Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 24, 2005

Twilight Samurai

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on May 24, 2005

“Twilight Samurai” is a double-entendre. The hero, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), has been nicknamed “twilight” by fellow clerks since he goes straight home at sunset to look after his two young daughters or to plow his fields rather than join them for drinks at the local geisha house. The word “twilight” also describes the period in Japanese history immediately before the Meiji restoration that brought an end to samurai power and privilege.

By the 1800s, many samurai had descended to Seibi Iguchi’s status. They functioned as minor bureaucrats in a decaying feudal system rather than as warriors. Indeed, Seibei’s existence evokes Bob Cratchit rather than Yojimbo. His day is spent in the counting house of the local prince’s palace, where he sits and enters columns of numbers onto parchment. I was reminded of the social function of my ancestors since Proyect is Yiddish for the counting house of a tax-farmer, a role assigned typically to the court Jews of the Middle Ages.

Seibi is a lowly 50-koku samurai, which means that he gets an annual stipend of rice that can feed 50 people (a koku is equal to five bushels.) This is insufficient to support himself, his two daughters and his elderly mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. (His wife has died of consumption, brought on obviously by poverty.) Forced to make ends meet, he spends every free moment tilling his fields or making cages for the crickets that were kept as pets in Shogunate households. A combination of exhaustion and depression has taken its toll on the lowly samurai. His fellow workers notice that he has body odor and that his kimono is frayed at the edges. When a high-level commissioner conducts an inspection of the palace warehouse, he instructs Seibei to take a bath and mend his clothes. Afterwards, his boss bawls him out.

The only thing that brings Seibi pleasure is his two daughters Kayana and Ito. (Kayana, the older of the two at ten years, provides voiceover as an adult in the form of an extended flashback.) But they wonder why they have to learn how to read since sewing rather than books will provide income for the family. He answers that reading will provide the knowledge they need to understand the world and to become better human beings. This is the first indication that Seibei is not a typical samurai, who are generally a misogynist lot–including the powerful 1000-koku samurai who has been divorced by Seibei’s childhood friend Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) after years of drunken physical and verbal abuse.

When the ex-husband arrives at Tomoe’s house to retrieve her, Seibei intercedes to tell him that she is no longer his wife and that he must leave at once. The aristocrat is shocked by Seibei’s impudence and challenges him to a duel by the river banks the next day. When Seibei arrives armed with nothing but a stick, we assume that he will be slaughtered by Tomoe’s ex-husband, who is a feared swordsman. Instead, Seibei dodges the blade and lands a well-placed blow on his head to end the duel on favorable terms both to him and to his opponent–by saving his own life as well as that of the man who would kill him. We soon discover that Seibei is actually a skilled swordsman who has forsaken combat long ago. Despite his prowess, he has lost the stomach for killing other human beings.

This year Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” was published. The basic idea of the book seems plausible to me. It is the same thing I heard in a writer’s workshop 25 years ago. All plots are recycled material. For example, “Beowulf” and “Jaws” are “overcoming the monster” tales. “On the Road”, “Huckleberry Finn” and “Thelma and Louise” are “road” stories, etc.

When I discovered that Seibei was a formidable swordsman who voluntarily left the life of a professional killer behind, I was reminded of Clint Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven.” In “The Unforgiven,” Eastwood played a pig farmer who was once a feared gunfighter. He is persuaded to pick up the gun once again by a group of prostitutes who seek vengeance against a cowboy who has mutilated one of them with a knife.

In “Twilight Samurai,” Seibei is forced to use a sword against Yogo Zenemon (Min Tanaka), another highly placed samurai who is holed up in his house after refusing to commit harikari upon the death of his master. It appears that traditions are breaking down entirely at the end of the Tokugawa era and that armed interventions are required to keep them intact. Local officials tell Seibei that unless he accepts the mission to kill Yogo Zenemon, he will be expelled from the clan and forced into pauperdom.

