Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2007

A Bloody Aria

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

A modern Papageno

Opening at the ImaginAsian Theaters in New York and Los Angeles on January 4 and 18 respectively, “A Bloody Aria” is a black comedy about revenge, a theme that is obviously inspired by Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy” trilogy. While the desire for revenge in these films is obviously a function of the major characters’ psychology, there is also a social dimension as Won Shin-yun, the director and writer of “A Bloody Aria” pointed out in the press notes:

I had made numerous independent films, but I was still athirst to resonate with a larger audience by crossing the barrier between commercial and independent films. The unexpected break came one summer day while hunting for a movie location. I met the characters who could represent the modern history of Korea: an unending circle of lust for power and violence. Their faces were dark, as if light had turned its back on them and their eyes were sad, yet beast-like as they drank their sorrow away on a deserted riverbank. Rank exists even among losers and they were relishing their chain of power by abusing each other like animals.

“A Bloody Aria” begins innocently enough as Moon Jae (Han Seok-gyu), a middle-aged music professor and star opera vocalist, is out for a drive in the country with In-jeong (Cha Ye-ryun), a beautiful young female student, in his brand-new Mercedes Benz. As a member of Korean society’s elite, he expects the lower classes to act deferentially, including the motorcycle cop who has given him a ticket for going through a red light. To show that he is above the law, Moon Jae goes through a second red light and curses out the cop, who then begins a high-speed pursuit.

After a few miles, Moon Jae takes a sharp right-hand turn off the main road, leaving the cop behind. He follows the side road until it comes to a dead end at a river bank surrounded by hills. Not having had his fill of excitement for one day, the music professor–who has had too much to drink at lunch–begins to force himself sexually on his student, who bolts from the Mercedes Benz and begins climbing a path up a nearby hill.

Sitting in his car stewing over his misadventures with the cops and his student, he notices a sinister looking figure walking toward his car. Using the aluminum baseball bat he is wielding over his shoulder, the stranger clobbers a hawk that has fluttered to the ground and deposits it into a bag. Moon Jae soon discovers that the hawk has fallen victim to a poisoned mouse that the hunter has left as bait along the river side.

The bird hunter is a clever riff on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” that the professor and his student rehearsed a few moments earlier on the river bank, including a romantic duet that led to his sexual advances. Moon Jae sings the role of Papageno, one of the main characters in “The Magic Flute”–a bird hunter who brings his prey to the wicked Queen of the Night.

Worried that he might suffer the same fate as the hawk, Moon Jae sits in his car trying not to be noticed behind the smoke-tinted windows. Eventually, the bird hunter is joined by two other scary looking locals who are his partners in misdeeds. While he keeps dead birds in his sack, they keep a high school student that they have beaten up earlier in their own. It is not clear at the outset whether the student is dead or alive.

Finally, the ensemble is joined by a fourth miscreant, who has arrived on a motor scooter with the professor’s student on the back seat. She has hitched a ride with him under the impression that he was going to take her to a bus station, but he is more interested in prying open the door of the Mercedes Benz and discovering who is inside. We soon learn that this character, despite his initially affable demeanor, is the gang leader and bent on humiliating and maybe even killing the professor, the student and the young man bound up in the sack.

From this point on, “A Bloody Aria” consists of a series of increasingly brutal scenes involving the four thugs and their hapless victims in what can only be described as a Korean version of that famous scene in “Deliverance” where the two hillbillies victimize Jon Voight and Ned Beatty. As the underclass masters of the isolated countryside that the urban couple has wandered into, they enjoy humiliating their victims whose success they obviously envy. Not only do they derive pleasure from imposing their will on their captives, not a moment goes by without the four thugs abusing each other, just as a reminder of the pecking order within the gang. This sadistic ritual continues until the film’s bloody conclusion, which uses violence in the same way that Mozart used harmonies.

Despite the continuous violence, “A Bloody Aria” is also quite funny, using bitter irony to make pointed observations about the characters and Korean society. At one point, after having recognized the professor as having sung the national anthem at a football game, they make him sing it again for their own amusement. The pompous lyrics of the anthem are in striking contrast to the debased circumstances of this performance.

Eventually, we learn that the ritualized violence of the characters, including that directed against the young man in the bag, is not exactly gratuitous. Despite their brutal demeanor, they too knew what it meant to be brutalized themselves. The haughty music professor learns firsthand what the penalty is for keeping a lower class in degradation, even if he was not personally responsible for their suffering.

The cycle of punishment and retribution on display is obviously influenced by the plot of “Old Boy”, the second film in Park Chan-wook’s trilogy. Both “Old Boy” and “A Bloody Aria” are meditations on the way that high schools serve as entry points into the rigid structures of bourgeois society. Without the hazing that goes on in the typical high school, young men and women will not be socialized into a system that requires proper respect for authority, even when it is not merited. Every so often there is an explosion against the system, as recent mass killings in Colorado and elsewhere would indicate, but the system never gets changed in its fundamentals.

Despite his appetite for gore in films such as “Old Boy”, Park Chan-wook has little for it in real life. While it has not garnered the same publicity as in other countries, there is a Korean anti-war movement that includes film industry figures such as him.

A number of celebrities, including Cannes award-winning director Park Chan-wook, are to support a hunger strike led by the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) to block the government’s plan to dispatch additional troops to Iraq.

The first television star to attend the ”relay” sit-in with Kim Hye-kyoung, chairwoman of the pro-labor party, on Thursday was Hong Seok-chun, the first South Korean television actor to openly admit his homosexuality, which he did three years ago.

Sitting beside Kim, who was on the seventh-day of a hunger strike in a park near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Hong argued that the U.S.-led war in Iraq was based on incorrect intelligence concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

–Korea Times, July 30, 2004, Friday

Official “A Bloody Aria” website


December 27, 2007

Escaped tigers

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

San Francisco Lion House

Guantanamo human house

Until the assassination of Benazir Bhutto occurred, the cable news networks were consumed with the news of a tiger escaping from its cage in the San Francisco zoo and killing one man and wounding two others. Today’s NY Times reported:

Now considered a crime scene, the San Francisco Zoo was closed to visitors on Wednesday as police investigators swept the grounds searching for evidence to explain how a Siberian tiger escaped its open-air grotto on Tuesday, killing one young man and seriously injuring two others.

Investigators are seeking witnesses and intend to interview the survivors, two brothers ages 19 and 23, who were in shock but in stable condition after surgery to clean wounds from “deep claw and tooth attacks,” said a doctor at a news conference at San Francisco General Hospital. The identity of the brothers has not been released.

The tiger, a 300-pound female Siberian named Tatiana who attacked a zookeeper last December, was shot to death by the police after the zoo’s 5 p.m. closing on Tuesday, after it somehow jumped barriers around the Lion House habitat and killed Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, of San Jose.

The police said they were trying to determine whether the tiger escaped because of negligence or equipment failure or whether it was somehow provoked to jump the 18-foot wall around the grotto.

So far commentators are quite worked up over the question of a tiger jumping 18 feet into the air, since that would tend to render zoos around the country as possible breeding grounds for repeat terrorist attacks by suicide felines. Just picture a pissed-off tiger jumping over the head of a full-grown giraffe and you get a sense of the worries felt among zoo management circles. It must be equal to what the CIA felt after 9/11.

The NY Times refers to a “Lion House Habitat,” but how in the world could a zoo replicate the real habitat of a tiger? According to http://www.bigcatrescue.org:

Indian tigers generally have a range of 8-60 square miles, based on availability of prey. Sumatran tigers have a range of about 150 square miles. Due to the severity of the climate and lack of prey, the Siberian tiger can require a range of 400 square miles. Tigers have lost more than 40% of their habitat in the past decade.

With the loss of habitat, you will naturally see a decline of this species–a fate that all animals at the top of the food chain are now facing with the large-scale “development” taking place in rain forests everywhere. Indeed, there are more tigers in captivity today than there are in the wild.

As might be expected, zoos emerged at the very time that Western colonialism had begun to descend on the natural habitats of whales, tigers, lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, gorillas and other such masterpieces of the natural world. John Bellamy Foster identified the scope of the problem in the April 1998 Monthly Review:

The main reason that the ecology of the entire planet—as we know it—is now threatened with “irretrievable mutilation” has to do with the rapidly rising rate at which human beings are transforming the earth, on a scale that is now truly planetary in character, rivaling the basic biogeochemical processes of the planet. A few facts are worth noting. Somewhere between a third and a half of the land surface of the earth has been transformed by human action; the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has increased by some 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution; humanity now fixes more atmospheric nitrogen than all natural terrestrial sources combined; more than half of the fresh water sources are now put to use by human beings; 22 percent of marine fisheries are being overexploited (or have already been depleted), while 44 percent are at their limit of exploitation; one-quarter of the Earth’s bird species have been driven into extinction by human activities; rates of species extinction are now 100 to 1000 times those that existed prior to the human domination of the earth.

At the rate things are going, the only animals living outside of zoos toward the 21st century will be those that have evolved to live off the detritus left by homo sapiens: crows, pigeons, rats, mice, seagulls, coyotes, raccoons, etc. Our descendants will be able to visit zoos and see caged tigers, lions and gorillas driven to the same distraction as the San Francisco escapee but only there. By the late 21st century, all of Africa and Asia should have been turned into industrial parks churning out goods for Walmart–that is unless humanity puts an end to private production based on profit.

Zoos are the quintessential symbol of “civilization.” When mankind built cities out of the surplus product afforded by agricultural innovation, it found itself increasingly removed from the natural world. To amuse themselves and their subjects, the Monarchs of such cities brought back exotic creatures from lands they had conquered and put them on display in “menageries”. For the French Kings of the 17th century, carrying on in a tradition that went back to the Roman Empire, the menagerie was an “establishment of luxury and curiosity,” according to the “Methodical Encyclopaedia” of 1782.

After the French Revolution, there was a strong reaction against all forms of monarchic privilege, including the menagerie. In keeping with the national aspirations of the bourgeois revolution, the menagerie was abolished in favor of a zoological garden, which was accessible to the entire population and designed to foster scientific exploration. Founded in Paris in 1794, the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes was the first zoological garden and became the model for zoos everywhere.

The zoological garden was the natural outgrowth of botanical gardens, which were stocked with plants gathered up by scientists accompanying sea voyages by the big European powers in pursuit of territorial conquest. If you’ve seen the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” you will recall how the ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin was anxious to bring back new plants with him to London for further study. This was part and parcel of Empire-building.

Soon animals would be brought back in the same spirit, either dead or alive. To take just one grizzly example, the Earl of Derby’s Museum (the forerunner to the Liverpool Museum destroyed by an incendiary bomb during WWII) contained some 25,000 specimens.

