Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2005

Idiot punditry

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:55 am

Bush’s Can’t-Lose Reversal

Wednesday’s speech will set the agenda for withdrawal from Iraq.

By Fred Kaplan Posted Monday, Nov. 28, 2005, at 7:14 PM ET

Brace yourself for a mind-bog of sheer cynicism. The discombobulation begins Wednesday, when President George W. Bush is expected to proclaim, in a major speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, that the Iraqi security forces—which only a few months ago were said to have just one battalion capable of fighting on its own—have suddenly made uncanny progress in combat readiness. Expect soon after (if not during the speech itself) the thing that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have, just this month, denounced as near-treason—a timetable for withdrawal of American troops.

And so it appears (assuming the forecasts about the speech are true) that the White House is as cynical about this war as its cynical critics have charged it with being. For several months now, many of these critics have predicted that, once the Iraqis passed their constitution and elected a new government, President Bush would declare his mission complete and begin to pull out—this, despite his public pledge to “stay the course” until the insurgents were defeated.

This theory explains Bush’s insistence that the Iraqis draft and ratify the constitution on schedule—even though the rush resulted in a seriously flawed document that’s more likely to fracture the country than to unite it. For if the pullout can get under way in the opening weeks of 2006, then the war might be nullified as an issue by the time of our own elections.

full: http://www.slate.com/id/2131125/


From today’s speech by George W. Bush:

With resolve, victory will be achieved, although not by a date certain.

No war has ever been won on a timetable and neither will this one.

But lack of a timetable does not mean our posture in Iraq (both military and civilian) will remain static over time. As conditions change, our posture will change.

We expect, but cannot guarantee, that our force posture will change over the next year, as the political process advances and Iraqi security forces grow and gain experience.

While our military presence may become less visible, it will remain lethal and decisive, able to confront the enemy wherever it may organize.

Our mission in Iraq is to win the war. Our troops will return home when that mission is complete.

full: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/051130_Iraq_National_Strategy.pdf

Jazz and the left

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:00 am

Fundamentally, major social changes in the United States have determined the evolution of jazz, just as they have in any other art form.

The 1930s were a period of the rise of jazz and the organized left. Concretely, this meant big bands and the Communist Party. Notwithstanding some early dogmatic opposition to jazz from cultural commissar Mike Gold, the party soon threw itself into proselytizing for jazz and fighting segregation in the music business.

Major contributions to jazz writing were made by veterans of this era. Writing as Frankie Newton (in homage to the trumpet player who had joined the party), E.J. Hobsbawm wrote numerous articles that were collected as “The Jazz Scene.” To Hobsbawm’s credit, the radical nature of jazz is not something is conveyed by the lyrics of a song but by the music’s willingness to speak for the pain and aspiration of the most oppressed sector of society:

Paradoxically, it is the simplest and least ‘political’ jazz which has best resisted the temptations of compromise, respectability, and official recognition. Bessie Smith, who never sang in white theatres and would not have changed her style if she had, is— like the blues—the least corrupted and corruptible part of jazz, and therefore the purest carrier of the jazz protest. (It may be significant that of all the biographies and auto-biographies of jazz artists, those of the women singers express the irreconcilable bitterness of the underdog most persistently. Paradoxically, it is the simplest and least ‘political’ jazz which has best resisted the temptations of compromise, respectability, and official recognition. Bessie Smith, who never sang in white theatres and would not have changed her style if she had, is— like the blues—the least corrupted and corruptible part of jazz, and therefore the purest carrier of the jazz protest. (It may be significant that of all the biographies and auto-biographies of jazz artists, those of the women singers express the irreconcilable bitterness of the underdog most persistently.

Like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday also expressed the irreconcilable bitterness of the underdog, especially when she mounted the stage to perform “Strange Fruit.” This bitter denunciation of lynching in the Deep South perfectly expresses the affinity between jazz musician and leftist in the 1930s and 40s. Written by Abel Meerpol, a Communist high school teacher and CP member, the song cut straight through to the heart of racial oppression in the USA. Meerpol, writing under the name Lewis Allen, also composed “The House I Live In,” a plea for racial tolerance that was popularized by Frank Sinatra, who was close to the party when he first performed it. Besides winning recognition for his songs, Abel Meerpol was well-known as the adoptive parent of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s children.

Holiday premiered “Strange Fruit” at Café Society, a Greenwich Village nightclub that was launched in 1938 by Barney Josephson, who wanted to create an alternative to the snobbery and racism that pervaded uptown clubs. His brother Leon, who worked there, was a party member and a participant in a plot to assassinate Hitler! Helen Lawrenson, the club’s publicist, maintains that Earl Browder came up with the idea of the club as a way to raise money for the CP.

When Josephson was running low on start-up funds, bandleader Benny Goodman and Columbia record company executive John Hammond each put up $5000 to help make Café Society a reality. Although John Hammond was never a member of the Communist Party, he is probably the best known leftwing figure in the jazz community of the 1930s and 40s. As a record producer, Nation Magazine contributor and board member of the NAACP, he fought against segregation both within the jazz world and in American society as a whole. In addition, he was instrumental in developing the careers of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and a host of other jazz musicians, many of whom–including these two–became friends of the left. For a introduction to John Hammond’s legacy that emphasizes his Important accomplishments, we can turn to the chapter in Lewis A. Erenberg’s “Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture” titled “Swing Left: The Politics of Race and Culture in the Swing Era.” Erenberg writes:

Goodman’s phenomenal success validated Hammond as a talent spotter, and music industry executives had to pay attention. As a jazz devotee and a cultural radical, however, Hammond was primarily interested in promoting Negro performers who “could not get a break because of their race.” He was Teddy Wilson’s major backer during the 1930s, but he also went out of his way to push the Basie band. After hearing Basie on his powerful car radio, Hammond drove to Kansas City to hear the band in person, and then publicized it endlessly in his Down Beat columns and among his many musical connections. It was the Basie band’s “un-buttoned, never-too-disciplined” style that attracted Hammond. He interpreted it as an “authentic” black band, unlike Duke Ellington’s “show band,” which, he believed, had lost touch with its blues roots.