Indeed, the film is pervaded by the sense of unyielding custom and rigid hierarchy. This is not the free-wheeling élan of Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai” but the suffocating and oppressive reality that gave birth to a bourgeois revolution in the late 19th century. Despite its top-down character, the Meiji restoration was a reaction to the stupidity and stagnation of a feudal system that had long outlasted its usefulness.

Despite his growing disaffection from the old system, Seibei is still trapped by it. When Tomoe makes clear that she prefers Seibei as a new husband to other more wealthy and powerful men, he rejects her advances. Why? He says that she will never be happy with a 50-koku samurai. It is obvious that he is more concerned about his status in Shogunate society than she is.

Tomoe is very clear about what is wrong with Japanese society. When she takes Kayana and Ito to a ribald carnival that is mounted annually by peasants, they ask her why samurai are prevented by attending it. She answers that she does not know why, since without peasants there would be no samurai. This is about as clear a statement of the class nature of feudalism that you will find anywhere.

The film’s climax takes place inside the house of Yogo Zenemon. The two samurai discover that they have much in common–including resentment toward a system that finds them dispensable.

To understand the role of the samurai in Togukawa era Japan requires a Marxian class analysis, but one unencumbered by dogmatism. There is probably no better introduction to the question than Douglas R. Howland’s “Samurai Status, Class and Bureaucracy: A Historiographical Essay” that appeared in the May 2001 Journal of Asian Studies.

Howland states that there were two Marxist tendencies in the prewar Japan academy with varying interpretations of the pre-Meiji era. The Koza, or “Lecture” group, argued that the samurai were a purely feudal class and that the Meiji restoration resulted in the ascendancy of a reconstituted feudal ruling class, against which a bourgeois revolution must be organized. Not surprisingly, the “Lecture” group was supported by the Communist Party.

The Rono, or “Farmer-Labor” group, argued that the samurai had shifted class positions, with the lower rungs–people like the Twilight Samurai, in other words–joining the urban working class and becoming critical to the Meiji restoration’s bourgeois revolution from above. As should be clear from things I have written in reply to Robert Brenner, I am sympathetic to these views.

Although it is not clear to me that Yoji Yamada, the 74 year old director of “Twilight Samurai, is familiar with this debate, there can be no doubt that his masterpiece of a film supports the “Farmer-Labor” perspective.

For Howland, the category “bureaucratic labor” describes the lot of the average samurai throughout the Shogunate era. He writes:

“As an individual, a samurai was often on his own in securing an adequate livelihood. Kozo Yamamura’s important study of samurai income found that the stipend of a ‘houseman’ was always barely adequate, giving him in the early Tokugawa period the living standard of a merchant or artisan.”

“The ‘lower samurai,’ who made up the majority of bureaucratic clerks and lowly functionaries and who felt unjustly cut off from positions of power and respect, increasingly voiced the rationalizing opinion that official appointments and positions should be based on merit rather than heredity.”

“Thus alienated from the Tokugawa state, motivated by notions of reform, and discovering alternative models, some younger samurai–Fukuzawa Yukichi, for example–began to interpret the question of political legitimacy in new terms, even those of representative institutions, and to replace relationships of loyalty with an identification with personal and national independence.”

In other words, the twilight samurai were the advance guard of democracy in the new Japan. Japan’s failure to deliver fully on that promise is obviously a subject for another post.

(“Twilight Samurai” was filmed in 2002 and was released theatrically in the USA a year later. This review is based on a viewing of the now available DVD. I regard this film as an unqualified masterpiece that ranks with Kurosawa’s best work.)

May 10, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

For some reason, show comments was turned off on my blog and, furthermore, I wasn’t notified by haloscan that new comments had appeared. I turned them back on and appreciate comments from Carl Davidson and JDG on my Iraq entry.

Frankly, I am beginning to get fed up with blogspot.com/haloscan.com and just might move the blog to another location using typepad, which seems more powerful. Will keep you apprised.

