Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2006

Two Turkish films

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:10 pm

This year I took in two films at the New York Turkish film festival, a yearly event of the Moon and Stars Project.

The first is “Organize Isler”, which means “Organized Jobs”. (There is an accent underneath the “s” in Isler that I cannot reproduce on my keyboard and would indicate a pronunciation of “Ishler”.) The title is a reference to the petty crimes carried out by Asim Noyan, the central character played by Yilmaz Erdogan, who also wrote and directed this comedy.

When I was in Istanbul last year, the film was being heavily advertised on television. Since I have a fondness for Turkish comedy, I was anxious to see it. To get a brief introduction to the Turkish sense of humor, I recommend the commercials that Chevy Chase did for Turca Cola, which are far wittier than anything he has done in Hollywood for a very long time.

In the opening scene of “Organize Isler,” Asim is caught in an apartment with the wife of the man he is cuckolding. After the man’s neighbors chase him down the winding alleys of downtown Istanbul (one of the film’s great charms is its on-location shots of various parts of this fabled city), he ducks into the first open door where he is sheltered by Samet, who not five minutes earlier was trying unsuccessfully to hang himself. It turns out that he is a failed comedian who plays Superman at local comedy clubs but cannot get anybody to laugh at his jokes.

Asim takes Samet under his wings and tries to make a car thief out of him, his main line of work. One of Asim’s victims is Yusuf Ocak, a Turkish political science professor who we first meet sitting glumly at a book-signing event in one of Istanbul’s better bookstores. Not a soul is interested in his book, which is pretentiously titled something like “Turkey and the European Union: a Bold Venture into Tomorrow’s Future”.

After Ocak returns home later that day, he opens a letter from a Western publisher with a fat check in payment for a book that no Turk has the slightest interest in. As should be obvious at this point, Yilmaz Erdogan has a flair for social satire.

When the professor and his physicist wife decide to use the money to buy their daughter Umut a car, they fall into the trap that Asim sets for his victims. After stealing a car, he and his gang sell it through a classified ad in the daily paper. When the professor and his wife and daughter are returning home in their new car they have purchased from one of his underlings, they have to surrender it at a police roadblock set up to make a dent in Istanbul’s stolen car bull market.

When the Ocaks spot another “sale by owner” ad, they figure out that it might be Asim’s gang up to its old tricks. They decide to send their daughter to check it out since the gang has not seen her before. As fate would have it, Asim has sent his apprentice Superman Samet out on his first job. After falling in love with Umut at first sight, he insists that she take the stolen car home with her. If she likes it, she can give him the money in a few days. It appears that he has as much future as a car thief as he does as a comedian. The rest of the film involves him getting caught between her family and the gang that has adopted him.

As Asim, Yilmaz Erdogan is in practically every scene. His gang lives for the moment. As soon as they make a score, they go out gambling and whoring. But most of the time is spent sitting around the used auto parts yard that is a front for their illegal activities, where they make the kind of small talk that will be instantly familiar to anybody who has ever seen “The Sopranos” on HBO. Their conversation is sprinkled with malapropisms and unintentional comedy–the best kind of course. Indeed, one might wonder if Yilmaz Erdogan got his ideas from the American show. As someone who has seen Turkish comic gangsters in action before in the hilarious “Sergeant Shakespeare,” I can tell you that the product is most certainly domestic.

After doing a bit of research on Yilmaz Erdogan, I discovered that he is of Kurdish descent. Although there is not the slightest hint of Kurdish nationalism in “Organize Isler,” it turns out that Erdogan has been touched to some degree by the liberation movement:

In 1980, two young men from Hakkari, taking a stroll in Aksaray, met a fellow countryman, Firat Baskale.

Baskale was a revolutionary musician whose voice was similar to that of Sivan Perwer (the most popular of Kurdish musicians). At F. Baskale’s invitation they went to the hotel where he was working

These young men had such a strong longing for Kurdish music that Firat, looked around suspiciously to see if there was anyone around “If anyone hears us, we’ll be denounced and our lives won’t be worth a light” he warned them.

Then he led them to a dark and tiny room in the hotel cellars and picking up his guitar sang in Kurdish.

A few minutes later these two young men, certainly as frightened as if they had been taking part in an illegal demonstration, felt as happy as if they were back in their native mountains.

On of these youths was none other than Yilmaz Erdogan. As for the other, he was Muhsin Kizilkaya, who, some years later mentioned this incident in his biography of Erdogan.

Turning now to “Yolda” (On the Road), we are once again engaged with Kurds and Turkish film but much more explicitly. This spare and somber work, written and directed by Erden Kiral, is a dramatization of a moment in the life of the legendary Turkish director Yilmaz Guney who is best known in the West for the 1982 “Yol” (The Road). This masterpiece unfortunately is not now available on video, but must be seen if it ever appears on television or at a local revival house. It is the story of five men on a week’s leave from a Turkish prison. Although I did not know it when I saw the film, Guney had directed it from prison where he was serving time for killing a judge. In the early 1980s Turkey was in the throes of a virtual civil war between the left, including a significant Kurdish contingent, and the Kemalist dictatorship. “Yolda” makes clear that Guney was a man of the left and a member of the Kurdish minority.

The film is set in 1982 and the opening scene depicts Yilmaz Guney (Halil Ergun) surrounded by the cast and crew of a new film he is directing from behind bars. In other words, it is exactly the circumstances that surrounded the making of “Yol,” whose title “Yolda” obviously pays homage to.

Guney decides that he cannot work with his director Sedat (Serdar Orcin) any longer but cannot find the words to explain why. (The director of “Yolda” was a one-time collaborator with Guney who had an identical experience.) This sets the pattern of the rest of the film, which depicts Guney as somebody who prison and disappointment have rendered silent. While this may be or may not be faithful to the historical figure, it does not exactly add up to compelling drama which requires dialogue to reveal character and sustain momentum. Emotions are expressed in “Yolda” mostly through furtive glances and strangled cries.

This is not to say that the film is utterly without drama. It depicts the transfer by car of Guney to a new prison. Surrounded by a group of cops who are deferential to the celebrity in their midst and followed by a car carrying Sedat and several members of his crew, they go on the road into Turkey’s Eastern hinterlands. Sometimes proceeding for long stretches without dialogue, “Yolda” sustains one’s interest by making the trip itself the subject of the film. In one remarkable scene, as the group is sitting in a roadside restaurant, local Kurdish villagers discover that the legendary director is there. They enter the restaurant in a procession and dance and sing in a circle around his table.

The film ends with Guney fleeing from his captors, as happened in real life.


Yilmaz Guney

Although I frequently grew impatient with “Yolda,” I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see it since it opened my eyes to another aspect of Turkish reality. On the evidence of “Yol,” Guney would appear to be one of the late 20th century’s great directors. As I begin to master Turkish, I hope to see other films that he made, which are probably more readily available in Turkish-language without subtitles. He was a remarkable artist as this excerpt from a 1983 interview would indicate (he died of cancer the following year.)

Q: When did you find out that you were Kurdish?

A: I must say I am an assimilated Kurd. My mother was Kurdish, my father a Zaza Kurd. All through my childhood, Kurdish and Zaza were the languages spoken at home. I spoke Kurdish until I was 15. Then I was cut off from my family.

At that time I heard speeches saying: “There are no Kurds; there is no Kurdish language”. But I heard people speaking and singing in Kurdish, and I could see that the Kurds were living under very difficult conditions. My father was from Siverek; I saw Siverek for the first time when I was 16. It was then that I really realised who I was. There I knew the suffering of an uprooted family; my father said: “you are cut from your roots”. And at the age of 34, I was able to go and see my mother’s country, Mouch, the tribe of Jibran. The Herd is the story of what happened to this tribe.

