Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2007

The Angry Monk

Filed under: Film,religion — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Update: another noteworthy review of “The Angry Monk”

For most people, including me, Tibetan politics consisted exclusively of two radically opposed camps.

On one hand, there is the traditional Buddhist leadership of the Dalai Lama that is highly visible in the West and that enjoys a reputation as spiritually enlightened and politically progressive. With celebrities like Richard Gere spreading the word and a Nobel Peace prize belt under his belt, the Dalai Lama is lionized everywhere he goes. There is occasional grumbling about his adherence to traditional Buddhist teachings that homosexuality is impure (but not for non-Buddhists, bless his heart) but nothing sufficient to drag him down to the level of ordinary mortals.

On the other hand, there is the perspective of the Chinese government, especially when it had some kind of leftwing credentials, that the Buddhist priests were a kind of a parasitical feudal growth that needed weeding. When the Red Army poured into Tibet in the early 1950s, this was interpreted by Maoist-leaning radicals as something like the Union army taking control of the South during Reconstruction.

It is to the enormous credit of Swiss director Luc Schaedler to reveal another player in Tibetan politics in “The Angry Monk,” his excellent documentary now available from First Run/Icarus Films. This is a portrait of Gendun Choephel (1903-1951), a legendary figure in Tibet, who was opposed to both the religious elite and to forced Chinese assimilation. The film not only sheds light on a most unique personality. It also is an excellent introduction to Tibetan culture and politics.


Gendun Choephel

Choephel began life as a Buddhist monk but evolved into a scholar of Tibetan history and a political activist during his extended visit to India in the 1930s, where he became inspired by Gandhi’s revolt. He decided to travel to India after coming into contact with Rahul Sankrityayan, an Indian researcher of ancient Buddhist texts in Tibet. Surprisingly, Sankrityayan was also a Marxist revolutionary who fought for Indian independence. (It should be mentioned that many of these texts were burned in huge bonfires during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a barbaric act that rivals the Taliban’s destruction of ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan.)

When in India, Choephel not only politicized, he left behind the kind of Puritanism expressed in the Dalai Lama’s strictures against homosexuality. He was proud of his ability to sleep with 4 or 5 prostitutes in an evening and to get roaring drunk in the process, as Golok Jigme, a 85 old monk and former traveling companion of Choepel, reveals in an interview. In addition to writing the very first history of Tibet, Choepel translated the Kama Sutra into Tibetan! In the introduction to this classic work on sexual techniques, he wrote:

As for me — I have little shame I love women. Every man has a woman. Every woman has a man. Both in their mind desire sexual union. What chance is the for clean behaviour? If natural passions are openly banned, unnatural passions will grow in secrecy. No law of religion — no law of morality can supress the natural passion of mankind.

Choephel was the quintessential modernizer. Like Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal, he wanted to reduce the power of the clergy. In a 1946 poem, he wrote:

In Tibet, everything that is old
Is a work of Buddha
And everything that is new
Is a work of the Devil
This is the sad tradition of our country

In 1946 Gendun Choephel took up residence in Kalimpong, a town that sat on the India-Tibet border, where he joined the Tibetan Revolutionary Party, which was founded 7 years earlier. He designed (he was a gifted artist as well as a scholar) their logo: a sickle crossed by a sword.

The Tibetan Revolutionary Party sought to overthrow the tyrannical regime in Lhasa. When Gendun Choephels arrived in Lhasa, the capital city, he was arrested by the Tibetan government, which had learned about his activity from British operatives working out of India. He was accused of insurrection and thrown in jail for three years.

Two years after his release, the Red army overran Tibetan troops in eastern Tibet and took control of the country. A physically ailing and psychologically broken Gendun Choephel characterized the invasion in his characteristically blunt manner: “Now we’re fucked!”

“The Angry Monk” is also an excellent introduction to some of the more sophisticated thinkers in today’s Tibet, who are interviewed throughout the film. I especially appreciated the comments of journalist Jamyang Norbu, who derided the Western obsession with Tibetan spirituality. His remarks in a PBS Frontline documentary reveal his continuity with the Angry Monk:

Q: How does the West see Tibet?

A: I think, primarily the West sees Tibet, to some extent, as a fantasy land, as a Shangri La. Of course, this is a kind of stereotype that has existed in the Western kind of perception for a very long time, even before the movie “Lost Horizon,” the movie was made. Initially, the perception came from ideas of medieval Europe that they had of … … (inaudible), the Christian king who lived behind the mountains of Gog and Magog, and who would come maybe to make the whole of Asia a Christian country.

Because maybe people in medieval times heard of Tibet and a lot of liturgical practices in Tibet, religious rites and ceremonies, resembled the Roman Catholic ones.

Q: Tibet is suddenly very chic in America. Why is that?

A: There’s a kind of New Age perception of Tibet, which is fed to some extent quite deliberately by propagandists for Tibet, many New Age type Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists. And, also subscribed gradually by Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama and a lot of prominent Lamas. The idea that this even materialist west will be saved by the spiritualism of the Tibetan Buddhists. It’s total nonsense.

Tibetans are in no position to save anyone, least of all themselves in the first place.

But, this is the kind of idea that’s being subscribed by a lot of New Age type people. This is the problem that Tibetans face, because their issues and the tragedy of Tibet has not being taken seriously. Primarily, it’s very fuzzy; it’s sort of a feel good issue, rather than a stark, ugly reality.

You have the Palestinian problem. Now, whether you like the Palestinians–and I’m sure a lot people in the West don’t like them—- but you give them the respect that their condition is real.

A lot of people love Tibetans in the West, tremendous sympathy, but it’s a very fuzzy kind of sympathy, because it never touches on the reality. It doesn’t touch on the reality that the Tibetan people are disappearing, they’re being wiped out.

You look at even supportive friends of Tibet like Galen …. Have you seen his calendars? It just says everything is wonderful. Tibet is wonderful. The culture is wonderful. The land is wonderful. It does not touch on the tragedy that people are actually being wiped off the face of the earth and their culture is being wiped out. That is not touched; it’s considered in bad taste.

Official Angry Monk website

First Run/Icarus website

February 27, 2007

Jesus Camp

Filed under: Film,religion — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

Now available in home video, the documentary “Jesus Camp” puts the spotlight on rightwing evangelists and the children they have successfully indoctrinated. All in all, the film has the same kind of chilling effect as “Village of the Damned” or any other classic sci-fi film in which children are transformed into monsters. (The film was nominated for best documentary this year by the Academy Awards, but lost out to “An Inconvenient Truth”.)

The main figure in “Jesus Camp” is one Becky Fischer, a self-styled children’s pastor from the Kansas City suburbs who runs a “Kids on Fire summer camp” in North Dakota. The film focuses on the children getting ready for camp, their activities there, and concludes with them working the streets on behalf of various Christian rightwing causes.

I was not at all surprised that Kansas City is a hotbed of rightwing Christian idiocy. Back in 1978 leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (an evangelical cult of sorts itself) ordered me to leave New York City and go to Kansas City (my birthplace) where I was supposed to get a factory job.  Over the summer, I was selling the party newspaper in front of a grocery store not far from party headquarters when a middle aged woman came toward me, with a big grin on her face. “You see that car,” she asked, pointing to a late model Buick in the parking lot. “The lord provided me with that car.” I didn’t bother answering her, but I might have replied that it was late model Buicks, and the lust for them, that led me down the path of beatnik bohemianism in 1959, a path that finally would lead toward Trotskyism. Jesus could keep his Buicks, as far as I was concerned.

One will probably regard the children in “Jesus Camp” with a mixture of terror and pity. They certainly are scary as they mouth rightwing platitudes about the need to defend America from “extreme liberalism”. But you also feel sorry that they have had their innocence as children robbed from them, just as surely as the young African who is dragooned into a paramilitary. During an indoctrination session at the camp chapel, Becky Fischer warns the children against temptations like “Harry Potter”. There are no good warlocks, she warns the children. Of course, any sensible person would have reminded the children that there are no warlocks at all (nor devils, nor God, for that matter.)

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Toward the end of the film, we see one of the kids, a handsome long-haired boy named Levi, singing and praying at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a city with more Christian fundamentalists per capita than any place else in the country. This mega-church is run by one Ted Haggard, who is seen railing against homosexuality from the pulpit. Less than two months after the release of “Jesus Camp,” Haggard admitted using a homosexual prostitute and getting high on methamphetamine.

