Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 29, 2005

PBS series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”, part three (conclusion)

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:15 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 29, 2005

The concluding episode of the PBS production of “Guns, Germs and Steel” focuses on the colonization of the African continent, expanding on a number of the themes introduced in episode 2, which dealt with the Spanish conquest of Latin America.

It focuses on the efforts of the Dutch settlers to expand from their base at the southern tip of the continent northwards into more tropical areas, where the colonization efforts fall victim to climate and disease.

Diamond believes that the settlers underestimated the difficulties facing them since the southern tip of South Africa was far more like native Europe than what would face them later on. As they moved closer to the equator, they discovered that both they and their herd animals would fall sick to diseases they had no resistance to. In other words, the tables were being turned on the colonizers. In Latin America, disease felled the native peoples while in Africa it was the invaders who succumbed to disease–malaria specifically.

Diamond makes the case that indigenous peoples and their animals had developed a resistance to malaria over generations, just as Europeans had strengthened their immune systems against smallpox, measles, etc. African cattle had adapted as well. Both native people and their domesticated animals had also benefited from geography. They had learned to live in higher elevations where mosquitoes were less prevalent. Also, in the absence of intense agriculture as practiced in Eurasia, settlements were smaller and tended to be located away from rivers and lakes. The Europeans, by contrast, settled around rivers and lakes since this is traditionally how towns and cities get established in order to take advantage of water supplies and for trade. But this is exactly where the mosquito was prevalent.

The other major threat to the colonizers was the fierce Zulus who ruled over an extensive kingdom like the Incas. Unlike in Peru, the Zulus were able to mount a significant resistance to outside incursion. This is dramatized in the PBS show as something akin to old cowboy and Indian movies. The Dutch settlers are sitting around a campfire and out of nowhere come these howling savages bent on destruction.

This is not the first time that Diamond, the pious anti-racist, has succumbed to stereotyping. If he had taken the trouble to look a little further into the Zulu history, he would have discovered that the violence was completely understandable since the nation had been driven from their former homes by Portuguese slave traders.

Recent scholarship, discussed by John Reader in “Africa: a Portrait of the Continent” reveals that Shaka, king of the Zulus, and his people fled Delagoa Bay­on the Southern coast of Mozambique–in the 1820s after more than 60,000 natives had been kidnapped and sent to pick cotton, tobacco or sugar in the Americas. A missionary by the name of Stephen Kay noted in his August 1828 journal:

“He [Shaka] was originally established near Delagoa Bay, from whence he was driven about twelve years ago, by some great convulsion there. The impetus he received appears to have gradually forced him westwards [sic] as far as Natal, where he at length seated himself with a very powerful body of adherents.”

Other peoples fleeing the slavers naturally became part of the Zulu kingdom, which was organized around Spartan military discipline for good reasons obviously. When Dutch and British settlers began to make their presence felt in South Africa, the Zulu naturally felt squeezed between two hostile forces.

Shaka, who had the reputation of being ruthlessly hostile toward other black Africans, was actually blamed for slave-raids carried out by whites. In one such incident, white businessmen and a missionary, whose daughter would marry colonizer David Livingstone, presented a false picture of fending off a supposedly fierce group of Mantatees. Traditionally, white accounts represent the Mantatees as a menacing force of 100,000 but more recent scholarship puts their numbers at around 2000. In reality, the whites had organized a massacre of the Mantatees and sold the survivors as slaves for the export trade or as indentured servants for the local economy. In the 1820s, labor was as in short supply in white-controlled Africa as it was in the American South. Reader reports that local settlers complained that it was “utterly impossible to procure men or boys or even Hottentots to herd.” This dimension is utterly lacking in Diamond’s account.

The show ends with about as much of a political prescription from Diamond as can be found anywhere. Until the publication of “Collapse,” he has studiously stayed above the fray when it comes to the question of how the victims of colonialism can finally enjoy equality with those who colonized them.

This would appear to revolve around the question of overcoming malaria, which is diminishing Africa’s pool of able-bodied working people. Diamond explains that with the final victory of the colonizers, new cities were established at rivers and lakes, which enabled malaria to ravage the native population formerly protected in the traditional highland habitats. The question of how their once reliable immune system would now fail them is not dealt with by Diamond, nor does he deal with the question of AIDS, a disease that seems far more devastating economically than malaria.

He interviews an obviously concerned female physician in the children’s ward of a Lusaka, Zambia hospital, who assures him that Zambia needs to wipe out this scourge for real progress to be made. Then, in a totally improbable leap of logic, the show draws upon old footage from Malaysia and Singapore earlier in the 20th century, when ambitious anti-malaria campaigns were mounted. This is followed immediately by shots of downtown skyscrapers, bustling street traffic and late-model cars. So Diamond’s solution for poverty is to eradicate disease. With all due respect to Diamond, whose heart is probably in the right place, this is ridiculous.

In reality, poverty is the cause and disease is the effect­not the other way around. This is especially the case with malaria. Fortunately, we didn’t get a lecture from Diamond about the need to bombard Africa with DDT, the current fad among bourgeois development economists, but he doesn’t seem to have a clue about how this illness is connected to one’s economic situation. Fundamentally, eliminating malaria means eliminating the conditions that breed the mosquitoes that carry it. This means getting rid of standing water in swamps, dirt roads, garbage dumps, etc. Anybody who has visited Zambia, as I have, can tell you that the country can barely pay off its debts to the IMF, let alone embark on an ambitious mosquito eradication program.