May 9, 2005

The Missing Gun

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:09 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on May 9, 2005

Now available in DVD, “The Missing Gun” tells the story of a small town Chinese cop who loses his gun. As with other neorealist films coming out of China like “Not One Less” or “Blind Shaft,” this is a China of losers, not upwardly mobile characters of the sort featured in Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat.”

Policeman Ma Shen (Wen Jiang) has woken up with a bad hangover and the frightening realization that he can’t find his service revolver. In China, cops are held responsible for their guns to the extent that a missing gun can result in a loss of a job and even jail time. His search for the gun assumes the dramatic dimensions of another more famous search, namely the missing bike in Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief.” Unless he can locate the gun, Ma Shen will be ruined.

The film is structured around his pursuit of some leads turned up at the wedding party for his sister the night before, where his gun was last seen. After drinking himself into a stupor, the gun was snatched from him.

One can easily understand why Ma Shen would drink himself into oblivion. His life does not offer too much. His wife constantly berates him for being a lousy husband and father to their young son, who is the brat of the century. When his wife and son come to visit him after he has been jailed, the son practically gloats over his loss of freedom and warns him that he should not interfere with his right to watch television if he is released. As with practically everything that comes his way, Ma Shen reacts to his son’s taunts impassively.

Indeed, the only thing that seems to stir him is the mission to regain his weapon. Although traditional values seem to be disappearing rapidly in China, the cops are deadly serious about the question of guns in the wrong hands. With its characteristically dry humor, “The Missing Gun” includes a scene in which the police chief lectures his subordinates about the dangers presented by Ma Shen’s missing weapon. Even though it only has 3 bullets, a good shot could kill six people with it since a properly aimed weapon can kill two people at once (shades of the Warren Commission!)

The cops are typical products of the new China. When the subject of bonuses comes up, the chief questions whether material incentives would erode their élan. He answers his own question by claiming that it is good to accept them, since they were sponsored by the Communist Party. The film is characterized by a kind of ambivalence about the changes taking place in the country today. We discover that the only true bonds of solidarity exist between Ma Shen and several old friends from the village who were at the wedding party and who were in the Red Army with them. For them, the Red Army was the one time in their life when they felt like they were really capable of self-respect.

The symbol of the New China is Zhou Xiaogang (Shi Liang), who runs an illegal liquor factory. Zhou drives around in a fancy Japanese sedan and wears Italian designer suits. When Ma Shen grabs him by the lapels to extract information, Zhou cries out “Italian, Italian!”

Director Chuan Lu makes the most of on-location settings of labyrinthine alleys and empty plazas that evoke De Chirico paintings. He also uses the surrounding mountainous countryside to great effect. One scene involves a mad bicycle chase between Ma Shen and a fleeing criminal (who might have stolen his gun) across a Chinese countryside that is as beautiful despite its sense of desolation.

“The Missing Gun” is an interesting look at China today. Now available at local video stores, it is well worth watching despite its refusal to conform to conventional expectations about cops and robbers. Perhaps that is what makes it all the more interesting.

Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”: conclusion

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:54 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on May 9, 2005

Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” is best understood as the environmentalist cousin to recent books and articles by Joseph Stiglitz, George Soros and Jeffrey Sachs that warn about the dangers of globalization. For the economists, the present world economic system is a ticking time-bomb that might destroy rich and poor alike. For Diamond the environmentalist, the refusal to husband resources such as forests, fish and clean water will lead to the collapse of modern-day societies just as surely as they led to Mayan or Easter Island collapse. Since Diamond and the economists all believe in the inviolability of the capitalist system, there is a certain cognitive dissonance at work in their writings. They harp on the symptoms, but stop short at identifying the root cause. It is what psychologists call denial.

But hope for the future arrives like a man on horseback in the concluding section of “Collapse.” Our survival depends on corporations like Chevron who have proved that capitalism and sustainable development can co-exist. During an ornithological expedition in Papua New Guinea, Diamond discovered that the corporation had created a “bird-watcher’s dream.” Descending toward the local airport, he saw virginal rain-forest and scant evidence of the devastation typical of oil exploration and drilling.