To get the full dimensions of the Hammond-Ellington rift, we need to consult David W. Stowe’s “Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America.” In chapter two, titled “Between Conjure and Capital,” there is a detailed account of the polemics that took place between the highly regarded band leader and the leftist jazz producer and critic. Hammond had fired the first shot in 1935 with an article in Downbeat titled “The Tragedy of Duke Ellington, the ‘Black Prince of Jazz’: A Musician of Great Talent Forsakes Simplicity for Pretension.” He saw Ellington as the musical equivalent of a Black bourgeoisie that had distanced itself from its people: “It would probably take a Granville Hicks or a Langston Hughes to describe the way that he shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped on his people and his original class.”

In a very real sense, the tensions between the incipient Black Nationalist Ellington and the integrationist Hammond prefigure those that would take place years later between LeRoi Jones and Roy Wilkins. There was far more “Afrocentrism” in Ellington’s music than in any other swing band of the 1930s. Ellington wrote an homage to Ethiopia titled “Menelik, King of Judah” that was not unlike those found in reggae. He also wrote an all black musical titled “Jump for Joy” (subtitled ‘A Sun-Tanned Revu-sical’) that, according to Ellington, was intended “to take Uncle Tom out of the theatre, eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway, and say things that would make the audience think.”

Indeed, one can easily see the influence of Ellington on Charles Mingus, perhaps modern jazz’s most well-known Black radical. His autobiography “Beneath the Underdog” contains bitter denunciations of white racism and the struggle to achieve dignity and success in the white controlled jazz business. It ranks with “Autobiography of Malcom X” and other classics. Like Ellington, Mingus sought to elevate the status of Black people in his music but with even more of a political edge. Although Mingus started out understandably as a desegregationist in the 1950s, his music and his ideology moved in a more nationalist direction in later years in harmony with broader trends in the Black community.

Mingus wrote “Fables of Faubus” in 1959 to protest Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus’s decision to send out the National Guard two years earlier to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African American teenagers. The song was first recorded on the 1959 album “Mingus Ah Um” but Columbia Records believed them to be too controversial for release. It was not until 1960 that Mingus was able to release the lyrics on the album “Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus,” released by the more independent Candid label:

Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us!
Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us!
Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us!
Oh Lord, no more swastikas!

Oh Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie.
Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?
He won’t permit integrated schools.
Then he’s a fool!

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your evil plan)

Of course, one might wonder why Columbia Records might have refused to allow these words to be heard, given the fact that John Hammond virtually ran the jazz division. This opens the door to more recent criticisms of Hammond that have questioned both his commitment to Black rights and, just as importantly, his dealings with Black musicians as a corporation chief. Frank Kofsky, author of “John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s,” a book that makes the occasionally overstated case that Coltrane’s music expressed Black Nationalist sentiments, deals with the question in “Black Music, White Business.” Kofsky writes that the “tangled relationship of John Hammond and Columbia Records and Bessie Smith” illustrates the political economy of white domination of black music. He also writes:

The first and most important point to emphasize is that, as author Chris Albertson reveals in his biography of Bessie Smith, Hammond signed the singer to a series of contracts with Columbia Records that gave her a small fixed fee for each performance she recorded and no royalties. Such contracts were apparently standard practice with the executive, for Billie Holiday unequivocally stated in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: “Later on John Hammond paired me up with Teddy Wilson and his band for another record session. This time I got thirty bucks for making half a dozen sides.” What is more, when she protested about this arrangement, it was, according to her, a Columbia executive named Bernie Hanighen — and not John Hammond — “who really went to bat for me” and “almost lost his job at Columbia fighting for me.”

While it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a full assessment of Hammond’s role in jazz, suffice it to say that he never broke completely with his class. Consider how he advised a family friend to shun Billie Holiday in his memoir “On Record”:

I couldn’t wait to bring Billie Holiday to Cafe Society. It was the perfect place for her to sing to a new audience with the kind of jazz players who brought out her best. Unfortunately, her appearances were not the success they could have been, and they proved to be the end of my association with Billie’s career. She was heavily involved with narcotics, and she had hired as her manager a woman from a distinguished family I knew well. I was concerned that she and her family might be hurt by unsavory gossip, or even blackmailed by the gangsters and dope pushers Billie knew.

It was one of the few times in my life when I felt compelled to interfere in a personal relationship which was none of my business. I told the manager’s family what I knew and what I feared. Soon afterward the manager and Billie broke up, and Billie never worked at Cafe Society again.

