Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2007

The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Premiering next week at the IFC Theater in New York and elsewhere, the documentary film “The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio” begins with this introduction:

The making of this film diary began shortly after September 11th when the Italian Prime Minister spoke of “inferior civilizations.” It was completed in 2006, a few months after a Minister appeared on TV with a shirt depicting an anti-Muslim cartoon, and the Senate president declared that we must defend ourselves from “half-breeds”.

While many on the Italian left chose to oppose the “war on terror” and the concomitant xenophobia by organizing rallies and demonstrations, Mario Tronco, a keyboard player for the group Avion Travel, was inspired to organize an orchestra made up of recent immigrants to the Esquilino neighborhood in Rome. As the film begins, we learn that Esquilino had begun to become more and more ethnically diverse, much to the chagrin of native Italians who regularly took to the streets to demand “Italy for the Italians”, etc.

Tronco hooked up with Agostino Ferrente, a filmmaker who also lives in the Esquilino and who decided to document the efforts to convert a landmark theater, the Apollo, into a performance space for the immigrant Orchestra of Piazzo Vittorio as well as a cultural center. Like much else in the neighborhood, it had fallen on hard times. In recent years it had become a porno movie theatre and was being threatened with becoming a bingo hall. To realize these dreams, they formed Associazione Apollo 11, which was composed of local artists as well as the local residents who treasure the multicultural character of Esquilino.

The film consists mainly of the indefatigable Mario Tronco, who bears a certain resemblance to the late Jerry Garcia, trying to recruit musicians to the orchestra. Like any other project associated with the left (broadly speaking), it is an uphill battle. Since many of the candidates are not full-time professionals, it is a struggle just to track them down. One is a Romanian zither player who works the Rome subways. Another is a Cuban trumpet player who works as a cook. He is not the typical exile, but simply someone who preferred a kind of bohemian existence that a beleaguered, Spartan society could probably not support. They are joined by a tabla player from India, Arab singers and instrumentalists as well as a host of other musicians from Latin America and elsewhere in Europe.

It is to Tronco’s credit that he not only can assemble over 20 musicians, but that he can meld them into a homogeneous ensemble. Much of the film is a record of the considerable difficulties involved in getting different musical traditions to work together, as well as overcoming the hassles facing anybody trying to deal with visas and work permits in a country run by xenophobic reactionaries.

I would strongly urge New Yorkers to attend the premiere at the IFC Theater on Thursday, October 4th since the admission price will entitle you to hear eleven members of Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio after the film ends. As should be obvious from the Youtube clip, these are exceptional musicians.

Like “Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars,” “The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio” is being distributed by Red Envelope Entertainment (REE), a subsidiary of Netflix (whose DVD’s get shipped in red envelopes!) They deserve credit for promoting films that are off the beaten track commercially and speaks well for its corporate ethos. On October 23rd, the film will be available to rent from Netflix.com as well as to watch instantly on your computer. The press notes state that “REE works to democratize film distribution by providing films and filmmakers with a platform to expose less commercial projects to a broader audience.” As many of you are aware, Blockbuster Video has recently begun to compete with Netflix for market share of Internet based film rentals. I doubt that they will ever be able to compete when it comes to support of projects like “Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars” or “The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio.”

Screening information for New York and California theaters is here.


September 27, 2007

With apologies to Paul Verhoeven

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm



Paul Verhoeven

Earlier this year I attended a press screening for Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” a film about the Dutch resistance during WWII. The main character is a beautiful young Dutch-Jewish singer named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) who decides to fight the Nazis after they kill her parents. She hates the Nazis so much that she is willing to risk her life by becoming a spy and infiltrating their headquarters. But she almost decides to refuse the assignment after learning that it involves seducing the German commandant so as to learn crucial information about the enemy’s plans. Nothing would be more difficult than pretending to love somebody as evil as a Nazi officer.

It turns out that the officer is not the typical goon out of central casting. SS-hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) does everything he can in his power to make life bearable to people living under occupation. Furthermore, he repeatedly intercedes on behalf of captured resistance fighters to make sure that they are not tortured or executed. After Rachel Stein, who has adopted the Dutch name of Ellis de Vries, gets a job as a singer inside Nazi headquarters, she wastes no time getting Müntze into bed and extracting information out of him. In the process, they fall in love with each other. It is harder for her to give into her feelings after what she has gone through, but decides that Müntze is different.

Eventually the Nazis learn that she is a spy and prepare to execute her. If Müntze was only lukewarm about Nazism to begin with, whatever residual loyalty he had to the regime goes down the tubes when he learns that the woman he loves is about to be murdered. He decides to desert from the German army and blend in with the civilian population alongside Rachel Klein, who has also put the fighting behind her. He calculates that his risks are minimal since the allies have begun to take control of the Netherlands and the Nazi army is on its last legs.

At this point in the film, something takes place that seemed so far-fetched that I decided not to review the film. As many people must be aware, with films such as “Total Recall” and “Robocop” to his credit, Verhoeven does have a knack for going over the top. I don’t mind verisimilitude going out the window when it comes to science fiction, but WWII deserved better.

Verhoeven portrays the Nazi army as remaining in uniform and in arms under allied occupation, something that seemed far-fetched to me to begin with. But I slapped my head and say “Unbelievable” under my breath after what happened next. Müntze is recognized by a Nazi officer and arrested. After a Nazi court martial finds him guilty of desertion, he is shot by a firing squad. While I was aware of ex-Nazi officers being used against the USSR after the war ended, I had never heard about such an unlikely scenario. After nearly 5 years of brutal fighting, why would the allies allow the Nazis to retain such power?

It turns out that Verhoeven was right. This did happen.

Over the past few days I have been reading Jacques R. Pauwel’s “The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War,” a book that Bill Blum recommended a while back:

Which leads me to recommend a book, “The Myth of the Good War”, by Jacques Pauwels, published in 2002. It’s very well done, well argued and documented, an easy read. I particularly like the sections dealing with the closing months of the European campaign, during which the United States and Great Britain contemplated stabbing their Soviet ally in the back with maneuvers like a separate peace with Germany, using German troops to fight the Russians, and sabotaging legal attempts by various Communist Parties and other elements of the European left to share in (highly earned) political power after the war. This last piece of sabotage was of course very effectively realized. Stalin learned enough about these schemes to at least partially explain his post-war suspicious manner toward his “allies”. In the West we called it “paranoia”

I decided to take a look at Pauwels’s book in order to write something about WWII prompted by Ken Burns’s PBS series and by Clint Eastwood’s 2 movies about Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspective. I have had it up to here with WWII nostalgia and was looking for ammunition against it in Pauwel’s book.

In the chapter titled “An Anti-Soviet Crusade Together With the Germans,” Pauwels mentions that Admiral Dönitz offered his services to the allies in a bid for a new war against Bolshevism. While the allies never took Dönitz up on his offer, they did decide to keep the Nazi army intact. Pauwels writes:

[I]t is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!

A search on Proquest for NY Times articles referring to the execution turned up nothing, but a google search did. Professor Chris Madsen, a military historian now at Canadian Forces College, a military academy, wrote an article for Canadian Military History, Vol. 2 (1993): Issue 1 titled “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945.”

It begins:

On the morning of 13 May 1945, five days after the formal capitulation of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, a German military court delivered death sentences on two German naval deserters, Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck. The trial occurred in an abandoned Ford assembly plant on the outskirts of Amsterdam, a site used by the Canadian army for the concentration of German naval personnel. Later that same day, a German firing squad, supplied with captured German rifles and a three-ton truck from the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and escorted by Canadian Captain Robert K. Swinton, executed the two German prisoners of war a short distance outside the enclosure. Dorfer and Beck were among the last victims of a military legal system distorted by the Nazi state. At the time no one, Canadian or German, questioned the justice of the event.