For an analysis rooted in economics, one must turn to Paul Farmer, the Harvard physician who maintains an AIDS clinic in Haiti and who has written extensively about the ties between poverty and disease. In his “Infections and Inequalities,” he writes:

When we think of “tropical diseases,” for instance, malaria comes quickly to mind. But not too long ago, malaria was a significant problem far from the tropics. Although there is imperfect overlap between malaria as currently defined and the malaria of the mid-nineteenth century, some medical historians agree with contemporary assessments that this illness “was the most important disease in the United States at that time.” In the Ohio River Valley, according to Daniel Drake’s 1850 study, thousands died in seasonal epidemics. A million-odd soldiers were afflicted with malaria during the U.S. Civil War. During the second decade of the twentieth century, when the population of twelve southern states was about twenty-five million, the region saw an estimated one million cases of malaria per year. Malaria’s decline in this country was “due only in small part to measures aimed directly against it, but more to agricultural development and to other factors some of which are still not clear.”

One responsible factor that is clear enough, if little discussed in the literature, is the reduction of poverty, including the development of improved housing, land drainage, mosquito repellents, nets, and electric fans–­all of which have been (and remain) beyond the reach of those most at risk for malaria. In fact, many “tropical” diseases predominantly afflict the poor; the groups at risk for these diseases are often bounded more by socioeconomic status than by latitude. In Haiti, for example, my patients with malaria are almost exclusively those living in poverty. None have electricity; none take prophylaxis; many have lost kin to malaria. This aspect of disease emergence is thus obscured by an uncritical use of the term “tropical medicine,” which implies a geographic rather than a social topography.

July 28, 2005

PBS Series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”: part two

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on July 28, 2005

I am all caught up on the PBS “Guns, Germs and Steel” series. This post will deal with part 2 and I will get around to saying something about part 3, the conclusion, when time permits.

Part 2 tries to explain why it was so easy for Pizarro and the conquistadores to subdue the Incas. For Diamond, this is a function of geography mainly. Because the Eurasian landmass was more horizontal than vertical, it was possible for advances in agriculture to fuel subsequent breakthroughs such as the production of guns and steel. When societies operate on the same basic climactic and seasonal basis, farming innovations can be transmitted along the same axis. For example, when wheat growing and sheep rearing were introduced in the Fertile Crescent, it was relatively easy for these practices to diffuse into Europe or into China since they all share the same growing seasons, etc. Once you get this kind of agriculture established, everything else supposedly falls into place.

The Americas were skinny and tall by comparison. Any agricultural breakthrough was difficult to export since there was so much difference between the climate and seasons of Mexico and Peru supposedly. This was not just a problem for agriculture. It was also a problem for other advances, such as writing. With such a great distance between Guatemala and Peru, Mayan advances in writing never made it south. This leads Diamond to conclude that the Incas would be at a disadvantage in a military confrontation with Spain–leaving aside the European superiority in arms. The Spaniards had written down military handbooks on how conquests should be organized in places like Mexico, which were made available to other expeditions. Without knowledge of writing, the Incas could not respond in kind defensively.

The Americas also lacked herd animals of the kind that Europeans had been raising for millennia. Since pigs, cows, etc. were the source of common diseases such as smallpox, measles, etc, a resistance to infection could take place over generations. When the Incas, who had never developed such immunity, were exposed to the Europeans, they began dieing in great numbers. Some historians estimate that 90 percent of the indigenous people in the Americas died of such illnesses, making the job of conquest all the more easy for the Europeans.

In addition, the Europeans had developed guns and steel, which they used for rapiers. With such weapons at their disposal, and with the added advantage that riding horseback would give them, it was no wonder that several hundred of Pizarro’s men could vanquish thousands of Incan warriors.

There is not much to quibble with in Diamond’s analysis such as it is. By stressing the contingencies that allowed the Europeans to enjoy a vast military superiority, Diamond can drive home the point that racial superiority had nothing to do with the Spanish victories. Of course, what is missing from Diamond’s narrative is any understanding of what it will take to redeem these historic crimes against humanity.

I would only add a couple of observations that help us make better sense of what took place in the 16th and 17th centuries.

To start with, we should be cognizant that there is a temporal as well as a spatial distinction between the Americas and Eurasia that favored the latter’s one-sided domination. As Jim Blaut points out in “Colonizer’s Model of the World,” the Americas were settled fairly late in the game, no earlier than 30,000 BC. The earliest migrations preceded the agricultural revolution, which took place roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in Eurasia. Blaut, citing Stuart J. Fiedel’s “Prehistory of the Americas”, puts the same developments as 4,000 years later in the Americas. Despite the substantial time differences, there is every possibility that the Americans would have made up the difference culturally. But the European invasions forestalled all that.