After the decline of the big band era, bebop surfaced as a trend that at first blush seemed to be a retreat from the engaged politics of the 1930s. The small groups that played such adventurous works as “Bloomdido” or “Groovin’ High” never seemed to take up the big issues of peace and racism that the previous generation had, nor did they seem particularly interested in whether you could jitterbug to them. While this is true on one level, on another level the bebop musicians were pioneering a new kind of identity that refused to cede an inch to the “entertainment” expectations of largely white audiences. Except for Dizzy Gillespie, these musicians had broken completely with the almost minstrel-like aspects of bandleaders such as Cab Calloway or Louis Armstrong. Their music was based on expressions of Black independence and pride.

In “What is This Thing Called Jazz,” Eric Porter writes:

The politics of bebop’s style reflected this broader ethos, as intellectual practice and sartorial display coincided for musicians and their audiences. Although Eric Lott’s assessment of bebop essentially describes 3 cohesive and rather narrowly defined cultural and aesthetic politics, his description of bebop’s “style” calls attention to the way musicians and fans alike engaged in serious mental endeavors that responded to the world around them, “Bebop,” he writes “was about making disciplined imagination alive and answerable to the social change of its time,” and the style “was where social responsiveness became individual expression, where the pleasures of shared identity met an intolerance for racist jive.” Beboppers and their fans even adopted the personae of intellectuals; goatees, berets, and horned-rimmed glasses became the uniform of the subculture. The adoption of this regalia of the intelligentsia not only distanced musicians from the mainstream but also challenged racist ideologies that were based in part on a belief in African American mental inferiority. We may also understand bebop style as a signifier of musicians’ collective search for a better understanding of music theory and the world around them.

In no short time at all, bebop was superseded by ‘hard bop.’ This style retained the rhythmic and harmonic inventiveness of bebop but married it to an explicit Black identity that more often than not saw itself as an adjunct of the struggle for equality. Artists such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and Lee Morgan sought to give expression to the Souls of Black Folks, as W.E.B. Dubois would put it.

Later on, the best of hard bop was integrated into the “New Thing,” or avant-garde jazz of the 1960s. This hard-edged and often dissonant style was the artistic counterpart of the urban rebellions and the resistance to the Vietnam War. Music and politics were merged seamlessly in the recordings of Archie Shepp, an outspoken Black Nationalist who recorded one explicitly political album after another from 1965 on and who is still going strong.

November 26, 2005

Diana Johnstone, Ordfront and the “bombing left”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 26, 2005

In her Counterpunch article dealing with the Chomsky-Guardian controversy that involved her as a principal player, Diana Johnstone addresses an earlier such attack from the Guardian, this time by Ed Vulliamy, a member in good standing of the Cruise Missile left, who wrote:

In Sweden, here they come again, through the pages of a magazine called Ordfront, or Word Front. Last year, it carried an interview with the author Diane Johnstone, about her book Fool’s Crusade, which expresses doubts over the number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre; the authencity of the Racak massacre in Kosovo; the use of systematic rape in the war in Bosnia; and the true figure of Bosnian war dead (the official estimate is more than 200,000 – Johnstone claims 50,000). And just as before, members of the chattering classes, unbelievably, have hailed this poison as “outstanding work”, in a letter signed by, among others, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali, John Pilger, et al.

Johnstone responds to Vulliamy as follows:

From this citation, it emerges that the Brockes interview was a continuation of the vicious attack on me and the managing editor of the Swedish magazine Ordfront, Björn Ecklund, following his long article in the July/August 2003 issue on “lies about Yugoslavia” which featured an interview with me and excerpts from my book, “Fools’ Crusade”.

The first shots in that assault were fired by Maciej Zaremba, an ex-Maoist of Polish origin turned ideological watchdog, in a flailing article published by Sweden’s leading mainstream daily, Dagens Nyeter. Zaremba’s sloppy attack (he admittedly never read my book, and seems not even to have read the Ordfront piece carefully) was thereupon echoed by mainstream Swedish media, in a campaign absurdly called a “debate”, although replies from those being attacked (myself and others) were excluded. Among the uncorrected lies was the statement that I was a “pillar of LM”, a magazine with which I have never had the slightest contact.

This shameful campaign was used to bring to heel Ordfront, which until then had been the most important left-oriented alternative to Sweden’s mainstream press. It is an amazing story, excellently recounted by Al Burke, a (formerly U.S.) Swedish citizen who is well-acquainted with the Ordfront scandal and its broader political context. His document, “All Quieted on the Word Front”, deserves to be read carefully by all who are concerned by the growing threats to freedom of political expression in the “democratic West”. See http://www.nnn.se/n-model/foreign/ordfront.pdf. For starters, there is an introduction on Al Burke’s web http://www.nnn.se/nodel/foreign/ordfront.htm.

Full: http://www.counterpunch.org/johnstone11142005.html

Unfortunately Burke’s introduction to this very important struggle cannot really convey the magnitude of what took place, which can only be described as a full-tilt attack on democracy and the left. By the same token, the linked pdf document is about the size of a book, so I am not sure how many Counterpunch readers took the trouble to plow through it, especially since much of it is taken up with internecine struggles on the Swedish left. It is almost like inviting people in Sweden to read 150 pages on the Pacifica struggle of a couple of years ago.

Since I have committed a fair amount of time and energy in debate with people like Michael Bérubé on the liberal left and the Australian DSP on the extreme left over such issues, I decided to read the entire pdf and prepare a summary of the issues. Put succinctly, the article reveals that the Guardian/George Soros/Hitchens crusade on Yugoslavia meshed neatly with a crusade against Swedish radicalism but focused on Yugoslavia. A degraded social democracy intervened in a radical magazine’s internal struggle in order to make imperialist intervention more acceptable to Swedish society. And all this grew out of Ordfront’s decision to interview Diana Johnstone!