October 27, 2006

Stan Goff, Bill Fletcher and the 2-party system

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 8:23 pm

This post was originally meant as a response to Stan Goff’s call for voting for the Democrats in the midterm elections, but it will focus mainly on Bill Fletcher’s article “Race, the Democratic Party and electoral strategy“–originally a speech given at Columbia University.


Bill Fletcher

Stan cites this article in his blog entry as “giving the elections some historical context” which it does. Unfortunately, it is not quite broad enough and is content to stick within the framework of US politics and particularly the rivalry between the Democrats and the Republicans. I have a different take on this rivalry, but before presenting my views, I want to take a step back and examine the classical Marxist understanding of elections.

During the rise of socialism in the late 1800s, there was absolutely no support for bourgeois parties. There is no need to look for chapter and verse in the Marxist classics to find support for such a proposition–even though it exists. It makes far better sense just to look at what our predecessors did since actions speak louder than words. The record is clear that they built Socialist parties that ran candidates for various offices against capitalist parties. The most outstanding of these was the German Social Democratic party that enjoyed the support of millions of workers and that created a wide range of class-based institutions, from publishing houses to insurance companies.

Indeed, despite the reputation of Lenin’s “What is to be Done” as a cookbook for a new type of party, there is ample evidence within the text for the notion that he sought simply to create a Russian version of such a party:

The work of the West European Social-Democrat is in this respect facilitated by the public meetings and rallies which all are free to attend, and by the fact that in parliament he addresses the representatives of all classes. We have neither a parliament nor freedom of assembly; nevertheless, we are able to arrange meetings of workers who desire to listen to a Social-Democrat. We must also find ways and means of calling meetings of representatives of all social classes that desire to listen to a democrat; for he is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice that “the Communists support every revolutionary movement”, that we are obliged for that reason to expound and emphasise general democratic tasks before the whole people, without for a moment concealing our socialist convictions. He is no Social-Democrat who forgets in practice his obligation to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question.

Some Marxists had begun to question the German party since it had begun to slowly adapt itself to bourgeois society and postpone the question of seizing power to the indefinite future. Foremost among them was Rosa Luxemburg:

The danger to universal suffrage will be lessened to the degree that we can make the ruling classes clearly aware that the real power of Social Democracy by no means rests on the influence of its deputies in the Reichstag, but that it lies outside, in the people themselves, ‘in the streets’, and that if the need arise Social Democracy is able and willing to mobilize the people directly for the protection of their political rights. This does not mean that, for example, it is sufficient to keep the general strike, as it were, at the ready, up our sleeves in order to believe ourselves equipped for any political eventuality

Luxemburg’s worries were obviously well-grounded as the evidence of socialist parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914 demonstrates. Lenin eventually broke with the Second International and launched a new international based on class struggle principles. Whatever their differences, both internationals ran their own candidates and refused to back bourgeois politicians. In the early 1920s, some German social democrat parliamentarians were even ready to make an alliance with the Communists and co-organized the unsuccessful insurrection of 1923 with them. Later on the two parties grew asunder as the Social Democrats began to support bourgeois politicians as a “lesser evil”, while the Communists went on an ultraleft binge to the point of co-sponsoring a referendum with Nazis to unseat a Social Democratic politician.

This led to such a disaster that the Communists reversed themselves completely and adopted the Popular Front strategy at the 1934 Comintern conference. In Europe this took the form of coalition governments between bourgeois parties and the CP and SP, which had perfected class-collaboration in the electoral arena. In other countries, where the CP was too weak to engineer such a coalition was possible, it frequently supported capitalist politicians like FDR or Batista in Cuba. (During the 1930s, Batista was reaching out to the trade unions in a demagogic fashion. As was frequently the case in Latin America, the party allowed itself to be suckered into a losing game.)

Against the Popular Front, Leon Trotsky advocated a United Front which would consist of joint action between the Socialists and the Communists around specific issues of that mattered to working people. Although this had more to do with demonstrations, strikes, etc., there is little doubt that it could have been extended to backing SP candidates even if their program fell short of the Communist program.

Although the idea of Communists backing SP candidates seems relatively uncontroversial, keep in mind that this was not the case in the early 1920s when the Comintern was attracting millions of workers to its banner, many of whom had bitter memories of social democratic support for WWI and its role in the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. In Great Britain where ultraleft Communists refused to vote for the Labour Party, Lenin urged them to get over their prejudices:

At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man–that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.

It is important to keep in mind that this tactic applied to social democratic parties, not to bourgeois parties. Furthermore, Lenin did not intend that workers vote for social democrats in perpetuity. Once a party like Labour was in power and had demonstrated its true colors, it would be possible to win workers to a Communist perspective. To repeat, this was simply a tactic, not a permanent strategy.

When the CP launched the Popular Front turn, the revolutionary left was more isolated than ever. The vast majority of working people, who belonged to either SP’s or CP’s, simply assumed that voting for bourgeois politicians or forming coalition governments with them was acceptable if not wise. When workers began to grumble about not being able to vote on a class basis, their leaders were adroit enough to provide various kinds of substitutes for the real thing. Here’s how veteran CP’er Steven Nelson described Earl Browder’s campaign in his memoir:

The fact that the Party [CP] continued to run its own candidates during the early New Deal may give the wrong impression of our attitude toward the Democratic Party. We supported pro-New Deal candidates and ran our own people largely for propaganda purposes… Earl Browder’s campaign that same year [1936] demonstrates how we ran our own candidates but still supported the New Deal. His motto and the whole tone of his campaign was ‘Defeat Landon [the Republican] at All Costs.’ In this way he sought to give critical support to FDR. We wanted to work with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and to achieve a certain amount of legitimacy as a party of the Left

For the past seventy years, this sort of electoral double-dealing has been widely understood by the vast majority of the left as consistent with Lenin’s advice in “Ultraleft Communism, an Infantile Disorder” despite the fact that Lenin never once suggested that workers vote for bourgeois parties. The CP’s adapted Lenin’s advice for use in the swamp of bourgeois electoral politics. In every election since the 1930s, paragraphs were wrenched out of context from Lenin’s essay in order to justify voting for Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and all the rest.

Now, if there is no basis in classical Marxism for voting for bourgeois parties, what explains the strong magnetic pull upon not only the Communists, but on the radical movement in general? For example, the French Trotskyists decided to vote for the conservative politician Chirac in 2002 on more or less the same basis that the CP backed Roosevelt. Their slogan “Beat Le Pen on the streets and in the ballot box” was just a circumlocution to vote for a capitalist party.

All their classical Marxist erudition came to naught when the pressure was applied to “Stop Le Pen”, Chirac’s neo-fascist opponent. If you truly want to understand why Marxists wilt at times like this, it is necessary to recall the differences between the early 1920s and today. In the early 1920s, Communists had massive support throughout Europe. For example, there were 62 elected Communist delegates to the German parliament in 1924, around the same time that Lenin was warning them not to cut themselves off from the SP. By contrast, the revolutionary left has never had a single elected official in European parliaments, while in the USA votes for its candidates rarely exceed a tenth of one percent. This sense of isolation and weakness tends to swamp class politics, especially during periods when the choice between bourgeois candidates appears extreme. This was the case in 1964 and it is surely the case today.