Good war? My foot.

September 26, 2007

Letter to the NY Times

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 1:43 pm


New York Times – September 26, 2007

To the Editor:

Re “Mr. Ahmadinejad Speaks” (editorial, Sept. 25): In commenting on the appearance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia, you say, “Unlike Iran’s citizens, Americans have the right to laugh at leaders.” Yes, we do have that right, and I’m glad for it.

But when was the last time President Bush appeared before an audience that laughed at him? His audiences are always screened for potential troublemakers. People wearing T-shirts or carrying signs with critical messages are kept out of view. He barely has to face a difficult question from a member of the public.

It would be nice if we could exercise the right to laugh at our leaders where they might actually hear the cackles.

Doug Henwood New York, Sept. 25, 2007

Iranian University Chancellors Ask Lee Bollinger 10 Questions

Filed under: Academia,imperialism/globalization,Iran — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm


TEHRAN (Fars News Agency)- Seven chancellors and presidents of Iranian universities and research centers, in a letter addressed to their counterpart in the US, Colombia University, denounced Lee Bollinger’s insulting words against the Iranian nation and president and invited him to provide responses to 10 questions by Iranian academics and intellectuals.

The following is the full text of the letter:

Mr. Lee Bollinger Columbia University President

We, the professors and heads of universities and research institutions in Tehran, hereby announce our displeasure and protest at your impolite remarks prior to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent speech at Columbia University.

We would like to inform you that President Ahmadinejad was elected directly by the Iranian people through an enthusiastic two-round poll in which almost all of the country’s political parties and groups participated. To assess the quality and nature of these elections you may refer to US news reports on the poll dated June 2005.

Your insult, in a scholarly atmosphere, to the president of a country with a population of 72 million and a recorded history of 7,000 years of civilization and culture is deeply shameful.

Your comments, filled with hate and disgust, may well have been influenced by extreme pressure from the media, but it is regrettable that media policy-makers can determine the stance a university president adopts in his speech.

Your remarks about our country included unsubstantiated accusations that were the product of guesswork as well as media propaganda. Some of your claims result from misunderstandings that can be clarified through dialogue and further research.

During his speech, Mr. Ahmadinejad answered a number of your questions and those of students. We are prepared to answer any remaining questions in a scientific, open and direct debate.

You asked the president approximately ten questions. Allow us to ask you ten of our own questions in the hope that your response will help clear the atmosphere of misunderstanding and distrust between our two countries and reveal the truth.

1- Why did the US media put you under so much pressure to prevent Mr. Ahmadinejad from delivering his speech at Columbia University? And why have American TV networks been broadcasting hours of news reports insulting our president while refusing to allow him the opportunity to respond? Is this not against the principle of freedom of speech?

2- Why, in 1953, did the US administration overthrow Iran’s national government under Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh and go on to support the Shah’s dictatorship?

3- Why did the US support the blood-thirsty dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iraqi-imposed war on Iran, considering his reckless use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers defending their land and even against his own people?

4- Why is the US putting pressure on the government elected by the majority of Palestinians in Gaza instead of officially recognizing it? And why does it oppose Iran’s proposal to resolve the 60-year-old Palestinian issue through a general referendum?

5- Why has the US military failed to find Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden even with all its advanced equipment? How do you justify the old friendship between the Bush and Bin Laden families and their cooperation on oil deals? How can you justify the Bush administration’s efforts to disrupt investigations concerning the September 11 attacks?

6- Why does the US administration support the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) despite the fact that the group has officially and openly accepted the responsibility for numerous deadly bombings and massacres in Iran and Iraq? Why does the US refuse to allow Iran’s current government to act against the MKO’s main base in Iraq?

7- Was the US invasion of Iraq based on international consensus and did international institutions support it? What was the real purpose behind the invasion which has claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives? Where are the weapons of mass destruction that the US claimed were being stockpiled in Iraq?

8- Why do America’s closest allies in the Middle East come from extremely undemocratic governments with absolutist monarchical regimes?

9- Why did the US oppose the plan for a Middle East free of unconventional weapons in the recent session of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors despite the fact the move won the support of all members other than Israel?

10- Why is the US displeased with Iran’s agreement with the IAEA and why does it openly oppose any progress in talks between Iran and the agency to resolve the nuclear issue under international law?

Finally, we would like to express our readiness to invite you and other scientific delegations to our country. A trip to Iran would allow you and your colleagues to speak directly with Iranians from all walks of life including intellectuals and university scholars. You could then assess the realities of Iranian society without media censorship before making judgments about the Iranian nation and government.

You can be assured that Iranians are very polite and hospitable toward their guests.

September 25, 2007

Columbia University and evil dictators

Filed under: Academia,Fascism,imperialism/globalization,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

I don’t think there is anything that I hate more than sanctimoniousness and there was plenty of it on display when Lee Bollinger’s sandbagged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday. As the NY Times reported, “Mr. Bollinger praised himself and Columbia for showing they believed in freedom of speech by inviting the Iranian president, then continued his attack.” Bollinger was also praised by the ultraright media, starting with Rush Limbaugh:

Rah-rah, way to go! I apologize for being critical of you, Mr. Bollinger. I really do. But, on the other hand, where’s this been for five years?

One can only wonder whether Columbia University’s moral compass has been broken in years past since its aversion to evil dictators seems to be rather selective.

In 1933, Hans Luther, the German Ambassador to the United States, was the featured speaker at the Institute of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University. As he began to speak, a woman in the audience called out “Why did they burn the homes of exiled professors?” The NY Times reported that an usher and a cop pounced on her at the same time and dragged her out. Another two protesters were subsequently removed from the audience. After Luther finished his remarks, Russell Potter, the head of the institute, denounced them as “ill-mannered children.”

President Nicholas Murray Butler: did not care about Nazi official’s views

Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, was even more outspoken in his support of Hans Luther. After he learned of campus unhappiness with the invitation extended to the Nazi official, he made clear his determination to ignore it. He never would have dreamed of insulting Luther in the manner that Bollinger insulted Ahmadinejad. In an excellent paper titled “Complicity and Conflict: Columbia University’s Response to Fascism, 1933–1937“, U. of Oklahoma professor Stephen H. Norwood details Butler’s deference toward the Nazi official:

Dismissing the student criticism, President Butler indicated that he held Ambassador Luther in high esteem. He declared that Luther “is the official diplomatic representative to the Government of the United States on the part of the government of a friendly people,” and was entitled to “the greatest courtesy and respect.” Butler announced that the Nazi ambassador was a “gentleman,” and that Columbia would provide him with “a welcome appropriate to his distinguished position.” He was pleased to receive any guest like Ambassador Luther who was “intelligent, honest, and well-mannered”; he did not care what his views were.

When protestors attempted to pass out leaflets in front of the building where the Nazi ambassador was holding forth, the university had them arrested. So much for free speech. As might be expected, the NY Times was most deferential to Luther’s boss Adolph Hitler, who was described as saying that the differences between Poland and Germany were “not important enough to justify the shedding of blood.” Then as now you could always count on the newspaper of record for its probing analysis.

Perhaps you can excuse the university since the Nazi regime had not yet descended into the kind of murderous behavior that it became associated with later on. But by 1936 there could be no confusion. The labor movement and all opposition parties had been smashed and thousands of opponents of the regime had been imprisoned or executed. The moral stink of the Nazi regime was by then too rank to ignore.