What is more, Chevron demonstrated that it really cared about him. After stepping several feet onto a company road shortly after his arrival to inspect local birds, he was chastised by company officials that this was a hazard not only to himself but to the environment. A truck could smack into him or a pipeline next to the road, causing a spill of blood or oil. So his conversion took place on a road just like Paul’s on the way to Damascus. The chastened ornithologist and prophet of doom promised company officials that henceforth he would wear a hardhat and stay on the side of the road.

Not only was oil company property home to far more birds than found in Papua New Guinea as a whole, it was also a place where indigenous peoples could be “better off with us there than if we were gone,” according to a Chevron executive. For Chevron, having Jared Diamond and the World Wildlife Fund (on whose board he sits) on their side amounts to a public relations coup. In a massive ad campaign throughout the 1990s, they exploited their partnership with the WWF and other mainstream environmentalist groups.

Chevron officials are very clever, certainly much cleverer than Jared Diamond. In 1992, Chevron’s contributions counsel David McMurray admitted, “Because of the type of business we are in we need to prove that we are responsible corporate citizens. Environmental pollutions are at the forefront in our company, so we are following this up with contributions.” That year Chevron dished out $1.6 million to environmentalist causes. This practice is called “greenwashing.” In “Divided Planet,” Tom Athanasiou explained that “the key to greenwashing is manufactured optimism, which comes in many forms­as images, articles and books, technologies, and even institutions. Anything will do, as long as it can be made to carry the message that, though the world may be seen to be going to hell, everything is good hands.”

The World Wildlife Fund sees no conflict of interest in accepting money by the bucketful from the Chevrons of the world. In Mark Dowie’s “Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century,” we learn about a WWF brochure geared especially to outfits like Chevron. It makes a pitch: “Your company can use a World Wildlife tie-in to achieve virtually every effort in your market plan…New Product Launches; Corporate Awareness; New Business Contacts; Brand Loyalty.” In the same brochure, WWF names Jaguar as one company persuaded by their salesmanship. The car company committed funds to a WWF-sponsored preserve in Belize. Since progressive-minded millionaires would feel short-changed if they didn’t have such places available for an eco-vacation, it is understandable why they would open up their wallet for the WWF.

If Chevron were solely about manipulating imagery, then the job of debunking WWF and Jared Diamond’s claims on their behalf would be a lot easier. As it turns out, Chevron did clean up their act to a significant extent in the 1980s and 90s. This was the product of sustained environmental protests and legal actions by the federal government. In 1994, Chevron spent almost $1.5 billion on environmental programs. We learn about their strategies in a chapter devoted to the oil giant in Joshua Karliner’s indispensable “The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization.”

Karliner informs us that this expenditure was nearly equal to corporate profits that same year. This was in line with oil company spending as a whole. He also refers to a study by the American Petroleum Institute revealing that the industry spent nearly $8 billion on the environment in 1990 and estimated that this would rise to over 30 billion per year by 2000. When you spend this kind of money at the same time a Democrat is in the White House, it is understandable how the WWF and Jared Diamond can get swept up in the enthusiasm. When Clinton pushed for NAFTA, the WWF and other mainstream environmentalist groups were all too happy to get on the bandwagon.

Like all clever capitalists, Chevron makes sure to hedge its bets. Just as Goldman-Sachs ladled out money to Bush and Kerry alike, Chevron donated funds to anti-environmentalist groups at the same time it was fattening WWF’s coffers. Karliner documented Chevron contributions to the following organizations:

1. Citizens for the Environment: advocates strict deregulation as a solution to environmental problems.

2. Oregonians for Food and Shelter: a pro-pesticide lobby.

3. Global Climate Coalition: global warming skeptics.

4. Pacific Legal Foundation: files court challenges to clean water, hazardous waste and wetlands protection laws.

5. National Wetlands Coalition: should probably be called National Anti-wetlands Coalition since its main goal is remove obstacles to oil drilling in their midst.