Subscription to Ordfront makes you a member so people feel that they have a stake in what appears in its pages, just as Pacifica donors do about what goes out on the air waves. Politically, the magazine is a few degrees to the left of the Nation and had a circulation of 30,000 in 2004. A comparable circulation this size in the USA would number about just under one million so you can see that it is not marginal. Al Burke thought that it played a role in voters rejecting the European Monetary Union. Ordfront also has a publishing house and an educational network.

In the summer of 2003, Ordfront ran an interview with Diana Johnstone which focused on her “Fools’ Crusade.” A month or so later, Dagens Nyheter, the NY Times of Sweden, opened up a full-scale assault on the magazine for having the temerity to interview Johnstone, which in their eyes was tantamount to interviewing David Irving. Leading the attack was one Maciej Zaremba, a transplanted Pole and fan of US foreign policy who once called Ben Linder, the martyred Nicaragua volunteer, an “odd duck” and nothing else.

When Zaremba was interviewed on Swedish public radio some time later, he confessed to not having read “Fools’ Crusade.” He also stated that Ordfront did not have the right to give her a hearing because “freedom of expression which is used to confuse us contradicts the purpose of freedom of expression.” Despite his anti-Communism, one imagines that Zaremba learned a few tricks from a Stalinist hack like the former dictator of Poland Edward Gierek. Eventually Zaremba’s crusade was joined by Gellert Tamas, an Ordfront author and, as Burke puts it, a charter member of the “bombing left.”

The pressure mounted by Dagens Nyheter eventually forced the editorial board of Ordfront to cave in and they published a ‘mea culpa’ open letter in that newspaper that charged Diana Johnstone with holocaust denial. Dagens Nyheter refused to publish rebuttals by Johnstone, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, which do however appear in the pdf. Eventually Björn Eklund, who had interviewed Johnstone, was fired. His reply to the charges against him were not published in the magazine. He had become an “unperson.”

After Eklund’s departure, the magazine deepened its support for NATO’s war in Yugoslavia using the sort of arguments found in Dissent Magazine. Imagine Paul Berman as editor of the Nation Magazine and you’ll get the picture of what was going on.

The assault on Diana Johnstone eventually spilled over into Sweden’s public television and radio. A kind of “thought police” mentality overcame social democratic opinion. Anybody who questioned the “party line” on Yugoslavia became another David Irving.

Outraged Ordfront subscribers came to the 2004 annual meeting with a determination to reorient the magazine away from Serb-bashing and to restore free speech. In the past 30 to 40 people would show up. This year 200 did! By a sizable margin, the body approved a motion that stated, “It is the opinion of the annual meeting that it was wrong to repudiate publication of the interview with Diana Johnstone. In keeping with the organization’s stated purpose, the board should instead have defended the provision of a public space for critical debate on controversial issues.” They also repudiated the firing of Björn Eklund.

The next day Ordfront editor Christina Hagner, a “bombing leftist,” took to the pages of Dagens Nyheter to denounce the unruly mob that insisted on democracy at the annual meeting, which she characterized as being “completely out of control.” She eventually brought in a professor of commercial law from the Swedish equivalent of the Harvard Business School to render a negative judgment on the pro-democracy faction that had shown up at the annual meeting. Eventually Hagner and her supporters managed to purge Ordfront’s board of directors and staff of anybody who was outspokenly to the left of Marc Cooper. Those who did have such politics, but who lacked the stomach for a fight, were silenced into submission.

For me the biggest revelation in Al Burke’s article was the degree to which Sweden has moved inexorably to the right, just as its economy has slid into neoliberalism–all under the watch of successive social democratic administrations. This is no longer the country of Prime Minister Olof Palme, who referred to Nixon’s bombing as “torture” of the Vietnamese people and linked it to Lidice, Guernica and Babi Yar.

Sweden’s current prime minister is one Göran Persson, a ‘pragmatic’ social democrat who despite criticisms of the war on terror has seen fit to allow U.S. agents onto Swedish soil, where they hauled off two political-asylum seekers and sent them to Egypt where they were tortured.

It is also of some note that some of the most outspoken ‘bombing leftist’ members of the Ordfront board and staff were, as Burke puts it, “reformed veterans of the lunatic Left of the 1960s and 70s.” (I myself prefer to remain an unrepentant Marxist, even if people like Marc Cooper or Leo Casey think that I am a 60s style lunatic.) His following words seem most apt in describing the “repentant” nature of such people.

The theory is that, having in middle-age joined polite society, they have been battling with their inner demons from the past by projecting them in some strange and destructive way upon the democratic majority which dared to challenge their embrace of USA/NATO propaganda, their submission to the mainstream press, etc. That explanation may appear a bit weird; but it is certainly no weirder than the behavior in question.

November 25, 2005

Timesman tells the truth

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 5:04 pm

There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it.

There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone.
The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press?
We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.

–John Swinton, NY Times editorial page editor in the 1860s. (These remarks were made at a banquet held in his honor in 1880 after someone who knew neither the press nor Swinton offered a toast to the independent press.)

November 23, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 23, 2005

If they handed out awards to movies for political awareness and seriousness of purpose, then surely “Syriana” would win first prize. Unfortunately, this ambitious film about oil, geopolitics, and terrorism is not very good.