It is doubtful that Haggard’s fall would have any impact on young Levi, who is thoroughly brainwashed as should be obvious from this youtube clip from “Jesus Camp”:

It is a testimony to the skills of the film’s directors, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, that they could get these people to hoist themselves on their own petards. Rather than being a recruiting film for Christian fundamentalism and rightwing politics, as Becky Fischer thought it would be, it has provoked a backlash–even in a red-state like North Dakota whose citizens raised a hue and cry about a “Kids on fire summer camp” in their midst. Fischer has announced that the camp is suspended for the time being on her website. She holds vandalism responsible, but it is safe to assume that bad publicity had more to do with it.

You can see a clip of Becky Fischer on youtube. Very scary.

Official “Jesus Camp” website


February 24, 2007

Health care cuts

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

Yesterday, an article in my home-town newspaper described the uncertain status of the local hospital in light of announced health care cuts:

Catskill Regional Medical Center (CRMC) officials are so concerned about Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposed budget, they called a press conference about it Wednesday.

The very life of the Harris and Callicoon hospitals might be at stake, they said.

“The Medicaid reductions proposed by the governor threaten the existence of this hospital,” Chief Financial Officer Nick Lanza told the media. “The proposal reduces revenue by $1.25 million… threatening our turnaround efforts.

“Our facility cannot withstand further cuts.”

Spitzer’s proposed reductions are in addition to cuts proposed by President George W. Bush, the combined effect of which Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther said could cost CRMC $8 million over the next four years.

If that happens, the 29-year nurse added, “we will not have healthcare in Sullivan County.”

“I think it’s very clear we’re on the edge of a precipice,” observed Priscilla Bassett, president of the Senior Legislative Action Committee (SLAC). “For us seniors, this is the only place that has its doors open to everyone.”

NY State Governor Elliot Spitzer

My mother is one of those seniors that Ms Bassett is speaking about. She has been in the Special Nursing Unit (the geriatrics ward, basically) for about three years. As a Medicaid recipient, she is affected by a $1.2 billion cut in health care recently announced by the new Governor Elliot Spitzer. Despite his liberal credentials, he has joined George W. Bush in targeting the most vulnerable members of society.

Dennis Rivera: hospital workers union leader

Since its dues-paying members would also be affected by the cuts, Local 1199 of SEIU has announced a campaign to fight the cuts. Although he will be stepping down shortly as President of 1199, Dennis Rivera continues to be the union’s public voice on this matter. The NY Times reported on February 13:

Mr. Rivera said he planned to have other union locals and employers create “education funds” through payroll deductions and to have health care workers nationwide raise $20 million a year for political contributions, mostly to federal campaigns.

“I will try to reproduce what we do in New York,” he said. “In a short period of time, it will become the largest political action committee in the United States.”

Mr. Rivera repeatedly used the phrase “the Bush-Spitzer cuts,” and said that an essential part of the campaign’s message in New York would link the governor, a Democrat, to the president, a Republican.

I am not sure how seriously one can take Rivera’s use of the Republican Party as a kind of bogeyman, since 1199 backed George Pataki for governor in the last election. When Pataki threatened health care cuts of the sort that Spitzer has just announced, 1199 launched a campaign against him. After Pataki relented, the union decided that he was not that bad after all.

This kind of maneuvering between the Democrats and the Republicans is a strategy associated with Andy Stern, the president of Local 1199’s parent union, the SEIU, which just bolted from the AFL-CIO along with the Teamsters. In 2004 the SEIU gave more than $500,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association. Rivera’s name is being bandied about as a possible successor to Stern. Considering his alliance with Pataki, this makes perfect sense.

It is very hard for me to imagine what it would be like without the Catskill Regional Hospital. There’s another nursing home in the area but we can’t be guaranteed that there will be space for my mother, nor can we be sure that the Medicaid cuts won’t affect the other place as well.

Basically, the ruling class and its two parties have decided that the costs of caring for the aged has to be covered by the children, even if it means losing one’s entire life savings, as surely would be the case if I had to pay for private care for my mom.

In 2005, I wrote a Marxist analysis of the problem of aging that was picked up by MRZine. It began as follows:

In May of 2004, my mother finally went into a nursing home after three years of mounting health problems. Many baby boomers besides me have also found themselves coping with the difficulties of looking after aging parents who can barely care for themselves, just as they near retirement age. It is analogous to the burden one assumes in raising a child, but without compensating joys. This generational drama involves intense personal and social pressures. Inevitably, questions of one’s own mortality, too, are posed for the middle-aged son or daughter of a parent struggling to remain independent. When you reach sixty, as I have, you begin to realize that you too are susceptible to failing health. You are also confronted with major economic challenges, since the costs of care for the elderly are enormous in a capitalist society racing to eradicate the last vestiges of the welfare state.

It was tough enough for me to deal with getting my mom to go into a nursing home. That won’t be one-thousandth as tough of a proposition as getting her into a new facility.

Spitzer says that he wants to cut medical costs out of deference to the middle-class voters who elected him. I strongly suspect that a lot of these middle-class people will find merit in Local 1199’s counter-offensive, especially since the question of wasted money seems more egregious elsewhere:

A House committee report on Tuesday questioned whether some of the billions of dollars in cash shipped to Iraq after the American invasion — mostly in huge, shrink-wrapped stacks of $100 bills — might have ended up with the insurgent groups now battling American troops…

Hailed by Republicans and Democrats alike when he last testified at a Congressional hearing in 2004, Mr. Bremer found himself the target of sharp criticism from Democrats on Tuesday. They questioned whether his decisions might help to explain the continuing turmoil in Iraq. He stepped down from his Iraq post in June 2004.

”I acknowledged that I made mistakes,” Mr. Bremer said. ”And with the benefit of hindsight, I would have made some decisions differently.” But he said that given the chaos he found after arriving in Iraq in May 2003, ”I think we made great progress under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.”

Mr. Waxman, whose panel is pursuing investigations of fraud and abuse by the federal government and its contractors in Iraq, said he found it remarkable that the Bush administration had decided to send billions of dollars of American currency into Iraq so quickly after the United States occupied the country.

The committee calculated that the $12 billion in cash, most of it in the stacks of $100 bills, weighed 363 tons and had to been flown in on wooden pallets aboard giant C-130 military cargo planes. ”Who in their right mind would send 360 tons of cash into a war zone?” Mr. Waxman said. ”That’s exactly what our government did.”

NY Times, February 7, 2007

February 22, 2007

A reply to Göran Therborn

Filed under: Academia,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

Perry Anderson: “the world has moved on”

As many of you know, the January-February 2000 issue of New Left Review carried an article by Editor Perry Anderson titled “Renewals” that basically set a new direction for the journal. He characterized the period as one of diminished political expectations:

Ten years after the collapse of Communism, however, the world has moved on, and a condition of re-launching the review is some distinctive and systematic approach to its state today. What is the principal aspect of the past decade? Put briefly, it can be defined as the virtually uncontested consolidation, and universal diffusion, of neo-liberalism.

Given such objective conditions, it was necessary for NLR to downsize its politics as well:

What kind of stance should NLR adopt in this new situation? Its general approach, I believe, should be an uncompromising realism. Uncompromising in both senses: refusing any accommodation with the ruling system, and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its power. No sterile maximalism follows. The journal should always be in sympathy with strivings for a better life, no matter how modest their scope. But it can support any local movements or limited reforms, without pretending that they alter the nature of the system.

Although I haven’t paid that much attention to NLR since it made this turn, I have continued to admire the work that Tariq Ali has done in challenging American imperialism. Additionally, the journal did seem to pull back a bit from Anderson’s pessimism and has always had at least one or two articles worth reading in the past 7 years, even if they haven’t had any direct relevance to struggles that the organized (or disorganized) left was involved with.

In the latest issue, however, there is a long article (unfortunately, it can only be read by subscribers or people like myself with university access) by Göran Therborn titled “After Dialectics: Radical Social Theory in a Post-Communist World” that practically cries out for a response, especially from a troglodyte Unrepentant Marxist like myself.

Göran Therborn: empire and imperialism have staged a triumphant return

Like many of his colleagues at NLR, Therborn is a big-time academician who is currently serving as a director at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies. He has been writing books about Marxism for 30 years, but I have the strong suspicion that he has never written a leaflet or organized a demonstration. That in itself does not condemn him. I would only suggest a bit more modesty on the good professor’s part when it comes to issuing directives to ‘sans culottes’ like us.