Evidently the stink was not that great to persuade the university to turn down a 1936 invitation to help the Nazis celebrate the 550th anniversary of the University of Heidleberg, an event that the Columbia University teacher’s union and the Columbia Spectator strongly opposed. British universities were in the forefront of opposing this celebration, with Oxford and Cambridge turning the Nazis down. Unlike Columbia University, they couldn’t stomach the declaration of Berhard Rust, the German Minister of Education, that “It is the duty of the National Socialist student to create a National Socialist university.”

I can imagine that Professor Arthur Remy, who was chosen to represent Columbia, must have had a swell time at this bash. On June 27th he and a bunch of other professors from upstanding institutions like Cornell, Vassar, Yale and U. of Michigan did have to listen to a bunch of Nazi bigwigs, a small price to pay for all the Gemulichkeit. The April 28 NY Times reported:

Despite assertions made here that the event would have purely academic local significance, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and other Nazi functionaries will be among the most prominent hosts to the scholars and scientists who have been invited to represent the universities of the world.

Something tells me that Columbia’s Arthur Remy didn’t create a scene in the audience like the woman who wanted to know “Why did they burn the homes of exiled professors?”

Not everybody at Columbia was so mature and so restrained as Arthur Remy. Robert Burke of Youngstown, Ohio, who was the Junior President-Elect of the Columbia student body, was advised by the administration that it would be “in the best interests of all” that he not register for the Fall term, according to the June 29 NY Times. His crime was “taking part in a demonstration on May 12 at the home of Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University.” The students were protesting the university’s decision to go to Heidleberg. Burke, who was an amateur boxer and extremely popular on campus, crossed the line when he ruined President Murray’s alumni gathering. Dean Herbert E. Hawkes told the Times, “The demonstration on this occasion employed insulting, obscene and profane language and even invaded the foyer of the president’s home while he was entertaining at dinner the surviving members of the class of 1881.”

Without a doubt, Robert Burke was far too good for the likes of Murray Butler. Turning once again to Stephen H. Norwood, we learn:

President Butler, Dean Hawkes, and other Columbia administrators were personally uncomfortable with Burke, a “rugged face[d]” Irish-American from Youngstown, Ohio, who was working his way through Columbia. Burke had become a leader of the radical American Student Union (ASU) on campus, and in March 1936 had led a picket line of Columbia students to support striking building service workers employed by the university. Former Spectator editor-in-chief James A. Wechsler noted that Dean Hawkes “always lamented” that Burke’s “manners were not sufficiently elegant.”

Burke had struggled to earn his Columbia tuition, working in Youngstown for two years as a truck driver and for one year in a steel mill before he had saved enough to enroll. Burke had developed into a tough amateur boxer good enough to win New York’s Golden Gloves middleweight final, and he earned money at Columbia teaching young men to box. Almost alone among Columbia’s athletes, he became active in the movement to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He often worked thirty hours a week outside of class to pay his tuition, “roam[ing] through every conceivable job which promised a dollar or a meal.” He washed dogs, and even sold his blood.

The administration considered Burke’s apparently exemplary academic performance irrelevant in expelling him. President Butler insisted that the university was under no contractual obligation to give a diploma for “achievement and excellence” if it disapproved of a person “for any reason whatsoever.”

After Nazi Germany became an official enemy of the US, it would have been inappropriate to send somebody to a gathering such as this. As should be obvious from Lee Bollinger’s talking points about Iran killing US troops in Iraq, it is imperative to not stray too far from foreign policy imperatives about which the ruling class is united. Today, unfortunately, the consensus across the political spectrum is that Iran needs to be taught a lesson. The difference is only how severe that lesson should be.

When Bollinger told Ahmadinejad that he exhibited “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” the Iranian president might have wondered whether great and cruel dictators are judged by a different yardstick at the university. After all, the Shah of Iran was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree only two years after the CIA organized a coup to overthrow Mossadegh. By any measure, the Shah was one of the most horrible dictators of the post-WWII period. One supposes that as long as he was on the State Department’s A list, Columbia University would be happy to put down the red carpet for the torturing beast.

President Grayson Kirk: enjoyed cozy relations with the CIA

Columbia University certainly had the right connections to recognize major talents like the Shah when it came to bestowing honors. In 1968, Columbia students published an eye-opening pamphlet titled “Who Rules Columbia” that established the university’s institutional connections to the CIA, especially with the Asia Foundation:

The Asia Foundation has received much if not all of its financial support from the CIA. It has a budget of about $7 million a year to provide “private American assistance to those Asian groups and individuals working for continued social and economic improvement.” The foundation has resident representatives in 14 Asian countries, with American offices in New York and San Francisco. At various times, representatives have been kicked out of Cambodia, Indonesia and more recently, India, reputedly for their various intelligence activities.

The person who makes the link between the Asia Foundation and Columbia is Grayson Kirk, president of the University. Kirk has been on the board of the Foundation for many years, and is one of its most influential trustees. In 1962, when Robert Blum, president of the Foundation, resigned, Kirk was appointed Chairman of the Nominating Committee of the Trustees, whose purpose was to select a new president. In his search for suitable candidates for this position, Kirk sought the advice and suggestions of Dean Rusk and Averell Harriman, a move which indicates the importance of the Foundation. He also encouraged recommendations from George S. Moore, President of the First National City Bank of New York, and A.L. Nickerson, Chairman of the Board of Socony Mobil Oil Company, Inc., concerning members of the bank and of Socony Mobil, which had experience in Asian affairs. One man who was proposed as a possible choice was Robert Amory, but Kirk himself is reported to have feared that he might bring embarrassment to the Asia Foundation. From 1952-1962, Amory was Deputy Director of the CIA.

The relationship between the Asia Foundation and Columbia is a reciprocal one. Since at least 1961, the Foundation has given grants to Columbia’s School of Journalism, recently financing the Japanese Science Writers’ Project and Fellowships for Asiatic Journalists. Grayson Kirk’s long and intimate association with the Asia Foundation suggests what an able and prominent supporter of the CIA this university president really is. It follows that many of his administrative decisions as President of Columbia University have also reflected the interests, priorities and concerns of the CIA. Certainly such decisions would not infringe on these concerns. Consider Kirk’s attitude toward the NSA (National Student Association)-CIA exposure: “One shouldn’t jump to conclusions that the people in these organizations were being used as spies.” The money was donated “more for propaganda purposes than for anything else.” Kirk’s only complaint about the CIA’s funding of non-governmental organizations was that “a certain amount of this seems to have been handled clumsily by people in Washington.”

Maybe one day we’ll find out the extent of Columbia University’s present day connections with government agencies, both covert and overt. As the drums for war beat louder and louder, it will be increasingly necessary for an isolated and discredited Bush administration to rely on ostensibly liberal and humanitarian figures, such as Ivy League presidents.

Just as the student protests of 1968 led to the unearthing of secret documents that revealed such ties, it is entirely possible that continued anger over the war in Iraq and future war with Iran might propel the students of today toward bolder actions that might put them in the proud tradition of people like Robert Burke.

September 23, 2007

The Last Winter

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 5:08 pm

“The Last Winter” is a horror movie about global warming. Influenced by “The Shining”, “The Thing” and “The Blair Witch Project,” but certainly something unique on its own terms, it focuses on a small group of oil company employees who constitute the advance guard of an assault on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Included in the group are a couple of environmental impact consultants who are wary about the enterprise, especially in light of some rather alarming developments.

Despite the fact that it is the dead of winter, the weather has been warmer than at any time in history. James Hoffman (James LeGros), the senior environmental scientist, tries to convince the hard-driving and profit-oriented chief Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) to abandon the project since there is no way to ensure that nature will survive the impact. He is especially concerned about North Oil Company’s plans to construct a road to the drilling site since the ice has melted to the point that the underlying tundra is only a few inches below. He also wonders if it is necessary to drill for oil in ANWR since keeping tires inflated to the proper level, etc. would save the same amount of energy that would be supplied by the new wells. Pollack, a hard-nosed oil company loyalist, tells Hoffman that his objections are pointless and orders him to sign a statement saying that the project involves no significant risk.