6. Mountain States Legal Foundation: founded by batty former Interior Secretary James Watt.

One wonders how trustworthy a corporation can be in protecting the environment when it is handing out money to this rogue’s gallery. The answer is not very much, except for Jared Diamond. At the start of his encomium to Chevron, Diamond says, “Like much of the public, I loved to hate the oil industry, and I deeply suspected the credibility of anybody who dared to report anything positive about the industry’s performance or its contribution to society.” If a Potemkin Village like the Chevron oil field in Papua New Guinea can assuage him, then perhaps one understands his reluctance to provide a complete accounting of the corporation’s behavior elsewhere.

Whatever improvements Chevron has made in the USA, where vigilance against pollution remains relatively strong, they are offset by its practices in a developing world so highly susceptible to “brownmailing.” For example, while Chevron was responsible for spilling “only” 252,000 gallons of oil in the USA in 1990, Karliner reports that a Caltex spill in the Philippines was twice that amount. (Caltex was a joint operation between Chevron and Texaco; the two companies have since merged.)

In Sumatra, Chevron operates within a 32,000 square kilometer concession that has very little in common with the bucolic picture Diamond paints in Papua New Guinea. The November 1993 Multinational Monitor reported that Chevron has completely ruined the area in pursuit of profit. Trees died and fish disappeared from local rivers. A local resident complained, “I relied on the trees for wood for my roof and for food, but now there are only a few trees left.” Since most of “Collapse” is concerned with deforestation, you’d think that Diamond’s antennae would have detected this fact.

Villagers also reported that the local river often smelled of oil and that the river water was no longer safe to drink. Not surprisingly, Chevron excused itself with the explanation that “heavily organic jungle streams are not a good source of drinking water.” Somehow the fish managed to flourish in such heavily organic jungle streams in the past but went belly up shortly after Caltex began releasing its contaminants. A coincidence, one supposes.

Although Shell has the well-earned reputation of being the dirtiest oil company operating in Nigeria, Chevron is no slouch. Notwithstanding Diamond’s assurances that Chevron CEO Kenneth Derr has “been personally concerned about environmental issues” and that Chevron employees receive monthly emails from him about the state of the planet, some ingrates from the more radical wing of the environmental movement threw cream pies in his face back in 1999. They were angry over Chevron’s involvement with human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, where 90 percent of Nigeria’s crude oil is produced.

According to the June 1999 Earth Times:

“Members of the Ijaw tribe, native to the Delta, say they have lost as much as 70 percent of their ancestral lands to Nigeria’s oil operations. Ijaws who protest the environmental degradation of their lands and ask for greater economic returns for their communities have been killed by government troops, their women and children raped and run off, say human rights groups.”

Chevron, it seems, made its helicopters available to Nigerian troops who were summoned to deal with angry protestors. In 1998, after 200 demonstrators took over a Chevron oil platform for three days, the manager called in Nigerian troops, who, Chevron representatives admit, were transported to the platform in the company’s helicopters by company pilots. Two demonstrators were killed. In the second incident, which occurred two months later, four people were killed and 67 left missing when Nigerian forces attacked two small villages, reportedly once again using Chevron helicopters and boats.

Chevron blandly denied any wrongdoing. It said that any equipment, including helicopters, that is leased to its joint venture company in Nigeria is free to be used by its majority partner. That joint venture company just happens to be the blood-soaked Nigerian government.

Perhaps the Ijaws should have picked up and moved to Papua New Guinea where they would have been looked over properly by the good Chevron twin. As it turns out, things were not all they were cracked up to be over there.

In an article titled “Drilling Papua New Guinea: Chevron Comes to Lake Kutubu” that appeared in the March 1996 Multinational Monitor, Project Underground executive director Danny Kennedy describes a less than beneficent impact of development on the local population.