The emphasis is on being practical rather than “ideologically pure,” a reference to the stubborn tendency of some Trotskyists or unreconstructed 1960s New Leftists to take the words attributed to Eugene V. Debs’s words to heart: “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.”

Turning now to Bill Fletcher’s article, we are presented with a kind of class analysis of the two major parties framed around the Civil War and Reconstruction. As most people know, the Democrats were pro-slavery and the Republicans, and especially their Radical wing, were bent on eradicating slavery. There was an historic compromise in 1876 between the Northern industrial bourgeoisie and the Southern ex-planters that permanently marked the end of the Republican Party as an anti-racist formation. However, when it came to the brunt of the attack on Southern Blacks, it was left to the Dixiecrats to supply the shock troops. Fletcher sums things up this way:

Therefore, while the Democrats of the 19th century were certainly the party of counter-revolution, and later the party of Jim Crow segregation, the Republican Party after 1877 abandoned all pretense of being a party in favor of the objectives of Reconstruction. In fact, their pro-Reconstruction wing–the so-called “Radical Republicans”–collapsed as a political force. Though African Americans were an important constituency of the Republican Party (and specifically, African American men were the voters given that the suffrage was limited to men at the time), the Republicans were quite prepared to permit the counter-revolution in the South to succeed and to witness, with barely a comment, the rise of Jim Crow and the virtual, if not formal, elimination of the franchise for African Americans.

There was a marked change, however, under FDR. The Northern Democrats shifted to the left while the Dixiecrats resisted any change. Turning the clock forward, the growing resentment of the racist wing of the party finally resulted in the wholesale defection to the Republican Party as a consequence of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968. The net result is a new alignment of the two party system that left Blacks with no place to go except the DP. The favor has not been returned, however, with the DLC wing of the party adapting to the racist initiatives of the Republican Party. Against the DLC, you have had counter-forces such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition that have attempted to make the party more responsive to Black demands for full equality. Fletcher’s strategy consists of the left putting its shoulder behind all forces within the Democratic Party that have the same dynamic as Jackson’s campaign:

This must be a project that is both urban and Southern. In other words, we need to look to identify areas that are logically sympathetic to the politics suggested here. I will give you an example of two different approaches in what I believe to be a key area: South Carolina. The Labor Party (of which, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member) has just gotten on the ballot in South Carolina. I applaud them for this work, but among progressives in South Carolina this is not the strategy that I would have suggested. Instead, within the Democratic Party in South Carolina there is a base, largely African American, which is seeking an alternative. Why not build the sort of neo-Rainbow/independent organization I am describing here and challenge the current leadership of the South Carolina Democrats?

There is something quite depressing about this unabashed appeal for piecemeal reform since both Fletcher and Goff have reputations as revolutionary socialists. What in the world can Marxists contribute to reforming the Democratic Party that ordinary liberals can’t do without our help? Stan Goff writes:

No one has convinced me that the Revolution is around the corner to nullify the whole fixed electoral system, so it looks for all the world that the only option is to face the fact of this election — as it is — and vote a straight Democratic ticket. Fletcher’s article, referenced above, makes some interesting pints about these parties being blocs, as opposed to coherent political formations.. which supports my own belief that — in this election, and not as some general rule — it is imperative that people turn out, and turn out massively, to dis-elect the Republican Party.

I abstained from the last election because the Democratic Party took the issue of the war off the table; and because I believed the world would be better off after the Bush administration spent a bit more time exposing the true character of today’s mono-imperialism. I still stand by that.

This year, however, I will work a polling site for the Democrats.

How sad to hear Stan Goff speaking in terms of the Revolution not being around the corner. This is the excuse I used to hear throughout the 1960s and early 70s from CP’ers for backing Humphrey or whoever. It really sidesteps the main issue, which is how to move the class struggle forward. Who knows when conditions will ripen to such an extent, as to produce a prerevolutionary situation? Nobody has a crystal ball.

However, as James P. Cannon, the leader of the American Trotskyist movement, once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next. The central imperative in American politics since that historical compromise alluded to in Fletcher’s article is to break the stranglehold that the two-party system has on American society. That stranglehold affects everything we do outside of the electoral arena, from protesting the war in Iraq to building the trade union movement.

By now everybody has gotten pretty well-accustomed to UFPJ’s disappearing act during an election year. What if we began to elect Green Party candidates to Congress who used their offices to publicize demonstrations and provide transportation? In NYC, the TWU has backed Spitzer for Governor. His reputation as a “friend of labor” seems to rest on the fact that he supported jailing Roger Toussaint for only a week rather than a month.

Of course, this is based on the assumption that the Green Party’s self-destructive instincts can be curbed. And if they can’t, some other party will come along to challenge the Democrats. For the past 58 years, since the Truman cold war turn in the DP, there have been repeated left challenges to the two-party system from Henry Wallace to Ralph Nader. These challenges are simply expressions of social and economic contradictions arising over the ruling class drive toward war and austerity and the inability of the electoral system to resolve them.

At some point, these contradictions will reach such an unbearable state that millions of ordinary working people will be thrust into the political arena in the same way that they were earlier in history. When that time comes, there will be massive support for independent class action, both in the streets and at the ballot box.

To follow up on my first reply to Stan Goff, that time is a long way off. I objected to his warnings about the fascist threat because it overprojected the tempo of the class struggle. We are in a preparatory period in which the embryo of a revolutionary socialist movement is being built before our very eyes. If the Greens pass away into oblivion, it will not lead to a catastrophe. The main use of such an electoral initiative is that it can inspire broader sections of the population to begin to move away from business as usual.

If revolutionaries have any purpose in countries like the U.S. today, it is to begin to inspire working people to think in class terms. As long as they see their interests as intertwined with a party whose funding comes mostly from real estate developers, Wall Street investment firms, retail megacorporations and white-shoe law firms, it seems unlikely that class consciousness can develop fully.

Our main danger in the U.S. as revolutionaries is not the hobnailed boot of fascism. It is instead succumbing to the massive pressure exercised by the ideological hegemony of the ruling class. With the vast array of media at their disposal and their unlimited billions, they have enormous power to put their critics at the margin. To stand up to their rule requires as much nerve in some ways as standing up to Stormtroopers in the streets of Germany in the 1920s.

October 24, 2006

Stan Goff on fascism

Filed under: Fascism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

As somebody who has been outspokenly critical of the idea that fascism is an imminent threat in the US, I had been meaning to respond to Stan Goff’s article “Sowing the Seeds of Fascism in America” that appeared at truthdig.com. In the course of pulling together my thoughts on the matter, it came to my attention that Stan subsequently urged the left to vote for the Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. Although the two positions are not explicitly related, they do resonate with a line of reasoning found on the American left and more particularly with the Communist Party. Despite my deepest admiration for Stan as an activist and as a scholar, I feel it is necessary to challenge him on both points. (I will take up the question of supporting Democrats in a subsequent post.)

Stan’s article on fascism begins with an examination of Tim McVeigh, the ex-GI who got the death penalty for bombing an Oklahoma City government building. The bourgeois media and ruling class politicians tried to explain away this monstrous act, the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, etc. as the work of “bad apples.” Stan instead views such behavior as normal. He points to a July 7, 2006 NY Times article that describes a rising tide of white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration into the armed services. Unfortunately, the article relies exclusively on the testimony of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an outfit that generates alarmist reports such as these to extract donations from wealthy liberals. I would take anything that they write with a grain of salt.


How normal is Timothy McVeigh?