If anything, Blaut is even more emphatic than Diamond in emphasizing the role of germs. He believes that the Spanish military superiority would have evaporated eventually as the new technology of horses, steel and guns diffused into the native population, just as it always does. Just look at how the Iraqis are figuring out new ways to blow up HUMV’s using lasers presumably ordered over the Internet.

Finally, Henry Kamen has some interesting things to say about the much-vaunted conquistadores in his recently published and highly acclaimed “Empire: How Spain Became a World Power: 1492-1763” that were viewed as sacrilege in Spain. They amount to a demythologizing.

In a nutshell, Kamen argues that “Spanish military success was made possible only by the help of the native Americans.” The assistance came in two varieties, one humble and one less so, but both were essential. Indians carried out such duties as carrying baggage, searching for food and water, tending animals, delivering messages, etc. In Diamond’s dramatization of the march of Pizarro on the seat of the Incan monarchy, this was left out entirely. The Spaniards are depicted as totally on their own.

Additionally, the Incas fought amongst themselves, with the Inca Huascar aligning himself with Pizarro. A witness to the successful battle depicted in the PBS episode stated, “If the Incas had not favoured the Spaniards, it would have been impossible to win this kingdom.”

As proof of what would happen when the Incas learned to stiffen their resolve and compensate for Spanish superiority in arms and technology, Huascar’s brother Manco raised an army of 50,000 that surrounded Cusco, where two hundred Spaniards were holed up. In other words, you had the same relationship of forces that obtained in the initial Spanish victory. This time things did not go so well for the conquistadores. The siege of Cusco lasted over a year, from March 1536 to April 1537. Eventually, the Spaniards counter-attacked but Kamen states that without Indian support, they would have failed.

Ultimately, it was germs rather than guns or steel that led to the fall of the Aztecs and the Inca.

July 22, 2005

“Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:50 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 22, 2005

Although it starts slowly, the new documentary “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” has a cumulative power as it takes the viewer on a tour of white-dominated Pentecostal Churches, roadhouses, prisons and barbecue joints in the South–a world that can best be described as a Red State Nightmare. But the inhabitants of this world have little to say about politics. Instead they are consumed with sin and salvation. “Alt country” singer Jim White serves as a kind of Virgil escorting the audience into the mixture of Inferno and Paradise found in backwoods coal-mining and farming towns, where hard drinking on Saturday night is followed by church on Sunday.

White recorded an album titled “Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted)” early this year. This is where the film gets its title. There is also a folk art statue of Jesus that White lugs about in the trunk of a beat-up but high-powered 1970 Chevrolet on his tour through the South. In an odd way, it suggests the cross that Jesus bore on the way to his own crucifixion. Although White gave up religion in his teens, questions of sin and salvation remain very much on his mind and in the songs he sings. He describes his religious yearnings as trying to find the “gold tooth in God’s crooked smile.”

The film consists of interviews with working-class white southerners, musical performances by White and other down-home musicians, and appearances by well-known personalities such as the writer Harry Crews. Unfortunately, the film does not identify Crews, nor does it provide background on Jim White himself. In Crews’s appearance early on in the film, he tells several stories about southern life. One involves the proper way to dispose of an animal you have killed, which entails burying it with the eyes facing downwards. If it tries to rise from the earth sinking vengeance on you, it will burrow all the way to China instead.

Scattered throughout the film are performances by professional and amateur musicians, many of whom belong to the “alt country” genre, which can best be described as traditional country and western mixed with punk. The most compelling performance, which unfortunately is not included in a CD collection drawn from the film, is by “The Singing Hall Sisters,” done a cappella in a small town diner:

Knoxville Girl

I met a little girl in Knoxville
A town we all know well
And every Sunday evening
Out in her home I’d dwell

We went to take an evening walk
About a mile from town
I picked a stick up off the ground
And knocked that fair girl down

She fell down on her bended knees
For mercy she did cry
Oh Willie Dear don’t kill me here
I’m not prepared to die

She never spoke another word
I only beat her more
Until the ground around me
With her blood did flow

I took her by her golden curls
And dragged her round and round
Throwing her into the river
That flows through Knoxville Town

At one point in the film, White refers to “wise blood” as a way of explaining the connection that rural white southerners have to God and the church. This is obviously a reference to the classic Flannery O’Connor novel about an itinerant street preacher named Hazel Motes who describes Jesus as moving “from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark…”

Directed by Andrew Douglas and written by Steve Haisman, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” covers the same territory as Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” and Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle.” Unlike these films based on imaginary characters, Douglas’s film is even more compelling since it brings you face to face to a cruel and jagged world that really exists. It is also a companion piece to Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March,” another tour through the south by an expatriate artist. Unlike Jim White, McElwee explores the world of the middle-class and the gentry.

All in all, these kinds of works serve as nonpolitical introductions to an important part of American society that retains many of the aspects of pre-Civil War life. Although Andrew Douglas and Jim White avoid editorializing, there is little doubt that the sad and desperate poor white southerners who flock to Pentecostal churches do so because, as Karl Marx once put it:

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”

(Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

“Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” opens in Los Angeles on Friday July 29.