Transporting living specimens back to the Mother Country involved the same kinds of cruelties associated with the slave trade, another staple of the rise of colonialism. You can find this system documented in “Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West” by Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, a book that does for the animal trade that people like Kenneth M. Stampp and Herbert Aptheker did for trade in human beings. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier write:

African wildlife was generally classified as a ‘colonial commodity’ and, like all other ‘commercial resources’, was exploited without much care and at terrible expense, for the animals at least. Carl Hagenback told of a caravan’s progress as, laden with animals, it crossed the burning deserts of the Sudan at night over the course of several weeks. A hippopotamus, wrapped in a stretcher made of hide, was carried by two dromedaries and the water for his bath by two others. Goats followed: they suckled the younger creatures, and were then killed by the big cats. J.V. Domalain described such practices in twentieth-century Laos as quite usual: wounded cats were not given anything to drink and then abandoned to the sun, their gangrenous legs tied together. Hagenback related that a sea elephant, weighing 1,410 kilos, sent from the Cape of Georgia to Stellingen, held out for 40 days without a bath or food. This was at a time when travel was very stressful. In 1810, according to Fréderic Cuvier, it took three months to get from Borneo to Spain, then two more to get to Paris across the snow-covered Pyrenees. In 1824, an Indian elephant would travel for six months to reach Paris; in 1850, five months; in 1870, 62 days. It would often arrive exhausted with sea-sickness. In 1928, the month’s journey from Cameroon or Madagascar to the zoo at Lyon was still long enough for animals to arrive emaciated and wounded.

The ‘packaging for this material’, according to the term used by Lyon’s zoo in 1934, was the sabot, a small cage reinforced only at the front, as animals did not try to escape from the back. Tossed about without protection for their claws, big cats tore themselves to ribbons and bled to death or put their own eyes out. The movements of the great circuses taught many lessons, and ships began to specialize in the transport of wild animals. Around 1923, the Congo’s riverboat services and several others were offering the attractive price of 50 francs per cubic metre. A surcharge for large animals cost one first-class ticket, for reasons of food: for an Indian elephant, two thousand kilos of hay, twelve hundred of bananas, five hundred of sugar-cane and four hundred of green cabbage had to be taken on board. Aboard ship, gorillas were given food that had been poorly preserved in refrigerators of inadequate size, and the water was unsuited to the aquariums. Delivery of animals by air began in 1948, the zoos of Copenhagen and Antwerp being pioneers in this area.

No wonder that tiger jumped 12 and 1/2  feet into the air and killed the first human being it could get its claws on.

December 26, 2007

A public debate in the Australian DSP

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

A lifetime ago, when I was a new member of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., I attended my first convention in New York City in 1967 at a small run-down hotel. I don’t remember much except party leader Harry Ring getting up during one discussion and explaining emphatically that it was not wrong to describe the Vietnam war as “illegal, unjust and immoral”, words that some party members apparently considered a concession to the middle-class left that it was working with in the antiwar movement.

The other thing I remember vividly was the need to keep “internal documents” out of the hands of non-party members. It was explained to me that this was part of the norms of “democratic centralism” that had been handed down since 1903 or so, like your grandfather’s antique pocket watch. The party had free-wheeling debate and discussion in the months leading up to the convention, where delegates would finally vote on the resolutions and counter-resolutions. Once that vote was taken, the new “party line” would become the official position of the party and henceforth its public face.

We understood that it was necessary to keep our debates a secret from the outside world, because the outside world was a transmitter of “alien class influences.” It was only within the party that a germ-free, sterile environment could be maintained. After the party had decided on its new positions at the convention, it could henceforth go out into the world and defend them before the masses. This, we understood, was how the Bolsheviks operated.

There were obvious differences between “Leninist” functioning and that of the bourgeois parties. Unlike us, the Democrats and Republicans used their quadrennial conventions to air out their differences before the public, just as they are doing now. Ron Paul makes no secret of his opposition to the war in Iraq, while Mitt Romney defends it openly; etc. You can go to the candidates’ websites and see all their primary platforms. Unlike them, Leninists were bent on keeping their differences a secret. During one pre-convention discussion, our branches were instructed to number a resolution under debate and return it at the end of the meeting, just to make sure that it wouldn’t get smuggled out like somebody making a video copy of a new movie at the local Cineplex for sale on the street. At the time, I found this process quite exhilarating as if I had joined some kind of leftwing version of the CIA, which also liked to stamp documents Top Secret.

Despite being strongly influenced by these rather puzzling norms, the Democratic Socialist Perspective, the largest “Leninist” group in Australia has broken with tradition, and made opposing resolutions public. If you go to http://www.dsp.org.au/site/?q=node/185, you will be able to read three contending resolutions. The first was drafted by the current party leadership and has a strong orientation to Venezuela. The second is put forward by the “Leninist Party Faction” (LPF). Leaving aside the politics, I find their nomenclature to be a bit troubling. It smacks of the kind of “orthodoxy” that has been a hallmark of Trotskyism from its inception. One would think that it would be high time to be dropping this kind of posturing, whatever the merits of the actual program being put forward. The third resolution, being put forward by one Clare Middlemas, shares the Leninist Party Faction’s discomfort with what appears to be a departure from orthodoxy and particularly the DSP’s work in the Socialist Alliance, about which I will have more to say momentarily.

But first I want to deal with the question of how Lenin’s party carried out debates, which ironically turns out to be not that different from the bourgeois parties, even under conditions of Czarist repression. It turns out that not only did the Bolsheviks carry out their debates in public; they also did not wait for conventions to do so. If I could have been expelled for denouncing party positions in public back in 1967, then surely the Bolsheviks were remiss in not following suit with Lenin himself who wrote a stinging attack on his party in an article titled “Heroes of Fraud and the Mistakes of the Bolsheviks” in September, 1917. It is commonly understood that Lenin was to the left of his central committee on the question of seizing power in Russia, but it is not so commonly understood that he took his differences with them to the public.

Lenin’s article appears in Rabochii ‘put (The Workers Way), a party newspaper. He writes:

And now I come to the errors of the Bolsheviks. To have confined themselves to ironic applause and exclamations at such a moment was an error.

The people are weary of vacillations and delays. Dissatisfaction is obviously growing. A new revolution is approaching. The reactionary democrats, the Lieberdans, Tseretelis and others, wish only to distract the attention of the people with their farce of a “conference”, keep them busy with it, cut the Bolsheviks off from the masses, and provide the Bolshevik delegates with the unworthy occupation of sitting and listening to the Zarudnys! And the Zarudnys are not the least sincere of them!

The Bolsheviks should have walked out of the meeting in protest and not allowed themselves to be caught by the conference trap set to divert the people’s attention from serious questions. The Bolsheviks should have left two or three of their 136 delegates for “liaison work”, that is, to report by telephone the moment the idiotic babbling came to an end and the voting began. They should not have allowed themselves to be kept busy with obvious nonsense for the obvious purpose of deceiving the people with the obvious aim of extinguishing the growing revolution by wasting time on trivial matters.

There are a couple of things that should pop into the head of those who are accustomed to thinking of Lenin as having unquestioning authority. If this was the case, why would he have to hold the feet of his central committee to the fire in this fashion? Can one imagine an Alex Callinicos writing an article in Red Pepper castigating the British SWP for dragging its feet on some question? Of course not. Furthermore, if he did, we know that he would be expelled immediately for violating “Leninist norms”, even if Lenin himself did so in 1917.

How these “Leninist norms” evolved is a question beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that they should be called “Zinovievist norms” instead. In the early 1920s, Zinoviev used his authority as one of the key leaders of the CP to codify “democratic centralism” in a kind of blueprint fashion. His norms were adopted by the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern and its sister parties throughout the world, including the CP in the U.S., which included future SWP leader James P. Cannon. After Cannon was expelled for supporting Trotsky, he set up a new party that challenged Kremlin orthodoxy across the board, but not on the question of how to build a revolutionary party. The DSP is still on record as favoring these “Leninist norms” but thankfully might be relaxing them somewhat through the publication of rival resolutions on its website.

While I am generally loath to offer opinions on strategy and tactics in other countries, I will say a word or two now about the differences within the DSP, which revolve around its participation in something called the Socialist Alliance. The DSP leadership’s resolution states:

After seven years of life the Socialist Alliance represents a modest but definite step towards the emergence of a broadly based anti-capitalist party in Australia. It is identified by advanced elements of the working class as the political pole of militant initiatives on the trade union movement (particularly in initiating a mass campaign against the anti-worker “Work Choices” laws) and for more general leadership in other progressive social movements, including the anti-war, anti-racist, environment and democratic rights movements. The continued membership in the Socialist Alliance of significant mass leaders and hundreds of other individuals not belonging to the DSP or any other left group is evidence of this.

The Leninist Party Faction is very critical of this initiative:

However, our decision to begin building SA as our new party in formation from early 2003 – formalised in the December 2003 change of name to Democratic Socialist Perspective – was a mistake. The attempt coincided with the retreat of the anti-war movement and the ebb of the post-1998 resurgence of militant trade unionism, leading to a sharp contraction of the active layer of unaffiliated SA members. We proceeded with the SA party-building turn despite opposition from all but one of the other SA affiliates.

While the ebb of the social movements since 2003 would have made it very difficult to sustain SA as an alliance of socialists, we killed it off by hiding the DSP behind the mask of SA with a shrinking pool of active SA partners. Since 2003 the trajectory of SA has been a progressive decline while the left unity dynamic has dissipated. Given the formal or de facto abandonment of SA by all the other affiliates, and given the small number of unaffiliated SA activists, SA is no longer a genuine alliance, much less a broad left party in formation. The “Socialist Alliance” today is little more than the public face of the DSP.

Basically, the LPF wants to turn the clock back and have the DSP operate more openly in its own name. I think it would be fair to describe the faction as unreconstructed James P. Cannon, while the DSP leadership has one foot in the Cannonite tradition and one foot planted somewhat unsurely in 21st century realities. My own position is that it would be best to allow these traditions to rest in peace since they are rooted in a fundamentally schematic understanding of the Russian revolution. To put it as bluntly as possible, if Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez had tried to build a movement based on James P. Cannon’s writings, there never would have been a revolution in Cuba and Hugo Chavez would have remained an obscure military figure. Revolutionary parties have to be built out of the living experience of the country you live in and can not be cobbled together out of formulas from the 1920s. Even Lenin was sensitive to this problem in 1921 when he described the July 12, 1921 Theses on the Structure of Communist Parties–an early manifestation of the Zinovievist error–as follows:

At the third congress in 1921 we adopted a resolution on the structure of communist parties and the methods and content of their activities. It is an excellent resolution, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is taken from Russian conditions. That is its good side, but it is also its bad side, bad because scarcely a single foreigner–I am convinced of this, and I have just re-read it-can read it. Firstly, it is too long, fifty paragraphs or more. Foreigners cannot usually read items of that length. Secondly, if they do read it, they cannot understand it, precisely because it is too Russian…it is permeated and imbued with a Russian spirit. Thirdly, if there is by chance a foreigner who can understand it, he cannot apply it…My impression is that we have committed a gross error in passing that resolution, blocking our own road to further progress. As I said, the resolution is excellent, and I subscribe to every one of the fifty paragraphs. But I must say that we have not yet discovered the form in which to present our Russian experience to foreigners, and for that reason the resolution has remained a dead letter. If we do not discover it, we shall not go forward.