In a NY Press article on Morris Dees and the SPLC he runs, Alex Cockburn wrote:

Dees has always been alert to the paranoias of the hour. The center’s entire legal staff resigned in the late 1980s, in part because Dees was reluctant to take up legal issues of real importance to poor people. His obsession was the Klanwatch Project, a cash cow for the SPLC. Literature from the SPLC portrayed the Klan as poised to take over American and embark on an orgy of burning and lynching. This was at a time when the major danger to poor people was going to be welfare reform, a collusive project between the Gingrich Republicans and Clinton liberals, among the latter being many fervent supporters of Dees.

My strong suspicion is that the number of young men who join the military to fulfill some kind of master race fantasy is vanishingly small. If there is a hard-core reactionary milieu in the military at this time, I would expect to see it in the officer class and more particularly with graduates of the Air Force Academy, which has been identified as a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism. But the average grunt would appear to be not that different from the Abu Ghraib guards, whose motive for joining the military would be more about avoiding working at Wal-Mart rather than acting out some fantasy found in “The Turner Diaries.” Once they end up in the military, they are of course subject to the same kind of dehumanization that has led soldiers from time immemorial to murder, rape and torture the “Other”. Keep in mind that after joining the cavalry, African-American soldiers were just as brutal toward the American Indian as their white comrades. Once the military gets a hold of you, there is enormous pressure to conform to the expectations of the institution, whatever the color of your skin.

Perhaps the only conclusion one can draw about military service is that it has always been inextricably linked with racism, xenophobia, machismo and sadism. You don’t need a rising tide of fascism to produce such a mindset, as evidenced by this passage:

Agamemnon, king of men, sacrificed a fat five-year-old bull to the mighty son of Saturn, and invited the princes and elders of his host. First he asked Nestor and King Idomeneus, then the two Ajaxes and the son of Tydeus, and sixthly Ulysses, peer of gods in counsel; but Menelaus came of his own accord, for he knew how busy his brother then was. They stood round the bull with the barley-meal in their hands, and Agamemnon prayed, saying, “Jove, most glorious, supreme, that dwellest in heaven, and ridest upon the storm-cloud, grant that the sun may not go down, nor the night fall, till the palace of Priam is laid low, and its gates are consumed with fire. Grant that my sword may pierce the shirt of Hector about his heart, and that full many of his comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying round him.”

–Homer, “The Iliad”, chapter 2

Stan at least recognizes that an economic crisis of some severity is necessary before fascism can become a mass movement. Unfortunately, he is not as clear on the class dynamics of such a development as might be expected. He writes:

Another aspect, and one that was formative of Timothy McVeigh, is economic destabilization. Fascism can be described as a “middle class” phenomenon. One can look at the emergence of the three most studied fascist governments, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany, and in every case there was a privileged stratum of the working class that had been the beneficiaries of metropolitan capitalist development (courtesy of peripheral colonies) that rubbed shoulders socially with the professional and managerial sectors.

It is difficult to figure out who Stan is speaking of when he refers to a “privileged stratum of the working class that had been the beneficiaries of metropolitan capitalist development (courtesy of peripheral colonies)” when he refers to countries like Italy, Spain and Germany during the 1920s and 30s. This sounds much more like the British working class that Lenin talked about in “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” and more specifically in his citation of Engels:

In a letter to Marx, dated October 7, 1858, Engels wrote: “…The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.”

Great Britain was able to maintain a level of class peace that was not possible in the weaker capitalist countries that had few colonies to boast of. Cecil Rhodes understood this fully, as cited in that famous passage in Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Latest Stage of Capitalism”:

I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

The United States has inherited the hegemonic seat vacated by the toothless British lion. Despite fraying around the edges as demonstrated in resentment over rising energy prices, job insecurity, etc, the American economy has essentially the same character as it has had since the end of WWII. By controlling vast areas of the world, it has access to cheap natural resources and markets for its manufactured goods. In the more recent past, it has been able to benefit from the opening of China to capitalist investment. Through its superexploitation of the Chinese working class, Wal-Mart and other multinationals have made cheap consumer goods available to our own working class and as result helped to mute the class struggle.

Wal-Mart has figured out how to divide oppressed people by exploiting these spurious benefits. The Service Employee’s International Union (SEIU) attacked the Congressional Black Caucus when it took donations from Wal-Mart last year. Kimberly Woodard, director of federal government relations for Wal-Mart, said the company “is the largest employer of African Americans, and it’s only natural that we would want to reach out to members of the Congressional Black Caucus.” This degraded relationship might give pause to those who urge voting for the Democratic Party as a way of resisting the Evil Empire, but more about that in my next post.

Stan’s next section deals with “Sex, Race, and Guns.” This discussion is influenced by feminist theory rather than the sort of economic analysis that I find useful. After citing feminist psychologist Jessica Benjamin (a classmate of mine at Bard College), he presents his own views:

Men who are threatened by women’s decreased dependency and increased organization often adopt an individual strategy of “overconformity,” compulsively acquiring “masculine” accoutrements, be they giant automobiles, guns or attack-breed dogs, and just as compulsively behave as if they are trying out for a role with the World Wrestling Foundation—affecting a kind of bright-eyed homicidal aggression as we are further socialized to equate fear with respect.

I actually detect an entirely different dynamic operating in American society. I think that popular culture reveals a growing tendency for men to avoid “overconformity” of this sort. The “metrosexual” phenomenon, as expressed in shows like “Queer Eye for the Straight Male,” the entire HGTV network, the metropolitan and style sections of just about every daily newspaper in large American cities, etc., adds up to a profound transformation of gender relations in the USA. Since this is not really an area that I consider myself an expert in and want to avoid going in over my head, I will say no more.


Another type of American male

Unfortunately, concession is made in this section to a theory of fascism that was popular in the 1960s that was strongly influenced by post-Marxist theorists like Herbert Marcuse and has been called “friendly fascism” on occasion. Stan cites his friend Steve McClure:

I hate the word fascist. It has been bandied about so much and brings up images of Storm troopers in grainy newsreels that it seems devoid of meaning… I think our own situation is very different, and a better term needs to be found that captures the unique qualities of our reactionary postmodernism. “Military police state” doesn’t quite cut it. Fascism implies policing of thought as well as bodies, today’s reaction is selective, policing bodies but allowing private speech and the empty illusions of parliamentary democracy to stand.

But the whole purpose of fascism is to step into the breach when parliamentary democracy is incapable of containing the class struggle, isn’t it? In Germany during the 1920s the Weimar Republic collapsed because political struggle had moved into the streets. Workers militias clashed with Nazi goon squads, while the police lacked sufficient power to contain militant strikes and protests. Dictatorship was necessary in order to forestall proletarian revolution.

Does anybody believe that the USA is anywhere near such a point? The good news is that since it isn’t, we don’t have to worry about being dragged off to concentration camps because we operate blogs like “The Feral Scholar” or “Unrepentant Marxist”. But the bad news is that the class struggle is in such a retarded state that there really is no need for extreme measures. The big bourgeoisie regards the revolutionary left in more or less the same manner that an elephant regards a flea. That, of course, might change some day but there is no need to hide the truth from those who would pay attention to our ideas. We want to be taken seriously and that means avoiding the impression that we are like Chicken Little.

Lately I have been studying Italian history as part of a project that will result in an article on the Sicilian Mafia. This led me to take a look at Michele Sindona, the banker for the Vatican who was responsible for the collapse of Franklin National Bank, one of the largest in the USA at the time. Sindona was not only connected to the Vatican, he was connected to the mafia, to the Christian Democratic Party and to Propaganda Due (P2), a Masonic lodge that was run by Licio Gelli, a life-long fascist activist.