“Syriana” was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote “Traffic,” another ambitious mess about Important Issues. It is based on ex-CIA agent Robert Baer’s book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.” Unlike the typical Hollywood spy movie protagonist, Bob Barnes (the Robert Baer character played by George Clooney who put on 30 pounds to achieve some sort of verisimilitude–are CIA agents supposed to be fat?) is neither indefatigable nor virtuous. In fact, he has a lot in common with John Le Carré’s George Smiley, the fictional British MI5 agent who is abused by his superiors and cynical about the Cold War he was assigned to fight. In this case, the War Against Terrorism has replaced the Cold War.

Bob Barnes finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between rival factions in a Mideast oil emirate led by two brothers who are rivals for their father’s throne. One brother is an Ataturk type modernizer who sees a pending partnership with Chinese oil companies as a bootstrap for progress. His brother is a playboy and a lout who favors continued partnership with United States oil companies that offer lower prices for his country’s dwindling oil supplies. This might be the first Hollywood film in which the Hubbert Curve serves as a plot mechanism.

Matt Damon, George Clooney’s co-star from the Oceans 11 and 12 flicks, makes an appearance as an oil consultant advising the good prince about how to exploit his country’s resources better. To Gaghan’s dubious credit, this character is about as lifeless as a real-world financial analyst. Verisimilitude will be served, I guess. I kept hoping that somebody would kidnap him or something to liven up the action.

As it turns out, Bob Barnes does get kidnapped in Beirut and all sorts of nasty things are done to him, including having his fingernails getting plucked out one by one. His Lebanese captor, who Barnes’s superiors assure him is a soldier just like him (another Le Carré touch), lets him know that he learned this technique from the Chinese who used it on Falun Gong. Speaking as somebody who was besieged by this cult all over Manhattan some months back, I am afraid that I will have to give critical support to the Chinese government.

Hovering over all this is an imminent deal that will bring together two huge oil companies, one with tentacles in Kazakhstan and the other in the Emirate just mentioned. As might be expected, the oil company executives are really not very nice. This is the one place in which the film’s nonstop quest for shades of gray relaxes. These executives and the politicians they are in bed with have been seen a thousand times before but to greater advantage in movies like “China Syndrome” or “The Pelican Brief.” However, Gaghan wouldn’t stoop to something as low as melodrama since it would get in the way of his message that vast institutions driven by profit are the root of evil rather than particular villains. But to get such a message across, he would be better served by a blog or the Nation Magazine rather than a movie.

As I stated above, Gaghan wrote “Traffic,” a film about the drug trade and his most successful past effort. Of course, one has to be charitable in describing this film as successful since it is measured against such calamities as “Havoc,” a 2005 film he wrote about L.A. Chicano gangs that was directed by ex-leftist documentarian Barbara Kopple–alas. This straight to video mess was described in a user’s comment (i.e., not a professional critic) on imdb.com in the following terms: “I will agree with others when it was said that this was a pitiful excuse for a movie. It was nothing short of a porno. Within the first 20 minutes the f word was said 67 times (yes i counted) i had nothing better to do. There was no plot to follow.” No wonder Hollywood can’t fill the theater seats nowadays.

However, the inspiration for “Syriana,” such as it is, comes from “Traffik,” the British television film rather than the Soderberg film it inspired. In “Traffik,” there is a commitment to showing how the drug trade snares poor farmers into its web, in that case a Pakistani poppy grower who is simply trying to put food on his family’s table. Soderberg’s “Traffic,” by contrast, cuts this aspect out and aspires for a sort of “Miami Vice” glitter.

Once again, there is a poor Pakistani in “Syriana,” in this case an oil worker who loses his job in the Emirate after the two oil companies join forces. He eventually hooks up with a radical Islamic plot to blow up an oil tanker. It is the most satisfying moment in the film.

When I arrived at Loew’s for a press screening, I was subjected to the kind of search I usually get at airports. Since the film was about Mideast politics, the first thing that entered my mind is that security was looking for bombs. As it turned out, they were looking for concealed video cameras. It seems that the bootleg problem is much more on Hollywood’s mind than making competent films. They should have not wasted their time. With the kind of audience reception that this turkey will receive, I wouldn’t worry about piracy. I’d worry more about empty seats.

November 22, 2005

Love, Ludlow

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:45 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 22, 2005

As a member of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I often get a chance to view films that are truly off the beaten track. Last night I watched a complimentary copy of “Love, Ludlow”, a bittersweet comedy set in New York City. This is a film version of an off-Broadway play by David Paterson who is a volunteer with the Manhasset Fire Department when not writing. The project is a labor of love. It cost $75,000 to make, which is about the same amount that is spent on breakfasts for a Stephen Spielberg movie.

Despite some flaws not even worth mentioning, I found it much more interesting than the fare at the local Loew’s Cinema. It revolves around a kind of love triangle between an office temp worker named Myra, her suitor Reg who works in her office and her 20 something brother Ludlow, who is a case of arrested development that has reached clinical proportions. Ludlow has no job and whiles away his days eating twinkies and finger-painting.

Cramped into a one-bedroom apartment, Myra and Ludlow bicker with each other continuously. With the death of their parents, she has ended up with the job of caring for her hapless brother. This leaves little time for a social life. In addition, any suitor would likely flee from such a situation, especially when they have to put up with abuse from Ludlow who fears that his sister will abandon him for a lover.