Now that I have had a chance to think about the Respect fiasco in Britain, I have a much better handle on the problems faced by the DSP in Australia or the abortive attempt to build a Socialist Alliance in Britain itself, which was an obvious inspiration for the Australian initiative.

Respect and the Socialist Alliances were projects that were influenced strongly by the British SWP’s peculiar “united front” conceptions. In the 1920s, the united front was a very limited agreement between rival leftwing parties (basically the CP’s and the SP’s) to come together at a particular time and place with a very limited goal–such as a demonstration against fascism, etc. From the CP’s perspective, the united front was seen as a tactic to expose the SP leaders who would balk at uniting with their leftist opponents–thus making the SP rank-and-file more open to joining the CP.

There were also instances in which the CP urged support for an SP candidate, but this was also a tactic meant to ultimately weaken the SP. If the ordinary SP worker felt the need to back his party’s candidate, why create artificial obstacles by opposing the SP candidate as a matter of “principle”. In order to convince the worker of the superiority of the CP program, you had to have a conversation. Opposing their candidates is a conversation-stopper. There is evidence that John Percy, formerly the national secretary of the DSP but now an oppositionist in the LPF, always saw the Socialist Alliance as a maneuver in the spirit of the CP’s in the 1920s:

We thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to make an approach to the local International Socialist Organisation, for joint work, joint election campaigns and a regrouping of the left.’ They either had to respond positively, or suffer a political blow and organisational losses.

In that respect, our tactic worked: they’re certainly a lot weaker than they were in 2001, suffering splits and attrition. And at their Marxism conference in September, they had half the attendance of recent years, with just 40 at their final session.

The Socialist Alliances were never really thought through adequately. On one hand, they were seen as a genuine attempt to break down sectarianism. On the other hand, they were maneuvers that would allow one group to prosper at the expense of another. The failure to really identify the goals of the DSP in building a Socialist Alliance reflects differences between the majority and the LPF. The former is attempting to break with sectarianism, but only incompletely while the LPF probably always saw the Socialist Alliance as a wedge against its “opponents” on the left, the ISO in particular. Now that it has outlived its usefulness, the LPF simply wants to liquidate it.

I think it has become clear that these “alliances” between rival would-be vanguard parties simply cannot work. As long as there is an underlying assumption that one group has the inside track on the British, Australian, etc. revolution, there will be cracks and fissures all along the way. This does not even address the problem of how an unaffiliated “independent” would regard life in a Socialist Alliance. If they sense that decisions are being made beforehand at SWP or DSP headquarters, what is the point of arguing in favor of some proposal that does not meet with the “vanguard party’s” approval?

I do think that all-inclusive left parties are viable but only if groups like the SWP or the DSP transcend their current political and organizational framework, which is too much to expect unfortunately. The first thing that would have to go is the notion that their particular group has the inside track on the coming revolution based on some “program” that has been worked out in advance. The truth is that a “program” is not something pulled together in advance of a struggle for power, like a blueprint for a house but rather emerges during the course of struggle by working through one’s ideas and testing them against reality. When you strip away the distinguishing features of these small propaganda groups, which inevitably revolve around how to analyze the nature of the USSR, you find agreement across a variety of questions, from ecology to woman’s liberation.

Some day Marxists in Britain and Australia will find a way to unite around a common understanding of the immediate tasks facing the working class without any of the excess baggage associated with “democratic centralism” and “the Russian questions”. Let’s hope that the comrades in the British SWP and the Australian DSP have the good sense to join with them.

December 25, 2007

Jury duty

Filed under: racism — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

John White: convicted for self-defense against racist mob

Today’s NY Times reported that two jury members were pressured into backing a guilty verdict for a Black man charged with manslaughter in a case that exposed racial fault lines in Long Island.

In fact, most of the jury — 10 members — had already concluded by then that the man, John H. White, 54, was guilty of second-degree manslaughter in the shooting of Daniel Cicciaro Jr., 17.

Daniel was shot point-blank in the face on August 9, 2006, after he and several friends arrived at Mr. White’s house and began using racial epithets in challenging Mr. White’s son, Aaron, then 19, to fight.

But there were two holdouts on the jury. And to one of them, François Larché, 46, of West Islip, Mr. White’s account of the night’s events — that the shooting was an accident and that he was protecting his family and home against a “lynch mob” of angry teenagers — resonated.

François Larché left South Africa in 1982 out of what the Times described as “his hatred of apartheid.” Jurors made it very clear from the beginning that they had no use for the defendant or this juror. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, the print edition of the Times has much more information on the pressure put on Larché than in the article that is available online.


François Larché: bulldozed into a guilty verdict

The shooting took place on August 9, 2006 when the defendant’s son Aaron was followed to his house by a gang of white teens who had picked a fight with him at a party in the area. As they gathered on his front lawn shouting racial epithets, White came outside armed with a revolver. For him, the incident was a throwback to life under Jim Crow:

Mr. White testified that Aaron woke him from a deep sleep the night of the shooting, yelling that that “some kids are coming here to kill me.” Mr. White said he considered the angry teenagers a “lynch mob.”

He said their racist language recalled the hatred he saw as a child visiting the segregated Deep South and stories of his grandfather’s being chased out of Alabama in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Klan.

Mr. White testified that his grandfather taught him how to shoot and bequeathed him the pistol he used.

A lawyer for Mr. White, Frederick K. Brewington, insisted in his summation that this was a “modern-day lynch mob” and that Mr. White considered it “history replaying itself.”

NY Times, December 23, 2007

There were two kinds of pressure put on the holdout jurors. They were constantly badgered by the others and after four weeks, Larché summed up his mental state: “You don’t sleep at night, your appetite is off, your mouth is dry from all the hostility.” Additionally, you are told that your fellow jurors are suffering financially because they are not getting paid by their employer during the deliberations. Those who do not get paid do receive a payment from the court but it more of a stipend than a living wage.

However, the real pressure that faced this jury was naked racism, even though nobody was likely to be throwing around terms like “nigger.” The print version of the Times reports that one juror thought that God had instructed him to find White guilty:

Other jurors, Mr. Larché said, including Juror No. 12, Richard Burke, frequently invoked religious imagery.

“Mr. Burke made a speech and said how this government was founded on the law of Moses,” Mr. Larché said. “He inferred that I’m on the side of the barbarians.”

Larché also told the Times that he felt that White was acting in accord with the property rights defense that has become so prevalent in a gun-dominated society: “You have the right to use deadly force if you believe your person or property is threatened. Does he have justification for that? I think he does.”

This might have made sense if the defendant was Caucasian and the attackers were African-American or some other minority as was the case this month in Houston, Texas. Joe Horn, a retired 61 year old white man, saw two burglars trying to break into his neighbor’s house. He picked up his shotgun and went out and shot the unarmed men in the back, even though the cops had warned him in a 911 phone call to stay put. You can listen to the 911 phone call here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7jqLie6-Y0. His victims were Miguel Antonio Dejesus and Diego Ortiz, two men without documents from Colombia. The rightwing is rallying around Joe Horn, who is likened to the Minutemen standing guard on the Texas-Mexico border. The trial is still pending.

Back in 1988 I went through an experience on jury duty that gives me an appreciation for what François Larché had to endure. I too was worn down by fellow jurors, even though I consider myself fairly stiff-necked. In a sense, defending socialist ideas in capitalist America is a bit like being a hold-out in a jury.

Back in 1988 I found myself selected for a jury assigned to a criminal case involving a Dominican man in his 60s who had been charged with selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop named Christopher Hoban on West 106th street.

Christopher Hoban: undercover cop killed in 1988

Hoban paid the defendant with marked bills but when he was arrested in the 106th street subway station, no bills could be found. The case boiled down to deciding whether the cop’s testimony was sufficient to prosecute. But the judge gave the jury strict instructions not to take the cop’s word over the defendant’s. They were equal before the law, at least that’s what we were instructed.

When I got into the jury room, a couple of other people agreed with me that the defendant should be found not guilty because of a lack of physical evidence. The judge’s instructions, however, were wasted on the rest of the jury that of course decided that a cop would not lie. I remember arguing that cops lied all the time, especially in cases like this. Only a month ago, the NY Daily News reported what I remembered occurring on a regular basis around that time:

AN NYPD captain was allegedly caught on tape ordering cops to meet arrest quotas and falsify crime reports, the Daily News has learned.

Kieran Creighton, commander of the NYPD Housing Police Service Area 8 in the northern Bronx, is under investigation for a tirade that went out over the police radio, sources said.

The incident allegedly occurred in the spring when Creighton ordered at least eight members of an undercover anti-crime team to a meeting in Pelham Bay Park to berate them about an alleged lack of arrests, sources said.

“You can’t make the nine collars a month, then we’ll all have to go our separate ways,” Creighton told the officers, according to an internal complaint obtained by The News.

Anything less than nine arrests would be a “personal slap in the face,” Creighton allegedly said.

Creighton then told the cops to “finagle” the times of arrests so any overtime was paid for by a federally funded anti-drug program, the complaint alleges.

After an hour or two, I was the only juror who held out for a not guilty verdict. While nobody was abusive, I began to weary over making the same arguments over and over again. Finally, the jury chairman reminded us that if we didn’t come to a unanimous decision that day, we’d have to stay overnight in a hotel and keep deliberating until then. Everybody understood that these hotels were not the Waldorf Astoria.

After 4 hours, I finally threw in the towel and told them that I would go along with a guilty verdict even though I didn’t agree with it. That didn’t seem to bother them one bit. This was the only time in my life that I had succumbed to peer pressure in such fashion, other than the times I was in the SWP and voted for resolutions that struck me as insane.

I have never forgiven myself for caving in to the jury’s pressure. I wish I could turn back the clock and stick to my guns. If a shitty hotel was in the offing, how would that compare to the poor defendant having to spend a month in the Rikers Island jail? I resolved to myself never to serve on a criminal case again.