Starting in the 1960s and persisting well into the 1980s, Italy found itself being ripped apart by militant student and working class struggles that bordered on civil war. Workers marched in the thousands under banners calling for the overthrow of the government, while fascist bands were setting off bombs. On the extreme left, terrorist groups had begun to kidnap government officials like Aldo Moro, who was the five time Christian Democratic Prime Minister of Italy. Imagine a group of former university students in the USA kidnapping John McCain or Joe Lieberman and holding them for ransom. That’s how polarized Italian politics was at the time. During this entire period, P2 constituted the main strike force of the most reactionary sectors of the Italian ruling class and was believed responsible for a number of terrorist attacks, including a 1981 bombing at the Bologna railway station that left hundreds dead and wounded.

Economically, this could be understood by the continuing failure of Italian capitalism to divest itself of the feudal vestiges that the 19th century bourgeois revolution (‘risorgimento’) had failed to uproot. Italian workers never enjoyed full political or trade union rights. They also were more exploited than workers to the north and to the west. But these economic factors in themselves were insufficient to touch off a revolt. It took a general radicalization based on a number of extra-economic factors, including the ongoing war in Vietnam, to move them into struggle.

Although P2 never had the kind of mass base as earlier fascist movements, it certainly had the support of the Italian ruling class as evidenced by the membership list that became public in 1981:

–General Vito Miceli, chief of the SIOS (Servizio Informazioni), Italian Army Intelligence’s Service from 1969 and SID’s head from October 18, 1970 to 1974. Arrested in 1975 on charges of “conspiration against the state” concerning investigations about Rosa dei venti, a state-infiltrated group involved in the strategy of tension, he later became an MSI member

–Maurizio Costanzo, Italian journalist and television anchorman of many Mediaset programs (the Berlusconi’s commercial television)

–Giancarlo Elia Valori, the only member of P2 who had been expelled (possibly because he was trying to gain a bigger role than Licio Gelli), is now president of the Associazione industriali di Roma

Full list is at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_Due

Imagine if Timothy McVeigh had been connected to a group that included Chris Wallace, George Tenet and Donald Trump and you get an idea of how deep-going the class struggle was in Italy. This is not to say that we might not reach that stage at some point, but in politics tempo–like in music–is everything.

October 23, 2006

Thoughts On The US Midterm Elections

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,swans,third parties — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

(Swans – October 23, 2006) The same liberal pundits who characterized the 2004 presidential election as a kind of Armageddon showdown against evil are now revved up in the same fashion for next month’s elections. Voting for a Democrat is tantamount to saving one’s soul, or more accurately, the soul of the nation. Since there is no Ralph Nader factor this go round, there is not the same kind of hysteria directed against the Greens or any other left-wing electoral challenge. Given this all too familiar scenario, it might be useful to restate what is wrong with voting for the lesser evil and why one should support third-party initiatives, no matter their flaws and weaknesses.

In the current issue of The Nation Magazine, always a bellwether of lesser-evil sentiment, William Greider confesses that he is worried about being robbed of certain victory:

Okay, I admit it. As the election approaches, I am feeling a creepy sense of paranoia. My right brain reads the newspapers, studies the polls and thinks we are looking at a blow-out next month — Dems conquer at last. My left brain hoots in derision. Get real, sucker.

One wonders if Greider has been reading the newspapers carefully. If so, you’d think he’d be a bit more restrained in his enthusiasm for the party of donkeys given this profile of candidate Jack Davis running against incumbent Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds from upstate New York:

Mr. Davis is prone to overstatement. He has warned about “Red China,” for example, and suggested he would take a bat to anyone who sent his sons sexually explicit e-mail messages like those a congressman sent to young male pages.

He defies liberal orthodoxies. He has said he wants to “seal” the nation’s borders and has held memberships in conservative groups like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

If the Democratic Party stood for any sort of progressive principles, it would have given Davis the boot. But in the eyes of Greider and company, one supposes that it suffices that he is not a Republican. If Richard Nixon rose from the grave and ran against Davis, however, there would be no question as to who was the “lesser evil.” With his support for affirmative action and environmentalism, he looks much better than the Democrats who succeeded him. Even if TV faux conservative Stephen Colbert had tongue in cheek when he advised his New York Magazine interviewer that he was a big fan of Nixon, these words are still worth considering:

Here’s something Colbertophiles might not know or might not want to know: He loves Richard Nixon. He has a 1972 Nixon campaign poster on the wall of his office. He points at it and says, “He was so liberal! Look at what he was running on. He started the EPA. He opened China. He gave 18-year-olds the vote. His issues were education, drugs, women, minorities, youth involvement, ending the draft, and improving the environment. John Kerry couldn’t have run on this! What would I give for a Nixon?”

Full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy41.html

October 22, 2006

Pressure Drop

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

It is you (oh yeah)
It is you, you (oh yeah)
It is you (oh yeah)

Cause a pressure drop, oh pressure
Oh yeah pressure drop a drop on you
I say a pressure drop, oh pressure
Oh yeah pressure drop a drop on you

I say when it drops, oh you gonna feel it
Know that you were doing wrong.

Toots and the Maytals, “Pressure Drop”

Last week I had my blood pressure checked as a follow-up to a routine exam taken about a year ago, when I was advised that it was “slightly high”. That’s the same thing I heard this go round, with a reading of 140/82. The first number, systolic blood pressure, measures the maximum pressure exerted as the heart contracts, while the lower number indicates diastolic pressure, a measurement taken between beats, when the heart is at rest. A normal blood pressure would be something below 120/80. The nurse who took my pressure advised me to lay off salt and red meat, and to exercise 30 minutes a day even if this only means walking. I now join 65 million other Americans suffering from hypertension. They say that half of the population over 60 (I will be 62 in January) has the condition–unless of course you are dead. That’s one way to get really low numbers.

A few months ago I had a visit from an old friend from my Trotskyist days. He works as an editor for a medical digest company and spends 8 hours a day with his nose in medical journals looking for articles that he culls together for publication. As a result, he is totally fixated on health issues, particularly anything that relates to major illness. He is a walking encyclopedia on cancer and heart disease and spends every minute worrying about what he should eat and drink in order to avoid getting sick. He is also free with his advice and began to lecture me about my beer belly the minute he walked in the door. He himself has nothing to worry about on this score, although I don’t exactly think that his 6’2″ height and 130 pounds would be considered normal. He looks like one of those emaciated Bosnians shown in the photos that became the centerpiece of a suit against the folks who ended up in Spiked-Online. He warned me that I might end up like John Hillson, another ex-SWP’er around my age who died of a heart attack a couple of years ago.

Frankly, I am more worried about ending up like my high school teacher who died about six months ago. I used to run into him in a wheelchair when visiting my mom at her nursing home. After suffering a major stroke, he was completely paralyzed. The thought of ending up like that summons up fears more pronounced than any Edgar Allen Poe short story can evoke.

After hearing the nurse’s advice, I decided to turn over a new leaf. Exercise is no big deal for me since I have been jogging since 1970. Yesterday I went 4 miles instead of my usual 2 and plan to ride my stationary bike on days when I am not out jogging.

Diet is more complicated. I eat in a cafeteria near Columbia University and have no way of determining whether there is salt in soup, sauces, etc. It is one thing to lay off red meat; it is another to avoid salt.

FRANK HALL knows he probably should not eat Hungry-Man dinners. The frozen meals have as much as 2,230 milligrams of sodium per serving — far more than the government’s recommended daily allowance for older people — and Mr. Hall’s doctors have advised him to strictly limit salt consumption to help keep his blood pressure down.