Jim White website: http://www.jimwhite.net/

Movie website: http://www.searchingforthewrongeyedjesus.com/

July 18, 2005

Buruma’s Morals and Ours

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:10 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 18, 2005

Over the years Leon Botstein and his deep-pocketed patron George Soros have transformed my alma mater Bard College from what Walter Winchell once called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson” into a kind of extension of the New York Review of Books. A number of the regular contributors to this high-toned periodical have ended up on the faculty, each contributing their own particular kind of State Department liberalism. You get never-ending justifications for the interventions in Yugoslavia from NYR regular Mark Danner, who is a Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College. (Being named Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism is a little bit like being named Henry Kissinger Professor of Peace Studies or Jerry Bruckheimer Film Studies Professor.)

Ian Buruma is another NYR contributor and Henry Luce professor at Bard. His most recent book is titled “Occidentalism,” which is an assault on Islamic radicalism similar to the one published by Paul Berman a while back. Ironically, his affinity for Berman has not prevented Buruma for trashing him in the NYR (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16211). One suspects that turf possessiveness has as much to do with the hostile review as anything else. After all, if you are staking out territory as the best defender of Western Civilization against Islamo-fascism, why brook rivals in such a lucrative market?

Three days ago Buruma weighed in on the London bombings in the pages of the Financial Times. You can read this slashing attack on Tariq Ali–and others who have the temerity to connect the war in Iraq to this tragedy–at:


Buruma’s arguments are drawn from the talking points of the pro-war left. You can find them articulated by Guardian reporter Jonathan Hari and blogsters like Norm Geras and the crew at Harry’s Place. These are all people who feel that the antiwar movement is in the back pocket of Osama bin-Laden. Buruma writes:

“The war in Iraq may not have been a sensible move. It probably did galvanise religious extremism. For the record, I was against it. But to claim that we should not have gone to war with Saddam Hussein because it puts us in the firing line of holy warriors seems a bad, and certainly cowardly argument. Britain would have been in their firing line anyway. Contrary to what Faisal Bodi says, jihadis do have an axe to grind with the western world.”

Whenever I read this sort of thing, I wonder why suicide bombers and airplane hijackers have not targeted Reykjavik, Iceland. Surely, there must be ample supplies of Madonna videos and copies of “The Satanic Verses” there. Of course, the fact that Iceland never sent its military to wrest control of the Suez Canal or supplied F-16’s to Israel is purely coincidental. Any fool can understand that in the eyes of Islamic radicalism, Iceland must be destroyed.

Actually, Buruma was derelict in not wagging his finger at another “apologist” for Islamic terrorism. We learn from the indispensable Lenin’s Tomb (http://www.leninology.blogspot.com/) that in the immediate aftermath of the subway bombings, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, known colloquially as Chatham House, came out with findings not that far apart from Tariq Ali’s:

Britain’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to the terrorist attacks in London, a respected independent thinktank on foreign affairs, the Chatham House organisation, says today.

“According to the body, which includes leading academics and former civil servants among its members, the key problem in the UK for preventing terrorism is that the country is “riding as a pillion passenger with the United States in the war against terror”.

It says Britain’s ability to carry out counter-terrorism measures has also been hampered because the US is always in the driving seat in deciding policy. …

In the most politically sensitive finding, Chatham House, which used to be known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, concludes there is “no doubt” the invasion of Iraq has “given a boost to the al-Qaida network” in “propaganda, recruitment and fundraising”, while providing an ideal targeting and training area for terrorists. “Riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign.”

Well, everybody knows that Chatam House is secretly in bed with al-Qaida.

Buruma seems particularly bothered by the fact that the Leeds terrorists had neither uniform nor dog-tags:

“The Islamist revolutionaries who are assumed to be behind the murders are not like the Luftwaffe, or the IRA, or any other enemy that Britain, or indeed the world has faced before. The Germans were deadly, but at least one knew who they were; their bombers bore markings that were familiar to any schoolboy plane-spotter. Their pilots wore uniforms, their raids were ordered by a state, with which Britain was at war. The IRA was the armed wing of a political party, whose aims, as we now know, were at least negotiable. Suicide bombers and jihadis, however, represent no state; indeed they do not recognise one outside the wholly imaginary community of pure faith. There is nothing to negotiate with people who wish to kill as many infidels as they can to establish a divine realm of the faithful. Worse, those holy warriors who see mass murder as an existential act, who cannot conceive of themselves as anything else but divinely inspired assassins, are even beyond the pale of religious orthodoxy; they are pure killers.”

Let me see if I understand this. The Luftwaffe was better than the Leeds terrorists because its pilots wore swastikas and followed orders? When the Nazi state with the blood of tens of millions of civilians on its hands rates higher than a handful of terrorists who sought a kind of revenge against a much more powerful state terrorism, then Trotsky’s pithy observation in “Their Morals and Ours” takes on a new resonance:

Is individual terror, for example, permissible or impermissible from the point of view of “pure morals”? In this abstract form the question does not exist at all for us. Conservative Swiss bourgeois even now render official praise to the terrorist William Tell. Our sympathies are fully on the side of Irish, Russian, Polish or Hindu terrorists in their struggle against national and political oppression. The assassinated Kirov, a rude satrap, does not call forth any sympathy. Our relation to the assassin remains neutral only because we know not what motives guided him. If it became known that Nikolayev acted as a conscious avenger for workers” rights trampled upon by Kirov, our sympathies would be fully on the side of the assassin.

full: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1938/1938-mor.htm

July 13, 2005

PBS Series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”: part one

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:06 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 13, 2005

Despite having dozed off for ten minutes toward the end of the first installment of the PBS series based on Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” I feel that I have a pretty good handle on what it was trying to establish–namely, the idea that the development of agriculture is a sine qua non for civilization.