I should add that the undercover cop came to an unhappy end himself within the year:

Two police officers – one an undercover officer negotiating a routine drug deal, the other in uniform and coming from the scene of a medical emergency – were shot and killed in upper Manhattan last night, the police said.

The two were believed to be the sixth and seventh police officers killed in New York City this year, including two housing police officers. Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward said it was the first time that he could remember that two officers were killed in separate shootings on the same day.

”It’s an enormous tragedy,” Mayor Koch said at a news conference after the first shooting.

The officer killed in that incident, at 7:11 P.M., was a 26-year-old undercover narcotics investigator, Christopher Hoban. He was bargaining for a gram of cocaine while an arrest team waited outside the city-owned building, at 19 West 105th Street, the police said.

–NY Times, October 19, 1988


December 22, 2007

Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle and a new graphic history of SDS

Filed under: art,Jewish question,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

Last week I received a copy of “Students for a Democratic Society: a Graphic History” from Hill and Wang. This book was written mostly by Harvey Pekar, with art (again, mostly) by Gary Dumm, a long-time Pekar collaborator, and edited by Paul Buhle. The publisher enclosed a letter that said:

“Harvey Pekar requested that we send along advanced copy of Students for a Democratic Society: a Graphic History in thanks for your hospitality while he was in town earlier this week. I hope you enjoy the book.”

The hospitality took the form of allowing Harvey to spend the night at my apartment while he was in town. His co-author Paul Buhle was a guest the previous evening. Both were in town discussing future projects with their publisher, including a series of graphic books on jazz musicians that would cover two of my favorites, Lester Young and Django Reinhardt.

Harvey Pekar

Writing about jazz might seem like a natural topic for Harvey Pekar since he used to be a free-lance reviewer for Downbeat years ago, but SDS? As it turns out, Harvey has always had a deep interest in politics even though it is obvious from his ongoing graphic memoir “American Splendor” that he is not an activist. Partnering with Paul Buhle makes perfect sense, however, since Paul is evolving more and more in the direction of this medium himself as his book on the IWW should make obvious.

For all three of us, the comic books of the 1950s were a big influence. Paul and I have discussed the importance of Mad Magazine, Tales from the Crypt, Little Lulu, Scrooge McDuck et al to us when we were 10 years old or so. If you were looking for something off the beaten track in the 1950s, but were just a bit too young to have discovered the Beats, there was nothing that could top comic books. In May, 2003 Paul wrote an article titled “The New Scholarship of Comics” in the Chronicle of Higher Education that noted:

The growing interest in researching and writing about comics by intellectuals who were born in the 1940s only partly reflects what’s happened in the world of commerce. More, I think, many of us are attempting to find, or relocate, ourselves — almost like an earlier generation tried psychoanalysis. Some of today’s more indulgent theorizing about comics, indeed, suggests a considerable overlap between the two. Most of us, however, have simply been struck by how much mass culture, from the early moments when we could take it in as children, has affected us. Memories of childhood grow more intense with aging, and we find Unca Donald (of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, that is), Wonder Woman (speaking for boys, our first sex goddess), and the hilarious Mad comics satires of the likes of them considerably more vivid in recollection than our real-life relatives.

His article also singled out the work of Harvey Pekar, who sought to bring his own working-class experience in Cleveland to life using this medium:

The never-say-die types continue, with a lot of nearly thankless effort. Two decades along, past Crumb-collaborator Harvey Pekar, an occasionally hectoring presence on the Letterman show of the 1990s, still brings out American Splendor, a narrative description of daily life in Cleveland, mostly his own life. An independent film under the same title, barely fictionalizing Pekar’s story, won the drama category at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

Indeed, it was my own passion for Harvey Pekar’s work that connected me with Paul originally. Scott McLemee, a book reviewer for a number of venues including the Chronicle of Higher Education at one time, was a subscriber to the Marxism mailing list that I had launched in 1998. After I wrote something about Harvey Pekar to the list, he sent me a copy of an interesting article on Harvey that he had written and put me in touch with Paul, another fan.

Paul Buhle

Harvey Pekar’s approach to SDS is an unlikely but altogether compelling mixture of “American Splendor” and Paul Buhle’s radical history, a perfect marriage of art and scholarship. If you are going to tell the story of SDS, you are naturally going to have to bring together personal human drama and the overarching struggles of the period.

Some of the stories involve people who eventually left SDS and joined the Trotskyist movement, where I first came in contact with them. Two are now highly regarded scholars of the left, Alan Wald, the literary critic who acknowledges Paul Buhle as a primary influence, and Paul LeBlanc, who–like Paul–is a CLR James scholar. I should add that CLR James, who had a life-long interest in popular culture, is an important figure for people like LeBlanc and me who went through the painful sectarian experience of American Trotskyism and seek a more nuanced kind of Marxism today.

Alan Wald’s story is of particular interest since it situated in Cleveland, Harvey’s home town:

When I read this story, a flood of associations came to the surface like the madeleine in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. Just 4 years later Alan and Cecilia Wald (they had since married) found themselves on the opposite side from me in a bitter faction fight in the Socialist Workers Party. They were in something called For a Proletarian Orientation (FAPO) that was viewed as a concession to the PLP Worker-Student Alliance in SDS. As the name implied, it urged that the SWP send some members into the trade unions.

Up in Boston, FAPO had many supporters. I was asked to move up there in early 1970 to work with Peter Camejo, who had been assigned to do combat with FAPO. Peter, like the majority of SWP leaders, thought that the real action was on campus and sought to keep young Trotskyists in Boston on campus. One of the FAPO supporters was a Harvard student named John Barzman, the son of Hollywood blacklistees Ben and Norma Barzman (Norma was interviewed in Paul Buhle’s “Tender Comrades”). John had taken a job as a hospital worker alongside SDS’ers, who disdained the antiwar movement as “petty bourgeois”.

Peter Camejo, who is now battling lymphoma and working on a memoir that he hopes he can finish before fate gets in the way, asked me to prepare a contribution to the debate with FAPO on the Cochranites, a group that had been expelled from the SWP in the 1950s. Led by Bert Cochran, an organizer in the UAW in the 1930s, and Harry Braverman, the author of “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, this tendency sought to root Marxism in the American rather than the Russian experience and break with sectarianism–just like CLR James and Paul Buhle.

But for the SWP leadership in 1970, the Cochranites were a symbol of capitulation to capitalism. By downplaying the need for a vanguard party and urging the need for broad unity on the left, the Cochranites were supposed to be a symbol of how petty-bourgeois tendencies can afflict even auto workers, who in this case were supposedly being bought off by the 1950s economic boom. I made all these points in my report to the Boston branch, but never really thought that much about what the Cochranites really stood for.

Suffice it to say that both Peter Camejo and I came around to seeing things in the same terms as the Cochranites. For the past 27 years, a much longer time than I ever spent in the Trotskyist movement, I have been advocating the need for Marxism to be rooted in the American experience and to shun sectarianism. While the SDS of the 1960s imploded–largely as a result of the enormous frustrations of trying to end a seemingly endless war–there are many lessons that can be learned from Pekar, Dumm and Buhle’s graphic history.

SDS was a grass roots phenomenon that sought to build a movement from the bottom up. Despite the enormous media attention that figures such as Mark Rudd received, SDS was fundamentally a movement that was built from the initiative of young people acting on their own. There will obviously always be a need for such an organization as the rapid growth of the new SDS would indicate. Let’s hope that the young radicals of today can withstand the enormous pressures that a new seemingly endless war will generate. So far, the picture looks pretty good. Today’s SDS is militant but not self-destructive. Hopefully, its members and young activists in general will read this book to get a better grasp of the problems a previous generation tried to grapple with.

I want to conclude with some brief impressions of Harvey Pekar, who alongside Charles Bukowski, remains one of my favorite cultural icons. Although I didn’t have that much time to chat with him, we did manage to cover some topics that are very important to us. Paul had already mentioned to Harvey that I was interested in Jewish popular culture and he wanted to find out a bit about my experiences growing up in the Catskills.

I told him about how Murder Incorporated, a gang of Jewish hit-men led by Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, used to throw their victims in nearby Loch Sheldrake. I told him about all the famous comedians who used to work at local hotels, including Sid Caesar–a vegetarian–who used to buy vegetables from my father’s store. I studied piano briefly with the sister of the man who owned the Avon Lodge, where Sid got his start. She was just one of dozens of Communists in my little village that had been driven out of New York City. She had copies of Soviet Life all around her little house. I told Harvey about delivering fruit and vegetables to Joseph Greenstein’s bungalow colony. Better known as “The Mighty Atom”, Greenstein was a strong man who grew his hair long like Samson and followed a vegetarian diet like Sid Caesar, a strong man in his own right. Harvey had been checking out the career of another famous Jewish strong man, a Pole named Hersche Steinschneider who was the subject of Werner Herzog’s “The Immortal.”

I was curious about Harvey’s father. He told me that he was a shopkeeper like my own father, but a bit older. If he were alive today, he’d be 102. (Harvey is 6 years older than me.) Born in Poland, Harvey’s father was a bit more old country than my own father, who was European in his own way. Deeply religious, Harvey’s father spent his free hours studying the Talmud. After he retired, he became completely devoted to religious studies and even began wearing a fedora.

Harvey’s mother was a communist. She was also quite short, 4’9″ to be exact. Harvey’s father, who was living as a bachelor in the U.S., hooked up with her on a trip back to the old country. Here’s how Harvey described his background and his interest in Jewish culture to ClevelandJewishNews.com:

 Pekar, whose picture adorns a wall in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, admits he doesn’t stay in contact with Jewish institutions much anymore. He went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah ceremony, but grew increasingly alienated from the organized community. “I didn’t show much interest,” admits Pekar about his Hebrew education. “In those days, they didn’t concentrate much on teaching what the (words) meant. Just reading what was there.”

Pekar’s father was a Talmudic scholar who loved cantorial music. His mother was a socialist who supported Progressive candidate Henry Wallace for President in 1948. Both parents had an impact on young Harvey’s views.


“I’m strongly influenced by Jewish culture, but I’m not a nationalist,” he says. “I’d like to see (Israel) make an agreement with the Arabs, get an independent Arab state over there. Maybe internationalize Jerusalem.”

Pekar says he used to speak Yiddish fluently, and characters in his comic books spend a lot of time kibitzing in Jewish delis. Pekar even worked in a deli for a time during his fallow period and occasionally refers to himself in his comics as a “Yid.”

“I got a strong dose of things Jewish,” he says.