But once a week, when grocery shopping with his granddaughter, Mr. Hall, who is 80 and has heart disease, tosses one or two of the big blue packages in his cart anyway.

”They’re really convenient and I figure you can splurge a little bit once in awhile,” said Mr. Hall, who lives in Goldthwaite, Tex.

Sprinkled into everything from bread to cheese, soups and breakfast cereal, just about every fast-food restaurant meal and now even fresh cuts of meat, salt is ubiquitous in the American food supply. And according to government data, Americans eat far too much of it.

Now the nation’s largest doctors’ group, the American Medical Association, is going after the government and the food industry to reduce what it sees as a persistently high level of salt in many processed foods.

(NY Times, September 16, 2006)

This might ring a bell. Salt now joins the list with trans-fatty acids and corn syrup as major threats to our health. This is not to mention the carcinogens that are present in all sorts of foods, even those that might constitute an alternative to red meat. If I decide to eat salmon instead of steak, I might be trading a stroke for a tumor according to MRZine.

As long as American food industry is making huge profits selling junk that can give us a stroke or a tumor, then the pharmaceutical sector can benefit from selling stuff that will cure us. Watching Sunday morning television today, I was struck by all the ads for cancer and heart disease medication. A couple of hours later, when the football games begin, there will be a new set of ads for McDonalds and Burger King just to make sure that the food industry gets its due.

My friend suggested that it might not be that much to worry about, since I can always take Plavix, an anticoagulant. Of course, if you’ve seen a Plavix ad on TV, you’ll notice the usual disclaimer at the end:

If you have a stomach ulcer or other condition that causes bleeding, you shouldn’t use PLAVIX. When taking PLAVIX alone or with some medicines including aspirin, the risk of bleeding may increase. To minimize this risk, talk to your doctor before taking aspirin or other medicines with PLAVIX. Additional rare but serious side effects could occur.

So do I really want to take this with my chronic heartburn?

When we are young, we really don’t pay much attention to such matters. It is only when you hit that borderline territory between youth and old age that you begin to have such worries. If society was reorganized in such a fashion that environmental factors–broadly speaking–could be reduced to a minimum, then old age and dying would be less scary.

In the Old Testament, we constantly hear about some elder passing away peacefully after serving God for 80 or 90 years. With the ravages of late capitalism besieging us on all fronts, perhaps the age old dream of socialism raises the idea of millenarian salvation once again on new foundations.

October 20, 2006

Euston Lite

Filed under: Academia,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

(UPDATE: Edward Herman on Gitlin and Ackerman.)

As I have pointed out in the past, Crooked Timber is useful for keeping track of the latest talking points of the liberal professorate. It is where you will find equal amounts of venom hurled at George W. Bush and Ward Churchill. The mindset is very much in the spirit of Phil Ochs’s lyric:

I read New Republic and The Nation
I’ve learned to take every view
You know, I’ve memorized Lerner and Golden
I feel like I’m almost a Jew
But when it comes to times like Korea
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

In keeping with their sorry track record, Crooked Timber has now come out in favor of what might be called Euston Lite, another open letter calling for democracy, freedom, peace and social justice but implicitly backing just the opposite in true Orwellian fashion.



Bruce Ackerman (top) and Todd Gitlin (bottom) pontificating to students

This latest item is titled “We Answer to the Name of Liberals” and was initiated by Yale professor Bruce Ackerman and the loathsome Columbia professor Todd Gitlin. In contradistinction to the Euston Manifesto, this item is not tainted by an association with openly pro-war yahoos like Norm Geras and Oliver Kamm. That being said, it is important to recognize the affinity between the two camps, which amounts to a division of labor. Euston Heavy concentrates on winning support for Bush and Blair’s war, while Euston Lite concentrates on smearing its opponents. Gitlin, who never forgave Vietnam antiwar activists for refusing to vote for Hubert Humphrey, has spent the better part of 35 years pouring vitriol on anybody to the left of politicians like Humphrey. Here he is, tongue-lashing Ralph Nader:

What Nader’s decision amounts to is not logic but an exercise in monomania by a man who once accomplished great things and now believes that whatever he claims to accomplish is great by virtue of the fact that he claims it. Quixotic Nader, whose first run was tragedy, now tries farce. It’s not funny.

Showing an openness to crappy politics of all stripes, University of San Diego philosophy professor Harriet Baber has signed both Euston Heavy and Lite. Since she teaches logic, students might be well advised to think twice before enrolling in her class unless they have a taste for sophistry.

The Ackerman-Gitlin manifesto was prompted by a Tony Judt article that appeared in the London Review of Books as a timely rejoinder to the pro-war left types associated with Euston Heavy. Since there are obvious affinities between the prowar and anti-antiwar camps represented by Heavy and Lite respectively, it is understandable that Ackerman and Gitlin would want to distinguish themselves from a group that now is in an untenable situation. With even the White House being forced to consider alternatives to the current “stay the course” agenda, this leaves unreconstructed imperialists like Christopher Hitchens in an awkward position. Who would want to be amalgamated with the ideological counterparts of those sad Japanese soldiers who were discovered defending a foxhole in some remote Pacific Isle in the 1950s?

As opposed to warmongers like George W. Bush, the Euston Lite people are much more comfortable with the Bill Clinton way of waging war. They state that they supported the use of force in Yugoslavia, but just to show that they are good sports they also supported the war in Afghanistan. This probably defines the bankruptcy of liberalism more than anything else. These sorts of people don’t really have any principles about sending the US army and navy thousands of miles away to impose its will on the unruly native. They just work themselves into a lather when the mission is not clearly defined nor guaranteed of a successful result.

In a blog entry that flatters his Euston Heavy co-signatory Norm Geras, Marc Cooper puts it this way: “I never supported the war precisely because I lacked any confidence that — in reality– the Bush administration would be capable of carrying out what it had promised.” Needless to say, this kind of ‘realpolitik’ is virtually indistinguishable from what Henry Kissinger built a career around.

Bill Blum, a long-time critic of American foreign policy on a par with Euston Heavy and Lite nemesis Noam Chomsky, dismisses the idea that the Clinton Administration was less violent than the current gang running the show. In an Anti-Empire Report dated October 19, 2006, he puts it this way:

The cartoon awfulness of the Bush crime syndicate’s foreign policy is enough to make Americans nostalgic for almost anything that came before. And as Bill Clinton parades around the country and the world associating himself with “good” causes, it’s enough to evoke yearnings in many people on the left who should know better. So here’s a little reminder of what Clinton’s foreign policy was composed of. Hold on to it in case Lady Macbeth runs in 2008 and tries to capitalize on lover boy’s record.

Yugoslavia: The United States played the principal role during the 1990s in the destruction of this nation, republic by republic, the low point of which was 78 consecutive days of terrible bombing of the population in 1999. No, it was not an act of “humanitarianism”. It was pure imperialism, corporate globalization, getting rid of “the last communist government in Europe”, keeping NATO alive by giving it a function after the end of the Cold War. There was no moral issue behind US policy. The ousted Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, is routinely labeled “authoritarian” (Compared to whom? To the Busheviks?), but that had nothing to do with it. The great exodus of the people of Kosovo resulted from the bombing, not Serbian “ethnic cleansing”; and while saving Kosovars the Clinton administration was servicing the Turkish massacre of Kurds. NATO admitted (sic) to repeatedly and deliberately targeting civilians; amongst other war crimes.[8]

Just a final word on the Crooked Timber blog. I imagine that some of the people who read this blog spend some time there as well. If so, they might have noticed that in the comments section following Henry Farrell’s entry on the Ackerman-Gitlin statement, there have been a number of references to me, mostly surprisingly supportive. I guess there is a certain disjunction between the stuffed-shirt character of the people who own and post to Crooked Timber and the normal human beings who post comments to it, as I used to. That gets me to a point of clarification. I was not banned from Crooked Timber. I stopped posting there after John Quiggin deleted a comment I had made about Yugoslavia that he described as “offensive”. In other words, he disagreed with my politics. This of course is their prerogative. My only response is that beneath the faculty club ‘gemutlichkeit’ pretensions of people like Quiggin, Farrell and company, there is a blackjack yearning to be set free.