His article is a mish-mash of observations on various intellectual currents that have arisen to challenge classical Marxism (no problem there) with ill-considered conclusions about what is politically feasible today. Suffice it to say that he shares Perry Anderson’s pessimism about what is feasible.

Perhaps as a reflection of his own gold medal academic achievements, Therborn begins his article by stressing socialism’s ability in the past to attract people of his own caliber:

Socialism and Communism exercised a powerful attraction over some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century: Einstein was a socialist, writing a founding manifesto for the American Marxist journal Monthly Review; Picasso was a Communist, who designed the logo of post-World War ii Communist-led peace movements. In spite of its conservatively defined original task and its own staunchly conservative traditions, the Swedish Academy has allotted the Nobel Prize for literature to a series of left-wing writers, from Romain Rolland to Elfriede Jelinek.

Well, I don’t know. I think that Sartre had the right idea when he told the Nobel Prize committee to keep their stupid award. But I suppose that for a Swede like Therborn, there is a bit more panache associated with a home-grown institution that got its original impetus from a Swedish arms baron.

But things ain’t what they used to be. Sharing Perry Anderson’s belief that “the world has moved on,” Therborn is even more crest-fallen:

Then, suddenly, the high water withdrew, and was followed by a neoliberal tsunami. Socialist constructions were knocked down, many of them proving ramshackle or fake in the process; socialist ideas and Marxist theories were engulfed in the deluge. Privatization became the global order of the day, formulated in the Washington Consensus of the US Treasury, IMF and World Bank. At the dawn of the 21st century, not only liberal capitalism but empire and imperialism have staged a triumphant return, and with them the worldviews of the Belle Epoque.

Francis Fukuyama couldn’t have said it better. Of course, he has changed his tune since he issued his triumphalist “End of History” manifesto. Not only has Fukuyama developed the kind of weak-in-the-knees pessimism that characterized Perry Anderson 7 years ago, you find articles practically everywhere you look about Marxism’s continuing relevance. Perhaps the NLR folks aren’t aware of it, but there’s something called the NY of Books (nearly as high-toned as the NLR) that sees things differently. I would call their attention to Tony Judt’s review of Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” and “My Correct Views on Everything”, and Jacques Attali’s “Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde”, which suggests that it would premature to donate your collected Marx and Engels to the Salvation Army:

In recent years respectable critics have been dusting off nineteenth-century radical language and applying it with disturbing success to twenty-first-century social relations. One hardly needs to be a Marxist to recognize that what Marx and others called a “reserve army of labor” is now resurfacing, not in the back streets of European industrial towns but worldwide. By holding down the cost of labor–thanks to the threat of outsourcing, factory relocation, or disinvestments–this global pool of cheap workers helps maintain profits and promote growth: just as it did in nineteenth-century industrial Europe, at least until organized trade unions and mass labor parties were powerful enough to bring about improved wages, redistributive taxation, and a decisive twentieth-century shift in the balance of political power–thereby confounding the revolutionary predictions of their own leaders.

In short, the world appears to be entering upon a new cycle, one with which our nineteenth-century forebears were familiar but of which we in the West have no recent experience. In the coming years, as visible disparities of wealth increase and struggles over the terms of trade, the location of employment, and the control of scarce natural resources all become more acute, we are likely to hear more, not less, about inequality, injustice, unfairness, and exploitation–at home but especially abroad. And thus, as we lose sight of communism (already in Eastern Europe you have to be thirty-five years old to have any adult memory of a Communist regime), the moral appeal of some refurbished version of Marxism is likely to grow.

For Therborn, a large part of Marxism’s problem is that it is joined at the hip to modernity, a broad cultural-intellectual trend that began in the 19th century and stopped being relevant shortly around the time that Madonna became a pop star and when irony was adopted as the lingua franca of the educated classes.

During the period that modernity was in effect, Marxism still had a time staying afloat. It was always being driven off-course by opportunist temptations, like a rowboat in a stormy sea:

A Marxist mode of politics never attracted enough support to become consolidated in Western Europe as a distinctive political practice. It was always open to opportunistic enterprise, and to authoritarian legitimation. This made what perhaps may be called the ‘natural’ Marxist coalition of politics and social science difficult and rare.

I am rather amused by the way that Therborn regards the failure of Marxist politics to gain support. It is a matter of being “open to opportunist enterprise”, as if you were describing somebody who indulges in unprotected sex. Without getting into too much detail, I would suggest that opportunism is a product of capitalist hegemony–something that has existed since Marxism’s birth. Indeed, the ability of the capitalist system to disorient, coopt and subvert oppositional tendencies predates Marxism by some centuries. It is a dialectical tension that will exist as long as the system exists. Through its brutality and exploitation, capitalism generates revolutionary movements. Through its economic and social power, it retains the ability to blunt their assaults. If you are uncomfortable with this contradiction, I suggest some other hobby besides socialism.

In the second section of Therborn’s interminable article, he deals with “Modes of Left Response–Thematics”. This amounts to a whirlwind tour of just about every intellectual fad for the past 30 years or so. We learn about a “theological turn” that found expression in Regis Debray’s 2004 “God: An Itinerary”. (I would as soon read Debray today as I would when he was hyping ‘foquismo” back in 1970.)

Therborn is also much taken with a trend he describes as “futurism”, which amounts to an intellectualization of China Mieville’s novels:

Jameson is only the most recent exponent in a spectacular arc of creative American utopianism, of which he stands at one pole, focusing on the utopian ‘desire’, its ‘disruption’ of the future and its literary form, above all science fiction.

As some of you probably know, I have very little use for utopian thinking. I regard books such as Russell Jacoby’s “The End of Utopia” (actually a call for a renewal of utopian thinking) as not worth the paper they are written on. While Therborn describes John Roemer’s “coupon socialism” as “ingenious”, I regard it as little better than Rube Goldberg.

Therborn aligns himself with social theorists who regard the concept of class as outmoded, including the post-Marxist Ernesto Laclau who “dismisses Slavoj Žižek’s invocation of class and the class struggle as ‘just a succession of dogmatic assertions’.” What a strange world we have entered when somebody like Žižek can be accused of “dogmatic assertions”. In a page or two, Therborn describes Žižek as “the only Leninist with an admiring Western following in recent years.” Well, whatever. If I can’t imagine Lenin writing favorably about David Lynch movies, I suppose that’s because of my limited political horizons.

Therborn’s article concludes with a section devoted to “The Repertoire of Positions”, which despite sounding like a marital hygiene manual, is devoted to “Current Left Theoretical-Political Positions”. The most viable of them are post-Marxists, including Žižek and Hardt-Negri. As was the case with Žižek, Hardt-Negri also appears to have Leninist credentials of some sort:

Hardt and Negri also refer to the Lenin of State and Revolution as an inspiration for the ‘destruction of sovereignty’, though here combined with the Madisonian conception of checks and balances.

Poor Lenin. He is not only amalgamated with David Lynch movies, but with Madisonian conception of checks and balances. In this kind of “six degrees of separation” theorizing, I imagine that it would not be that hard to link Leon Trotsky with Leon Redbone.

February 18, 2007

Amazing Grace

Filed under: african-american,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 6:58 pm

Scheduled for nation-wide release this week, “Amazing Grace” is a hagiographic treatment of the life and career of William Wilberforce, the parliamentary opponent of the slave trade in Great Britain. (The film’s title is derived from the hymn written by John Newton, a retired sea-captain and reformed slave-trader who became a minister and who is played by Albert Finney.) In the press notes, director Michael Apted states:

This is a great moment in British history, and I wanted to portray it as a generational battle–the young men taking on the older generation–like Kennedys and their Camelot court were to America in the early sixties.

Ironically, this was exactly the political role of William Wilberforce. Using the language and gestures of reform, his gradualism helped to maintain a cruel racist system that forces to his left were far more interested in abolishing.

In an article on JFK that I wrote for Revolution Magazine in New Zealand a couple of years ago, I took note of the following:

Not only were the Kennedys hostile to the Civil Rights Commission; they appointed 5 segregationist judges to the federal bench, including Harold Cox, who had referred to blacks as “niggers” and “chimpanzees.” Robert F. Kennedy preferred Cox to Thurgood Marshall whom he described as “basically second-rate.” Kennedy frequently turned to Mississippi Senator James Eastland for advice on appointments. According to long-time activist Virginia Durr, Eastland would “invite people over for the weekend and tell them to ‘pick out a nigger girl and a horse!’ That was his way of showing hospitality.”

The film was meant to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the passing of the bill that banned the slave trade in the British Empire, an event that constitutes the climactic scene.