Although Harvey comes across as somewhat overwrought in the movie “American Splendor” and in appearances on the David Letterman show, he seemed perfectly relaxed in the time he spent with me. I imagine that being retired and being able to write full-time must go a long way to overcoming a sense of futility that comes with working in a low-paying job in a veteran’s hospital. One hopes that he and Paul, who has also just retired, will have many fruitful years of writing projects ahead of them. Insallah, I will be joining them soon.

One of my favorite Harvey Pekar stories from “American Splendor” is about a bit of an argument that took place between him and his father when he still lived at home. As an avid jazz fan, Harvey’s tastes were not identical to his father’s who preferred Jewish cantorial music. In the story, we see his father playing a record of one of his favorite chazzans (cantors) in the final panel for Harvey, slapping the record cover and proclaiming, “Now that’s music.”

As it turns out, I am both a jazz fan and a fan of cantorial music. Towards the end of our conversation, I played a performance of “Rozo D’Shabbos” by Pierre Pinchik– a renowned chazzan–for Harvey. I can only agree with his father: “Now that’s music.”

December 21, 2007

A Serbophobe outburst in the Nation Magazine

Filed under: cruise missile left,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

The current issue of the Nation Magazine has an extraordinarily long article titled “Western Promises” that accuses the Western imperialists being soft on the late Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbs. It was written by Marc Perelman, the diplomatic correspondent of the Forward, a Jewish-American weekly in NY with historic ties to the social democratic leadership of the ILGWU.

Perelman uses nearly 6000 words to make the case that the U.S. and Britain “sabotaged” the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and allowed Serb criminals to go scot-free. It relies heavily on the word of one Florence Hartmann, a Serbophobe reporter for Le Monde in the early 1990s who became an assistant to Carla Le Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the ICTY. Hartmann is the author of one of those typically one-sided biographies of Slobodan Milosevic that makes him out to be Satan’s Spawn. Perelman’s article, however, relies heavily on her latest book titled “Paix et châtiment: Les guerres secrètes de la politique et de la justice internationales” (Peace and Punishment: The Secret Wars of Politics and International Justice) that is not yet available in English.

Hartmann is even too much for Marcus Tanner, who covered Yugoslavia for the Independent and hewed to their Serbophobe editorial position. In a review of a collection of articles on Yugoslavia co-edited by fellow Serbophobes Roy Gutman and David Rieff, Tanner dismissed Hartmann as an untrustworthy crank:

Some of the articles are sermons and rants. Florence Hartmann’s piece on Bosnia is just a series of accusations that have been bundled together. That “Milosevic made it his mission to set Yugoslavia’s ethnic and national groups against one another” is one of a great many “facts” that are baldly asserted without any supporting evidence.

–The Independent (London), August 3, 1999

Why the Nation Magazine would waste 9 pages circulating ideas that stemmed from Ms. Hartmann is somewhat beyond me, but then again they had the “wisdom” to publish the awful Joaquin Villalobos’s attack on Hugo Chavez.

The gist of Hartmann’s complaint is that a deal struck between the West and the Serb Republic to divide up Bosnia resulted in the slaughter at Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde since they fell within territory that was to be ceded to the Serbs. Hartmann’s argument is not new as Perelman reports:

The story of how the city was overrun and several thousand inhabitants were executed as UN peacekeepers watched helplessly has been recounted many times, most grippingly by David Rohde, an American reporter who first uncovered evidence of the massacre and whose Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica (1997) describes the event through the eyes of seven witnesses. Rohde concluded that the litany of mistakes that led to the massacre was a “passive conspiracy” rather than a cynical backroom deal.

Missing entirely from these accounts of the Srebrenica killings that most assuredly did take place (although to describe them as “genocide” is positively Orwellian) is the ratcheting up of tensions at the hands of Muslim militias. You never find the name Naser Oric in the reporting of a David Rohde or a Roy Gutman, but Bill Schiller (by no means pro-Serb) wrote in the July 16, 1995 Toronto Star:

On a cold and snowy night, I sat in his living room watching a shocking video version of what might have been called Nasir Oric’s Greatest Hits. There were burning houses, dead bodies, severed heads, and people fleeing. Oric grinned throughout, admiring his handiwork.

“We ambushed them,” he said when a number of dead Serbs appeared on the screen.

The next sequence of dead bodies had been done in by explosives: “We launched those guys to the moon,” he boasted.

When footage of a bullet-marked ghost town appeared without any visible bodies, Oric hastened to announce: “We killed 114 Serbs there.”

Later there were celebrations, with singers with wobbly voices chanting his praises. These video reminiscences, apparently, were from what Muslims regard as Oric’s glory days. That was before most of eastern Bosnia fell and Srebrenica became a “safe zone” with U.N. peacekeepers inside – and Serbs on the outside.

Despite Oric’s taste for Serb blood, his forces were inexplicably withdrawn from Srebrenica just before the Serb counter-attack. A small UN force proved incapable of withstanding the Serb militias and the net result was a bloodbath.

Where Hartmann sees UN and Western inaction as proof that they were willing to cast the Muslims to the wolves as part of a process of carving up Bosnia ethnically along the lines of the India-Pakistan division, Diana Johnstone views it as a necessary first step in drawing NATO into the fray. If the UN was incapable of stopping the Serb Stalinist-Fascist-Satanist onslaught, then more powerful forces had to be mobilized. Waving the “bloody shirt” in this fashion has become more and more instrumental to the war aims of imperialism. Only a few years after Srebrenica became a rallying cry of the cruise missile left, Racak would play the same role in precipitating NATO intervention in Kosovo. And then more recently the attack on the WTC served similar purposes. One imagines that if there is ever an all-out nuclear war, it will be some other incident of “genocide” that will necessitate B-52’s being sent on their way to teach the miscreants a radioactive lesson.

If the goal of Perelman’s article is to convince readers of Serb guilt that the ICTY overlooked, it does not do a very good job. For example, there is much ado about the “Kula Tapes” that link Milosevic with the “Red Berets,” a highly trained detachment of the Serb army that operated in Croatia and Bosnia. Supposedly the U.S. sent a copy of the tape to ICTY that concealed key information about Milosevic’s culpability.

Perhaps people like Florence Hartmann and Marc Perelman are still stung by the ICTY’s decision that Milosevic was not directly involved with what they called “genocide” in Bosnia, so somebody has to be blamed for that failure. You have to stop and ask yourself why the U.S. would withhold such evidence when there is nothing in the tapes that has anything to do with Western failure to come to the aid of the Bosnian Muslims.

Contrary to Perelman and Florence Hartmann, there is substantial evidence that Milosevic was absolutely innocent of the charges against him as this report by Chris Stephen in the habitually anti-Milosevic London Observer (October 10, 2004) would indicate:

FRESH controversy has hit the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic with a claim from a senior intelligence analyst that the Yugoslav leader is innocent of genocide.

Dr Cees Wiebes, a professor at Amsterdam University, now says there is no evidence linking Milosevic to the worst atrocity of the Bosnian war, the massacre of 7,000 Muslims at the town of Srebrenica.

Srebrenica, which was overrun by Serb forces in July 1995, forms the basis of the genocide charge against Milosevic, but Wiebes, a member of a Dutch government inquiry into the atrocity, said there is nothing to link Milosevic to the crime.

‘In our report, which is about 7,000 pages long, we come to the conclusion that Milosevic had no foreknowledge of the subsequent massacres,’ he says in a radio programme, The Real Slobodan Milosevic, to be broadcast by BBC Five Live tonight. ‘What we did find, however, was evidence to the contrary. Milosevic was very upset when he learnt about the massacres.’

The prospect of the former Balkan strongman being cleared of the most serious charge he faces is a fresh blow to an already troubled case, which begins hearing defence evidence this week after several months of delays.

Any failure to prove genocide will cast a shadow not only over this case but over the whole practicality of holding tyrants to account in war crimes trials, most obviously in the case against Saddam Hussein.

Wiebes headed a team of intelligence specialists commissioned by the Dutch government to look into the massacre because its own forces were present in the town under the UN flag.

He had access to secret files, key diplomats and hundreds of witnesses to a massacre in which Muslim men and boys as young as 12 were butchered by Bosnian Serb forces. But while clearly implicating senior Serb field commanders, including General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian army chief still on the run, Wiebes says Milosevic played no part.

He said it was understandable that Milosevic was upset ‘because in this phase of the war he was looking for a political settlement and this was not very good for him’.

Furthermore, if Western complicity with an alleged war criminal like Slobodan Milosevic would get in the way of a successful prosecution, then why in the world did the U.S. agree to allow Saddam Hussein to stand trial? Surely, he would have been able to “expose” American collaboration in his war with the Kurds as some leftist commentators predicted. Unfortunately, kangaroo courts like the ones that took place in the Hague and Baghdad are not set up for an evenhanded examination of all the facts. Neither Milosevic nor Saddam Hussein received adequate legal representation. And even if they had been able to bring to light American complicity, nothing of consequence would have come out of it since the propaganda machine of the West had already condemned such men to become “unpersons” in the Orwellian sense.

In keeping with the overall credulousness of the article, Perelman calls on a witness even more doubtful than Florence Hartmann:

In Srebrenica: Un génocide annoncé (Srebrenica: A Genocide Foretold), a book published in France on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, French writer Sylvie Matton offers some fresh acknowledgments by senior European political and military officials–mostly French–that the tragic fate of the enclave was no mystery. The most vivid acknowledgment is provided by Alain Juppé, who was prime minister of France at the time of the Srebrenica massacre. “It was widely known that the Serbs wanted to take the enclaves and annihilate the men,” Juppé told Matton, who then asked Juppé what he meant by “annihilate.” “Let’s say we knew they would take no prisoners,” he answered.

After reading this, I paused for a moment with my mouth agape. Who in their right mind would take Juppé’s word about anything? Alain Juppé was probably the most hated politician in recent French history, although Sarkozy seems poised to surpass him before long. The two of them came into office with a mandate from the French ruling class to break the powerful trade union movement and both ended up with bloody noses in the process. In 2004, he was found guilty of stealing money from his party, the Rally for the Republic, for which he got an 18-month suspended jail sentence and was banned from holding office for 10 years.