The show centered on comparisons between Papuan New Guinea and places like ancient Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, classical Greece and the Mayan Kingdom. Where you have corn, wheat, rice, etc, you have written languages, pyramids and great art. Where there is hunting and gathering, you get none of this. Despite Diamond’s clear admiration for the people of New Guinea’s resourcefulness, you get the sense that he is trying to explain why they are such losers.

He sets out by stating that “Guns, Germs and Steel” was written to understand why there are winners and losers in world history. This was prompted by an encounter with a Papuan named Yali who asked why the Westerners had so much “cargo”–a term they use for commodities. It originated in the cargo cult, which viewed things such as evaporated milk (and even the containers they came in) as gifts from the gods.

For Diamond, the big breakthrough occurred in the so-called Fertile Crescent, an area ranging from Southeastern Turkey to Western Iran. Looking at the ruins of a 12,000 year old town in this region, Diamond points to the existence of a rudimentary grain silo and declares that this is where it all started. The implication is that you get computer networking, Cruise missiles and MTV all from this initial start in raising crops from a fixed settlement.

He points to evidence that a formerly hunting and gathering group learned how to plant wheat seeds for future crops–thus eliminating the need for a nomadic existence. Once you have a stable settlement, it becomes possible to create housing of a more permanent nature, etc.

You can find a scholarly presentation of this in a Science Magazine article titled Location, Location, Location: The First Farmers” that Diamond wrote in November 1997:

In short, einkorn [a kind of wheat] domestication in the Karacada mountains exemplifies the enormous head start that western Eurasian societies gained from Fertile Crescent biogeography. For history’s broad patterns, as for real estate investment, location is almost everything. Plant and animal domestication was prerequisite to the growth of large, dense, sedentary human populations, in which the food-producing activities of part of the population yielded storable food surpluses to feed non-food-producing parts of the population. Hence, food production triggered the emergence of kings, bureaucrats, scribes, professional soldiers, and metal-workers and other full-time craftspeople. Literacy, metallurgy, stratified societies, advanced weapons, and empires rested on food production. In addition, smallpox and the other crowd epidemic diseases of Eurasia could evolve only in those dense, sedentary human populations living in close contact with domesticated animals, whose own pathogens evolved into those specialized pathogens afflicting us. Thus, a long straight line runs through world history, from those first domesticates at the Karacada mountains and elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent, to the “guns, germs, and steel” by which European colonists in modern times destroyed so many native societies of other continents.

Full: http://makeashorterlink.com/?Z52E22A6B

It is understandable why “Guns, Germs and Steel” might have been appeared as a breath of fresh air when it first appeared, since it dispenses with ideas of racial superiority. The Europeans overran the Lakota not because they were racially superior but because they had happened upon agriculture through the contingencies of history.

The other thing that has some appeal for radicals is Diamond’s seeming affinity for historical materialism. The notion of agricultural societies superseding more primitive (but communal) societies is obviously laid out in Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.” Engels writes:

“Horticulture, probably unknown to Asiatic barbarians of the lower stage, was being practiced by them in the middle stage at the latest, as the forerunner of agriculture. In the climate of the Turanian plateau, pastoral life is impossible without supplies of fodder for the long and severe winter. Here, therefore, it was essential that land should be put under grass and corn cultivated. The same is true of the steppes north of the Black Sea. But when once corn had been grown for the cattle, it also soon became food for men. The cultivated land still remained tribal property; at first it was allotted to the gens, later by the gens to the household communities and finally to individuals for use. The users may have had certain rights of possession, but nothing more.”

Diamond, who roots for the Papuans as if they were a losing team, sounds like Engels when he mourns for the more egalitarian but less technologically advanced Zulus:

“We have seen examples of this courage quite recently in Africa. The Zulus a few years ago and the Nubians a few months ago — both of them tribes in which gentile institutions have not yet died out — did what no European army can do. Armed only with lances and spears, without firearms, under a hail of bullets from the breech-loaders of the English infantry – acknowledged the best in the world at fighting in close order — they advanced right up to the bayonets and more than once threw the lines into disorder and even broke them, in spite of the enormous inequality of weapons and in spite of the fact that they have no military service and know nothing of drill. Their powers of endurance and performance are shown by the complaint of the English that a Kaffir travels farther and faster in twenty-four hours than a horse. His smallest muscle stands out hard and firm like whipcord, says an English painter.”

Of course, Diamond departs from Engels on the all-important question, which is how to recover the egalitarian and democratic essence of hunting and gathering societies while maintaining the scientific and technical breakthroughs of all societies that succeeded them.