What it does not make clear is that the bill did not abolish slavery itself, which would persist in Jamaica and other British colonies for another 30 years. When younger and more militant abolitionists pressed Wilberforce to enter legislation to that effect, he replied that because of the effect “which long continuance of abject slavery produces on the human mind…I look to the improvement of their minds, and to the diffusion among them of those domestic charities which will render them more fit, than I fear they now are, to bear emancipation.” In other words, the slaves were not ready for their freedom. In the 1960s, the call was for “Freedom Now”, something the Kennedy brothers shrank from just as did William Wilberforce.

The above quote and those that follow demonstrate William Wilberforce’s true attitudes toward slaves, something entirely missing from Apted’s sanitized biopic. They originate in Jack Gratus’s 1973 Monthly Review book “The Great White Lie: Slavery, Emancipation and Changing Racial Attitudes,” a necessary corrective to the one-sided portrait drawn by Apted.

In 1823, 16 years after the slave trade was abolished, Wilberforce felt compelled to address the persistence of the institution in his “Appeal in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies”. Always the religious moralist (he was an evangelical), Wilberforce looked at the slaves in a most paternalistic fashion as if they were sinners while at the same time showing ample generosity toward the planters who whipped and exploited them (“we should treat with candour and tenderness the characters of the West India proprietors.“)

While slavery was certainly evil, this was not in his eyes the worst aspect of the system. Instead, it was “the almost universal destitution of religious and moral instruction among the slaves” that constituted “the most serious of all the vices in the West Indian system.” He realized that it was hard for the Europeans to feel anything but contempt, “even disgust and aversion” for the personal peculiarities of the Africans, “but raise these poor creatures from their depressed condition, and if they are not yet fit for the enjoyment of British freedom, elevate them at least from the level of the brute creation into that of rational nature…Taught by Christianity they will sustain with patience the sufferings of their actual lot, while the same instructors will rapidly prepare them for a better; and instead of being objects of contempt, and another of terror…they will be soon regarded as a grateful peasantry.”

In Apted’s film, Wilberforce is played by Ioan Gruffudd as a kind of ascetic wraith. Suffering from colitis that he treats with laudanum, he is always rising from his sick-bed to dash off to parliament to make some stirring speech. Every other abolitionist figure is subordinate to him, which is of course detrimental to the film since they are far more interesting than this bible-thumping prig.

First among them is Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), a member of the anti-slavery group that Wilberforce had joined and on whose behalf he spoke for in parliament. From the press notes, we learn that Clarkson was a “fiery radical and a magnificent organizer” who took testimonies from sailors and captains involved in the slave trade. William Wordsworth, an abolitionist himself, wrote a sonnet to Clarkson on the occasion of the 1807 bill abolishing the slave-trade:

Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb;
How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee
Is known,–by none, perhaps, so feelingly;
But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,
Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,
Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,
Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,
First roused thee.–O true yoke-fellow of Time
With unabating effort, see, the palm
Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!
The bloody Writing is for ever torn,
And Thou henceforth shalt have a good Man’s calm,
A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find
Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!

Oulidah Equiano

Even more interesting than Clarkson was Oulidah Equiano, a freed slave from Nigeria
who served with Clarkson on the abolitionist’s committee and who wrote a best-selling memoir. He is played by famed Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. A website in his honor reports:

Kidnapped and sold into slavery in childhood, he was taken as a slave to the New World. As a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, and later to a Quaker merchant, he eventually earned the price of his own freedom by careful trading and saving. As a seaman, he travelled the world, including the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the Arctic, the latter in an abortive attempt to reach the North Pole

Throughout the film, Clarkson and Equiano play second fiddle to Wilberforce and do not emerge as interesting characters. Furthermore, the film seldom strays outside the parliament or from Wilberforce’s country estate (he was fabulously wealthy.) Inside the parliament, we hear speeches for and against slavery. Around Wilberforce’s dining table, we hear him and his abolitionist guests trying to figure out what to do next to achieve their goals. Entirely missing is the ferment of the mass movement that existed all through Great Britain in this period. Ordinary working people, who were bitterly opposed to slavery, simply have no existence. This is very much a struggle between rival elites. In the conclusion of the film, there is a reference to their existence as Wilberforce unrolls a petition with more than 300,000 names on the parliament floor. It would have made for a more interesting and more historically accurate film if we saw how ordinary British citizens decided to take action against such an unspeakable evil

This is not to speak of the slaves themselves who were moving to abolish slavery themselves through insurrection. The film makes clear that the Haitian revolution and the French Revolution (that Clarkson supported and Wilberforce opposed) caused a backlash against the abolitionists. It is too bad that Michael Apted’s screenwriter Steven Knight found the parliament floor and Wilberforce’s dining room more compelling arenas than the sugar fields of Haiti. I myself would have preferred to see a slave revolt than one more speech from Wilberforce.

Although my complaints might be written off as what might be expected from a chronically disgruntled Marxist, there is clear evidence that even his contemporaries found Wilberforce lacking. Thomas Clarkson wrote the poet Coleridge (like Wordsworth, an abolitionist) that Wilberforce “cared nothing about the slaves, nor if they were all damned provided he saved his own soul.”

Essayist William Hazlitt, a colleague of Wordsworth and Coleridge who some regard as a proto-socialist, was scathing in his portrait of Wilberforce in “The Spirit of the Age”:

He goes hand and heart along with Government in all their notions of legitimacy and political aggrandizement, in the hope that they will leave him a sort of no-man’s ground of humanity in the Great Desert, where his reputation for benevolence and public spirit may spring up and flourish, till its head touches the clouds, and it stretches out its branches to the farthest part of the earth. He has no mercy on those who claim a property in negro-slaves as so much live-stock on their estates; the country rings with the applause of his wit, his eloquence, and his indignant appeals to common sense and humanity on this subject. But not a word has he to say, not a whisper does he breathe, against the claim set up by the Despots of the Earth over their Continental subjects, but does everything in his power to confirm and sanction it! He must give no offence. Mr. Wilberforce’s humanity will go all lengths that it can with safety and discretion; but it is not to be supposed that it should lose him his seat for Yorkshire, the smile of Majesty, or the countenance of the loyal and pious. He is anxious to do all the good he can without hurting himself or his fair fame.

Apparently, Michael Apted was not the only one to commemorate the British abolitionists. Adam Hochschild, the author of the very fine “King Leopold’s Ghost”, wrote “Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves” in 2005–a work that has received plaudits wide and far.

In a February 14, 2007 Nation Magazine review of Hochschild’s book, the always astute Daniel Lazare was quite positive but did raise some points worth considering. Lazare takes note of Hochschild’s comparison of the abolitionist committee that looked to Wilberforce for leadership and the humanitarian, middle-class movements of today. In his introduction to “Bury the Chains,” Hochschild writes:

Think of what you’re likely to find in your mailbox—or electronic mailbox—over a month or two. An invitation to join the local chapter of a national environmental group. If you say yes, a logo to put on your car bumper. A flier asking you to boycott California grapes or Guatemalan coffee. A poster to put in your window promoting this campaign. A notice that a prominent social activist will be reading from her new book at your local bookstore. A plea that you write your representative in Congress or Parliament, to vote for that Guatemalan coffee boycott bill. A “report card” on how your legislators have voted on these and similar issues. A newsletter from the group organizing support for the grape pickers or the coffee workers.

Each of these tools, from the poster to the political book tour, from the consumer boycott to investigative reporting designed to stir people to action, is part of what we take for granted in a democracy. Two and a half centuries ago, few people assumed this. When we wield any of these tools today, we are using techniques devised or perfected by the campaign that held its first meeting at 2 George Yard in 1787. From their successful crusade we still have much to learn.

Lazare asks whether the 12 members of the committee were responsible for abolition of the slave trade (a hollow victory in itself) or were there broader social forces at work. By concentrating on personalities like Wilberforce, Equiano and Clarkson, Hochschild implies that it is the former that were responsible. In contrast, Lazare stakes out a position much closer to Jack Gratus’s:

Although they [Wilberforce et al] made a big splash at first, they were quickly overwhelmed by momentous historical events that were constantly erupting offstage. They exercised about as much control as a twig does over the flood bearing it downstream.