Fortunately, the Nation Magazine does occasionally allow the truth to filter through on the Balkans wars. In George Kenney’s review of Noam Chomsky’s “The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo” that appeared nearly 8 years ago to the day, the notion of a Serb master plan to subjugate its neighbors gets thoroughly debunked. Kenney writes:

On March 18, the day the Rambouillet talks broke down, David Scheffer, the State Department’s ambassador at large for war crimes issues, proclaimed that “we have upwards to about 100,000 men that we cannot account for” in Kosovo. Depending upon the sophistication of the press organ involved, this statement was variously construed as a warning or, as the New York Daily News put it in a headline the next day, 100,000 Kosovar Men Feared Dead. The specter of mass murder critically supported public acceptance of NATO airstrikes, which began less than a week later, on March 24. After two months of bombing, the Yugoslav regime was still, to the Administration’s deepening chagrin, in the fight. By this time there were increasing murmurs of discontent in the press regarding the effect of NATO airstrikes on unmistakably civilian targets. Ambassador Scheffer stepped to the plate again in mid-May, calling for “speedy investigations” of war crimes (by Serbs) while now noting that “as many as 225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59 remain unaccounted for.” Several wire services quoted him on different days as saying that “with the exception of Rwanda in 1994 and Cambodia in 1975, you would be hard-pressed to find a crime scene anywhere in the world since World War II where a defenseless civilian population has been assaulted with such ferocity and criminal intent, and suffered so many multiple violations of humanitarian law in such a short period of time as in Kosovo since mid-March 1999.” It was a profoundly ignorant remark, of course, but what’s important is that the Administration’s laserlike focus on allegations and innuendoes of genocidal acts securely established the legitimacy of continued bombing for an at-that-time unknown, perhaps lengthy period.

Helpfully sensing that Washington–Scheffer and a battalion of like-minded flacks–had gone too far out on a limb, in June and July the British started publicizing their reduced estimate that 10,000 Albanian Kosovars had been killed. For whatever reason that number stuck in establishment circles. In fact, however, it appears to be still too many. The actual number is probably somewhere in the low thousands.

In mid-July sources from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR, were telling the press that of 2,150 bodies found by peacekeepers only 850 were victims of massacres. Nevertheless, still eager to bolster the Serb=devil argument, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations on July 26, poignantly mentioned “the village of Ljubenic, the largest mass-grave site discovered so far from this conflict, with as many as 350 bodies.” Berger may not have been aware that the Italian in charge of the site, Brig. Gen. Mauro Del Vecchio, had told the press several days earlier that the exhumation had been completed at the site and that seven bodies had been found. All press mention of Ljubenic ceases after that point.

That’s the kind of writing that the Nation needs, not the drivel offered up by Marc Perelman.

December 20, 2007

“The Savages”; “Away from Her”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Wendy, Lenny and Jon Savage

Among the films I received in conjunction with the NYFCO 2007 awards meeting were two that dealt with the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on the victims’ relatives. Although “The Savages” and “Away from Her” are thematically related, they could not be more different. In the first instance, you get a brilliantly written, acted and directed, no-holds-barred, mordantly funny portrait of a dysfunctional family whose Tolstoyan misery (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) is only amplified when an aging father begins to lose it. In the second, you get a by now familiar treatment of how a romantically idealized marriage is shattered by the onset of the disease and the “inspiring” efforts to cope with it.

“The Savages” is a reference to the surname of Jon and Wendy, a brother and sister entering middle age, and their father Lenny (Philip Bosco), whose initial break from reality is marked by the graffiti he writes on his bathroom wall with his own feces. As I said, this is a no-holds-barred film.

Like their namesakes in “Peter Pan,” Jon and Wendy are doing everything they can to resist growing up. The 40 year old Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater professor and Brecht specialist at the University of Buffalo who is about to dump his Polish girlfriend because she cannot get a visa. He won’t consider marriage since he believes that their academic careers would likely lead them to work in separate cities–an obvious rationalization for his own refusal to make a commitment.

Wendy (Laura Linney) is even more childish. At the age of 39, she is still single and trapped in a dead-end affair with a married man who lives next door. In front of the computer at the desk of her current office temp assignment, she deftly minimizes a play she is working on and maximizes a spreadsheet when a supervisor approaches (I could certainly identify with that!) Spending every spare moment drafting applications for playwriting grants from major foundations, she is the quintessential New Yorker with artistic ambitions. When you are 23, it is of course entirely normal to live in a dream world like Wendy but at the age of 39, it is not. I should of course confess to being something of a Peter Pan myself with my own revolutionary ardor burning bright at the age of 62.

Reality comes crashing down on Jon and Wendy when they receive a phone call about their father’s rapidly deteriorating status. They fly out to Sun City, Arizona, where Lenny has been living for a number of years, to join him at a nearby hospital where he is hooked up to a battery of support gear. Wendy looks ruefully at a urine bag. No holds barred.

Lenny has shared a house with a long-term girlfriend, also suffering from dementia, who has just died. The girlfriend’s children have no intentions of paying to keep him in the house and demand that Jon and Wendy take possession of their father and his belongings. Jon lines up a nursing home in Buffalo and Wendy is assigned to transport the old man on a jet plane back to Buffalo.

Unlike other Alzheimer’s patients depicted in film or television dramas, there is nothing at all endearing about Tamara Jenkins’s Lenny Savage. Indeed, he exhibits the confusion, anger and hostility that are fairly typical. Despite the grimness of the situation, Jenkins draws out comic elements but in a manner totally unlike the forced, phony transgressive style of the typical indie venture like “Little Miss Sunshine.” For example, after Lenny confusedly informs the nursing home attendants that his son–a doctor–will be looking after him, Wendy informs him that he is not that kind of doctor but a doctor of the theater. He asks her, “Like Broadway?” She replies, “No, like social conflict.”

Reflecting further on the comparisons between “The Savages” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” we also note that both films involve elderly relatives in a nursing home who die in the course of the action. The character played by Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine” has not a shred of reality, however, and his death prompts an even more unrealistic response from family members (they conceal his body from authorities). There is also a feckless college professor in “Little Miss Sunshine,” the Proust specialist played by Steve Carrell. Suffice it to say that his character demonstrates not the slightest inkling that he has ever read Proust, not to speak of the screenwriters who simply chose to elevate their work through cultural references to Proust and Nietzsche. In contrast, Jon Savage strikes one as totally erudite with Brecht, even to the point of lecturing his students about the difference between ordinary and epic theater in a quite knowing manner.

The differences between “The Savages” and “Little Miss Sunshine” can be attributed to the differences between the people who made them. “Little Miss Sunshine” lacks the engagement with real life that makes “The Savages” so compelling. You need a certain amount of schooling in hard knocks as Tamara Jenkins endured to make such a film. As someone who went through the experiences of placing her father in a nursing home when she was in her mid-30’s, she knows the drill. So do I. My own mother has been in a nursing home for the past 3 years and I fully identified with Tamara Jenkins’s ordeal. Even though she based her screenplay on personal experiences, she transformed them through the sure hand of art. Now showing in theaters everywhere, I recommend “The Savages” as the definitive film about the ordeal many baby boomers will eventually have to face, either in the capacity as care-givers or as the elderly themselves one day.

An airbrushed portrait of a disease

About “Away from Her,” the less said the better. Based on a New Yorker short story by Alice Munro, it inflates a rather spare narrative with a lot of flowery dialog between the husband, a retired professor named Grant (Gordon Pinsent), and his ailing wife Fiona (Julie Christie). As he is about to leave her at the nursing home after her admission, she says to him: “I’d like to make love, and then I’d like you to go. Because I need to stay here and if you make it hard for me, I may cry so hard I’ll never stop.” There is nothing like that in Munro’s short story, which is much less interested in presenting their marriage in an idealized form, even to the point of detailing his adulterous past:

He chose a woman named Jacqui Adams. She was the opposite of Fiona—short, cushiony, dark-eyed, effusive. A stranger to irony. The affair lasted for a year, until her husband was transferred. When they were saying goodbye in her car, she began to shake uncontrollably. It was as if she had hypothermia. She wrote to him a few times, but he found the tone of her letters overwrought and could not decide how to answer. He let the time for answering slip away while he became magically and unexpectedly involved with a girl who was young enough to be Jacqui’s daughter.

Both the short story and the film include an unlikely MacGuffin that propels the story forward. The nursing home has a policy that prohibits visits from family members for the first 30 days, supposedly in the interest of allowing the patient to accustom themselves to the new environment without reminders of home. In those 30 days, Fiona develops a kind of relationship with another mentally impaired patient and forgets who Grant is. The drama revolves around his struggle to remind his wife who he is and to transcend any feelings of jealousy toward his new adversary.

Suffice it to say that no nursing home has such a 30 day isolation policy. It makes no sense from a medical standpoint since visits from loved ones is the one thing that will make adjustment possible for the patient. I say that as somebody who has made such visits.

The other plot element, however, is plausible. Alzheimer patients do strike up such friendship/relationships apparently.

Even when Alzheimer’s disease robs them of the life they once knew, some people can still find love among the ruins.

And in most cases — as highlighted by recent news on retired Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor — the spouse or child of the Alzheimer’s patient grows to understand and accept the new relationship, experts say.

O’Connor’s Alzheimer’s-stricken husband John, 77, has found companionship with a woman in the nursing home where he now resides, according to recent news reports. The two spend time together, holding hands, even when Justice O’Connor is nearby, the reports said.

This type of relationship was also the focus of the recent film Away From Her, starring Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer’s who gradually forgets her husband and forms a new bond with a fellow nursing home resident. Her husband gradually comes to accept the relationship, understanding that it gives his wife comfort and stability amid the confusion that Alzheimer’s can bring.

–Washington Post, December 10, 2007

Like other movies about Alzheimer’s, “Away from Her” sees the need to put the marriage of the two principals on a kind of pedestal. The screenwriter evidently feels that it is necessary to establish the tragic dimensions of the disease by creating as sharp a distinction as possible between life before and after the disease. In the case of Grant and Fiona, the marriage is a kind of middle-class Eden with the couple cooing at each other as if in a Hallmark card. The disease then becomes a kind of fall from Eden.

Within this genre, I found the Japanese film “Memories of Tomorrow” (now available from Netflix) far more effective. As the victim of early Alzheimer’s the salary-man protagonist is just an ordinary human being about whom I wrote:

Masayuki Saeki is a successful, hard-driving advertising agency executive with a wife named Emiko (Kanaku Higuchi) and a daughter Rie (Kazue Fukiishi) who is about to be wed. They have everything they could possibly want, even though Masayuki’s monomaniacal work ethic tends to undermine the emotional bonds between him and his wife. As the disease progresses, the two begin to bond together as never before.

Even though Alzheimer’s was not identified as a specific disease until 1901, there are signs of its ravages throughout the millennia, as well as attempts to deal with it artistically long before the advent of motion pictures. Despite the high achievements of “The Savages,” it is doubtful that anything will ever surpass Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” a study of an aging ex-monarch suffering the obvious signs of dementia.

Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the
mind’s free,
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to’t? But I will punish home:
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,–
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.

There will never be another Shakespeare!

December 18, 2007

Gindin, Brenner and capitalist catastrophe

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:11 pm

On the horizon?

On December 7th, there was an interesting debate on the current economic situation between Sam Gindin and Robert Brenner at the Brecht Forum in New York that can be seen here.