According to Kennedy, a human blockade on the pipeline construction site was broken up by a riot squad flown into the area on company choppers on May 1992. Apparently Chevron is very resourceful when it comes to shuttling in troops on company assets. The indigenous people felt that they were not being properly compensated for Chevron’s land grab. (Of course, the birds might have been less upset. This is in keeping with WWF’s preference for virgin forest as opposed to pesky human beings.) Sasoro Hewago, a leader of the local Fasu clan, told the Wall Street Journal in June 1992 that “The people say problems have come here because Chevron has come here, and so it is Chevron that must take care of them. … If we’re not satisfied there will be no oil. We have pledged to die. …”

Eighteen months later he seemed worn down by constant confrontations with the oil giant. He confessed, “You must chew before you swallow. My people have been exposed to Western civilization for five years, and are expected to deal with it. We are like we are in a dream and when, one day, we wake up it will be gone. We’re choking.”

The 5,000 supposed local beneficiaries of the project, members of the Fasu, Foe and Kikori clans, became increasingly unhappy after oil began being shipped in late 1992. In December 1993, 60 Foe men were arrested for protesting over inadequate royalty payments and were carried off in Chevron helicopters to a nearby jail. Once again Diamond’s favorite capitalist corporation was relying on helicopters to deal with the restless natives.

In December 1995, confrontations deepened further. Indigenous people threatened to blow up the pipeline, prompting Chevron to remove non-essential staff. Although Chevron eventually placated them with handouts, there is little doubt that a culture of dependency was created. Few of them actually work for Chevron but rely on the dole. When Chevron exhausts the local oil supplies, it is doubtful that native Papuans will be able to fend for themselves.

According to Kennedy, “the mining and petroleum sector is based on the degradation of natural capital and produces few human-made assets for PNG. It employs less than 2 percent of the population and does not add value to the raw materials. And in those boom years, the national government ran up an enormous foreign debt, causing it to bow to the strictures of a major structural adjustment program administered by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, in conjunction with its old colonial master Australia, in order to avert a cash-flow crisis.”

Even Diamond’s beloved birds seem less chipper than portrayed in “Collapse.” Stephen Feld, a University of Texas expert on birds in the local rainforests, states that much of the area game has been scared away by air traffic, especially by Chevron’s omnipresent helicopters.

Even the handouts create problems. With 90 percent of royalties going to the Fasu and only 10 percent to the Foe, rivalries have developed. This pattern can also be seen with the Navaho and Hopi in New Mexico, who have been played off against each other by a coal company.

But here’s the clincher. Kennedy reports that the World Wildlife Fund has a $3 million contract with Chevron to implement an “Integrated Conservation and Development Project” for the oil project area. The oil giant saw its ties with WWF as critical to its long term interests. A virtual conspiracy existed, according to Kennedy:

“A leaked 1993 confidential evaluation of the potential impacts of a Kutubu oil spill and the clean-up capacity of the joint venture, written after a practice exercise conducted by the joint-venture partners, expressed concern ‘as to whether a policy exists to control media and interest groups (Greenpeace) at Kopi area should a spill of this magnitude occur.’ Other documents concluded that the joint venture partners could rest easy, however, because ‘WWF will act as a buffer for the joint venture against environmentally damaging activities in the region, and against international environmental criticism.'”

Finally, despite Diamond’s assurances that Chevron has learned the painful lessons of oil spills, there is evidence that it has minimized the threat of exactly such a threat in its Papua New Guinea showcase. Before Chevron started piping oil, a tanker ran aground on pipe over the Kikori River bed. Environmental management experts Michael Kondolf and Richard Chaney concluded: “We are particularly concerned about potential impacts of catastrophic oil spills from pipeline breakage. Given the proximity to active faulting and subduction, and given the nature of deltaic sediments, pipeline failure at multiple points can be expected due to seismic shaking and liquefaction.”