Morally, moreover, their legacy was more ambiguous than we might like to think. Not only were abolitionists silent about new forms of slavery that were springing up in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, most notably child labor in coal mines and factories, but, in a particularly ironic twist, the movement they created segued all too smoothly into the movement to colonize Africa directly. In 1839 a leading abolitionist, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, established a new organization whose title said it all: the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilization of Africa. The more Europeans inserted themselves into African affairs, the more Africa became a playground for their imperial ambitions. Shutting the door to one form of hypocrisy meant opening it to another.

Lazare also has a pointed observation on Hochschild’s apparent willingness to segment the struggles of the early 19th century–something that a radical like Clarkson never considered doing himself:

Hochschild concludes his study with a swipe at unnamed critics who complain, he says, that “all this fuss about the slaves in the West Indies helped distract the public from the oppression of labor at home.” The statement is not footnoted, and it’s hard to imagine whom Hochschild has in mind, since it has long been a tenet of the left that the struggle against wage slavery and the struggle against chattel slavery are inseparable. As Marx put it, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” Still, there’s no doubt that British humanitarianism was selective in terms of whom to feel sorry for and whom not to. Abolition did not succeed in Britain until it transcended the narrow middle-class moralism that Hochschild celebrates. If reformers are so ineffectual in Bush’s America, perhaps it is because they have not transcended it either.

Although I am obviously very disappointed in “Amazing Grace,” I would still urge you to see it when it opens since it is the very first film to my knowledge that deals with an obviously key historical moment. I hope that it will inspire others to delve into historical material that is more accurate and more meaningful, starting with Jack Gratus’s excellent “The Great White Lie”.

An update on “Amazing Grace”:

I just discovered that the production company behind the film, Bristol Bay Productions, has launched something called the “Amazing Change Campaign” that intends to fund and promote Christian missionary work in troubled areas in Africa (Uganda, etc.) in the spirit of William Wilberforce.

When I discovered the Christian connection, I did a little more investigation and learned that Bristol Bay is owned by Philip Anschutz, who also owns Walden Media, the production company responsible for the Christian film “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

Philip Anschutz, rightwing billionaire responsible for “Amazing Grace”

Philip Anschutz is an evangelical Christian billionaire who has funded organizations that oppose abortion and gay rights. Last year Anschutz got into a bit of a scandal trying to launch a gambling casino [perfect–just perfect] in London’s Millennium Dome, which inspired this report in the July 7, 2006 Independent:

The Christian tycoon who wants to ban gay marriage; Deputy PM Under Fire

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington

John Prescott’s genial host in Colorado is a billionaire conservative who has used his vast wealth and influence to promote his Christian viewpoint, to rally against gay marriage and fund an organisation that questions the theory of evolution. He has also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates.

The Deputy Prime Minister claims he spent only two-and-half hours with Philip Anschutz over the entire July weekend he spent at his 35,000-acre ranch, Eagle’s Nest, an hour from Denver. Mr Prescott said he went to satisfy an ambition to see a working cattle ranch – stirred by watching Westerns as a boy – and to talk with sugar-beet farmers about the state of their industry.

But if the MP for Hull East had time to dig a little he might have asked Mr Anschutz about Amendment 2, an ultimately failed ballot initiative he funded to overturn state laws that protected gay rights. The measure was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1996.

He might also have asked Mr Anschutz about the Discovery Institute, a “think-tank” he funds in Seattle that criticises Darwin’s theory of evolution and argues for the involvement of a “supernatural” actor in the development of living things.

Critics accuse it of offering little more than a new spin on creationism and the institute was recently caught up in a notorious lawsuit about the teaching of creationism in schools. And over dinner at the ranch, complete with its own golf-course and formerly owned by the beer magnate Peter Coors, Mr Prescott could have raised the topic of the Media Research Council, a Washington-based group that attacks the liberal media and which, in 2003, was responsible for half of the complaints received by the Federal Communications Commission about alleged indecency on television.

The wealth of Mr Anschutz, 67, is huge and his interests are vast. Born in Kansas, he inherited his father’s land and oil businesses before expanding them.

His empire includes sports teams – he owns the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, a cinema chain, a film production company that has produced such films as Ray and The Chronicles of Narnia, oil, railroads, telecommunications and newspapers.

Forbes lists him as the 28th richest person in the US with a net worth of $7.2bn (pounds 4bn) but, in 2002, Fortune called him the “greediest executive”.

Another Update: Excellent review of “Amazing Grace” by historian Peter Linebaugh 

February 17, 2007

A Critique of the Euston Manifesto

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 2:22 pm


This is a guest entry by Paul Flewers, the editor of New Interventions, a very fine print publication out of Great Britain that I have contributed to in the past. It appeared in Volume 12, Number 3 of New Interventions.

Paul Flewers
Accommodating to the Status Quo
A Critique of the Euston Manifesto

ONE of the more interesting political events of 2006 was the launching of the Euston Manifesto. Somewhat arbitrarily named after the London railway terminus near to the pub where it was drawn up, largely by the academic Norman Geras and journalist Nick Cohen, it is a combination of liberal statements that are uncontroversial and with which few people would disagree (in fact, the sections on equality are part of Western ruling-class official discourse these days), a few mild criticisms of the Western ruling classes, and a big rant against the far left. It has been endorsed by a broad range of individuals largely but not exclusively in what might be called the ‘soft left’. Some, like Francis Wheen and Cohen himself, have always been known as left-leaning radicals. On the other hand, Geras, along with Jane Ashworth, John Strawson, Quintin Hoare, Alan Johnson and John Lloyd, were at one point or another in far-left groups. Ashworth and Jon Pike are prominent in Engage, a pro-Israel website that spends much of its time attacking anti-Zionists. What unites them here, however, is a strong dislike of the far left, and it is this deep antipathy that runs clearly through this document, even though, as we shall, some of the ideas which the Eustonites put in our mouths are barely recognisable to this writer.

The Eustonites’ Friends

It is often said that one can tell a man by the company he keeps, and the Euston Manifesto is no exception here. It has been praised by a wide range of people who would normally have little to do with anyone calling himself a socialist. This is not a fortuitous crossing of paths. Here’s Bill Kristol, a veteran US right-winger, and fierce critic of socialism: ‘It articulates 15 principles reminiscent of the much-missed liberal anti-totalitarianism of the early Cold War period.’ Kristol should know; his father was a leading example of a previous generation of Eustonites, moving from left-wing politics in the 1940s to an early manifestation of neo-conservatism. He no doubt can see the parallels. And here’s Christopher Hitchens: ‘I have been flattered by an invitation to sign it, and I probably will, but if I agree it will be the most conservative document that I have ever initialled.’ Hitchens, as everyone knows, has moved a very long way from his socialist roots, and is to all intents and purposes a neo-con­servative in his current politics (even if his past has yet to catch up).

Click to Read full article

February 15, 2007

Against Sectarianism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

Thanks first of all to Dayne Goodwin who sent me a copy of Peter Camejo’s “Against Sectarianism” that he stumbled across in his archives. To my knowledge, this key document has never been put up on the Internet, so this morning I scanned it in to make it available at: http://www.marxmail.org/camejo.html. I invite comrades from the MIA to include it there as well because of its importance.

Additionally, I want to explain why this article was important to me.

I resigned from the SWP in December 1978 after an abortive attempt to get an industrial job in Kansas City. I was exhausted by what amounted to a wild goose chase and felt that it was up to younger and more energetic comrades to “make the turn” to industry. My intention was to return to NYC, get back into computer programming and try to become a novelist.

Like most SWP’ers who dropped out around this period (our numbers were legion), I had no big political differences. I was skeptical about the turn toward industry, which seemed to be based on an overprojection of the mood of the American working class, but never thought it was worth questioning inside the party for fear of being labeled a petty-bourgeois. Indeed, I made a point of getting up at a big city-wide meeting just before leaving for Kansas City to announce that I was going to go into industry because the opportunities were so great, or some such bullshit to curry favor with party leaders who needed continuous reaffirmation from the ranks.

Back in New York City, I tried to put politics behind me but could not get my mind off Central America. By 1981, things were heating up in El Salvador to such an extent that any sentient radical, including me, could hardly ignore it. The Militant newspaper had ample coverage on the region, but I never got the sense that the SWP was actively involved with the burgeoning movement to oppose American intervention. I had nagging doubts about what seemed like workerist sectarianism, but was willing to give the party the benefit of the doubt.