Although he is not an environmental scientist, Maxwell (Zach Gilford), a member of the crew, shares Hoffman’s anxieties. On a visit to the site where the pilot drilling project took place, he encounters an apparition–a herd of caribou ghosts stampeding across the horizon. It soon becomes clear that they are wendigos, an American Indian avenging spirit. In this instance, the wendigos are acting on behalf of the souls of the dead animals beneath the Alaskan permafrost whose burying ground has been violated.

Eventually Maxwell goes off the deep end and wanders off into the night completely naked, clutching a video camera to record the avenging spirits. A rescue party finds him the next day frozen on the ground, his eyes plucked out by ravens. Everything begins to go downhill from this point on.

Despite the film’s obvious homage to horror film conventions, it is much more of a psychological thriller even leaving open the possibility that the crew is suffering more from cabin fever than actual visitations from the paranormal. Director and screenwriter Larry Fessenden creates a creepy, claustrophobic environment where endless fields of frozen snow have the same effect as a 6 by 10 prison cell. Filmed in Iceland, the movie has much more in common, as the NY Times points out, with Val Lewton horror films (“The Cat People”, “I Walked with a Zombie”) than it does with the typical horror blockbusters of the current era.

Director Larry Fessenden was available to answer audience questions at the 7:45 screening last night at the IFC Theater in New York. After I was called on, I referred to recent reports about a one-year loss of Arctic ice being equivalent to the size of Texas, and to worries that the point of no return might have been reached. Since the film ends on a bleakly apocalyptic note, I wondered if such reports might have been in the back of Fesseden’s mind when he made the film.

He replied that even if it is a losing cause, we are called upon as human beings to struggle for an alternative. As a socialist for the past 40 years, I could identify with his sentiments.

On the website for “The Last Winter“, there is a link to the Running Out of Road website, where the director provides information about global warming and how to fight it. As has become more and more obvious, the film industry has become an important ally of the environmental movement as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the more recent “11th Hour” by Leonardo DiCaprio would demonstrate.

“The Last Winter” is distinguished by its artistic approach to the crisis. As was the case with the nuclear crisis of the Cold War era (which of course has never been truly resolved), which produced groundbreaking works such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the uncut “Godzilla”, Fesseden creates an imaginary landscape filled with real monsters–to paraphrase Marianne Moore. Check the film website for screening information on theaters near you.

September 20, 2007

Two post-Katrina documentaries

Filed under: Film,racism — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

Opening on October 5th at City Cinemas Village East in New York, “Desert Bayou” focuses on a group of 600 African-American survivors of Hurricane Katrina who were flown out of New Orleans and into Utah as part of a rescue mission. From the moment they get off the plane and for the entire time they are in Utah, they face unremitting suspicion and racial prejudice from the surrounding mostly Mormon community, as well as a deep sense of cultural alienation. Whatever you want to call Utah, it is certainly not the Big Easy.

In many ways, the clash between the new arrivals and the new world they find themselves in mirrors that of “Lost Boys of the Sudan,” another documentary that examined the plight of Africans in Houston, Texas. In many ways, African-Americans might feel like aliens in their own country. However, when you end up in a state that is only .08 percent African-American and that is a home to an organized religion that officially enshrined racism in its theology until 1978, that feeling can only be deepened.

Director Alex LeMay filming in Utah

Although Utah was supposedly rescuing the New Orleans survivors, the evidence suggests that they would have preferred that they were drowned. As director Alex LeMay makes clear, the treatment meted out to the African-American survivors would have never been tolerated if they had been rich and white.

When they arrived at the Salt Lake City airport, their luggage–such as it was–was searched by the cops, a clear violation of their rights as American citizens. Since there was so much lurid and racist coverage of New Orleans residents running wild in the days following Hurricane Katrina, the Utah officials must have worried that the luggage concealed machine guns or worse.

They were then put on buses and taken directly to Camp Williams, a National Guard artillery training site in the middle of the desert about 45 miles from Salt Lake City, and housed in barracks. Although the film does not make the comparison, one cannot help but be reminded of Japanese-Americans being herded into concentration camps after Pearl Harbor.

While the Nisei were suspected of being spies, the residents of New Orleans were had to face charges that they were dangerous criminals. After being subjected to two criminal investigations that turned up nothing, rumors continued to fly that were killers among them. State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff endorsed these rumors on a talk radio show, stating that “We actually found out that several dozen are convicted murderers.” This was completely false.

Directed by Alex LeMay, “Desert Bayou” decided to look at things from a different angle than other documentaries on New Orleans and it is good that he did. The film is almost as much of a study of what it means to be a Mormon in Utah, a subject that is obviously of some interest given Mitt Romney’s bid to be the next president of the United States. The general impression conveyed by the average Utahan interviewed in the film is a mixture of fear and superiority. They regard Black people as violent and backward. Since there are so few African-Americans in Utah, the only impression that they have is formed by television. Karyn Dudley, an African-American who lives in Salt Lake City and who belongs to the Mormon Church, told LeMay:

I don’t know I just think Utah, as a whole, is afraid of the unknown. They are a product of what they see on TV, simply because there aren’t a lot of African-Americans here. They don’t realize that we are an individual (s) —that rapper you saw on TV, that’s not me, that’s not my brother, that’s not my dad, that’s not my uncle. And so they can’t assume that what they see on TV, or even what the media portrays… African-Americans to be to be true.

Not every Utahan comes off badly in the film. Rocky Anderson, the Democratic Mayor of Salt Lake City and a lapsed Mormon, is a voice of reason and humanity throughout the film. He is not one to mince words:

The Bush administration is completely responsible for what happened to New Orleans and the surrounding areas, they were incompetent, I don’t think they cared, and then in the aftermath you saw an abysmal response in terms of the evacuation efforts, the efforts on the ground to provide assistance, and then, I’ve got to say an unbelievable, and I think a racist coverage by the media, leading this nation to think that all these African American people are raising utter hell, that people are being raped and murdered, and bodies were being stored in freezers—including one nine-year old girl with her throat slashed, and none of them true, not one bit of that was true, and yet that still the impression in most people’s minds in this country, and it’s because it was repeated over and over and over again in our nation’s media.

Despite the culture shock and the racism that confronts them, a number of the Katrina survivors decide to stick it out in Utah. The state’s natural beauty and the dynamic economy promise a better life than the one that they left behind. It must be said, however, that the film is not a Horatio Alger tale. The difficulties facing African-Americans in Utah are about as great as they are everywhere else. One feels a great deal of sympathy for a couple of the men who decide to stay in Utah, but wonder about their prospects since they acquired drug and alcohol problems in the span of their troubled lives. Alex LeMay does not attempt to gloss over these problems, to his credit. All in all, this is a very fine documentary that contains some painful truths about the racial contradictions in America today, brought to a very sharp edge by Hurricane Katrina.

* * * * *

Directed and narrated by Greg Palast, “Big Easy to Big Empty – The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans” is a 30 minute film with 60 minutes of additional footage that is available from Palast’s website.

As one might expect, the documentary is first-rate investigative reporting. Borrowing from Michael Moore, Palast drops in on the corporate headquarters of Innovative Emergency Management, an outfit that was paid $500,000 to come up with an emergency evacuation plan in case of a major hurricane. No plan was ever produced, but the company did make major donations to the Republican Party. After pressing a company spokeswoman for an explanation why a plan never materialized for a few minutes, security guards showed up and escorted Palast away.