July 5, 2005

Max Frankel And The Cuban Missile Crisis

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

Swans Commentary » swans.com July 4, 2005

Who Needs Cold War Falsification?
Max Frankel And The Cuban Missile Crisis

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Frankel, Max: High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Random House, New York, 2004, ISBN 0-345-46505-9, 206 pages, $23.95

(Swans – July 4, 2005) In October of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union appeared ready to fight World War Three over nuclear missiles in Cuba. Max Frankel, who was the Washington correspondent for the New York Times in 1962, provides some new insights about the role of the press in the crisis in an otherwise conventional interpretation. From his perspective, the Kennedy White House adroitness kept the world from being incinerated. The confrontation is a chess game that Kennedy wins through the sacrificing of a pawn: nuclear missiles in Turkey. Practically gloating, Frankel reveals that the missiles in Turkey were considered nearly obsolete in 1962. The bumbling Soviet leader had sacrificed a queen to gain a pawn.

For this analysis to make sense, the USSR must be seen as an interloper in the Western Hemisphere challenging the Monroe Doctrine and the “free world.” Cuba simply becomes a stepping stone to future Soviet ambitions. The idea of deploying missiles in Cuba comes to Khrushchev out of the blue:

Once he acquired dictatorial power in the mid-1950s, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev proved to be an adventurous leader trying to rush his people out of a Stalinist hell toward a brighter future. As he remembered years later, dictating his memoir, the idea of sending his missiles to Cuba just popped into his head one day in April 1962, while he strolled on the banks of the Black Sea with his minister of defense, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, a comrade since the great World War II battle of Stalingrad. The bulldog-faced marshal was growling again about the American Jupiter missiles aimed at Soviet bases from neighboring Turkey, just across the water. Well then, Khrushchev wondered, why couldn’t they do the same to the Americans — from Cuba? After sitting so long, so smugly behind their ocean moats, Americans should finally share the anxiety of living in the thermonuclear shadows that hung over all Europeans. (1)

For this portrait of Khrushchev as risk-taking global conspirator to work, Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution must become incidental to the showdown. Cuba becomes an outpost of Soviet expansionism rather than a country with legitimate fears over another Bay of Pigs. Worries about United States power are dismissed by Frankel:

All the anti-Castro exertions have never been fully documented. The best records deal with “Operation Mongoose,” a plan hatched by a guerrilla fighter of mixed reputation, Brigadier General Edward Lansdale, a Kennedy favorite for a time. His plan envisioned widespread sabotage and the infiltration of agents and guerrilla fighters to inspire a rebellion that could become the pretext for American military intervention by October 1962. But the CIA and Pentagon dragged their feet; the plan produced a few pinpricks that only stiffened Castro’s defenses and buttressed his requests for more Soviet arms. (2)

Veteran New York Times reporter Tad Szulc’s view of this period is distinctly at odds with Frankel’s. In his biography of Fidel Castro titled Fidel, Szulc states that “things could have not been worse” for Castro in the spring of 1962. Armed rightist bands were active in the Oriente and Escambray mountains. Cuban casualties in the Escambray alone were nearly three times as great as at the Bay of Pigs. Economic losses were calculated around $1 billion in ruined crops, burned houses, and blown up rail lines, roads and bridges. (3) This is a rather sizable pinprick.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy26.html

War of the Worlds

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 5, 2005

Stephen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is a real mess, but an attention-grabbing one nonetheless. With its set pieces involving vast crowds being zapped by extraterrestrial tripods, you find that you can’t take your eyes away from the screen. The film has the same morbid fascination as a large-scale highway crash.

Since Spielberg is a past master at choreographing large-scale action scenes in films such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park,” it is no surprise that his latest satisfies on the most visceral level. When the film takes breaks from the mayhem, it slows down considerably.

Those breaks consist almost exclusively of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) berating his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) as they make their desperate escape out of New York City toward Boston, where their mother–his ex-wife–lives. It seems that the two kids don’t quite get that the Earth has been invaded by space creatures and are more concerned about where they get to sleep or go to the bathroom, and what they eat. Like any spoiled brats, they insist on the best. As such, their whining has the same effect on the audience as a garden rake being scraped across a blackboard.

Ray Ferrier is not much better. He is a completely selfish individual who never expresses one word about the fate of humanity. His only interest is in his own survival and that of his children, who he doesn’t seem to like very much. One assumes that it is only instinct kicking in rather than love when he stands up to a space creature in a climactic scene who is threatening to make a meal of his daughter.

By featuring a dysfunctional family, Spielberg is returning to one of his chief obsessions. In many of his films, you have an absent father and children traumatized by divorce or separation just as was the case in 1966, when his own parents were divorced. As one might suspect, there is very little interest in a Spielberg film about why the American family began to implode in this period. This would require an examination of social institutions that is beyond his grasp.

While one imagines that Tom Cruise was selected for the lead solely on his box-office appeal, it is an interesting coincidence that he was defending Scientology unabashedly during a tour promoting the film. Scientology is a cult that is based on the writings of science fiction novelist L. Ron Hubbard, who often focuses on apocalyptic confrontations in outer space. John Travolta, another Scientologist, made a completely wretched film in 2000 titled “Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000.” Slate.com’s David Edelstein described this clunker as follows:

“A central tenet of Scientology is that humans are manipulated by alien spirits implanted within the species thousands of years ago. What better proof of this than John Travolta’s decision to produce, partially finance, and star in an adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s 1,050-page 1982 science-fiction tome Battlefield Earth? Only alien DNA could account for instincts so paranormally terrible. Here is a picture that will be hailed without controversy as the worst of its kind ever made. It could be renamed Ed Wood’s Planet of the Apes if that title didn’t promise more cheesy fun than the movie actually delivers.”