When Reg arrives at their home, he is put to the test by Ludlow. Despite being goaded repeatedly, he stays the course. Not only does he have to put up with her brother’s abuse, he also has to break down Mona’s resistance. Like countless young New Yorkers, she has chosen celibacy because the dating game is just too much of a hassle. Plus, she won’t have to explain her nutty brother. Reg is played by David Eigenberg, who fans of “Sex and the City” (including myself) will recognize as the Queens bartender who courted and then married Miranda, the high-powered corporate lawyer. Eigenberg is an extremely likeable actor who seems eminently suited to these sorts of self-effacing roles.

As I sat watching “Love, Ludlow,” I found myself reminded of Paddy Chayevsky’s “Marty,” another play about lonely and lowly New Yorkers trying to find love. It was aired on NBC’s Philco Television Playhouse on May 24, 1953 and starred Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand. This was at a time when live dramas could be seen weekly on network television, including Kraft Television Theater, the Ford Theater, Philco and Goodyear Television Playhouses, Studio One, Tele-Theatre and Actors Studio.

Many of these plays were written or directed by men and women who had sympathies for the left, or had even been members of the Communist Party. If the blacklist made work in Hollywood impossible, there was always television which was less repressive. Even after many of them had shed their ties to the left, they continued to write about the concerns of ordinary working people like Reg, Mona and her mentally disabled brother.

As corporate control deepens in both Hollywood and television, it becomes more and more difficult to create intimate, small scale drama of the sort that was found in an earlier period. While “Love, Ludlow” came into existence as an off-Broadway play, it makes sense to produce it as an independent film in the hopes that it can reach a wider audience through video rentals. As is so often the case nowadays, the Internet can help low-budget films make a breakthrough. This, of course, is how “Blair Witch Chronicles” became a hit.

If the Internet can help independent films over the top, they can also serve to warn potential ticket-buyers away from turkeys. In an article titled “In a losing race with the zeitgeist” that appears in today’s Los Angeles Times, film business reporter Bruce Goldstein writes, “New technology is also accelerating word of mouth. Thanks to instant messaging and BlackBerries, bad buzz about a bad movie hits the streets fast enough to stop suckers from lining up to see a new stinker. Even worse, the people who run studios are living in such cocoons that they’ve become wildly out of touch with reality.”

In any case, if you want to check out a sweet, affecting love story drenched in local color, look for “Love, Ludow” on-line or at your better video stores.

Film website: http://www.loveludlow.com/

November 21, 2005

Separated at birth?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:21 pm


November 16, 2005

Operation Last Patrol

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 16, 2005

With the November 22nd DVD release of Frank Cavestani’s 1972 “Operation Last Patrol,” a landmark documentary about antiwar Vietnam veterans protesting the Republican Party convention that year, we are struck by obvious similarities between that period and our own.

Just as Cindy Sheehan galvanized the conscience of a nation by challenging a war waged in the name of lies, so did the caravan of veterans who made their way from California to Miami. Indeed, in the final scene of Cavestani’s film, where we see the paraplegic Ron Kovic inside the convention hall denouncing the war to the obvious dismay of the cops and Secret Service agents surrounding him, we are reminded of how Cindy Sheehan spoiled another party at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. With the tragic loss of one’s mobility or one’s son ostensibly on behalf of defending freedom, there is little that one can do to besmirch a Ron Kovic or a Cindy Sheehan, no matter how hard the war-makers try.

“Operation Last Patrol” follows Kovic and his comrades as they wend their way East. The most gripping moments obviously involve Kovic, who was played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July.” As he sits in the driver’s seat of a specially prepared automobile that can be controlled from the steering wheel, he tells the interviewer about his narrow escape from death on the Vietnamese battlefield. A bullet severed his spine and left him utterly without feeling or mobility beneath his chest.

Cavestani’s film predates the publication of Kovic’s 1976 memoir that details his evolution from a gung-ho Marine recruit out of Massapequa, Long Island in 1964 to an outspoken critic of the war. In a phone conversation I had with Cavestani (an old friend) just after viewing the film, I was told that he was immediately attracted to Kovic when he began filming. Indeed, no matter how good an actor Tom Cruise (Cavestani served as a consultant to Oliver Stone), there is no substitute for the real thing.

Although Cavestani is obviously a political person, this film is not a dry, didactic exercise. Oddly enough, it has the same kind of ‘road’ lyricism as “Easy Rider.” In a gesture that expressed their disaffection from the “straight” culture that seemed to have made the war possible, the Vietnam veterans in “Operation Last Patrol” look like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper with long shaggy hair, beards and scruffy jeans. When they stop to talk or even argue with straight-looking bystanders en route to the convention, the veterans disarm the typical Archie Bunker reaction by calmly explaining that they fought in Vietnam.

This film is an extremely important addition to our cultural and historical heritage. It would be of immense value to high school or college classes studying the Vietnam era. It is also a film that the antiwar movement can turn to today. As the war in Iraq continues to take its toll on today’s Ron Kovics, we must try to find a way to reach out to involve them in protests. Indeed, a new organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War has begun to apply the lessons of the past to today’s struggle.

Ron Kovic’s memoir has been released in paperback from Akashic Publishers this year with a new introduction that concludes as follows:

The Bush administration seems to have learned some very different lessons than we did from Vietnam. Where we learned of the deep immorality and obscenity of that war, they learned to be even more brutal, more violent and ruthless, i.e., “shock and awe.” Sadly, the war on terror has become a war of terror. Where we learned to be more open and honest, to be more truthful, to expose, to express, to shatter the myths of the past, they seem to have learned the exact opposite–to hide, to censor, to fabricate, to mislead and deceive–to perpetuate those myths.