This was not the worst encounter with the authorities in New Orleans. Because he filmed a trailer park for Katrina survivors in close proximity to an Exxon refinery, he was charged with violating Homeland Security laws–as if his documentary might be used to tip off al Qaeda. As Palast pointed out to his accusers,

Once I was traced, I had a bit of an other-worldly conversation with my would-be captors. Detective Frank Pananepinto of Homeland Security told us, “This is a ‘Critical Infrastructure’… and they get nervous about unauthorized filming of their property.”

Well, me too, Detective. In fact, I’m very nervous that this potential chemical blast-site can be mapped in extreme detail at this Google Map location.

Charges were eventually dropped.

Just as was the case with the Camp Williams survivors, Palast uncovers racist treatment toward his interviewees who are simply trying to restart their lives in the homes they once lived in. In the course of his investigation, Palast discovers that hundreds of them are not allowed to return to a housing project that was not even damaged by water. It seems that the project is in close proximity to downtown New Orleans and a ripe plum for real estate developers. What the hurricane could not destroy, corporate greed would, as this exchange between Palast and an African-American would indicate:

GREG PALAST: The city has sealed up almost all public housing. But these apartments were never touched by water. It was nearly perfect.

And this, it’s been a year.

PATRICIA THOMAS: It’s been a year, and my house looking good like that.

GREG PALAST: I think you and I together, just the two of us, could put your place back together in a week.


GREG PALAST: No problem.

PATRICIA THOMAS: No problem at all.

GREG PALAST: But they won’t let her in. And this has nothing to do with Katrina.

PATRICIA THOMAS: Katrina didn’t do this. Man did this. Katrina didn’t come in my house and put these gates up on my windows and things. Katrina didn’t have me walking out here looking for somewhere to stay. Man did this. This was manmade.


September 19, 2007

Greenspan, oil and Marxism

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iraq — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

Last Monday night Hardball, an MSNBC news show hosted by Chris Matthews, discussed the significance of Alan Greenspan’s comment in his recently published memoir:

I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.

This seemingly frank admission that the invasion of Iraq had more to do with profits than defeating terrorism led inside the beltway pundits to link Greenspan with protesters who chant “No blood for oil.” Greenspan himself has been forced to backpedal, although his explanation is not reassuring to those who want to frame the invasion of Iraq in human rights terms. In a September 15th interview with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Greenspan tried to get George W. Bush off the hook. He explained, “”I was not saying that that’s the administration’s motive. I’m just saying that if somebody asked me, ‘Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?’ I would say it was essential.”

Apparently, according to Greenspan, there was a tacit understanding by all parties that the war was about oil, but reluctance to speak openly about it:

He said that in his discussions with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, “I have never heard them basically say, ‘We’ve got to protect the oil supplies of the world,’ but that would have been my motive.” Greenspan said that he made his economic argument to White House officials and that one lower-level official, whom he declined to identify, told him, “Well, unfortunately, we can’t talk about oil.”

Chris Matthews introduced his report on Greenspan’s comments as follows:

Ever since that first war to throw Saddam out of Kuwait, the people who hated the war said it was all about oil. We Americans have an unquenchable thirst for oil. The promoters of both Iraq wars like to say we’re bigger than that, that we fought the war for idealistic reasons, the spread of democracy, our opposition to tyranny, our love of peace and goodness.

Well, this weekend, word leaked from the recent chairman of America’s central bank, Alan Greenspan, that the war was indeed about oil. Indeed, it was largely about oil, he writes. In that quote, by the way, he also says, and everybody knows it.

Chris Matthews: studied “Sam Beer” in college

Matthews proceeded to discuss the oil and war connection with two guests, Jim Cramer, the frenetic investment guru, and Ed Schultz, a liberal talk radio personality. He directed his first question to Schultz:

You know, Ed, the old—not to disparage it, but the old left, you would do Marxist analysis of just about everything in history—Sam Beer, I think, believed this, the historian—that just about everything can be interpreted as economics—self-interest, if you will. Do you believe that this war, well, all wars are about economics. What do you think?

My guess is that the mysterious “Sam Beer” must be Charles Beard, who was not really a Marxist at all. His approach can best be described as economic determinism. Indeed, his seminal work is titled “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” While there is a superficial resemblance between economic determinism and Marxism, the latter discipline puts much more emphasis on the tendency of class society to incorporate contradictory tendencies. For example, in the 18th Brumaire Marx pointed out that the rights of the capitalist ruling class in France had to be abrogated in the long-term interests of the capitalist system. There are times when Marxism collapses into something not much different from economic determinism, namely “Vulgar Marxism,” which reminds me of Bob Fitch’s observation that vulgar Marxism can explain about 90 per cent of the social world, but that social science is only interested in the remaining 10 per cent.

Jim Cramer’s cultural literacy appears to be on the same level as Matthews’s, since he “took that Sam Beer course” himself, adding “That was during the period when I was studying Marxism as an actual undergraduate.” According to the wiki on Jim Cramer, he was a staunch leftist as a Harvard undergraduate, naming his plan to revitalize the Crimson after Lenin’s “What Is to Be Done?” Somehow I can’t imagine anybody who refers to “Sam Beer” knowing the first thing about Lenin. Since Cramer went to Harvard, this speaks to the inflated reputation of the Ivy League almost as much as Petraeus’s Princeton PhD. My suggestion to parents is to save your money and send your kids to Albany State instead.

Jim Cramer: a “Leninist” at Harvard?

Whatever Cramer knows about Marxism or not, he doesn’t “buy it for this particular case.” He takes the Bush White House at its word. When they “talked about the mushroom cloud,” they were wrong, but he doesn’t believe that they made it up.

If there is one thing you can say about Chris Matthews, it is that he is not afraid to ask tough questions, at least when public opinion favors it. He asks Cramer, “Are we fighting for the American oil companies, for Mobil and Exxon? And they’re making these enormous profits because of access to oil over there…”

Our erstwhile Leninist replies, “I can’t—I can’t believe that!”

Of course, Matthews was not always the fearless crusader for truth and justice. We learn from FAIR that he had the following to say before things started turning sour in Iraq.

“We’re all neo-cons now.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 4/9/03)

“We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 5/1/03)

“Why don’t the damn Democrats give the president his day? He won today. He did well today.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 4/9/03)

“What’s he going to talk about a year from now, the fact that the war went too well and it’s over? I mean, don’t these things sort of lose their–Isn’t there a fresh date on some of these debate points?” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, speaking about Howard Dean–4/9/03)

This illustrates a point that I have made repeatedly, namely that the dovishness of people like Chris Matthews or most Democrats is a function of the war going badly. If the US had been able to stabilize a puppet regime along the lines of post-Noriega Panama, you’d never had heard a peep out of them.

Turning to the question of whether the war was about oil or not, there is not much of a consensus among Marxists over this. One of the more interesting challenges to the “no blood for oil” line of reasoning came from a group of academics (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts) in the Bay Area of California organized into a study group called Retort. On April 5, 2005, the London Review of Books published an article by them titled “Blood for Oil?

However, their arguments seem directed more at the peak oil crowd than at what classic Leninist theory would posit:

Our view is that scarcity and price – the twin sisters of Malthusian pessimism – don’t provide a basis on which the Iraq war can or should be understood. The history of oil in the 20th century is not a history of shortfall and inflation, but of the constant menace – for the industry and the oil states – of excess capacity and falling prices, of surplus and glut.

And add:

It is true that there has been an avalanche of ‘end of oil’ prophecies, connecting to a longer history of apocalyptic thinking about modernity’s wholesale dependence on a finite resource. That oil is running out is incontestable; the question is when. The Malthusians feed on the opinion of certain hard-rock geologists, Colin Campbell and Kenneth Deffeyes chief among them, who believe that we have already reached maximum global production.

