critical support to FDR. We wanted to work with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and to achieve a certain amount of legitimacy as a party of the Left. We held a rally for Browder in the Wilkes-Barre [Pennsylvania] armory, which held over three thousand people, and the place was jammed. Many in the audience were rank and file Democrats. We didn’t get their votes on election day, but that’s not what counted to us. They were coming to recognize us as friends.

“For years there had been essentially no difference between Democrats and Republicans: both had represented the interests of the coal companies. Now there was a feeling that Roosevelt was doing something to relieve the problem of unemployment, and that signified a real change. People identified with the government as basically pro-labor. We had no illusions. The Democrats were still a capitalist party, but they were an alternative to the Republicans and were delivering the Wagner Act, Social Security, unemployment insurance, public works, and other badly needed reforms.”

—Steve Nelson: American Radical

Blog at WordPress.com.