Instead of being intimidated or frightened, many of us became more outraged and more determined than ever to stop these ignorant, arrogant men and women who never saw the things we saw, never had to grieve over the loss of their bodies or the bodies of their sons and daughters, never had to watch as so many friends and fellow veterans were destroyed by alcoholism and drugs, homelessness, imprisonment, neglect and rejection, torture, abandonment and betrayal, in the painful aftermath of the war. These leaders have never experienced the tears, the dread and rage, the feeling that there is no God, no country, nothing but the wound, the horrifying memories, the shock, the guilt, the shame, the terrible injustice that took the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and over two million Vietnamese.

We had to act. We had to speak.

I am no longer the 28-year-old man, six years returned from the war in Vietnam, who sat behind that typewriter in Santa Monica in the fall of 1974. I am nearly 60 now. My hair and beard are almost completely white. The nightmares and anxiety attacks have all but disappeared, but I still do not sleep well at night. I toss and turn in increasing physical pain. But I remain very positive and optimistic. I am still determined to rise above all of this. I know my pain and the horrors of my past will always be with me, but perhaps not with the same force and fury of those early years after the war.

I have learned to forgive my enemies and forgive myself. It has been very difficult to heal from the war while living in America, and I have often dreamed of moving to neutral ground, another country. Yet I have somehow made a certain peace, even in a nation that so often still seems to believe in war and the use of violence as a solution to its problems. There has been a reckoning, a renewal. The scar will always be there, a living reminder of that war, but it has also become something beautiful now, something of faith and hope and love.

I have been given an opportunity to move through that dark night of the soul to a new shore, to gain an understanding, a knowledge, an entirely different vision. I now believe I have suffered for a reason, and in many ways I have found that reason in my commitment to peace and nonviolence. My life has been a blessing in disguise, even with the pain and great difficulty that my physical disability continues to bring. It is a blessing to be able to speak on behalf of peace, to be able to reach such a great number of people.

I saw firsthand what our government’s terrible policy had wrought. I endured; I survived and understood. The one gift I was given in that war was an awakening. I became a messenger, a living symbol, an example, a man who learned that love and forgiveness are more powerful than hatred, who has learned to embrace all men and women as my brothers and sisters. No one will ever again be my enemy, no matter how hard they try to frighten and intimidate me. No government will ever teach me to hate another human being. I have been given the task of lighting a lantern, ringing a bell, shouting from the highest rooftops, warning the American people and citizens everywhere of the deep immorality and utter wrongness of this approach to solving our problems, pleading for an alternative to this chaos and madness, this insanity and brutality. We must change course.

I truly feel that this beautiful world has given me back so much more than it has taken from me. So many others that I knew are gone, and gone way too young. I am grateful to be alive after all these years and all that I’ve been through. I am thankful for every day. Life is so precious.

November 13, 2005

Gordon S. Wood on Sean Wilentz

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:03 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 13, 2005

There’s an interesting review of Sean Wilentz’s “The Rise of American Democracy” by Gordon S. Wood in today’s NY Times Book review section (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/13/books/review/13wood.html). Wood, a historian himself, correctly identifies Wilentz as having the reinvigoration of the Democratic Party as one of his chief aims in this book, particularly through his elevation of Andrew Jackson, a figure who no longer is flattered the way he was in Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “Age of Jackson,” a book that didn’t even mention the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokees.

Unlike Schlesinger, Wilentz does acknowledge the Democratic Party’s pro-slavery and anti-Indian policies, but forgives them in the same way that Communists used to apologize for Stalin. In Great Projects like building American Democracy or Socialism, it is sometimes necessary to subordinate lesser peoples for the Greater Good.

Wood makes the case that Wilentz has no use for pesky minorities when it comes to advancing the cause of the Democratic Party today:

“Like Schlesinger in 1945, he wants in 2005 to speak to the liberalism of the modern Democratic Party. By suggesting that the race, gender and cultural issues that drive much of the modern left are not central to the age of Jackson, Wilentz seems to imply that they should not be central to the future of the present-day Democratic Party.”

Of course, this is somewhat old news. People like Richard Rorty and Sean Wilentz deeply resent the New Left’s impact on American politics. By forcing the issues of Black, gay and women’s inequality on the world’s oldest bourgeois party, they allow the Republicans to demagogically exploit the fears of the sort described in Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas.”

As everybody probably knows, there is no such thing as “impartial” historiography. Every historian imparts his own ideological agenda into yesterday’s events, no matter the pains they take to conceal it under a veneer of scholarly dispassion. What about Gordon S. Wood himself?

As the author of “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” one might expect Wood to be Howard Zinn’s second cousin. However, the radicalism he writes about is that of Thomas Jefferson than that of Crispus Attucks.

For Wood, as well as Wilentz, it is necessary to learn to appreciate the Greater Mission of American capitalism, even when they are getting short shrift:

“I do think that there were — there are lots of historians who feel that we didn’t do enough for these oppressed or — oppressed people, particularly black slaves and — and women. I mean, I — my answer to that is, of course, that the Revolution did really substantially change the climate in which slavery had existed.