October 19, 2006


Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 3:05 pm


Scheduled for theatrical release this month, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates” returns once again to the preoccupations of his first two films–“Clouds of May” and “Distant”–namely the anomie of Turkish artists and intellectuals. Borrowing from Antonioni, Ceylan’s characters move through a silent and chilly world and have conversations that fail to bring them together in any genuine manner. As an objective correlative of the main characters’ mental states, “Climates” and “Distant” make heavy use of snowfall. These are obviously not easy films to warm up to but ones that satisfy on another level. As a psychological examination of Turkey’s educated petty bourgeoisie rendered in world-class cinematography, Ceylan’s films are first-rate.

“Climates” stars Ceylan himself as Isa, an art history professor in Istanbul who is in an unhappy marriage with his much younger wife Bahar, who is played by Ebru Ceylan, his real-life mate. In the opening scene, we see the two sweating uncomfortably on the beach of an Aegean Sea resort. She then wakes up from a bad dream in which Isa is covering her face with sand. This dream must anticipate what he is about to tell her, namely that he wants a separation. At first she handles the news with aplomb, but later as they are returning back to their hotel on a motor scooter, she covers his eyes with her hands and causes the bike to crash. Enraged, he tells her that if she is so anxious to die, he might as well throw her over the seacliff next to the road.

Once back in Istanbul on his own, Isa tries to reignite an affair with Serap (Nazan Kesal), the wife of an ad agency director that he has been screwing behind his back. In the most powerful scene in the film, he visits her at their apartment while the husband is in Khazakstan and proceeds to force himself on her sexually in manner that is only a hair’s width from rape. Later on, we discover that this violent act is typical of such a man who has little use for women other than as sex objects. In another scene, Isa chuckles as a fellow professor who he shares an office with recounts how he humiliated his fiancée at a restaurant. Wagging his finger in her face, he warned that he would not marry her unless she shaped up. This is the only moment in the entire film when Isa appears happy.

The climax of the film takes place in a small rustic village in Eastern Anatolia during a snowstorm. Isa has gone there to try to reconcile with Bahar. There is very little dialog in these scenes, but it has tremendous dramatic intensity conveyed through the expressions on their faces and in the foreboding but beautiful wintry backdrop. The film begins in sweltering heat and ends in driving snow–hence the title “Climates”, which is just as much about the storms that rage in the characters’ hearts.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan was born in Istanbul in 1959 but grew up in Antelonia, a remote rural area not much different from the one seen in the climax of the film. After studying engineering in college, he decided to make a career in film. He is also an accomplished photographer as can be seen in the gallery on his official website at: http://www.nuribilgeceylan.com/

In an interview with the London Times, Ceylan stated (in their words) that “Climates” reflected his deeply pessimistic view of his own sex as much as an insight into his own psyche. “I think man is the weakest creature in the world, especially the educated man. They are always afraid of something.”

Whatever Ceylan’s films lack in “creature comfort”, they certainly make up for in terms of raw emotion unmediated by commercial film-making calculation. They are also the most visually striking films that one can see coming out of any film studio in the world. That they are coming out of Turkey indicates that the visual arts are alive and well there, even if the human bonds of solidarity and respect might be in short supply–especially between man and woman.

October 18, 2006

The Departed

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:27 pm

Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” is certainly an improvement over “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator”, but it is by no means as good as some of his earlier classics. Indeed, it is somewhat sad to reflect on the fact that the last of these–“Goodfellas”–is now 16 years old.


Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon in “The Departed”

Some critics have likened “The Departed” to one of Scorsese’s B-movie type entertainments, like the 1991 “Cape Fear”. Considering the overweening ambitions of something like “The Aviator”, which attempted (and failed) to create a mythos around Howard Hughes, there is some relief in the fact that Scorsese has returned back to earth.

“The Departed” is a movie about gangsters and the cops who pursue them in the city of Boston. The script is an adaptation of “Infernal Affairs,” a series of Hong Kong films that involve a somewhat unlikely symmetry. A cop is asked to go undercover in a “Triad” gang, while the same gang has sent one of its members into the police department to help them fend off raids. The title is a play on the words “Internal Affairs,” the police subdepartment that investigates misconduct from within the ranks. This is where the gangster infiltrator has ended up and from where he conspires to identify the undercover cop in his boss’s gang.

In Scorsese’s retelling, the undercover cop is played by Leonardo DiCaprio and the gangster/cop is played by Matt Damon. Damon is particularly good as the amoral Colin Sullivan. This is not the first time he has played such a character. In the 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” his eponymous character kills a playboy and assumes his identity. With his cold but boyish charm, Damon is eminently suited for such roles.

DiCaprio is becoming something of a Scorsese regular, after having starred previously in “The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York”. He seems to have picked up where he left off in his role. As the pill-popping, stressed out undercover cop under psychiatric care, he is basically not that different from the basket case he played in the final third of “The Aviator”.

Far more problematic is the gangster boss character played by Jack Nicholson, his first appearance in a Scorsese film. There is little similarity between his Frank Costello and his Hong Kong counterpart in “Infernal Affairs”. To exploit Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing talents, screenwriter William Monahan decided to incorporate elements of “The Batman” Joker in the Frank Costello character. Like the Joker, Costello is a wellspring of sardonic patter delivered in trademark leering, raised-eyebrow Nicholson fashion. The audience at the AMC Theater on 42nd Street was beside itself with his performance, laughing almost hysterically. Unfortunately, their joviality was not limited to the moments he was on screen. They began to laugh at the more sober moments of the film as well, a depressing reminder of the steady decline of American civilization.

Despite its borrowing from Hong Kong cinema, this is no Quentin Tarentino “Kill Bill” exercise. The esthetic is entirely Scorsese–not John Woo. This means that the emphasis is on dialogue rather than action. It also means that scenes have an operatic quality as the deliberately slow pacing of this overlong film (152 minutes) serves to underpin. At its best, “The Departed” has the same kind of fascination as “Goodfellas”, with the Boston Irish filling in for the Italians in New York. If you enjoy watching characters getting clubbed over the head or shot, then you will enjoy this film.

Although judging what amounts to a pulp entertainment in social or political terms seems besides the point (one might as well complain about all the blood in a zombie movie), critic Armond White makes some interesting points in his New York Press review:

“Clearly no one in Scorsese’s circle of yes-men advises against his obsession. But perhaps, someday, a critical history of Scorsese’s fall from cinematic greatness will reveal how the trailblazing director of Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver went from chronicling the amorality of the neighborhood tough guys he grew up envying, to turning that covetousness into a flamboyant cinematic pissing match. In his early films, Scorsese gave the corruption of youthful potential a tragic undertone derived from the realities of urban depravation. But his film nerd’s appropriation of tough-guy swagger and unapologetic cruelty won him dubious cultural status. Crowned the poet laureate of the urban underclass, he embraced the role and under-performed it—becoming American cinema’s thug laureate.”