However, a July 24, 1983 NY Times article by Leslie Gelb titled “The Boiling Point: White House Puts Central America on a Front Burner” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The article compared the situation in Central America to Vietnam and concluded that Reagan was about to escalate American involvement. Since Gelb was one of those NY Timesmen who shuttled back and forth from the paper to top government posts, he spoke with some authority. I compared the sense of urgency conveyed by Gelb’s article to the routinism of the Militant, which seemed far more excited by trade union struggles for wage increases, and concluded that something was deeply wrong. I telephoned an old friend from the SWP and asked what was wrong with the party. Why was it ignoring such an important struggle? He replied that the party was emphasizing trade union struggles since workers had the power to end war and the capitalist system, which bred war. Upon hearing this sectarian idiocy from somebody who I deeply respected, I felt like the main character in “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he heard one or another old friend channeling the thoughts of the space invaders that had taken control of their body. Except in this case the space invaders were from the Spartacist League, not the planet Mars.

I walked around in a daze for a week or so trying to figure out what was wrong. Just by coincidence, I ran into Ray Markey at a pizza parlor across the street from my building. Ray was an SWP member, a leader of the librarian’s union in New York and a straight shooter. Without having any idea of what he thought about any of these questions, I asked him to explain why the SWP was abstaining from the Central America fight. He said that he wanted me to read something that might help. That was Peter’s “Against Sectarianism”.

I should add that I was open to other interpretations of what was going on. I asked Ray for the phone number of Les Evans, an SWP leader who was part of a faction that wanted to reorient the SWP back to the kind of orthodox Trotskyism that appeared to work so well in the past. This meant defending the theory of the Permanent Revolution and other ideas that the party was founded on. SWP leader Jack Barnes had spent the better part of the early 1980s trying to reconfigure the SWP as some kind of Castroite formation. As I would eventually figure out (with Camejo’s help), the SWP and the Cuban Communist Party had virtually nothing in common.

I made up my mind that Camejo was correct and began working with him to build a new Marxist organization in the U.S. that could incorporate the insights of the Cuban CP, the FSLN in Nicaragua and other such organizations that had developed mass working-class followings. This meant launching something called the North Star Network, which eventually got folded into a larger initiative that included ex-members of Line of March, a Maoist group that had reached conclusions similar to our own.

Eventually Peter discovered that the Green Party was the best outlet for his thinking on building a new left. I largely agree with him on this but I have never joined the Green Party myself, preferring to concentrate my energy on writing and moderating the Marxism mailing list, which obviously incorporates my ideas about left unity.

I had a falling out with Peter in 1987 over some money questions. I would only say as a word of advice that you should never allow a comrade to become your stockbroker!

In 2004, I reconciled with Peter because I felt that the work he was doing with the Greens superseded any personal issues I had with him in the past. We are not really in contact at this point, although I am sure that he is aware of the positive things I have said on the Internet about his work with the Greens. As most of you are probably aware, Peter developed Lymphoma recently. Considering his service to the left over a nearly half-century period and his decency as a human being, he deserves a full recovery and many healthy years in the future.

February 13, 2007

The Pusher Trilogy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

Between 1996 and 2005, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made 3 films that told overlapping stories about a group of scabrous low-level drug dealers in Copenhagen. It is a credit to his talents that we care deeply about his characters, despite their near lack of any redeeming qualities–a testimony once again to the transformative power of art.

At first blush, his films seem to be somewhat derivative of Martin Scorsese. With criminals as anti-heroes and plots that involve vendettas over unpaid debts or a perceived lack of respect, you feel like you have wandered into a Danish version of Little Italy. Once you get beneath the surface, however, you’ll find much more of an affinity with the late Hubert Selby Jr. to whom Refn dedicated “Pusher 2” in 2004. Selby actually co-wrote the screenplay for Refn’s sole Hollywood production, the 2003 “Fear X”. Like Selby’s classic “Last Exit in Brooklyn,” Refn’s films are devoted to society’s rejects, often by their own choosing. It is a world of petty thieves, drug addicts and sexual deviants that amounts to a hell on earth. Refn, like Selby, descends into this netherworld and becomes the poet laureate of its unlovely denizens. He tells their stories with an economy of means, sardonic wit, and an eagle eye for the telling graphic detail.

“Pusher,” the first in the series, was made in 1996 and starred Kim Bodnia as Frank, a drug dealer with an exotic dancer girlfriend. Both are heavy drug users and argue all the time over money and their relationship. Frank’s has a partner named Tonny who has the word “Respect” tattooed across the back of his shaved head. He looks like a crackhead version of Ali G. Both men seemed to have absorbed the look and the attitude of American gangster rappers but without any particular identification with the African-American identity that spawned it.

Kim Bodnia as Frank

After Frank is approached by an old Swedish prison-mate to score some heroin, he gets the drugs on credit at a wholesale price from Milo (Zlatko Buric), a Serb restaurant-owner and drug-dealer one level higher on the food chain. After the deal with the Swede is consummated, Frank will pay Milo back. As is typical in a Refn film, nothing goes according to plan. Shortly after Frank hooks up with the Swede, the cops show up and chase Frank down the streets of Copenhagen drugs in hand. Running at full-tilt a half-block beyond them, he finally jumps into a park lake and throws the drugs into the water. This effectively destroys the evidence. Unfortunately, it also destroys the capital investment made by Milo, who pressures Frank relentlessly to pay him back for the lost funds and for another old debt.

No doubt showing the influence of the kind of Serbophobia that was running rampant in Western Europe in 1996, Milo and his all-Serbian crew, including the hulking enforcer Radovan, are the perfect villains. However, in keeping with his ability to see past stereotypes, his Milo is also a memorable comic character who keeps insisting to Frank how much he likes him even as he is about to chop off his fingers one by one with pruning shears.

Most of the film consists of Frank trying to stay one step ahead of Milo, looking up customers who owe him money from past drug deals. Milo pressures him and he pressures them in this Hobbesian universe. As the walls begin to close in on Frank, you feel more and more involved with his survival. It is like cheering for the mouse that is being batted about in the paws of a great, grinning cat.

“Pusher II” was made in 2004 and stars Mads Mikkelsen as Tonny, Frank’s erstwhile partner. The film begins with Tonny being released from prison and looking up his father, the “Duke”, who is the boss of a car-theft ring.

Mads Mikkelsen as Tonny

Not soon after they are reunited, Tonny steals a Ferrari and brings it back to his father’s repair shop, which is used as a cover, as an offering. For his efforts, Tonny is chased around the shop by his tire-iron wielding father. Since Ferraris conceal a chip that the cops can hone in on, Tonny has to get rid of the car right away or they will all be busted. As was partially obvious in the 1996 film, and fully on display here, Tonny is somebody who can’t do anything right. If you have seen “Mean Streets,” you will recognize his similarities to John ‘Johnny Boy’ Civello, the character played by Robert De Niro, who also is constantly screwing up. In their worlds, the main knock against Tonny and Johnny Boy is not they are doing wrong, but that they can’t do wrong things right. Incompetence, rather than evil, is the worst failing for the aspiring criminal.

Tonny’s girlfriend Charlotte (Anne Sørensen) gave birth to a boy when Tonny was in prison that she insists he fathered. Since she is a coke addict and a former whore, it is not clear whether her word is any good until a paternity test determines that he is indeed the father. All she wants from him is a few extra dollars since emotional support is the last thing on earth that this drug-addled woman is interested in. At a debauched party thrown by the Duke at the climax of the film, she puts the baby aside while she consumes mammoth amounts of blow. No matter how little people think of Tonny, starting with himself, his devotion to his baby son redeems him in the closing moments of the film. In keeping with Refn’s absolute disdain for conventional melodrama, there is no indication that the child or the father has a future. We are instead left with some stolen moments as father and son stand together against a heartless world.

In the climactic “Pusher 3,” it is Milo’s turn to become the unlucky mouse. As a middle-man between two drug-dealing gangs, he is forced to play both sides against each other as he attempts to sell 10,000 Ecstasy pills–a commodity that he is utterly unfamiliar with.

At this stage in his life, he seems far more interested in running his restaurant and being a caring father to his daughter Milena (Marinela Dekic), whose wedding he is catering. Most of the final third of the film consists of him trying to cook meals for the wedding guests while he tries to unload the Ecstasy pills. It is very obviously a reprise of the final scenes of “Goodfellas” as the main character tries to cook lasagna for a dinner party while setting up a big drug deal.