“For thousands of years, slavery had existed in the Western world without substantial criticism. And the Revolution marked a major turning point. It suddenly put slavery on the defensive. And I think that’s the point that needs to be emphasized, not that Jefferson didn’t free his slaves, but that as a man raised as a slave holder, in a world that was dominated by slavery, he criticized it. That’s what’s new. That’s the point that I think needs to be made. Where did that come from? Why — why did this generation suddenly become critics of slavery and put it on the defensive? That I think is an important point.”

Full: http://www.booknotes.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1672

John Chuckman, a frequent contributor to Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair’s “Counterpunch” has an interesting review of Wood’s book on amazon.com that starts as follows:

“Mr. Wood’s book tries to put some intellectual and moral sizzle back into an American Revolution that has long come to be regarded by world scholars as something less than an earth-shaking event.

“Despite much-labored efforts, Mr. Wood fails, and he is pretty dull along the way in presenting his case. It really could not be otherwise, for his basic thesis is faulty. The Revolution has been summed up, quite accurately I believe, as a group of home-grown aristocrats taking power from a group of foreign-born aristocrats.

“America’s central myth about its founding goes something like this: An extraordinary bunch of men, dressed in frock coats and wearing powdered wigs, closeted together after a long and heroic war against tyranny, worked unselfishly to give the United States a perfect modern system of government.”

For obvious reasons what repels a genuine radical like Chuckman also attracts Newt Gingrich, who hyped Wood’s book when it came out and that is found on the ‘recommended books’ section of Gingrich’s website, along with “Gone With the Wind” and Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”

November 11, 2005

Progressive Democrats of America

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 10:54 am

The Progressive Democrats of America is the latest in a series of initiatives that attempts to breathe new life into the Democratic Party, which in my eyes is akin to putting mascara on one of the corpses that dotted New Orleans’s streets after Hurricane Katrina. Although PDA supposedly has an “inside and outside” strategy for the DP, you can find about as much reference to the “outside” as there is to Noam Chomsky on the Lehrer news hour on an average night.

I was somewhat disappointed to see Cindy Sheehan on the advisory board but I am inclined to forgive her since she is doing so much else to objectively undermine this party of war and racism.

Medea Benjamin graces the advisory board, as one might expect. This person should do everybody a favor and cut her ties to the Green Party, at least for the purposes of political clarity. For crissake, doesn’t she know that she is giving opportunism a bad name? You can also find Jeff Cohen, the founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, there. In recent years he has made a living as a full-time adviser for Democratic Party politicians, who would seem to embody the very sins that he was anxious to root out in the bourgeois media. I guess he needs the money or something.

Staff members include Tim Carpenter, the national director. Carpenter is a long-time DP functionary, working for the DLC slug Bill Clinton in 1996 and Kucinich last year. According to Carpenter, the pwogwessive forces in the DP “went from being a pariah and marginal” at the 2004 convention to “being in” after putting some inexorable pressure on the Kerry warmongering campaign. What were the fruits of their victory, one wonders? Their victory, it seems, was the adoption of this plank:

“As other nations, including Islamic nations, contribute troops, the U.S. will be able to reduce its military presence in Iraq, and we intend to do this when appropriate so that the military support needed by a sovereign Iraqi government will no longer be seen as the direct continuation of an American military presence.”

I guess that crumb from the master’s table is sufficient to keep people like Carpenter, Cohen and Benjamin in the DP. Plus, the money is good.

The ubiquitous Williams River Pitt of truthout.org is their editorial director. Our good friend and comrade Jacob Levich had an interesting report on truthout.org a while back on Counterpunch that began as follows:

Truthout, an online newsletter and website boasting 250,000 subscribers, wants to outflank the distortions of mainstream media by disseminating news of interest to left-liberals. But its commitment to truth-telling seemingly stops short when it comes to Palestine.

On May 7, the Truthout newsletter linked to an Associated Press story about the Rishon Letzion suicide bombing. The AP report correctly refrained from identifying a perpetrator. (The party responsible is still unknown, although Hamas looks like the most likely culprit and the PA has since arrested 15 Hamas members in response.)

But Truthout flagged the story with a headline spun out of thin air: “Palestinian Authority Strikes Killing 15 Israelis.”

Worse was soon to come.

Truthout (http://www.truthout.org) is, or at any rate purports to be, one of the hip new breed of independent news sources providing alternatives to the biases of corporate media. (Of these, the Indymedia operation is probably the most celebrated; the libertarian Antiwar.com is possibly the most useful.)

Truthout’s editor, Marc Ash, claims the publication has no organizational affiliations and is entirely reader-supported — though five staffers, and the server power necessary to support a quarter-million users, don’t come cheap. Given its incessant showcasing of Beltway Democrats — even career hacks like Daschle and Gephardt get flattering headlines whenever they say anything remotely progressive — I’ve sometimes wondered whether it’s actually a James Carville-style undercover operation, aimed at cajoling Naderites back into the Democratic fold.

(Suggestively, of all the questions I asked Ash about Truthout’s history, purpose, and funding, the only one he was willing to answer was whether the publication is connected in some way with the Democratic Party. It is not, he said, and I’ll take him at his word — though I suspect a list of contributors might make interesting reading.)

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/levitch0514.html

Sounds like a perfect marriage between Pitt and the PDA, which also seems “aimed at cajoling Naderites into the Democratic fold.”

I imagine that this outfit is being funded by George Soros and all the other usual suspects, as Claude Rains said in “Casablanca”. Looks like we have our work cut out for us in 2008.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.