Gindin is associated with a current within Marxism that tends to be skeptical of claims that the capitalist system is passing through some intractable crisis. In his presentation, he characterized the post-WWII boom as an exception to the general rule, one in which the capitalist system is marked by instability, stagnation and growing income differentiation, etc. Measured by the criterion of the late 19th century, today’s world is fairly consistent with the long term tendencies of the capitalist system. To drive his point home, Gindin quoted Alan Greenspan about dire problems facing the American economy and then identified the quote as dating from 1980.

Brenner is Gindin’s polar opposite. Since 1998, when he wrote a book length article in the New Left Review titled “The Economics of Global Turbulence,” Brenner has tended to look for signs of a new worldwide depression in the style of 1929. (You can read an abbreviated version of this in Against the Current magazine.) A more recent example of his thinking can be found in a Guardian blog titled “That hissing? It’s the sound of bubblenomics deflating,” which concluded:

Yet there is reason to doubt the efficacy of the Fed’s reduced rates. How can consumers again rise to the occasion, when declining house prices increase saving, not spending? The consumption-led boom seems set to peter out. Will not the fall in the dollar that is bound to accompany the Fed’s move force up longer-term rates, threatening to drive down asset prices and curtail real growth? How can lower borrowing costs reduce the massive mortgage security losses that cannot but result from the tide of defaults that has only just begun? There is little doubt that rough times are ahead: the expansion may end with both a whimper and a bang.

In addition to the Brecht Forum video, you can sample Gindin’s latest views in a MRZine article titled “Is the Big Ship America Sinking? Contradictions and Openings.” In contrast to Brenner, Gindin finds continuing strength in the American economy:

The U.S. is losing manufacturing jobs at an alarming rate: the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is today below where it was fifty years ago, and as a share of total jobs, manufacturing employment is today less than half of what it was then. Yet because of the high productivity of the remaining workers, manufacturing production is not disappearing: the volume of manufactured goods produced in the U.S. has increased six-fold since 1950. Remarkably, given the decline in manufacturing jobs, manufacturing production has maintained its share of the American economy’s real (after adjustments for price inflation) output. The U.S. continues to generate half the research and development done amongst the G-7 leading capitalist economies. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, the American share of the global production of high-tech goods, in spite of all the outsourcing and the imports, actually increased from 25% a quarter of a century ago to 42% in 2003. It is certainly true that high-tech production in China and South Korea has increased much faster, but they started from a low base (about 1% in each country) and their global share has risen to what is still a fraction of the U.S. levels, at only 9% and 4% respectively.

Marxists are pretty evenly divided over these questions. Lining up with Gindin are Doug Henwood, Leo Panitch (Gindin’s writing partner and co-editor of Socialist Register, where many articles on this subject can be found) and Peter Gowan. Although they differ sharply on various other questions and even over the exact nature of the emerging economic crisis, Patrick Bond, David Harvey and Immanuel Wallerstein tend to line up with Brenner.

For obvious reasons, the organized Marxist-Leninist left goes even further than Brenner in seeing looming 1929’s on the horizon. The most intelligent defense of the “catastrophist” outlook can be found in the “In Defense of Marxism” website, associated with the Grant-Woods Trotskyist current. If you go to the economy subsection, you will find many “doom and gloom” articles authored by Michael Roberts. The latest, titled “Credit Crunch,” has this teaser:

Everywhere the cry is: credit crunch! You can smell the sweat on the brows of bankers as their necks are squeezed by the tightening credit noose. In all the offices of the great investment banks of Wall Street, the City of London and gnomes of Zurich, you can hear the hissing sound of the global financial bubble bursting and deflating.

This year my wife completed a PhD dissertation on whether three financial crises (the most recent involved the LTCM debacle) supported the hypothesis that the U.S. was in decline. In general agreement with the Gindin perspective, she demonstrated how each crisis was exploited by the American bourgeoisie to further its own interests globally, even though the resolution always involved new contradictions and dangers.

I confess to being wishy-washy on the topic. Perhaps I became immunized to the kind of hard-core catastrophist analysis associated with the Marxist-Leninist vanguard parties after hearing leaders of the American SWP describe the late 1970s in cataclysmic terms. For nearly the past 30 years, they have been predicting a global depression in the 1929 style. There is a certain logic to this. If you are trying to hold together an isolated and shrinking sect, hope takes the form of such predictions. While the rest of American society has fond hopes of prosperity, the far reaches of the Marxist left go to sleep at night fantasizing about Hoovervilles.


James P. Cannon and Felix Morrow: the Brenner and Gindin of their time?

It should be mentioned that some American SWP’ers have refused to accept the “catastrophist” recipes of the leadership in the past. In the last year of WWII, a debate broke out between party leader James P. Cannon and Felix Morrow, best known for his “Civil War in Spain.” Cannon spoke for the majority of Trotskyists when he proposed that American capitalism had begun an “absolute decline” in 1929 and that postwar Europe would face nothing but “dismemberment and degradation, and the propping up of the capitalist system with American bayonets”.

Morrow had a different take on Europe’s future. Anticipating the Marshall Plan and the eventual recovery, he wrote that the U.S. would invest in Europe so as to forestall the very revolution that Cannon predicted:

Trotsky never said that America would not sell or lend heavy machinery to the European countries. It was not in this way that he thought of America as ruining Europe. He knew very well that it was with the aid of America’s 1924-1928 loans that German industry was reconstructed and that this could happen again after the next war, if not in Germany itself, then certainly in other countries of Europe. Simultaneously, however, with its loans to Germany, US imperialism was spreading everywhere so that when German industry was reconstructed it found its possible markets preempted by American and other imperialisms. America was aiming to put Europe “on rations,” said Trotsky, in the sphere of world markets.

According to wikipedia, Morrow was expelled from the SWP in 1946 for “unauthorised collaboration” with Shachtman’s Workers Party, whatever that meant. Based on my experiences with the organizational norms of the SWP, this might have meant that he shared blintzes with Shachtman.

Despite my skepticism about 1929’s looming on the horizon, I do not think that the prospects for American capitalism are very good. In fact, when Peter Camejo wrote an article in Against the Current taking exception to Brenner (not online unfortunately) in ways that I found disturbingly bullish, I wrote a response that was influenced by Harry Shutt’s “The Trouble with Capitalism,” a book that shares Brenner’s main point, namely that competition between the U.S. and the recovered economies of Western Europe and Japan was responsible for declining profits. One of my observations seems eerily prescient:

Another interesting contrarian position found in Camejo’s article is that Americans do save a lot, despite all reports to the contrary. He bases this on home ownership and designates a mortgage payment as a form of savings. A house is not a home in Camejo’s world, but an investment. Based on this approach, “The fact is that U.S. citizens on the average have a larger ‘savings’ account than those of any other country, almost 40% higher than supersaver Japan.” Somehow this does not square with my understanding of the post-WWII situation, when most American workers not only owned a house, but had a savings account as well. Beyond this, most employees of Fortune 500 companies also could look forward to cashing in on a company pension plan, which guaranteed a fixed income based on longevity. The fact that most Americans today own nothing but their house, and owe a greater percentage of income to consumer debts–a fact neglected by Camejo–seems expressive of a general downturn, despite the number of laptop computers seen in Starbucks or the number of people walking down the street with a cell phone glued to their ear.

One can understand why Marxists, either in “vanguard” parties or in the academy, would tend to look for 1929’s on the horizon. For the past sixty years or so, starting with the period accurately described by Felix Morrow as one of capitalist expansion, the socialist movement has experienced nothing but contraction. Furthermore, after 1990 the Soviet Union collapsed and the parties associated with it, leaving aside their revolutionary credentials, also went into a steep decline. This leaves Marxists, except for the unrepentant types, looking a bit out of place.

This is not to say that things will always look so bleak. In a September 21, 2006 New York Review article (only available to subscribers) titled “Goodbye to All That?,” Tony Judt–certainly no friend of Marxism–admitted:

If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of left and right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point.

Today, however, things are changing once again. What Marx’s nineteenth-century contemporaries called the “Social Question”—how to address and overcome huge disparities of wealth and poverty, and shameful inequalities of health, education, and opportunity—may have been answered in the West (though the gulf between poor and rich, which seemed once to be steadily closing, has for some years been opening again, in Britain and above all in the US). But the Social Question is back on the international agenda with a vengeance. What appears to its prosperous beneficiaries as worldwide economic growth and the opening of national and international markets to investment and trade is increasingly perceived and resented by millions of others as the redistribution of global wealth for the benefit of a handful of corporations and holders of capital.

Much as I’d like to take Judt’s musings to heart, I am afraid that “shameful inequalities” in themselves are not sufficient to produce class consciousness and revolutionary action. If the entire postwar period has been marked by capitalist expansion and prosperity (admittedly for some and not all) in the developed countries, it has also borne witness to the kind of immiseration in the developing countries that was characteristic of nineteenth century Europe that gave birth to an examination of the “Social Question” alluded to above.

But even in the 3rd world, the masses can go on for decades without rising up against neocolonialism and exploitation. Usually, an uprising is associated with a major shift in the political arena than any specific detonator like an outbreak of unemployment or inflation. For example, Cuba’s economic conditions were as favorable in the 1950s as they had been in any prior period, even more so possibly. It was the very “prosperity” that convinced liberals and social democrats to question the need for an armed struggle against Batista.

Ultimately, it was the emergence of an oppositional political culture in Cuba that led to a revolutionary onslaught. This brings me to a point that Gindin made in his presentation. He said that the problem today is political more than anything else. He said that if you had told him in 1975 that the U.S. would undergo the loss of good trade union jobs and welfare state social legislation with so little protest over the next 30 years or so, he simply would have not believed it–and neither would have I.

If there is anything that we can learn from Cuba’s socialist revolution, it is that leftists have to learn to break with the two-party system that keeps opposition politics within acceptable, capitalist parameters. For us, the launching of a mass, left of center leftwing party would be equivalent to the launching of Granma in 1956. It would be less dangerous but just as fragile an enterprise given the power and wealth of our class enemies. But no other course makes sense, especially given the ripening of economic conditions that might even result in a catastrophe down the road, for in that eventuality extremism of the right would challenge civilization as we know it.