Kennedy writes: “These dangers were graphically demonstrated in May 1993, when several sections of the riverbed underlying 110 kilometers of pipeline shifted and threatened to rupture. When divers checked the pipeline’s condition, they found more than one kilometer of pipe unsupported. Workers involved said that such a freespan could easily have flexed in the strong tidal currents of this stretch of the Kikori River until the pipe broke. The loss of any crude would likely be an ecological disaster, because Chevron would at best be able to clean up 25 percent of any spill, according to the company’s own oil-spill evaluation.”

If Chevron in Papua New Guinea is supposed to be a model for enlightened corporate management, then perhaps the fate of the earth is that which befell the Mayans and Easter Islanders. Contrary to Jared Diamond, the best hope for humanity is in the youth who threw a cream pie in the face of the Chevron CEO and the indigenous people of Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere who are resisting the incursions of mining and drilling companies. With their efforts and the efforts of working people in the industrialized world, a global struggle against capitalism has the potential to remove the greatest obstacle to environmental sustainability: the private ownership of the means of production.

The Persecution of Ward Churchill

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:51 am

(This article can be read in its entirety at: http://ghadar.insaf.net/April2005/MainPages/persecution.htm)

After the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture at Hamilton College extended an invitation to Ward Churchill to speak on February 3rd about American Indians and the prison system, Hamilton political science professor Theodore Eismeier googled “Ward Churchill” and discovered that he had referred to some 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns.” This led to a controversy that has not yet been resolved. It should come as no surprise that the case has highlighted differences across the American political spectrum that can be seen on a range of issues, from the war in Iraq to the genocide against the American Indian.

The Kirkland Project was a lightning rod for the ultra right even before an invitation had been extended to Ward Churchill, as is evidenced by the case of Susan Rosenberg. Rosenberg was a 1960s radical who had spent 16 years in prison for her role in Brinks armored car hijacking that left two cops dead. In prison, Rosenberg became a respected prisoner-rights activist and writer.

In 2001, President Clinton granted her clemency just before leaving office. After she was released from prison, Rosenberg was hired by the Kirkland Project to teach a one-month course on memoir writing. After rightwing elements on and off campus began protesting her hiring, she backed out, citing “the atmosphere of such organized right-wing intimidation from a small group of students and faculty.” So the campus was primed like a stick of dynamite for Ward Churchill’s appearance.

After Eismeier alerted a student named Ian Mandel about the “little Eichmanns” article, he began an email campaign that caught fire. Supposedly, Mandel (a Young Democrat, for what that’s worth) was already worked up over Rosenberg ‘s hiring because Nyack, his home town, was home to the two cops killed in the Brinks hijacking. Nyack was a convenient excuse for hounding Ward Churchill as well. Why? Mandel told the Rocky Mountain News, a paper that has been in the forefront of the movement to get Ward Churchill fired, “I grew up 18 miles away from the city and I could smell the burning buildings from my home.” As a Manhattan resident myself, I actually found much of Churchill’s article to be of some value, despite questionable formulations–more about which in a moment.

Another casualty of the rightwing vendetta was Kirkland Project director Nancy Rabinowitz, a Hamilton professor who is the daughter-in-law of legendary leftist attorney Victor Rabinowitz. She resigned about a week after the furor began over Ward Churchill.

Even after the school caved into pressure and cancelled Ward Churchill’s appearance, the rightwing’s appetite was not whetted. They were out for blood. News of the controversy spilled over into cable TV and AM radio talk shows–the preferred outlet for conservatives–as well as the network of blogs that feed off of material from David Horowitz’s FrontPage website. Politicians got into the act as well. NY governor George Pataki stated that ”There’s a difference between freedom of speech and inviting a bigoted terrorist supporter.” Colorado ‘s governor Bill Owens upped the ante and demanded that Churchill resign from his tenured post.