One wonders if Cruise, after consulting with Travolta, had some input into the script for “War of the Worlds” since the alien tripods were similarly implanted on Earth millions of years before the actual invasion was launched. These are profound questions for our age.

There have been some efforts to wrest deeper socio-political meanings from Spielberg’s film. For example, some interpret as a veiled critique of the war in Iraq with Earthlings as a stand-in for Iraqis. It has been noted, for example, that Robbie Ferrier is working on a term paper about the French war in Algeria when the space aliens attack. In another key scene, Tom Robbins, who plays a deranged survivalist, tells Cruise that all invasions are doomed from the start. People will always resist outsiders. There is also an allusion to September 11th as flyers with photos of missing loved ones, ostensibly victims of the death-dealing tripods, flood building walls.

Perhaps the main message of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is that humanity exists in a Hobbesian state. With a leading character who is interested solely in his own survival and that of his offspring, and a climactic scene involving desperate people fighting each other for a seat on a ferry boat that might provide escape from the space invaders, there is very little sense of the sort of solidarity that Spielberg (and collaborator Tom Hanks) were trying to invoke when they got caught up celebrating the allied forces of WWII.

Turning to an earlier production of “War of the Worlds” (and a much better although dated film), the 1953 version dramatized the collective efforts of Americans and their overseas allies to resist the invasion through the same kind of alliance that defeated Nazism. It was obvious to one and all, however, that the space aliens were stand-ins for the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, films such as “War of the Worlds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” clearly articulated the fear of the alien who would destroy our way of life if not stopped in their tracks. By making the main character a research scientist, the 1953 film puts the emphasis on trying to understand how the aliens operate in order to destroy them. By contrast, Tom Cruise as anti-hero seeks only to take the next step out of harm’s way. When his son decides to join an army attack on the aliens, he practically has to wrestle him to the ground to save him from certain death, even if an ennobling one.

Orson Wells drew upon H.G. Wells’s novel for his 1938 radio production that played on pre-WWII jitters. When people turned on their radio as the show was in progress, many actually believed that the Earth was being invaded. Yes, this was the USA after all.

I don’t want to give away the ending of Spielberg’s film, but I suppose most people realize that the “good guys” win. It seems that the space invaders lack immunity from common viruses and die of what appears to be a bad cold. In the final moment of “War of the Worlds,” one of the creatures is slumped in the doorway of his tripod with a running nose. He bears an odd resemblance to the cuddly E.T., when he too takes sick.

In voice-over narration, Morgan Freeman explains that Homo Sapiens had earned the right to rule earth because it had developed a resistance to disease over the millennia. It struck me that this ending inverted what had happened in the New World, when the invading European exterminated the indigenous peoples with smallpox, measles and other diseases that they had not developed a resistance to.

In looking at H.G. Wells’s novel, I learned that this was something very much on the mind of the author. In chapter one, he writes:

“And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.

“And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

Inferior races, indeed. As a member in good standing of the Fabian Society, Wells was susceptible to the social Darwinism that leader Beatrice Webb fostered. She was strongly influenced by Herbert Spencer and came to believe that human progress was determined very much by genetics.

It was only a small step from such a belief to the “science” of eugenics. It was a step that H.G. Wells took enthusiastically and that influenced a number of his novels including “War of the Worlds”. As David Levy and Sandra Peart pointed out in an article that appeared in the March 26, 2002 Reason Magazine (a libertarian publication), H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” tells the story of a future Earth where humanity has evolved into two separate “races.” “Descendants of the working class have become subterranean, ape-like, night creatures who live by eating the decadent descendants of the old upper class. This evolutionary nightmare reflected Victorian ideas about race and hierarchy, and about the undesirable direction that evolution might take if the better sort of people didn’t intervene.”

Wells was very impressed with the work of Francis Galton, a pioneer in eugenics. While Galton entertained ideas about promoting a better human being à la Nazi science, Wells was more concerned about the dangers of mixed breeding. Here is what he had to say about the black/white intermarriage: “The mating of two quite healthy persons may result in disease. I am told it does so in the case of interbreeding of healthy white men and healthy black women about the Tanganyka region; the half-breed children are ugly, sickly, and rarely live.”

Levy and Peart describe the odd affinity that Wells had for Stalin:

Wells was nothing if not energetic. Late in his life, his discussion with Joseph Stalin about the good society was published with comments by G. B. Shaw, J. M. Keynes and others. Unlike Stalin, who trusted that the Party would bring progress, Wells believed in the Scientific Elite. “Now,” he told Stalin in 1934, ‘there is a superabundance of technical intellectuals, and their mentality has changed very sharply. The skilled man, who would formerly never listen to revolutionary talk, is now greatly interested in it. Recently I was dining with the Royal Society, our great English scientific society. The President’s speech was a speech for social planning and scientific control. To-day, the man at the head of the Royal Society holds revolutionary views, and insists on the scientific reorganisation of human society.”

full: http://www.reason.com/hod/dl032602.shtml

July 1, 2005

Land of the Dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:20 am

posted to www.marxmail.org on July 1, 2005

As a blend of horror movie escapism and social commentary, George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” succeeds wildly. Romero, who has three previous zombie movies to his credit, uses the conflict between the living and the ‘undead’ as a metaphor for the contradictions of late capitalist America.