December 17, 2007

The Nation Magazine And The 2008 Presidential Elections

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 2:32 pm

(Swans – December 17, 2007) As 2007 draws to a close, one must acknowledge the utter incapacity of the Democratic Party to mount any kind of serious challenge to the Bush White House. Despite lip service paid to ending the war in Iraq and forestalling a new war with Iran, the Democrats continue to find a way to fund the former and prepare for the latter. Domestically, they have done nothing to resist the ongoing dismantling of the welfare state safety net nor are they able to address the underlying cause of the immigration “crisis,” namely the inability of the Mexican economy to produce jobs — a function of neoliberal trade agreements that the Democrats pushed for under Clinton.Although a leftist presidential campaign has not yet emerged, one can be sure that the Democrats will attack it vehemently no matter how awful their own candidate turns out. You can already see a parade of “lesser evil” politics in the pages of The Nation Magazine, a primary outlet for Naderphobia in 2004. It would be worth reviewing a recent forum on the 2008 elections in the November 26, 2007 issue (1) that allowed well-known liberal personalities to stump for their favorite candidate in rather impressive displays of self-deception.

From John Nichols, who covers the politics beat for The Nation, there is a pitch for Joe Biden, the malapropist Senator from Delaware who Nichols described as “muscularly partisan.” In keeping with the sports imagery that typifies punditry chat on the elections, Nichols writes as if Biden were going to the Super Bowl:

In the blood-sport competition for the presidency, Biden’s flair for finding the GOP jugular ought to count for something among Democrats who grumble about their last two nominees’ failure to play offense.

Nichols acknowledges that Biden supported the invasion of Iraq (how could he not?), but gives him credit for blocking some retrograde Supreme Court nominees. While it is true that Biden has voted against the likes of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, he and fellow Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, and Barack Obama did not bother to vote against the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as Attorney General, the very Mukasey who could not answer whether waterboarding was torture.

It should be mentioned that Nichols had already chided Biden, Clinton, Dodd, and Obama for their no-vote on Mukasey in the November 11 issue, but apparently their refusal to take a position against Mukasey was understandable in light of their need to continue on the campaign trail. As Nichols put it, “Running for president is, to be sure, a big deal.” Certainly, it would seem a bigger deal than standing up to torture and Bush’s Star Chamber approach to the law.


December 15, 2007

In Memoriam: Carla White and Manny Duran

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm

Manny Duran

Yesterday I thought I’d have a look at my old friend Carla White’s website to see what she had been up to. Although she had been performing less frequently in recent years, I had gotten use to receiving a postcard announcement of her latest gig once or twice a year. Sadly, I discovered the reason why I hadn’t heard from her lately:


Carla White Memorial June 8, 2007 at St. Peters Church 5PM

Carla White died peacefully at home in NYC, May 9, 2007.

Ms. White devoted her life to artistic exploration and growth as a jazz singer. She was born in Oakland, CA and raised in Bellport, NY. Completing two years at London’s prestigious Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, Ms. White returned to New York City, embarking upon a 30-year career for which she garnered critical praise: “One of the most impressive performers to come along in years…an unusually accomplished interpreter,” Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune; “A singer who blends interpretive intelligence with a solid musical grounding and a sure sense of swing,” Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times. Career highlights include New York’s Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall and the Texaco Jazz Festival; The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; the Ottawa International Jazz Festival; the Chattanooga Riverbend Festival; and the Mellon Jazz Festival in Philadelphia. “Success is playing with the musicians I love to play with in situations where the audience is receptive and appreciative,” Ms. White said. She is survived by her mother, Mrs. Frederick Ayer of Seattle, WA, and three stepbrothers, James, Anthony, and Frederick Ayer and her partner Anne Stamper. Ms. White was predeceased by her father, brother and sister, Penny and Miles White.

A memorial celebration will be held June 8, 2007 at St. Peters Church 619 Lexington Avenue at E. 54th St. NYC at 5:00pm. In lieu of flowers donations can be made to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Jazz Foundation of America.

In October of 2006, Carla sent me an email informing me that her former collaborator had died. I had not taken note of it here at the time, but here’s a belated recognition of a great person and musician.


Manny Duran June 11, 1926 – October 30, 2006

Manny Duran, trumpet and flugelhorn player died on October 30th at 2:30pm at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC after complications from a recent procedure. He was 80 years old.

Born in 1926 in Alamagordo, New Mexico, Manny started his life-long love affair with the trumpet when he was ten, playing in the Mariachi bands of the southwest. It wasn’t long before he heard Louis Armstrong’s music and found his true calling. Jazz.

He worked on the West Coast for a while and then made the move to the Big Apple in 1956. He played at the legendary Cafe Bohemia for a year, sitting in with most all of the prestigious combos that played there.

By the 1960s, he was in the improvising chair for the top Latin jazz bands beginning with the Puerto Rican musical giant Noro Morales. This was followed by gigs and recordings with Ray Barretto, Willie Bobo, Mario Bauza and the Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Mongo Santamaria, the Conjunto 66 of Vladimir Vasilieff and nearly ten years with Machito.

However, he never lost his love for the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham. In the early 1980’s he formed a straight-ahead bebop band with singer Carla White. They were a fixture on the NY jazz scene for five years playing all the top clubs. After recording one album together called Andruline, they decided to break up the band in 1985.

Manny continued on as a leader of his own bands, in both the bebop and Latin idioms. He also ran the late night jam sessions at the Blue Note for many years. The past several years he led the Saturday night jam at Cleopatra’s Needle, in addition to his regular Tuesday night gig at BB King’s with his Afro Bop band.

Manny will be remembered not only for his peerless skill as a melodic improviser, but also for his kindness, encouragement and generosity of spirit to all musicians he played with over the past half a century in New York City. He will be deeply missed by all the people and musicians whose lives he touched with his love of life and music.

There will be a memorial service celebrating his life. The date TBA.

He is survived by three brothers, a sister and a daughter.

Posted by: Jim Eigo, Jazz Promo Services

Before I began blogging, I wrote an article about my friendship with Manny and Carla. In their memory, I am going to re-post it here now:

It was early 1979. After 11 years in the Trotskyist movement, I had found myself on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After a Chaplinesque stint in Kansas City as a spot welder, trying–and failing–to make the turn to industry, I had returned to Manhattan, determined to put revolutionary politics behind me. The yuppie-infested Upper East Side seemed like an appropriate place to live, since as far as I knew it was the last place in the world you would run into a Trotskyist. Working once again in the software business, my attentions would now be turned to writing the Great American Novel.

At the time I did not appreciate how difficult it would be to create a new social life, since I had spent my entire adult life around “the prophet’s children,” as Tim Wolforth had put it. In tow with an old high school friend, I made the rounds in singles bars where the conversation revolved around what kind of work you did, or what your astrological sign was. Since the Trotskyist movement had left me clinically depressed, I found myself in these bars more often than not. Staring into a scotch on the rocks, I tried to figure out why I had been too weak to make the transition into industry. I felt like a lapsed Catholic.

One of my favorite bars was Hanratty’s, a piano bar a block from my house that featured some of the great names in the old-fashioned stride piano style of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. Dick Wellstood was a frequent performer as was Ralph Sutton who served as music director for a number of Woody Allen movies. The audience appeared to be old-line wasps from the surrounding neighborhood: men in lime-green pants and madras shirts who probably attended the same prep schools and worked at the same investment banks on Wall Street.

That’s where I met Carla, who was working as a waitress. I loved chatting with her, since she shared an interest in jazz. Eventually I discovered that she was a performer as well and made a point of attending her next gig, at another bar in the neighborhood.

As co-leader of the Carla White-Manny Duran quintet, she functioned more as a surrogate saxophonist than as a singer. Her scat singing incorporated phrasing and harmonic progressions pioneered by Charlie Parker. Her lightning-fast solos, hitting high C’s in rapid succession, were improvisations on bebop anthems, such as Parker’s “Ornithology” or Miles Davis’s “Dig”.

Carla was well-equipped to navigate this difficult terrain, after having spent years in training with the legendary Lennie Tristano on Long Island. The blind pianist was regarded as one of the great geniuses of modern jazz. Although a reclusive figure who made few recordings and even fewer public appearances, Tristano was open to teaching what he knew, which was substantial.

Closely associated with saxophonists Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, the Tristano style incorporated shifting tempos and long linear improvisations over complex chord progressions. Although the style would seem to lend itself to the piano or saxophone, Carla was what one might call the ultimate Tristano-esque singer. After Tristano’s death in 1978, White continued her exploration of the voice as an instrument with Warne Marsh.

Manny Duran played the trumpet in a style that was similar to one of the bebop greats, Kenny Dorham, who died in 1972. Manny grew up in San Antonio and first began playing the trumpet in local mariachi bands. His group was called “Los Gallos” because they played all night long and welcomed the dawn like roosters (‘gallos’). He remembers the first time he heard Louis Armstrong on the radio in the 1930s. It was like St. Paul on the road to Damascus hearing the word of god. He resolved to learn how to play like that.

In the late 1980s, Carla heard Joe Williams at the Blue Note in New York. Years later, according to a January 13, 1994 Denver Rocky Mountain News interview, she spoke of that night this way, ”Man, he did that with words. . I had been ignoring this whole side of my life and my art – the words.”

Soon afterwards, Carla and Manny parted ways musically although they remain good friends. Since she would now concentrate on bringing out the words, this meant working in a more conventional trio setting. Accompanied by piano, drum and bass, Carla now performs many more ballads than she used to. The songs are carefully chosen, with an emphasis on lyrics that address complex human relationships. As she introduces each song, she offers wry commentary on episodes in her life that the songs seem to echo. For my money, her commentaries and songs achieve a high standard of the kind usually expected from the greatest cabaret singers like Mabel Mercer. Unlike the cabaret singers, Carla knows how to swing and frequently scats to create a kind of background color for the lyrics.

Last night Carla performed at NYC’s Jazz Standard with pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Tony Jefferson. As always, she held the audience spellbound.

For me it was a particular treat to hear Kimbrough as well, who Carla has begun to work with lately. Kimbrough is a composer-in-residence at the Jazz Composers Collective in NYC, an outfit that I have made modest financial contributions to over the years. Their website at http://www.jazzcollective.com describes their philosophy:

“The need for the Collective stems from a pervasive feeling among its constituents that without such an organization much of the music it fosters and presents would never be written or heard. In an industry that is highly profit-driven and competitive, the artistic integrity of contemporary composers and musicians must sometimes be compromised in order to fill the demand for ‘sellable’ material. The Collective is attempting to address this problem by providing artists with the opportunity to organize and present their music on their own terms. This form of self-empowerment encourages a creative process that is especially appealing to independent-minded composers and musicians precisely because it is not reliant on the trends of the mainstream music industry.”

I suppose one of the reasons that there has been an affinity between socialists like myself and jazz musicians over the years is the degree to which each group understands that they are fighting for a more human voice in a “highly profit-driven and competitive” society. I strongly recommend a visit to the Jazz Composers Collective website and to Carla’s at: http://www.carlawhite.com/. It will be good for your ears and good for your soul.

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