Bill Owens is no ordinary Republican governor. He is a leader of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an outfit launched by Lynn Cheney, the vice-president’s wife. The NY Times reported on November 24, 2001 that ACTA had compiled a list of 117 “anti-American” statements heard on college campuses after 9/11. Jesse Jackson was included for telling a Harvard Law School audience that America should “build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls.” Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Stanford University was also included for stating that “If Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity.” Wasima Alikhan of the Islamic Academy of Las Vegas was on the list for uttering the inflammatory words: “Ignorance breeds hate.” If you could get on ACTA’s list for saying things like this, you can imagine the pent-up fury that Bill Owens was ready to direct against Ward Churchill.

May 6, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:10 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on May 6, 2005

I managed to watch the last half of Luis Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados” and all of “Nazarín” last night. I first saw “Los Olvidados” in the early 1960s and had the same reaction to it last night as I did originally. It is a totally unsentimental vision of people living in poverty. Although Buñuel clearly hates the social system that breeds the kind of feral youth depicted in the film, there is not even a glimmer of hope it can be changed.

“Nazarín” is the only Buñuel film I had never seen before. It combines a lot of the elements found in his other works: religious obsession, sexual repression and scabrous behavior among the lower classes. Like “Los Olvidados,” it was filmed in Mexico and offers up a totally bleak view of humanity.

“Nazarín” is the story of a Catholic priest who lives among the poor and takes Jesus’s teachings literally. He is always turning the other cheek, even when local prostitutes steal the bread from his meager table. His uncompromising beliefs are seen as crazy not only by his lumpen neighbors but by the Catholic hierarchy which disowns him after he gives shelter to a prostitute injured in a knife fight.

Driven from his slum neighborhood, Nazarín goes on a pilgrimage in the Mexican countryside (the film is set in the early 1900s and is based on a novel by the Spanish author Benito Perez-Galdos) where he is pursued by two prostitutes, including the one who was stabbed. They are convinced that he is a new Christ and follow him blindly, despite his constant pleas to be left alone. In a quintessentially Buñuelian scene, the priest offers some prayers to a gravely ill young girl while his two disciples and other village women perform what amounts to an exorcism in the bedroom. One rolls around on the floor as possessed by the devil; another strokes the priest with a clump of leaves she understands to have healing powers. He can barely contain his disgust with their behavior. Only God and science can heal the young girl, he says, giving no indication that he understands that the two things are in conflict.

When the girl wakes up the next morning free of her fever, his two female disciples are more convinced than ever of his Christ-like powers. They follow him from village to village expecting miracles, but they experience nothing but grief as the villagers prey upon his guilelessness. Although the film is about the dubiousness of deep spirituality, it will also remind you of Don Quixote, another picaresque tale of the clash between idealism and reality.

About this film Buñuel has said, “I am very much attached to Nazarín. He is a priest. He could as well be a hairdresser or a waiter. What interests me about him is that he stands by his ideas, that these ideas are unacceptable to society at large, and that after his adventures with prostitutes, thieves and so forth, they lead him to being irrevocably damned by the prevailing social order.”

Of course, you could say the same thing about socialists whose morality clashes with society at large and who are often viewed as Quixotic at best. Buñuel was one of the great radical film-makers of the 20th century. His earliest film was “Land Without Bread,” a documentary about poverty in rural Extremadura. Like other radicals, Buñuel was also drawn to surrealism and even worked with Salvador Dali for a time. Unlike Dali, Buñuel had no use for fascism and left Spain after Franco’s victory.

Buñuel died in 1983 at the age of 83. With the disappearance of film revival theaters in NYC and other large cities, especially foreign films of the 40s and 50s, your only recourse is to rent them from local stores or on the Internet. Even though “Nazarín” is listed as being available in VHS according to imdb.com, I have never seen it on the shelves. It is very much to the credit of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) that they are showing such films. Ted Turner gained some notoriety when he made the dubious decision to colorize black-and-white films, often to a jarring effect. There is nothing worse than watching some 1930s noir and seeing Humphrey Bogart or Edward G. Robinson’s face in an almost neon peach glow. As far as I can tell, TCM has abandoned this practice.

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