The living dwell in a gated and heavily fortified city that is patrolled by centurions who have not earned the right to permanent residence there themselves. The centurions occasionally organize themselves into death squads and make forays into zombie territory where they kill at random and retrieve canned goods and booze for the consumption needs of the urban population. The shops in zombie territory are still staffed by the “stenches” who once worked there but who have only dim memories of their old occupations. An undead gas station attendant might hold up a nozzle but is clueless as to which end of the car it goes into; an undead gardener aimlessly pushes a lawnmower in circles in the middle of the street at midnight, and so on. These are lost souls who no longer fit into the commodity-producing scheme of things. What is worse, they subsist on eating the flesh of the living.

It is no accident that the city featured in the film is none other than Pittsburgh, director George Romero’s home town. This once bustling headquarters of America’s most powerful and prosperous steel companies was one of the first casualties of deindustrialization. It has been transformed into a citadel for service industries staffed by the college educated. The older, run-down working class sections of town that are home to unemployable steelworkers and other blue-collar workers made redundant by the “economic miracle” could easily have served as on-location settings for the zombie strongholds in “Land of the Dead.” (For economic reasons, however, most of the film was shot in Canada.)

Pittsburgh is ruled by Kaufman, a cynical capitalist played by Dennis Hopper. From a high-rise named “Fiddler’s Green” that dominates the city, he spies on the activities of the city’s population through television monitors. If anybody steps out of line, they will be picked up by the centurions, murdered and then dumped into zombie territory. This Pittsburgh has a lot in common with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” another rigidly divided class society.

For that matter, “Day of the Dead” has enough cultural references to provide fodder for a dozen MLA panels. For example, you will find suggestions of “Bladerunner,” “Mad Max” or any of a number of other dystopian films.

The film also hearkens back to earlier classics like the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films, mostly in its capacity to make you feel a degree of sympathy for the monster. In “Day of the Dead,” you can’t escape feeling sorry for the flesh-eating zombies who only mount an assault on Pittsburgh after suffering one death squad raid too many. Led by “Big Daddy,” an African-American zombie (played skillfully and solely through grunting or howling by veteran actor Eugene Clarke) who was a pneumatic drill operator in his previous life and who still wears the coveralls of his trade, they lurch toward the city to take revenge. It is to Romero’s credit that he can nearly make you cheer for this uprising of the flesh-eating dispossessed.

The only thing that stands between Pittsburgh and the advancing zombie army is a heavily armed and armored troop carrier nicknamed Dead Reckoning. It bears a strong resemblance to vehicles on the streets of Baghdad today. Dead Reckoning has been commandeered by Cholo (John Leguizamo), a centurion who seeks revenge against Kaufman for not allowing him to buy an apartment in Pittsburgh. As somebody who has spent some time shopping for a co-op in Manhattan, I can identify with this character. Unless Kaufman turns over millions of dollars in ransom to Cholo and his gang, he will open fire on the city.

Kaufman sends Riley (Simon Baker), Dead Reckoning’s former commander, out to thwart Cholo’s plans and to save the city, which is the source of his wealth. Riley has been jailed for interfering in a gladiator type combat between two zombies that has been staged in a Las Vegas-like casino within the city. He, like the GI’s speaking out against the occupation of Iraq today, is one of the few centurions that has not been completely dehumanized by Kaufman’s system. If Riley and his friends are successful, they plan to hightail it to Canada and leave Kaufman’s madness behind. Obviously, such a plan will resonate with any filmgoer who has taken note of our northern neighbor’s more civilized stance on matters such as gay marriage or the war on terror.

In an interview with Los Angeles Weekly, Romero explains the importance of Pittsburgh:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

Romero has always had a keen sense of the political issues of the day when making a new film. In his 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” the war in Vietnam was raging. Just as science-fiction films of the 1950s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” evoked fear of Communist infiltrators, Romero’s 1968 opus, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Halloween” and other such films from this period conveyed the carnage in Vietnam. Tom Savini, who was responsible for the zombie makeup and special effects in Romero’s 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” served in Vietnam in 1969, photographing corpses for the United States Army.

In addition, “Night of the Living Dead” featured a Black protagonist as well who, in distinction to the “Land of the Dead,” was leading the fight against the undead. At the climax of the film, he was gunned down by trigger-happy cops and thrown unceremoniously on a heap of burning zombies. It is no coincidence that the film was made during a period of intense ghetto rebellions.

“Dawn of the Dead” also mirrors what was going on in American society at that time. Shot in a Pittsburgh shopping mall, it satirizes a consumer society gone mad. When the living are not fending off zombies, they are fighting over consumer goods.

All of Romero’s previous films are on DVD and worth seeing. He is one of this country’s unique talents and “Land of the Dead,” his latest, is a must.

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