This seems to amount to something of a straw man. It is not as if a bunch of politicians were sitting around listening to a Powerpoint presentation by Dick Cheney that showed the Hubbert Curve kicking in by 2010 or something. According to this scenario, George W. Bush would jump out of his chair like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland and cry out, “Let’s do something before time runs out!” That would certainly be economic determinism or vulgar Marxism.

A counter-explanation from the Retort group is one that while sounding reasonable seems overly complicated:

Rather, what the Iraq adventure represents is less a war for oil than a radical, punitive restructuring of the conditions necessary for expanded profitability – it paves the way, in short, for new rounds of American-led dispossession and capital accumulation. This was a neo-liberal putsch, made in the name of globalisation and free-market democracy. It was intended as the prototype of a new form of military neo-liberalism. Oil was especially visible at this moment of extra-economic imposition because, as it turned out, oil revenues were key to the planning and financing of the military exercise itself, and to the reconstruction of the Iraqi ‘emerging market’.

I would maintain that the 2003 invasion of Iraq is simply the latest battle in a century long war to dominate the Middle East, which is an area distinguished by the presence of one of the world’s most precious commodities. Iraq itself has been one of the most bitterly contested countries, with invasions and coups taking place like clockwork. In addition, the Zionist project attracted imperialist support since Israel was perceived as a gendarme for Western oil companies. Even where oil is not present, such as in Egypt, there has been continuous violence unleashed against workers and peasants in order to make sure that a nationalist government hostile to Western oil companies could not survive.

This is not to say that oil is the exclusive cause of war in the region. The Middle East is also a geopolitically sensitive area in close proximity to the Soviet Union, when it existed.

But in the final analysis, it is extremely difficult to prove causation in the social sciences. Until one has access to the secret files of the permanent government that rules American society, we cannot really say what motivates the ruling class to go to war. One thing is for sure, however. It has never been about promoting democracy.

September 18, 2007

Petraeus’s PhD

Filed under: Iraq — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

Although I have never made much money working for Columbia University, I do enjoy the perks–especially access to a world-class library and to online research databases like Proquest. When General David Petraeus was in Washington the other week to defend the ongoing slaughter in Iraq, much was made of his impressive credentials, including a PhD from Princeton in 1987 on the topic of “The American Military and The Lessons Of Vietnam: A Study Of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.” I was inspired to download this 339 page (double-spaced) treatise from Proquest and read it on the spot.

The first thing that struck me was how the dissertation is a fence-straddling operation. If you want to understand why Petraeus refused to say that the US was safer because of the war in Iraq, the PhD is a good place to start. It is filled with qualifications and refuses to step outside the “value-free” environment of the academy. This is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to writing academic prose, but when it hinges on matters of war and peace it is a dereliction of civic duty.

It should be mentioned that Petraeus has surrounded himself with other PhD/Generals. On February 5th of this year, Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals — including a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders — in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.

Army officers tend to refer to the group as “Petraeus guys.” They are smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.

Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who have criticized the way the service has operated there the past three years, and is letting them try to wage the war their way.

Now I don’t want to rain on General Petraeus’s parade, but I doubt whether the IQ of the men he has chosen is up to the task. His chief economic adviser is Colonel Michael J. Meese, who like his boss has a PhD from Princeton. Meese is the son of Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese. A rather shallow gene pool, methinks.

His chief adviser on counterinsurgency is an Australian Lieutenant Colonel named David Kilcullen who has a PhD in anthropology with Islamic extremism in Indonesia his research topic. Kilcullen was the subject of a fawning profile by George Packer that appeared in the New Yorker on December 18, 2006. Despite all the gushing over Kilcullen as the second coming of Lawrence of Arabia, you can get an idea of what kind of counterinsurgency he will be organizing in Iraq:

Kilcullen doesn’t believe that an entirely “soft” counterinsurgency approach can work against such tactics. In his view, winning hearts and minds is not a matter of making local people like you—as some American initiates to counterinsurgency whom I met in Iraq seemed to believe—but of getting them to accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion. Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.”

In other words, that’s the end of Mr. Nice Guy in Iraq.

Petraeus’s main goal in the dissertation is to prove that the military brass has been much less bellicose than civilian political leaders since the end of the Vietnam War. This involves creating a kind of straw-man: “Dr. Strangeloves in uniform — wild-eyed leaders eager to employ military force.” Opposed to this stick figure, there are the “cautious professionals” that Samuel Huntington described in “The Soldier and the State,” who are seen as holding a “relatively pacifist attitude.” In this work, Huntington argues that “The military man rarely favors war.” Of course, Huntington hardly seems like a reliable authority on who has pacifist attitudes or not. Only 6 years after Petraeus completed his dissertation, Huntington would formulate his “clash of civilizations” thesis that would be a pillar of the neoconservative casus belli for removing Saddam Hussein.

Whether or not there were “Dr. Strangeloves in uniform” prior to the war in Vietnam, the outcome of the war favored a more cautious approach, even if the term “pacifist” seems inappropriate. Indeed, Petraeus states that senior military officials felt the “United States should not engage in war unless it has a clear idea why it is fighting and is prepared to see the war through to a successful conclusion.” Petraeus cites a 1984 NY Times article by Richard Halloran titled “For Military Leaders, the Shadow of Vietnam” to back this up. The article contains the words of an imaginary colonel, who is obviously a stand-in for the “pacifists” Samuel Huntington referred to:

As those officers talk about the past and especially about the near future, many slip into an imaginary pose in which they seem to address the President or the Secretary of Defense. An Army colonel summed up three main points many officers make, saying:

– ”Mr. President, don’t send us to war unless you have clear-cut political goals and attainable military objectives.

– ”Sir, don’t send us unless you give us sufficient forces and enough freedom of action to use them properly.

– ”And, Mr. President, you’d better have a lot of public support.”

Considering the situation in Iraq, one might wonder why General Petraeus would be associated with a venture that clashes with all of the above stipulations. Indeed, his entire PhD thesis would seem to articulate the outlook of those Generals who were hailed in the September 8, 2006 Nation Magazine article titled “Revolt of the Generals.”

In late September [General John] Batiste, along with two other retired senior officers, spoke out about these failures at a Washington Democratic policy hearing, with Batiste saying Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was “not a competent wartime leader” who made “dismal strategic decisions” that “resulted in the unnecessary deaths of American servicemen and women, our allies and the good people of Iraq.” Rumsfeld, he said, “dismissed honest dissent” and “did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war.”

One must assume that if Rumsfeld were “a competent wartime leader” and that the war in Iraq had been going swimmingly well, neither Batiste nor scores of opportunist Democratic Party politicians would have said a word.

Against the fiasco in Vietnam, Petraeus concludes that for a chastened military “the American interventions in the Dominican Republic and Grenada in 1983 have come to be viewed as model cases of the use of force.” In other words, it is best to pick on smaller and weaker targets.

Part 2 of Petraeus’s dissertation consists of a number of case studies based on US military intervention since the end of the Vietnam War, all of which are intended to prove his case that the military is not very bellicose. Since many of them involve “low intensity warfare,” I am reminded of what many activists said in the late 1980s when Petraeus was ensconced in the Princeton library. For the victims of low intensity warfare, there is nothing “low” about it at all. Surveying the loss of life and property in Nicaragua with my own eyes, I find Petraeus’s characterization of the period to be cold-blooded in the extreme.