Zlatko Buric as Milo

As Milo has grown older and less intimidating, his younger rivals have lost their fear of him, especially Little Mohammed (Ilyas Agac) who bullies and hectors him throughout the film until Milo is ready to explode. Milo finally decides to stand up to Little Mohammed and a couple of his Polish henchmen after they begin to beat a Polish woman they have forced into prostitution at his restaurant. In keeping with Refn’s astute refusal to indulge in facile moralizing, it is never clear that Milo’s action is meant to rescue the woman or to put an end to the rival gang members’ commandeering of his personal space. Whatever his motivation, you can only feel that he is doing the right thing in a world in which morality counts for very little.

After he kills Little Mohammed, Milo is forced to look up Radovan, his henchman of yore, who has given up the criminal life and opened up a shish kebab restaurant on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The final scene consists of the two men disposing of Little Mohammed’s body, played for dark comic effect.

The Pusher Trilogy films are available from Netflix and get my strong recommendation.

February 9, 2007

Alan Clarke in retrospect

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm


Alan Clarke 1935-1990

Very few good things came out of Great Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s rule except punk rock and some made-for-TV movies, each of which amounted to gobs of spit in the face of bourgeois triumphalism. Long after this miserable experiment in neoliberal economics is forgotten, people will still be listening to The Clash and watching Mike Leigh films. Although he died of cancer in July 1990 at the relatively early age of 55, director Alan Clarke left behind a substantial body of work that I have had a chance to look at over the past few weeks. While I have some relatively minor qualms about the politics expressed in his films (all available from Netflix), I can certainly recommend them for their unflinching power.

The 1979 “Scum” was set in a ‘borstal’–reform schools that allowed corporal punishment and emphasized blind obedience to authority. Borstals were abolished in 1982, no doubt as a result of the kind of bad publicity generated by “Scum” and earlier works such as Irish writer Brendan Behan’s “Borstal Boy” and Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.”

Ray Winstone as Carlin

“Scum” starred the 20 year old newcomer Ray Winstone as Carlin. As commentator Graham Barnfield notes below, Winstone had been an amateur boxer–just the right background for a film like “Scum”. Winstone went on to play many other disreputable but sympathetic Liverpoolian characters like Carlin, more recently Gal Dove, the retired burglar in “Sexy Beast.” At the beginning of the film, Carlin has just transferred in from another borstal with a reputation as being a hard case. The guards not only warn him that he will have to behave himself; they beat him up just as an advance warning. Afterwards, the dorm bully also beats him up just to remind him of his lower berth on the pecking order. Carlin takes the punishment stoically, refusing to identify his assailants to the warden or to even acknowledge that he was attacked.

Eventually, Carlin makes his move and retaliates against the bully. The minute or two of violence in this scene is Alan Clarke at his most memorable. This is not a lovingly choreographed fight scene like in a John Ford western but something much more real and anticlimactic–almost like a lion attacking and devouring an antelope. You are simultaneously repelled and fascinated.

After Carlin topples the bully, he assumes his place at the top of the food chain. Although Clarke was sympathetic to the left and of Liverpool working class origins himself, he had no pat answers for society’s problems. In some ways, his vision was Brechtian as in “Mother Courage”. His characters were unredeemable because they were subject to social and economic forces that they could not resist as individuals. Ultimately, they only are exceptional in that they stand up to authority. Evidence of that is the final scene of “Scum,” a schoolboy riot reminiscent of Jean Vigo’s “Zéro de conduite.”

In Alan Clarke’s 1982 “Made in Britain,” the main character is another young criminal but even harder to empathize with. Starring Tim Roth in his first screen role as Trevor the skinhead, the film confronts a liberal audience’s ability to get inside the mind of a character whose values are utterly opposite to their own, starting with the swastika tattoo on his forehead.

Clarke, who has an amazing ability to draw out malevolence from his lead actors cast in such roles, made Roth as scary as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. Before Roth became an actor, he was an art student inspired to change careers after seeing “Scum” ten times.

The film begins with Trevor in court about to be remanded to an evaluation center after he threw a brick through a Pakistani shopkeeper’s window. His social worker and officials at the evaluation center are always trying to figure out ways to reach him, but he remains committed to crime and violence no matter what. In some ways, his behavior is reminiscent of the youth gang in “A Clockwork Orange” that is motivated by a combination of boredom and inchoate yearnings for freedom. Trevor is the ultimate nihilist who breaks the law because he hates authority. It is of course the ultimate contradiction that his anti-authoritarianism is cloaked in Nazi regalia, a society that would have had no use for such criminal elements.

“Made in Britain” works much better as drama than it does as a political assault on the status quo. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of the punk rock attempt to shock through songs like “Blitzkreig Bop” or the Sex Pistols raising their hands in a faux Nazi salute. Despite the political murkiness of “Made in Britain,” it is an exhilarating 73 minute ride from beginning to end.

Clarke returns with another anti-social character in the 1988 “The Firm”, his most fully realized film dramatically and politically in my opinion. The lead character is Bex Bissell, a real estate salesman, with a wife and young child, who is addicted to football-related violence. When his wife warns him that she will leave him unless he stops taking part in vendettas directed against other football clubs, he says that he can’t and won’t. Why? He needs the “buzz”. Her answer is that he should take up bee-keeping instead.

Bex is played to a tee by Gary Oldman. In real life, Oldman was a Thatcherite and probably felt a certain kinship with his character. Despite his leanings, Oldman understood and sympathized with Clarke’s implicit critique of one Thatcherite policy:

And partly “The Firm” was a response to the moment when Thatcher wanted to make it harder for the so-called hooligan to get into football matches–there was talk at one time of making football hideously expensive, season ticket holders only. And she’d really got hold of the wrong end of the stick, because she imagined that it was fifteen- and sixteen-year old kids on the dole who had nothing better to do and thumped one another at the weekend. Whereas, of course, it was thirty-plus so-called respectable people who were holding down good jobs, with homes and cars and gold American Express cards.

Clarke made “Elephant” a year before he died. Although it is probably his most lauded film, I found it the most unsatisfying. It is a dialog-free 39 minute series of dramatized assassinations in Northern Ireland, with no attempt to explain or understand the killing. By concealing the identity of the principals, Clarke is obviously trying to depict the struggle as a senseless internecine vendetta of the kind that has taken place all across Africa over the past 20 years or so. Considering Clarke’s British origins, this should not come as a big surprise.

Pam Brighton, an Irish playwright and colleague of Clarke, was critical of “Elephant” in a book on Clarke edited by Richard Kelly:

I always hated “Elephant”, I thought it was absolute bollocks. It was Alan at his worst, with lots of feeling and passion but no analysis, which meant that he could do something like that — which just embarrasses me, the thought of it. You know, sometimes I think that his instinct was so good and so strong that it didn’t matter, he just went in where angels fear. But living in Northern Ireland like I do, I felt that his thinking about here was absolutely wrong. We’d argue, and he saw it in that very common way as a hopeless sectarian problem with too many guns. I’d say you need to have an analysis of here which includes the British state, and the nature of that power and the reaction against it. I didn’t see “Contact” (another Clarke film about the “troubles”)–again, I suspect I wouldn’t really like it. Well, I just don’t care for dramas about British soldiers. They should be here and that’s all there is to it really, you know what I mean?

(Just a postscript on “Elephant”. American film-maker Gus Van Sant paid homage to Clarke by making a film with the same name and idea, namely that murdering people is an awful thing to do. Based on the Colombine High School shootings, it is much more fixated on Clarke’s trademark Steadicam techniques. In both films, the typical scene involves people walking down long, arid, institutionalized hallways–always with the threat of violence in the background. If “Elephant” was my first Clarke film, I might not have bothered with the others. That being said, I do recommend viewing it as part of taking in the legacy of this genius of modern British cinema.)


February 6, 2007

Is Nasrallah an anti-Semite?

Filed under: Islam,Jewish question,middle east — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

Eugene Goodheart: does not like Hizbollah

As many people know, the London Review of Books has become an outlet for scholarly, reputable but often controversial opposition to Zionism–not the least of which was its publication of the Walt-Mearsheimer article on the Israeli lobby in March of 2006.

More recently, there has been controversy over Charles Glass’s relatively favorable coverage of Hizbollah in Lebanon courtesy of Eugene Goodheart, a professor emeritus of literature at Brandeis University, who complained:

I do not support the terrible excesses of Israel’s bombing of Lebanon, nor do I regard all criticism of Israel as an expression of anti-semitism, but Charles Glass’s defence of Hizbullah is beyond the pale. Is Glass familiar with these statements, made by Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah? ‘If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide’ and ‘They [Jews] are a cancer which is liable to spread at any moment.’ The leader of the Party of God (a grotesque conception of a political party, although that doesn’t seem to bother Glass) is not simply a resistance fighter. He is an anti-semite with fantasies of genocide. Glass makes Hizbullah sound like a rational movement that does little harm, but on the contrary does a great deal of good and learns from its mistakes. What lessons had it learned from the debacle of the 1980s when it provoked a war that has brought so much havoc to its own country, without even consulting the government in which it serves? Glass tells us that he was kidnapped by Hizbullah. Has he succumbed to Stockholm syndrome?