Frankly, I am far less worried about Scorsese becoming the poet laureate of gangsters than I am about him making another movie along the lines of “The Aviator”. It was astonishing to see Howard Hughes treated as some kind of hero. Whether Scorsese recognizes it or not, he led a life that would shame the most degraded Triad gangster in Hong Kong.

October 17, 2006

Out of Place

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

Now playing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, “Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said” is a complex and moving tribute to the postcolonial scholar and voice of the Palestinian people. Based loosely on his memoir of the same name, directed by Sato Makoto and with music by Daniel Barenboim (who collaborated with Said on a number of groundbreaking projects in the Middle East), it is about as fitting a tribute to Said as can be imagined.

The film weaves together reminiscences of Said by his wife and children, his colleagues at various universities (including Columbia where he was a renowned department chair), and those of Palestinian political leaders. It also includes the voices of ordinary Palestinian and Israelis who have been locked in struggle since Said’s youth. It is a sign of the director’s affinity with his subject’s self-declared mission that he can discover the humanity of those on either side of the divide. In keeping with the spirit of “Orientalism,” “Out of Place” refuses to stereotype Arab and Jew alike.

“Out of Place” is structured around a series of visits to places where the Said family resided during his years living in the Middle East and to various emblematic sites in the region including a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and a Kibbutz in Northern Israel. It has an uncanny ability to draw out the deepest insights from people living in these places whose lives have been indelibly marked by war and racism in the 20th century. To an individual, the Palestinians are aware of the historic injustice done to them and express their absolutely determination to redeem themselves through struggle.

Wadie Said, Edward’s father, was the owner of the largest business supply store in the Middle East. The documentary interviews a number of men who knew or worked for him in Cairo, when Edward was a child. He is described as a highly respected and outspoken man of the community. In the 1950s, the family lived in fairly opulent circumstances on an island on the Nile River that was home to members of the Egyptian ruling class and to foreign diplomats and business men. Time and time again, when we see the life of privilege that Edward Said enjoyed growing up, we are reminded of how he transcended this environment and became a tribune of his people. He could have enjoyed the life of a pampered academic and could have even left his Palestinian identity behind him. But history summoned him to rise to the occasion and assume that identity. As a writer, a scholar and an activist, he literally made history.

Edward Said devoted every ounce of his energy and talents to the cause of people like those we meet in a Lebanese refugee camp. Despite being poor, they show every hospitality to the film crew which is welcomed into their house for a three day period necessitated by curfews and other travel restrictions. Like just about every Palestinian family shown in the film, they retain vivid memories of the villages from which they were expelled.

One of the more interesting revelations comes in the form of a ‘Mizrahim’ family originally from Alleppo, Syria. This is the name reserved for that branch of the Jewish people that is native to the Middle East. The matriarch, who grew up there, insists that Moslems, Christians and Jews lived in complete harmony there until the 1948 war forced a population transfer throughout the Middle East. Even though this family came out on top, there is a certain sadness when considering how Israeli society will eventually rob them of their customs and their particular relationship to the Arab world they lived in. As her children and grandchildren are assimilated into the Sabra mold, they will begin to forget about life in Alleppo and what it meant to be Mizrahim. The Zionists never appreciated the Jewish capacity for blending its own identity into that of the larger community around it. As masters of adaptation, the Jews were always creating something new with the culture they were surrounded by. The Yiddish language itself, with its quirky blend of Hebrew and German, is the best expression of it. It is no surprise that this language was frowned upon in Israel, which was attempting to create a pure blood nation based on Biblical myths.

Among the progressive minded Israelis who were touched by Said’s greatness, Michael Warshawski has some of the most interesting things to say in his interview. He described Edward Said as somebody who chose to live on the border between different identities. He was a Christian in a predominantly Moslem community. He sought to mediate between Jew and Arab. He was an intellectual and an activist. By refusing to conform to fixed categories, he pointed in the direction of the kind of transcendent humanity the planet’s population has to move toward in order to survive.

A day or so after seeing “Out of Place”, I dwelled on Warshawski’s description of Said. It dawned on me that he was describing something like the non-Jewish Jew of Isaac Deutscher. As the quintessential “rootless cosmopolitan”, the Jew was simultaneously no place and in every place. Driven from country to country by the forces of reaction and racism, the Jews lacked the power to defend themselves by ordinary means. Their oppression also made them more sensitive to oppression in general and eventually led many to embrace socialism, a secular faith that seemed to embody the best that religion had to offer but on the basis of modern science rather than superstition. Now that the Jewish people have redefined themselves on the basis of the gun and the gate, it will be up to the people they have disenfranchised to take up this historic mission. Like the Jews of an earlier period, people like Edward Said held up a lantern to throw light on a path toward a better world for everybody.

Scheduling information on “Out of Place” is at: http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org/

I give this film my highest recommendation.

October 13, 2006

Black Girl

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

“Black Girl” (La Noire de…) is Ousmane Sembene’s first feature film. Made in 1966, it incorporates two of the elements that can be found in all of his subsequent work: deep empathy for his female characters and outrage over colonialism with its lingering impact in a period of formal national independence.

The main character is Diouana, an impoverished young woman who is lured into taking a slave-like housekeeping job in France by a couple she meets in Dakar. Played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop, a nonprofessional, Diouana is first seen going door to door in the wealthy white quarters looking for a job. Eventually she learns that there is a special location on a downtown curb where prospective employers can pick out a domestic. Anybody who is familiar with hiring practices for gardeners, construction workers and other day laborers in places like Los Angeles or Long Island will be struck by the similarity.

The French couple promise Diouana the world. If she returns to Antibes with them, she will have no other duties except looking after their three children. In her spare time, she will be able to go sightseeing on the French Riviera. In the opening scene, we see her walking down the gangplank to meet her boss. In view of what awaits her, she might as well have been transported there in chains.

As soon as she arrives at the couple’s apartment, they demand that she serve as cook and maid as well. They keep her working every minute of the day and punish her when she doesn’t meet their expectations in a kind of racist version of Cinderella.

In some ways, Diouna is a kind of trophy brought back from Africa, like the mounted head of a slain beast. When her employers invite over a bunch of friends for a lunch of Senegalese-style rice that she is instructed to whip together on a moment’s notice, one of the men plants an uninvited kiss on her cheek and announces “Now I know what it feels like to kiss a Black!”

Diouna initially shows her gratitude to the couple by presenting them with an authentic tribal mask that they display on their living-room wall. After she decides that she can no longer work for them, she takes the mask back. This simple act dramatizes the refusal of the postcolonial subject to cooperate with their own subjugation. After despair drives Diouna to take her life, the French husband returns to Senegal with her belongings, including the mask and several week’s wages, with the intention of presenting them to her mother. When a local schoolteacher (played by Ousmane Sembene) translates his words into Wolof, her mother refuses to accept the money and throws it on the ground. Despite Sembene’s Marxist convictions, this is frequently how his films end–on a note of passive resistance in the face of palpable defeat.

In an interview contained in “Dialogues with Critics and Writers,” Sembene explains the importance of “refusal” in his work:

“In a given situation, there will always be characters who will say no. It would not be accurate to say that a whole people accepted or refused, but I work with types of characters and I am sympathetic with those who refuse. Some things are simply not to be accepted. Human beings reach greatness only to the extent that they refuse these things and assume themselves. In fact, when a human being refuses, he/she takes charge of himself/herself. For what you reject in one place will be conquered elsewhere with your own strength.”

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