In his treatment of the invasion of Grenada, Petraeus finds that the Reagan White House was “gung ho” about going in, but the military “had some reservations.” This mostly involved finding out more about the Cuban willingness to fight. In any event, according to Petraeus, “the military did not emerge in any of the reports on the Grenada discussions as the aggressive party, nor as a particularly influential participant in the decision to intervene.”

Central America is the same story. According to Petraeus:

Many of the senior military have feared a Central America Vietnam, and by making their views known in advance they have sought to shape and preempt certain policies. Most important, the military have advised publicly against the commitment of U.S. combat units in the region except under certain conditions — conditions developed with an eye to avoiding another Vietnam.

Showing a certain susceptibility to objective reality, Petraeus adds that the military is quite sensitive to the legacy of “Yankee Imperialism” (his quotes, not mine) and cites widespread recognition that “military means are not the solution to many of the region’s problems.” But the real fear is less about committing war crimes: “But always lurking in the senior leadership’s subconscious has been the fear of American troops bogged down in another unpopular, nasty little war that gradually consumes the institution they have worked for the past decade to revive.” Well, Petraeus hit the nail on the head but his timing is a bit off. It is the roads of Iraq rather than the jungles of Central America that are consuming the military and it is he, the author of a dissertation that calls attention to military worries over exactly this prospect, who is consigned to the top of the shit heap.

Petraeus’s history of the Central American intervention is rather skewed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are supposedly opposed to the use of U.S. combat troops in Central America. But the initial foray into Central America is no different than the early days of Vietnam. The U.S. provided money and training for the South Vietnamese until the situation on the ground began to deteriorate. Then it became time to escalate. In Central America, low-intensity warfare proved sufficient to keep the revolutionary forces on the defensive and eventually to defeat them. There would be no point in committing U.S. ground troops if they are not necessary. True to his imperialist myopia, Petraeus cites General Vessey–chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1980’s–as being opposed to an “American military solution in Central America.” So what does that make the US-financed Salvadoran army and the Nicaraguan contras? Folk dance troupes?

Sometimes Petraeus simply uses his citations meretriciously in order to support his hypothesis. For example, he cites a June 21, 1983 N.Y. Times article by Drew Middleton to the effect that the military opposed intervention but left out the qualification that the article began with:

With unusual unanimity, senior generals of the United States Army say they oppose any American military intervention in Central America without the clear, unequivocal support of Congress and the people.

In other words, if Congress and “the people” (whipped into war hysteria by the mainstream media) backed the adventure, the military would be as gung-ho as it was in 2003 when Iraq was invaded. Fundamentally, the “pacifism” of the military is rooted in a fear of being a pawn in a game. There is absolutely no indication in Petraeus’s dissertation that the military has any political principles when it comes to being used as hired killers. For that you have to go to another military figure, who knew what he was talking about:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.

These words come from retired Marine General Smedley Butler’s “War is a Racket,” a 1935 memoir that would be of much more use than Petraeus’s dissertation in understanding how the military operates. Butler, the most decorated soldier in Marine history, approached the problem of military intervention from the standpoint of ethics rather than efficacy. It didn’t take a trauma like Vietnam to persuade him that war was wrong. He understood the word wrong in an entirely different sense than Petraeus. For Petraeus, the word wrong means something like: “It is wrong to go swimming after a large meal.” For Butler, it meant: “It is wrong to kill peasants and steal their land.”

Part 3 of Petraeus’s dissertation sums things up. It mostly consists of endless repetitions of his basic argument, namely that the military would never allow itself to end up in the kind of mess that General Petraeus is presiding over in Iraq today. It does confirm, however, one point that he makes. The civilian policy-makers are probably more bellicose than the military on a consistent basis. If one spent 5 minutes listening to the politicians who ended up on Sunday morning talk shows throughout 2003, you will know that is true. If the military chiefs urged caution in this period, it was only from the standpoint of having sufficient power to subdue the Iraqis. General Shinseki emerged as one of the more forceful critics of the invasion on this basis. Clashing with Rumsfeld repeatedly until he was relieved of his duties, Shinseki warned:

We need to have enough forces on the ground to deter and hold crises where they are. You can’t fall into the trap of organizing for specific missions and then being unable to perform other missions when the conditions change very quickly — and in places like Kosovo, they can change in 20 minutes. You may find yourself having to go very quickly, intellectually and physically, from what was a peacekeeping mission to fighting a war — and preparing the troops for this [shift]. And with the missions multiplying, you cannot go on fighting a 12-division war with only 10 divisions available.

This is the logic of Samuel Huntington’s “The Soldier and the State” and Petraeus’s PhD. You need to have the forces to get the job done, support from the Congress and a brainwashed population. Lacking these essentials, you are going to end up with another Vietnam. As they say, Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.

If David Petraeus represents the best military thinking and leadership that the U.S. can come up with at this point, its prospects don’t look very good based on his rather superficial doctoral dissertation. The whole thing amounts to an endorsement of war-making on the cheap. Despite the concluding paragraphs, which emphasize the need to use force sufficient to the task when necessary, there is little grasp of the enormity of the problem facing what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Petraeus’s formulas are geared to small-scale operations like in Grenada or El Salvador. When it comes to serious counter-revolutionary military operations against sizable entities such as Iraq or Iran, you need to ratchet up the military component.

However, the Vietnam syndrome still controls what is possible. With the U.S. military strained to the breaking point in Iraq, the logic of reintroducing the draft becomes more compelling. But to do that would risk unleashing a massive protest movement that might spill beyond the campuses. With economic conditions deteriorating from year to year, with class divisions deepening, the call to send young men off to die in Iraq against their will might ignite a general conflagration. The ruling class is faced with a dilemma. It lacks the forces to win the war in Iraq and cannot afford to surrender. To solve this dilemma will require more intellectual firepower than is at the disposal of our PhD General Petraeus.

September 15, 2007

Is H-Net going under?

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 4:50 pm

Apparently H-Net might be going out of business. For most normal people who have not been initiated into this academic inner sanctum, suffice it to say that you have not been missing much. H-Net is a collection of mailing lists moderated by tenured professors that share these features in common:

1. All messages must be approved by the moderator before they appear on the list. This creates a sluggish environment, no matter the intention of the list owner.

2. The non-academic is made to feel like an outsider. Many of the lists actually require you to fill out a form before you are allowed to become a subscriber. They ask you which university you attend or teach at, what your research interests are, etc. It is a little bit like applying for a job.

3. The lists tend to be focused on academic business, such as job openings, journal announcements, etc. And when they do address the research agenda of the list, they often tend to be scholastic inquiries rather than attempts to engage other academics in a debate over ideas. The simple truth is that many of the tenured professors who even deign to subscribe to H-Net lists prefer a one-way conversation in print journals rather than the rough-and-tumble world of the Internet.

On H-Net’s home page, they describe themselves this way:

Subscriptions are screened by the list’s editors to promote a diverse readership dedicated to friendly, productive, scholarly communications. Each list publishes between 15 and 60 messages a week. Subscription applications are solicited from scholars, teachers, professors, researchers, graduate students, journalists, librarians and archivists.

In other words, if you don’t fall into one of the categories listed above, you’d better mind your p’s and q’s. Nine years ago I became a subscriber to H-Amindian (American Indian History and Culture) at a time when I was writing a series of articles about Marxism and the American Indian. After somebody posted a query about Cherokee’s owning slaves, I replied with a brief excerpt from George Lipsitz’s “Rainbow at Midnight” that called attention to how “some Native Americans held black slaves (in part to prove to whites that they could adopt civilized European American ways), and some of the first chartered African American units in the U.S. army went to war against Comanches in Texas or served as security forces for wagon trains of white settlers on the trails to California.”