Glass responded in a subsequent issue:

Eugene Goodheart asks whether I am familiar with two statements he attributes to Hizbullah’s secretary-general, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah (Letters, 7 September). Goodheart uses the inflammatory quotations to accuse Nasrallah of being ‘an anti-semite with fantasies of genocide’. If I am unfamiliar with the statements, it is because they are in all likelihood fabrications. The first (‘If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide’) was circulated widely on neo-con websites, which give as its original source an article by Badih Chayban in Beirut’s English-language Daily Star on 23 October 2002. It seems that Chayban left the Star three years ago and moved to Washington. The Star’s managing editor writes of Chayban’s article on Nasrallah, that ‘I have faith in neither the accuracy of the translation [from Arabic to English] nor the agenda of the translator [Chayban].’ The editor-in-chief and publisher of the Star, Jamil Mrowe, adds that Chayban was ‘a reporter and briefly local desk sub and certainly did not interview Nasrallah or anyone else.’ The account of Nasrallah’s speech in the Lebanese daily As Safir for the same day makes no reference to any anti-semitic comments. Goodheart’s second quotation – ‘They [the Jews] are a cancer which is liable to spread at any moment’ – comes from the Israeli government’s website at http://tinyurl.com/99hyz. For the record, a Hizbullah spokeswoman, Wafa Hoteit, denies that Nasrallah made either statement.

Goodheart wonders whether, as a former captive of Hizbullah, I may have succumbed to Stockholm syndrome; may I ask in return whether he is succumbing to the disinformation that passes for scholarship and journalism in certain quarters in the United States?

Charles Glass Paris

Goodheart was so stung by Glass’s rebuttal that he has written another salvo for Dissent Magazine, a key outlet for Eustonian politics in the USA that he titles “The London Review of Hezbollah”. In the second paragraph, Goodheart alleges:

The London Review of Books is an egregious instance of this one-sidedness. Almost every issue contains several articles devoted to attacks on Israel, and the target is not simply the governing party, but the whole spectrum of Israeli political life. Absent from the columns of the Review are the injustices and cruelties of political Islam.

His article has drawn the interest of Crooked Timber, an academic blog that enjoys such food fights. They question the frequency of such alleged attacks based on a fairly rigorous search of the LRB archives:

Goodheart’s case is not strong. A perusal of the LRB’s back issues reveals a total of 17 articles critical of Israel in 2006, but ten of these come from two issues published during the invasion of Lebanon (and the LRB is published 24 times a year).

Goodheart, who seems to have been some kind of Marxist in his youth (according to an article that appeared in the Columbia University alumnus magazine), appears to have retained the polemical edge of those days even if his politics are yawningly predictable. Going in for the kill, he informs Glass that the Daily Star is not the only source that confirms Hizbollah anti-Semitism. His ace in the hole is Amal Saad-Ghorayeb’s “Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion”, a scholarly work supposedly sympathetic to the Shi’ite party. Goodheart calls attention to damning citations found within its covers, including this from Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah:

If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, we do not say the Israeli.

This led Brendan to astutely comment on the Crooked Timber blog entry devoted to Goodheart’s article:

The source of the quotation is cited in footnote 20 of Chapter 8 of Saad-Ghorayeb’s book: an interview, not with Nasrallah, but with a Hizbullah member of the Lebanese Parliament, Mohammed Fnaysh, conducted by the author on 15 August 1997.

Saad-Ghorayeb informs me that the footnote is a mistake, although she is certain there is a valid source for the statement. However, when at my request she examined her PhD dissertation, from which the book originated, she discovered the same mistaken citation. Footnotes in a long work can easily go astray, but it is unfortunate that neither her dissertation adviser nor her publishers spotted the error. Therefore, until someone discovers where and when Nasrallah uttered the words above, the case is unproved.

Condemned for words he did not utter

So we are dealing with multiple errors in the scholarship department. The LRB is not publishing attacks on Israel in “almost nearly every issue” and Saad-Ghorayeb’s quote is about as solid at the one that appeared in Goodheart’s original complaint. One can only wonder if becoming a professor emeritus dulls the edge you are forced to maintain when part of the academic rat-race. My only recommendation to Eugene is to adhere to more rigorous standards if he wants to be taken seriously in Mideast politics.

I have quite a bit of interest in this topic because I have been openly critical of the Holocaust conference in Iran that brought KKK’er David Duke and David Irving in as “experts”. Since Hizbollah is linked (somewhat unfairly, some would argue) to Iran, is there guilt by association?

Using Lexis-Nexis, I did a full-text search for “Hezbollah” (Lexis-Nexis converts this to the various spellings), “Nasrallah” and “anti-Semitism” for all available dates, which means going back to the mid-1980s, before the group was formed. I assumed that the Western media would be keeping a close eye on his utterances, just as they do with anybody on Washington’s enemies list, ranging from Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As it turns out, only 30 articles turned up.

I went through them assiduously (excluding editorials, which have much looser standards) and could find not a single incriminating quote from Nasrallah. In the precious few articles that did make such an allegation, there was nothing to back it up. A July 23, 2006 Atlanta Constitution article is typical:

Hezbollah is heralded on the so-called Arab Street as a leader of “resistance” to what many see as Israel’s bullying and the West’s political and legal double standards in dealing with the region’s 1.3 billion Arabs.

Its message, bathed in the language of “martyrdom,” anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, is broadcast on radio, regionwide television and over the Internet.

Too bad the reporter could not provide evidence of such language. Considering the hatred that exists toward political Islam in the USA, the fact that he didn’t speaks volumes.

Meanwhile, Israel has had no problems forging alliances with the Phalangists in Lebanon, whose sister party in Spain was a staunch ally of Adolph Hitler. When Roger Garaudy, the ex-Communist, went on trial in France in 1998 for holocaust denial, Karim Pakradouni, deputy leader of the Kataeb (Phalange), was quoted in the local press: “France will not give up its tradition of free speech . . . to the Jews.” Along the same lines, John Rose, a member of the British SWP, wrote:

Finally Israel’s backing for the Christian Phalange in Lebanon must be mentioned. The Phalange were founded by Pierre Gemayel in the 1930s. It was a fanatically right-wing armed militia, self-consciously modelled on the fascists. (Phalange means fascist. Gemayel visited Berlin in 1936 and met Hitler.) Gemayel’s son Bashir rose to prominence in the Phalange in the 1970s and then in the wider Christian movement in Lebanon. Bashir Gemayel, also a fascist, came to dominate Christian forces in Lebanon by the simple expedient of murdering all his opponents.

Gemayel’s faction was enthusiastically, if secretly at first, welcomed in Haifa in 1976 by the then Israeli Labour government. [27] The contacts were cultivated and Israel began arming Gemayel. In August 1982, the month when hundreds of Palestinian refugees were massacred in the Lebanese camps at Sabra and Shatila, Bashir Gemayel was “elected” Lebanon’s president as Israeli guns and tanks stood by.

One supposes that Israel overlooks the Phalangist history in the same manner that it allies itself with the Christian right in the USA, whose anti-Semitic utterances are far easier to document than Nasrallah’s. Zev Chafets, an IDF veteran and rightwing columnist now residing in the USA, has written something called “A Match Made in Heaven” that looks fondly on the growing alliance between the Christian right and Israel. Like the Phalangists, the Christian right believes that the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.

Jerry Falwell is one of the Christian rightists whose support he deems critical for Israel’s survival. A July 23, 2006 LA Times piece by Chafets titled “I want Falwell in my foxhole; At the end of the day — or at the End of Days — Israel has plenty of time for anybody who wants to help the Jews” says it all. This is the same Falwell who told the world in 1999 that the Antichrist would have to be a Jew, based on his understanding of Scripture. Not surprisingly, Jewish officialdom sprang to his defense. According to the January 17, 1999 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee in New York said “the comment surprised him because he knows Falwell is a strong supporter of Israel and is not anti-Jewish.”

Excused for words he did utter

I guess if one is a “strong supporter of Israel,” then just about anything goes. It is the equivalent of getting a “Get out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly.

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