Apparently, this didn’t sit well with one of the real subscribers who resented hearing what an outsider like Lipsitz had to say about their “research area,” as well as me for having the temerity to post it. Melissa Meyers, a history professor from UCLA, sniffed and harrumphed, “Scholars, even those as esteemed as George Lipsitz, should refrain from facile explanations of native behavior until they have done adequate homework in the field.” Well, I never…

I unsubbed about a month later.

My next encounter with an H-Net mailing list was with something called H-Radhist (History, Theory, Politics from a Radical Perspective) that was moderated by a character named Van Gosse who has functioned on the steering committee of UFPJ, a perfect place for him. The list is pretty much defunct as would be indicated by the most recent messages:

H-Net Job Guide – September 1, 2007 to September 8, 2007 (fwd) “Jobguide” <jobguide@mail.h-net.msu.edu>

H-Net academic announcements posted to the web 2007-09-03 – 2007-09-04 (fwd) H-Net Announcements <announce@mail.h-net.msu.edu>

H-Net Job Guide – August 25, 2007 to September 1, 2007 (fwd) “Jobguide” <jobguide@mail.h-net.msu.edu>

Now you have to ask yourself how something as lively as radical history can become so stultifyingly boring. That was Van Gosse’s talent, I suppose. When I was subbed to H-Radhist, I made the mistake of posting articles from Harry Braverman and Bert Cochran’s “American Socialist” that I had been scanning. Gosse told me that the list was for “discussion”, not such material. I was so struck by his obtuseness that I unsubbed immediately.

That was the last mailing list I actually subscribed to. Nowadays, I check the archives of something called H-HOAC (H-Net Network on American communism and anticommunism). A more proper name for it would be H-HUAC since the main focus is on amateur sleuthing about who was a commie traitor. There are endless discussions about Alger Hiss, for example, but very few about the real legacy of the CPUSA in the mass movement. For this type of discussion to take place, there would have to be input from scholars like Mark Naison. I imagine that they steer clear of the list because they might have perceived it correctly as a toxic dump.

Since H-Net has been such a major player in the academic cyberworld, there has been some discussion about its collapse from the professor bloggers. T. Mills Kelly, a historian at George Mason University, kicked off the discussion with a post to his Edwired blog titled “The End of H-Net“. He discovered something that I noticed years ago:

In the past several years, however, the various lists I’ve been a member of have become quieter and quieter–and one, H-MMedia, died a quiet death on January 12, 2005. Not only has the volume of email I’ve been receiving gone down, but the quality of the material in those messages has declined to the point where I almost never request a posting from the H-Net servers any more (I have all my lists set to “digest” so that I only get a summary of the list’s traffic each week). The vast majority of the postings seem to be conference announcements, requests for papers, or cross-postings from other lists. Definitely not the cutting edge of scholarship these lists used to offer.

In a follow-up, Mills drew a contrast between academic blogs like his own and the stuffed-shirt atmosphere of H-Net:

[B]loggers can post what they want when they want without the intermediary of an editor, they often stand accused of being somehow “unacademic” in tone or content. H-Net defenders, by contrast, point out that because H-Net lists are edited and moderated, they maintain that higher tone and quality control that we in the academy insist upon. Why we insist on speaking to one another in more rarefied tones and why we fear letting the hoi palloi is, I think, a topic for an entirely different discussion.

(I don’t think that Kelly has to worry too much about appearing overly refined since he does not even know how to spell hoi polloi.)

Progressive Historians, a group blog, chimed in by enumerating 6 ways in which academic blogs are superior to listservs:

1. They’re more aesthetically pleasing. Let’s face it, after all these years, e-mail is still ugly. Listservs tend to be even worse.

2. Posting doesn’t have to go through the bottleneck of moderation.

3. Browsing at your own pace. The main problem with listservs, as Edwired notes, is that they generate masses of e-mail that are fired at you with no warning and when you’re least likely to want to read them.

4. Thematically-organized content. Blogs that use tags (we’re not one of them) make it possible for a poster to read posts on a single subject without having to sign up for a separate e-mail list.

5. Relative anonymity. It sounds strange that a blog could be more anonymous than an e-mail list, but think about this: if you post something to a listserv, you know that all your colleagues are going to read it.

6. Blogging just sounds cooler. What would you rather put on your CV, “Moderator, H-Ideas e-mail list” or “Contributing Editor, History News Network?” And seriously, who wants to tell people they’ve just written a book review for a listserv? Blogs are much more conducive to scholarly or semi-scholarly work than are listservs.

While the Progressive Historian blogger would see himself or herself as a champion of democracy and equality second to none, there is something that he and the Margaret Dumonts at H-Net have in common. They both see themselves as separate and distinct from the hoi palloi [sic] that T. Mills Kelly refers to, especially the last point. Frankly, the question of what I would put on my CV never popped into my head. This sort of thing smacks of the kind of Norman Podhoretz “Making It” syndrome that convinced me to bust out of academia in the first place.

My own experience is that academic blogs are susceptible to the same kind of in-group authoritarianism as H-Net. I have had two experiences that convinced me that they perpetuate all the rigid hierarchies that you find in the academic world. One is Crooked Timber, a group blog with “progressive” pretensions. Politically, it occupies a space roughly equivalent to Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party and the British Labour Party prior to Tony Blair. It has been a critic of the war in Iraq, but finds all sorts of reasons to defend NATO’s war in the Balkans. About a year or two ago, I posted an item about Srebrenica that ran counter to the ideological agenda of one of the blog owners and found it unceremoniously deleted with a warning that I should not “troll” on Crooked Timber any more. I stopped posting comments at that point.

I had an even more alienating experience on Cliopatria, a group blog for historians, when I found myself baited continuously by the founder Ralph Luker, a minor academic figure with the personality of a toy Doberman pinscher. Luker’s mistake was to label me as a “troll” on Cliopatria after I had the gumption to defend Ward Churchill on Crooked Timber. Like Beetlejuice, I have a knack for showing up at places where my name is mentioned. After I began to post on Cliopatria, Luker did everything he could to be unpleasant to me, making all sorts of ignorant jibes about commies, etc. Since I have a hide thicker than a rhinoceros, this had no effect on me. I don’t get ulcers; I give them. I finally stopped posting on Cliopatria for the same reason as Crooked Timber. One of the blog owners deleted a post that he considered to be uncivil. Considering the spittle I had to wipe off my face from Luker on a regular basis, I considered this the height of hypocrisy and blew it off.

Notwithstanding the sterility of H-Net and the badmouthing of listservs by both Edwired and Professional Historians, I do believe that they can be extremely useful. Unlike blogs, the playing field is level–as long as they are not the premoderated variety on display at H-Net. There is no substitute for the give-and-take between professional scholars and the hoi polloi like me. One of the best examples is PEN-L, a mailing list for leftwing economists  that has been operating since the early 1990s. It is moderated by my friend Michael Perelman, a professor at U. Cal Chico. Perelman, who takes his socialist ideas seriously, has never made me feel like an outsider. I have posted on PEN-L since the early 1990s and have learned an enormous amount from the professionals who post there. I have also felt that I have made a real contribution to PEN-L myself. It is this kind of give and take that should pervade every forum on the Internet, whether it is an academic blog or a listserv.

Like Gutenberg’s printing press, the Internet is a medium that has the potential for cutting edge social change. Just as the printing press gave the plebeians of the 16th century the power to distribute “dangerous” ideas, so does the Internet have that capability today. Understandably, some figures of authority have become nervous about that. They feel challenged by wikis and resent the ability of bloggers to create an alternative source of news and analysis to the mainstream media. It should be the responsibility of progressive academics to encourage this development and not stifle it. In this light, I for one would not mourn the demise of H-Net.

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